Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Nintendo

Withered hardware, lateral thinking

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Super Mario Galaxy 2

If the word “Nintendo” is all but synonymous with video games—as in “I’m buying my grandson that new Nintendo from Sony for Christmas”—it owes this largely to the efforts of two men: Shigeru Miyamoto and Gunpei Yokoi. Although he was less famous than Miyamoto, Yokoi was responsible for developing a number of hugely important innovations, including the Game Boy, the ubiquitous controller cross pad, and the game Metroid, but his most lasting legacy was a philosophy he called Kareta Gijutsu no Suihei Shikō, or “Lateral thinking with withered technology.” It focuses on finding radical new applications for mature technologies, rather than on inventing new hardware on the cutting edge, and it emphasizes gameplay over processing power. And as Lukas Mathis pointed out in a recent blog post, you can track Nintendo’s fortunes surprisingly well based to the extent to which it has followed this approach: consoles like the Gamecube or the Wii U represented a doomed attempt to compete on specs, while the Game Boy or the Wii triumphed as inspired transformations of creaky components.

The disadvantages of this philosophy are obvious—it means that you’ll always lag behind your competitors on graphics or computational speed—but its advantages are equally compelling. It opens up the use of cheap, readily available components, which allows you to compete, crucially, on price. As you force yourself to focus on the essentials, you start to discover which qualities really matter to the majority of consumers: playability, accessibility, convenience, and such mundane but essential factors as battery life, which allowed the Game Boy to remain dominant over more advanced competitors like Game Gear or Lynx. Best of all, by handing you a set of stark technological constraints, it obliges you to think more creatively about ways of delivering a satisfying gaming experience. Watching the evolution of Nintendo from Donkey Kong to Super Mario Bros. 3 is like witnessing the growth, flowering, and maturation of an entire art form, all squeezed from the same generation of hardware. Ingenuity and beauty win the day, and it’s unlikely that these games would have emerged in so elegant a form if they had been able to rely on more expensive technology.

Gunpei Yokoi

You notice this in other media as well. Movies are often compelling in proportion to the constraints they need to confront: when anything is possible, as in a film like The Avengers, even the miraculous starts to seem a little boring. Some of the most memorable visual effects in movie history—I’m thinking of works like Jean Cocteau’s Orphée or Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which generate an entire fantasy world out of a handful of simple tricks—are the result of limited resources coupled with limitless resourcefulness. Even a work as amply funded as the original Lord of the Rings trilogy had no choice but to mine wit and beauty out of old-fashioned techniques. At the high end, you have the invention of new technology like the Massive software package, which allows entire armies of artificially intelligent soldiers to be generated on the fly; at the low end, you have shots making use of miniatures, forced perspective, or Billy Boyd shuffling around on his knees. That fusion of digital magic, polyurethane, and real leather and steel is a large part of what makes the trilogy so appealing, and it’s a model that other works could stand to follow.

For writers, the situation is a little different: we’re all operating with the same set of tools, and a novel or short story isn’t limited by budgetary concerns. Yet the struggle to do more with less, or to achieve effects of great complexity from the simplest components, is central to the art of storytelling. If there’s one parameter that more writers could stand to scrutinize, it’s length: I’m constantly asking myself if the story I’m trying to tell could be told in fewer words or scenes, and no matter how many times I cut a manuscript, whenever I go back for the next round, I always find places where the text could be tightened. These are constraints that you need to enforce for yourself, rather than having them imposed from the outside, but it’s necessary to treat them as if they were as inexorable as disk space or processing power. Constraints, on their own, don’t guarantee a good result: Nintendo has certainly released plenty of forgettable games on every console. But if I had to choose between having just slightly too little or a bit too much of a crucial resource, whether it’s time, money, or hardware, I know which one I’d prefer.

Written by nevalalee

January 9, 2014 at 9:27 am

The Way of Mario

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Super Mario Galaxy

First, a confession: I’m not a gamer. Like most members of my generation, I spent countless hours on the original Nintendo console, and I’ve already expounded at length on my mastery of Tetris. Later, however, my knowledge of new platforms and games diminished, and it’s only recently, with the help of the invaluable Virtual Console on the Wii, that I’ve begin to fill in the gaps in my gaming education. One of these days, I’m finally going to tackle Ocarina of Time, but for now, I’ve been working through most of the landmarks in the Mario series. Other games have come and gone, but Mario is the modern equivalent of the movies that Disney released in the golden age of animation: he represents the collective resources of an entire studio, lavished on a character who will always serve, for better or worse, as the face of the company. As a result, the Mario games tend to be playgrounds for innovation, as channeled through the demands of a flagship franchise that sets the tone for the industry as a whole. And any consideration of video games as art really needs to begin with this humble little plumber.

