Moviebob’s Book: Blob by Blob

  Super Mario Bros. 3: Brick by Brick by Bob Chipman, Fangamer, 1st July, 2013

Why would I review a book that is not only out of print but seems to be one the author would mostly want to forget? Well, the main reason is that I’ve reviewed quite a bit of gamma fiction over the years and this is an interesting opportunity to try some gamma non-fiction. Bob Chipman (better known online as “Moviebob”), is one of the most pure living gamma archetypes (along with John Scalzi), that has a public profile. Bob is also unique in that his extreme progressivism has managed not only to alienate a significant portion of his potential audience who don’t share his views but also embarrass people he would (at least like to), consider his friends and allies. He’s really quite a fascinating figure but not for any of the reasons he would like to be.

Another reason is the book is considered notoriously bad in such a way that I was curious to look for myself. It is out of print but easy enough to find online — though I still don’t recommend it. I also state it is something he would “mostly” want to forget because he does still list it on his website as of writing. This along with a number of other books available digitally which are apparently just collections of his blog posts. 

However, after reading most of the book, I would say the main reason I’m writing a review is to make fun of it.

In beginning this, I recalled a quip that I’m fairly certain was uttered by N.N. Taleb, that many people rather than wanting to write:  want to have written. That is they desire the imagined accolades and prestige that come with being a successful writer. [I may go back and include the exact quote if I find it again.] I think a lot of people who write or aspire to write without doing so; probably have similar feelings to some extent but the truly great writers will write regardless of any accolades they may or may not receive. And many of the greatest never received any of this prestige until their bodies were long buried. Bob, I am guessing, wanted to have a published book and so have the “credentials” of a published author. The introduction indicates he had no real direction or even the subject for the project outside of writing a book:

To be honest, even I didn’t start out with the intent to write a book about “Super Mario Bros. 3.” The format of this project took shape before the subject came into focus for me. You see, at least to my knowledge, at the time of this writing there isn’t another book exactly like this one.

On the last part he is correct but as is often the case for Bob: not for reasons he would like. Below is the stated goal of his analysis:

Today, sites ranging from professional outlets to amateur free-for-alls like YouTube and Blip are packed to the gills with an ever-growing supply of not only game criticism but walkthroughs, strategies and longform chronicles called “let’s plays.” Name any game that has ever existed, no matter how obscure, and chances are you can find multiple reviews, videos and full-length play-throughs of it.

And yet… amid all that, I felt like there was something missing. An empty niche. Maybe not a large niche, but a niche all the same. In my primary career I’m a film critic, so I get to see how criticism differs in the two mediums. And while I won’t let this turn into some missive about what game journalism can learn from film I’m inclined to note that the one type of critical attention gaming appears to be most (though not wholly) deficient of is analysis – in particular deep analysis.

Specifically, in film writing there is such a thing as the “shot-by-shot analysis,” which is exactly what it sounds like: A book (or, more often, academic paper or presentation) that pours over a single film piece-by-piece, scene-by-scene, detail-by-detail. The lines, the compositions, the shots, the score and the actors, directors, writers and production history that informed it all. Not just an aesthetic criticism or a history or a production report but a fusion of all three and more – the complete picture of a film.

I have included the longish quote because the book does none of this. Even before it was published, there were much better analyses of Super Mario Bros. 3 (and many other games) online in both written and video form. As of today, the Gaming Historian has probably the best I know on Super Mario Bros. 3 that was published on YouTube in 2019.

Chipman’s book is divided into four parts after the introduction. Part I is ‘A Brief History of Mario’ that the audience for this book would be very likely familiar with. If not from online articles and videos then from books like Game Over by David Sheff or The Ultimate History of Video Games by Steven L. Kent. Part II is an autobiography of Bob told along side the same history of Mario and Nintendo and repeats much of Part I only with biographical details Bob didn’t need to include. This section is the most notorious and I will be providing examples why. Part III is short and is really nothing but an extended instruction manual for the game and even quotes directly from the original booklet. Then Part IV, at around half-way through the text, comes to the stated intention of the book which is to analyse the game “brick by brick”.

As previously stated, the book doesn’t do what the author set out to do in writing it. It is neither useful as a walkthrough or sufficiently informative, interesting or engaging to work as an analysis. Bob certainly does know the game really well but then so do I and almost everybody who played Super Mario Bros. 3 in their youth. I am not familiar with “shot-by-shot analysis” in film but I assume it is a good deal more sophisticated than what Bob has presented here. The book could more accurately be considered a form of “New Games Journalism” which I would describe as long-winded and self-indulgent writing where the author gleefully goes off on tangents about other subjects before coming back to the main one and the link above describes as:

a way of writing about games centred around how GREAT the writer is, how long he can write for in one go and how many books he knows about and films he’s seen.

