Great Books Distilled: Books by History's Greatest Innovators, Founders, and Investors

The page is a reading list sharing the best books written by history's greatest innovators, founders, and investors. This is a reading list for people who don’t have time for unimportant books—which should be everyone. I only list the best books I've read and recommend.

All Book Summaries

For the best books that I read, I go through the painstaking effort to put together and publish my personal notes including highlights, excerpts, and takeaways. You get the best 5% of the ideas in these books in a form that takes 20 minutes at most to read.

Great Books by Category

These are the best books to read, listed by category. Along with a few collections of rare and hard-to-find speeches, lectures, talks, interviews, letters, and memos that are a great way to go deeper.

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Daniel Scrivner

Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America by Jeff Ryan

This is part of my book summary collection which includes The Essays of Warren Buffett, Poor Charlie's Almanack, Special Operations Mental Toughness, and 50+ more. Browse them all to find the best ideas from history's greatest books →

"In video games, there is always an easy way out if you don't have any good ideas... CPU competition." – Gunpei Yokoi

This is my book summary of Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America by Jeff Ryan. It includes my favorite quotes, excerpts, stories, notes, and ideas from the book.

In 1981, Nintendo of America was a one-year-old business already on the brink of failure. Its president, Mino Arakawa, was stuck with two thousand unsold arcade cabinets for a dud of a game named Radar Scope. So he hatched a plan.

Back in Japan, a boyish, shaggy-haired staff artist named Shigeru Miyamoto designed a new game for the unsold cabinets featuring an angry gorilla and a small jumping man. Donkey Kong brought in $180 million in its first year alone and launched the career of a short, chubby plumber named Mario.

Since then, Mario has starred in over two hundred games, generating profits in the billions. He is more recognizable than Mickey Mouse, yet he's little more than a mustache in bib overalls. How did a mere smear of pixels gain such huge popularity?

Super Mario tells the story behind the Nintendo games millions of us grew up with, explaining how a Japanese trading card company rose to dominate the fiercely competitive video-game industry.

Sections of this book summary:


While Super Mario is a plumber by profession, exploration is at the heart of his stories. As with other distinguished explorers of Italian descent, such as Christopher Columbus, the place he discovered was already inhabited. It was the world of play, a world to which all of us are born holding passports. (As one Royal Geographical Society wag presciently put it more than a hundred years ago, "Explorers become explorers precisely because they have a streak of unsociability and a need to remove themselves at regular intervals as far as possible from their fellow men." He could have been yelling it down the stairs into a modern rec room.) Most of us let that passport expire, but Mario gives us a way to renew it, and revisit our homeland.

There are 240 million Super Mario games out there. Just one game, the original Super Mario Bros., has more than forty million copies in print, not counting releases on other platforms or the uncountable emulators that let you play samizdat versions on your computer. Broken down by hour, it's an extremely economical buy: few will spend twenty-five hours watching a single twenty-five-dollar DVD, but most everyone who purchases a fifty-dollar Mario game can put in fifty hours or more to explore its nooks and crannies.

Let's talk about economy some more. Do a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation: the number of Mario games sold times fifty bucks each, the average price of a game. This number is going to be off, since it doesn't account for games being bundled with consoles, which are discounted. But it also doesn't account for merchandise and tie-in games like Dr. Mario, or for anything else Nintendo sells: Mario games are only one or two of its hundreds of titles a year, and that's all just the software. Hopefully you used a commercial-size envelope: the ballpark figure of Nintendo's Mario's sales is $12 billion. If each one of Mario's gold coins was worth a million dollars, to collect that much moola he would have to knock his head on a coin block for almost three and a half hours.

Mario is unique in that he seems to offer so little appeal. What person who had been living in a cave the last few decades would have picked Super Mario as the dominant game franchise, over the Halo (30 million sold), Tomb Raider (35 million), Guitar Hero (40 million), Resident Evil (43 million), and Madden (85 million) game franchises combined? And that doesn't even count Mario's other appearances, such as Mario Kart (12 million) and Mario Party (5 million). The other top franchises let you experience the adrenaline and horrors of war, or deep fantasy worlds, or pro sports. A Mario game lets you pretend to be a middle-aged chubster hopping onto a turtle shell. Huh? No super-heroes? No soldiers? No wizards? What sort of cut-rate wish fulfillment is this?

The Birth of Nintendo in America

In 1980, starting an arcade game took a quarter. Starting an arcade-game company took a lot more. But the rewards were more than getting your initials up on the high score. Companies in the arcade-game business tapped into a gold mine by updating their old electromechanical games, which had been collecting first pennies and nickels and now dimes and quarters for nearly a hundred years. One by one they were replacing the solenoids and miniature puppet shows and™ blinking lights with fancy new "TV thrillers" and "video skill games." These games, shown on sideways television screens, used solid-state electronics to lure players into a web of lighting-fast reflexes, sweaty palms, and cramped fingers, all in an attempt to defeat computer opponents. They were bits of science fiction dropped out of the twenty-third century into the polyester-plaid laps of the 1970s.

And the biggest game maker by far was Atari, the company that put out the first rock-star megahit game, Pong, in 1972. Atari followed Pong with hit after hit—Asteroids, Tank, Lunar Lander. In 1980, it introduced two big crazes: Battlezone, a wireframe game of tank combat, and Misile Command, a Cold War nightmare where players had to see how long they could keep civilization alive while shooting down nukes raining in from the USSR. Everyone else merely treaded in Atari's wake. It brought in untold millions every year, it was run by a hippie, and it flat-out didn't exist ten years ago. Everyone wanted a piece of Atari's success: it spurred the game industry for a 5 percent monthly expansion rate.

No one dreamed of beating Atari.

A six-person start-up called Nintendo of America was ahead of the pack of wannabes in one crucial way: it was already a success. Too bad that was only in Japan. A Kyoto-based playing card manufacturer since 1894, Nintendo had craftily shifted over to the toy market to capitalize on its existing distribution route for cards. Lots of other Japanese firms were selling arcade games: Pac-Man's Namco, Frogger's Konami, Bomberman's Hudson Soft, and Space Invaders's Taito. Japan's specialty, as journalist Chris Kohler has pointed out, was personality: its good guys and bad guys were characters, of a very crude sort, instead of abstract art come to life, like Atari's Breakout or Tempest. If everyone else could make games, so could Nintendo.

Nintendo's most skilled inventor was Gunpei Yokoi, who had started his lifelong career with Nintendo repairing its playing-card machinery. He made a telescoping fake hand as a gag, and company president Hiroshi Yamauchi decided to market it as a toy. The "Ultra Hand" sold over 1.2 million copies in 1970, and was soon followed by novelties such as the "Ten Billion Barrel" maze, the "Love Tester" device, and a Roomba-like remote-control vacuum.

Yokoi's most recent success was in portable electronic games. After watching a salaryman playing with an electronic calculator on train one day, Yokoi had the idea of making small games that could run off of watch batteries. (As with the Ultra Hand, Yokoi only told the imperious Yamauchi about his game idea because he was desperate for conversation. In this case he was stuck as the boss's chauffeur for the day.) The inventor taught himself about segment display, which let the pieces of an LCD "8," when lit up separately, represent all ten dig-its. By designing a man with many hands, and only lighting up two at a time, segment display could animate a cartoon character for a game. And thanks to the pocket calculator boom, LCD was cheap to acquire. Games people were paying a hundred yen each to play on machines weighing five hundred pounds could be engineered to fit into a shirt pocket. The resulting device was called Game & Watch.

The first Game & Watch game, 1980's Ball, was a juggling game. Players watched a ball tick back and forth from one hand to another, and pressed either the left or right button to keep it airborne. Game A was two balls, Game B three. There were five games like this for the "Silver" collection, named after the shiny color of the case. Five more "Gold" games followed in 1981. All flew off the shelves, and lots more were in the works.

