In the back of Super Mario, I said readers could hop over here and read some bonus chapters. Here they are, finally! One's an expanded look at the history of video games and Japan, and the other looks at Mario Segale, the fascinating man who Mario is named after. Both chapters were cut for pacing, so we could hit the ground running with action instead of 25 pages of build-up. Maybe we'll put them in the paperback edition!
Books go through various identities and have different parts moved around, but this introduction didn’t last long, and was the first thing I cut. I still like it, but it’s too tangental to the Mario and Nintendo story. You’ll learn a lot about the man who Mario is named after: and if you want to learn even more, check out Benj Edwards’s article and also this great Seattle Times expose.
Introduction: Mario’s Land: Mr. Segale
What’s in a name?
Tukwila is a small industrial town a five-minute drive from the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Tukwila means “land of the hazelnuts,” but no hazelnuts grow there now. Just 8.5 square miles in area, Tukwila is chockablock with business. The town of under 18,00 people employs over 45,000. It houses several Boeing facilities (more than half the town’s employment), and well as the Museum of Flights, the largest private air and space museum in the world, which receives half a millions visitors a year. Visitors and shop in the Westfield Southcenter, the state’s largest mall. One of these anchor stores is Nordstrom, the Seattle-based upscale department store. In 2008, Tukwila celebrated its centennial.
Tukwila has become a good place to find some interactive entertainment. It houses a series of theme-park-style rises at the family Fun Center, as well as the Westfield Playtown. Its Starfire Sports complex houses a Manchester United Soccer School, the only one in America. It has a Rainforest Café, with animatronic animals that come to life. It has 15 parks, remarkable for a town of less than 10 square miles. It has a 40-lane bowling alley, with a 30-game arcade and seven billiard tables. The city has 282 “licensed amusement devices” within the town limits. Intel is designing a next-gen processor called “Tukwila,” which will surely animate some top-notch computer games.
The tow is part of the massive King County, twice the size of Rhode Island, which contains not only Bellevue, Redmond, Issaquah, and Renton, but also all of Seattle itself. King County was named in 1853 after Franklin Pierce’s recently-deceased vice president William R. King. This – and the adjoining Pierce County – was a bit of gamesmanship to make Washington Territory more attractive as a state. It didn’t work: Stateship wasn’t until 1889. In 1986 King County retroactively named itself after Martin Luther King, Jr. Presumably, if a better Pierce comes along, Pierce County will make the switch as well.
Tukwila was a stop along the Interurban Railroad, linking Seattle to Tacoma. That, combined with the airport so nearby, and many rivers (including the Superfund poster child Duwamish River), produced an economic hub that belies its tiny size. Macadam roads in 1916, water lines in 1928, high-speed bandwidth in the 90s: it all flowed through Tukwila. But in 1981, Tukwila was still a warehouse town. Being a such a roadstop meant a lot of storage was needed: thus over 70 companies devoted to housing cargo (whether by plane, rail, boat, or truck) sprouted up.
Tukwila’s neighbor to the north, Redmond, has its own transportation specialty: bicycles. Starting with a race around Lake Sammamish in 1939, the now-yearly bicycle festival helped make Redmond the “bicycle Capitol of the Northwest.” The town had even built a velodrome just for indoor bike racing in 1975. Redmond was about double Tukwila’s size in the early 1980s, and was on the rise. Some recent “high-tech” companies had taken root in a town that had seen a dwindling population after the logging and farming booms of the 1920s. Tukwila had a lot, but it didn’t have room to grow. Redmond has clearcut plains and fallow fields aplenty.
One of Tukwila’s multiple storage facilities was Segale Business Park, 18721 Andover Park West, named after the Segale family who owned and operated it. It was an expansive multibuilding property, over a hundred thousand feet of 24-foot-high warehouses with small offices attached. Close to the rail, close to Route 5, close to SeaTac, close to the river. It wasn’t going to win any architecture or landscaping awards, but the companies that rented it weren’t looking for grand corporate palaces, just as accessible place to run small businesses.
In 1980, one very small company (only half a dozen people) with a warehouse of stock in New Jersey moved into Segale Business Park. All new tenants are risks, especially ones moving from another warehouse, where they might not have been able to pay the rent. This new company exported arcade games from Japan: arcade games were pretty big business, but with a lot of competition. Even if Mr. Segale, the owner, was an avid arcade-goer, though, he wouldn’t have heard of any of these company’s titles.
Mario Segale, now 77, was born around 1934, the year of Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, the Three Stooges, L’il Abner, and Flash Gordon. (Oh, and Adolf Hitler.) He graduated Highline High School in Burien, Washington in 1952. (The same school would graduate Layne Stale and Mike Starr of Alice in Chains much later.) Segales yearbook photo shows a young man with extraordinarily wide eyebrows, a very wide mouth with a thin upper lip, and almost androgynously beautiful features. His quote? “The hum of his car’s motor was his symphony.” He has no extracurricular activities listed. Many of his class members stayed in the area, and today, the “Class of ‘52” has its own Web site, with yearly picnics and spirited gatherings. Segale has donated to the alumni group, but usually doesn’t attend the reunions.