This sort of content has long been all over the place and does have an audience though I am not part of it. As a big proponent of Old Games Journalism, I believe the game should be the subject and not the author. I do allow that a gifted or at least engaging writer can get away with this sort of self-indulgent analysis but Bob is not a gifted writer and there is no deep analysis of the game to be found anywhere in his book.

The autobiographical section has been relentless mocked elsewhere but I will include some examples here for completeness sake. This is after all a “blob by blob” analysis.

First is the comparing his experience of the ‘Console Wars’ to the Vietnam War:

In my memories, the Great Console Wars dragged on like my own private Vietnam, and it didn’t help that I was still constantly in trouble at school and in and out of therapy at the time for anger, attention and authority issues. However, it really only lasted a couple of years.

As someone who grew up during the ‘Console Wars’, I’m afraid I can’t say I shared the experience. I certainly don’t have PTSD or any other negative memories. Against the background of competition between Sega, Nintendo and later Sony were simple schoolyard disagreements and trash-talk based on which game console your parents bought you. It was typically kids stuff and outside of parallel corporate competition mostly learned about afterwards, there was no sense that it was a “war” to people growing up at the time.

This is not the limit of Bob’s hyperbole as he also compares the first reveal of Super Mario Bros. 3 to the JFK Assassination and the September 11th Terrorist Attacks.:

But the climactic reveal of SMB3 is burned – no, seared – into my memory the way JFK’s assassination was for my parents’ generation… or the way 9/11 would be for mine a scant 12 years from then…

This by the way, is exactly how it is written in the book. Those ellipses aren’t mine. He is also a huge fan of parentheses which makes sections of the book even harder to read with all his asides. They were painful to the point that I’m going to start being very careful about overusing them myself.

Amusingly, he also shares how annoyed he was when the ending to Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island contradicted Mario lore:

Mario and Luigi were born in the Mushroom Kingdom? That doesn’t make any sense! How’d they grow up in Brooklyn, then? Were they sent there at some point, like Superman, unaware of their real origins? And how were they Italian-Americans if they came from a world with no Italy and no America? Oooh! Maybe that’ll be the plot of the next game! Maybe…

I didn’t have a “breakdown” or anything. It’s not as though I was knocked into some kind of system-shock over this. But the dissonance stuck with me for a while. By now I had more important things to worry about in school and life to be completely consumed by this. College-prep classes, girls, sex, drugs and social-hierarchy were giving me my headaches—high school, after all. If I’d learned to keep my Nintendo worship (relatively) in check in the “Sega is cooler!” days, I could hold it back for the age of “everything but Playstation is for kids!”

I have bolded the things that I very much doubt occupied him outside his mind. 

Here I should also point out that Sony’s brand is normally stylised as ‘PlayStation’ and really should be in a published work or article. This sounds like a minor quibble but the book is full of mistakes or inconsistencies like this. I always use italics for titles of books, films or video games on this blog. I am also careful to make sure direct quotes are indicated as such. Bob’s book seems to have had very little editing done before publication and the style is all over the place. One error is him stating that Super Mario 64 released in 1997 when it was 1996 and he had even written the correct year earlier in the book. Another example is claiming that Super Mario World was called Super Mario Bros. 4 in Japan when it had the same name and only added that as a subtitle. Both of these errors only require a few seconds on Wikipedia to correct.

Bob is quite anti-religious (as I shall come to shortly), but he does still consider video games and entertainment fit for worship. As he explains describing his experience of a game mode in Super Smash Bros. Brawl for Wii.

To say that playing through “Subspace Emissary” was close to a religious experience for me in general (Link meets Yoshi! R.O.B. Stormtroopers! Kirby blowing up Bowser and Ganondorf’s giant space-cannon!) would be putting it mildly, but even after that seeing Mario and Sonic together in a “real” game – and able to fight one another, no less! – felt more like real, genuine closure than it had any right to for a grown man.

This by the way, is him describing an experience as an adult. He also seriously laments not being able to recall exactly when he received his Nintendo Entertainment System as if it was his wedding day:

I feel strangely bad that I don’t remember this – it makes me feel ungrateful, like something this important should’ve stuck in my head, permanently, by sheer force of gratitude. But, maybe that’s the point. Maybe the act of finally procuring my own direct access to Super Mario Bros. was so monumental to my young mind it rendered everything else occurring immediately around it nonexistent in my mind. What I do remember is that my young life now had a clear dividing line: pre- and post-NES.

