Confessions of a Nintendo Fan II

February 27, 2015 3 comments

Icon - Dark LinkIn the last part, I mentioned that my being a Nintendo fan wasn’t about loyalty. As someone who grew up with Nintendo, I do want to see them do well, but if I felt they were going in a direction that didn’t agree with me, I wouldn’t continue to support them. It’s also not my intention to say that Nintendo is somehow inherently superior to other console makers or game publishers, just that their style aligns with my personal tastes. Thus, I classify myself as a “fan,” but not a “fanboy.”

But I admit, that wasn’t always the case.

Nintendo had such a dominant position in videogames during the NES era (partly because of some shady business practices) that any other platforms, like the Sega Master System, merely faded into the background. Of course, being the greedy kid I was, that didn’t stop me from being curious about them and wanting to own everything. Still, Nintendo was the king in my mind, and they got top priority. I even owned both a SNES and Sega Genesis, and while I loved my Genesis and played tons of Sonic the Hedgehog, the SNES still got the lion’s share of my attention.

By the time the next generation rolled around, I had it firmly in my head that Nintendo was going to be the dominant force, with Sega running second. Other consoles that tried to get a piece of the action, like the 3DO and CD-i, came and went, and I laughed when I heard that the electronics company Sony would try to squeeze their way in with something called the PlayStation.

Well, Sega fumbled and that left enough of an opening for the PlayStation to get a firm foothold, but when the Nintendo 64 hit stores in 1996, I expected it to blow the competition away. Believe it or not, I wasn’t alone. Coming off two great consoles like the NES and SNES, Nintendo was still considered a major force to contend with back then. Yes, I was sure Nintendo would dominate once again, and this new kid on the block was going to get slapped back down the pecking order. I mean, obviously Nintendo was the best.

Of course, that didn’t happen. What did happen was that third-parties, even loyal ones like Squaresoft, began running away from Nintendo. The PlayStation was getting tons of great software, and the N64 was getting software droughts. But that didn’t stop me from deluding myself into thinking that the N64 was still superior and that the PS1 was all hype. I knew that eventually the truth would be seen, and the tide would swing back to Nintendo.

This was my worst time as a gamer. I wasn’t quite on the level of an angry fanboy, aggressively deriding the PS1 and Saturn or openly insulting their fans. In fact, I seriously considered getting one of the other consoles myself, but even if I had, it probably would’ve been the same situation as with my SNES and Genesis. I just couldn’t change the idea in my head that anything on a Nintendo console would always be superior to anything any other console could offer, no matter how much third-party support they had.

This was also a disturbingly cynical period for me. Even my attitude towards Nintendo’s games tended to be negative, always wanting to pick them apart and criticize them for not being as good as the classics from the NES and SNES days. I was also bitter that the 2D games I had loved were being replaced with clunky polygonal 3D, and yet everyone insisted that 3D was inherently better than 2D.

I don’t know if it was just my age, or maybe I had grown jaded, but I’m almost certain that first getting home internet access at about this time was a big factor. For the first time, I was connecting with other like-minded Nintendo fans online, and the cynicism flowed like water off of Niagara Falls. Even back then, something about the internet just amplified anger and nurtured negativity. I certainly wasn’t immune to its effects.

What all this amounted to was the N64 becoming my least-favorite Nintendo console. I never did accumulate much of a library for it. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy games on it, though I often rented more than I purchased. Still, I was a fanboy for continuing to think that a Nintendo-developed game was inherently better than anything else.

The straw that finally broke the camel’s back was Yoshi’s Story. One of the best games I had rented for the system was Mischief Makers, one of its very few 2D side-scrolling games. I didn’t end up buying it, though, because Yoshi’s Story was just around the corner. Not only was it the follow-up to one of my favorite games on the SNES, but if a game like Mischief Makers could be so good, just imagine how amazing Nintendo’s own in-house developed game would be!

I still remember standing in Toys R Us with a fat wallet in my pocket, and staring at both games. For a brief moment, I considered going with Mischief Makers. After all, N64 games were expensive, and at least I knew what I would be getting into. Not to mention reviews for Yoshi’s Story were a little lukewarm. But once again, without even having rented it, I convinced myself that it was just media bias, and of course Nintendo made the better games. Naturally.

Actually, I kinda like Yoshi’s Story now, but it took more than a decade for me to warm up to it. At the time, however, my disappointment was like a punch in the gut, as it was a far cry from either Yoshi’s Island or Mischief Makers. I just didn’t like it, and I couldn’t convince myself otherwise. It was at about this time that it finally sunk in: Nintendo was not infallible.

I also started to become aware of how bad my attitude was towards gaming. I spent so much time negatively comparing modern games to the classics of my youth that I had forgotten why I enjoyed videogames in the first place. As a kid playing games on my NES, I didn’t pick them apart. It wasn’t about putting them on trial, I just enjoyed them for what they were.

