Picks and Pans Review: Game Over

updated 07/19/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/19/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by David Sheff

Writing with the playful pluck of Mario, the little protagonist of the Super Mario Bros, games, Sheff, a Playboy contributing editor and former PEOPLE contributor, unfolds an engrossing tale of how Kyoto-based Nintendo, once a small playing-card company, transformed the U.S. toy and computer businesses. By 1992 Nintendo was consistently racking up after-tax profits of more than $500 million a year—more than Apple, Microsoft, IBM or all U.S. movie studios combined.

By relentless research and development coupled with harsh marketing techniques, Nintendo systems are now in one of every three American homes. "Nintendo" is becoming, like "Band-Aid," more than a mere trademark. Referring to video targeting and the like, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf called Desert Storm "the first Nintendo war."

Sheff is best when telling his tale through personalities. Dogmatic Nintendo boss Hiroshi Yamauchi has never played a video game, but is a sixth Dan at the traditional Japanese game, go. Ingenious game designer Sigeru Miyamoto based his megabits (Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros.) on his childhood adventures around Kyoto. Russian computer engineer Alexey Pajitnov created the phenomenally successful Tetris as a diversion from working on artificial intelligence.

Sheff observes that a larger game is just beginning. As computer and cable companies, phone networks and entertainment giants such as Time-Warner and Sony vie for stakes in the multi-billion-dollar interactive-electronic media market—in which shopping, news and movies-on-demand will be available on our TV screens—Nintendo watches slyly on the sidelines. The reason: Hidden behind a panel in those millions of unassuming game consoles is a connector that allows Nintendos to be hooked up to cable or phone lines. Sheff's next book may be called Trojan Horse. (Random House, $25)

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