SPP: First of all I just wanted to say for me and Jon and all of the fellow millennials out there you are my hero because you wrote an entire book about Nintendo and ended up making it really interesting. I have to just first ask how did this come about and how were you able to sell this idea to a publisher?
Jeff: Well how it came about was I’m a former video game reviewer. I’ve reviewed about 500 of them for a Web site that’s no longer in business called Katrillion. I started off as a copyeditor there but I was coming in at 8:30 and there wasn’t really any editing for me to do until noon, so I was twiddling my thumbs. I asked my editor if there’s anything I could do writing wise in the meanwhile. She gave me a Pokemon Press Release to write up. And I did. And I’m not expecting to win a Pulitzer Price for this but she gets right on the phone and tells the gaming freelancer who did the reviews that we’ve just hired a gaming expert. I’m like uh-uh that’s me right.
So in the Pirelli Morning Times I started to read as much as possible about the history of video games. I wasn’t playing them and I wasn’t trying to learn how to make them, but I was trying to figure out what made them popular? What made them what they are now in our culture? Because they weren’t even here 40 years ago or 30 years ago even. I realized that you can tell the whole history of video games more or less; less 30 years at least by the actions of Nintendo. And you can tell all of the actions of Nintendo just by the actions of their video game Hero Mario. So I had the main character of my book he just happened to be a fictional plumber.
SPP: Jeff I want to take a step back real quick. You mentioned that you worked for Katrillion. Can you tell us how you got involved in that and how that came about?
Jeff: Katrillion was a Web site for teenagers. The way Katrillion its business model worked was it published material on America’s Online Teams page. So if you log into America Online and you said you were a teen, you went to a specialized home page with specialized content populated there. And we were one of the vendors that were putting stuff in front of these teenager’s eyeballs. And we quickly figured out that there’s this demographical lie about it. Like do you ever hear that MTV is supposed to be for college age kids but it’s actually watched by middle schoolers like they’re trying to make it seem like everyone 21 to 25 is watching. But the people that are rally watching are 12 year olds.
And the same thing was happening with Katrillion because it was a Web site for teenagers no teenagers wanted to read it. However, tweens the people eight to 12 they all wanted to read it. And their moms were reading it also. So we had a bunch of 40- year-old women and we had a bunch of 8-year-old girls reading the Web site for teenagers, and exclusively for teenagers. Regardless of people who were looking at the site they were all going there via AOL Teen’s Channel. And AOL hit a rough spot around 2002-2003 which meant that all the other vendors that w were paying them for these premium posting positions there were any premium posting positions anymore because they weren’t delivering the traffic so the site closed down. And I moved onto other things but I kept that idea that you could tell the whole history of video games coherently without jumping around having new characters and new companies show up every single chapter.
Jeff: That’s what I tried to do with Mario.
SPP: Yes and I do want to get into your book which just came out called “Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America”. Along the lines of that book I did want to get back to the question, did you approach a publisher or did you have somebody in mind or did you just say “Look, I know a lot about video games, Nintendo is incredible, I want to write a book about it?”
Jeff: I had originally been working on another book about video games, which would be more of a coffee table book. But there’s a whole parallel publishing world for coffee table books where basically the publisher go up to the author and say “Hey we want to make a book about Elvis you’re an Elvis expert so write the book.” It’s not that the Elvis expert goes to the book publisher and says “Hey I read a book about Elvis.” It’s just not the way it works.
SPP: Okay. Yes I didn’t know how all that worked actually so that’s good.
Jeff: Yes. I don’t know if this is going to be interesting or if it will be cut, but they’re called book packagers instead of book publishers. And one unusual thing about them is that the books aren’t returnable. So if you order a 100 Dean Coon’s books and sell like 20 of them the other 80 gets sent back to the publisher and Barnes & Noble doesn’t need to pay for it.
SPP: No that actually is interesting honestly, because aside from learning about the topic at hand, really I just am interested because I’ve never written a book, but obviously would like to. So these are the things we pick up along the way.
