Chapter 1: The Most Coveted Job in the World
Chapter 2: A Change in Responsibilities
Chapter 3: Every Captain Must Have His Mother Brain
Chapter 4: Enter Captain Nintendo
Chapter 5: Captain Nintendo Lives
Chapter 6: The Captain Goes Hollywood
Chapter 7: The Real Power Behind Captain Nintendo
Chapter 8: New Worlds to Conquer and a New Superpower!
Chapter 9: The Last Adventure

It was in the early fall of 1989, I believe, when I got a call from a man who said he was the Project Manager for one of Nintendo’s licensee companies. In fact, he was from one of the four largest licensee companies—a Japanese juggernaut that was actually a larger company than Nintendo (as they made games not only for the NES, but for a number of other platforms, and particularly for the arcade market, all on a global scale).

He introduced himself and asked if I would be interested in coming to work for the company (that just happened, also, to be Japanese-based) in the capacity of Senior Product Evaluator. A product evaluator is a fancy title for game tester/developer. The senior product evaluator manages the testing team and has signature/sign-off approval for all games.

I told him that was an interesting notion. I liked the idea of having impact on the development of a game. He explained that in the upcoming year, the company was about to produce some high-profile projects with which, as Senior Product Evaluator, I’d be very involved. He proceeded to invite me for an interview with the Vice President of Engineering (who was the man that headed up the American operation of this Japanese company).

On the day I arrived, I was politely and punctually met by the Project Manager with whom I’d conversed on the phone. He showed me around the facility and discussed upcoming projects and those in development. He explained that the company was in a hiring phase to staff the American operation. Someone at the company (back in Japan) thought it might be a good idea to have American developers and evaluators develop the product that was intended for the American market. This was actually forward thinking and, historically, quite the converse of what, to that point, has been “conventional (translated: arrogant) Japanese wisdom” (which was that the Japanese knew American markets far better than we ignorant Americans). I would find out later that there were still many Japanese developers and evaluators who did not share this confidence in the ability of Americans, and felt as though (because these responsibilities were being transferred from their hands to ours) they had “lost face,” causing automatic resentment toward us. My experience with the Japanese is that “losing face” is a big deal in their culture, and they are extremely sensitive to any opportunity where that might happen. So there was a faction of the company that did not believe in us and hoped we’d fail. Of course, I didn’t know all this yet.

After the 25-cent tour, the Project Manager led me to the Vice-President of Engineering’s office. Though the VP (we’ll call him Barney—to protect the innocent) was on the phone, we were summoned inside. He was talking to the parent company heads back in Japan. He was somewhat crude and coarse compared to how I’ve witnessed employees talking to their Japanese bosses, and I was kind of surprised that he’d take that tone with them. I would find out later, this was the rule, rather than the exception, as he talked that way to everybody. Most of the employees at the American facility believe it was this lack of “demonstrative respect for Japanese superiors” that eventually led to the closing of the American operation, despite record sales.

Barney was a big blustery man from New Zealand who’d apparently produced some software prior to his current position. He was usually belligerent and his favorite words generally contained four letters. I would soon learn that his management style relied on intimidation and name-calling. I don’t recall a time when he didn’t actually believe that he was the smartest and most informed person in the room. I also don’t recall a time when he actually was.

But, as the Project Manager introduced him to me, he was still a relative blank slate. I shook hands with Barney and the Project Manager said, “I’ll drop back by after your interview and we’ll go to my office and talk some more.” I affirmed the plan as the Project Manager departed the office. I then turned my attention to Barney who said, “Have a seat.” I thanked him and began to sit in the chair toward which he’d motioned. Before my butt even touched the seat, Barney semi-snarled, “Well, I really don’t think you’ll fit in here!”

Now, I don’t fluster easily. And I wasn’t flustered then. Many things bombarded my mind at this, however, and I went to yellow alert. . First was, “What a jerk!” “He just met me and this is the first thing he says!?” “Hmmm. Maybe this is a test!” “Still, it’s a stupid test. Nope, he’s a jerk.” Etc.

I quickly composed myself internally and replied, “Well, that’s an interesting statement. Why would you think that?”

