It’s that time again… as in ‘whatever time I decide to put it out.’ That’s right: my no longer new monthly series, Thoughts from Actual People, is back for its third installment.
The leaves are gone, the snow is already starting to fall in some places, and all the orange and black is being replaced with red and green. We’ve got a ways to go until the true holiday season, but as I allude to in my short story ‘Exclusive Interview,’ that doesn’t stop the stores from celebrating with Black Friday, massive sales, and gadget deals galore.
What better typifies this time of year, where all the commercial world is abuzz with buzz products, than the holy grail of all gadget launches: the first gaming console of the next generation.
This year, we electronics loving uber-dorks and regular schmos alike can look forward to the release of the Nintendo Wii-U, the awkwardly named little doodad that aims to up the graphics clout of the little white box that could while placing a large, easily broken, currently impossible-to-replace tablet-style controller in the hands of little Jane and Johnny on Christmas morning.
If I sound conflicted about my interest in this device, you nailed it. I have one on preorder, along with the first High-Definition side-scrolling Mario game ever, the promise of which alone makes me feel safe in my decision. But can I honestly claim to expect to get as much enjoyment out of it as I did my trusty NES and Super Nintendo back in the day?
For the answers to such questions, and a host of much more interesting ones, I turn now to proprietor of retro-review site ‘NintendoLegend,’ Mr. Eric Bailey.
This fellow shares my great passion for the games that were current when we were but wee lads. Unlike me, he decided to do something about it. His informative-yet-fun site brims with well-written game reviews, not on current hits like ‘Call of Duty’ or recently deceased phenomenon like ‘Guitar Hero,’ but on the wealth of amazing games for the original Nintendo Entertainment System, which launched in the US in 1985.
In the ‘About’ section of his website, Eric states that the overwhelming lack of quality, objective writing about the entirety of the NES library led him to begin writing in-depth, well-written reviews on each game.
In other words, if anybody is going to understand where I’m coming from with the games I love, it’s likely to be this guy.
But it isn't just as a Link to gaming’s Past that Mr. Bailey can help shed some light. He is also one of the select few who have been able to get his grubby paws on one of those Wii-U gamepads, and we can find a little bit more about the product that's about to kick off a new generation of gaming – for better or ill.
Finally, as a blogger and writer Eric Bailey has put together a unique online empire, reveling in his own special stamp while still appealing to a wide-range of people. We’ll ask him a bit about what it’s like to operate your own brand – essentially running his own small business – and find out if he ever has to pay the ‘fan consequences’ of sticking his writer’s foot into gaming’s piranha infested waters – possibly risking the ire or offense of one of the most passionate fanbases in all of ‘liking things’ - in all likelihood over minor or innocuous differences in taste.
Me: The first thing I want to discuss with you is your article about the game “Crystalis” for the NES. This one article sums up everything I like about your site – spotlighting a lesser known but highly impactful game, focusing on the human elements of what it was like to find and buy such a game in the time before internet culture had stripped away the feeling of coming across a game and not knowing anything about it, capturing the entirety of the user experience, and above all capturing that magical feeling of wondering about a box that could contain garbage, but could also contain another world.
I also envy you your specific memory about finding this game. I personally played it as a rental at a much earlier time. Are there any memories of games that stand out stronger to you than others, and are there any memories you know you must have had but regretfully can not recall?
Eric Bailey: Thank you Troy, and it is great to be able to have a back-and-forth with someone who can appreciate such sentiments. As for game memories that stand out stronger than others, definitely! I think partially that is due to the inherent nature of certain games and genres more naturally lending themselves to stronger memories; for example, if you invest 40 hours into your first playthrough of Final Fantasy, it should probably stick with you in a deeper, more resonant way than, say, that time you blitzed through Little Mermaid in half an hour, as good as Capcom's Disney games were. But on the other hand, sometimes a game is memorable due to life's circumstances at the time, or memories with friends. The Nintendo 64 version of Super Smash Bros may be the most crude and basic of the series, but it is by far the one I burned the most hours on with some buddies in four-player action on many occasions.
For memories I wish I clung onto more, I think just my earliest gaming memories in general. I can distinctly remember playing Duck Hunt and Super Mario Bros for the first time as a 4-year-old, but I largely forget what my next handful of games were, and know there were some Atari 2600 titles in the mix as well. Also, when I was a kid, I know we rented dozens of NES games, but some I recall more than others. I wish I could have foreseen how nostalgic I would be for these 8-bit cartridges, because it is depressing to think of how many I eventually sold off or otherwise got rid of.
Me: You mention that sense of magic, about being drawn into a game’s narrative. Specifically, you cite that chilling line of the opening cinematic to ‘Crystalis,’ “1997, October 1, The END DAY.” Now, it may be because I was just a kid and afraid of going to the bathroom in the dark, or maybe not, but it seems to me that back in the day when games had less game-interrupting narratives, game stories were moving me and/or positively coloring my gameplay experience much more frequently. The creepy idea of the ‘Dark World,’ in A Link to the Past for the SNES, for example, with the old magician’s statement “I’m speaking to you across the void…” seemed much more evocative to me than the outright, cut-scene based plots of later games.
