It's common knowledge that Nintendo has been around for over a hundred years, and that the company started out producing playing cards many decades before finding fame as a purveyor of interactive entertainment. However, the years in between are often overlooked by even the staunchest of fans - and that's what makes Before Mario such a fascinating book. Primarily concerned with Nintendo's output between the 1960s and early 1980s, it's an eye-opening look at a company that was undergoing seismic change; this 20 year period saw Nintendo evolve from a maker of toys and board games to the firm at the vanguard of an in-home revolution, but what makes the process all the more interesting is that it's possible to spot traces of that trademark Nintendo magic along the way.
Written by Erik Voskuil and illustrated with gorgeous high quality photos of his own personal collection, Before Mario is an extension of Voskuil's excellent website of the same name, which he has been tirelessly expanding over the past few years. A seriously dedicated fan and self-confessed hoarder of Nintendo merchandise, Voskuil is also supremely knowledgeable and each page has a description - in both French and English - explaining the product, its appeal and any other points of historical note. Additional context is delivered in an introduction by former Nintendo employee Satoru Okada, who worked as a developer and producer at the company until 2007.
The book is neatly divided into different sections which cover periods of Nintendo's development during these exciting and tumultuous years. The early pages are concerned with the company's selection of board games and crude mechanical toys, while later on we see the influence of the legendary Gunpei Yokoi, who would change the face of the firm forever with his range of gadgets and technological marvels. As the '80s draw near we see Nintendo's preoccupation with electronic games take over, culminating in the book's final entry - the iconic Famicom, which arrived in Japan in 1983.
Even the most dedicated Nintendo fan is sure to spot something they didn't previously know about here. Nintendo's range of '60s Disney board games is interesting, as is the fact that the company was the sole licensee for the MB game Twister in Japan. Nintendo also took on Lego with its own range of N&B building blocks in 1968, and even beat the Danish firm in Japan for a few years. Later in the book you'll spot innovation at work with 1983's Computer Mah-Jong Yakuman, the first handheld gaming device to support an optional link cable, pre-dating the Game Boy - other legendary Yokoi creation - by five years. A year later Nintendo would produce the Bassmate Computer for US firm Telko, a portable device which allowed fishermen to select the correct bait for any given situation. Produced by Yokoi's team with input from Telko, it was a one-off for the firm - an "OEM" device produced by Nintendo which didn't carry its branding. Who knows how many other devices of this type we would have seen had the Game & Watch and Famicom not been such amazing successes?
However, what's most striking is how the book perfectly illustrates the amazing impact Yokoi had on the company's output. Employed as a engineer, Yokoi's first product was 1966's Ultra Hand, apparently created to pass the time while working in Nintendo's factory but spotted by Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi and turned into a commercial release. It was the first Nintendo product to sell a million units and the first in a string of popular items by Yokoi which would lead right up to the launch of the ill-fated Virtual Boy and his departure from the firm in 1996. Yokoi would be killed in a roadside accident the following year, and Before Mario serves as a timely tribute to one of the most important people in Nintendo's history, perfectly showcasing the man's boundless genius. 1980's Ten Billion was an attempt to replicate the commercial success of the Rubik's Cube and saw success in its native Japan, while 1971's Light Telephone holds the distinction of being Yokoi's most bizarre idea - a walkie-talkie shaped like a film camera which uses transmitted light to exchange audio messages. The sheer variety of these products is staggering, and shows just how talented Yokoi was. The industry is infinitely poorer for not having him around today.
One can only guess at how much Voskuil has spent over the years amassing such an amazing collection - every item photographed in the book is his - but his dedication and perseverance has delivered a sublime publication which is sure to delight and enthrall anyone who has an interest in Nintendo's history, or indeed the history of games and entertainment. Scattered through this book you'll see the evolution of interactive entertainment - the slow but sure shift away from board games to electronics, finally arriving at the games console with its interchangeable media, dedicated controllers and optional accessories, a template which has changed little in the past 30 years. This is so much more than merely the history of one of the world's most recognisable brands - it's the development of an entire industry in pictorial form, and comes highly recommended.