Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life
Author: Chris Kohler
Publisher: Indianapolis, IN: Brady Games, 2004
Review Published: January 2006
The study of digital gaming has grown in leaps and bounds over the past ten years. During this time we've been shown a number of perspectives from which to analyze games. From the ergodic texts suggested by Espen Aarseth in Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature to the marketized commodities suggested by Stephen Kline, Nick Dyer-Witheford, and Greig De Peuter in Digital Play: The Interaction of Technology, Culture, and Marketing, games themselves are, doubtless, powerful media. Steven L. Kent's The First Quarter, J. C. Herz's Joystick Nation, and Rusel DeMaria and Johnny L. Wilson's High Score are only a few titles that track the origins of the gaming industry.
There is, however, a gap in the literature. While it is true that many game producers and developers are located in the West, the East might be considered the cradle of modern console gaming. In 1999, David Sheff's Game Over: Press Start to Continue was one of the first English texts to compare the cultural production of Eastern and Western games. Published in 2004, Chris Kohler's Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life is a welcome contribution in this area.
Kohler provides a historical perspective of Japanese games from Space Invaders to Ico, as well as discussing the influences Japan and the West have on one another. The author accomplishes this by drawing heavily on his access to video game industries and his personal experience as a fan of popular Japanese culture. Ultimately, the author's primary argument seems to be that Japanese game developers, influenced by their cultural focus on visual image and user-centered design philosophy, turned the world's games industries around after the Atari crash, resulting in closer pop-cultural ties between Japan and the West.
Power-Up's insights trace the success of early Japanese game design to two primary sources. First, while early Western game developers were primarily trained in programming and coding, many of Japan's preeminent developers were comic artists, cartoon illustrators and toy makers . Raised in a culture where comics and cartoons have been approached as legitimate art forms from as early as the 1970s, Japanese developers more frequently focused upon using the crude technologies of pixels and sprites to convey evocative stories, emotions, and character. Second, many of these Japanese developers were educated in design and art schools, where they focused on making interfaces simple and fun to use. Thus, while Western developers were focused on accomplishing technological feats with their games, key Japanese developers were aligned to focus upon image, character, story, cinema, ease-of-use, and fun. The result was that Japanese game design provided innovative and compelling games that were often successful in both Japan and the West, culminating in "Nintendo Mania" a mere decade after the crash of Atari.
Kohler's journalistic style provides a simple and enjoyable read accessible for anyone who has spent even a moderate amount of time studying or playing games. Nonetheless, this style necessarily sacrifices some argumentative cogency. Power-Up's argument is sometimes abandoned to explore interesting if unrelated elements of Japanese fans' lives, such as video game soundtracks and the Tokyo electronics district Akihabara. The purpose of these chapters would be more clear were Kohler to spend a little more time demonstrating how they motivate the thesis. As is, Power-Up reads a little like a disjointed mish-mash of Kohler's recent academic writings, some Wired magazine articles he never printed, and a lot of interesting tidbits.
Nevertheless, Kohler manages to compensate with his engaging writing style. While reading Power-Up, I was left with the sensation of a lazy, sight-seeing stroll instead of the confused and disorienting rush this book may have been without Kohler's enthusiasm and breezy writing. Ultimately, the author's argument coalesces and is supported with a great deal of experiential and testimonial evidence. It is because of these two sources of data that Kohler's book truly shines.
As a Japanese speaker, avid fan, and industry reporter, the author provides a depth of insight infrequently seen in casual works such as this . His passion for games is clear and is often enough to carry a reader enthusiastically through what may be unfamiliar material. Kohler's personal contributions to the data range from obscure and trivial details to valuable observations of Japanese design style. Just as importantly, the author’s journalistic style and access provide excellent interviews with elusive Japanese game design moguls such as Shigeru Miyamoto (of Donkey Kong, Mario Bros., and Zelda), Fumitu Ueda (Ico), and Satoshi Tajiri (of Pokémon).
Kohler has done well addressing his chosen subject material in 300 pages, yet I am left wondering how different Power-Up might look if it took a more balanced viewpoint. Kohler never claims to be writing a global history of games, yet he does explicitly focus on synergistic exchange of design ideas between the West and Japan. Were the author to sacrifice a few pages of Nobuo Uematsu's exhaustive game soundtrack discography, or his pages-long description of Donkey Kong's cinematics, he might discuss developments in the rest of Asia, including, to name one example, Korea. Furthermore, given the comparative weight given to Western games' histories, it is little surprise that Kohler would focus almost entirely upon the East, yet more material that accounts for Western influence of Japanese design would complete the picture he paints.
Finally, while Nintendo is a significant player in the Japanese games industry, Power-Up focuses almost entirely either upon this company or its most popular third-party developers -- Squaresoft and Enix, recently merged into Square Enix. Power-Up would be more broadly useful for serious study were Kohler to explicitly use Nintendo as a representative case for study. However, the author seems content with the fact that Nintendo is important enough to merit a lot of ink, while other organizations like Sony, Sega, Taito, Bandai, and others largely are not. This is a particular shame considering that, as mentioned earlier, Sheff's Game Over is one of the only other available books analyzing Japanese game development, and it too focuses on Nintendo.
In the end, Chris Kohler's Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life is an interesting and enjoyable read, even if it is somewhat disjointed. I would be happy to endorse the book to video game enthusiasts, those with a fascination with Japanese pop culture, and students looking for an entry point to the study of games.
 In fact, Brady Games primarily publishes hint and cheat guides for games, not serious literature. Here we may see Kohler's access to the games industry at work, as we do with his access to interviewees.
Aarseth, E. 1997. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Demaria, R. & Wilson, J. 2004. High Score: The Illustrated History of Electronic Games, (2e.). Emeryville, CA: McGraw-Hill/Osbourne.
Herz, J. C. 1997. Joystick Nation: How Computer Games Ate Our Quarters, Won Our Hearts and Rewired Our Minds. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company.
Kent, S. 2002. The First Quarter: A 25-Year History of Video Games. Bothell, WA: BWD Press.
Kline, S., Dyer-Witherford, N. & De Peuter, G. 2003. Digital Play: The Interaction of Technology, Culture, and Marketing. Montreal, QU: McGill-Queens University Press.
Sheff, D. 1999. Game Over: Press Start to Continue, the Maturing of Mario, (2e.) Wilton, CT: GamePress.
Avery Alix is currently a graduate student at the University of Washington, in the Department of Communication. Alix's current research focuses on games as commodified global media and sites of identity formation. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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