Not getting the adversarial response he was apparently used to, he back-pedaled, “Welllll, it’s just that I’ve had a lot of dealings with your mah-sters over the years and I’ve found them to be rigid, inflexible, hard-to-get-along-with, and arrogant. And I’m afraid that, having worked there for so long, you’ve picked up those same traits.” (Barney always referred to Nintendo management as my “mah-sters” or my “former mah-sters.” And his hatred for Nintendo was so great that he resented me until the day the American facility was shut down simply because Nintendo was my source of origin. “Guilt by past association.” Beyond that, Barney didn’t have the capacity to like or be civil to anyone that wasn’t exactly like he was, i.e. engineering oriented, e.g. programmers.)

“I see,” I responded. “It’s interesting that you say that. It’s actually part of my motivation for being here. You see, I’m not one for just jumping to greener pastures. And you’re right. I HAVE worked there a while and I also have found Nintendo management to be rigid, inflexible, hard-to-get-along-with, and, at times, arrogant. Which is why I’m looking for a better environment. Now tell me, am I wrong in thinking I’ll find that better environment here?”

“Hmmm. All right. Then what do you see as your purpose for being here?”

“Now THAT’S a great question. Because my purpose for being here is going to be different than anyone else that’s walked through that door and to whom you’ve asked that question. Because anyone to whom you’ve asked that question has told you that the reason they are here is because they ‘want to make the very best video game that have ever been made anywhere anytime!’ And that’s not me!!! I am not here because I want to make the very best video game that have ever been made anywhere anytime! No sir!”

Barney looked like I’d hit him square in the forehead with a shovel.

“Well, now I AM intrigued. All right then, what would YOUR purpose be here?”

I said, “I want to be here because I want to make the very best video game that have ever been made anywhere anytime—THAT SELL.”

Barney stuck out his hand, “Welcome aboard.” And I was hired.

A little bit of history here. Back in the early days of video games, most games were designed, drawn, programmed, and produced by programmers. When someone has to wear that many hats, usually something will suffer. Most often, it was creativity. It was not unusual for a programmer to come up with a game that HE would like to play or perhaps OTHER PROGRAMMERS might like to play, but not particularly all that much fun. But, often, it was the only game in town. Literally. The video game landscape was not filled with the selection there is today and people were so hungry for this new artform that just about any game could be promoted.

Many companies still follow this same business model: have the programmer act as designer and producer. If you learn anything from any of my musings, Grasshopper, learn this: Placing programmers in the role of designer and producer has been the cause of video game companies going bankrupt more often than any other reason. There is so much more to this business than making “great video games.” You can possess the greatest video game ever, but if it isn’t marketable, all you’ve got is an expensive disk. The first ingredient or feature that a truly “great game” must have is that it must be marketable. If a video game company knows what it’s doing, it will incorporate marketing into the game design itself. To truly explain this, I would need several more chapters—maybe even a book, but I am continually amazed at how few companies do this. Consequently, you are left with an industry that is afraid to produce new content. All of the biggest sellers in the last few years are either sequels to established hits or licensed product trying to capitalize on some pop culture piece of the moment and piggyback onto existing promotion efforts. Similar situation in Hollywood. That’s why you see sooo many sequels. Did we reeeeally need Freddy to fight Jason? I heard there was a Police Academy 6! Gee, I wonder what THAT was about. Aren’t you just on pins and needles waiting for American Pie 47? Even so-called new movies are just variations on practiced tried-and-true standard fare. That’s why when someone says “slasher film” or “buddy movie” or “Woody Allen movie,” you instantly know what they’re talking about.

The economics of “pop” culture is all about risk. That is because what is “pop”ular is fragile. The audience that determines pop culture is fickle. About some things. And Hollywood, like the video game industry, is all about not reinventing the wheel. Play it safe. We have sacrificed content for technology—both industries.

But what Hollywood has forgotten is that risk has rewards–proportionately. Occasionally, a few brilliant people color outside the lines and you get blockbusters involving droids a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away or a masterpiece like Schindler’s List. And, yes, I am aware that there were many space movies before Star Wars and lots of WWII films prior to Schlindler’s List, but there weren’t that many in 1977 and 1993 respectively. Both of these films were financial risks. Both received Oscars (Schindler’s List receiving the Best Picture nod). And both made money. It was once speculated that George Lucas could ask a billion dollars for the merchandising rights to Star Wars – just the rights!—and probably get it. High risk can garner high rewards.

