Playing to Wiin: Nintendo and the Video Game Industry's Greatest Comeback

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 March, 2011, 12:00am


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Playing to Wiin: Nintendo and the Video Game Industry's Greatest Comeback
by Daniel Sloan
Wiley, HK$200

To casual observers, Nintendo has long been a juggernaut in the video game industry - its flagship character, Mario the plumber, has been synonymous with video games ever since the revolutionary game Super Mario Bros, and Nintendo's home video game console Wii, with 85 million units sold worldwide, is leading the digital entertainment industry.

But the Japanese video game giant, the undisputed leader in the video game industry during the 80s with its Famicom (Nintendo Entertainment System in North America) gaming hardware, was actually in dire straits for several years, from the late 90s to the mid-2000s after several hardware blunders and increasing competition from Microsoft and Sony pushed it to a distant third in the industry.

At one point, things were so bleak for Nintendo, industry insiders predicted that much like what Sega had done in 2001, the company would withdraw from the hardware market and focus on distributing its games for rival consoles.

But now, Nintendo is back on top, and Daniel Sloan's Playing to Wiin: Nintendo and the Video Game Industry's Greatest Comeback provides an insider's look at the rise, fall, and redemption of Nintendo.

Despite utilising mostly second-hand accounts (Nintendo did not cooperate with the project), Sloan - an experienced American financial journalist based in Japan - paints a vivid tale that includes a detailed origin of the firm, which started as a playing-card company in 1889, and the company politics that involved the family-owned operation.

Sloan's sharp writing allows the book to jump back and forth in time and perspective with ease, and passages on Sony's and Microsoft's strategies are sharp and direct, ensuring the story of Nintendo doesn't lose traction.

The meticulously researched book also focuses on then-Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi's quest for a successor and several of Nintendo's side projects, such as the disastrous Virtual Boy hardware. Later chapters give an insider's look at the ongoing game console battles between Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft, and what Nintendo has up its sleeves, including a soon-to-be-released portable 3-D device.

But as the title suggests, Nintendo's comeback with the Wii (released in 2006) after the failure of previous hardware GameCube, makes up the bulk of this 238-pager. And therein lies, perhaps, the book's biggest flaw - Nintendo went from a dominating No1 spot in the 80s and 90s to a distant third in five years, yet the epic collapse is skimmed over in the first few pages without much build-up.

The book also suffers from an identity crisis. On a macro level, it reads more like a piece of business journalism examining the Japanese corporate world and the gaming industry than a book for gamers. Yet, Sloan fails to introduce a key industry figure, or explain gaming terms that non-gamers are probably unaware of.

Still, Playing to Wiin offers an insightful look into the inner workings of a multibillion-dollar industry and also the mind of Nintendo president Satoru Iwata. And of course, everyone loves a comeback story.