Skip to main content

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.

Hardback:  

 
Kindle:  



Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Order of Time - Carlo Rovelli ***

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that The Order of Time does what A Brief History of Timeseemed to promise but didn't cover: it attempts to explore what time itself is. The bad news is that Carlo Rovelli does this in such a flowery and hand-waving fashion that, though the reader may get a brief feeling that they understand what he's writing about, any understanding rapidly disappears like the scent of a passing flower (the style is catching).

It doesn't help either that the book is in translation so some scientific terms are mangled, or that Rovelli has a habit of self-contradiction. Time and again (pun intended) he tells us time doesn't exist, then makes use of it. For example, at one point within a page of telling us of time's absence Rovelli writes of events that have duration and a 'when' - both meaningless terms without time. At one point he speaks of a world without time, elsewhere he says 'Time and space are real phenomena.'…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…