Okay, back on track. See, so many of the people who populated the video game business were hardcore game players. And that was there bottom line. They loved to play games. And everybody and his dog has a “game idea.” And I mean EVERYBODY. Groannnnnn. Well, that’s great and all, but that doesn’t mean that everybody and his dog knows anything about making a game that will sell. Typically, it means that everybody has a game idea that would be fun…for him. The guy with the idea. Most likely his dog wouldn’t even like it. More often than not, the dog probably has the better idea. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, Grasshopper, but your game idea is not exactly a hot commodity. The industry is filled—bursting—overflowing with ideas. Most of them very bad. I know, I know. YOURS is great! YOURS is different! YOURS could really be fun! YOURS could be a million seller! Uh-huh. Tell you what. Go chart 5 and a half million consumer responses. Then come back and tell me your idea, if by that time, you are not too embarrassed. It’s not your fault. And you are not alone. I just can’t stress enough that it takes more than just an idea—or even a fertile imagination—to create marketable entertainment software. It takes an understanding of the industry. A comprehensive understanding. AND. AND. It takes an understanding of programming and medium capabilities and limitations. It wouldn’t hurt to have a real good grasp of software life cycle. But more than anything, you first have to approach any game idea from the single standpoint of “Will it sell?” This was foreign to most video game programmers of the day. If they could be honest with themselves, it is just as foreign to programmers of this day.

That is NOT to say that you have to sacrifice creativity or quality for the all mighty buck by catering to the lowest common denominator. I am one of those people who believe that you can create product (films, as well as video games) of tremendous quality that will be popular with the masses. I am also one of those people that knows that it is extremely difficult for most people to do.

So when I communicated to Barney that this was at the forefront of my approach to video game development, I touched on exactly what he was looking for. He saw that I wasn’t one of the hardcore, hypertestosterone-driven ubergamers that was typical in the industry. My vision was much larger than the monitor on which the game is played.

While I was continually excited at the prospect of developing games, I found that my expectations of the process were not accurate. It sounds like awesome fun day in and day out, doesn’t it? Playing games. Developing games. Testing games. Getting paid for it. Yeah, I thought so, too. In fact, the only job that I thought could possibly me MORE fun would be that of gynecologist, but I didn’t have the necessary degree (and I’ve heard that even his day can become a little repetitious. Wow. You just never know till you walk in someone else’s shoes, do you?) But, remember, this is a Japanese company. And I wasn’t Japanese. Which meant that I wasn’t going to be paid like a Japanese employee either. And yes, there is a certain degree of personal satisfaction (or fun) for me in developing a project and seeing to fruition, but percentage-wise, comparatively little time is spent in that part of the process as opposed to testing. So much time is spent in testing and refining the product. This means that you’re playing the same game—sometimes the same level!—over and over and over and over and over. For several hours straight. For days. Sometimes weeks. Trust me, once you been through the same level a few thousand times, your idea of what is fun changes. A lot.

As we played and tested these games (and tried to break them. That was our job. Make the game mess up. Break it.), we had to reserve a portion of our day to write the sacred ”bug reports.” These were detailed accounts of where, why, and how the game did not meet expectations. For PC-based games, the greatest portion of bugs came in the installation because that’s where most bugs have the highest likelihood of occurring. By the way, there are times when, for several days in a row, your day is composed of installing and re-installing games. Trying new parameters and combinations of settings, etc. Not playing anything. Just installing. Oh, the fun we haaaad…….

One of the high profile projects we produced at this licensee company was Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade for the 8-bit NES. I am particularly proud of this one as I had a great deal of impact on its design. For several reasons. It was one of the first non-linear games for the old NES. It contained several different types of gameplay in one cartridge, which was very unusual for the time and the platform. And before all you critics respond with how YOU personally hated the game (and you are in the minority), there was one more reason I was especially proud. After we completed the game, one of our producers talking with George Lucas over the phone during a team meeting relayed that he said, “It was the best conversion of one of his films into a video game he’d ever seen. In any format.” For about five minutes, I didn’t care if we ever sold one cartridge. We had managed to please (someone who I consider to be) one of the most creative geniuses of our time. This was a guy who has gone back and remade and remade his own films. Adding. Editing. Polishing. Always striving for perfection. One more thing that will make it better. And we had prompted that kind of praise. I know I spent a large paragraph talking about this, but indulge me a second. That was a big moment for me personally.