This was on top of Nintendo's other game successes. It had joined the home-Pong clones, releasing its undistinguished but popular Color TV Game 6, with a fifteen-game follow-up the following year. It had found success with 1974's EM game Wild Gunman, tanked with the malfunctioning horse racing title EVR Race, and rebounded with its first true video arcade game, Computer Othello. Now it had a team of designers (including Yokoi) cranking out new titles every few months, cresting the faddish wave of whatever was currently gobbling up hundred-yen pieces in smoky arcades. How hard could it be to duplicate Japan's success overseas?

Hiroshi Yamauchi, Nintendo's president, ached to be a major player not just in Tapan but in the wore, tenants eyes opened during a mid-fifties trip to America, where he had met with Walt Disney executives about licensing its characters on cards. The experience had walloped him with the scope of the global market for entertainment, showing him just how rinky-dink his Japanese-only, family owned playing card business truly was. A small, intense man with prematurely silver hair, he had worked hard to keep it going in the postwar years and beyond. But true success in the era of global zaibatsus and international corporations meant making money all around the world.

Hiroshi's great-grandfather Fusajiro Yamauchi opened a Kyoto card shop in 1889 manufacturing colorful flower cards called hanafuda, and named the shop Nintendo Koppai. (The word "Nintendo" means "leave luck to heaven" or "We do what we can," which suggests the chance inherent in card games.) He sold to gamblers, who used a new deck every hand. The company hung on through thick and thin over the years, following Japan's economic roller-coaster as it crashed after World War II, rebounded, then crashed again after the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

Hiroshi Yamauchi, who at age twenty-one took over from his grandfather in 1949 after the older man suffered a stroke, was at the forefront of Nintendo's changes. Yamauchi tried out various new business models—rice, taxicabs, "love hotels" rentable by the hour. None clicked, until he decided to utilize his network of card and toy shops. His single-minded dedication to running his company his way made him few friends. Even his family was distant: his children were virtual strangers who feared him the rare times he was home. Like so many family businesses, the business became more important than the family it was supposed to enrich.
This was America, the land where the breakfast flake, the ice cream cone, the microwave, and the Post-it note were all botched engineering projects salvaged into worldwide sensations.

Shigeru Miyamoto and The Creation of Donkey Kong

Nintendo had grown profitable in Japan by controlling distribution, and Yamauchi wanted to be his own distributor in America as well. That gave Arakawa two different challenges to overcome: come up with a game to sell, and keep the middlemen out of it.

Fact: Radar Scope wasn't going to sell any more units. Fact: To keep Ron and Al from walking away, Arakawa had promised them that the next Nintendo game would be a smash. Fact: They needed a new game to sell. Fact: despite adding words such as "explosive," "pulsating," and "ecstasy" next to the hot chicks in their trade-magazine ads, Nintendo had little up its sleeve, sexy or not. (All game ads of the time featured such big-haired Spandexed women, perhaps on break from leaning suggestively next to sports cars.) Fact: There were two thousand cabinets wasting away in Jersey. Conclusion: The new game had to arrive soon. It had to sell well. And the game changer? Change the game.

Arakawa's gamble was to create not a new game, but a conversion kit for Radar Scope, to freshen it up with something new. It would save Nintendo the cost of the two thousand cabinets, plus it would be a whole lot quicker than making two thousand cabinets in Kyoto and shipping them halfway around the globe. Conversion kits were a form of aftermarket sales for arcades, which let arcade owners squeeze more life out of their older machines such as Asteroids by juicing them up with new elements. But they were for older hit games, not brand-new duds.

It was certainly a bold idea, trying to reheat yesterday's blue plate special into a new entrée. And cracking the American market-or at this point merely minimizing the loss—was worth one last halfhearted try. Yamauchi agreed; he'd get a new game made to try to move the two thousand Radar Scopes. But he hedged his bet. Yamauchi's top designers were all busy on their own games, and he wasn't going to pull any of them off their projects for this rush job. So he announced an internal competition for conversion ideas. He received several ideas from a surprising source, a boyish, shaggy-haired staff artist with an industrial design degree but no previous game experience. The kid had designed the casings for some Nintendo products: maybe he'd be good designing their guts as well.

That staff artist was Shigeru Miyamoto, then 29. Miyamoto hadn't been a fan of the first video games he played, such as Taito's Western Gun. He was raised on puppets and manga and baseball in the Kyoto suburb of Sonobo, and was much more into music (he loved the Beatles and bluegrass) than electronics. While he preferred his left hand, Shigeru was cross-dominant, which put him in the rarefied company of some of the world's great thinkers: Nikola Tesla, Albert Einstein, Ben Franklin, Michelangelo, Ludwig van Beethoven, Leonardo da Vinci, and Mohandus Gandhi.

Despite all this potential, Miyamoto took five years to get his four-year engineering degree. His father had to get him the job with Nintendo, helping design toys and sometimes painting the cabinets. He hadn't even been interested in video games until Space Invaders came along, with its high-concept plot and ever-increasing game-play speed. But Yamauchi saw something beyond the slacker haircut, and decided to give him a shot.

Yamauchi wasn't crazy, so he assigned Gunpei Yokoi to help translate Miyamoto's vision for the new game—whatever it would be—into reality. Yokoi was ten years older and wiser than Miyamoto, and would show him the gaming ropes. Yokoi was the optimist, focusing on what could be done. Miyamoto worked negatively, always aware of limitations. Yin and yang. Miyamoto and Yokoi then contracted the services of Ikegami Tsushinki, a company that had designed many of Nintendo's arcade games, so the two wouldn't be flying blind hammering out a solid-state motherboard. Ikegami Tsushinki had built Radar Scope, so it knew what its own components could do.

Inside Radar Scope was a Sanyo monitor turned sideways, displaying pixel-based raster graphics. A fancy way of saying it couldn't display the bouncing geometric shapes of a Tron or a Tempest.) It had a DAC (digital-to-analog) converter, so it could turn electronic semaphore from the game board into sounds. It was running the Zilog Z80 8-bit microprocessor, an inexpensive alternative to Intel's 8080 microprocessor. The Z80's affordability and utility quickly made it the generic drug of computer chips: just as good, at a fraction of the cost. So far so good.

Radar Scope had a control panel with one joystick and one button. This was perfectly normal for a shooting game; multiple buttons were a few years away. So whatever the game would do, it would have one primary mode of interaction. Which was usually shooting: what else would you do?

Yamauchi wanted the replacement game to be based on the cartoon Popeye, since a live-action movie starring Robin Williams as the titular sailor was in the works. Twenty years ago Nintendo, in a bout of corporate identity confusion, had tried to be a food manufacturer: one of its products was Popeye Ramen. Thus, it had an in for the rights, and Yokoi was designing a Game & Watch Popeye title. Whatever that turned out to be might be good enough for an arcade game. Yokoi and Miyamoto would figure out the details. Even if the game stunk, what great marketing!

But Yamauchi found out it would take years for Nintendo to acquire the rights to a global property such as Popeye for the arcades.

If he wanted to play with the big boys, he had to follow their rules. So no Popeye. It was probably for the best: anyone who knew arcades knew that game play was more important than the often laughable story. Sega's Motocross didn't do any better when it was renamed Fonz, after the Happy Days character, did it?

Miyamoto, though, was committed not so much to the story of Popeye as to its goal: defeat the villain to save the girl. The main characters were the barrel-chested hero ("I just made a vague set of characteristics for him as a middle-aged man with a strong sense of justice who is not handsome," he would later say), the enormous hairy opponent, and the tall, willowy heroine who needed rescuing. These storytelling archetypes made the hero an underdog, gave him a noble reason to fight, and even gave some sympathy to the villain. No hero named Popeye? Fine, Miyamoto wouldn't call him Popeye. No boulder-size Bluto? Fine, "Bluto" would be someone else. Popeye by any other name would play the same. And Miyamoto liked the idea of naming a video game after the bad guy, as in Space Invaders or Sinistar. It'd be easy to come up with a good name for a big gorilla of a villain.

