The more things change, the more they stay the same. The impending Nintendo GameCube launch gives me a nostalgic feeling felt only once before as the N64 debuted in 1996...
Before the Internet was beginning to turn from a hobbyist’s toy into the mass media platform of today, information spread at the speed of television and print. You watched live TV as news broke, you watched the 6 o’clock news for the day’s coverage, or you read all about it in the following day’s newspaper. The niche market of gaming, a shadow of what it is today, relied heavily on magazines and even some fanzines to curb their cravings for coverage, with few other outlets available to them.
The Internet boom of 1995 and 1996 spawned a new age of information and technology I could only futilely try to put into words here. I’ll stick to what I do know, and what I can put into words. The Internet and proprietary online services like Prodigy, Compuserve, and AOL were still in their adolescence as they stumbled over each other to fight for their positions in the marketplace. They each targeted areas of interest by building communities in the form of message boards, chat rooms, file libraries, and other utilities. What two people discovered was that the more information was shared, the more it was misinterpreted and sometimes even falsified. As staunch supporters of gaming and the truth, they set out to right some of the wrongs as best they could by taking matters into their own hands. And they were partners before they even knew each other.
I was one of those people. The other was Scott McCall. Grossed by the inundation of bogus details relating to the pending release of Project Reality - code name to the Nintendo 64 - we set down our own paths to share facts and correct the wrong. To dedicated hardcore gamers, this was a serious mission in a sea of misinformational chaos that overtook the new medium.
In 1995, I was wrapping up my days as publisher and distributor of an electronic fanzine called Game Guru before taking a hard look at what was happening in the offline and online world regarding Project Reality details. EGM says it runs at 500 MHz, and at a 1200x1200 resolution? Cartridges storing as much data as CDs? Holy Mary Mother of God! I put the pedal to the grind, and for odd reasons I still don’t comprehend, I could not let this stand. As if pre-selected for this purpose, my mind and body went into an autopilot phase that started this cyber undertaking.
I compiled together what I called, “Game Guru’s Ultra 64 Frequently Asked Questions,” a frequently updated FAQ file that shared basic news, accurate technical data, and squashed rumors plaguing the Internet. Little did I know, someone else was out there doing the same thing in his own flavor. Scott McCall created “Cap Scott's Nintendo Ultra 64 Web Page” which served a similar purpose. Stumbling across each other’s work, Scott eventually asked me if I’d combine my content with his. In a time of Internet anarchy, and Nintendo’s own indifference to the internet, which I believe still continues today, our combined efforts captured the crown of being THE source regarding Nintendo’s new platform.
More information eventually began to come in as months passed, and a FAQ file/website alone was not going to be enough to accomplish our new goals. With Scott firmly at the helm, Cap Scott’s Nintendo Ultra 64 Web Page was broadened to encompass a myriad of details from specs and previews to press releases and news coverage. Community and coverage continued to thrive over the next year. In October of 1996, we secured the n64hq.com domain, and with it an even more broadened, high quality page design that took us over the top and prepared us the future - detailed release dates, reviews by the loads, cheats, editorials, and more.
As our presence grew, we signed on a lot of staffers that have since firmly planted their own seeds on the Internet gaming scene. You might have heard of guys like Billy Berghammer, Justin Nation, Ravi Hiranand, Ty Shughart, and Desmond Gaban. Oh yeah, they’re on PGC’s staff now. N64HQ’s coveted Japanese correspondent, Yutaka, remains a good friend of PGC as well.
N64 HQ was clearly the Internet's premier source of Nintendo 64 coverage. We started many months ahead of any other site we knew of, pro or amateur, and our traffic met or exceeded IGN’s own N64.com. No marketing. No multi-million dollar corporation backing us. Our earned reputation carried us. But don’t ask us, ask the then-staff of N64.com and Next Generation Online about copying and mildly rewording news and technical content. J (I had to get you guys one last time!) Scott and I also did some independent work for a number of publishers while continuing our HQ crusade, and even had buy-out offers from the likes of Imagine Media and others before they started up N64.com. It makes me wonder how the scene would now look if we did accept those offers. Would PGC, PlanetN2000, OperatioN2000, or The 64 Source have existed without Billy or Justin having roots in N64HQ?
