Month: April 2016

The Cult of Nintendo

Did you have a Nintendo Club with your friends called The Totally Radical Video Gridiron Warriors? No? Just me?

I understand. Odds are your Nintendo club was called something very different.

The Nintendo was not just about the system and the games. That first Nintendo system impacted modern culture in a way no other video game platform has ever managed.

We live in a world where Mario has become as internationally recognizable an icon as Mickey Mouse. What other figure in video games can claim that? Pac-Man, maybe? Lara Croft? Sonic the Hedgehog? Those are the only ones I can think of, off the top of my head, that maybe come close, and let’s be honest: they don’t even come close.

What other gaming platform (not GAME, but PLATFORM) has been the focus of a feature-length Hollywood film? How many notes does it take for the average human of a certain age to recognize the World 1-1 music from Super Mario Bros.? How many of us grin knowingly when they see a t-shirt that reads “Up Up Down Down Left Right Left Right B A Start”? How many of us know that a star makes one invincible, and that it’s dangerous to go alone and we should take this? Do you actually think we’ll see a Captain Playstation: The Game Master TV show anytime soon? When you hear Russian folk music do you think of Tchaikovsky or Tetrinos? DO all your base belong to us? DO you love your Power Glove? Tell me, which OTHER console established the standard by which all future platform, puzzle, shooter, adventure, RPG, and sport games would be judged? Have you ever tried to make a piece of technology work by blowing in it, and follow-up question, where did you get THAT move from?

As huge as the video game industry is now, it is, like all modern entertainment options, fragmented amongst a disparity of content providers. Nintendo, though, in the days of the NES… Nintendo was a culture. Nintendo was a cult. Nintendo… was a way of life.

And we were all playing. With power.

Nintendo Power

It all began with the Official Nintendo Player’s Guide, a black-covered serious-looking tome of insider tips for that first generation of classic NES games, complete with full maps and full-color screenshots and illustrations. It was not a book I owned, but it was a book I borrowed from friends probably a dozen times.

As I was not on-board the NES train from day one, I missed out on the Nintendo Fun Club, the early officially Nintendo-licensed organization, with a newsletter and other perks. The membership form came in the box with my Nintendo, and my parents sent it in and signed up for me, but in that pre-Internet 6-8 weeks of processing time the Fun Club went kaput, and instead of my newsletter and trinkets what eventually arrived in the mail was so much cooler: the first issue of Nintendo Power magazine.

Clay statue Mario was on the cover, pushing the much anticipated Super Mario Bros. 2 on an eager readership. Nintendo Power proved to be a monthly dose of what I loved the Official Nintendo Player’s Guide for, and more: maps, tips, tricks, previews, “Classified Information”, “Counselor’s Corner”, Nintendo-themed contests, celebrity Nintendo gamer profiles, the “Howard & Nester” comic strip… there was not a feature in Nintendo Power I did not devour. In the early burgeoning field of video game magazines Nintendo Power was the best.

Now, was it a publication chock full of Nintendo propaganda? Well, sure. It pushed Nintendo product like the mass marketing machine it was designed to be. But it was also the definitive ad-free, Nintendo-only source for game-breaking maps and secrets. The fuzzy screenshots and map-less content offered besides lame tips in early competitors like GamePro and Electronic Gaming Monthly could not hold a candle to the production value and Nintendo exclusive strategy guides offered under the Nintendo Power banner. Sure, as other gaming platforms gained traction and other publishers figured out their game, Nintendo Power dwindled down into a shadow of the greatness it once was (much like Nintendo itself). But in those early halcyon days where Nintendo was king, Nintendo Power was the law of the land.

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The Curiosity, The Catastrophe, and the Classic

The NES entered our household just as the second wave of titles for the machine, the second generation, began to appear. One development cycle under their belts, the programmers at Nintendo and at their third-party licensees (that’s right; they used to have those) had begun to figure out the real tricks of the trade that would result in the system’s golden age, an age that lasted from 1988 to 1990.

(Aside: 1990, of course, is the year the last great NES game, Super Mario Bros. 3, launched, and although games were published for the system until 1994 most gaming historians, I’d wager, would agree the book can be closed right there. You’d do better arguing me that the golden age began earlier; my defense is those early games created an industry but weren’t better designed than their sequels: Super Mario Bros. didn’t let you scroll back, The Legend of Zelda was a fantasy adventure that took place in a lifeless wasteland Nintendo has been trying for years now to fold into the series’ canon, Metroid’s greatest design appeal — its atmosphere of isolation and foreboding — made it into the game due to system limitations… etc., etc.

I digress. So while my parents didn’t want me to get a NES, once I had one they were as on-board with it as a limited budget household could be. In fact, my dad was quick to score me a gaming coup: when Nintendo released Super Mario Bros. 2 not long after my brother gave me the best Christmas present ever, it became a Holy Grail of gaming, in-demand and sold out by the truckload. In one of those rare moments, though, when the stars align and the cosmos bring forth true justice, my dad happened to know a guy who knew a guy at work, and he scored me a copy of the game before any of my friends had it. It was one of those rare moments in life where I had something first, where I was cool. (Remember grade school in the 80’s and 90’s, when ownership of a Super Mario game could make you cool?)

