Saturday, April 23, 2011

My time as a Nintendo designer

Take a look at this. On the surface, it appears to be an ordinary, well-worn notebook. But it’s so much more than that. It’s the most enduring reminder of an era of Ian. And not because it contains notes or homework or other pointless junk, because it doesn’t — indeed, there isn’t one page of this notebook that contains anything productive. No, this volume was all about something much better. Wasting time. And boy, was I efficient at it!

Almost all of the content in the notebook dates from 1989-90, when I was in 4th grade. That year, I attended Myrtle Place Elementary in Lafayette for gifted classes. Because the school was out of my home zone, no buses passed by my house. However, one did stop right in front of the bank where my mom worked. So for most of that school year, I’d ride with her to her office, catch the bus and return to the bank in the afternoon. This gave me considerable downtime in both the morning and afternoon, with very little in the way of diversions. But what I did have was a notebook that I originally allocated for French, but wound up not needing. The rest is history.

If you asked me to define my obsessions in 1989-90, Nintendo games and magazines about Nintendo games were right at the top of a very long list. So was making up things from thin air. And from those pursuits was born the Moonshine line of Nintendo games.

Moonshine. The Challengers. Collect 'em all!
I drew up a line of games for the entire family, especially if your family was entirely 9-year-old boys. Games pictured include: Cyborg, Palace of Math, Sideswipe, Dennis the Menace, Big, Garfield, The Master of Disaster, Superman (crossed out), Indy 500, Boxing, Brawl!, Livin' In On America, Killer Klowns From Outer Space, RXR: A Train Story, Sprint, Don't Sweat!, Helicopter Hunt, Archery, Mr. Spook, Dartan, Football, Soccer, Baseball, Lacrosse, Dartan 2, Hockey, License To Drive, The Castle of Terror, Star Trek, Karate, Rom, Ernest Goes To Camp, Smallfoot, Wrestling, The Castle of Terror 2: The Saboteur Quest, Skateboard! and something ending in "ng" that might also be a skateboarding game. A total of 37 titles. Truth in advertising.

Perhaps inspired by Dum-Dums lollipops, I also thought up the idea of a mystery cartridge, which would combine two random Moonshine games into a playable mishmash. Mr. Spookfoot, Killer Klowns from Ernest, RXR: Helicopter Hunt, things like that. No giveaways. No manual. Nothing but fun.

I even drew up detailed proposals for some of these games, going so far as to mail one for The Castle of Terror off to Nintendo of America. I never heard back from them, but I know my mom sent it off like she promised she would. And I know that because, while I never saw my concept come to fruition, video games with both castles and terror soon followed. Heh.

The Castle of Terror, incidentally, was the cornerstone franchise of the Moonshine lineup, to the extent that I dreamed up nine sequels. Some of them were even fleshed out.

Not just content to merely draw ads for my game line, I also fashioned a comprehensive strategy guide. I've included the best and most complete tips. So, career Nintendoids, sit up and take notice.

Make your scores go skyrocketing!
One set of strategies involves the game Boxing, the cover art of which I was particularly proud.

Next up is Dartan, an adventure game unlike any you have ever seen.

A blimp caravan in a cave? You're welcome, world.

And Dartan II: The Fireball Castle. Because the world always needs more Dartan.

The 5th and final tip (on a jump page) said, "Don't feel bad if Wizard ZZZ-RA kills you. He can be destroyed. Just ?!?!?! ..."

Smallfoot was also a made-up game, in that I made up some seemingly unrelated screens and called it a day. The bus must have come early that morning.

One of my favorite made-up games was the awesomely anarchic RXR: A Train Story. I still think this should be a game.

There was also a game whose name escapes me, but that I remember describing as "a space-warped rad dude" stuck in an ancient cave full of monsters. He has nothing but a skateboard and his wits. And presumably something to kill the monsters with. This is an illustration of the final boss thing striking our hero. Notice my gaping lack of awareness of 8-bit graphical limitations.

(Tiny Tim was a made-up system. There's nothing I didn't make up as a child.)
In addition to my original games, Moonshine also held licensed versions of famous TV shows, movies and characters. Among these titles (all of which had at least partial strategy guides in the notebook): License to Drive, Ernest Goes to Camp, Rom and Star Trek. I originally had Superman as well, but it turns out an NES cartridge already existed (shocking, I know); so I did the 1989 equivalent of photoshopping by scribbling it out of the advertising.

I based the Rom game on the Marvel comic book character. I had received an issue in my stocking for Christmas in 1986, and for several years it was the only comic book in the house to which I had a legit claim. So I liked it. This adaptation actually contains some elements of the character, his world and canon. A little bit, anyway.

As opposed to Star Trek, where I didn't even bother with Gene Roddenberry's universe:

The object of the game was to kill the sun. With ice bullets.

Taking a cue from Nintendo's earliest titles, Moonshine classified its games by genre. You've already seen the Adventure Series above. Now check out the Power Pad series!

Livin' In On America, despite its cringeworthy title, was another ambitious game. Basically, it was every event in the Olympics, with a few hybrid events thrown in, and each player would represent a different country. I saw the game as the spark for a worldwide Nintendo athletic competition, where the champions would have their likenesses preserved in 8-bit glory in future editions of the game.

Don't Sweat! was more run-of-the-mill by comparison, but by my lofty standards, that's not saying much.

You can tell I'd just learned the word "repetition."

When it came to educational games, I was of the Atari school of subtlety. Witness Palace of Math:

And last.

Who could forget the Nintendo Zapper? Not the challengers at Moonshine!

Light guns don't kill people. People kill helicopters.

And sports fans, rejoice! At last, sports games for the NES!

The very last page of the notebook features the baseball game Hit & Run!, which reflected my budding interest in baseball, which would soon sap my ambition to design video games altogether.

This was done during two different sittings, in case you can't tell.

And what strategy magazine would be complete without even more ads? Here's a Game Boy teaser:

And Dank Caverns, which fills the cavernous void left by having no games with "Dank" in the title:

In retrospect, the chalice could have been bigger.
So when you think of video games, think of The Challengers. Moonshine.

Next time in the notebook: The story of Mr. Macho Man!


venessalewis said...

I'm......kinda......scared.....WOW. In other news.....I haven't even had TIME to dig up my old shit! So, you win in speed. I was hoping to win in quality, but i dunno....this bar is high.

Ian McGibboney said...

What are you scared of? Awesomeness? Ha ha ha!

James said...

Ahh, the innocence of youth hey :) The thing is this does show off what gaming doesn't represent once you get older. The magic and excitement of it all. Great artistry by the way :)

Ian McGibboney said...

Thanks, James! I still play video games — mostly Wii Fit these days — but I never got into today's most complex games. They don't do for me what the simpler games did. I'm fortunate to still have working NES and even Atari systems. By the way, you have a great site as well.