The landlord-tenant laws of Washington State, like most other states, tilted to favor the tenant. They even favor the small-time mom-and-pop “losers” who move in to find a nice quiet spot to pile up unpaid bills and go out of business. On Segale’s dime. Filing a lien would do a fat lot of good then, with so many other creditors. Real estate was not for milquetoasts: in the business you had to be a disciplinarian if you wanted what was coming to you. Not forever: teachers were routinely tyrannical the first week of school, and mellowed once they knew the kids that year would respect them.
So Mr. Segale drove down to his property, passing the sign with his own name on it. He walked right into the warehouse of the new Japanese company as if he owned the place – which he did – and let them have it. They were not to be late paying rent. They were definitely not to be delinquent! His suspicions were entirely grounded: the only profits the import company has coming in were a few arcade games’ worth of quarters at local bars.
Done, Segale left, leaving a long-haired bearded kid who looked like Charles Manson standing next to one of the tall cabinets. Point made. Once he was out of earshot, the hippie kid said Mr. Segale’s first name out loud. “Mario.” The kid wasn’t calling Mario Segale back. He was looking at the sideways-mounted TV screen in the big wooden cabinet, where a mustached man with blue hair was standing, against a black background of a girdered construction site. Mario Segale had a mustache, too. And dark hair.
Black hair was nothing special for someone of Italian descent, like Segale: it was almost as common as black hair on a Japanese guy. But the mustache…a clean-shaven face was for the man in the gray flannel suit. A full beard was for potheads, like that lunk in the warehouse. A mustache was for grown-ups (and some men with overly feminine faces): you had your little rebelling right under your nose, safely under control. The chevron in the military denoted an authority figure (lance corporal), and the chevron on the lip did the same. No one in this Japanese company, Nintendo, had a mustache. But Mario did.
If Mario Segale had shaved that morning, things would be different in the world of gaming. But it wouldn’t have been the first facial-hair-based disruption of the game industry. The first was when Springfield, Mass. Resident Milton Bradley went into business selling lithographs of newly elected (and clean-0shaven) president Abraham Lincoln. When Lincoln grew a beard, Bradley was close to ruined: no one wanted a babyfaced picture of Honest Abe now! In desperation, he started selling a board game, called the Checkered Game of Life. It took off, prompting thousands of additional board games, and a new career for the lithographer.
Mario Segale would go onto have a life measured successful by any yardstick, save that of a billion-dollar media franchise. Segale Business Park in Tukwila became part of a fleet of properties: Pacific Gateway Business Park in Kent, the Segale Retail Center and La Pianta in Tukwila, industrial land in Kesla and Auburn. He rents to Barnes & Noble, Office Depot, and (a natural for the Seattle area) Starbucks. He was in a limited partnership that sold the Emerald Downs thoroughbred racetrack to the Muckeshoot Indian tribe in 2002. His son Mark now helps run the businesses. Father and son remain active in their community, and in the local Catholic church. They donate Christmas trees and poinsettias to the town hall every year. Mark also owns a tractor store in Tukwila.
Believe it or not, the namesake of Super Mario has been involved with plumbing. Segale has been working to replace and expand the town’s water main, from 6-inch pipes to 12-inch. He’s worked with water before: the Green River is, at one point, held back by a series of levees, the Segale Levees. Anyone in real estate in the Green River Valley needs to learn about to divert water: the area should be a swamp. Segale also started a paving and construction business, with annual revenues of $50 million. It was sold in 1997 to an Irish firm for $60 million.
The last few years have been spent preparing for a huge new investment: Pacific Gateway Business Park. Over a million square feet of nonresidential space, bought from Boeing in 2003 and converted to industrial and other nonresidential uses. Segale and family have made numerous political contributions over the years to politicians of both parties, as well as local charities such as the Cascade Land Conservancy, Juma Ventures, and the YMCA. Father and son have also spent a lot of evenings riding the bench at municipal governance meetings of one stripe or another, fighting for sewage systems, halting plans for a light-rail expansion, arguing with the unsatisfied owner of an adjoining llama farm.
A new plan for development is even more enormous: a 14-million-square foot master-planning bio/research community. (Hence the need for a larger water main.) The massive 500-arce property is estimated to take 30 years to finish construction. Segale is seeking funds to help start construction: in exchange for a $6 million city bond, he pledged up to $8.25 million for overrun costs. This is on top of over $10 million in grants to extend Southcenter Parkway through the development: a good return on investment on about $10,000 in donations. When completed, it could bring another 23,000 jobs into Tukwila, an even better return for a few million bucks worth of road. It would be one of the region’s largest employment centers, to rival Microsoft and the University of Washington.
