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.



Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Rockets and Rayguns - Andrew May ****

The Cold War period saw dramatic developments in science and technology, coinciding with the flourishing of the science fiction genre. In Rockets and Rayguns, Andrew May draws on the parallels between reality and fiction, each influencing the other.

Inevitably a major Cold War theme was the threat of nuclear war, and May opens with the bomb. It's fascinating that fiction got there first - nuclear weapons were featured in science fiction when many physicists were still doubting the practicality of using nuclear energy. Of course, it's a lot easier to simply take a concept and dream up a weapon than it is to make it for real - for example, H. G. Wells' prophetic nuclear bombs from his 1914 The World Set Free were nothing like the real thing. And some science fiction devices concepts - notably ray guns and force fields - came to very little in reality. However this doesn't prevent the parallels being of interest.

May gives us a mix of the science - describing how nuclear we…

Galileo Galilei, the Tuscan Artist – Pietro Greco ****

Near the beginning of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, he refers to a ‘Tuscan artist’ viewing the Moon through an optic glass. He’s talking about Galileo – one of history’s greatest scientists, but not the most obvious person to slap an ‘artist’ label on. Yet Galileo lived at a time – the Renaissance – when it was fashionable to dabble impartially in both the arts and sciences. Look up ‘Renaissance man’ on Wikipedia and you’ll see Galileo’s picture right there underneath Leonardo da Vinci’s. It’s a less well-known side to his life, but it crops up again and again – interspersed among his many scientific achievements – in this excellent new biography by Pietro Greco.

If you’re looking for interesting trivia, you’ll find plenty in this book. Galileo’s father was a musician with scientific leanings, who carried out some of the first experiments on musical acoustics – which Galileo may have assisted with. As a young professor of mathematics, Galileo delivered a couple of lectures on …

Meet Your Bacteria - Nicola Temple and Catherine Whitlock ***

There have been a good number of books on our microbiome - the bacteria and other tiny organisms living in our body - from The Wild Life of Our Bodies throughI, Superorganism to I Contain Multitudes. Each of these is a traditional popular science book format, and all, to some degree, suffer from the same problem - in part, they have a tendency to present collections of facts, little more than bullet points of information strung together, rather than providing an effective narrative. As Meet Your Bacteria is in a significantly different format, there was a chance to imbue the subject with more dynamism and interest.'

When I first looked at the book, I assumed from its shape and cover that it would be in the style of highly illustrated, two-page spreads with large illustrations and the text little more than captions. In reality, Nicola Temple and Catherine Whitlock manage to subvert that format - it is, indeed, presented as a series of separate two-page spreads, but there is far more…