A big, angry gorilla. What a perfect antagonist. A big, angry, dumb gorilla won't let Olive Oyler, some other lady—go free. Miyamoto decided to use King Kong, a Japanese synonym for ape. King Kong, after all, had scaled the Empire State Building and fought Godzilla: a shared cultural foil for a Japanese American game.

Miyamoto then took a stab at translating. He understood English pretty well since his dad taught it in school, but never could get his tongue around speaking it correctly. He wanted the English word for "stubborn," since a stubborn gorilla was the heart of the game he envisioned. And what animal was more stubborn than a donkey? Thus, a game about an ape was named after a pack animal. (Miyamoto, like many true artists, has since told this story a few different ways.)

Miyamoto now had both a name and a villain in Donkey Kong. The story would be a brave man fighting the big dumb ape to get his girl back. A love triangle. Recognizing that actions and motivations were more important than mere names, the damsel in distress would just be "Lady"—a generic MacGuffin of a character. Even the hero lacked a true name: he was "Jumpman" (Miyamoto originally thought of him as "Mr. Video," or just ossan—"middle-aged man.") Borrowing the mukokuseki concept of ethnically generic people from the manga comics he loved, Miyamoto set about building his digital hero, pixel by pixel.

And as his name would suggest, Jumpman jumped. Quite a phenomenal gravity-defying leap at that: from a standing position, he could spring his full body height. While walking or running, Jumpman could clear an obstacle the relative size of a trash bin. In bold defiance of the one-button controls, Miyamoto came up with a second activity for the athletic Jumpman. He scattered hammers throughout the level that Jumpman could acquire by touching them. With a hammer he was unable to jump, presumably because of its weight. But he could pound away on obstacles with a well-timed wallop of the automatically wailing hammer.

Jumpman, like most every movable "sprite" in early video games, was limited to three colors. (Designers fudged black by leaving some spaces blank, and having their sprite move on a black background.) Peach was Miyamotos first color, for Jumpman's face, ear (just a square block of four pixels), and hand (another four pixels, plus a fifth on the side for a thumb). Blue served two purposes. On his boots (seven pixels each), his shirt, and his single-pixel eye, it was true blue. But on his hair it doubled for black, just as Superman's spit curl was tinged with blue in comic books to show shininess. Miyamoto gave Jumpman a bushy mustache, mostly so players could tell where the nose ended and the mouth began. Two superfluous blue pixels by the sideburns and nape gave Jumpman a bushy, early eighties hairdo-not unlike Miyamoto's own.

Making video game hair look realistic was (and still is) a problem—especially blue hair. So Jumpman got a hat—a red one. And because red fulfilled the three-color quota, that meant Jumpman's pants would have to be red as well. By adding more and more pixels, and crucially placing a single peach pixel to suggest a button, Miyamoto was able to make Jumpman a credible pair of overalls. And quite a paunch, especially for a high jumper. (Author Steven Poole has hypothesized that game characters' bodies are so squat because it gives more proportional room for their head and eyes, which allows the gamer to connect with them better.)

The Lady was designed differently. She was more than a head taller than Jumpman, a Barbie next to a troll doll. She had flowing orange hair, a cinched pink dress with white trim on the bottom, and skin as white as the font flashing the game's high score. Hotter than Olive Oyl, Miyamoto joked.

Donkey Kong (nicknamed DK) himself was built bigger still, to fulfill Miyamoto's idea of having three characters of different sizes mixing it up. DK used up about six times as many pixels as Jumpman, as befitted a true heavy, and was technically multiple sprites Voltroned together into one body. Dark and light brown did most of the color work, showing a thickly muscled, nippled chest; big, hairy arms; legs that ended in wide-splayed simian feet; and ears that would have looked comically big if they hadn't bookended a mouth the size of an August watermelon. His teeth and eyes alone were white, which made them stand out that much more.

Who wore overalls? People in construction jobs such as carpentry and plumbing. So Jumpman gained an occupation: he would be... a carpenter. His plumbing years were to come, but he wasn't the first video game plumber. That honor goes to 1973's forgotten safecracking arcade game Watergate Caper, where gamers played as one of the leak-plugging "plumbers" who broke into Democratic National Committee headquarters.

If Jumpman died, he would return at the bottom of the screen, ready to take on the challenge of the level again. Each game created three Jumpmen (three lives were standard in gaming), with more earned for high scores. There was something quite spiritual about the concept of a man returning from the dead again and again to complete a task left undone. Facing the monster was a ritual of purity for Jumpman, with impurity of form (i.e., getting clobbered) punished by death. This game of Miyamoto's, and most every video game since, could be seen as a digital Shinto purification ceremony.

It was all coalescing. Donkey Kong would be situated at the top of the screen, with Jumpman fighting his way up: gamers were used to enemies up top. What better setting than a construction site? Donkey Kong could roll barrels down the bare I beams, and Jumpman would have to jump to avoid them. The "sloping" girders were progressively tiered, since angling them wasn't possible with mere raster graphics.

Miyamoto gave Jumpman a choice of ladders to ascend. (Yokoi had suggested seesaws instead, but that would have strained the Z80 processor more than angled girders.) The farther ladder was safer, but it took longer to reach. This gave players a true choice right away: take the quick and difficult path, or the slow and easy one? Crushing barrels and jumping over them was worth some points, but finishing early was worth a lot too. Another choice: go for the high score with the barrels, or try to beat the clock?

Miyamoto wanted his story to progress like a chase, and chases needed multiple locations. The four-person Ikegami Tsushinki development team was baffled; variations on a theme were what sequels were for. Why put all this work into Level 2 (with five stories of conveyor belts) when 90% of players won't ever see it? Not to mention Level 3, with elevators and springs. And now a Level 4, with Jumpman smashing rivets to finally bring down Donkey Kong?

Miyamoto couldn't program, but he could play the piano, and he knew that Radar Scope had a solid DAC converter. He composed a brief score to go with the game, not just beeps and blasts. There was an intro, a breezy, sad affair that established Jumpman and the Lady's moods. When Jumpman died, there was a four-note dirge. And when Jumpman grabbed a hammer, the soundtrack celebrated with a zippy little march. In true Zen fashion, the happy music was tinged with sadness, and the sad music was tinged with happiness.

What's more, instead of just an introductory screen leading into the game, Miyamoto wanted an animated story to appear after each quarter was plunked. Donkey Kong, with the Lady in hand, would climb to the top of the (not yet slanted) construction site. When he stomped his feet, the screen would tilt into its now-familiar jackstraws shape. After the first level, Miyamoto wanted another cut scene, in which Jumpman and the Lady would be reunited briefly, before Donkey Kong would grab her again and climb higher up the I beams.

Start to finish, Donkey Kong was twenty thousand lines of code, way more than usual. Some extra sound equipment had to be added to get the audio to work. But since Miyamoto had composed his music digitally, it took up a fraction of the space of a much shorter clip of true digitized sound, such as a speech sample.

How Nintendo turned the Radar Scope game cabinets into Donkey Kong games:

The rebranding was important for the game, and not just to remove evidence of its previous life as Radar Scope. Good cabinet art set an atmosphere for the game that its limited graphics couldn't meet. It was too bad most games were lined up between other cabinets like so many Laundromat washers. Arakawa lost a fight to rename both Donkey Kong the game and Donkey Kong the character, but he received permission to rechristen Jumpman and Lady.

