Confessions of a Nintendo Fan V

luigi_iconIt’s funny how things come full circle sometimes. One day, you’re wondering what life is like on the other side of the tracks, and the next thing you know, you’re there.

These days, Nintendo seems to be in the position of “alternative game console.” They make the consoles you might choose to own as a supplement to another. Even the original Wii, with how phenomenally successful it was, was treated like a second-class citizen for most of its generation. Owning a Nintendo console as a primary gaming platform certainly provides a unique experience.

It’s funny to remember that there was a time when Nintendo was the main gaming platform for most people. They held the position that Sony or Microsoft have usually been associated with for the past 20 years. In the late ’80s, the NES was the gamer’s game machine. Any other platforms tended to fade into the background.

I, of course, was a Nintendo kid. I probably don’t need to reiterate how much of my attention was monopolized by Nintendo’s consoles. But that’s not to say I had no interest in other game systems. I was aware of Sega’s Master System and NEC’s TurboGrafx-16, and while I didn’t know a whole lot about them, that’s also what made me more curious.

What was it like to grow up with one of those systems instead of an NES? I assumed it was somewhat similar, but just with different games. Master System owners were playing Alex Kidd and Phantasy Star instead of Mario and Zelda. TurboGrafx fans were reading issues of TurboPlay instead of Nintendo Power. I’m sure it was a matter of preference of which games were more appealing, but at the end of the day, fond childhood memories were being made nonetheless.

Over the different console generations, it seems there’s always at least one “runt” console that goes ignored by the general public, but yet goes on to be well regarded by those who owned it. The Sega Saturn, the Sega Dreamcast and the Nintendo GameCube are all systems that were looked down upon during their initial run, but are remembered in a much more positive light after the fact. That always fascinated me. A platform’s true value always seems to shine through over time.

That’s not to say that all unsuccessful consoles are unfairly ignored masterpieces. It’s difficult to find die hard fans of the Phillips CD-i or Atari Jaguar. I’m simply noting that a console’s popularity is not directly related to its actual quality.

Those that did own the “alternative” consoles had a distinctly different gaming experience than those who followed the mainstream. I think that’s part of what attracted me to the Dreamcast. At the time, I knew it was a bit off-center, and having been disillusioned by the gaming experiences I had been having, I was looking for something a little different. The Dreamcast provided exactly that. So much so, in fact, that it has since become the poster child for under-appreciated game consoles.

Shortly thereafter, Nintendo began finding itself in that exact same position with the GameCube, the Wii U, and in a certain way, the original Wii. I was along for the ride with all of them, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that Nintendo had gone from being a “mainstream” platform to the “alternative” game console, and I was having that unique, more niche experience that I was curious about so many years before.

At the risk of sounding a bit “hipster,” maybe that makes the experience a little more valuable. Many kids had an NES; not so many had a Master System. A lot of people now own a PlayStation 4; but far fewer a Wii U. It’s a rarer experience to live through. Not necessarily one that will result in any better or worse memories, but perhaps more personalized ones.

Not that it really matters one way or the other. We all pick whatever platforms have the games that appeal to us specifically (and some people just buy all of them). Whether or not a platform is mainstream is arbitrary. But if I wanted to know what it was like to be an alternative gamer, well, here I am.

Be careful what you wish for.

Confessions of a Nintendo Fan IV

icon_miiverseThe term “fanboy” (or “fangirl,” as the case may be) applies to a lot of different areas of the videogame community: Xbox fanboys, Sonic fanboys, Dark Souls fanboys, shmup fanboys, PC master race, etc. But perhaps the most infamous and stereotyped fanboys of them all are the legendary Nintendo fanboys.

As a pejorative, “Nintendo fanboy” connotes blind fanaticism based on the assumption that the company is inherently superior. (Something I’ve ashamedly skirted myself in years past.) In a more casual, non-inflammatory sense, the term is simply used to describe someone who is just a really big Nintendo fan. But the existence of the term demonstrates just how large and passionate the Nintendo fan community can be.

The quality and style of Nintendo’s games are certainly capable of garnering a core fan base, whether it be in the late ’80s when they were revolutionizing the home console market, or today when they offer a distinctly different experience from more “mainstream” games seen on other platforms. But aside from the games, themselves, Nintendo does a remarkable job of creating a sense of community that has nurtured that fan base into something a little more.

