Cover art for Super Power, Spoony Bards, and Silverware

Book Review – Super Power, Spoony Bards, and Silverware: The Super Nintendo Entertainment System

Arsenault, Dominic. Super Power, Spoony Bards, and Silverware: The Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2017.

Forrest Greenwood

At this juncture, roughly 10 years into the Platform Studies project that Ian Bogost and Nick Montfort initiated within the field of video game studies, it is worth taking stock of the project’s effectiveness at meeting its goals.  Platform Studies, which began with a presentation by Bogost and Montfort at the 2007 Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory (HASTAC) conference, and which established itself with the authors’ 2009 monograph Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System and the attendant launch of MIT Press’ Platform Studies book series, attempts to craft an approach to video game studies that blends the empiricism of informatics with the cultural sensitivity of media studies.  Emphasizing the role of hardware in studies of digital media, platform studies argues that the material specificity of technology matters for digital media in a way that it doesn’t necessarily for other media types.  Platforms, in essence, represent very specific configurations of affordances and constraints, and code written for one platform will often fail to execute on a different platform, unless rewritten to account for the new platform’s material idiosyncrasies.

Yet Platform Studies, from the beginning, was meant to be about more than just close readings of hardware.  In a successful platform-studies analysis, Bogost and Montfort argue, what must inevitably complement a focus on the material and technological specificity of computational hardware is an equal focus on “how our technologies, our computer platforms, embody particular cultural concepts and ideals, how they too are created in a cultural context.”[i]  And while Bogost and Montfort did much to correct the relative paucity of technological depth in cultural studies of computing platforms, some feel that the “cultural context” of platform studies was never quite clear.  As Thomas Apperley and Jusi Parikka observe, Bogost and Montfort “primarily performed [sic] platform studies rather than explicate [sic] its method.”[ii]  The result has been, perhaps unsurprisingly, a range of platform-studies approaches to culture that may differ in their specifics, but that ultimately treat culture as a nebulous context that simply surrounds the hardware.[iii]  While this has produced some truly excellent technical analyses of game platforms, most notably Nathan Altice’s 2015 book on the Nintendo Entertainment System, it has left open the question of just how a platform-studies work can effectively incorporate both culture and technology into a harmonious whole.

Dominic Arsenault’s Super Power, Spoony Bards, and Silverware: The Super Nintendo Entertainment System (The MIT Press, 2017) is, alongside Julien Mailland and Kevin Driscoll’s Minitel: Welcome to the Internet (The MIT Press, 2017), one of a set of emerging platform studies that attempt to wrestle with Bogost and Montfort’s methodological vagueness and properly explicate a method for fully integrating culture into studies of computational and gaming platforms.  In Arsenault’s case, his approach is to shift the base premise of platform studies by adopting an alternate definition of a platform.  Whereas, for Bogost and Montfort, a platform is “[w]hatever the programmer takes for granted when developing, and whatever, from the other side, the user is required to have working in order to use particular software”[iv] – with particular emphasis on “circuits, chips, peripherals, and how they are integrated and used”[v] – Arsenault instead adopts something similar to what Mailland and Driscoll refer to as an economic platform: “a metaphorical space enabling two or more groups of economic agents to interact.”[vi]  For Arsenault, then, platforms are not simply technological assemblages or material things sitting next to a television, but also the “embodiments of marketing forces that shape the creative works produced”[vii] for that assemblage or material thing.

Arsenault’s specific case study is, as his title indicates, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (or Super Famicom in Japan), a system which has received no small amount of nostalgic fan fervor over the years, as attested by the recent popularity of Nintendo’s pint-sized emulator-in-a-box Super NES Classic Edition.  Yet despite its seemingly perfect fit for the conventional platform-studies approach (with Arsenault neatly arriving after Nathan Altice’s 2015 book on the Nintendo Entertainment System/Famicom), Arsenault instead contends that “the SNES makes a boring case for a platform study,”[viii] constituting a fairly straightforward evolution of the original Famicom architecture that was rushed to market to prevent losing market share to new, technologically-advanced consoles from competitors NEC and Sega.  Instead, Arsenault argues that the true platform that helped Nintendo retain its reputation and market share in the early 1990s was a different kind of NES.  This is not the (Super) Nintendo Entertainment System, but rather the Nintendo Economic System, the network of (often contradictory) business-to-business and business-to-consumer relations that Nintendo established in the 1980s – and that it would ruthlessly exploit to its own detriment by the late 1990s, by which point third-party developers migrated en masse to competitors with less domineering business practices.