I wanted to get that back. I wanted to start simply enjoying games again, and it took a conscious effort for me to change my attitude. I had to put aside my impulse to judge. I needed to stop getting hung up on stupid details, and just go along for the ride. I disconnected from the online gaming communities I was a part of, and limited the amount of time I spent on the internet. It was time to cleanse myself as a gamer and get back to basics.

At about this time, I started hearing about a new game console called the Sega Dreamcast.

The Dreamcast came along at the perfect time, and it did a lot to heal my gaming wounds. I even remember telling someone at the time that it reminded me a lot of the NES. Not technologically, of course, but the creativity and personality in its gaming catalog made it feel like I was discovering videogames all over again. Even the Official Dreamcast Magazine gave it that community feeling that the early years of Nintendo Power provided so well. The Dreamcast helped me see the fun in videogames again.

Of course, the console didn’t last long, but what a ride! If I had the opportunity to go back in time, knowing how things would turn out for Sega, I’d still get on board.

After that, I was in a very neutral position as a gamer. If Sega hadn’t gone third-party, I probably would’ve continued being a Sega fan. But as it was, I had three other consoles to choose from and no brand loyalty to guide me. I looked at the game libraries for each platform, and I seriously considered the PlayStation 2, but in the end, I realized one thing: I still loved The Legend of Zelda, and I would never forgive myself for passing up the next game in the series. After all, the one N64 game I bought during the Dreamcast era was Majora’s Mask.

Not to mention Metroid was coming back.

And so I chose the GameCube, and just like that I was back with Nintendo. But not without being a little older and a little wiser.

It may sound funny, but the Dreamcast taught me a lot about what it means to own a videogame console. Every system has its own style and personality, and provides a certain kind of experience. Even if that console isn’t the most popular or successful, as long as you enjoy what it does have to offer, you’ll still come away with fond, irreplaceable memories.

Every Nintendo system I’ve owned since then has been a conscious decision, not a foregone conclusion. Yeah, there’s some sentimentalism involved, but at this point, how could there not be? As long as I still enjoy the games, I’ll play what I like.

And that’s what it comes down to. I bought a Wii U a year after it launched, and I went into it knowing that it may not last long or provide a very large game library. But as with the Dreamcast, it had the experience I was looking for, and I was going to enjoy it for all it’s worth. I knew what I was getting into, and so far, it has surpassed my expectations.

The difference between being a “fan” and a “fanboy” is the difference between being open-minded and closed-minded. It’s easy to get caught up in internet drama; to develop a very narrow view of what gaming should or shouldn’t be; to think you know better than everyone else. I was lucky enough to recognize my biases and let go of my judgments, and I’ve been a much happier gamer ever since.

Arcade Mania – Arkanoid (1986)

February 20, 2015 5 comments

Icon - ArkanoidMy very first home game console was the Atari 5200, and one of the games I had for it was Super Breakout. It’s a simple ball-and-paddle game, although slightly upgraded from the original Breakout. Still, I always found it a little too simple, so it didn’t really hold my attention for long.

However, I fell in love with Arkanoid when I played it in the arcade. Taito’s rendition of the ball-and-paddle concept took it too a whole new level, adding all kinds of extra gameplay elements, as well as a strangely epic-feeling sci-fi story.

It begins with the destruction of a mother ship called Arkanoid, and a smaller capsule ship called the Vaus manages to get away. During its escape, it gets trapped in a bizarre space warp filled with colorful blocks by an evil moai called Doh.

All right, it’s not exactly Star Wars, but it sets the stage.

Rather than simply bouncing a ball around, Arkanoid adds several power-ups you can collect, such as a laser, multiplying the ball, being able to “catch” the ball, expanding the Vaus, and so on. Each level in the game features a different formation of blocks, and some blocks take several hits to destroy or are even indestructible. There are also some enemies that float around the play field, and while they don’t cause any harm if they touch the Vaus, they can cause the ball to bounce in unexpected directions. All of these elements add some much needed depth to the gameplay, but it still remains simple enough to be addictive.

Arkanoid was such a leap forward from Breakout that it pretty much created its own sub-genre. Any time a Breakout-style game comes out that has power-ups and other gimmicks, it’s usually referred to as an “Arkanoid clone” rather than a Breakout clone.

Screenshot - Arkanoid

If you manage to beat Doh and escape the space warp, the Vaus is sent back in time to be reunited with the Arkanoid. But as we’re informed by an ending message, “the real voyage of ‘Arkanoid’ in the galaxy has only started……” And thus, there have been several sequels over the years, such as Revenge of Doh, Arkanoid: Doh it Again, Arkanoid Returns and Arkanoid Plus!, among others, although they all pretty much stick to the same formula. The original game was also ported to numerous home platforms, but most people might remember the NES version which came with its own “knob” controller (a valuable collector’s item these days).