I’ve spent more time playing Super Mario 2 than I have any other game in the Super Mario series. Yes, that vegetable throwing Doki Doki Panic facelift game, that one that made zero sense even for a Super Mario game, the one that, while largely ignored in future Super Mario canon, has been cherry-picked over the years of its ripest fruit (Bob-ombs, Shy-guys, Birdo, the different abilities of Mario, Luigi, Peach, and Toad)… I’m as familiar with the ins and outs of Super Mario Bros. 2 as I am with any other game ever made, and even more than the original Super Mario Bros. it defined my sense of what made a platformer a platformer. While it is often regarded as the black sheep of the Mario family of games, it’s always been on my list of favorite NES games (very close to the top, actually) and if Nintendo ever made a true sequel to it, not an impossibility given the quirky throwback nature of the company, I’d be a very happy retro gamer.

My other big NES ownership item was another franchise classic sequel just as different from its predecessor as Mario 2 was from Mario 1, but time has not been anywhere near as kind to its reputation. Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link is as different from The Legend of Zelda as you could imagine, foregoing the top-down dungeon crawling of the original for a hybrid RPG/Action-Adventure mash-up with a top-down overworld that would throw you into side-scrolling battle if you collided with an enemy’s shadow. (Abuh?) Zelda 2 had experience points that you doled out as you leveled up to increase your magic, attack, and life meters, and you learned combat and defense spells as you did in almost every JRPG ever made and as you didn’t in just about every Zelda game before and since… and those three useless spells from Ocarina of Time don’t count. It was a departure from the series, yes, and is now perceived as the red-headed stepchild of Zelda, but I really think the un-Zelda play style is not the real reason for its dismissal by many gamers.

The real problem is that Zelda 2 is, by far, the hardest Zelda game ever made.

Look: the gameplay and overall game experience was as spot-on and polished as you’d ever expect from a Nintendo published title, particularly a core title like a Zelda game. The two-level side-scrolling sword fighting comes to mind, which was arguably more challenging, rewarding and even fun than the lock-and-wait Z-target combat popularized in the 3D Zelda games. Zelda 2 was, however, controller-throwing hard. (The quest through Death Mountain for the frakkata hammer comes to mind.) I finished Mario 2 numerous times as a child. I never finished Zelda 2 as a child. Nor, actually, as an adult, and I’ve tried, but even on the Virtual Console I haven’t been able to defeat the game’s final palace. To this day, Zelda 2 is the lone Zelda game I’ve really tried to beat that I haven’t been able to. And yet, my experience with the game is as formative as any gaming experience I’ve ever had on the NES. I imported many of the attributes given to Link exclusively in Zelda 2, particularly his combat spell system, into the daydream superhero version of Link I’d fantasize about being, running around and fighting alongside Spider-Man in the Marvel Universe.

But enough about that.

Carrying the antithesis of the reputation Mario 2 and Zelda 2 share, Mega Man 2 is widely recognized as the best Mega Man game of the 8-bit era, and perhaps even when you take into account all the Battle Network and X and Zero spin-off titles, as well. Inspired in level design and balanced within an inch of rock-paper-scissors-fire-leaf-missile-bubble-boomerang perfection, Mega Man 2 bested its predecessor and successors in just about every way: challenging without being frustrating, lengthy without being tedious, packed with various items and power-ups without being overwhelming.

Unlike Zelda 2 and Mario 2, Mega Man 2 was a title I did not own, but I did borrow it and take it along on a family vacation to visit our cousins in Maryland. Play outside? Pfft. My cousin Kenny and I played the crap out of Mega Man 2, and it was a legitimate cause for celebration when we figured out which of the Blue Bomber’s many weapons we needed to use to take out Dr. Wily’s android form, and if that last sentence made any sense to you, then congratulations! You’re as cool as I am.

Take that for what it’s worth.

Mega Man 2 set the bar for action platformers, a genre mastered during both the 8 and 16 bit eras by Capcom, the game publisher of Street Fighter 2 fame. Capcom’s platformers were funtime masterpieces in every way, but they exceeded all but Nintendo’s own published titles in one area: play control. The physics and precision of control in Capcom’s platformers ingrained in me what I, to this day, consider to be the most important element of any action game. ‘Cuz if you can’t control it, it ain’t fun, and if you CAN control it, then even insanely challenging games aren’t hyper frustrating because at least the playing field between you and the CPU is even.

So it should come as a surprise to nobody that the absolute best game of the 8-bit NES era was also a Capcom platformer: Ducktales. Hell yeah, it was. Ducktales. Woo-hoo.

