Inexplicably memorable EGM ads of the early-mid 90s (Part one)

The first non-Nintendo Power game magazine I subscribed to was Electronic Gaming Monthly. I was never a GamePro fan, Game Players had atrocious layouts until about 1995, and Gamefan didn’t get distribution in my neck of the woods until around 1995ish, so EGM was the go-to multiplatform magazine I’d buy on newsstands and take to school with me to read with classmates. Eventually, I convinced my parents to get me a subscription for Christmas of 1992.

Let me tell you, being an EGM subscriber in 1993 was an amazing thing. Every month, you’d get this humongous catalog-sized magazine dropped off in your mailbox, filled with screens and info on games for every platform under the sun, along with all the juicy details on the still-far-off 32-bit revolution and the vaporware SNES CD. Yes, the screenshots were generally terrible — I’m pretty sure their initial Mortal Kombat 2 screens were taken with a Polaroid and scanned in — but we all loved them regardless.

But with those gigantic issues came ads. Loads and loads of ads. For many games and peripherals, magazine ads were the best way to get the word out — TV ads were expensive, and they knew there were plenty of kids like me taking their magazines to read at recess with everyone else, so a national magazine ad purchase was an extremely smart buy.

Every so often, I pop onto archive.org’s collection of game magazines and go looking for old ads that I remembered. I’m still utterly mystified by what my brain has chosen to retain memories of, as some of the ads I remember very clearly are, in retrospect, not the sort of things that would likely worm their way into an easily impressionable pre-teen brain.

I want to share some of these with you, readers. They’re not the best ads of the era, nor are they the worst. But somehow, in EGM issues packed to the gills with screaming neon 90s ads that didn’t garner a second thought from me, they left such a lasting impression that I can still recall them.

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Stallion Solitaire: Pocket Card Jockey

It’s usually the games you love – or the games that are really, really bad – that are the easiest to write about. When you’re singing praise, the words seem to flow effortlessly from your pen – and the same goes for when you’re telling everyone about a phenomenal piece of hot garbage.

But Pocket Card Jockey for the 3DS? Hoo boy. I mean, how do you even begin to sell this concept of horse-racing sim solitaire to people? That sounds like the most aggressively boring thing on the planet. In actuality, though, it’s an amazingly complex and deep game! …with a huge mess of intertwining game systems that sounds like complete gibberish if you try to describe them rather than showing them.

But by god, I’m gonna try. Because you know what? Pocket Card Jockey is already one of the best games released in 2016. No horsin’ around.

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Figure Review: Nendoroid Kirby (Good Smile Company)

Jeez, do you know how long I’ve wanted to do a proper figure review on this site? I’ve done plenty of reports on interesting gaming stuff coming from the Wonder Festivals, but I haven’t really sat down to review a complete product yet. The main reason is that my photography setup isn’t particularly ideal: I don’t have a mini-booth or anything for shooting pictures in, and my best camera is my iPhone 6S. For reviews like these, photography is a pretty crucial element.

But, eventually, I felt like I just had to suck it up and make do with what I had on hand. After all, pictures might be worth a thousand words, but I could also write thousands more words to go with them if I had to!

Of course, then I had to choose a subject. There were two figures I really wanted to talk about, one smaller and fairly inexpensive and another that was positioned as a more high-end product. I figured we should start with the smaller one first — not only did it turn out to be the better piece overall, it’s also one of Nintendo’s most beloved characters, with a new game due out just a few months from now.

Without further ado…

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Here’s Kirby!

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Book Review: Legends of Localization Book 1: The Legend of Zelda by Clyde Mandelin

I should preface this with, perhaps, an admission of potential bias: I think Fangamer is one of the raddest “nerd stuff” companies out there. Their merchandise is clever and classy, their clothing is nicely designed and high-quality, and they’re just a nice collection of really cool folks selling cool gear. They don’t put out books quite as often as clothing and accessories, but when they do, they’re usually pretty fantastic.1 So when Clyde Mandelin, well-known fan and pro translator, announced that he was going to expand on some of the material of his Legends of Localization site in book form, I was pretty hyped!

Though, I have to admit, I wasn’t horribly enthused by the initial choice of focusing on Zelda I. There really wasn’t a whole lot of text to the game, after all – how could you possibly fill up a 200-page book about it? As it turns out, however, there’s a lot of interesting ground to cover in localization that extends beyond just in-game text, and Mandelin’s book goes into all of it in great detail.

So, let’s get right to it – here’s a review of Legends of Localization, Book 1!

