In this article Alan Lopez shares his experiences of the Nintendo World Championships 2015.
I was three years old when the 1990 Nintendo World Championships took place in Universal Studios, Hollywood.
Like most events held in Hollywood at the turn of its decade, the flair of big lights, big hair and conspicuous moments helped define what it meant to be Nintendo. The very existence of the 1990 Nintendo World Championships was the sign of a company digging its heels into the soft soil of late 80's pop culture. Unlike most tech from the 1980s, Nintendo marketed not to the usual middle aged man looking to stay ahead of the curve, but to children and teenagers who - in masse - wanted to master this new, and we should stress exciting, hobby. At the Nintendo World Championships, competitions were fierce, highly conceived, and amply rewarded with Game Boys, power pads, and Nintendo Power everything.
The only remnant artefacts from that mammoth 29 city tour are marked in unmistakably VHS-quality flashbacks, complete with blur and neon, trailing lights. Loud, bold graphic design accompanied anything with the Championship games' namesake. The winner of the event won a 1990 Geo Metro convertible, for crying out loud.
In 1990, Nintendo presided over the video game landscape as a king, emerging from the 1980's ready to guide its growing empire of tech-heads and geeks into the turn of the century.
It was that following year - 1991 - that I received my first video game: a brand new Nintendo Entertainment System that was bundled with a Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt combo cartridge. I did not yet know that my parents were simply following in the steps of Nintendo's massive, marketing machine: Now you're playing with power, and whatever I was playing with before sure wasn't Nintendo.
Today though, I'm 28 years old and walking down S. Figueroa Street, the sidewalk that's home to both the Staples Center and the Los Angeles convention center. Nintendo is no longer Nintendo. The company that once used point totals and trivial knowledge to hot-iron its place into pop culture was today invoking that same, passionate competitive brand to help boost its brand from what is - arguably - a troublesome hole dug by the Wii U.
There is no doubt that Nintendo is no longer that noun that suggests intense mastery, but more of an adjective that invokes a more gentle touch: Wii Sports, Nintendo Land, and Yoshi's Woolly World all bare witness to Nintendo as a pastime, not a sport. But here we all were just the same, standing in the hot LA sun next to a giant sign that read "Nintendo World Championships 2015". And as I walked up to a hoard of Nintendo staffers branded with that familiar Championship emblem across their chests, I was just as curious as anyone else if this really was the right shovel – the proper tool - for the reconstruction of Nintendo.
"It's super cool. You know, back in 1990 we had the first ever Nintendo World Championship and it's so cool to have it come back. It's awesome to see the fans out today. We've got some great players, we've got some great games, and I'm really excited for the event."
I was speaking to Krysta Yang, one of Nintendo's current social media faces - on Nintendo Minute - and Nintendo Championship spokeswoman. Aside from us was a long line of fans that stretched out across the west side of the Microsoft Theater (formally Nokia Theater). The earliest had been waiting since the night previous, with all waiting to enter a building more typically home to American Idol and Grammy related proceedings. The groupies at this event, however, were dressed as 16-bit role models: Ness, Marth, Luigi, and Princess Peach.
"I'm hoping Mick wins it", told me one showgoer. Another was rooting for a girl named "Bananas". Fans rattled off to me well wishes and accolades for competitors with complex gamer tags, as if they were baseball fans reciting out the batting averages of their favourite players. Many of these people were visibly younger than the 25 year span of time since the last Championship event, but were just as versed in not only the games of today, but the games of yesterday.
Said one fan, "I'm thinking Mario Maker might be one of the games….Codename S.T.E.A.M. maybe?"
The hook of the 2015 competition was that the competing games were to be held in total secrecy from virtually everybody. A paltry 8 city, Best Buy-sponsored tour was used to pick out half of the 16 contestants, the gaming of which was predominately anchored by a version of the classic Dr.Mario puzzle game.
As these sponsored events were highly limited by location and scope, the 2015 qualifiers threatened to make the day's festivities a gizmodgery of an event. And yet, the cheerful Nintendo fanfare surrounding me from all sides was blatantly oblivious to the criticism.
Through social media, Nintendo teased that its new Wii U title Splatoon would be included in the tournament, as well as a speed running of the original Legend of Zelda title from their first console. Try as I might, Nintendo wouldn't say anything more ahead of the show: "Nope!", reiterated Krysta to my pleas.