For a person who regularly names buildings after himself, Mario Segale is very reclusive. There are no pictures of him online. There are no interviews – real estate developers are not normally a secretive bunch. Tukwila’s town web site, which drills down in minutiae to include the dollar values of road construction projects, neglects to mention that its most successful resident inspired the name of the world’s most beloved video game character. In fact, it doesn’t mention Mario Segale at all.
This brings to mind the people of Cornish, New Hampshire. In 1953 author JD Salinger moved to Cornish, and lived there until his death in 2010. A cottage industry of reporters ventured up there to get an interview with the incommunicado man of letters, only to find townspeople who played dumb and said they had never heard of Catcher in the Rye. (Segale, by the way, means “rye” in Italian. Ironically, it also contains the name of Nintendo’s rival Sega.) The Cornishes guarded a fellow resident who just wanted some privacy. The citizens of small towns where To Kill a Mockingbird’s Harper Lee and Calvin and Hobbes’s Bill Watterson live are similarly protective.
And the people of Tukwila are doing the same for Mario Segale. Anyone calling his company and inquiring about Super Mario is abruptly told to contact Nintendo. Segale joked once to a Seattle paper about wanting royalties from Nintendo – it may not have been a joke – and hasn’t spoken to the press about anything since then. He’s apparently never even been photographed, other than his high school yearbook.
This evasion is working splendidly. In the video game world, it’s well known that Nintendo’s landlord named Mario inspired Super Mario. In the real estate world, no one knows. Even among his critics, Segale only gets ragged on by antidevelopers for the same crimes all ambitious developers get accused of. Nothing about King Koopa or saving the spotted-owl princess. Even Donald Trump would be jealous of Segale’s untapped potential for good press.
Anyone else would have built a cottage industry out of his fame, angling for a reality show. The inspiration for Kramer on Seinfeld started giving tours through New York of Seinfeldian setpieces, and the “real” basis for the superhero spawn goes to comic onventions to sign autographs. But Segale has not just avoided the spotlight: he nullified it. He may not have been bought a single drink by a gamer, or received a single joystick-calloused handshake.
Why? Perhaps he’s experienced enough to know that in real estate, with its dealings with Unions, Indian casinos, and municipal government, drawing attention and inviting debate on every step of a years-long deal is not the way to get things done. Or maybe, like a child star who refuses to admit he was Baby Fatso as a youth, he’s embarrassed by the cartoon relationship. Or he could be truly bitter that he never received a tranche of the Mario millions. (Maybe it’s not too late: “The REAL Mario” would be instant branding for a gaming start-up, if they could sign him.) He could even consider Mario a stereotypical slur against Italians. With him not talking, though, all guesses are uneducated.
That day Mario Segale barged in asking for the rent, he knocked over a Nintendomino. The event became a legend, and now it’s a myth. In certain telling he’s “Mario Seagale,” or “Mario Segali.” In others he’s a New Yorker or Californian, or even running a warehouse in Japan. Some variants have him interrupting a board of directors’ meeting. On the Internet, a doctored photo of a man with a Photoshopped mustache purporting to be Segale sped around via e-mail: at last, the Thomas Pynchon of Nintendo was photographed! It’s a bit surprising that, like with King County, a better origin story hasn’t been invented out of whole cloth. By not saying anything for 30 years, Segale has turned a fascinating footnote into something greater, a personal lifetime burden. (It probably goes without saying by now, but he declined to comment for this piece.)
I had an idea for the story, starting out with three separate chapters that would all flow together in chapter 4. One was on Mario Segale. Another (located right below you) was about Nintendo’s history up until 1980. And a third would parallel Shigeru Miyamoto’s life with the history of video games. I explained this to my agent, who found a way of saying “so in other words, nothing happens until Chapter 4” to me, so that I could then conclude “hey, maybe we should just start with Chapter 4” and think it was my own idea. As a result, some details from these chapters appear in the rejiggered Chapter 4, which we expanded and made the first 2 chapters of the book. You may find a stray tidbit from here sprinkled elsewhere as well. I mostly regret not getting the Joey Tribbiani joke in print.
Mario’s Island – Japan and Nintendo
For generations, the pivotal event in Japanese culture was the introduction of the West. Japan’s feudal society had existed in an almost pure vacuum for millennia. The peasants farmed the land, the craftsmen made goods, the lowly merchants sold them, and the daimyos collected most of the profits. The occasional mainlander from what’s now China and Korea sailed into Edo and Yokohama remained outsiders in the society.
Japan’s shoguns (the ruler of all the daimyos) had purposefully closed itself off from foreign traders, due to the actions of a few Nestorian Christians. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese had begun converting to Christianity, based on the work of a few Spanish and Portuguese missionaries. The sandy-haired Westerners would defeat the shogun by killing Japan’s native culture, and replacing it with their own.
That had to change, and did. A series of shoguns set up rules all but prohibiting the existence of gaijin, foreigners. The converted masses were forcibly unconverted. All foreign traders had to have government escorts at all time. And –to take the sword to both emigration as well as immigration-- any Japanese citizen who was caught traveling overseas would be punished by death.