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Images used in this piece are a combination of my own and promotional images from Fangamer’s website. The latter should be easy to distinguish with the watermarks!

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  1. With the noted exception of SMB3 Brick by Brick, which I was so disappointed by that I vowed to start reviewing gaming books – and here I am!

Interview: the minds behind Mario and Luigi: Paper Jam, Akira Otani and Shunsuke Kobayashi

It’s weird to think that Mario, one of the most influential and important action game series ever, not only has an RPG spinoff, but has multiple such spinoffs. The original Super Mario RPG felt like a unique, one-off affair back in its time, but the groundwork laid by that title has since spawned the Paper Mario and Mario and Luigi series. After years of doing their separate takes on the Mario universe – and producing some all-time classics in the process – the two series recently crossed over in the 3DS game Mario and Luigi: Paper Jam. (Can we stop and ruminate on the sheer brilliance of that title for a bit? It works beautifully on so many levels.)

I had the opportunity to talk with Mr. Akira Otani of Nintendo and Mr. Shunsuke Kobayashi of Mario and Luigi series developer Alphadream about the creation of this 2D/3D adventure. Read on for some fun little tidbits about what went on behind the scenes of this game’s creation!

Please note that since this was an email-based interview, it’s a bit shorter and doesn’t have quite the same back-and-forth as the interviews I do in person or over voice/IM. There will also be minor spoilers for events about halfway through the plot. Please be aware, and I hope you enjoy it!

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The 2015 Gaming.moe Waifu Awards

Ah, yes, it’s that time again – 2015 has shuffled off into the history books, and the majority of 2016 lies untold before us!  Which means it’s also time for a now-annual Gaming.moe tradition – the Gaming.moe Waifu Awards.

In case you’re wondering – no, we’re not awarding awards to our favorite game waifus, because I’d have the same winner every year. It’s a name we adopted in the general spirit of the site for non-traditional year-end awards. Rather than doing typical categories like “Best Graphics,” “Best Fighting Game,” and the ever-argued-over GOTY, we give awards based on weird, arbitrary categories based on noteworthy happenings of the previous year. (You might want to check last year’s awards to get a better idea, as I explain the concept a little more in-depth there.)

2015 was a very good year for gaming as a whole. We got lots of fantastic new releases, juicy industry drama, and promising new projects. Of course, not all noteworthy happenings were the stuff of major hashtags and gaming news site headlines. Let’s celebrate the best (and worst) Waifus of 2015! Continue reading

Thank you, Iwata

This is going to be much more stream-of-consciousness than most posts on here, but that’s the way writing from raw emotion is, I suppose. I’m writing this the morning after news of Iwata’s death broke.

I’ve talked with a fair few folks from Nintendo over the course of my career, but I never had the honor of speaking to Mr. Iwata himself. I already know that this will go down in my list of life regrets. People like Iwata are rare in the modern game industry.

I’ve made it very clear that I dislike most of the corporate leadership at game publishers. I loathe the fact that these people who don’t play games, who’ve never played games, and have no idea what makes a game good are telling the rank-and-file developers and coders beneath them what to do based on charts and buzzwords that cross their desk. These people have never written a line of code in their life, but are sure they know that you can ship a product with expansive features by a certain date, and if it’s still a buggy mess then screw it, release now and patch later! Employees, morale, creative energy, and quality products that actually work when you take them out of the box mean nothing to these people in search of the coveted bottom line to please shareholders.

I can see why investors like Michael Pachter hated Iwata’s business style. Just look at some of the questions Iwata got at investor meetings – people didn’t seem to understand why he ran Nintendo like he did. (Hell, we’ve all criticized Nintendo for being stubborn and old-fashioned at times.) But Iwata’s philosophy was clear: make consumers happy first and foremost. Pleasing investors was lower priority than pleasing the people who actually bought games.

It’s sad that this thinking seems so incredibly rare in the current game industry. After all, happy customers that stay happy for a long time become devoted fans, of which Nintendo has some of the most fervent out there. It was never a sprint, it was a marathon.

When Nintendo hit a rough patch a few years ago, rather than lay off employees, Iwata himself took a pay cut. He explained why:

Regarding why we have not reduced the number of the personnel, it is true that our business has its ups and downs every few years, and of course, our ideal situation is to make a profit even in the low periods, return these profits to investors and maintain a high share price. I believe we should continue working toward this ideal. If we reduce the number of employees for better short-term financial results, however, employee morale will decrease, and I sincerely doubt employees who fear that they may be laid off will be able to develop software titles that could impress people around the world. I believe we can become profitable with the current business structure in consideration of exchange rate trends and popularization of our platforms in the future. We should of course cut unnecessary costs and pursue efficient business operations. I also know that some employers publicize their restructuring plan to improve their financial performance by letting a number of their employees go, but at Nintendo, employees make valuable contributions in their respective fields, so I believe that laying off a group of employees will not help to strengthen Nintendo’s business in the long run.

