Film Critic Tackles 'Super Mario Bros. 3' in New Book
Super Mario Bros. 3 was one of the most important games on the NES.
"Super Mario Bros. 3: Brick by Brick" by Bob Chipman is something new in the world of video game writing: a comprehensive deconstruction of "Super Mario Bros. 3," the classic side-scrolling action game that debuted on the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1990.
The book analyzes "Super Mario Bros. 3" in the same painstaking detail that film scholars reserve for seminal works like "The Godfather" or "Blade Runner." In much the same way that a film historian could write a whole book dedicated to a shot-by-shot analysis of "Citizen Kane," Chipman leverages both his extensive knowledge of video games (and well-documented love for all things Nintendo) and his expertise as a film reviewer to tackle this project.
(Full disclosure: The book's author is an acquaintance and colleague of this review's author.)
Although a number of magazines, websites and TV shows dedicate themselves to dissecting interactive narratives, the writing tends to fall into a few predictable categories: news, reviews, previews, strategy guides and the occasional feature that delves a little deeper. But "Brick by Brick" does not fit any existing genre of games writing, and represents unexplored territory in the medium.
Chipman, a popular Internet personality who goes by "MovieBob" on The Escapist, an online game magazine, and "The Game Overthinker" on ScrewAttack and Blip, which provide nerdy web video content, is uniquely suited to cover the subject matter. He has made a career for himself by making accessible videos that explore common video game tropes and controversial topics in nerd culture, in addition to more traditional movie reviews.
The first part of "Brick by Brick" provides about as concise and informative a guide as any gamer could want to the history of Super Mario as a character, a game series and a pop culture phenomenon.
In the next, much meatier section, Chipman gives a fairly detailed account of his own life as it relates to the Super Mario series. Lifelong gamers, nerds and geeks should have no trouble identifying with Chipman's rocky childhood, where video games provided a much-needed refuge from bullying and social stratification. [See also: The Most Influential Video Games of the Last 50 Years]
More interesting, however, is the parallel story of Chipman grappling with life as he completes a playthrough of "Super Mario Bros. 3." As Chipman wrote the book, his career as an Internet critic was reaching new heights, he was about to move out of his childhood home and his grandmother was dying. The convergence of video games and major life events is surprisingly poignant: gaming is an escapist hobby, but also has a surprising amount to say about life, death and the world around us.
The most substantial part of the book chronicles Chipman's complete playthrough of "Super Mario Bros. 3," in which he tackles every level of the game without any cheats or shortcuts. Chipman describes the path he takes through each stage, stopping to describe the geography, obstacles, enemies, power-ups and secrets he encounters along the way. Now and then, he stops for a digression about Mario's cultural history, such as the connection between the "Tanooki Suit" item, which lets Mario fly and turn into a statue, and the real-life tanuki (Japanese raccoon-dog) in Shinto lore.
Although the book is ambitious, it is by no means perfect. The vast majority of the playthrough description is just that: an unadorned discussion of how Chipman guided Mario from point A to point B, stopping occasionally to talk about a new enemy or how to access a hidden path. The really interesting questions — "What effect does this enemy have on overall gameplay?" or "How have hidden paths shaped exploration in the series?" — often go unanswered.
Small typos and grammatical oddities show up with alarming regularity. Some of the content repeats itself. The EPUB and MOBI versions are also somewhat sparse, graphically, compared with the print and PDF.
The book also seems torn tonally between an academic treatise and an enthusiast love letter. While Chipman's historical information and market research are accurate, there's not a single source cited, save for the games themselves. A more scholarly approach could help give this budding genre some much-needed traction.
The flaws in "Brick by Brick" stem from Chipman's goal to introduce an entirely new genre of games writing, and in that respect, the book is hard to fault. Even though there is room to grow, the author displayed more than enough competence and passion to see the project through its rough patches.
Reading the playthrough section of "Brick by Brick," a reader may feel inclined to just drop the book and dust off a "Super Mario Bros. 3" cartridge instead — not out of boredom, but because Chipman's love for the game is infectious. By tempering this enthusiasm with more meticulous editing and deeper analysis, the book-length breakdown just might eke out a new corner in the growing world of games criticism.