Book Review: Game Over: How Nintendo Zapped an American Industry

Game over man

You won’t find an abundance of book reviews here on Nintendo Life – we’re aimed squarely at providing you the best content from the world of interactive entertainment, after all – but anyone who considers themselves to be a fan of The Big N (or video gaming in general) should read David’s Sheff’s Game Over (or Game Over: How Nintendo Zapped an American Industry, Captured Your Dollars, and Enslaved Your Children, to give the book its full title). It’s been described as the Bible of the video game industry and for once, such hyperbole is almost justified.

The book charts the rise of Nintendo as the world’s leading video game manufacturer, starting with its early history – when it used to produce Hanafuda playing cards – to more recent times, where the company explored the toy industry as well as opening bowling alleys, taxi firms and (more questionably) “Love Hotels”.

The Nintendo that we know and love came to be when the firm entered the fledgling video game market and it’s fascinating to read about the numerous false-starts and issues that were encountered before it actually managed to score a hit with the 8-bit Famicom (known as the NES in the West) and its massively popular Donkey Kong coin-op (produced by a previously unknown staff member called Shigeru Miyamoto).

While Nintendo’s rise to power is unquestionably riveting, the book really takes off when recounting the glory years of the NES and the astonishing legal wrangles that occurred when various third party publishers (most notably Atari Games) tried to challenge Nintendo’s somewhat harsh licensing policy.

When the NES was at its peak, its creator was attacked by many sectors of the US media for price-fixing, damaging the nation’s youth and (most controversially of all) putting US companies out of business (the fact that it was a US company – Atari – that had flushed the entire video game industry down the toilet a few years previously was conveniently forgotten, of course).

The recounting of these legal battles makes Game Over a real page-turner, but there’s even better stuff later on. The battle for licensing rights for the puzzle title Tetris – which Nintendo skilfully acquired from under the noses of rival firms – wouldn’t be out of place in a Tom Clancy novel; at one point, the Russian government gets involved, there are accusations of espionage and the entire episode comes tantalisingly close to developing into an international incident – and all over a video game that featured falling blocks. The term “stranger than fiction” instantly springs to mind.

The original pressing of Game Over was publishing in 1993 and takes us up to the launch of the SNES, but later editions expand on Nintendo’s history and chart the unceremonious fall from grace that occurred during the N64 era. The last edition to be printed – issued in 1999 under the title Game Over: Press Start to Continue – The Maturing of Mario – also features a brief photographic history of the firm.

Author David Sheff is a highly respected writer who has contributed to many publications – including Rolling Stone and Playboy – and while it’s clear he has a strong interest in the subject matter, he’s not your typical gamer. There are a few mistakes (he says the original Game Boy took 2 AA batteries instead of 4) but generally the accuracy of his writing can’t be faulted. At times Game Over is possibly a little too biased in favour of Nintendo's own products (Sega’s Sonic is derided for its lack of quality and the sublime Mega Drive platformer Castle of Illusion is similarly rebuffed) but it’s easy to forgive when the book is so well-written elsewhere.

Game Over has been out of print for the best part of a decade so obtaining a copy isn’t easy; the value of the book has also risen sharply as a result. However, it’s worth paying good money for as it’s easily one of the best books ever written about video games. While it’s obviously aimed at covering Nintendo’s history it also touches upon Atari, Nolan Bushnell, Sega, NEC, EA and several other key figures in the industry.

Getting gamers to put down their joypads and pick up a book was never going to be an easy task but I can assure you that from the moment you start reading this, you’ll struggle to put it down for long enough to switch on your DS or Wii. This is a must-read for all Nintendo fans and is highly recommended to anyone who wants to learn more about how this billion-dollar industry was founded.