In some ways, the fact that I’m little more than a gaming dilettante allows me to look more objectively at the question of whether such games can be regarded as an art form. Generally, discussions of the artistic value of gaming have centered on elaborate open world titles like Heavy Rain or Red Dead Redemption that require enormous patience to fully explore. For an outsider, the prospect of investing hundreds of hours on a game can seem daunting, for much the same reason that many of us hesitate before committing to the full run of a novelistic television series like Mad Men or Breaking Bad, which really needs to be experienced from beginning to end. For the members of any obsessive fanbase, the object of their adoration always seems, by definition, like a form of art that demands attention and respect, to the point where it isn’t worth debating. But just as there are television shows that can delight and surprise a casual viewer without feeling like homework, it’s worth singling out those games that reveal their pleasures at once, while also rewarding an extended period of engagement.

Super Mario Galaxy 2

This is all by way of preface to saying that the two games in the Super Mario Galaxy series have provided me with more sustained joy than just about any work of art I’ve encountered over the last few years. They’ve also given me new insights into storytelling, which might seem strange for a pair of games that consist of little more than a string of fascinating puzzles built around the rescue of a thinly defined princess. I’ve spoken before about the fractal nature of a show like Mad Men, which can be appreciated on the level of an entire series, a single season, or an individual episode. Galaxy has some of the same granular quality: with few exceptions, any stage of any level is a delight to play, and they add up to a universe of dazzling richness and invention. As a review of Super Mario Galaxy 2 in Edge puts it: “It reuses assets, but almost never recycles ideas; you’ll never see another title so thrifty, or so gratuitous.” “Generous” would be the word I’d use: these games change radically at every turn, but also work as unified wholes, thanks to their gorgeous art direction, character design, and music, as well as a relentless focus on the player’s experience. For all their complexity, we’re never lost for long, and the challenges are scaled and introduced with a grace that can only be achieved through endless testing and refinement.

And if this isn’t art, I don’t know what is. At this point, it seems clear that video games are what animation was eighty years ago: the great collaborative art form of a new century, overseen by a handful of geniuses, that innovates in ways that will inevitably trickle down to other media. That said, the hoary predictions that video games would lead to a revolution in interactive storytelling strike me as misguided: a great novel or movie doesn’t gain much from viewer participation, and any attempt to push them in that direction usually ends up feeling gimmicky or worse. But just as the great Disney movies shaped the look, technical effects, and narrative choices of countless other arts—you can see their influence on everyone from Thomas Pynchon to Powell and Pressburger—it would be equally careless of contemporary artists to ignore the contributions of a major creative industry that occupies the bleeding edge of coordinated, large-scale storytelling. Their impact is bound to be indirect and unpredictable, and so transformed in the process that their influence is hard to see. But at their best, they’ve raised the bar for all of us.

Written by nevalalee

January 25, 2013 at 9:50 am

“You are a Tetris master.”

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I’m a decent writer. At least, I’d like to think so. I’m not nearly as good as I want to be, of course, but I write nice, clean prose, know how to structure a short story, chapter, or novel, and occasionally get paid for it. And yet it’s really hard work. I write fewer drafts than I once did, but every paragraph is still the result of endless revision, and the process can leave me feeling pretty drained. As a result, there are times, when I’m struggling with yet another intractable sentence, when I look back fondly on the only talent that seemed to come to me naturally. That’s right: years ago, in my more youthful days, I was a Tetris master.

Looking back, I suspect that there must have been a painful apprenticeship somewhere along the way, after I first got Tetris for the beloved Nintendo Entertainment System, but if there was, I don’t remember it. All I know is that I was really good at Tetris. To this day—and it’s embarrassing to admit this—it remains the only thing in the world I can do well without trying. And there was even one afternoon, when I was probably eleven or twelve, when I made my parents take a blurry Polaroid photo of a high score and send it to Nintendo Power. I never knew what happened next, until one day, about a year ago, I stumbled across this astonishing page from the 1998 edition of the Twin Galaxies Official Video Game & Pinball Book of World Records:

Yep, that’s me, with a score of 446,166. And a few lines above, yep, that’s Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computer, making this the only time Wozniak and I have been mentioned in the same context. (At least to my knowledge.) Which is why it pains me to confess that I’m in the Twin Galaxies record book under false pretenses: my high score was achieved on the home NES console, but it was somehow misfiled under Game Boy, which means that I’m ranked significantly higher than I should have been. (If I’d been classified correctly, I still would have made the Twin Galaxies book, but several dozen spots lower down—and I wouldn’t have been anywhere near the Woz, who takes his Tetris very seriously.)

Anyway, I’ve long since retired from Tetris, but the allure remains. A few Thanksgivings ago, at my in-laws’ house, I picked up a controller for the first time in maybe a decade, and racked up a decent score of 351,499.  Afterward, I wanted to bring the console home, but my wife nixed the idea, probably for good reason. (Having an NES console in the house would quickly bring my writing career to an ignominious close.) Yet there are times when I can’t help but wonder what might have been. And while I’ll never be as good as this guy, I still feel nostalgic for the one pursuit at which I was, for one brief, shining moment, a natural. If only I could do it for a living…

Written by nevalalee

April 15, 2011 at 9:51 am

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