Jeff: I think if you have the right idea and went to the right book packager with the idea and said that you can secure all the image rights and it would take you only three months and you’d be fine with getting $10,000 dollars for it, then they might be able to play ball if you can convince them, but they’re normally the ones who come up with a business plan instead of you.
Anyways because they can’t return books if Barnes & Noble buys 80 copies they’re stuck with 80 copies some of them, which is why they only order like four copies. And if they only sell three the last one or two goes on their remainder shelf. Which is why if you look at the Barnes & Noble remainder shelves it’s filled with these big beautiful gorgeous full color illustrated. Those are all the book packager books.
SPP: How did you go about researching for this book? I mean I know you must love video games from doing all the video game reviews, but how did you decide specifically on Nintendo and then move forward and get all the information that you were able to get for the book?
Jeff: Well picking Nintendo seemed like kind of an easy choice because it’s the company that’s been around the longest. If you write something about Sega the story just kind of ends around 2001 because that’s when Sega stopped making hardware. If you tell a story about Microsoft, Microsoft wasn’t around until 2001 as a console maker. So Nintendo has been there the whole time. And I decided I wanted to read as much as possible and make as many notes as possible before I approach Nintendo for what was going to be a series of interviews with all of the different key business and creative executives.
One of the main sources is a book called “Game Over” by Dave Sheff which came out in ’93 or ’94, and Nintendo actually sued Random House the publishers because it had Mario on the cover and there was intellectual property. So there’s a new cover that came out that’s just a kid looking at a TV and there’s no Mario on it.
SPP: But doesn’t your book have Mario on the cover?
Jeff: Ah yes, but if you look very closely Mario’s wearing gloves and he’s designed like the small Mario from the beginning of Super Mario Brothers. And that Super Mario in the beginning of Super Mario Brothers doesn’t wear gloves therefore our Mario is an original art creation and not the Nintendo one.
SPP: Now way. Wow!
Jeff: That’s enough to change it.
SPP: That’s amazing.
Jeff: So what you’re looking at is an original interpretation of Mario instead of a classic.
SPP: I like it. Well I guess, let’s see I have two things here, but I’ll go with you chose Super Mario as you mentioned and he is a plumber. And it is fantastic and you draw the parallels really well. I was talking to somebody last night about this interview that we had coming up and I said “If you would have told somebody before Super Mario came out that you were going to do a video game about a fat plumber who runs around hitting his head on boxes of coins and eating mushrooms”, somebody would say you’re probably in the middle of an acid trip.
SPP: But it ended up being such a fantastic game. And I know you go into that in your book. Could you explain to us why that is?
Jeff: Well Mario isn’t really about a plumber jumping on turtles and living fungus and jumping through giant green pipes, because that’s what the Super Mario Brothers Movie turned out to be. And the sequel to Super Mario Brothers Movie is pretty terrible, but what Mario was really about is exploration. Mario was simply an Avatar. He’s there because we can’t be there in person.
So when Mario moved we moved. It’s really no difference than when you’re driving a car and you kind of expand your body to fit in the car so that if someone hits your car you say “Hey someone hit me”, instead of saying “Hey someone hit my car.” You’re extending what you think of you to be the whole vehicle and when you bring Mario you’re extending what you think of as you it could be Mario.
SPP: I get it. It’s actually funny with Mario too, because I mean you bring up the fact in Super Mario Brothers III that you don’t have to go to every level to get to the boss. I mean we’re going to get kind of dorky here but this is why I really wanted to talk to you.
Jeff: Yes dork it up.
SPP: I mean there’s plenty of YouTube videos out there where you see people that beat those games in 20, 30 minutes or less. Jeff: Yes the speed runs.
SPP: All these speed runs, but I remember as a kid Super Mario Brothers III was next to impossible to beat the entire thing by going to every single board. So I understand what you’re talking about with the Avatar thing because you go through and you explore. You got so many hours of enjoyment out of it, whereas the game really only takes 15 minutes to beat if you do it right.
Jeff: Right. First I have to say that Super Mario Brothers III is not just my favorite Mario game but my all time favorite video game.