The warehouse where the Radar Scopes had been gathering dust was run by Don James, whose wife was named Polly. As a way of thanking the warehouse manager, who received a lot of heat from the landlord over Nintendo's uncollected rent, they decided to rename "Lady" after his wife. Lady became Pauline, close enough to Polly.

Around this time, the Tukwila warehouse's owner showed up in person to angrily remind Arakawa about the rent. As the legend goes, the owner, Mario Segale, interrupted a conversation over what to call Jumpman. Segale said his piece, and he grew so incensed he almost jumped up and down himself. After the landlord left, eviction threat delivered, someone suggested the name Mario. It was a joke, since both men had mustaches. But everyone liked the name.

To the Japanese, the name has a familiar consonant-vowel pattern—Yukio, Hanako, Hiroto, Mario. Just one letter away from the Japanese girl's name Mariko, in fact. No troubling Ls that could cause lallation errors, not so commonplace as to be heard regularly in America, not already associated with anyone too famous (Godfather author Mario Puzo was about it), and yet not so unusual that it drew undue attention. Although most people think of it as an exclusively Italian name, it's also Spanish and Portuguese. Mario is a variant of the Latin Marius or Marcus—both of which are believed to derive from Mars, the Roman god of war. Sometimes it's used as a masculine version of Mary, which means "star of the sea." For the past thirty years, it's made the list of the two hundred most popular boys' names in America, peaking at 111 in the 1980s.

Why the incentives in Donkey Kong made the game so addicting:

Modern pinball offered basically no correlation between what you do (pull a plunger) and the "reward" of a hundred buzzers and doodads making a racket. Its addiction quotient was low. Space Invaders offered a regular reward schedule: ten, twenty, or forty points per ship hit. Its addiction quotient was high. Donkey Kong had an irregular reward schedule, since what earned you points changed each level, and you could also score points by speed. Like a slot machine with the slightest house advantage, this was a formula for a stratospherically addicting game, one in which either your skill or your luck may make all the difference next game. That is, until you were out of quarters.

The Origin Story of Luigi and Mario Brothers

For that other game, Miyamoto was spinning off Mario into his own title. Mario was originally a carpenter, since he was at a construction site. But, a friend told Miyamoto, the overalls and hat and pudgy willingness to leap into nasty situations made him really more of a plumber. Hmm, Miyamoto thought. There could be a video game about plumbing. And Mario could be the star.

The idea he came up with bears as much relation to plumbing as Pac-Man does to fighting the paranormal. Mario, down in the cavernous sewers of New York, jumps around on platforms four stories high. Open sewer pipes emit a series of nasties-crabs, turtles, flies. Mario attacks not by hammer or bug spray, but by head butting enemies. Furthermore, the platforms are mutable: bonking one from below buckles it like a plank-and-rope bridge, and flips enemies. If Mario collides with them while they're upside-down, he kicks them to the edge of the screen. Kick or bop them all offscreen, and the level is clear.

The enemies were all "palette-swapped," the same design with two paint jobs, which doubled the menagerie crawling out of the huge green drainage pipes. The Sidestepper crab started off red, but if not kicked offscreen after being flipped would turn a speedy blue. Good attacks and quick finishes rewarded Mario with points, as well as coins that went clattering around like a shanked football. The game's grand challenge wasn't just defeating the creatures, or winning before time ran out, or amassing valuable coins. It was finding an amalgam of all three. It was noticeably easier than Donkey Kong to finish a level, but—appropriate for a game located underground—much deeper.

The game was called Mario Bros., which raises the question of who Mario's brother was. To create a sibling, Miyamoto palette-swapped Mario himself. The plumber's red shirt was now black, and his blue overalls and red hat were now Day-Glo green. Better electronics let Miyamoto have a whopping six colors at his disposal. So Mario and his sibling received slightly different skin tones and hair colors. One pair of ugly-even-by-1983-standards indigo sneakers later, and taa-da!: Luigi was born.

Luigi's wardrobe has been updated slightly since then: his green hat now matches his green shirt, he wears blue overalls like Mario, and the indigo sneakers are exiled. His name supposedly came from an Italian bistro near Redmond, called Mario and Luigis. Or maybe it's a pun: ruiji means "similar" in Japanese. Or, as some have pointed out, maybe someone at Nintendo was a cinephile, and remembered Yves Montand as Mario in 1953's The Wages of Fear, a stout mustached man with a hat, who had a tall lean friend named Luigi.

Luigi's controls were identical to Mario, which, of course, was even easier to program than a palette-swap. The game, though, was called Mario Bros. Wasn't Mario the first name? Thanks to what comic book fans call a ret-con (retroactive continuity), Mario's brief history was rewritten to have Mario be the family name. That made Luigi's name Luigi Mario. But then what was Mario's first name? Mario as well. Mario Mario. If he was a real person, he'd have had a rough childhood.

The two-player simultaneity was "inspired" by a 1982 Williams game called Joust, which in turn seemed to be inspired by Donkey Kong's platform-jumping control scheme, combined with the sheer lunacy of crazy animals running around. In Joust, players mounted either an ostrich or a stork, which could fly by repeatedly hitting the "flap" button. They bounded around a board suspiciously similar im Layout to Mario Bros: a series of tired platforms arranged like a split-level stairway minus the stairs. Due to a programming glitch that defined the ethos "it’s not a bug, it's a feature," when the ostrich or stork crossed the far left side of the board, they popped through to the right side, like a secret passageway in Clue.

Joust was a glorified game of chicken. Players charged at flying monsters, and whoever had his lance higher when they collided won. The loser was, in a plot twist worthy of Gabriel García Márquez, transformed into an egg, and would hatch back into play if the winning jouster didn't come and stomp it within a few seconds. One final, crucial aspect of Joust? Players could-and did-attack each other, as well as the on-screen baddies.

Mario Bros. did not copy Joust's singular attack style. Its rule was the same as in the previous game: if Mario (or Luigi) touched an opponent, he died instantly. It varied the types of attacks: jumping, flip-ping, kicking, or head butting the once-a-level POW block landmine, which wipes everyone out. The platforms were placed a bit closer, since Mario had to access them in a single jump. One final, crucial aspect of Mario Bros.? Mario and Luigi couldn't kill each other.

Cooperation in games wasn't a much-traveled avenue. Certainly, from Pong onward, people understood the joys of two-player rivalries.

It was loved on the business side as well, since it gobbled up two quarters instead of one. Shooter games were more difficult to make two player. Put a second controllable sprite on an existing board, and whatever challenge there was gets ruined by double the laser fire. Beef up the number of enemies, and you ended up designing two games. The solution, it seemed, was to turn whatever game you had into a duel, with the winner the one simply left alive. Joust, Space Duel, Space Wars, Tank, and numerous others found ways of turning any number of game genres into death matches.

But not Mario Bros. There was no easy way to hurt Luigi. The best players could do was to Kick an enemy at him. The only honest way to beat Luigi was to outscore him, trying to trample the monsters and claim the coin reward before he could. This invested Mario in a taut, competitive friendship with his brother, one eye on the beasts and the other on the current high score. It was cooperative competition, rather than simply throat-slitting. And with no in-game story other than sewer stomping, the "story" became you versus your friend.

The Famicon: Nintendo's First Video Game Console

President Hiroshi Yamauchi had had engineers working on a game-playing home computer for years, since before he asked Shigeru Miyamoto to refurbish Radar Scope. (He briefly considered buying and branding the ColecoVision, but they wanted Nintendo to pay wholesale for it: no-sankyu.) He based it on Atari's wonderful 2600, which used a lesser version of Motorola's 6502 chip, the 6507, to generate its titles. Nintendo would upgrade to a specialized chip made by Ricoh. The Ricoh chip was specially engineered to produce sounds, accept inputs from a controller, and generate tricolored sprites. It outputted as much image and sound as an 8-bit processor could, which was good, because it was going to have to duplicate Donkey Kong using a fraction of the arcade game's horsepower.