The weeks and months before the launch of the N64 were an exciting time on a personal level and for the HQ. I really immersed myself into my online work to allow the time to pass more quickly. While I remember feeling very enthusiastic, looking back today, it's actually somewhat of a blur. Things were happening so quickly. Scott imported his N64 and had an opportunity to experience the games before I did, but that didn’t impact my own spiritual experience when the N64’s release date of September 29, 1996 was broken on the 26th. Not even the exterminator banging on the brick walls of my house could distract me that afternoon. After reading about broken dates from first-hand accounts on the Internet, I called Toys ‘R’ Us to see if they too broke the release date and would honor my pre-order. Being as anal about dates as ever, they did not. I then called the Kay-Bee Toys down the road, and I gooed something fierce in my pants as the lady declared, “Yes!” It was still a school day, so I hauled ass down there to pick my N64 up before the schools let out and I’d have to hurt someone. Screw Toys ‘R’ Us. Veruca Salt said it best, “Don’t care how, I want it now!”
Having no car at the time, I had to walk… fast! I don’t even remember anyone else being in this little KB mall store, so going up to the counter and acquiring my Nintendo 64 and Mario 64 went without a hitch. I wore myself out so much by rushing down to the store that I was wiped out on my way back home, which was 100% uphill. Dislocating his shoulder in front of Peter Main may have embarrassed Billy… but as I stumbled my way back home, package in hand, my sweat pants lost traction to my waistline, and oncoming traffic behind me got an early Christmas gift for a brief second.
Nevertheless, not even karma could ruin my happy day. The first thing I did when my happy day was about to go orgasmic was… I rested. I was out of breath. After weaseling my receipt and change out of my pocket as I remained in a reclined position on my bed, I made my way down to the living room and connected my baby-fresh N64. The culmination of almost 2 years of work was ready to erupt. I ignored the continuing sounds of drills and hammering coming from the termite-fighting exterminator as I slid my heavy, matured Mario into the virgin slot of the N64 and applied power to my new merrymaking machine.
My second official experience with Mario 64 had begun. I played it at Toys ‘R’ Us a month prior when I initially pre-ordered the system. The simplicity of Mario’s control scheme was instantly natural, and I was off and running until nighttime, unfettered by my lack of meals the entire day. I spent more time than I'll admit taking shots at the Toads that roamed the castle. (Like you haven't.)
N64HQ’s success continued and blossomed over the next year until Scott and I decided to close the doors in November of 1997. Scott was suffering from severe burn out and had bigger fish to fry in his life. I could have carried it on, but we both knew the HQ wouldn’t be the HQ without Scott, and it would have been a mere shell of what it was. He was the man. And handing the reigns to someone else altogether would have been sacrilegious after the personal blood, sweat, and tears that made it what it was. So we laid the HQ to rest while it was at its peak. The memories are still rather emotional for me as I relive them by reading over the archived Goodbye letters for fact checking at Scott McCall's Game Room. Newcomers and old, check out Scott’s page for some old-school love, HQ style.
A lot has happened in the last 4 years since HQ’s closing. The Internet has matured considerably, and information sharing has matured with it. People are much more informed. Console coverage in this day and age is far more advanced and plentiful, just as it is with any other area of technology. Everyone and their mother can create a website these days, yet it’s much easier to distinguish fact from fiction due to a number of reputable key sources for every topic you can imagine. It wasn’t like this before most businesses were on the Internet to support people and supply them with that information.
Likewise, the Nintendo 64 and GameCube launches are different. The Nintendo of today is progressing firmly, but with an aura of humility. Like them or not, Sony opened a proverbial can of whoop ass on Nintendo in the last generation. Gamers and developers selected Sony over Nintendo, even though Nintendo still had a considerable deal of success. While Sony continues with the same course of action that brought them success with the PlayStation, Nintendo has regrouped and developed an end-to-end solution that is clearly the Anti-64.
Their new platform is far more developer-friendly, and it shows with the launch schedule that dwarfs the Nintendo 64's, which launched with 2 titles and took some time before additional ones came along. GameCube will have about half a dozen titles available off the bat, and as many as 20 within the following six weeks. EA signed on rather quickly for GameCube development, whereas Nintendo had to diligently pursue them to develop for the Nintendo 64. Financially, the risk of development has been reduced because of the GameCube’s relatively cheap and competitive disc format compared to expensive cartridges. In a day of increasing development costs, manufacturing titles more inexpensively is welcomed by all.