Do you feel more or less able to ‘get into’ the stories of these older NES-era games than you can with newer games? What do you think newer games are getting right with storytelling, and where do you think they could stand to learn more from their predecessors?
Eric: I think the reason books persist in their popularity, in part, is due to their mechanic of forcing the reader to craft the visual elements of the story in their mind. If you can only describe the villain in words, then I can be left to my own mental devices to really make him as sinister as possible in my mind's eye. Video games, for the most part, have lost this magic: When the "big reveal" of the final boss occurs, no detail is left to the macabre corners of our imagination. Instead, the disgusting monster in the latest Resident Evil game is right there in front of us, in high definition, talking to the protagonist before transforming into some weird, altogether-ludicrous monstrosity.
While modern gaming has the most potential to present a narrative dynamically, vintage titles forced you to make up those missing details in your head, messing with your own worst fears. Any horror-movies fan will tell you that the most horrifying elements are those left off-screen. I am focusing on "bad guys" for some reason, but the same can be said of story in general: As long as your imagination is healthy, it can give more gravity to a game to let the stakes grow in your mind, rather than have them spelled out in every excruciating detail on the screen.
Me: About boxart, and more specifically the manuals that accompany games: I think you would agree that a lot of the story that used to be in the manuals to NES and SNES games began creeping into the actual games themselves. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I feel like a similar thing has been happening over the years with the actual instructions of the game, which have intruded into the games more and more as well. Do you agree that often times the ‘tutorials’ that are tacked onto the beginnings of games detract from the experience? Or do you prefer learning mechanics from the game itself rather than the manual?
As someone who appreciates older games, what are your thoughts in general on the changing nature of game manuals?
Eric: I love old video game manuals. The one for Metroid (NES) might be my favorite: Six pages of storyline, lovely hand-drawn art, detailed information on the enemies, and even some maps. The best part is that throughout the initial plot portion, Samus is repeatedly referred to as a "he," which only served to accompany the eventual impact of one of gaming's first twist endings.
Then you actually play Metroid (and Super Metroid might be an even better example here), and the experience is unique for the time: Immediately thrust into a dark, desolate, alien world, all alone and utterly left to your own devices, probably drawing your own maps on notebook paper as you try to navigate the bowels of a hostile environment. While I can certainly see the appeal of the convenience of in-game tutorials, I would still prefer to read the instructions beforehand and jump in, rather than spend my first couple hours learning the basics of the gameplay. I hope, at least, that video games do not completely go the way of CDs no longer coming with a lyrics booklet, y'know?
Me: Since we touched on the changing nature of some aspects of gaming, let’s go down that avenue for a bit. I’ll be honest, I skipped out on the Gamecube generation and even most of the N64 for a pretty mundane reason – I got motion sick from the 3D games for years. It wasn’t until just before the Wii launch that I confronted my problem with good old fashioned Dramamine and reprogrammed my brain not to perceive blocky polygons as herky-jerky movement. How did your own interest in games evolve over the shifting generations, and what are your thoughts on the types of games that came to dominate each era?
Eric: I am not the pickiest person when it comes to video games; my interests vary widely across genres, and throughout each generation I can find some titles I really enjoy. But I am also something of an extremist, a completionist; it always seemed somehow "wrong" that I was so quickly moving on to the SNES, N64, etc., when I had barely scratched the surface of all the NES had to offer. I have never understood how people can just callously "move on" and embrace a whole new console so quickly. Maybe that is just a personal quirk of mine.
I am not even sure if I have "matured" at all as a gamer. I like first-person shooters, but refuse to try online multiplayer and prefer local four-player in the living room; I defend the Nintendo 64 as having one of the best-quality libraries of games of all consoles, but can see how 16-bit pixel art can be considered prettier; and while photorealism in games would obviously be cool someday, I definitely roll my eyes at those who complain about issues like framerate, resolution, and their oh-so-precious renders.
My interest has games has, sadly, maybe just "evolved" in that I have less time for actual gameplay. In exchange, I reflect and write about them instead. Hopefully this is an even trade, but I definitely miss being able to kill a weekend staying up all night playing the classics. On era-dominating types of games: Each era tends to highlight the games that the era finally made possible. The 8-bit era took the platformer foundation set by Pitfall!, added scrolling, and unlocked the possibilities for utter masterpieces in gameplay. The 16-bit era took experience deeper, and on the SNES we got RPGs that combined the narrative depth of old text adventures or roguelikes but added graphical flourishes beyond the crude tile-based pixel mess we started with in Dragon Warrior. In 64 bits, we finally got three dimensions, so exploring those dimensions naturally offered us favorites like Super Mario 64, Banjo-Kazooie, etc. From there, the addictive, competitive, instant-gratification, violent, immersive, fast-paced action of the first-person shooter reined supreme. What's next?
And I am still on the lookout for great two-dimensional platformers from any era.
Me: You’ve managed to try out the Wii-U. What are your thoughts on it? What games did you get to try out? Reactions?