This is something you don’t really understand if you haven’t worked in a rank-and-file development position, as Iwata did during the 80s at HAL. Cutting you off from the people you’re creating something with abruptly is soul-crushing, and development team layoffs rarely accomplish anything but contributing to the industry’s notorious instability and career churn rates. Iwata was the rare executive who knew the game industry from numerous perspectives, from that of the lowliest code monkey to the highest public-facing representative of a major company, and that had a tremendous impact on how he ran the show at Nintendo. He wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty when he needed to, either: the stories of him shedding his executive clothes to do some hardcore coding on games like Earthbound, Pokemon G/S, and Super Smash Bros. Melee have been making the rounds.

Having experience as a coder has another benefit when running the ship at a game company, too: you know what is and isn’t feasible to accomplish with various tools and hardware. It helps you set realistic goals: there’s a big difference between “tough, but do-able” and “literally impossible given the time and tools.” People like Iwata have the ability to push for the former and avoid the latter. Sadly, there are very few of these people in management positions in the business, leading to the disappointing, half-finished, buggy AAA releases that seem to be clogging up the shelves (both real and virtual). Every Nintendo title – even if the game turns out not to be that great – still feels like a polished, complete product, something Iwata and his peers at the company knew was important.

One of the big things on my mind right now is – did Iwata know how bad his condition was? Did he tell anyone? The former I can’t be sure about – he had his first operation for “removing a growth” on his bile duct in 2014, which was phrased to make it sound fairly benign. Obviously, it wasn’t – and looking at the terrifyingly poor survival rates for bile duct cancer, I feel like he may have known his time was coming. In retrospect, his not attending E3 this year seems less “I have to stay and handle business for the Japanese side” and more “I am literally dying here but I can’t cast a pall over what is supposed to be a really fun show.” It seems like a very Japanese thing to devote yourself wholeheartedly to your work and colleagues even in the face of death, facing it stoically as you do your duties to the very end.

But even if he did know, did anyone else? It’s hard to say – some tweets and blogposts from Iwata’s dear friend Shigesato Itoi indicate that he was as blindsided as we were. It wouldn’t surprise me if he didn’t want to tell anyone. Itoi talks of Iwata’s selflessness; perhaps Iwata thought that telling people he was terminally ill would be an undue burden on them. That also strikes me as a very Japanese way of thinking.

Of course, it’s still just conjecture on my part. Unless Iwata’s widow outright says “he knew but didn’t tell anyone,” we can only theorize.

I hope that we, as an industry, will do more than pay lip service to Iwata’s memory. He was exemplary, a person in the game industry not for profit or pure personal glory, but out of a genuine love for the medium and its potential. What we need in this business is more people like him. Thank you, Iwata, for being a beacon of joy in an increasingly cynical industry. Let’s keep his light shining onwards.

How to Power Up the Nintendo World Championships

Boy, E3 sure was a thing this year, wasn’t it? Announcements were made, expectations were blown away, and as many a thinkpiece writer has pointed out, it was like we were transported back into the 90s. I mean, look at how it started – Nintendo revived the Nintendo World Championships after 25 years of dormancy!

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The NWC was one hell of a great way to start E3 this year. After seeing the great reception last year’s Smash Bros invitational got at E3, Nintendo decided to do something similar this year – but hold it before E3 rather than during to kick everybody’s week off in a Nintendo state of mind. And it worked!

…Mostly. As fun as the event was, there were several hiccups throughout that made me wince internally throughout the program. There were a lot of good things – and really, the decision to end on some downright evil Super Mario Maker levels was absolutely perfect – but if Nintendo wants to make this a regular thing from now on, the modern NWC has a long ways to go.

As I was thinking about this topic, I caught this episode of The Final Split, Go1den’s speedrunning-centric Twitch show, where NWC15 invitee Bananas talked about the experience. I highly recommend a watch, as there’s a lot of amusing stories in there about the run-up and the event.1 Going from her account, one gets the impression that things really were rather rushed and disorganized on Nintendo’s end.

