In the summer of 2002, I played a game called Tetris Attack on a SNES every single day. It didn’t matter to me that the game system was more than a decade past its prime or whether the sun was shining—an addict, I would play against my college friends and we’d spar over the controllers. Of course we weren’t the only ones attached to the games that Nintendo created in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Experts still consider those games some of the greatest ever made in terms of their level of difficulty and sheer inventiveness.
In his new book, Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America, video game reporter Jeff Ryan covers Nintendo’s glory years as well as its most enduring cultural product—the world’s most famous plumber. Slate spoke to Ryan about how the character Mario became a folk hero, why Super Mario 3 is still considered one of the best games of all time, and whether the plump plumber and his skinny brother Luigi would still catch on if they were introduced today.
Slate: I know you weren’t a gaming obsessive, before you started reporting on video games. How did you get interested in Mario?
Jeff Ryan: I got a copy-editing job at a pop-culture website. I’d come in at 8:30 every day, but no one had any copy for me until 11 or 12. I asked my boss if there was anything I could do, and she gave me a press release about a Pokémon tournament. So I wrote it up, 250 words, and she said, OK this is fine. Then, two minutes later, I hear her on the phone with the freelancer who normally did the video game reviews, saying that she’s hired a video game expert. And I thought: Is that me? Because I rewrote a Pokémon press release?
Slate: Can you tell me a little more about Nintendo’s first inroads into American culture?
Ryan: Nintendo of America—which a lot of people think of as Nintendo [though the company’s headquarters is in Kyoto, Japan]—was a six-person operation based in Washington that started in 1980. They invested in a game called Radar Scope, which is pretty much forgotten now. They had 3,000 [arcade] cabinets made, and they only sold 1,000. So they needed to do something with the other 2,000. Nintendo pulled out the guts and decided to put in a new motherboard with a totally different game. Radar Scope was a Space Invaders knock off, and they were going to do something else. All their game designers were busy doing other stuff, so they got the guy who was painting the cabinets to design a game for them. And that was Donkey Kong. The guy who was painting the cabinets was Shigeru Miyamoto, who is now the world’s greatest video game designer.
Slate: I remember reading about that in the New Yorker profile of Miyamoto from late last year. Miyamoto also created Super Mario Bros. Why do you think Mario caught on in the way that he did? Do you think it was the quality of the game play or the genius of the character Mario (The New Yorker’s Nick Paumgarten describes him as a “folk hero”), or was it a combination of both those things?
Ryan: I think it’s the avatar idea. If you play as Mario, you put yourself in Mario’s shoes. Everyone that tried to copy Mario made weirder and weirder looking guys, like Crash Bandicoot, who was this giant orange kangaroo-ish thing. It was hard to say, OK I’m that guy. It’s like, I’m not Bugs Bunny—that’s Bugs Bunny.
Slate: You wrote that fans of cultural touchstones from Harry Potter to Arrested Development have been inspired by Mario because “[i]nstead of passively ingesting their entertainment, they study it in miniature, read up on each new installment, create and maintain wiki sites to document all its facets.” How did playing Super Mario Bros. help create this kind of fandom?
Ryan: In a game like Donkey Kong or Pacman, you go through the levels, and you master the levels, and then you’re done. But with Mario, there’s so much detail and so many possible paths in each individual level that finishing the game as quickly as possible isn’t necessarily the goal. And getting a high score isn’t the goal, either. So what you wind up doing is trying to explore everything there is to do. It’s especially there with Super Mario 3, where in the first board there are 12 different levels. You only need to play seven to get to the bad guy, but if you want to, you can do all 12. From an economic point of view, there’s no reason to do that—if you’re trying to win the game. But if you’re trying to extend your experience and have the most fun, then you hit all 12 levels, and furthermore, explore all the levels to see what’s there. Super Mario 3 isn’t just a video game. It’s an amusement park.
Slate: Not too long after Super Mario 3 was released in the U.S., Sega debuted their character Sonic the Hedgehog. Sonic was pitted directly against Mario, at least in the marketing world. Whom would you declare the winner of the hedgehog vs. plumber showdown?
Ryan: Sonic was the winner for the first couple of rounds. Sega tried everything it could to get into the market, and it succeeded really well. And part of the reason why it succeeded is that Nintendo refused to change its mindset at all. Sonic got like 40 percent market share, so Nintendo was like—we should probably start paying attention to Sonic.
Slate: That actually seems like it’s a recurring problem with the company. Our tech columnist, Farhad Manjoo, argued in a piece last week that Nintendo didn’t consider how smartphones could affect their business. Do you think they are chronically cautious?
Ryan: I don’t think Nintendo’s too cautious—I think they shut out everything that’s going on outside of Kyoto. They don’t want to know what’s going on with smartphones or with Microsoft or Sony. They just want to make the best games they can with their new console. That’s what they’re concerned with.
Slate: In the ‘80s and ‘90s, the company seemed very concerned with the world outside of Kyoto—they were marketing Mario everywhere. There were TV shows with Mario, movies with Mario (my favorite factoid from the book was that Tom Hanks was passed over for the role of Mario in the Super Mario Bros. movie because he was too expensive.) What was the company thinking when it licensed so many things?
Ryan: They really wanted Mario to be the biggest star in the world, to the point that they had another popular character—Link from the Legend of Zelda—and they refused these licensing rights for him. They wanted Mario everything, everywhere—T-shirts, video games online.
Slate: People seem to have endless nostalgia for Mario and the other games that came out in the ‘80s, even though they are technologically dated. How do you account for that?
Ryan: There’s a saying that the best science-fiction in the world is whatever you read when you were 12 years old—things have gotten better backupwise, but the game play is always the best when you’re 12 years old. That’s what you are going to remember.
Slate: Do you think game play has improved in any profound way since Mario was invented? Or is it just that games look cooler and are faster?
Ryan: I think they have improved. But you need to define what improved means. Games in the ‘80s could be incredibly, punishingly hard, now they’re designed to be easier, because designers realized difficulty wasn’t the most important thing.
Slate: Do you think if Mario were introduced today, he’d catch on in the same way? Or is it something about the time that he was released?
Ryan: It’s definitely the time. But so much of the video game world is based on Mario and his adventures, or is a reaction away from Mario, that it’s hard to imagine introducing a Mario game nowadays. It would be like putting The Birth of a Nation in front of people now and asking them if they’d be OK with the cross-cutting.
This interview has been condensed and edited.