I am also proud of it because we made deadline despite severe delays. Due to the different types of game play, it started to run past deadline milestones, which pushed back testing. We were delayed in getting the game to test and were forced to work long hours to meet the Nintendo-required submission date (as all games had to be submitted to Nintendo for “approval.” Approval meant that the Game Counselor would play it and submit a rating and an evaluation as to how successful the game would probably be.) When I say long hours, I’m talking about bringing a sleeping bag to work and catching just a few hours of shuteye between testing sessions. I’m talking about no shower for about three days. I’m talking about ugly and unshaven and smelly and foul-tempered, hungry testers who, after three straight 24-hour days, are still so focused on the game that they are able to still find the most minute bugs and can still turn in letter-perfect bug reports. Oh the fun and glamour of working in the video game industry. Remember, we worked for a Japanese company, so we didn’t get any overtime. But we took a great deal of pride in what we did and we made deadline. There were no better testers in the business than my team and they never failed to produce top quality work despite the treatment they were given by both Barney and the Japanese bosses. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was a modest hit. Its numbers were more than decent and quite pleasing to our Japanese bosses.

One of my duties was to play games in various stages of development that the Japanese headquarters would send us to evaluate (as to whether we should convert and/or release the game in the United States). Some of these were big sellers in Japan. Others were little more than map artwork with a single character and an explanation of how the game should work theoretically. The great majority were ninja-based games. The ninja is an enormously popular character in the Japanese culture (much like superheroes are here) and it was thought that surely the game would be just as popular in the U.S. I had to diplomatically write evaluations that explained to the Japanese bosses (who were sensitive to being embarrassed since it was their judgment that selected the game for me to evaluate) that while “this would have been an immensely popular game for the U.S. market a few years ago, but the popularity of the ninja hasn’t remained consistent here like it has in Japan and it would not be cost-effective for us to pursue the American-side development of this game.” There were a few ninja games out there (and even we eventually DID do Wrath of the Black Manta), but the ninja character had long-since seen its hay-day in America. I was always very polite and respectful and extremely diplomatic in the way I’d tell them that their judgment sucked. So much for the idea that the Japanese knew our market better than we did.

During one of these evaluations, I received a series of background maps and a squatty little character that I could make run around. I think there might have even been a few bad creatures to blow up with the squatty guy’s weapon. It was a boomerang. Sort of odd for a video game, but I liked the logic of having a weapon that would never run out. Having unlimited ammunition in any gun or unlimited energy from a laser cannon always left a bad taste in my mouth, yet it was important to a lot of gameplay. Here was a weapon that would always return to you so you’d have it to throw again. But that was it. There was no story. No plot. No mission. Not really any defined obstacles. But the artwork had a style that I liked and I thought the squatty guy could be redrawn to make him cooler and this could actually be a lot of fun.

So I set about writing a story and defining villains, the other characters, and the plot. And I described how the hero should look. No more squatty little guy, but a more realistic, proportioned character. And just for kicks, I named him after my brother, Nova. And sent it all back to the development team in Japan. They were so pleased that I’d taken a shine to one of their submissions that they put the project on the schedule. And that’s how Power Blade was born. I never requested that the splash page representation of the character look like Arnold Schwartzenegger. That was the Japanese artist’s idea.

The development of Power Blade went along smoothly. There were very few bugs and I provided a few tweaks and enhancements (adjusting the enemy numbers, adding a few mechanical monsters, and a timer for a harder difficulty level, adding to the longevity of the game). I also incorporated the idea of having multiple paths to the boss room so that the player had options as to how to get there. I don’t like sending a message to a kid that there is only one way to do something (despite what the Republicans say). Also, the character had to find a friendly agent with an access card that would permit the hero access to the boss area once he got there. This forced the player to explore paths that he might otherwise have missed and added significant depth to the game.

This was the first game that I’d developed almost from scratch and I was personally proud of it. All that communication from all those consumers that I received while at Nintendo had not gone to waste. It was all there in the game. There was no doubt in my mind that it was going to be extremely popular and bring in a lot of revenue for this company.

About a week before we were to submit the game to Nintendo for approval, I spoke through the Japanese secretary to the bosses in Japan who were getting concerned about exactly what we were going to be submitting this time around (since a few of the intended projects had gotten discarded for one reason or other—mostly budgeting, I think). I told our interpreter (the lovely Japanese secretary) to explain that we had things under control and relay the status of each project, including Power Blade. It was virtually done. I had about an afternoon’s worth of testing on one minor part of it, but I was pretty sure it was going to pass bug-free.

