Thursday, February 23, 2012

'Game Over:' A Look at Nintendo's Past and Future

This week, I continue my slow march through published video game history with a review of David Sheff's Game Over, a story about Nintendo's rise in the 1980s and early 1990s.

I actually mentioned the book a while back when I wrote about Minoru Arakawa's transition into the Yamauchi family business. Hiroshi Yamauchi was able to convince his son in law (against his own daughter's wishes) to assume the duty of establishing Nintendo in the U.S. Everything ended up turnint out fine, but imagine Yoko Arakawa's thoughts when she saw Mino venture into the maw of the beast that had driven a permanent wedge between her father and his family. For that matter, imagine Nolan Bushnell's ambition as he was running Atari out of a warehouse staffed with weird kids and hippie burnouts (among whom Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were two). Imagine negotiating with U.S.S.R. officials for the rights of some obscure game called "Tetris," knowing that other companies are actively working to sabotage the deal. Thanks to Sheff's dedication, this is all possible.

The book meanders a bit, but I can hardly hold that against it. Those early console days were fascinating, interconnected times. Business concepts that we take for granted (like the legality of proprietary cartridges) were being hashed out alongside artistic practices that continue to define the medium. I'll excuse a little sprawl if it means being able to read the candid accounts of industry titans like Trip Hawkins and Howard Lincoln.

I hope Sheff is taking good care of his notes. In the absence of detailed footnotes, you have to take the veracity of the facts for granted. Based on my knowledge from other sources, everything in the book seems plausible. I'm actually more interested in making sure the interviews and research he did survives. Documenting the past is difficult, especially when dealing with tight-lipped people in a tight-lipped industry. Just because video games are a modern medium doesn't mean we can't lose our history. With Henk Rogers pushing 60, I think it's time to start pushing for more interviews from people who were around during those formative years.

Finally, like any good history, Game Over sheds light on our current times. Nintendo's controlling demeanor towards third-party publishers has been a problem since the company's inception. Its obsession with squeezing every ounce of performance (and profit) out of underpowered hardware dates back to the NES. Ideas like the Nintendo Network and Wii Fit have been kicking around since the early 1980s. The company has long been comprised of an odd mixture of artists and ruthless businessmen.

That mixture has produced some of the industry's most enduring practices as well as the medium's most revered games. As Game Over demonstrates, it has also produced some fascinating history.

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