By late afternoon, despite some scripted yelling for the cameras, people were let into the theater in a calm, orderly way that was more reminiscent of a polite crowd waiting to see the city symphony than hardcore fans entering a loud rock show. The music over the loud speakers reinforced this: cute mid-game tunes from Nintendo soundtracks blared throughout the entire theater, never once getting more raucous that the slide music from Super Mario 64.
"Don't you think there's less people here than last year?" Geoff Keighley asked me as we stood overlooking fans slowly filing in from the back of the theatre. It was hard to yet tell. Perhaps it was just an effect of the low energy.
Keighley, the host of last year's Super Smash Invitational and this year's YouTube collaborating emcee and I were discussing Nintendo's marvellous stage standing front of us. A silly and quirky demo of Yoshi's Woolly World that was being broadcast over three large screens blared in the background, surprisingly to the delight of the crowd.
"Did they talk to you at all about (hosting) the championship this year?"
"Yeah, we started talking, but it's tough because I'm doing the YouTube thing this year…Kevin Pereira is doing it. Kevin is one of my good friends…he's good, he's funny. It was fun to do it last year. I love Nintendo."
Every time Yoshi fell into a pit on the screen, the crowd erupted in bemused disapproval, forcing me to speak up to be heard. It seemed the fans were slowly coming out of their shells, likely having shared in the collective uncertainty of what exactly we were all here to witness. By the time Kevin Pereira came out to welcome us to the 2015 Nintendo World Championships, everyone was ready to dig in.
I asked Keighley what he wanted to see played at the show: "I remember (the movie) "The Wizard", right? And how great that was…It's gonna be fascinating to see what games they'll show. Obviously The Wizard was revealing the new Super Mario Bros. I don't know if we can expect that, but…"
Nintendo would not end up revealing a new flagship title, but they would make a strong case for the tournament's success by the end of the night.
"…I hope it's the first of many", admitted Keighley.
The show played out like a lavishly produced home mix tape. The pacing was sometimes weird, more than a few times did the sound drop out, and it went on for way too long.
On this: a revelation that the original Earthbound game was to finally become localized was met with passionate roars, followed immediately by a weirdly silent trailer that invited all those previously yelling to quietly read longwinded RPG menus for two whole minutes. Players awkwardly paused matches in the heat of their tournament matches so often that Kevin Pereira was finally forced to joke, "I can't wait to see who checks the eShop during the next match". The show was over three and a half hours long.
But like any good mix tape, the stand outs forced me to revisit them in my head, over and over again.
The tournament was set up in double elimination fashion. An odd collection of eight Nintendo qualifying winners and eight online celebrities squared off in teams of 4, with the losers ultimately (and unjustly) forced to play in special elimination challenges. Largely from this quirk did Nintendo evoke the greatest responses from the crowd: Unlike the amusing but belabored Splatoon-ing that played more like a not-so-subtle commercial, fans - myself included - were glued to the four screen split screen of an 8-Bit Link chasing down the Triforce. The playing of Super Metroid's final boss did not run smoothly, but the climax was riveting.
Game after game, Nintendo trumpeted a mix of games present in the past, but smartly kept the showpieces for what would should sell copies today. In spite of this, exigencies from the hardcore Nintendo fans in the audience were aired out loudly; All silences before title reveals were always met with "suggestions" from the crowd:
"Roy's our boy! Roy's our boy!"
"Wii Tennis!", then laughter.
Never did their heckles match up to the reveal, yet the fans were amicably invested no matter what appeared in front of them. One moment in particular, in which president of Nintendo of America Reggie-Fils-Aime was pitted against professional Smash player "Hungrybox" in what turned out to be the most one-sided Smash match in the game's history, elicited the greatest approval of the night.
In a particularly memorable moment, Nintendo's president "trashtalked" with this response to his loss: "I spend 16 hours a day running a company. You spend 16 hours a day playing Smash."
This, then, was followed with a bout of Super Smash Bros. for Wii U that featured a ruleset no competitive Smash player would even remotely play, despite the matches featuring several professional Smash players. With these ongoing liberties with the rules and stakes, I felt my attention waning and returning several times throughout the night.
Point of fact, the cheers for Smash Bros. in particular showcased how the love for Nintendo's history left fans clamouring to validate the childhood of their past or present, regardless of how far Nintendo deviated from the plot of the show: true competition.
A reveal, then half an hour of posturing. This push and pull of excellence in gameplay married to gimmicky spectacle never relented. The 2015 Championships rewarded the knowledge of speedrunning Super Metroid at one turn, then relied on an unfair tabulation of points for Balloon Fight at the next.
But there again, through the peaks and valleys of the mix tape, was that inescapably great tune.