In a way, Arkanoid was to Breakout what Galaga was to Space Invaders: a logical enhancement to a solid core concept. And like Galaga, it still holds up great today. It’s definitely worth getting stuck in a space warp filled with colorful blocks in any incarnation you can find it in.

Confessions of a Nintendo Fan I

February 6, 2015 4 comments

I’ve been a videogame fan for as long as I can remember. One of my earliest memories involved going past an arcade in a shopping mall and hearing the unique electronic noises wafting out of it. I would get excited about visiting a relative’s house because I would get the chance to play their Atari 2600. My very first home console was the infamous Atari 5200. I even played a few simple games on my father’s archaic IBM PC. And of course, I enjoyed playing arcade games any chance I got. But playing the NES for the first time at a neighbor’s apartment in 1987 began something that has lasted for more than 25 years so far.

I am a Nintendo fan.

There’s just no getting around it at this point. Nintendo has been a part of my life for nearly three decades. Something about them just clicks with me, even today.

Is it nostalgia? Sentimentalism? Blind fanboyism? I can think of a number of reasons why Nintendo still appeals to me after all these years, but when it comes down to it, it’s not about loyalty. I’m not married to Nintendo, and if I didn’t like what they were doing, I could find my kicks elsewhere. Yet, they somehow continue to earn my fandom.

But let’s start at the beginning.

That eight-year-old boy playing the original Super Mario Bros for the first time probably didn’t realize the impact that moment was having at the time. Videogames always seemed magical and exciting, but I was stepping into a whole new world. Something about the best games on the NES felt wondrous, mysterious. It’s hard to put into words, but it’s sometimes referred to as “Nintendo Magic.” The now-defunct Next Generation magazine once called it a “dreamy ‘wow’ factor.” Whatever it was, it did a lot to shape my tastes and expectations as a videogame fan going forward.

Does Nintendo still have that magic today? Personally, I think so, even if it doesn’t stand out as much among the current gaming landscape as it did back then. But for a game developer and publisher, Nintendo still holds a lot of the same values. Heck, a lot of the same people are still working there.

I think some of that magic rubbed off onto third-parties, as well. Japanese companies like Capcom, Konami and Squaresoft really defined themselves on the NES. Some of them were great arcade developers before that, but the NES was arguably the first home console in which many games were specifically tailored for the home experience rather than just being a platform for arcade ports, and it revolutionized the way games were designed.

This was the beginning of the golden era of Japanese game development. A lot of groundbreaking innovations in game design happened because of Japanese craftsmanship, and legendary franchises like Mega Man, Castlevania and Final Fantasy were born out of it. Most of the best games at that time came from Japan, and I still appreciate Japanese games today.

Unfortunately, many of those companies I grew up with seem to have lost their identity. Capcom, Konami, Square Enix, and even Sega bare only the vaguest resemblance to the companies I used to know and love. Many of them are trying to appeal more to the Western market, or even farming out their franchises to Western developers who reboot them into something barely recognizable. Some of them are devoting themselves to the cell phone market, or catering to “moe” fetishes.

It’s understandable, I suppose. The game industry is a lot different now than it was then with the pendulum having swung westward. Japanese society has also changed, with many players finding it more convenient (and discrete) to play on their cell phones. Some developers lament the fact that they can’t make the kinds of games they used to, which, perhaps, is why many of them have gone indie. But publishers are simply doing what they think they need to do to survive.

Nintendo, however, is probably the only major Japanese publisher that still maintains a classical sensibility. They still make their own platforms, their games still feel like Nintendo games, and they avoid cell phones like the plague. A lot of analysts and players alike think Nintendo is being overly stubborn not to embrace the current trends in the gaming industry. I won’t argue that Nintendo is a stubborn company and that they’re very slow to change, but frankly, I think they also have more integrity.

I often see gamers get frustrated when a company like Sega or Capcom focuses on mobile platforms, or abuses shady practices like free-to-play pricing and on-disc DLC, or tries to retrofit classic franchises into a trendy genre. But then why isn’t the opposite more appreciated? Why doesn’t Nintendo get more respect for continuing to do things the way many of us want to see other Japanese companies go back to doing things? Last year, Sega Nerds‘ Chris Powell published an editorial saying that Sega needed to be more like Nintendo, because, he argued, Nintendo still maintains a strong identity while Sega is flailing about. Who wouldn’t want to see the old Sega, Capcom or Konami come back?

That’s not to say Nintendo hasn’t changed at all. They’ve gone through their own metamorphosis and are distinctly different than they were 20 years ago. I’m also not saying they’ve never made mistakes or done aggravating things. But at the core, they’re still Nintendo, and they do things the Nintendo way. It’s not just a brand; the name means something. I can’t say the same for every company.

