Worth Reading: Erik Voskuil's "Before Mario"

A brief look into a book that beautifully chronicles the pre-NES history of Nintendo.

Review by Jeremy Parish, .

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak to Nintendo Entertainment System designer Masayuki Uemura about the system's creation. The NES was the point at which Nintendo went from "minor arcade manufacturer" to "major force in the games industry," but its development didn't happen in a vacuum.

The console's birth drew upon years of Nintendo's history, from its earliest game systems, to arcade smash Donkey Kong, to the popular Game & Watch handhelds. Nevertheless, for most gamers, Nintendo's history begins with the NES—and for Nintendo, too, which has yet to make its early arcade titles available on Virtual Console and only occasionally drops oblique references to pre-NES creations as context-free Easter eggs. But since gaining a better sense of just how much the NES owed to the company's early works, I've been eager to learn more about this obscure corner of video game history.

Thankfully, a fellow by the name of Erik Voskuil has taken up the task of documenting Nintendo's history in the Before Mario blog, tracking down toys made by Nintendo from the mid-’60s through the launch of the Japanese NES (the Famicom) in 1983. Voskuil reworked the blog into a hardcover book late last year through publisher Omaké Books. Being a European production, it's been a little hard to come by in the U.S., but now that I've taken the plunge I can definitely say it's worth the trouble to find.

Titled simple Before Mario, the book essentially reproduces the content of the blog. It's not a one-to-one relationship, however; the two versions of the material complement one another. The book offers the physicality of a nicely printed hardcover, but its bilingual French/English text means there's less space for detailed writing. You can compare the page below on remote control racer Lefty RX to the equivalent page on the blog.

The online edition features a far more elaborate explanation of the toy, whereas the print version pares the information down to its basics. On the other hand, the print edition features gorgeous high-resolution photography and a crisp reproduction of the toy's instruction sheet, offering far more detail and presence to the same images versus the way they appear online.

The book also features the clean, attractive layouts you'd expect from European designers. It's broken into five primary chapters, each of which chronicles a different toy catalog in release order; the fifth chapter, Home Consoles, fitting concludes the book with several spreads of Famicom hardware, software, and packaging.

Before Mario paints a fantastic picture of the sheer diversity and breadth of Nintendo's toy business before the Famicom cemented their fortunes as a console manufacturer and software developer. From simple electromechanical amusements to their very own Lego knock-off, from wildly inventive to slavishly derivative, Nintendo's creations were all over the place. Before Mario chronicles more than 50 of these products with concise descriptions and gorgeous photography.

The book also includes some great extras, including a gallery of company and product logos, a timeline of the company, and—most impressively—a foreward by Satoru Okada, who worked closely with legendary designer Gunpei Yokoi on Nintendo's portable systems and games. Okada directed handheld classics like Super Mario Land and Metroid II, and he led the development of the Nintendo DS (which, like the NES, drew heavily on the Game & Watch for inspiration), making him uniquely suited to offer perspective on the products chronicled within this volume.

Information about Nintendo's pre-NES works can be hard to come by, and those products are only growing more difficult to find. The obscurity of the material covered in Before Mario is precisely what makes both the blog and the book such valuable resources. Plus, the informative text and gorgeous photography make a pleasure to read. While it can be a little tough to track down—not unlike the material covered within—it's worth the effort for anyone with a serious interest in video game history.

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Comments 7

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  • Avatar for schweinebrot #1 schweinebrot 3 years ago
    The pix'n'love books are all great (the best ones are the history of Nintendo 1 and 2), but I had some difficulties with their delivery. The first arrived belatedly only after an inquiry and of the second and third one only the third one arrived after several emails without any answer... And I live in Germany, not the USA. I am somehow reluctant to ever buy from their site again.

    Anyway, Jeremy, have you read the book Koji Kondos SMB Soundtrack (33 1/3)? If you somehow did not, you should, your cited several times. :-) Actually, anyone with an interest in SMB should...
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #2 jeremy.parish 3 years ago
    @schweinebrot Nope, that one's on my list to pick up sometime, though!

    Also, I snagged this through Amazon (one of the last copies they had), so I didn't have any delivery issues. My direct orders in the past from Pix'N Love arrived without incident, though.
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #3 VotesForCows 3 years ago
    I love dual text books, it's always an added bonus (though German is my other language). Looks like a beautifully designed book.
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  • Avatar for Marcusen #4 Marcusen 3 years ago
    I bought the book on a whim as soon as they announced it, as I've wanted a book on Nintendo's pre-Famicom creations for years.

    I remember searching for 任天堂 (Nintendo) on the Yahoo Auctions site and finding loads and loads of unknown treasures from the company, spending hours gazing at their old toys and inventions, almost grasping them.

    As for Pix N' Love, their french branch is a must-read to any videogame connoisseur, but sadly the english counterpart is severely lacking. Been waiting for years for their third "History of Nintendo" book to release, and their "Gunpey Yokoi Game House" translation (which I couldn't find in Japan back in 2006) has been MIA since 2012. I guess I'll have to finally learn french :-)
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #5 jeremy.parish 3 years ago
    @Marcusen Yeah, I'm on tenterhooks for Game House. They need to get that one out here.
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  • Avatar for malikabubakerqasim03 #6 malikabubakerqasim03 3 years ago
    Deleted November 2015 by malikabubakerqasim03
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  • Avatar for Pacario #7 Pacario 3 years ago
    Another worthwhile read is The Unofficial Game and Watch Collector's Guide. Written in German, it was recently translated to English. Nintendo Life reviewed it recently.Edited November 2015 by Pacario
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  • Avatar for Pacario #8 Pacario 3 years ago
    Deleted November 2015 by Pacario
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  • Avatar for lethalsilicong5 #9 lethalsilicong5 3 years ago
    I have one of the black books. I'm pretty sure Jeremy mentioned Erik's blog last year and I checked it out as this book was coming out. :)
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