One way Japan feared being Westernized with corruption was with gambling. The Portuguese brought playing cards to the island in the 17th century, and the game caught on. Such foreign a concept as a European card game was quickly banned. However, it’s very hard to kill an idea. New domestic card games were invented, which being Japanese were deemed acceptable. The hanafuda deck became a favorite of the people, especially feudal yakuza members.
Hanafuda cards come in decks of 48, a good composite number that could be evenly divided any number of ways (2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 12, 24). Each deck contained 12 different suits of four, with a different flower or plant pained on each set. (Hanafuda means “flower cards.”) Two cards of each set are wooded images of flowering cherry or willow blossoms, a third contains a scroll of poetry as well, and a fourth special card contains another new element: an animal or celestial body, say. The different suits could represent numbers, the 12 months of the year, or whatever the game in question required.
Games like this were added to the daily peasant life, just as readily as steel swords or its China-based kanji ideographs. Seclusion was a remarkable decision for an island-based nation, even one with material wealth (wood, plants, ore, abundant fish) as Japan. Even more remarkable was that it lasted for about 500 years, from the time of Ghengis Khan to the time of Charles Darwin. Japan’s culture and identity flourished for a half-millennia in this happy, purposeful vacuity.
Then came the watershed year of 1853. Commodore Matthew Perry (not Chalder from Friends), manning four gunboats nicknamed the “Black Ships,” sailed into the capital city of Edo (the city would change its name to Tokyo in 1868) and demanded Japan start trading with the upstart nation of America, which wasn’t even a measly century old. Japan obliged, but under conditions that would probably be deemed duress. Perry steamed back the next year, this time with even more Black Ships (and possibly Joey Tribbiani), to start diplomatic relations. The Japanese grudgingly went along, no doubt muttering that this was why they banned foreigners in the first place.
The flood of Western technologies to the island, which hadn’t been substantially changed since the Tale of Genji, started a chain of events which still reverberate. Japan’s historical romance with technology can be plausibly drawn back to its sudden smorgasbord of gadgets. Imagine one day learning about, all at once, the electric light, the steam locomotive, the camera, the typewriter, the sewing machine, the revolver, the telegraph, the bicycle, and the safety pin.
The influx of Western toys may have prompted a Kyoto resident named Fusajiro Yamauchi to bring back an oldie but goodie himself: hanafuda cards. Yamauchi used the bark of mulberry trees, which peel smoother than birch, and had the traditional flowers and poetry scrolls painted onto them. By ruling his shop with an iron fist, Yamauchi’s Kyoto shop eventually became such a hit he branched out to Osaka as well. Both stores were called Nintendo Koppai. Nintendo translated to “leave luck to heaven,” or “we do what we can.”
The culture tsunami also, however, made the Japanese worried they were going to join the ranks of every other country turned into a British or Dutch or Spanish colony. Or, more realistic, simply weakened to be glommed up by rivals Russia or China. The previous Japanese national slogan was sonnō jōi: “Revere the Emperor, Expel the Barbarians.” Now it was a preemptive fukoku kyōhei, “Enrich the country, strengthen the military.” With a strong military, Japan could do more to the barbarians than just show them the door.
In practice, fukoku kyōhei seemed a lot like getting the other guy before he could get you. Japan was involved in long wars with both Russia and China, mostly over the role of Korea. It joined forces with England during World War I partly to grab some German-controlled Micronesian islands, despite having to fight on the same side as Russia. It invaded China a second time, in 1933. Then came the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941, the very definition of a tactical victory leading to a strategic defeat.
The new pivotal moment in Japanese culture came screaming in from 32,000 feet high, falling at terminal velocity at 8:15 am. Hiroshima was hit with the force of 13 thousand tons of TNT. Over 70,000 died, yet Emperor Hirohito would not surrender: did not like the conditions he was offered. Three days later, Nagasaki was hit: another 75,000 dead. This time, Japan surrendered, and the US began a five-year occupation.
Forgotten in the horrors of the atomic bomb drops was the fact that most every other big city in Japan – Tokyo, Osaka, Yokohama, Nagoya – was hit with regular bombing raids from US planes, sometimes on a daily basis. The entire country was a shambles after World War II. Occupied Japan became an unending nightmare, with no food, little shelter, and deflation spoiling money like rotten fruit. And add to that five million postwar Japanese nationals returning home, crowding desperate streets.
This malaise and discontent created the Japanese version of the Beat generation, called the kasutori movement after the distilling process for its shōchū liquor. The pleasure-seekers of the kasutori looked for entertainment, release, and artistry. They drank. They danced. They played a lot of cards. Their motto, shikata ga nai – “nothing can be done about it” was a pessimistic way of saying “we do what we can.” Of saying nintendo koppai, that is.