SPP: Oh it’s the greatest game ever made.
SPP: And Nintendo did the best thing when they pretty much had an hour and a half commercial in “The Wizard” with the power glove. Jeff: You may be one of the few people that appreciate that movie.
SPP: Oh absolutely. I mean it was purely a Nintendo commercial. It was great.
Jeff: Yes. And the people that financed that movie Universal were the same people who about a decade earlier had sued Nintendo because they said that Donkey Kong was too similar to King Kong.
SPP: Oh wow I had no idea.
Jeff: Yes. So within 10 years Universal went from suing this little upstart with a bunch of money that it thought it could knock over to saying “Hey how about if we make an hour and a half long commercial because we think enough people will watch it and pay money for it that we can kind of post off of your wake.
SPP: Let’s go back to the beginning because you dedicate a good portion of your book to Nintendo’s creators, the management, and the genius that they were, that they portrayed. Can you explain to us what these masterminds did that was so incredible?
Jeff: Well the first real incredible thing was I think what Shigeru Miyamoto made. Shigeru Miyamoto was the man who designed Super Mario Brothers and Donkey Kong, and a whole bunch of other Nintendo games. And he was not a video game designer. He was working at Nintendo but he was an industrial engineer, meaning he was making the casings and the hardware that some of their profits went into. And I think he was painting some of the cabinets.
So he wasn’t the creative type he was more of the fix it guy. And they had a real problem that needed fixing because they had made this Space Invaders knockoff called Radar Scope. And they took a big bet and made 3000 copies of it and shipped all of these arcade cabinets to America and they couldn’t sell them. So instead of moving onto the next game they had spent all this money, had all this inventory they didn’t know what to do with it.
Or the really creative thing was deciding to take out the game, keep the cabinet, and make a new game that would use the same architecture so that you could just slam in a new motherboard and hook up the wires and you had a new game ready to go. And all of the other Nintendo game designers were busy. They had their scheduled game releases and their scheduled work to do.
So there was a contest at Nintendo to see who could come up with the best idea. And Shigeru Miyamoto came up with like a dozen ideas. So they picked up one of them and went with it. That idea was Popeye, but the Popeye idea while it was solid it didn’t work because Nintendo didn’t eventually have the licensing rights. They did get them and there is a Popeye game that came out that plays kind of similar to Donkey Kong. That’s not for another year or two.
So they took the idea of a Popeye game and they just did what’s called a Sprite Swap in the video games. So the Popeye character was taken out and was replaced with what we know of now as Mario. The Bluto character was taken out and replaced with Donkey Kong because he’s much, much bigger than Mario. And Olive Oil was taken out and it was replaced by the heroine of Donkey Kong whose name is Pauline; everyone tends to forget about her because of Princess Toadstool stealing all the glory.
SPP: So that was Mario’s official debut in video games.
Jeff: Yes and he was originally just called jump man. They didn’t even bother giving him a name because the idea that he was going to be an Avatar was so prevalent that they didn’t want to give him – if he had a regular name he was a regular guy, therefore he was someone. They didn’t want him to be someone he could just be this blob.
When the Nintendo had a series of handheld games called Game and Watch that came out, and there’s this character in there who’s just kind of like an oil flick, like a walking oil flick. His name is Mr. Game and Watch. And they were trying for that sort of super generic field for Mario as well. But they ended up making him look rather specific he kind of looks like how Shigeru Miyamoto looked. He had wild crazy black hair. He’s wearing a hat just because they couldn’t do hair that well.
He has a mustache on because once again the graphics were so bad that they couldn’t show a mouth without stressing the system too much. So it was easier to show a mustache which suggests a mouth there without having to draw a mouth. Then they did overalls just because it was easier to make that than a shirt and pants because you could keep one color going and just put one dot in for a button, and hey its overalls.
SPP: I actually think I had one of those watches. I think it was one of the gold versions and it was a Donkey Kong version. I used to remember playing that thing all the time. But how many games would you estimate now that Mario has actually appeared in?