It started in the late ’80s with the original Nintendo Fun Club newsletter that quickly evolved into the long-running Nintendo Power magazine. The “Player’s Pulse” section highlighted how Nintendo manifested itself into fans’ everyday lives, from the envelope artwork to pets being named after Nintendo characters. It created a sense of community in an era long before the internet became a household thing.

And when the internet did become a thing in the later ’90s, Nintendo was actually there pretty early on, beginning with the Nintendo Power Source on AOL. An official website soon followed with chat rooms and message boards dubbed with silly names based on whatever current marketing slogan they were using, like The Loudhouse (for “Play It Loud”) and Nsider (“Get N or Get Out”). It even had its own online summer camp known as Camp Hyrule.

Of course, the rise of the internet also allowed more fans to connect beyond Nintendo’s own official channels, with countless fan sites and fan forums coming and going over the years. Perhaps that’s why Nintendo ended up shutting down their own forums (aside from the tech support forum) in the mid 2000s, deciding that the fan community was sustaining itself.

The launch of their social network Miiverse, however, in late 2012 (alongside the release of the Wii U and the end of Nintendo Power) marked a new era for the official Nintendo community. More than just a message board, Miiverse plugs directly into the games, themselves, allowing users to post screenshots or use other integrated functionality that, at times, is actually quite clever. (Like the “message in a bottle” in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD, or the graffiti in Splatoon.)

Nintendo has also experimented with video content over the years. In the ’90s, they mailed out VHS tapes promoting games like Donkey Kong Country and Star Fox 64. During the Wii generation, users could download the Nintendo Channel, which featured a weekly show called (appropriately) Nintendo Week. More recently, Nintendo has embraced standard streaming services like YouTube and Twitch, and along with them, presents new shows like Nintendo Direct, Nintendo Minute and Treehouse Live.

A sense of shared interests is the glue that holds together any fan community, and Nintendo has been providing this to its fans for nearly 30 years now. However, as a longtime fan myself, I admit I have mixed feeling about it. At times, being part of the Nintendo fan community is enjoyable and valuable, but as with any fan community, it has its darker side and stigmas that I’d prefer not to be associated with.

As a kid, I wasn’t always around other kids who were into Nintendo like I was. Reading about other fans in Nintendo Power was always one of my favorite parts of the magazine. By the time we got home internet access, I jumped right into the online community, and it was great to nerd out with other fans, but as mentioned previously, it didn’t necessarily have a positive effect. By the early 2000s, this actually led me to avoid the Nintendo fan community for a few years. In fact, I stayed off of nearly all internet forums for a time as I tried to get back to basics as a gamer.

When I did feel I was ready to chat with other gamers online again, I looked for general videogame forums. After all, I figured Nintendo was just another platform, and there was no reason I couldn’t chat about the games I loved in a place with other people who loved games that happened to be on other platforms. I really wasn’t interested in returning to the “fanboy’s” perspective. The perspective I wanted was Nintendo in the context of the greater gaming community.

And that’s what I got. Unfortunately, something really annoying came with it: other fanboys. It wasn’t always the kind that fawned over PlayStation or Xbox in the way that Nintendo fanboys were usually known for, but it was often a general anti-Nintendo sentiment. It was difficult to start a discussion about anything Nintendo-related without some random person jumping in to take a cheap dig at Nintendo and make sure I knew how much they sucked.

I was able to put up with it for a while, because certainly there were plenty of other “normal” gamers, but it kind of wore me down after a while. As reluctant as I was to rejoin the Nintendo fan community, it was really the best option for chatting with other people who shared the same appreciation for Nintendo that I did. The trick was in finding the right community. I wanted something that was neither full of blind fanboys, nor anti-Nintendo sentiment. I avoided the official forums, which were still up at that time, and looked into fan forums. Fortunately, I was able to find one that fit me.

I suppose that’s the value that the Nintendo fan community holds for me today. It’s more fun to connect with other fans when you don’t have to worry about anti-Nintendo fanboys trying to gang up you. And to be clear, it’s absolutely not about trying to avoid criticism of Nintendo. They certainly bring it upon themselves from time to time, and fans can be their harshest critics. But for me, it’s about sharing common interests while avoiding the fanboyism.

I guess what I’m really trying to say here is (once again), fanboys suck.