Speaking of Nintendo, it was being run during these volatile years by Fusajiro Yamauchi’s son-in-law. Yamauchi himself had stepped down in 1929, passing the reins to his daughter Tei’s husband Sekiryo Kaneda, and formally adopting him as his son. Kaneda dutifully changed his name to Sekiryo Yamauchi, honoring his father-in-law and starting the tradition of Nintendo being a true family-run company. Sekiryo-san renamed the company Yamauchi Nintendo and Co. in 1933, and ran it in the style of his father-in-law – that is, like the feudal era never ended.
The new Yamauchi started a distribution company in 1947, the Marufuku Company Limited, to bring cards of various makers to the far corners of Japan. Two years later, the president suffered a stroke. He hadn’t had any sons either (daughters seem to be a Yamauchi tradition as much as cards), but like his father-in-law adopted his daughter Kimi’s husbands as a surrogate son. So Shikanojo Inaba (now going as Shikanojo Yamauchi, of course) was set to be the new Nintendo president.
Inaba-san, however, had left his wife and children. Kimi had moved in with her sister after the divorce, but sent her son Hiroshi (at last, a natural-born son!) to be raised by his grandfather, Sekirya Yamauchi. Hiroshi was belittling and arrogant as a teen, no surprise considering he was raised by such an imperious man, who thought he was done with raising children. He spent a few years at a Kyoto prep school, then during the war went to work at a factory to help the war effort. Back at school after the war, Hiroshi entered into an arranged marriage with Michiko Inaba, a girl picked out by his grandparents. She was no relation to Shikanojo Inaba, but it’s perhaps revealing that a grandfather would make his grandson marry a girl bearing his disgraced father’s last name.
After the grandfather’s stroke in 1949, Hiroshi Yamauchi, at age 21, dropped out of Waseda University became the new president of Nintendo. His first step was to fire his cousin, saying he would be the only Yamauchi working there. After that, he fired all of the old managers, in an attempt to cut both the old ways, and those who might pine for them.
Nintendo became Nintendo Karuta – karuta means cards. Over the next two decades, as Japan’s economy rebounded, Yamauchi was there to collect as much newfound yen as he could. In 1953, Nintendo started to make cards of durable plastic instead of paper – paper went the way of mulberry bark. Six years later, a licensing deal to sell Walt Disney cards was a big success, and presaged more American successes.
Yet another name change turned Nintendo Karuta to Nintendo Company, Limited, showing young Yamauchi’s desire to move beyond just cards. He tried taxis. He tried instant rice. He tried “love hotels” – which are as embarrassing as urinal cakes to Americans but are a billion-dollar industry in Japan. He went public with Nintendo. No idea was too improbable to consider in the Japan of the ’60s
As with many family businesses, the business began to take precedence over the family. Hiroshi Yamauchi refused to see his disgraced father Shikanojo. After his father died, Hiroshi took a full day before deciding to even attend the funeral. His relationship with his mother, who didn’t raise him, was more like that of an aunt. He didn’t see his three children much: daughters Yoko, Fujiko, and young son (at last, another son!) Katsuhito were often scared of him the rare times he was home from the office.
Yamauchi finally found Nintendo’s niche when he realized that he had a robust distribution network set up for playing cards. It made Nintendo a perfect company to manufacture toys and games, since they could place them onto every shelf in the country.
Nintendo’s first hit toy was made in-house, accidentally, by a maintenance worker for a hanafuda conveyor belt. The maintenance worker, Gunpei Yokoi, had for a laugh built a telescoping device that he used to grab things from far away. Yamauchi loved the pitch (despite Yokoi not being aware he was pitching anything), and rushed it into production as the “Ultra Hand.” It sold 1.2 million units its first year, in 1970.
Gunpei Yokoi helped craft a variety of other toys during the ‘70s. His “Ten Billion Barrel” was a 3D marble maze. The Chiritory was a remote-control mini-vacuum, a precursor to the Roomba. Then--remember, this was the ‘70s--there was the “Love Tester” device. (Perhaps for use in one of Nintendo’s love hotels?) Nintendo even released an undistinguished Pong-clone home video game system, called Color TV Game 6. A 15-game edition followed, equally forgotten.
Nintendo had also been trying its hand with arcade games for a while. It found some success with 1974’s electromechanical hit Wild Gunman, a shooting game. Three years later, its first arcade video game, Computer Othello, never received distribution outside of Japan.
Its strength was in the home market, not the arcade. And technology was allowing for incredible devices to be made and sold affordably. Nintendo had the strong distribution channel to break into the video game market. All it needed was the right product.
After seeing a salaryman playing with an electronic calculator on a train one day, Gunpei Yokoi had the idea of making small electronic games that could run off of watch batteries. He learned about segment display, which let the pieces of an LCD 8, when lit up separately, represent all 10 digits. By designed a man with many hands, and only lighting up two at a time, segment display could animate a cartoon character for a game. What people were playing for 100 yen each on machines that weighed 500 pounds could be engineered to fit into a shirt pocket. It 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 left or right on side-mounted buttons to keep the ball in the air. Game A was played with two balls, which moved faster the longer you played. Game B was three balls. There were five games like this for the “Silver” collection, named after the shiny color of the game. Five more Gold games followed in 1981. None stayed on the shelves long. Nintendo was now officially a player in the video game business.