Jeff: Mario has appeared in over 200 games now and sometimes he’s the star and sometimes he’s one of the Mario cast. Sometimes he’s just there as a cameo like he shows up in XXX Tricky one of the snowboarding games. And I was trying to make a Facebook of how many of these Mario games have you played, but Facebook limits you to only 100 questions. So I got at the end and I hadn’t put nearly all the Mario games in there. I hadn’t even put like some of my favorite ones. So when someone actually emailed me complaining that Super Smash Brawl wasn’t on there. I was like I know it was a great game but I ran out.
SPP: I guess that’s an answer to this question I had but I want to go in more, the subtitle How Nintendo Conquered America? And you give a statistic in your book. I don’t remember the exact one but you talk about how many copies Super Mario sold versus like Halo, and I don’t know a bunch of other crazy games, and it literally blows my mind. I cannot understand how it’s destroyed any other game basically. So is that what you talk about when you talk about conquering America, and if not what do you mean by that?
Jeff: That’s one of the things that I was referring to. Another thing is the prevalence of video games and culture. Going back 30 years ago video games were something that you would visit in an arcade and maybe save up some money for a couple of days and drop your allowance playing video games. Then you would go home and do homework or watch TV or play board games.
As Nintendo came in they brought the video game home and then they were able to bring it on the road when they made the Game Boy. And they were able to make it a social activity because they had two controllers instead of one. Most of the gaming innovations where games are more prevalent in our lives were because of Nintendo.
They were one of the big leaders behind the casual game movement, which has been a huge success for the DS and the Wii taking people that aren’t normally considered video game players and saying “Hey you’re still able to buy our products, buy our software and still play games. You don’t need to be shooting people and saving the world you can just play Big Brain Academy and that’s okay. You can just play Wii Fit. We don’t think you’re a lesser person if you don’t want to play Metal Gear.”
SPP: You brought up the Wii there and the Wii actually was leading the console wars for a wild. I guess at a certain point the market really got saturated where all of the old people and really young people who wanted to get into casual games were able to do so and bought their Wii and there were really no more market for it. What do you think or why do you think or why do you think Nintendo kind of does this where they sit back on their success.
They did the same with Super Mario when Sonic first came out and then they did the same thing with the N64 and the PlayStation and Sega Saturn came out. And now we have the same thing with the Nintendo Wii where Microsoft and Sony have really leapfrogged them. They kind of sat back for a little bit and then announced the new Wii U coming out. But is it a cultural thing or is it something that’s their business practice of why they kind of just ride the coattails of success for a little bit and don’t really worry about their competitors until they truly start losing in the race.
Jeff: Yes I think it’s another form of classical leadership where you’re not really paying attention to what other people are doing. You have your own five year plan, your 10 year plan, and you’re going to keep at this regardless of the fact that six months ago someone came up with a fantastic video game idea and now five people are copying it and they’re all making tens of millions of dollars, you will not copy them you will keep on doing what you’re doing even though no one seems to want to buy it, because deep down inside you think that this is going to work. And that gut instinct has been write in the last 18 times in a row so you’re going to follow that instead of any other more reasonable way of following the marketplace.
SPP: Got you. And I kind of saw that with the Nintendo 3DS where they released it at $250 dollars didn’t sell that well and they’ve already lowered it down to around the $170, but it seems like they’re set on this thing becoming a success, especially in the United States.
Jeff: Yes they really needed to be a success because their biggest competitor right now was in Microsoft and it’s not PlayStation its Apple. Apple was just someone did a value fluctuation and figured out that Apple is now the richest company in America or the richest company in the world, I think it beat out an oil company.
One of the ways Apple has made money is by its app store where it sells a whole bunch of games incredibly cheaply, and for the last 30 years Nintendo has been selling games for about $40, $50 dollars a pop. And Microsoft and Sony and Sega and various other people came and say “Hey we’re making better games at $40, $50 dollars a pop.”
