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Two nostalgic looks at 1980s gaming culture, one delving into how Nintendo came to dominate the market and the other offering a fantastic adventure

By Ethan Gilsdorf
Globe Correspondent / August 14, 2011

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It’s easy to cast a long shadow of nostalgia across your geeky past, now that you are standing taller.

There’s no shame, no risk of ridicule or reprisal, now that nerds top the food chain. More confident, you might even find yourself admitting, “Sure, I used to play Dungeons & Dragons. Had an 18th-level paladin named Argathon. One righteous orc-slaying dude.’’

I do. I played more than my share of video and role-playing games during a less friendly era, the 1980s. Fantasy and science fiction had not come out of the closet. The financial success of genre franchises had not yet made geekery acceptable. Gaming culture was nonexistent.

A bonus of my then fringe game habit: It felt user-driven, indie, even subversive. When free time, not money, was my currency, gaming created a peculiar, community. I inserted real quarters into singular machines shared with others. No Internet. No interruptions from texts. Total immersion in virtual worlds was possible even as, paradoxically, cutting-edge special effects were analog, not digital. And a game of Donkey Kong, its chunky graphics about as sophisticated as the dungeons I sketched on graph paper, might last only a minute, while a game of D&D, limited to the primitive technology of dice, pencils, and brainwaves, would take months.

Differing both in approach and success level, two new books - Ernest Cline’s dystopian sci-fi novel “Ready Player One’’ and Jeff Ryan’s historical reportage “Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America’’ - plumb and pay tribute to the genesis of our gaming culture. To a time when to find out who was the best at Asteroids or Galaga, you hoofed it down to the mall to witness the heroism gracing the “high score’’ screen, where someone’s tag - “ZAK’’ or “LED’’ - was hallowed only in the halls of your local arcade.

Ryan, a video game critic, painstakingly charts the Japanese company Nintendo’s startling success. When its 1980 Space Invaders rip-off Radar Scope failed, technicians retrofitted 2,000 of the machines with a new arcade game, designed by an underling named Shigeru Miyamoto. Donkey Kong was born, as was the character Mario, based on a real mustachioed landlord who once showed up at Nintendo’s US headquarters to collect the rent and “grew so incensed he almost jumped up and down.’’

Ryan does a fine job describing Nintendo’s growing rivalry with Atari and Sega and subsequent shrewd moves, as arcades shuttered, to dominate the home console market. Super Mario Bros. became the “dense’’ game-changing killer app, Ryan writes, which “called for deep exploration instead of facile button mashing.’’ A new generation of gamers could explore endlessly, wandering tubes, hopping platforms, and collecting shells and coins. Nabbing the high score wasn’t the point. Mario helped kill quarter-based game culture.

Ryan can be insightful, and his prose colorful, but also distracting. Images and metaphors compete and clash - the Zucker Brothers follow Derrida, a music reference is slammed cheek-by-jowl with a baseball analogy. At times, the text seems translated from the Japanese. What is “a nebula’s improvement in graphics’’? A “veritable sleuth of unsold Teddy Ruxpins’’? It’s also difficult to picture the graphical evolution of Mario and his game world when the book has no illustrations.

Most frustratingly, we never hear directly from any Nintendo designers. Curiously little on-the-ground reporting of personal travails or internal corporate tensions. After the first 100 pages, the narrative devolves into a cheery laundry list of game releases. It’s as if Ryan reported the book from the distance of the Internet.

Still, “Super Mario’’ remains an important link to understanding how we got from Donkey Kong to Wii, and why the wee Jumpman still rules. “Mario is the id: working off of instinct, never having much of a plan, always able to leap into the middle of things. We all become younger as we play Mario, because when we’re Mario we simply play.’’

More so than Ryan, Cline banks on blatant nostalgia for our geeky pasts. The year is 2044 and the young protagonist of “Ready Player One,’’ 17-year-old orphan Wade Watts, narrates his own progress in an elaborate, online scavenger hunt. “The Great Recession was now entering its third decade,’’ Watts says, and like many, he spends his waking hours as an avatar, named Parzival, in a massive, Matrix-like virtual space called OASIS.

Created by a reclusive, Reagan-era game designer, the game melds Tolkienesque riddles with ’80s pop arcana - from Matthew Broderick’s lines in “WarGames’’ to dungeons designed by D&D co-creator Gary Gygax. Solve the puzzles and you inherit the game designer’s vast fortune. An old-fashioned “high score’’ leader board pops up periodically in the narrative to remind us who’s winning.

Such is the post-apocalyptic, nerd-friendly premise of “Ready Player One.’’ Watts steeps himself in the period, and Cline stuffs his novel with a cornucopia of pop culture, as if to wink to the reader, “Remember the TRS-80? Wasn’t it cool?’’ The conceit is a smart one, and we happily root for Watts/ Parzival and his gaming buddies on their quest for the Easter Egg - and hope they win before a villainous, corporate-run gaming guild declares “game over.’’

Not that the novel is without its problems. Cline, the screenwriter who gave us “Fanboys,’’ oddly chooses a first-person narrator. What is the occasion for a 17-year-old explaining the plot of “Blade Runner,’’ or that “ ‘2112,’ Rush’s classic sci-fi-themed concept album’’ hit record stores “in 1976, back when most music was sold on twelve-inch vinyl records’’? A third-person, roving point of view would more logically allow for these passages of authorial intrusion. Also a bummer: Much of the action is virtual, statically describing Watts’s online moves: “I took a screenshot of this illustration and placed it in the corner of my display.’’

But ignore these narrative hiccups and “Ready Player One’’ provides a most excellent ride. I found the adventure story and its revenge of the dorks dream fully satisfying.

Like the film “Super 8,’’ these two books play also into a final fantasy: that things were once simpler. Today, some attribute the violence in Norway, unfairly, to video games. Suddenly ’80s pop culture looks less troubled. But of course, the arcade and role-playing games of yore were controversial scourges bent on the destruction of youth. Remember?

Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms.’’ Contact him at www.ethangilsdorf.com.

SUPER MARIO: How Nintendo Conquered America By Jeff Ryan

Portfolio, 292 pp., $26.95

READY PLAYER ONE By Ernest Cline

Crown, 374 pp. $24.00