She said the bosses said to drop the project. I was stunned and not certain I’d heard correctly. I said to tell them that I just have to test it for a few hours and it will be ready to submit. She told them. She said they said, “That’s okay. Don’t worry about that one. Spend your time on the other projects. They don’t want to have to test it anymore. We can always come back to Power Blade at another time.” Even for the Japanese, this didn’t make any kind of economic sense since we’d spent the effort and resources to create it, it was virtually done, and was set to be a moneymaker. Maybe I wasn’t making it clear. So I spoke carefully to the secretary.

“Tell them THEY don’t have to test anything or do anything. I have a few hours left to test on it and it will be ready to submit!”

She relayed all that. Then, after a pause, she said, “They said to just drop the project altogether. They don’t want you to devote your time to it.” Again I was stunned, visibly so. The secretary put her hand over the phone mouthpiece and said, “They don’t want to submit the game to Nintendo or release it. They think it is a bad game and will embarrass them.”

That was it. I had had my fill of Japanese arrogance and this was the last straw. I told the secretary to say the following and to use this tone. And I spoke firmly and a little louder and I said, “We have asked Nintendo for seven shelf spaces this year and they have reluctantly, unbelievably, granted them to us. You’ve already cut TWO projects intended for those spaces. This is the only 8-bit game we have to submit this time around. IF WE DON’T SUBMIT SOMETHING, NINTENDO WILL BE VERY ANGRY AND WE WILL LOSE FACE!!!”

Without going into a long explanation about shelf spacing, suffice it to say that at that time, Nintendo (who was the manufacturer of the game cartridges for all licensee companies) did not want to saturate their own market, so they reserved about 75 shelf spaces for all the Nintendo games for that year. Large companies like DataEast or Konami or Taito could request up to about four spaces for their product (during an ambitious year) and smaller companies could get one space or maybe two. Nintendo had granted the request of seven spaces because my company had a few high profile projects planned and promised to throw a great deal of money behind the promotion of those games. Still, seven spaces was unheard of. I had illustrated the point that we put Nintendo (and ourselves) in a bind by not having something to go on those shelf spaces. Worse, we would be embarrassing ourselves professionally and cause irreparable damage to our credibility.

So, the secretary related the communication, and in just the tone I’d instructed her to. Almost immediately they came back with, “Okay. Finish the game and submit to Nintendo. No problem.” Even though they were actually a larger company than Nintendo, it was unthinkable to anger the Big Red N and lose professional face in their eyes.

And that’s what I did. A few days after the phone conversation, we submitted. About two weeks later, we received word that Power Blade had not only passed approval, but had the fourth-highest rating the GCs had ever given and the highest-ever rating for a licensee product. The only three to receive a higher rating were Nintendo’s own Super Mario, Metroid, and Legend of Zelda. They wanted to do a cover feature in Nintendo Power. Meaning they intended to do a major article/review of the game and feature it on the cover (which they did: April, 1991). Making the cover was a huge deal. Through the secretary, I learned that the powers-that-be at Nintendo had called my Japanese bosses and congratulated them on producing such a great product. The secretary said the Japanese bosses were now slapping each other on the back, proclaiming how smart and savvy they were to submit Power Blade to Nintendo. Big high-fives all around. In Japan. I didn’t even get an “Arigato,” let alone a bonus or a percentage of the pie. There is an Aesop’s fable about killing a goose that laid golden eggs that applies here. Apparently, the Japanese don’t have an equivalent to Aesop. Their loss.

Power Blade went on to sell out twice during its first year of production and made just obscene amounts of money for the company. It also spawned a couple of sequels, I believe. Turns out, I have another superpower: I can design successful video games. However, to me, this is just a variation or derivative of the writing ability. Still, it’s nice to know.

I had signature approval for all product and I signed off on 35 games during my tenure at this licensee company, on several different platforms. PC, NES, Amiga, Apple IIGS, Game Boy, and others. That’s a lot of product in a year and a half or so. I don’t know that the company has had a year quite that prolific or profitable since that time.

If you make it through to the end of Power Blade, you will see the credits listed of the people involved. They are all Japanese names (The company apparently had a “policy” that there is no need to list non-Asians among the credits.)

To this day, I have no way of proving that I ever even worked on this blockbuster. But, you can always ask my brother. Nova.

Next chapter: The Last Adventure