Instead of a joystick, Nintendo's "family computer" (or Famicom) would use one of Gunpei Yokoi's innovations from the Game & Watch line: the raised directional pad. Joysticks broke with repeated use. Flat discs like the Intellivision's were better, but still didn't produce much tactile satisfaction. D-pads, little plus signs, were the future. There would be square action buttons as well, but only two. The sparse button selection was a "forcing device" to ensure developers made easy-to-play games. The controller was simple, elegant, and offered a diversity of options for designers.

Yamauchi believed in the Famicom so much he canceled Nintendo's arcade division to focus funds and experience on it. Price was one of Yamauchi's no-compromise angles. The Famicom had to be cheap, cheaper than most everything else on the market. After all, Apples Lisa and Xerox's Star were top-of-the-line machines, but flopped due to five-digit price tags. In fact, Yamauchi wanted a price point of under ten thousand yen, about seventy-five dollars—and wanted to make a profit off each console. This seemed a pipe dream, to double-dip from the two-part tariff business model. This model, most famously used by Gillette, sets a one-time price for the razor, and an ongoing price for the blades. Yamauchi insisted Nintendo profit from both the games and the consoles, no easy feat.

There was a push to make a lot of games for Yamauchi's new game console. Nintendo was excellent at nemawashi, a Japanese gardening term for digging around the roots of a to-be-transplanted tree. Nemawashi referred to the business necessity of quietly laying the correct groundwork of success. For Nintendo, nemawashi demanded that a game console have many games ready for release, and many more in the pipeline. Otherwise, it'd be as deserved a failure as all the American consoles that rushed to market without any quality in their product. And they had to be a different breed of game, not necessarily engineered like arcade games to end quickly.

The Famicom launched with three games, all ports of Nintendo's arcade hits: Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., and Popeye. A dozen more games were in the works. This wasn't a mere arcade game, rigged to play just one game, or a rinky-dink piece of LCD electronics. This was a full-fledged computer! Yamauchi didn't get his wish of a price under ¥10,000, but the retail price of ¥14,800 was still on the low side for a console, and helped it gain market penetration.

Then the Famicoms started to break. Computers were indeed difficult to make: one little mistake on one little chip could cause players' games to freeze or crash midsession. Reports trickled in of this happening with multiple consoles all over Japan. The batch of chips used in production, it turned out, was shoddy. Nintendo had put out a product with a bad component. When retailers found out, they would pull the Famicom off their shelves.

Nintendo had never made bad products, and it wasn't going to start now. In a move that echoed Tylenol's voluntary recall after a tampering scare, Yamauchi ordered a product recall of every single Famicom, even those without the bad component. Those who had bought one could send it in and have it repaired free of charge. Nintendo would rip out the entire motherboard, not just the bad chip, and replace the whole system. Yamauchi knew Nintendo had the money to essentially rebuild each Famicom manufactured or sold. The question was whether anyone would buy them, or let them back on shelves, once the recall was completed. Recalls done wrong tainted the brand forever. Done right, though, they could be a blessing in disguise.

Erring on the side of caution paid off. Japanese retailers liked that one high-tech company finally took responsibility for its errors and fixed them for free. (Nintendo continues to do so today, to the point of reapplying kids' stickers onto a new console if the old one has to be replaced instead of repaired.)

Super Mario Brothers and The NES

Mario needed a narrative in his new game, and Miyamoto was on it. He had designed side-scrolling racing games and vertical-scrolling "athletic" games for the Famicom, so why not a side-scrolling "athletic game? With his protégé Morita, the pair might be able to get five or six decent levels out of it. By increasing the cartridge size by adding a chip, it could even be super. And it could answer the question of who Mario was.

Miyamoto was leaning strongly toward form. His game idea involved a fantasy land accessible by sewer pipes, where Mario would go on epic adventures in land, sea, and air. He would grow to a great size, and shrink back down. He would be able to control fire (which replaced an earlier idea of giving him a gun), and breathe underwater. He would battle living fungi, malevolent clouds, and demonic animals. In short, he would again be nothing like any previous iteration.

Here was the narrative: Mario the explorer. Miyamoto could retell the oldest tale in the world: the stranger coming to town. The Mushroom Kingdom, as it would be called, could afford an endless number of beasts, inventions, characters, tasks, environments, and challenges. Miyamoto didn't realize he was making a world as imaginative as Star Wars's bestiary of planets, Star Trek's galactic Federation, or the Marvel Universe's hero-clogged New York City.

Yes, Mario technically was still a plumber. An eldritch pipe would take him to the Mushroom Kingdom. There would be pipes every-where, so much so that players would stop thinking it odd that open vertical sewage tunnels painted green served as the only way to ever get from point A to point B. For consistency Mario still had his move set from Mario Bros.-the head butt, the jump-stomp, and the prone-enemy kick. Moves that never made it beyond the drawing board included a rocket pack and a second kick attack.

Figuring out the controls was itself a matter of control. Miyamoto wanted up on the directional pad to be the jump control, freeing A and B for actions. No, no, others said, jumping is too important to not be given its own button. His coworkers wore him down, and Miyamoto eventually agreed to make A the constant jump button, with B for fireballs when tapped, and running when held. By "losing" the argument, Miyamoto showed he would let the better idea win, even if it lost the daimyo a bit of face. Ironically, this commitment to quality gained him unparalleled face.

One of the biggest changes was the background: every previous Mario game had had a black background, the better to make the colors more vibrant. Most all games followed this rule. But Super Mario Bros. (the game was given a superlative adjective) took place on a beautiful bright day, with a Montana-worthy horizon of periwinkle sky. A few scattered clouds and distant mountains (the clouds and the bushes were, in fact, the same fluffy image colored white or green) made for a feeling of scope, that this two-dimensional land truly existed. It was, in a word, happy.

Happy was a guiding light for the project. Difficulty was a double-edged sword for any game: too easy and there's no replay challenge, too hard and you repel players. How to keep people playing regardless of what was happening? Keep 'em smiling. Therefore, the villains were cute mushroom "Goombas" toddling around on stubby legs, Venus's flytrap "Piranha plants" with luscious rep lips, and white squid "Bloopers" that resembled curious bells.

The music, most of all, was happy. The score for level 1 (or, to use the game's nomenclature, World 1-1) is an infectiously happy synthesizer salsa. When Mario has an underground level, a bass-heavy score fraught with tension kicks in. When he's underwater, the music is soothing and muted, almost submerged. And when Mario grabs a power-up star, the beat turns as fast and frantic as anything this side of Beethoven's Ninth played at 33-1/3 speed.

This was all the work of Köji Kondo, the new hire. Kondo had a limited palette of sounds to work with. Forget writing for piano: he had two monophonic channels, a synthesized triangle wave, and a white-noise generator. Try to write good music with a hearing tone, a wooden block, and two chanting monks as your "band." It was possible, of course, but it would first require writing a synthesizer program that could turn sine waves into piano licks.

In the end, Super Mario Bros. had thirty-two levels, and eight boss battles. Mario could gain a hit point by eating a mushroom, and grow much larger in size. He could gain temporary invincibility from sparkly stars. He could throw bouncing fireballs if he touched a flower. He climbed beanpoles to the sky, fought off a reptile king, and battled a series of turtles wielding hammers, wings, and spines. He saved any number of women who were not our princess. He jumped on floating platforms, avoided flaming windmills, and ducked living bullets fired at him. He would gain another life if he found a "1-up" mushroom, or collected a hundred coins.