Confessions of a Nintendo Fan III

Wii iconIf nothing else, Nintendo is certainly an unconventional videogame company. Their tendency to zig when everyone else zags is both a strength and a weakness, being a trait that some people find endearing while others are put off by it. A handheld with two screens? Waving a remote control around? A controller with a giant touch screen in the middle? Certainly, not all of their experiments are successful, or even born out of necessity, and often times they’re labeled as gimmicks. But be that as it may, I think dismissing them as simple gimmicks undermines the value they actually have in the grander scheme of things.

Something I love about the videogame medium is how incredibly versatile it is. Ever since I was young, I always believed that there was a videogame for everyone. Can’t wrap your head around an action game like Super Mario Bros? Maybe a simpler puzzle game like Tetris is for you. Or maybe you’d rather spend months of your life dissecting the intricacies of a deep RPG. Perhaps you like your games to be more cinematic and movie-like. Or maybe your aviation fantasies are satisfied with an ultra-realistic flight simulator. There’s no rule that says a videogame’s quality or worth is based on what type of game it is.

But it’s not just about style or genre. It goes beyond that, as well. The type of hardware a game runs on, as well as your means of interacting with it, should be allowed to be just as versatile. This is an area a lot of people seem to get hung up on.

Let’s take a step back for a minute. In fact, let’s go back to 2004 when Nintendo revealed one of its most infamous “disruptions:” the Nintendo DS. I mean, really. What do we need with two screens? And does anyone really want to control a game with a touchscreen? Not to mention, it’s nowhere near as powerful as the more conventional Sony PSP that was announced just a little earlier. It’s just plain weird for no reason.

My reaction: why not?

At that time in the early 2000s, it felt like videogames were becoming rigid, as if they had to be a specific thing that worked a specific way. I don’t know if it was because players were becoming more adverse to change, or because publishers were afraid to try new things, but it was particularly frustrating for me. This wasn’t the attitude that made videogames so interesting in the ’80s. Granted, it was the wild west back then, and videogames were still trying to define themselves through trial and error. And while the experimentation wasn’t always successful, it was one of the things that made them exciting. I was sad to see that disappearing.

So for me, the Nintendo DS was a breath of fresh air. Why not have the game play out on more than one screen? Why not interact with it with something other than buttons? Why not let videogames be more than just conventional?

Gimmicky? Maybe in some ways, but it’s worth acknowledging that it had to go through a maturation process. The games available for the DS in its first year often used the touchscreen and other features in insubstantial ways, mainly just using them for the sake of it. But by the end of the system’s lifespan, developers had learned how, when (and when not) to make use of it.

I supposed I could be called a little bit of a motion control apologist, but I feel the same way about the original Wii. Motion controls have become a bit of a dirty word in the gaming community, but I believe they had more value than they tend to get credit for. Games early in the Wii’s life were spotty with their motion control experiments, often being used for minigames. But by the end, we were seeing very smart implementation in games like Trauma Team, Red Steel 2 and Pandora’s Tower. Heck, even comparing the Wii version of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, released as a launch title, with Skyward Sword, one of the last major releases for the console, is night and day, going from using waggle as a direct substitute for a button press to actual one-to-one sword control that tied directly into the gameplay.

More importantly, I would argue that trying to adapt the controls to a traditional controller would break the games. In fact, you can play Pandora’s Tower with traditional controls, but it’s clearly not how it was intended. That’s the key. Trying to adapt games to an interface they weren’t designed for is often a problem, particularly in the case of emulating classic arcade games. Going back to that wild west era, many of them had unique control methods: steering wheels, light guns, trackballs, knobs, handlebars, etc. Sometimes, it can be hard to make them work just right with an analog stick and buttons. In short, games are usually best played with the interface they were designed for, be it a traditional controller or motion controls.

Maybe it’s easy to think Nintendo gets a little too clever with their hardware, but I appreciate their willingness to get off the beaten path. Calling it gimmicky is a little shortsighted, because given time, it does result in some clever, unique experiences. And that’s what keeps their systems from being “just another game console.” It’s another thing that has kept me a fan of Nintendo for all these years, and I’m glad they’re keeping that spirit alive. I hope they continue to do so in the future.

Confessions of a Nintendo Fan II

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.

Confessions of a Nintendo Fan I

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.