But success in Japan was one thing: Yamauchi wanted the world. He had wanted it ever since a mid-’50s trip to America, which stunned him with how big the global market for entertainment was, and how rinky-dink a player he was with his little only-in-Japan playing card business. His son Katsuhito was too young to take over an American division, despite being older than Yamauchi was himself when he took over the whole operation. But following the tried-and-tested plan B, he looked to a son-in-law. Eldest daughter Yoko’s husband, Minoru Arakawa, was a Kyoto son who had Western experience – he had moved Yoko to Canada for his hotel development job with the zaibatsu Marubeni.
Arakawa had turned down Nintendo jobs before, but Hiroshi was raised to be persistent. Arakawa ended up accepting the role as president of new subsidiary Nintendo of America. (He didn’t have to change his name to Yamauchi.) To help the son-in-law take command, he tried a radical (for him) new management idea: letting another person have some power. Whatever happened in America, good or bad, the credit or blame would be on Minoru Arakawa’s shoulders.
And now, the dramatic conclusion to the bonus chapters!
Mario’s World – Before Donkey Kong
Shigeru Miyamoto was born in 1952, in Sonobo, a small town in the Japanese prefecture of Kyoto. Kyoto is one of the biggest tourist destinations in Japan, and served as the Japanese capital for over a thousand years. It remains the cultural and intellectual capital of Japan, and receveid almost no damge during World War Ii because it was on the west coast, too far for most bomber runs. Harry Truman’s Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, reportedly saved Kyoto from a nuclear bomb when he removed it from a list of potentially nukable cities: he had gone there on his honeymoon. It is Japan’s San Francisco.
Without disrespect, the first video game and Miyamoto may have been conceived within days of each other. That first game, Nim, was programmed by the UK electronic company Ferrati as a way of showing off logic circuits. It was played on a computer called Nimrod, named after the Bible’s Nimrod the hunter. Nim was a classic logic game: the player and the computer took one or more pieces off the board, trying to force the opponent to be stuck with the final piece. (Nimrod could play a reverse version as well, where the goal was to be the last one to grab a stick.) Instead of a monitor, Nimrod displayed a grid of small lights: they tuned off as pieces were taken. Nimrod was shown off at 1951’s Festival of Britain, a World Fair-type affair to help boost the economy and morale of Post-WII Britain. Later, Nimrod went to Berlin, but not to Japan.
Miyamoto had an idyllic childhood, filled with solo expeditions around his rural home. One day he found a cave, returned with a lantern, explored a passage, and found it led to another cave. This was a big deal for any boy: cavers call it “new discovery,” which captured the pioneer feeling of stepping on untrod ground.
In 1958, when Miyamoto was six, a Long Island, N.Y. man with the astoundingly English name of William Higinbotham was charged with trying to impress an upcoming tour. He worked at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, which is the current home to a heavy ion collider trying to recreate the elements of the Big Bang.
Higinbotham gave them one 50 years early. He knew cathode ray tubes from wartime experience with radar, working at Los Alamos for the Manhattan Project. (Which would later spare Miyamoto’s hometown.) He saw a way to turn the five-inch circular oscilloscope, which resemble the wavy-line heartrate monitor in hospitals, into a fun demonstration of what a computer could do.
His brainstorm was to merely have the computer set up a field of play, not be an active participant. Three design elements would be displayed on the oscilloscope screen: a flat horizontal line, a thicker blue-white line running up perpendicular for a half-inch or so, and a curving smear of light that bounced around. The thin line was the ground, the thicker line was a net, and the orb of light was a ball. Tennis, anyone?
The game Tennis for Two was a hit with the tour: they eagerly lobbed the ball back and forth using Higinbotham’s custom wooden controllers. (This is 14 years before Pong, by the way.) For 1959’s expo, Higinbotham rounded up a larger cathode ray tube to play the game on. He also customized the speed of the bounce, claiming players could now play tennis on the moon (one-sixth Earth’s atmosphere) or on Jupiter (two-and-a-half times Earth’s).
Also in 1959, a Cambridge grad student named A.S. Douglas wanted to study how people responded to machines versus fellow people. He also had access to an Von Newman-style EDSAC computer, the size of a studio apartment. He programmed it to play Noughts and Oughts, which in America is called Tic Tac Toe. Not much is known of what his research into Noughts and Oughts wrought (sorry), but the game was soon forgotten. Computers were shared like university telescopes back then, and no one would sacrifice their precious time with it to snoop on someone else’s work.
For his tenth birthday, Miyamoto would have probably wanted either some art supplies for his production of comics, or some puppets. He was always a big fan of puppets. But a more appropriate gift for him would have been a long roll of paper with holes punched in it. That perforated roll contained over 200 hours worth of MIT grad-student labor on it. Identical rolls of paper could be found at most every college with a PDP-1 computer.
