The NES/Famicom is of special interest to gaming history nerds (like me) not just because of childhood nostalgia (I have none for the NES, my experience outside of playing them in department stores or trying a friend’s limited to buying my first at age 19. I’m European, sorry) or because of its considerable sales performance in its prime. It’s the system’s long legs that make it most fascinating. Seeing a summer 1983 Japan launch and having its final official releases at the end of 1994, Nintendo’s system has a unique position in being developed for over such a long period, and during such tumultuous times with so much still being decided when it came to the conventions of game design. Only the PS2 has potential to be seen in similar regard, capturing the codification of 3D game design as perfectly as it does, and enjoying a similarly long shelf life especially in emerging markets. Still, that’s a tome we’ll have to wait another 15 years for.

Yes, this year marked the 30th anniversary of the NES’ western release, and in celebration we have veteran journo and Retronaut Jeremy Parish, along with a cast of guest editors bringing us Good Nintentions. With so much already having been written about the machine’s development and road to dominance in the ’80s, this is less historical narrative and more exhaustive catalogue, its mission statement being to provide at least a sentence or two on every single (American) NES release ever.

good nintentionsThe book is a collection of micro retrospectives, most a half page description with screenshot, with your Metroids and Marios (and occasionally GI Joes for some reason) being given two or three page spreads, and the majority of licensed bloatware covered in quick soundbytes. Arranged roughly chronologically, these collectively do manage to tell the story of emerging game design trends and aesthetic techniques over roughly a decade, and it’s that light narrative, along with the exhaustive nature of it all that’s the draw here, giving it the same appeal as painstaking ‘chrongaming’ video series like PlayStation Year One and Chrontendo (or even Parish’s own Game Boy World). This is a book best read with tablet, phone or other video device to hand, as reading it certainly left me with lists of things to look at (there was an NES Space Shuttle simulator?).

Despite the occasional clunky phrase, Parish is an excellent host for this journey through 8 bit obscura, an authoritative yet friendly voice that’s comfortable poking wry fun at his subject matter where appropriate. Guest editorials retain a similar style, and there’s a consistent voice throughout that’s light but respectful. It’s when writers have more room to stretch their legs that the book shines the most prosaically, and while dissections of Metroid or Legend of Zelda are to be expected, Matt Cramp’s examination of just why the NES made less of an impact in Europe than in other territories is a nice deviation that offers a fascinating insight.

Presentationally though, the book retains the same format whether discussing Mighty Final Fight or the cartridge based chips that added extra graphical punch to the system they ran on. Large screenshots accompany text strips in a format that suits the brief run downs of each game, but not the broader think pieces that fail to stand out visually. With the scope and self published nature of the book, it’s too much of an ask to expect the perfect layout of Read Only Memory‘s efforts, but on long reads, Good Nintentions begins to feel garish, and with one persistent pace.

Adding to that samey pace is a forward facing nature that’s entirely focused on the nature of the games themselves, and not how they were made. With the NES era also seeing the emergence of game development personalities from people with pun based pseudonyms in credits (if they received credits at all) to respected artists, creators’ voices are conspicuous by their absence. The occasional interview would really have helped break the book up; as is, Good Nintentions can feel like watching the aforementioned Chrontendo all in one sitting as a bit too much of a good thing.

Then again, this really isn’t the kind of book that demands to be read in one go. It’s a reference guide, something to pick through in fits and starts. In the best possible way, it’s the gaming historian’s perfect toilet book, and jumping off point to YouTube rabbit holes, emulator explorations and collector checklists. It isn’t the road to hell that’s paved with Good Nintentions, but a rather more enlightening journey.

About The Author

Gamer, Educator, Writer of Stuff, wrestler of professionals (sometimes)