The GameCube is launching without Nintendo’s chief character Mario. Initial reviews for Luigi's Mansion have been mixed. It's clearly not the same type of game that Mario is. While there are few gamers that aren't disappointed by this, perhaps Nintendo felt it is the better choice for them. Due to the lack of a sufficient software library in Japan for Nintendo 64's launch, as soon as gamers beat Mario, many returned their systems to the stores. How many of those gamers bought the system again at a later date? We don’t know. What we do know is that Mario is important to not only Japanese gamers, but to gamers everywhere. With Mario being released in Japan in the spring or summer of next year, perhaps the hordes of gamers that will buy a GameCube to play Mario will think twice about returning their systems because of the plethora of titles that will be available to them by that time.
While Nintendo went all-out with N64’s launch with ad campaigns up to the ears, they have taken a more modest and quiet approach with the GameCube. The lack of an official pre-order program and fewer advertisements have confused and even frustrated gamers in the face of the PS2 and Xbox promotional onslaught. Nintendo stuck to their strategic guns and allowed a more subtle, deep-embedded hype to build with a sudden sensorial orgy bursting out in the last remaining moments, capturing what Nintendo refers to as the entertainment dollar - consisting of largely impulse buys and accompanying short attention spans.
To scratch the itch of those impulse buyers, Nintendo is providing a large allotment of GameCubes. They launched the Nintendo 64 with 500,000 units, creating another Cabbage Patch, Tickle-Me Elmo phenomenon that lastest almost throughout the entire Holiday season. GameCube’s launch day comes with a healthier initial supply of 700,000 units split between 2 colors, and more to come in the following weeks. Many say that it isn’t enough, but I believe that it will be, considering the supply that will continue to trickle in that negates the immediacy of buying on day 1 for a chance at having one for the Holidays. I think the feeling of urgency to arrive at stores early or to even camp out is largely created by hype and excitement, but it remains to be only a small core number of gamers. More systems will arrive soon.
What I also find different about the launches is that the GameCube doesn’t really represent a new paradigm of gaming as the N64 did. The Nintendo 64 took us from 2-D and pseudo 3-D worlds on the SNES into a generation of pure 3D gaming. Much like the SNES was the big brother to the NES, the GameCube is the big brother to the N64. GameCube advances current technologies with more polygons, more effects, more sound, and an improved controller, but it does not spawn a whole new dimension of game play. The GameCube represents the maturing of 3-D.
For everything Nintendo has done differently for this new generation, many tried and true aspects have continued their course. For the longest time, Nintendo told gamers that the Nintendo 64 was going to retail for “under $250.” A few months before launch, they did one better by announcing a new competitive price point of under $200, largely due to competition from Sony’s PSX which had just been reduced in price itself. Pricing is important, as it is one of a couple major factors that determine unit sell-throughs. Nintendo continues the tradition of making their consoles affordable by releasing a unit easily 10 times more powerful at the same price point. Additionally, the SNES before it also sold for an attractive $200 at launch.
Certainly another thing that hasn’t changed is the sheer excitement the thousands of us are feeling right now as we wait to get our systems. We didn’t need an advertising blitz to get here because as hardcore gamers we knew for years now that we were going to be in for something special. The GameCube is the centerpiece of our next 5 years of gaming. There’s nothing more exciting than getting a piece of the glue that will hold it all together for years to come.
Finally, Nintendo’s drive for innovation has not wavered in the slightest. They are consistently this industry’s main innovator in software, largely spearheaded by Miyamoto-san, his in-house peers, NOA, and their 1st party houses. The N64 was innovative in its move to 3D, but also by making games a even more of a social phenomenon with the advent of 4 controller ports, a creative portable memory solution, and an evolutionary controller design. Nintendo’s GameCube is guaranteed to continue those successes as well as cover the genres better, create new genres, support more accessories, and certainly provide more of the greatest hits than any other console.
I think there has never been a better time to be a gamer. Technology evolves, hardware evolves, software evolves, and the gamers themselves evolve. At the end of the day, the more things change, the more they stay the same.