While the game took forever to make, it also took many hours to play through completely. This was Donkey Kong if each level was ten times regular size, and if the levels never repeated. Each board had so many hidden coins and power-ups, so many enemies and dangers, so many secrets! This wasn't a simulation; it was a world to get lost in, as re-playable as a favorite book or movie or album. It was supposed to ship in the summer, but Miyamoto asked for a few more weeks to fix bugs. It shipped on Friday, September 13, not the most auspicious of dates. When it arrived in Japanese arcades, players kept plopping quarters in long after they defeated King Koopa, just to find all the Easter eggs. Everyone played it as Billy Mitchell did, trying to wring the computer chip of every last secret.

The Lost Levels

All these games that never made it out of development hell must have been frustrating. Great ideas, great execution, and they get killed because people wouldn't understand them. People just wanted more of Mario in the Mushroom Kingdom. More of the same, just, you know, a little different.

Miyamoto, possibly with a raised eyebrow, decided to deliver on exactly that. His new protégé, Takashi Tezuka (memorably credited as "Ten Ten"), would do most of the work for a Super Mario Bros. sequel that would look and play like the original. Gamers would be immediately comfortable: this was what they wanted. Question mark blocks! Smashable bricks! Mushrooms! Digital comfort food!

Then, they'd go grab that mushroom, which in the previous game made Mario super. And they'd see what a little difference could do. (Insert maniacal laughter here.) In this game, the first mushroom would kill Mario. Boom, dead. Miyamoto could never pull a stunt like that with an arcade game: folks would demand their quarters back. But home console players would have touched the hot stove, and learned: okay, the mushrooms are all deadly.

Except only certain mushrooms were deadly, not all of them. That was only the beginning. The swimming "Blooper" squid here could swim on land and air. One endpoint could only be reached by climbing a vine, which in the previous game was just for bonus levels. A new element was rain, which could stir up from nowhere to push Mario back. All jumps now had to be weighed against the possibility that a freak shower would blow Mario off course.

Developers have a code of conduct about how to make a proper game. No blind jumps, for instance: Mario had to see both ledges. Miyamoto wouldn't break those commandments. But he'd certainly tweak them. If the first game had Mario schlep his way up a pyramid to get a 1-Up, this one would create a similar obstacle course that led to a worthless poison mushroom. Mario's warp zones took him forward in the first game? The warp zones in the sequel might take him back to the beginning of the game. Level after level, Miyamoto was pranking the player.

This was exactly, precisely, what video gamers had said they wanted. They wanted a game just like Super Mario Bros., but with new challenges. But did they really? Or did they want the illusion of difficulty? The thrill of accomplishment, without a constant ramp-up in difficulty? Just because all NES owners had a copy of Super Mario Bros. didn't mean they all mastered it. This was a true continuation of the series, in that it started out at a difficulty level higher than the last level of the first game.

Super Smash Bros. 3

Shigeru Miyamoto couldn't control how Mario was marketed or licensed. The various comics and cartoon shows about his adventures were, as continuity quibblers say, noncanonical. But Mario himself wasn't a creature of "canon." He was a pop culture superstar, even making it on the cover of Mad magazine. There were more important things to worry about.

Nintendo used to be an arcade company. Now it made arcade games, Game & Watch titles, NES games, plus two new consoles in the works, and all that licensing revenue. As producer, Miyamoto was overseeing the baker's dozen of staff members who were actually designing and coding each game. It took him a while to feel comfortable stepping back, but the Dream Factory fiasco helped him distance himself.

Miyamoto was management now, and developing his own Sphinx-like style. Instead of saying "let's make a maze game," he'd ask his staff to consider a game built around a chase, or around moving walls. This helped engender the creativity in others, and also led many to mythologize Miyamoto as a Delphic oracle who spoke exclusively in puzzles, about making puzzles. Mario was a purposeful blank, and Shigeru was a purposeful cipher. In truth, though, he was often just tongue-tied trying to say what he felt, and when he tried to explain it sounded like a fortune cookie.

All the verbosity of being an artist and experiencing change and taking risks boils down to doing something different. Artistry, perhaps, is at its core being able to control change in interesting ways.

Miyamoto was not someone accustomed to change: his parents told him to not "change vessels," meaning to stay who you are regardless of circumstances. That was why he still biked to work, still kept the same rescued-castaway haircut, and not incidentally still worked at Nintendo rather than go start his own firm. "I don't really chase after the American dream—that idea of continually changing with success," he said.

Miyamoto decided that gameplay was king. How Mario interacted with the world was the core of the game. He wanted new ideas, new opponents, new powers for Mario. So Mario got a series of "suits" he could wear. The frog suit made him swim faster. The bizarre Tanooki suit turned Mario into unmovable stone, let him fly, and gave him a tail to hit enemies. (Mythological Japanese tanuki attack with a less family friendly weapon: their heavy testicles, wielded like morning stars.)

Miyamoto's success showed why the Mario cartoons never caught on. Mario isn't about jumping on mushrooms and fighting turtles any more than the heritage of Italian-Americans. It's about play, what Croatian-born psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called "Row." The fun of "flow" is its feeling of accomplishment and fulfillment while engaged in an activity. Anyone who's ever lost happy hours tinkering with a car engine, shopping for clothes, talking with friends, or playing music has experienced flow. The sweet spot when a game's not too easy or too hard, the just-right porridge, is flow.

The NES and The Game Boy

But by 1989, the Game & Watch franchise was dying down. Why buy a whole system (albeit a sliver of one) to play just one game? Yokoi began brainstorming a handheld gaming system with removable cartridges. They'd been tried before, but the results were poor, hard to decipher, and worst of all expensive. Yokoi understood price, hardware, playability, and consumer interest. He could do it.

Price, as with the Famicom, was king. It had to be cheap, but not cheaply made. Yokoi insisted on using existing technology instead of cutting-edge hardware, which was both expensive and untested by time. It was his philosophy: Kareta Gijutsu no Suihei Shikou, which awkwardly translates to Lateral Thinking of Seasoned Technology, or applying new ideas using off-the-shelf parts. (Kareta can also be translated as the elegant "mature" or the condescending "withered.") Technology, memory, transistor speed: everything grew smaller and cheaper. So why pay for top-dollar top-shelf parts, and have to pass that cost onto the customer? It was Island Economics 101: import materials, add value, sell at a profit.

There would be no backlight, for instance. Backlights were expensive, they ate up battery, they were heavy. Sure, people would complain the "Game Boy" (as it was being called) couldn't be played in the dark. But their unspoken desire for a light, cheap, long-lasting product outweighed the backlight's pros. There would also be, alarmingly, no color—another battery drain. Yokoi instead proposed a grisaille color palette: all gray, or rather a Soviet olive-green. He almost gave himself an ulcer worrying about Sharp's investment in the screens, especially when an early version was too hard to see head-on, and reflected a glare from an angle. But he and Sharp worked it out at the eleventh hour: the four different shades of green-gray pixels displayed fine. "Creamed spinach color," as a rival's advertisement snidely put it.

Yokoi was indulgent in other areas. Each Game Boy would come with ear bud headphones. This allowed a more private gaming experience, let the games exist in stereo instead of the mono speaker, and saved more precious batteries. A battery pack accessory would let gamers play 24-7. Two-player games would be possible with a link cable and a connector port. Many other small touches, like an on-off switch that locked in the cartridge, made the device durable and smart.

Yokoi's team was at work on a suite of launch games, which read like a minihistory of gaming. First was Tennis, an update of Pong. Then Alleyway, a tribute to Breakout and other paddle-ball games. Then Baseball, a shared love of the United States and Japan. Of course, a Mario game was in development as well. The Game Boy would play identical to the NES, so developers already knew how to program for it.

Minoru Arakawa decided the Game Boy would have Tetris as a pack-in game, not Mario. Nintendo had been a part in a years-long battle over who owned rights to Alexey Pajitnov's falling-block game. (The whole story is excellently told in David Sheff's Game Over.) Like the Brooklyn Bridge, most of the people who said they owned it—this included a new Atari, who found a way around the lockout chip and were going to sell a NES Tetris without Nintendo's approval-were sold bogus licenses. Turns out the Soviets never sold it in the first place—and all the millions of Tetris fans were all playing ultimately stolen games.