Taking all of this into consideration, I decided to write an editorial of my own. How can the NWC improve from this point forward? I’ll posit several ideas.

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  1. The Final Split is a really fun show to listen to in general, as well, and I wish Go1den and company would put it up in a more traditional podcast format.

Arcade Road Trip: Grinkers Grand Palace (Eagle, Idaho)

I’ve mentioned Game Center CX more than a few times in my writing, and for good reason – it’s a fantastic show that everyone who enjoys older games will appreciate. But while the most popular segment of the program among most fans is the Arino’s Challenge portions, I personally enjoy the “Tama-ge” bits a lot more. In these parts of the show, Arino travels to visit various arcades, large and small, across Japan. It’s a wonderful combination of travelogue and nostalgia, showcasing the (sometimes very odd) places where arcades turn up, the games and atmosphere that make that particular arcade experience interesting, and the people who maintain these game centers. It’s both inspiring and a bit depressing, as the number of mom-and-pop arcades in Japan has been plummeting over the last decade. Oftentimes, it feels like Arino’s travels are an attempt to encourage people to help preserve a dying cultural institution (the segment’s title means “You should visit this game center sometime”).

When I was a teenager, I used to love doing what Arino did during my family’s trips across the country – looking up arcades in the area, visiting them, and seeing what they had to offer. (I was especially devoted to this when Virtua Fighter 3 was really, really hard to find in North America outside certain urban areas – my hunts were often targeted towards finding that particular game.) Nowadays, this is hard to do, because the state of Western arcades is utterly miserable. Most arcades these days – the ones that are still around, anyway – are parts of massive “entertainment centers” that make far more off of redemption games than dedicated video cabinets, and what they do have for games is often old and suffering from disrepair. But there are enthusiasts out there trying to find ways to preserve the more traditional, video-game-focused arcade experience: one of the more popular modern concepts is the “barcade,” a combination of pub/eatery and retrogaming arcade catering to an older clientele.

Generally, most of my experiences with said “barcades”1 have been kinda blah – the alcohol part doesn’t do much for me since I’m one of those irritating teetotalers, and the game selection is generally pretty similar across many of these establishments: Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man, Galaga, a bunch of Donkey Kongs, some Space Invaders, probably a Tapper or two to fit the bar theme, Robotron 2064, and a Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat to get some 90s kid cred. These are good and all, but they’re also pretty easy to find. What I’m interested in are titles that you don’t see everyday, particularly Japanese games from the mid-late 80s – stuff that came out after the crash-correction of the Western video game market in the earlier part of the decade and is considerably less common as a result.

I discovered one such arcade on a recent trip. While I spent most of my life in Iowa, my parents retired to the Boise area in Idaho a couple years ago, so I went to visit my parents there over Mother’s Day weekend. My dad suggested stopping by a few arcades while I was there, and one of them was a place called the Grinkers Grand Palace in the Boise suburb of Eagle. It’s nestled into a corner of a strip-shopping center that doesn’t look like the kind of place that would host a bar-arcade. When I stepped inside, however, I knew I had found someplace very special. So today, I’m going to imitate our beloved Kacho Arino and tell you: you should go to Grinkers sometime!

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  1. Note that I’m referring to the “barcade” as a concept – there is an actual chain of these sorts of places called Barcade in the NYC area, which I hear are pretty awesome. Don’t confuse the two!

(Sort of) Review: Why NES Remix maddens me

It’s a feeling I think we’ve all experienced: the uncomfortable notion from withing that there is something deeply wrong with us for not enjoying a particular piece of media. It’s especially discomforting when it’s something that seems engineered to push all of our individual Like buttons, as though somehow we’re the ones that are flawed for not properly adoring this work made to cater explicitly to us.

This feeling cropped up when I started playing the NES Remix games on Wii U. Here were cleverly conceived compilations of classic NES titles with the addition of “remix” games: parts of classic titles remodeled and mashed together in unique ways to deliver bite-sized new challenges. I certainly love Nintendo history, having grown up on so many of these titles, so the concept excited me immensely. But actually playing NES Remix 1 and 2 on Wii U felt strangely unfulfilling,  even downright frustrating. I wondered if it was the platform – these sorts of short objective-driven challenge experiences, I feel, tend to work better in mobile games that you can dig out and play for ten minutes. With this in mind, I picked up Ultimate NES Remix on 3DS, but even playing it to break up long Persona Q sessions left me feeling more irritated than amused.  Obviously, it wasn’t the platform that’s the problem. So then, what is it that makes NES Remix considerably less than the sum of its parts?

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