Bob’s worship of popular entertainment has since made him the puffy face of a meme known as the Consoomer:

This book predates the meme but Bob was clearly conscious of how his obsession with popular entertainment already looked:

I should stress, lest I come off as even more obsessive about these things than I actually am, that I did have other interests. I’d become a voracious reader (thanks in no small part to my Nintendo Power subscription) and a lover of science and technology… which in turn had led me to an interest in special effects, which in turn led me to a greater fascination with films and filmmaking. And I certainly had other venues of entertainment: like many others our age, my brother and I were consumed by the world of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” for much of the late 1980s.

Hilariously, Bob’s “other interests” are all related to his worship of popular entertainment. A voracious reader of… a monthly Nintendo magazine. Interest in science and technology as they relate to… special effects in movies. And finally “consumed” by another popular entertainment franchise aimed at children. Nintendo Power is mentioned multiple times and to demonstrate how repetitive the first two parts are: he twice shares the anecdote that he has the first issue framed in his room. That I picked up on this even while struggling to keep attention suggests the editor (if there was one), didn’t work too hard on this project.

As mentioned, Bob is a textbook gamma and the autobiographical aspects are at least helpful in what they reveal about the mind of a gamma male:

I was not the easiest child in the world to be raising, at the time. I was “bad” at school, mainly: I acted out in class, sassed my teachers, zoned-out into daydreams, and turned in a lot of poor work. I wasn’t “good” at much of anything school related other than drawing and creative writing. So it wasn’t as though I was in for some kind of “attaboy!” reward that an NES would fill.

This describes the special boy mindset perfectly and even all grown up, he hasn’t considered that maybe he was the one with the problem and not his teachers, peers or even the school system. The above meme taps into what motivates his lingering wrath and it is worth quoting more of his biography at length:

While I won’t claim that I had anything close to an unhappy childhood, particularly compared to many of my friends, I wasn’t having an easy time of pre-adolescence. I was, quite emphatically, a “nerd” in every sense of the word, save for academic excellence: I had too much of a problem with authority to be any good at schoolwork, but was still too weird and bookish to be accepted by most of my peers. Instead of dealing with this in some kind of mature fashion, I made one bad decision after another – including the classic asshole move of trying to endear myself to the “cool” kids by trying to join the name-calling and belittling of the other “uncool” kids. A part of me will probably hate myself for that until my dying day.

I should probably add that I was attending a Catholic School at the time, so all my issues came packaged alongside an inseparable religious guilt to boot and the teachers, free from the rigors of dealing with kids with serious problems like their public school counterparts, had plenty of time to devote to “fixing” me. I was in the principal’s office a lot, and so were my parents. They tried therapy, but I developed an unhelpful hobby of reading about child psychiatry techniques and then either purposefully subverting them or smugly informing the therapist that I knew why he was doing what he was doing. I even had an EKG (which at least required me to stay up all night beforehand watching Nick at Nite and playing Nintendo, so there was that). They recommended Ritalin and other mind-altering drugs… but my parents said no. I thank them at least once a month for that, sometimes more.

Remember firstly that this is supposed to be an analysis of a video game and spare some sympathy for what some unexpecting readers discovered on reading it. Next, it is revealing that he didn’t do well in school and yet obviously considers himself a smart boy as well as a secret king. People who really are intelligent usually still do well in school whether or not they find the content engaging. A good teacher will even notice and extend them in some way. It is at best unusual for a genuinely intelligent person to do badly in school but I’m sure Bob would consider himself unusual in just that way.

Then there is the anti-Catholic element. Anyone who went to a Catholic school from Bob’s generation was almost certainly not given a genuinely Catholic education and I’d be surprised if the average student could name the three persons of the Holy Trinity or even recite the Lord’s Prayer these days. I get irritated or even infuriated by people who portray modern Catholic education as the suffocating stereotype it absolutely wasn’t. It is interesting that he thinks he would have done any better in the public system too. Clearly Bob was a difficult child that needed “fixing” and judging by his life since — still does. 

This was published over a decade ago and Bob hasn’t evolved in the slightest. He is one of those people who found some success online in the new frontier days of YouTube and online video content but his brand never really evolved beyond this. He’s still doing pretty much the same thing a decade late with a dwindling audience. Judging by his average view count, he seems to be mostly dependent on Patreon support which to his credit, is still relatively strong. But at the time this book was written, I don’t think he would have imagined his online brand to have stagnated as much as it has today. Indeed, his career had already peaked at the time this was published and he didn’t know it.