There are still other great Japanese developers around today with a classical approach to games, but many of them are indie studios, like Platinum Games and Nihon Falcom. Perhaps it’s telling that Platinum seemed to enjoy its recent relationship with Nintendo. They’re probably on the same page when it comes to development philosophy.

I still enjoy that flavor of Japanese game design, and Nintendo is one company that still consistently provides it. Plus, it’s all centralized on their own platforms. Even today, Nintendo represents what cemented my love for gaming way back then. The magic still enchants me.

So, that’s one reason I love Nintendo. As I’ve grown, I’ve been through many phases as a gamer. My tastes have changed, my attitudes have changed, and it wasn’t all positive. Next time, I’ll dare to explore a darker side of my Nintendo fandom.

“Video Games” and “Videogames”

January 23, 2015 Leave a comment

This may seem a bit trivial, but I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the difference of spelling “video game” as two words or one word.

Why? Well, contrary to what some people may think, “videogame” is not necessarily an accidental misspelling. In fact, it was originally and deliberately coined by the late Bill Kunkel, who’s considered one of the pioneers of video game journalism. As one of the founders of Electronic Games magazine in 1981, the very first publication devoted to video games, Kunkel was responsible for creating a lot of the nomenclature still used in writing about games today. Kunkel preferred to used the single-word spelling due to the extra connotation it carried for video games as an expressive medium.

It’s interesting to note that many common terms used when talking about video games are compound words, such as “screenshot,” “cutscene,” and “gameplay,” to name a few. All of them are considered acceptable in the medium’s lexicon (even though my word processor is currently flagging them with red underlines), but ironically, “videogame” is one that doesn’t seem to have caught on to the same degree.

I, myself, have tended to used the two-word spelling simply because it’s the more common spelling I see used. In fact, while Kunkel was originally a proponent of the one-word spelling, he switched to the two-word version in 2007 when he realized that it was more recognized by search engines. Still, the single-word spelling has its advocates for the same reasons Kunkel began using it in the first place.

This brief article on the subject from 2010 makes some interesting points about the use of the single-word variation. Personally, I have come to recognize a slight difference in meaning between the two spellings. I’m dipping my toes into philosophical waters here, but to me, “video games” carries a more literal description of what the medium is, while “videogames” implies what the medium achieves. It’s kind of like the difference between “moving pictures” and “movies.”

As a writer, it’s always a matter of finding the right word to use in the right context. I think there’s value in both spellings, and so I intend to start using each one where appropriate. Was it worth writing a whole blog post to explain this? Well, for my own integrity, I wanted to clarify why I might choose to use the word “videogames.”

Most people probably don’t care, but some people seem to have strong feelings about spelling and grammar. If you have an opinion, I’d love to hear it! Do you prefer “video games” or “videogames,” and why?

Deeper Waters – Sonic the Hedgehog, Part 8

January 16, 2015 Leave a comment

Sonic iconWow. When I started this series last year, I didn’t expect it to go on for so long!

As I mentioned back then, it was originally inspired by Jeremy Parish’s Anatomy of Games series, in which he analyzes how level design subliminally teaches the player the basics of the game. I quickly veered from that kind of minute detail to looking more at the overall flow and presentation of the game. I’m not sure if it really turned out to be very insightful. Looking back on it, it’s almost a let’s play in text form.

Still, I see Sonic the Hedgehog as a classic platform game that deserves praise for taking the foundations set by Super Mario Bros in a whole new direction, and establishing its own unique identity. Sonic is extremely momentum based. He starts off walking slower than Mario, but can reach much higher speeds. The physics are extremely well done for a game of the era, and mastering them is the essential skill of the game. The level design complements it nicely, constantly throwing new obstacles and gimmicks into the mix, and the alternation between “faster” and “slower” zones creates a tempo that keeps the game from becoming monotonous.

To be honest, I’m a little surprised to still see the classic Sonic games get occasional flak for their control and level design. Back in the day, I chalked it up to the rivalry between Nintendo fanboys and Sega fanboys. After all this time, I would think that kind of mindset would have subsided. But I think a lot of people get hung up on Sonic‘s speed gimmick, and can’t see past it. Underneath it, however, is a traditional yet clever platform game. The speed is occasionally used to put some new twists on the running and jumping and give the player a quick rush of exhilaration, but it isn’t really the focus in and of itself (at least, not in the first game). It’s ironic that the hook that makes it unique is also what holds it back.

So, now that I’m finally done with Sonic the Hedgehog, what’s next? I haven’t decided yet if I’m going to analyze another game, although I have one in mind that I think would be interesting. If I do, I would try a different approach. But for now, I’ve got another project to work on!

Screenshot - Sonic the Hedgehog

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