This chronicle of the Nintendo Economic System unfolds across a roughly chronological framework, with Arsenault’s first chapter contrasting Nintendo’s mid-1980s entrance to the North American game console market against the paradigm that Atari established just less than a decade earlier.  His seventh chapter, meanwhile, analyzes the business blunders that led to Nintendo and Sony (who had developed the SNES’ sound chip) parting ways in the mid-1990s to see the latter become the former’s fiercest competitor.  In between, chapter two addresses Nintendo’s efforts to quickly design and launch the Super NES/Super Famicom in response to the success of NEC’s PC Engine in Japan and Sega’s Genesis in North America, both of which threatened to not just siphon off Nintendo’s market share but also to break the iron grip that the company maintained on both markets through the late 1980s.  Chapter three, meanwhile, examines Nintendo’s approach to marketing the Super NES in North America, with particular attention to the ways in which the company (and game journalists, then as now wary of antagonizing game publishers for fear of being denied access to hotly-anticipated titles) deployed rhetorics of technological advancement more to obfuscate, in the service of selling Nintendo products, than to educate.  Chapter four, which discusses the Super NES’s underlying technology, comes the closest to a conventional platform study, but here Arsenault’s focus is not on the computational operations of the hardware, but rather the specific types of business and marketing factors that informed the design of the console’s constituent parts.  Of particular emphasis here is the ways in which the different modes of the console’s graphics processors – especially the famous Mode 7, which allowed for perspectival transformation and deformation of graphical tile maps, often creating the illusion of a flat landscape that disappeared towards a vanishing point – were employed by game developers, and how, rather than fostering genuine innovation in terms of genre and gameplay, these graphics modes were often used simply to make better-looking versions of the sorts of games that already sold well on Nintendo’s platforms.  Chapter 5 expands on this latter emphasis to situate the console’s graphical Mode 7 within a broader analysis of game developers’ move towards embracing perspectival and volumetric rendering for creating seemingly 3D spaces, culminating in a discussion of the Super FX chip, a mathematical co-processor built into some of the Super NES’s game cartridges which allowed the system to perform, albeit at (what by contemporary standards is) a rather rudimentary level, the sorts of calculations needed to render volumetric spaces and objects in real time.  Finally, in chapter 6, Arsenault chronicles how Nintendo exploited, and ultimately lost, its dominant market position during the years that Arsenault refers to as the “North American ReNESsance,”[ix] stretching from Nintendo’s industry-ruling late-1980s Golden Age to its early-2000s Dark Age of market marginalization.

As these chapter summaries suggest, arguably the greatest strength of Arsenault’s analysis is the way in which he synthesizes a wide range of sources and methods to paint a nuanced picture of Nintendo as a complicated and contradictory corporate actor.  The Nintendo of Arsenault’s reading is not simply a cherished gatekeeper of a generation’s childhood nostalgia; nor a ruthless, domineering market leader determined to squeeze its ostensible partners for the sake of retaining profits and minimizing competition with its own software; nor a complacent, phlegmatic rentier unable to adapt to the shifting conditions of the industry it helped popularize.  Rather, it is all of these and more, a corporation that, while doggedly pursuing its own self-interest to the consternation of its partners and collaborators, nonetheless saw many of those partners produce some of their greatest works on its platforms.

Arsenault takes palpable glee in playing the role of the iconoclast, positioning himself and his book as a counterpoint to the hagiographic, fannish accounts that so often attend the history of Nintendo, and it is here that he performs perhaps his greatest service to the field, adding complexity and nuance to a portrayal that so often lacks either.  And while Arsenault’s focus on business relations and promotional rhetoric serves this nuancing well while also providing a clear model for how to more clearly integrate culture into a platform study, this focus also (and somewhat inevitably) moves the book away from the synthesis of informatics and humanities methods that Bogost and Montfort initially held up as the defining characteristic of Platform Studies.  The question of how the Super NES’s computational processes might play into Nintendo’s corporate foibles is left largely unanswered in Arsenault’s account, save as they pertain to graphics rendering.  Similarly, Arsenault’s extensive focus on the North American market, and occasionally lack of clarity as to whether the North American or Japanese context is currently under discussion (for example, by quoting console and game prices always in dollars, even for the Super Famicom, with no mention of yen), perpetuates a Platform Studies dynamic identified by Marc Steinberg, in which “the books’ manner of dealing with Japan tends to focus on the hardware – a natural outcome of the series’ own methodological program – and somewhat less on the cultural or economic aspects of Japanese platforms, effectively reinforcing a view of Japan as a hardware-producing country”[x] that chiefly exports to the rest of the world, rather than promoting a view of Japan as a site for consumption and cultural production in its own right.  In the end, Super Power, Spoony Bards, and Silverware makes a valuable contribution to both Platform Studies and to the field of video-game scholarship more broadly, and will be of additional interest to scholars investigating the global circulation, localization, and marketing of Japanese cultural products abroad.

Forrest Greenwood is a Quality Control Specialist at Indiana University’s Media Digitization and Preservation Initiative, where he specializes in the digitization of film sound.  He is also a PhD candidate in Indiana University’s Department of Communication and Culture, where his dissertation is a platform study of the Nintendo DS handheld game system.

[i] Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost, Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System(Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2009), 2.

[ii] Thomas Apperley and Jussi Parikka, “Platform Studies’ Epistemic Threshold,” Games and Culture 13, no. 4 (2018): 350.

[iii] Thomas Lamarre, “Platformativity: Media Studies, Area Studies,” Asiascape: Digital Asia 4 (2017): 286.

[iv] Montfort and Bogost, Racing the Beam, 2.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Julien Mailland and Kevin Driscoll, Minitel: Welcome to the Internet (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2017), 16.

[vii] Dominic Arsenault, Super Power, Spoony Bards, and Silverware: The Super Nintendo Entertainment System (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2017), 5.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid., 142.

[x] Marc Steinberg, “A Genesis of the Platform Concept: i-mode and Platform Theory in Japan,” Asiascape: Digital Asia 4 (2017): 185-186.