And Nintendo was able to compete with them by saying “Hey our quality is different, our quality is better, we’re making different style games”. But everyone agreed on the price point. And what Apple was doing is changing the price point so all of a sudden people started thinking well how can I buy a Mario game that’s $40, $50 dollars. I can just get Angry Birds, what is that $5 dollars? And that is I think the biggest threat Nintendo has seen maybe ever the fact that the way it’s pricing things to succeed. It normally prices things a little higher than they should be and it cost them a lot less to make it than you would think. And this is pulling the rug out from 30 years of video game dominance.
SPP: Do you think that Nintendo can succeed with this price war I guess? Because when you look at the games that are produced for a $1 dollar or $5 dollars on the app store it takes way less of a budget and way less man hours than those games that Nintendo puts together. I mean some Nintendo games take years and hundreds of people to complete. Do you see Nintendo having to drop the price of their casual games and then they’ll just make their Triple A titles $40 or $50 bucks? What do you see them doing to compete?
Jeff: I don’t think they’re going to be dropping the price. I think that’s giving up the king instead of sacrificing any foot soldiers. That’s their main bread and butter. I mean they always have the backup plan of making video games for Sega and Sony and Nintendo. Oh I said Sega they’re not making games at Sega anymore. I’m thinking about the whole history of Nintendo and I forgot that Sega wasn’t around making consoles.
SPP: I always wanted to see a Nintendo game on the Dreamcast but never happened. Jeff: Now you can see a Sonic game on the Wii.
SPP: Yes absolutely.
Jeff: But I think that they would sooner take Mario and put him in a PlayStation 3 game than they would drop the price so dramatically to start competing with Apple. Because they lose too much revenue and they’d reset what people consider the price of a game.
SPP: Well I wanted to, because while we have you on the podcast I just got to say, I am still the biggest fan. My favorite games ever were, well my favorite game ever was Baseball Stars. It bothers me that no game console since then has been able to make a good baseball game, there hasn’t been one. I don’t understand why it’s so hard. Then there’s games like Contra and Bubble Bobble, which will always be classics, and I feel like nothing will ever match it. Is that just me being nostalgic or is that really something to those games that Nintendo figured out?
Jeff: It was definitely something to game play that was peculiar to the 1980s. If you just take like random samplings of a dozen Atari 2600 games you don’t have two that would fit into the same box nowadays, but if take a dozen PlayStation 3 games you can put almost all of them in the same box.
They’re third person, you understand what you’re doing, you’re moving around. It’s like a collection/shooting game. That’s what almost all games are all third person games. Because the graphics weren’t around to support something like that they needed to come up with more stronger game play in the 2600 games. And Nintendo did the same thing with the NES. With the SNES you started to see like a homogenization of the type of games that you are playing, for the most part there are still innovations like Starfox.
And then the N64 opened up the whole new world of having a 3D game to explore with Mario 64 and then the first Nelda game. But since then things have gotten kind of stale and that’s I think one of the reasons why the Wii was so successful because it brought back new ways of thinking about games. If you try to play a classic five scroller like Castlevania using the Wii it’s kind of pointless because maybe you can shake the controllers a little bit but you don’t have the motion control like you would. But if you’re actually swinging a sword, or in Castlevania’s case swinging a whip, then you’re doing something you haven’t done in your other Castlevania games. It’s changing the style of the game. Now it’s actually a whip game. And the other Castlevania games you’re using a whip but you’re not thinking in terms of whip physics you’re just thinking in terms of reach.
SPP: I do have say to I’m a Wii apologist. I bought a Wii when it came out. I enjoyed it. There was a couple of gimmicky games that the Wii Sports was great. I liked waving a controller around just to show my family and friends and stuff. But the greatest thing that they did was put the virtual console on there where you could download all the old Nintendo games and go out and get one of the old Nintendo style pads. And I found myself using that, basically as a Nintendo emulator and taking more of my time than say Halo or Fallout or any of those games that took 50 or 60 hours just to beat. Where I could sit down with this game and runaround with Mario for an hour or two and be perfectly content.