The grand showcase between the final two contestants, against all logic, was the game now dubbed Super Mario Maker - ostensibly a title that on its face is nothing more than a glorified level editor. If before the show one were to have told me this was set as the grand finale, I'd have rolled my eyes out of my head. When the final moment arrived however, Nintendo took advantage of its stage to prove me, and everybody else, dead wrong.
The final two players "DavidNumbers" and "Cosmo", perhaps not surprisingly both Super Smash Bros. experts, were given the challenge of playing Super Mario levels created by a team of Mario making experts at Nintendo. While one was playing on the big screen, the other was poised in "isolation" (sitting facing the audience with headphones and a face mask).
I watched in increasing amusement as each took turns playing through levels themed after major titles in the Mario universe. Each sequence played out vastly more ridiculous than the last. The levels demanded true mastery of the side scrolling formula, and called on a skillset absolutely every single person in that theatre unspokenly understood: the physics of controlling Mario. Everyone could follow along, and the immediacy of the challenge at hand felt like a stroke of genius.
It didn't even matter that the fourth and final round was nowhere near the intense competition that the first three rounds were. "It was amazing to make it to the finals and I felt really good about that." Runner-up Cosmo told me after the show. "I probably should have downloaded Mario Kart 8 before the event, and it would have been a cooler finish if I had more New Super Mario Bros. skills. A wonderful experience all around, though, and I have no real regrets."
Here, Nintendo capitalized not solely on the competitive nature of the challenge, of which the challenge was overwhelming, but most of all on the shared affinity from their fans. A moment of pure joy: JohnNumbers (whose real name is John Goldberg) discovering how to navigate through a particularly difficult section in the finals' first round left everyone in the theatre exasperated, yelling, and simply overjoyed when the solution was revealed through trial-and-error.
This was a perfect end to an imperfect night. My eyes didn't roll out of my head as myself from four hours previous would have you believe. Instead, I joined in with the rest of the crowd in giving a standing ovation. And when I stood up, it was not just for the players and the show they put on, but also for Nintendo squeezing out an emotional outpouring from that same, glorified level editor.
Super Mario Maker? Who knew?
After the show was over, I noticed three players outside near the theatre and wearing jackets and t-shirts from the original Nintendo World Championships: Vince Clemente, who was actually a near qualifier of the 2015 event, and Tre Harrison and Dorian Whitlock, 1990 and 1994 Nintendo Powerfest qualifying players, in turn.
Curious, I approached them to talk about what they thought about the 2015 edition we had just witnessed. In reminiscing about the two eras of Nintendo tent poled by these two championships, they solidified a lot of what I had personally suspected.
"The production has come a long way since 1994…way better produced. But also much longer. Still enjoyable…but there was definitely some times that I was actually thinking of leaving and coming back.", said Tre.
It became increasingly obvious as I sat there that I was in the rare company of people who, at a moment's mention, could recite Balloon Fight theory straight off the top of their heads. All three referenced the Nintendo Campus Tournaments of 1991 and the aforementioned Nintendo Powerfest of 1994, both of which were conveniently ignored for the sake of the day's quarter century branding. Vincent, too, conveyed sourness that the qualifying title never showed its face in the actual tournament, and I found it hard to disagree. Despite the well-received theatrics of blind reveals, this was hardly an experimental design made for validating true skill.
But Nintendo never intended it as such. All four of us knew it.
On the positives: "I really liked Mario." Dorian emphasized for reasons already elaborated. "I highly applaud Nintendo for that choice."
I also asked these pro gamers what they wanted to see differently if Nintendo were to do the event again. Predictably, the list was as follows: more locations, set rules, more qualifying players.
"You know, people in Nintendo's offices aren't really thinking 'oh, did the super competitive players like it or not?', they're thinking how did this work out for us as a business? I hope that they see it in a way that compels them to do it again. And if they do, maybe (they) reach out to some players and try to get their input on it.", Tre lamented.
As if there was ever any doubt, this was not the 29 city tour of yesteryear, complete with precise rules and non-ironic bravado. We still don't have an answer for who is the foremost "talented" gamer among us, but rather, spent the night enjoyably celebrating the combination of super talented and very lucky gamers who were in the right place, at the right time.
With the Nintendo World Championships, Nintendo is still not Nintendo.
But rather, the Kyoto company proved that it's still very much a force to watch, not remember. Its titles bring people together in unpredictably charming ways. Nostalgia, perniciously used for profit, is regrettable. But it can also be an effective tool – a shovel, to help dig out.