Take that paper, insert one end into the PDP-1’s punch card drive, wait while it slowly ate foot after foot of instructions, and you were rewarded with…Spacewar! Spacewar! looks remarkably like Asteroids, a game it predates by the better part of two decades. Players drove around one of two vector-rendered spacecraft, the Needle and the Wedge, and shot each other with missiles. Both fuel and missiles were commodities, and a player’s missiles could hit either party after being launched. A hyperspace button would warp a ship out of harm’s way, but its reentry point was random. The coup de grace? They were playing around a starfield, which sucked the ships in with its gravity.
Spacewar! was a multiplayer affair, in many ways. One early convert to the game added an astronomically correct starfield background, for instance. But it also was only a two-player game. It would have taken miles of paper to create an artificial intelligence opponent for something with so many variables (what direction to move, how fast, when to shoot, etc). The proper time to play Spacewar! was late at night when the rest of the world was asleep. That was also when the campus computer was available for free exploration.
It’s remarkable how many elements of what we consider sophisticated, balanced gameplay were featured in Spacewar! Head-to-head competition, multiple dangers, limitations to weapon systems, the opportunity for strategic plays, and best of all no luck for desperate people who start madly smashing buttons hoping that it will somehow translate into skilled performance. And since Spacewar! had to be programmed from scratch every time (if computers were expensive back then, memory was outlandish), it became popular to play different variants. Say, without the gravity field.
DEC, the company that made the PDP-1, started shipping a free demo copy of Spacewar! with every new unit sold, to both show off the processing power and as a sort of test pattern. If a new PDP-1 could run Spacewar!, then it probably didn’t need to be sent back to the factory. There was no licensing fee or copyright concerns: it was just a game, after all.
The hippie folk-rock of the 1960s brought music into Miyamoto’s world. He wasn’t starting any sort of trend by being a big Beatles fan, since young people around the world were tuning into the Fab Four. Fewer Japanese teens were probably spinning platters of the Nitty-Gritty Dirt band or the Lovin’ Spoonful, both Miyamoto favorites. He learned how to play guitar. He learned how to play banjo.
In 1970, Miyamoto enrolled at the Kanazawa College of Art, located a few miles north of Kyoto. Kanazawa, like Kyoto, was spared from Allied firebombing due to its location on the Sea of Japan. Its traditional architecture, long thin houses with a long hallway running from front to back, is still evident. The college was founded in 1946, in one of the few places in Japan (other than Kyoto) where art was still in evidence.
Miyamoto, betraying a downright American attitude toward higher learning, spent five years there, chasing an industrial design degree. Much of his time was spent on drawing, and he only went to some of his classes some of the time.
The Kanazawa region seems to have been lifted from a video game: steep sheer mountains line the sky to the east, and the sea of Japan borders the west. Two rivers, the Sai and Asano, add plenty of wetland areas. Certain parts of the town are brand new, other pre-war, and still others date back to the time of the daimyos. One section is college, next to it is a city, and next to that is a field. Everything as compartmentalized as a bento box.
In 1971, when Miyamoto was 19, the world’s first arcade video game made it to US arcades. Penny arcades had been around for going on a hundred years, filled with all the gimcracky devices still around but not requiring sophisticated technology: claw vending machines, fortune tellers, gumball dispensers, juke boxes, penny-pressers, Skee-Ball, electronic horse-racing, and above all pinball.
This first arcade video game, Computer Space, featured what’s considered standard for video games: a six-foot tall wooden cabinet, about five feet deep, with controls conveniently at waist level controlling action inside the cabinet at head level. This architecture had been used for decades on electromechanical games. Even the trick of having the action occur deep inside the cabinet, and reflected via a mirror at 45 degrees, creating the illusion of depth, was taken from EM games. They disappeared during the ‘70s, but their casing style lives on.
Computer Space was a Spacewar! variant. The biggest addition appeared to be that it was now a single-player game. Players dueled against a computer opponent, not their buddies. You didn’t need a friend for a game anymore, just a quarter. (Which was a lot of money, with gas about $0.35 a gallon in 1971.)
Computer Space was a flop, though. With so many buttons, so many options, and it being the first video game anyone had encountered, it had a prohibitively steep learning curve. Single-player arcade games would take a few more years to gain interest.
But sports simulations were easily understood. Pong came first, made by the same people (Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney) who ported Computer Space into arcades. It spawned legions of copycats, both copying the discreet circuitry of the cabinet’s solid-state electronics and the idea of translating a sport into a video game. Tennis games followed ping-pong, and volleyball after that. All the games played pretty similarly: smack the ball back and forth.
As the hardware involved got better, and programmers learned how to add detail, the games grew more distinct than bouncing a ball back and forth. Baseball, hockey, and football games changed from abstract performance art to games that, if you squinted hard, might pass for an actual game.
In 1973 (Miyamoto was 21) the first truly original video game came out, a safecracking game. In case you needed a reminder it came out in 1973 in America, it had the topical name of Watergate Caper. Mario wasn’t the first video game plumber.