Arakawa went after the rights hard, following his own gut feeling that America would love the game in handheld form. He flew to Moscow to personally meet with the Soviets, and offered some of Nintendo's cubic mile of cash. He walked away with console rights, handheld rights, and the eternal ire of Atari. Mikhail Gorbachev even weighed in, personally promising a rival company's execs that Nintendo wouldn't get the rights. It did no good, and Nintendo kept its rights. (Welcome to capitalism, tovarich.)

Tetris was a masterpiece. Puzzle games turned out to be the Game Boy's bread and butter: no fancy graphics needed, and its portable nature let it be the new crossword puzzle or Rubik's Cube, Plus, it meant that people wanting a Mario game still had to plunk down another thirty dollars to buy it. Just to be safe, Mario received cameos in Tetris (he and Luigi appear in two-person games), Tennis (he's the player) and Alleyway (the blocks form his face at one point). Only Baseball escaped him.

Miyamoto was grinding away producing other Mario and Zelda games, so Yokoi and his new protégé Satoru Okada would try to shrink down the Mario experience without losing the grand scope. It would get a new name—Super Mario Land—because the conceit was this wasn't the Mushroom Kingdom but a whole new land to explore, Sarasaland.

Many minor details were different. Mario still attacked by jumping, still grabbed coins and mushrooms, still shot fireballs and gained invincibility with stars. But instead of Princess Toadstool, Mario was saving a dark-haired princess named Daisy. He rode a submarine in one level, and an airplane in another. He could bypass boss fights by running past them out of the room. The final boss wasn't King Koopa but an alien named Tatanga. And Okada gave Mario a reason to be universally attacked: Tatanga has hypnotized all the inhabitants. There were twelve levels, not as big as previous Mario adventures, but still a lot for a cartridge the size of a Ghirardelli chocolate. It wasn't necessarily worse, just... off. Whatever the Platonic ideal Mario game was, this was not it.

Sega, The Genesis, and Sonic The Hedgehog

Furthermore, Nintendo wouldn't let companies make their own products: everything was made by Nintendo, to further its control of distribution. This micromanagement came to a head during a chip shortage in Japan, where Nintendo both slashed orders down to a fraction of their size and forbade companies from finding their own U.S. or European chips. Those who complained could see their chip allotment cut further, and fewer mentions in Nintendo Power. Making your business partners co-dependently kiss your ring in exchange for such paltry treatment was a recipe for misery, and game makers no doubt hoped Sega would offer an escape hatch from the draconian Nintendo.

But maybe they could gin up a new Mario game, a sort of hail Mario pass. Gunpei Yokoi's team had designed an excellent Game Boy puzzle title, which built on the success of Tetris. The screen starts out full of blocks in one of three hues, and the player has to drop two-block units down to clear the rows. It played like starting a half-lost game of Tetris. And, it was a Mario game. The game field was a bottle, the blocks were viruses, and Mario had to drop "pills" to clear the board.

It was closer to waste management than medicine, but Garbage Man Mario didn't have a good ring to it. Dr. Mario did, though. And since its graphic needs were so basic, quality versions could be made for the NES, Game Boy, and the arcade. (Where one of the big hits of the year was Sega's own puzzle game, Columns.)

Dr. Mario did quite well, selling more than five million copies, further establishing the puzzle genre as a viable field. Tetris had given gamers a jones for puzzle games. And while great ones were hard to make, imperfect ones practically grew on trees. For the Game Boy especially, it seemed half of all the new games released were puzzle games: Boxxle, Pipe Dream, Qix. But only a few had the simplicity of game play and design to be intuitive: Dr. Mario, Tetris, and Columns. (In fact, Nintendo released a combo cartridge called Tetris & Dr. Mario.)

Another Dr. Mario accomplishment was to upgrade Mario to the star of a game that had nothing to do with Mario's wheelhouse of jumping, costumes, turtles, saving princesses from King Koopa, etc. It was a puzzle game, pure and simple. Having Mario be in it was fine- discovering him in a Nintendo game was like finding the Alfred Hitchcock cameo, or searching out the word Nina in an Al Hirschfeld drawing. But to name the game after him? Who would see the word "Mario" and think "puzzle game"?

Dr. Mario wasn't phoned in, and Nintendo felt its quality earned the right to have Mario on the cover. Mario was a celebrity endorser, Michael Jordan in overalls. While Sega was building its mascot Sonic with mercenary aplomb, Nintendo turned Mario into the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.

Mario, on the other hand, didn't need a crew of characters who all said how awesome he was. He was kept purposefully mute, a mere avatar for the audience, his specificity of look and demeanor making him that much more universal. Nintendo would not change its actions just because a competitor had finally made some grounds in terms of market share.

Virtual Boy and Other 3D Fun

Yamauchi wanted Mario's face to appear as often as possible, anywhere it could. To encourage this, he took the counterintuitive step of prohibiting any Zelda or Link merchandising. If someone wanted a Nintendo character for a doll or mug, it was Mario or nothing.

"In videogames," Yokoi wrote in his memoir, "there is always an easy way out if you don't have any good ideas... CPU competition."

Yokoi's ideas, though, live on. Nintendo's heritage and success could be summed up in five awkward words: "lateral thinking of seasoned technology." All of its successes come from its inventiveness, not its state-of-the-art chips. His protégé Shigeru Miyamoto had taken that to heart; now Miyamoto was the world's greatest game designer. Even the Virtual Boy, for all its flaws, gave the world a controller with two directional pads, one per thumb, which became industry standard.

And, as a festschrift to Yokoi, the first in a successful new series of Mario Game Boy games was released that year. Game & Watch Gallery repurposed Yokoi's classic designs of Octopus, Manhole, Oil, and others, except with the Super Mario gang as the characters. The series has sold a few million copies: quite the lateral thinking. And since they started coming out in 1994, Gunpei Yokoi lived to see it: beloved characters he helped bring forth, placed in games he designed, ported onto a console he designed as well.

The Invention and Growth of Pokémon

Mario was to blame. Mario was the de facto mission statement of Nintendo. He promised family friendly fun to kids of all ages. Nintendo would always be able to print money as long as Miyamoto and his ilk kept on cranking out quality games for its consoles. But Mario was also a jail sentence, dooming Nintendo to be seen as an entertainment company and not a communications company.

It was called Pocket Monsters–or Pokémon.

Pokémon was in development for years, and was assumed (upon its 1996 release in Japan) to be a strictly Japanese game. It was role-playing, with minimal graphics, battles that ended with one fighter "fainting" instead of dying, and an obsessive-compulsive goal of finding 150 critters wandering in the woods. Its developer, Satoshi Tajiri, had collected bugs as a child, and found joy in their variety and abilities. He studied under Miyamoto to design the game, and the illusory simplicity of the game was straight from Doc Miyamoto. Since the idea was to play against a friend using the Game Boy's link cable, there were two different colored cartridges, red and blue. Pokémon Red had Satoshi (changed to Ash Ketchum for America), and Pokémon Blue had Shigeru (Gary Oak in America). Other than that, they were just about identical.

The game was a bigger hit than anyone in Japan could have predicted. It tapped into the gaming zeitgeist of completion by having completion itself be the goal, instead of any nobler cause. When it became a card game, "gotta catch'em all!" basically translated to "gotta buy them all!" Focus testing showed kids didn't care about trainers Ash or Gary: they wanted to be the trainers themselves, and the game allowed for just that experience. That in turn prompted a top-rated anime show. (The first most Americans heard of Pokémon was a 1997 episode of the show that caused seven hundred Japanese children to have seizures.) It was released in America mere weeks before the Game Boy Color's launch—and it was black and white. Clearly Nintendo didn't think this game would go over much better than Earthbound or Mario Picross, both flops. Only Minoru Arakawa believed in its crossover potential—and then only if the complicated gameplay and minimal graphics were brought over unchanged.

