BOOK REVIEW / All you ever wanted to know about Nintendo: 'Game Over' - David Sheff: Hodder, 19.99

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The Independent Culture
THIS IS the long, complicated, sometimes fascinating and sometimes quite dull story of how the electronics company Nintendo became the largest video-game manufacturer in the world. The book would have been better at half the length. At a quarter of the length, it might even have been brilliant.

But this is a business book on the epic scale. You'll read not just about Howard Lincoln, the attorney involved in a legal wrangle between Nintendo and MCA over the ownership of the film character King Kong, but about how Howard Lincoln's father was hard of hearing, and how his mother had good dress sense. You'll read about the views enjoyed by Minoru Arakawa from his Vancouver home before he joined Nintendo's New York office. You'll read about how Sigeru Miyamoto, creator of 'Super Mario Bros', 'had once climbed a tree and gotten high enough to see far-off mountains before he realised that he was stuck'. Is this incident the key to his brilliant game-designs? I doubt it.

David Sheff has certainly done his research - quite a lot of the time, though, you wish he hadn't. You wish he'd just told the compelling story of the rise of video games, of how they work by getting kids addicted, how the addiction is fuelled because the games create alternate waves of desperation and boredom, and how this ethos of designed obsolescence is capitalism at its most frightening. All this material is here, and it's great when you get to it, but it is like a story in slow motion.

Sheff takes you back to 19th-century Kyoto to tell you about the history of the Nintendo company, which started off selling playing cards, and quite a lot about its owners, the Yamauchis. Too much, in fact. Pretty soon, your mind is drifting away from thinking about games, and being distracted by things like: 'Arrogant and impudent, Hiroshi discarded his grandparents as he grew into a balefully handsome and debonair gentleman who carried his small body with conceited sturdiness, his head jutting forward.'

A few pages later, Hiroshi Yamauchi, now in charge of Nintendo, meets Gunpei Yokoi, who wants to design products. It is 1969. Yokoi is a 'short, solid, and unpretentious man'. He designs the 'Ultra Hand', a wooden contraption for picking things up. The thing about the Ultra Hand is that it is a bit silly. Yamauchi likes it. So he lets his short, solid, unpretentious employee design some other things: the Ultra Machine, a baseball game, the Ultra Scope, a periscope, and the Love Tester, a meter to read the heat generated when people hold hands.

Then another designer, Masayuki Uemura, joins the company. This man, 'with thick, wiry hair pushed to one side and an irrepressible ear- to-ear grin', realising that Japan is full of disused bowling alleys, designs some laser-gun games that can be played in these alleys. By 1974, Nintendo has a game called 'Wild Gunman', in which the competitor shoots at the image of a maniac projected on to a screen. In 1977 comes 'Color TV Game 6', the first real video game - tennis played by 'hitting' a ball of light across a TV screen. Remember that? And then comes the rash of arcade games - 'Sky Skipper', 'Hellfire', 'Sheriff' and 'Radarscope' - based on killing things that are coming towards you. And then, in 1981, Miyamoto designs 'Donkey Kong', a game in which a gorilla kidnaps the girlfriend of a short, squat character called Mario.

And then? Sheff has only just begun. There are endless court battles over copyright, niggles with distributors, changes of circuitry in several batches of hardware; there's stuff on the difference between Japanese and American workers

(Americans are lazier); there are moments when Yamauchi and Arakawa have terrible rows over how many units to import into America. But in the end, we know the story: these games sell. They sell better than anything else in the world, bar food, drink, and addictive drugs. Why? I want to know. This book isn't bad; it's mostly about what happens around the periphery of an amazing discovery. Why not get right to the heart of it?

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