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Feature: Game Over: How Nintendo Zapped an American Industry

Posted by Damien McFerran

We take a look at one of the best books ever written about our beloved hobby

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.

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User Comments (28)

fudgenuts

#1

fudgenuts said:

I actually read this early last year. It's pretty interesting, there were even a few things I didn't already know!

JamieOStaff

#2

JamieO said:

I read lots of gaming magazines, but I never read any video games books, which does not make any sense when you think about it.
Perhaps David’s Sheff’s 'Game Over', would be a good starting point, although Damien is pretty clear that it would be difficult to obtain this one. Sometimes it is interesting to read something from the perspective of an author who is not a massive video game fan, but is still respectful to their source material.
I did notice in Retro Gamer issue 68 that they recommend two books in their 'Retro Booty' section ('The Ultimate History of Video Games' and 'Supercade').
Wasn't there a TV documentary which took a rare look into the world of Nintendo and their place within the industry, including interviews with some key Nintendo people? I half remember it was a little bit lacking in objectivity, although I could be wrong. It might have even been by the BBC.
Could anyone jog my memory on this one?

Terra

#3

Terra said:

I actually have a copy somewhere of this book. It was quite a good read

Stuffgamer1

#4

Stuffgamer1 said:

Why are you recommending a book ten years out of print to us NOW? If I could just walk into BAM and get a copy, I would, but a used paperback goes only for as little as $22.98 on Amazon, and I don't have money for that what with all the...y'know...video games I'm buying. :P

DamoAdmin

#5

Damo said:

@Stuffgamer Sorry for the late recommendation but there's the small matter of Nintendo Life not actually existing back in 1993.

Klapaucius

#6

Klapaucius said:

I love this book. I've read it so many times. Fascinating to learn about the early days of Nintendo, and about the videogames business back then.

Reala

#7

Reala said:

I got this book free with a video game magazine a few years ago.

Knux

#8

Knux said:

I think I will buy this book after I'm finshed playing Mario & Luigi:Bowser's Inside Story and Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days. :P

CorbsAdmin

#9

Corbs said:

Game Over was a fantastic book and a very in-depth look at Nintendo the company. I also enjoyed Phoenix: The Rise and Fall of Video Games as well as The First Quarter. There are some great video game history books out there that anyone not very familiar with the industry should check out.

Bentendo

#10

Bentendo said:

It was a great book but it was awfully cringe worthy every time he misspelled Shigeru Miyamoto as Sigeru Miyamoto. I read the first version of the book and later bought the 1999 revision, hoping and expecting that they changed it, but was surprised to see that it was still Sigeru.

primeris

#11

primeris said:

Out of print for ten years? Is the drama over Nintendo's first exploration into the disc format with Sony not covered? I find that to be one of the craziest bits of video game trivia, how Nintendo is sort-of the Playstation's deadbeat dad.

-TR

#12

-TR said:

I've been looknig for a copy since the dawn of time- It's always looked to me like a sublime book, but no shops seem to stock it.

fudgenuts

#13

fudgenuts said:

I got it from my local library. They had the original 1993 edition. I agree, it is a fantastic book.

Smoke39

#15

Smoke39 said:

I got a copy of Press Start to Continue way back in the day and really loved it. I didn't know it's been out of print for so long; I'm glad I still have mine! 8D

bro2dragons

#16

bro2dragons said:

Great feature! now any way i could get you guys to review "The Legend of Zelda and Philosophy"?

Stuffgamer1

#17

Stuffgamer1 said:

@Damo: A minor technicality. ;)

Library, huh? Good idea! Shows you how much I read nowadays when that doesn't even come to mind (which is sad, seeing as I used to WORK at a library!). :P

Bankai

#18

Bankai said:

Wait, Nintendo used to operate Love Hotels?

Wow - those are awesome. Interesting that Nintendo would be so un-family friendly though.

Side note - there should be no apostrophes when naming Love Hotels. They exist, it's not a dubbed name.

StarDust4Ever

#19

StarDust4Ever said:

Great! Maybe I can find an excerpt of the text online somewhere...

The Tetris controversy still holds a special place in my heart. I still believe that the Tengen version was the best; it is one of the most sought after NES carts around (and I am fortunate enough to own one of them!) ;)

ASDFGHJKL

#20

ASDFGHJKL said:

I need to go to a Nintendo Love Hotel, and clean it up with a Nintendo Vacuum NOW! :P

Bankai

#21

Bankai said:

@20: I dunno man. The idea of visiting a love hotel, featuring a giant Pikachu bed and Mario statue watching on worries me a little.

That said, Princess Leia's got nothing on Zelda. Mmmmm <_<

mjc0961

#22

mjc0961 said:

"I need to go to a Nintendo Love Hotel, and clean it up with a Nintendo Vacuum NOW!"

Know we know why Mario and Luigi REALLY got stuck with cleaning tools during the GameCube era. Nintendo's Love Hotels needed cleaning. :D

StarDust4Ever

#23

StarDust4Ever said:

@GabeGreens: Only the Poulterguist3000 will do. Accept no substitute! ;) Oh, and a good dousing from the F.L.U.D.D. Nozzle should take care of that musty love stench... :*

Lotice-Paladin

#24

Lotice-Paladin said:

It's always interesting to see how these companies got into this type of entertainment media now and again. To think, Atari and Intellivision were (roughly) the first major forces behind this. Nintendo are the ones who truly attempted to make it mainstream...and I, for one am glad it happened :).

As for Nintendo being un-family friendly, I'm sure every company has (at one point or another) made something you wouldn't expect...I was surprised by a few I have read anyhow.

Kenji

#26

Kenji said:

One of the best books about video game history. Good enough for me to own two copies... (not sure how that happened.)

MindFever

#27

MindFever said:

i know how... make cool games, dumb them by the factor of 3 = voila' ,games set for America + tons of money :) mwahahahahaa.... yes i am breaking balls

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