There is one more amusing anecdote from his first “break” on a cable-access movie review show which he lost after the “guy” who gave him the opportunity discovered his online review of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ:

He presented me with a printout of a scathing blog review I’d posted after seeing the film the first time, and wanted to know what I had “against Jesus Christ.” Unwisely, I offered that my objection was to the anti-Semitism in the film and was told “Those people had ‘Schindler’s List,’ now this is our turn”… I was then told that he would be using the “Passion” discussion as an occasion to promote the film’s “positive message,” and that if I wouldn’t go along (by saying I liked the movie) my time on the show would be over. And that was that. I never heard from the guy

I actually like the sound of the guy and support his decision to fire Bob.

One more absurd quote I have to include is his attempted re-write of gaming history and culture from his perspective:

In 2008 I was spending a lot of time online, re-engaged with a gaming community that in many ways not only didn’t resemble the one I recalled but seemed openly hostile to it – a mirror-image that hated its own original subject.

The feeling of inclusiveness that I remembered (perhaps in rose-colored exaggeration), born from gaming culture and nerd culture having originated as one and the same and thus sympathetic to misfits and the socially-oppressed, had been replaced by a culture of bullying: a crude, cruel horde dedicated to shunning not only the “old” iconography of gaming but any attempt to build a “new” one beyond the borders of the Online Multiplayer Military Shooter culture that had come to dominate. Whereas I’d recalled a culture that flaunted its own pseudo-multiculturalism given the sheer volume of the medium that came from the “alien” culture of Japan, I now found a rabidly xenophobic culture that would not only happily purge the “weird” Eastern influences of the past but also resisted the injection of any perspective that didn’t align with that of a white/heterosexual/middle-class/male. 

Not “rose-colored exaggeration” but complete nonsense. I am of the same generation as Bob and from childhood through to early message boards, his description of video game communities both online and off  — is absurd. This was the year before GamerGate when people in gaming media and development were becoming noticeably more political. It is no surprise that Bob was on the side trying to redefine video games and gaming culture as the freak show large parts of it have now become. Trash-talking, competitive males were always part of gaming from the arcade, to split-screen on consoles, through to LAN parties and competitive online games. For people that didn’t want that, there was always single-player. While I prefer the latter, I never minded the former and had plenty of experience of it. His imagined “gaming community” never, ever existed.

Lastly we come to Part IV which is the “analysis” of the game and supposedly the meat of the book. After reading through the section on World 1, what was already tedious, became unbearably more so. What is supposedly the main content of the book isn’t so much an analysis as it is Bob describing the title screen, overworld and then each level. If you’ve played the game, this isn’t interesting at all. I don’t care to imagine what it would be like for someone who hadn’t played it. He praises certain things or stops to point design aspects out at times but this is all largely superficial. I couldn’t go on reading so I skimmed through the latter pages.

Interspersed in his “analysis” are little diary entries where he talks about what was happening in his life at the time. His sick grandmother (another aspect frequently mocked), what he was drinking, movies he has seen and a car accident he had. This is why it is more a piece of “New Games Journalism” than anything else. The game isn’t really the subject. Notice how little I’ve talked about Super Mario Bros. 3 in reviewing it? That is not deliberate. 

Something else I find baffling is that he played through the game on the Wii Virtual Console when he still owned his original NES. He even mentions digging it out of a box, cleaning it up and testing it when he moved house (or to a room in someone else’s house). If you’re going to do an analysis of a game that holds so much nostalgia (which is certainly a prevalent theme), why wouldn’t you play it on the original hardware? I imagine the form of film analysis that supposedly inspired this would best be done by watching the film on the silver screen too. The reason seems to be that he didn’t play it through in one go which really doesn’t take that long. The VC version allowed you to suspend play where the original didn’t and so he went with that. Reading the diary entries suggests he wasn’t really all that passionate with what he was doing and so staggered it out which along with the poor writing, explains why it is so unengaging. Going from the first entry to last, he took almost two months to do this playthrough which is an absurdly long time for something that could have been done in an afternoon. Bob’s life doesn’t come across to be all that busy either. 

So, I absolutely wouldn’t recommend this book but if you’re curious, I do recommend this video (posted just above) that reads large sections of it along with some amusingly contemptuous commentary.

This book makes for a poor play guide or walkthrough. The analysis is shallow with little discussion of design and mechanics and limited discussion of the game’s history. What information is there had already been done better elsewhere at the time and has been done much better since. It is only really interesting because of how hilariously bad it is and that can easily be established without reading it.

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