Video games, over the next couple of years, were a distinctly American enterprise. Nolan Bushnell’s company, Atari, had become the darling of the industry. So many people were “stealing” Atari’s games that it made its own rival, Kee Games. Kee release games into arcades that Atari couldn’t reach, due to exclusive contracts with certain arcade vendors.
But there was a strong Japanese interest in the games: most of the big Japanese gaming companies started around the same time as Atari. (Which, presciently, was named after a maneuver in the ancient Japanese board game of Go.) Namco (Pac-Man), originally a rocking horse manufacturer, started in 1972. Konami (Frogger) started off in 1973 as a jukebox repair firm. That same year, Bomberman developer Hudson Soft (named after the Hudson locomotive) started, as a telecommunications company. And Taito (Space Invaders) started as a fellow trading card company way back in 1953.
Many started off merely servicing the games being exported from America. As they learned, they began to duplicate the guts of cabinets, making their own nonlicensed games. If you wanted a Pong-style game, and you had the parts, why not build it yourself and keep the profits? You paid for the chocolate chips, not for the rights to use a cookie recipe. Right?
Atari got into legal trouble first, since its Pong was demonstrably copied from the first home video game system, 1972’s Magnavox Odyssey. But it settled by paying Magnavox a small sum to license chip-based video games. This was a business masterstroke, for both companies. Magnavox went on to rake on what has been estimated to be over $100 million from every game-maker in the world, until everyone switched to cartridge-based games. And Atari, license in hand, went on to sue many other copycat game-maker, saying, with a straight face, that they were trying to steal its original creation Pong.
What this all meant for Japan was that the slow corporatization of video games was only under US law. (Atari gave up on Japan early, selling off its Japanese division to Namco in 1974.) Games were fast becoming a regular product to be highlighted at trade shows, wheeled into arcades, and maintained like vending machines dispensing entertainment instead of soda or snacks. Japan certainly wasn’t an anticorporate place, but its atmosphere was more inviting of the creativity and freedom to occasionally try something new.
Taito adapted one of its electromechanical games, the starship shooter Space Monsters, into the smash hit Space Invaders. It became Japan’s first huge hit game, a game to export instead of import. To complete the cycle, American programmers started to make knockoffs like Galaga, to cash in on the Japanese hit.
In Tokyo, designer Tōru Iwatani was tasked with coming up with original games for Namco. He started with a bouncing-ball game called Gee Bee, very similar to Atari’s Breakout. (It was hard to include on-screen variety and originality with the solid-state electronics of the day: the creativity came from how one could make a bouncing-ball game with 75 chips, instead of 100.)
Despite both its own Gee Bee game (and eventual sequels) and Atari’s own Breakout, Namco couldn’t keep up with the Japanese demand for arcade games. The demand was filled by, of all people, the yakuza, who soldered together ersatz bouncing ball games and filled every noodle shop, shopping center, and arcade with them. (It’s hard to imagine organized crime in any other countries manufacturing anything.)
In a Japanese-Italian-American culture exchange parallel to Miyamoto’s, Iwatani was inspired by a pizza pie to create a new video game. With two slices gone, the pizza looked like an open-mouthed circle ready to eat something itself. Using the Japanese nonsense phrase paku-paku (for rapid opening and closing of one’s mouth) as a name, he decided on the thematic name Pac-Man. (Originally he chose Puck-Man, but US distributors balked at a name so easily graffitiable into a pornography.)
Pac-Man was a maze game, with devious ghosts in hot pursuit of “Paccy” as he raced and chased around a board full of dots, power pellets, and bonus fruit. Previous games had little personality for gamers to empathize with: it’s hard to anthropomorphize a Pong paddle or a blurry dot. Pac-Man was an easily identifiable character, energetic and brave and bright neon yellow. He was gaming’s first superstar.
Yet its first year, 1980, Pac-Man wasn’t a big hit in Japan. Space shooters were still the rage over there. But American audiences – and women especially – loved it. Japanese audiences soon grew to love Paccy as well. He gained his own disco album, cartoon show, lunch box, breakfast cereal. He quickly became a mascot, a brand, a symbol.
After graduating, Miyamoto got a job via a friend of his father’s, who thought Miyaomot’s interest in puppets might translate into a decent toy or two. That friend, Hiroshi Yamauchi, put Miyamoto to work in 1977 at Nintendo as a staff artist, designing toys. He also helped etch some of the cabinet art for Nintendo’s burgeoning arcade games. The design of the games themselves was being subcontracted out to Ikegami Tsuhinki, a Japanese electronics firm.
The stage was set in 1981. A decade of arcade-goers had plunked quarters into Pong, then Breakout, then Space Invaders, then Asteroids, then Pac-Man. There was bound to be another hit game, something that built upon what had come before. What would be that next fad, the next machine to separate the world from a few metric tons of its quarters and hundred-yen pieces?
That’s it! Thanks for reading! Hope you’ll end up like 300 more pages of the same!