Jeff: Right. Do you think about the hundreds and thousands and millions of man hours that went into making something like Fallout 3 and then you load up Bubble Bobble and go I’d rather just play Bubble Bobble. Everybody should that’s the best game.
SPP: I know and that’s the beauty of it. But I know we’re getting to the end to the time here. But I really wanted to ask you what do you think the future of gaming in general is, not just for Nintendo but where are we going? I’d like to get excited about what I can look forward to.
Jeff: Right before the Wii U came out there’s all sorts of rumors about what the next Wii was going to be. The Wiiquel they were calling it. And I had what I thought was a full proof ironclad guarantee of what this was going to be. It was going to be a hologram projector. I came up with all of these different game play options you could do based on the idea that you had a little thing that kind of look like a telephone sitting on your coffee table. And it could shoot up light and you wouldn’t be able to touch the light but if you put your finger in it would react.
So let’s say you have a target and you put your finger in it and it breaks the target. But the target is moving so you need to be fast enough to hit all the different targets. You can come up with a huge variety of game play using holograms. And Nintendo has shown holograms in use at certain tradeshows so I know they’re working on this technology. It’s obviously not ready and Nintendo is a habitually cheap company so they’re not going to release something unless they can release it relatively cheaply. So it’s around now which will cost a $1000 dollars it’s basically not ready yet.
SPP: I want that. I want that so bad.
Jeff: It’ll cost $250.
Jeff: But if you think of something like Super Mario Galaxy and how Mario could run around a 3D structure like a whole little mini planet. Imagine having the mini planet float in your living room and you having to walk all around 360° degrees to see Mario as he’s going around and having to physically push objects out of his way so he could jump on things. Maybe he could even jump in your hand and then you could move him around. There’s a whole world of game play that a hologram will offer.
SPP: That sounds absolutely amazing. And if it’s not another Virtual Boy I’ll be completely fine with it.
Jeff: I had a Virtual Boy for maybe two days.
SPP: Oh wow!
Jeff: Then I wanted to show it to someone and they tripped on the cord and fell down I heard just the tiniest little tinkle. And that was the end of the Virtual Boy.
SPP: It probably saved you from migraines and headaches and bad eyesight though so don’t worry.
Jeff: Yes and playing Mario Clash.
SPP: Yes. I had one more quick question. I wanted to get your top I don’t know three Nintendo games, if it’s too hard don’t worry about it but if you’ve got them at the tip of your tongue let’s go for it.
Jeff: I started to play during the NES years so I’m a stalwart of the NES and I said Super Mario 3 was my favorite all time video game so it has to stay Number 1. The original Dragon Warrior I’ve played through multiple times. It’s so much fun it started the whole Japanese RPG idea, but it kind of lead to a “Nintendo Power” because it was given away for free in the “Shonen Jump” ad in Japan.
And that became so popular that Nintendo realized that you’d make a whole magazine about video games just to stoke people’s interest in upcoming titles and that began “Nintendo Power”, which was sent out for free to everyone. And if I had to pick one more game I think I’d have to go with the Original Legend of Zelda because it’s a little bit of everything. It’s an action game, it’s an adventure game, it’s a mystery, it’s a romance, and it’s an epic.
SPP: Zelda was so hard. Like just thinking about Zelda I get pissed off. I just do. But anyways Jeff, again thank you so much for your time. Your book “Super Mario how Nintendo conquered America” is awesome. It’s a must read for anyone who’s ever picked up a joystick or a game of any kind because it is like a true patriotic book in my opinion.
Jeff: The nature gamers.
SPP: Yes exactly. Is there anywhere else you’d like to kind of guide our listeners? Do you have a Web site or do you blog, do you write often? All that good stuff.
Jeff: Yes I actually blog every day www.supermariobook.com just stuff about Mario and I send Twitter things out @DailyMario. So the one best Mario thing a day I write up on all the others I throw on Daily Mario.
SPP: That’s awesome. Again thank you so much. This was so much fun to do. And best of luck with the book. I hope it’s the bestseller.
Jeff: Thank you Chris and Jon.