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Super Power, Spoony Bards and Silverware - Dominic Arsenault ***

This quirkily-titled exploration of the rise and fall of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) scores three stars as a general popular science title - if, like me, you sit at the intersection of being interested in computing, gaming and business it's a solid four stars.

Once I had got over a few sniggers at the idea that game studies/platform studies could be an academic discipline, about which you can write a serious academic work with Harvard referencing and everything, I found this a genuinely fascinating book. I was never a SNES user - I made the transition from an earlier console (Mattel's Intellivision) to a Commodore 64, Amiga and then PCs for gaming - but it was impossible to be unaware of it during its heyday from the late 80s.

It seems that the SNES is generally looked back on with awe by those who were fans at the time, but Dominic Arsenault brings a more balanced view, pointing out the technical and business limitations of the product - all driven by a business philosophy at Nintendo which relied on locking players and developers into a 'walled garden'. He shows how Nintendo resisted the innovations, such as CD-Rom that were transforming gaming and how its difficulties in deviating from a 'family friendly' approach caused it pain.

I found all the components that made up the SNES story genuinely interesting - Arsenault does a good job of covering the technology (I hadn't realised that to overcome the limitations of the SNES's cheap and cheerful processor, some of the game cartridges contained more powerful CPUs than the console), the oddities of the graphics modes and the impact of the introduction of 3D (not through glasses, but games which had apparent depth of field). Particularly interesting with a business hat on were Nintendo's tactics of using last-generation tech to keep things simple and of putting games developers through many hoops to have the honour of writing for them - as opposed to the far more open platforms that would follow.

There were a few things that could have been better. The opening section is a little repetitive. Sometimes Arsenault seems more interested in scoring an academic point that informing the reader. We could have done with more illustrations (ideally in colour). And I think it's shortsighted to only give context from other console platforms. As it is made clear in the book, computer games, particularly once PCs became equipped to handle them, did a lot of the driving in the early 90s (think Doom or 7th Guest, for example) with the consoles scrambling to keep up. As far as potential gamers were concerned there wasn't a clear divide between computers and consoles, and it doesn't make sense to avoid the computer rivals when putting the SNES in context.

Overall, though, despite this not trying to be anything other than an academic title, if you sit in that overlapping part of the Venn diagram like me, that combination of period game technology (just the mention of sprites gets me excited), hardware developments and the business practices of Nintendo and their rivals makes for a surprisingly riveting read.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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