Eric: I wrote a somewhat lengthy recap of my impressions from when I
got to spend a couple hours with the system at an event in July, but I can
certainly try to summarize.
Basically: The Wii U is cool. I don't see any significant difference between its visuals and that of the prior generation from other companies, a distinction Nintendo has always had to deal with, but I also don't think graphical fidelity should be a relevant issue by now (I find it sad that it is). The fact is that a more powerful Wii has been given a tablet controller which offers some intriguing gameplay possibilities that, hopefully (and there is reason for pessimism, given the "gimmicky" track record of motion controls) third-party developers take full advantage of.
The games were fun, to put it simply. I got to try out about a dozen titles, but a few stood out and got my attention for larger bits of time. Rayman Legends looked great, albeit predictably. One pleasant surprise was P-100, which I understand is now called The Wonderful 101. The ability to control lots of little characters yet with superpowered abilities was intriguing, and although my own experience using the Gamepad was quite faulty at the time, hopefully those kinks will be worked out because the concept is whimsical and rewarding. But my personal favorite was Zombi U, from the adrenaline rush of having no pause as you look through your inventory on the Gamepad to the gory satisfaction of having blood visibly remain on your forearms through the gameplay.
Yet, really, Nintendo is once again aiming for the casual and family gamers, as much as they may try to claim they are trying to recapture the so-called "hardcore" crowd. This is not all bad, however; for instance, I couldn't help but raise a curious eyebrow when the possibility was mentioned that, for many games, you will be able to let someone else start watching TV while gameplay switches completely to the Gamepad screen. It is the strange possibilities like this that should make Wii U a hit, even if it has no chance of being the Glorious Please-Everyone WonderMachine that many hope it will be. My optimism for its success is cautious.
Me: You’ve successfully ran your site for a while now, expanding affiliate relations with dealers to offer special site exclusive discounts to your readers, getting articles posted in other places that link back to your site to expand your brand awareness, and running fun and effective promotional fan pages. You really seem to have a knack for managing and promoting your brand in an organic and effective way. Any tips out there for folks who are struggling to do something similar? Any pitfalls or rookie mistakes in your past you can help others avoid?
Eric: My day job is related to marketing, so from that experience, I would suggest to truly start from the ground up from a knowledge standpoint. If you are genuinely looking to simply get more visitors and "hits" with tactics beyond merely continuing to produce high-quality content (but never forget that part, as it is most important!), then you need to get a ground-level understanding of what marketing/promotions/advertising is, research what available avenues are out there for your situation and niche, understand your target audience, track numbers, and start networking. I was talking to someone just a couple weeks ago who said they wanted their website to reach more people, but that they were not interested in starting a blog, participating in any form of social media, paying for advertising, or really spending any time promoting their site. Needless to say, that person's options are limited.
You need to be passionate enough about your subject matter that you don't mind spending significant time spreading the word about it. I personally love Twitter as an outlet, but others have more success with Facebook, YouTube, Tumblr, etc. Whatever tools you pick, you need to realize that it is going to take a lot of time and effort before you start gaining traction. Honestly, the only regret I have is that I did not start blogging and social media sooner, but another big tip: Be nice. Don't be a jerk. If you are making high-quality stuff, and being nice to people who like it, then they will share it, and your audience will organically enlarge. But if you're treating people like garbage, you are just going to turn them off. If you are naturally an unpleasant, non-social person, you probably shouldn't have a blog or other website that you mean to share with people. Otherwise, really, just keep up the good work and your quality will be noticed. Oh, also: Learn how to write. I'm not saying you need to be writing your own ad copy and getting your name out there in the freelance world, but brushing up on your wordsmithing will simply give you a stronger impression with everyone you communicate with, which is totally super crucial.
Me: As we approach the end, I wonder if you have any horror stories of times you’ve accidentally ‘stepped in it’ with a gamer fan. In the (let’s say distant) past, I’ve been on the receiving and dishing out end of senseless gamer ire, and I think most people by now realize it can be all-too-easy to rub a passionate gaming fan the wrong way by not approving of, say, the color pallet choices of a handheld remake of a ten-year old game that only ever had a few fans to begin with. Has something like this ever happened to you?
Eric: Haha... yes, but it's all relative. I mean, really, the worst someone can do is share some unpleasant words to me, which I am immune to, as an emotionally self-sufficient human being. That being said, in my quest to review every NES game, I present my opinion and my opinion alone on each title -- which means I do not always see them the same way they are usually known for. Let's just say that there are a few very popular games that I do not think highly of, and every time I do one of those reviews I can count on some people to dispense with much venom in my direction.
Me: Lastly, we all know that you are exploring the entirety of the NES cannon with your site. What, if any, are some true gems from the SNES generation that stick out to you? Or does that spoil your next site?
Eric: Oh goodness, moving onto the SNES sounds way too ambitious at this point -- but if you're a fan of nifty old-school RPGs, try RoboTrek. You also can't go wrong with the SNES versions of ClockTower and Blackthorne. Oh, and The King Of Dragons is fantastic.
Me: Thanks a lot Eric, for being the stuff of Legend!
Eric: Thanks for flattering me!