Worth Reading: Erik Voskuil's "Before Mario"

Worth Reading: Erik Voskuil's "Before Mario"

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

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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