Nintendo had nothing to worry about. The two Pokémons were enormous hits, helping keep the Game Boy dominant for years. Pokémon games for other consoles followed, beginning with Pokémon Stadium for the N64. (One Pokémon game featured a Mario cameo, a HAL calling card: Iwata also snuck Mario and friends into the crowd of a Kirby Super Star game.) The original's graphical simplicity was part of the draw, forcing players to focus on strategy. Pokémon was a new type of chess: Charmander is a fire Pokémon and is great when attacking ice Pokémon, but not other fire types, or water types. Every Pokemon has a type, and each type is weak or strong against other types. How you stack your "deck" of six Pokémon, what order you play them, when is it time to waste a turn to retire an old one: this was the game. The boundless creativity of the punny edition's names (Charmander, a fiery lizard, is a mix of charcoal and salamander) would make J. K. Rowling jealous.

Pokémon would soon become the world's second-biggest gaming franchise, selling two hundred million copies, mostly to eight-year-olds. (A covetous Miyamoto, who joked about fans sending him loose change because Nintendo didn't pay him any royalties, reportedly said that Pokémon would only be a hit until his next Mario game was finished.) The pocket monsters' various games would all sell well-save for Hey You, Pikachu!, a microphone game where players told a Pokémon to go pick up a carrot and other humdrum tasks. They even showed up in Super Smash Bros. They'd be that many more nails in the coffin for the idea of Nintendo being seen as more than an entertainment company. Mario was Crime and Punishment compared to Pokémon, whose appeal surged among the younger set, and diminished with puberty. For crying out loud, a plastic Pikachu was being hot glued to special editions of the N64: who would accept it as a computer with a cartoon gerbil (or mouse, or whatever he is) on it?

It might be several decades ahead of the curve, but Nintendo had geologic patience. Perhaps Yamauchi was secretly a rock Pokémon.

The Nintendo Wii

While he didn't glower at people like Yamauchi did, Iwata lived and breathed Nintendo philosophy as much as the employees who had logged in decades of dedication. He larded vast hoards of cash, kept staff low, and refused to branch out beyond games.

First off, zigging where others zagged was Nintendo's consistent strategy.

Mario stopped Nintendo from being anything more than an entertainment company. But amusing people was now the mission statement, the decree of the new shogun. Not being the biggest or fastest, but having the best games. Invention is needed for new amusements, and while this year's inventions would be copied by the rest of the industry, Nintendo would continually invent new ones for next year.

Miyamoto had a guiding principle when designing the console: make moms happy. Moms had an uneasy relationship with the game machines that sucked the sand out of their kids' hourglasses—and lured away the dads as well. Mom was the person who had to buy this stupid expensive time waster, and purchase new games every Christmas and birthday, writing down these ridiculously precise titles-not just Star Wars but Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast for Xbox-for fear of buying the wrong one.

One way to make moms happy was to give their console a simple, happy name: Wii. Another was a low(er) price. And there were the games: family friendly stuff younger brothers could stay in the room to watch. To further prep moms for this shift, McDonalds and Nintendo put out Mario Happy Meal toys aimed at encouraging healthy, active lifestyles. (Make your own jokes about that.) One huge mom advantage? Every Wii would have a pack-in game.

Wii Sports would contain five different games —tennis, bowling, box-ing, golf, and baseball. Combined, they were a steal. Another game, Wii Play, took a similar format to activities like skeet shooting, air hockey, pool, and fishing. When it was bundled for no extra cost with a second controller, which alone retailed for forty dollars, Wii Play sold itself.

And that Wii controller. It may have started with the desire to not have long wires uglying up the living room. Nintendo had had success with the wireless Wavebird controller for the Gamecube. All of the Xbox 360 and PS3's controllers, remarkably, were wireless. Their controllers had traditional setups: control stick on the left, lots of buttons on the right, index-finger triggers, plus more buttons and more control sticks. Mom was scared she would shoot off a nuke if she handled it the wrong way.

Finding a way to friendly it up challenged many of the long-held assumptions about gaming. Players moved with their left hand, and performed actions with their right hand. It synced up with clumsy pop neurology: the left brain was great with logic and spatial relations (such as where to move) and the right brain was for art (which creative method to dispatch the guard?). This basis more or less defined games as being Mario-ish third-person adventures, since that's what it was designed to do. The games that tried to mix up controls were rare, and often counterintuitive to play at first.

Miyamoto went back to the drawing board, back to the beginning of games themselves. They were ways to pass the time, to have fun, to duplicate tasks your body would normally do. They were tools: tools for fun. Fun was much broader than controlling a character.

Years before Donkey Kong, Nintendo had marketed a light-gun game. Players held a toy gun and shot imaginary bullets. Games since then had lost that generality of play. Play was something everyone did. What had happened to the industry so a typical mom would say she wasn't a "gamer"? This is someone who deals herself rounds of Freecell, actually enjoys Sorry and Chutes and Ladders, pretends to be a princess for a tea party, and helps her kids with batting practice. The same woman might tear through a Nora Roberts book, yet claim to not "read" because Nora isn't Virginia Woolf. Well, she does read, and she does plays games. Nintendo just had to let her feel good about that.

Miyamoto and company looked at lots of different devices with buttons—not just game controllers but cell phones and channel changers. They wanted to see what felt right. After trying a cell phone-derived controller, they went with a remote-control shape. Unlike most remotes, this one would have only a few white-on-white buttons: their size and location denoted their relative importance. One-handed, no control stick, simple as a garage door opener. When the Wii's name was released, the device—officially the Wii remote—got the inevitable nickname of Wiimote.

Building on the accelerometer research HAL did a few years previous, the Wiimote could sense movement. Three accelerometers controlled the horizontal, the vertical, and the yaw. A sensor strip along the top or bottom of the TV shone infrared LEDs, which the Wii used to constantly orient itself via triangulation. A small speaker built into the Wiimote, combined with a Rumble Pak, let force feedback and sound emit from the controller, two ways that made it easier to believe waving in the air was having a palpable effect.

It took years to get the controls right: for a while, any room with an incandescent bulb (or even a candle) would make the Wiimote act wonky. But once its bugs were squashed, the Wii offered not just a new interface but a new way of thinking about games, appealing to a vast audience who'd stayed away from consoles before this. There was consideration of releasing it as an accessory for the ailing Gamecube. But that system's time was at an end. The current gaming market, to use another business-book analogy, was a red ocean, awash with blood and sharks. Nintendo had spent too many years being bitten by those sharks: time to take their more deserving Wii console into the blue ocean of an untapped market.

On the digital Mii characters introduced with the Wii:

The Miis weren't just for Mario Paint-ish fun. Each family member would design his or her own Mii, which would be his or her avatar. The Miis showed up as spectators in other games, such as Mario Kart Wii. Character customization was once a true burden to use. The Mii Creator's depths and ease made it a game to design a custom face. After all, game designers had fun designing characters; why not share that fun? Mario had been the default Nintendo face since 1981. The Wii offered a better option: us. (Or, we.)

For more, I highly encourage you to order Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America and read the entire book yourself.

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About the author

Daniel Scrivner is an award-winner designer turned founder and investor. He's led design work at Apple and Square. He is an early investor in Notion,, and Good Eggs. He's also the founder of Ligature: The Design VC and Outlier Academy. Daniel has interviewed the world’s leading founders and investors including Scott Belsky, Luke Gromen, Kevin Kelly, Gokul Rajaram, and Brian Scudamore.

Last updated
Apr 28, 2024

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