In the Beginning…

Two things come to mind when I think back to the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES, or just “The Nintendo”. The first is that I almost never had one, and had it been up to my parents I probably never would have. The second is that, truthfully, most of the most influential games of my lifetime were not games I played on the NES. That first Nintendo system was my gateway drug, the pot or prescription painkillers that led me to the wonderful world of crystal meth that was the Super NES.

That probably wasn’t the best metaphor I could have gone with.

It was Christmas… I want to say 1988, but it could have been 1987. I had long since resigned myself to my fate: my parents were convinced that my Atari 2600 was enough video game for one household, and that this whole “Nintendo” thing was just either more of the same or a fad that would soon pass. No amount of references to blurry, squinty images of The Legend of Zelda or Super Mario Bros. screen shots in the Sears/Roebuck Christmas catalog would convince them otherwise. No, there would be no Nintendo for me. I would spend the rest of my life condemned to playing Mike Tyson’s Punch Out! or Spelunker (or any other number of game cartridges that stunk of cigarettes, rented from a local mom-and-pop video store) at my friend Steven’s, or every other game ever made at my friend Jason’s, i.e. that kid you knew whose parents bought him every game ever made.

I am the youngest of six children, but it’s more complicated than that. My dad was married twice. His first wife passed away when their two children, Jimmy and Regina, were still young, and he married my mom when they were in their early teens. Now it’s important to note: although I was always AWARE of the details of these familial connections, it never OCCURRED to me until my early 20’s that Jimmy and Regina were, in reality, my half-brother and half-sister. They were always just my way-older brother and sister, a decade and a half separating us as opposed to the two-years-like-clockwork between Maggie, Lizz, Mary Cate, and myself.

Thinking back on Christmas ‘88 (or ‘87) it occurs to me that the whole thing may have been a set-up, and my parents may well have known exactly what was going to happen. In my memory, though, they were as surprised as any of us, although much more frowny in their expression of said surprise. As I said: I knew that a life with the NES was not in the cards for me. Imagine my surprise, then, when my brother Jim, home for Christmas with his wife Christine, hauled out a big wrapped box, a “family” gift.

You already know what it was.

Let’s get real: this was a “family” gift in name only, and in hindsight my parents, on a limited budget but knowing there was only one thing I really wanted, or maybe not wanting to spend so much on me in comparison to what they were spending on my siblings, may have set the whole thing up with Jimmy. But again, as I remember it, they were kind of pissed at him and the semi-smug enjoyment he took in watching me unwrap the present and going ape-poop bananas, which really is how we should all always get to react to Christmas presents.

That Christmas was spent stomping Koopas and hunting ducks. I even (begrudgingly) let Jimmy play for a little while. But again (and I can’t make this clear enough) the only member of the family really interested, long-term, in the NES and the hours of joy it would bring, was me.

The introduction of a Nintendo to our household brought regulations that were swiftly pushed to the wayside, because what were my parents going to do? I was already an honor student and a pretty well-behaved kid, I was already doing household chores for a relative bargain-rate allowance; there was very little they could reasonably hold over my head as a device through which to dole out to me my Nintendo playing time.

The NES laid out the groundwork for the standards to which I would hold my video-gaming life. This was where so many of the great franchises of gaming were born (even those that would later move exclusively to other systems), though many of those franchises would not see their best incarnation on the 8-bit NES. This was just a start, and I think on some level I understood that even then, I understood that the games I played and loved and devoured were… incomplete. Imperfect. Part of a larger process. So the number of stand-alone NES games I now point to as being influential or impactful are surprisingly few. Remember: this was a brave new world of mass-consumer home gaming, the first time the console gaming experience was beginning to rival in quality the product being pushed on PC or in the arcade. “Nintendo” was the battle cry of a burgeoning culture, synonymous with video games the way “Coke” was synonymous with cola.

My point? Moreso than arguably any other console system, the NES sure had a lot of half-assed crap on it, mixed in with all the classic games that we remember so fondly.

But who wants to talk about the crap? Not me. No, not when I spent a good five years doing nothing but playing… *deep breath* Super Mario Bros., Duck Hunt, The Legend of Zelda, Combat, Ikari Warriors, Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out, Mega Man 3, Castlevania, Contra, Tecmo Bowl, Dragon Warrior, Final Fantasy, Donkey Kong Classics, Castlevania 3, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game, Super Mario Bros. 3, Ice Hockey, RBI Baseball, The Adventures of Lolo, Bionic Commando, City Connection, Mighty Bomb Jack, Adventure Island, Metroid, Double Dragon, Kung Fu, Double Dragon 2, Ninja Gaiden, River City Ransom, Battletoads, Shadowrun, StarTropics, The Goonies 2, Gradius 2, Excitebike, Bubble Bobble, Blaster Master, Dr. Mario…

I’m not writing about each and every one of these games right now. And I’ve undoubtedly forgotten to mention some. But… man. My childhood was AWESOME.