Forever NES

Nov 24 2014

Video games have been a warm and fuzzy comfort in my life for almost as long as I can remember, like a well-worn teddy bear. My dad was a gamer, though gaming seemed to hold a different significance for him in the context of his generation. At five years old, I had a vague idea that he was a “computer guy” by profession. In recent years, as I’ve started to reach back into the astoundingly contemporary and explosive history of personal computers, I’ve begun to better understand his work. The ancient, cryptic language in which the Book of Mario was written shares a close root with the humming chatter of mainframes. My dad programmed tape storage and retrieval routines for the leviathanic cousins of our family’s Intellivision and our 386 DOS box.

I remember when he took me into the city to see what he did for a living. We each got on the train carrying a briefcase, but mine was cooler, because it had Hot Wheels. He brought me into the mainframe room, kept under keycard lock. I remember how cold it was, the hum of the machines, and the rows of magnetic tape rolls too big and heavy for me to lift. It was like something out of a distant speculative sci-fi future. I took for granted the similar level of technology I played games on back home. I was too young to make a connection between dad’s “toys” and mine.

Over 20 years later, I wondered about the physiology of the computer games I grew up playing. I wanted to think in bleep-bloop. I wanted to learn how Nintendo’s dream box dreamed.

I started studying 6502 binary (the parent of the NES processor). I picked a game to dissect, Dragonslayer IV, better known as Legacy of the Wizard in the US. The game was unfathomable to me as a kid, but it managed to draw me in despite its opacity. I had explored its dungeon for at least 30 hours as a child despite never reaching even the first boss! I poked around and read about similar experiences other players had with the game. “It was the hardest game I ever played! I spent hours exploring, but I never even made it to the first boss,” was the effect of what they wrote. What piqued my interest in the game again, was a tool-assisted speed-run on youtube in which it was beaten in under 15 minutes!

Watching the speed-run, the developers’ intent started to become clear. The (AWESOME!) music could be used for navigating the single gigantic, non-linear dungeon. Realizing this was like a kick in the head 20 years delayed. The game’s designers must have thought the trick was perfectly simple, and yet most of us apparently missed it. Something went fundamentally wrong. Yet, why did players continue to explore the dungeon for hours despite achieving no milestones? I wanted to understand, and I started to pick apart the game with a hex editor. I had an ambition that I might give something back to my past, that I might break down a game I had loved and build it back up from the floor.

The joy of being able to puppet the baddies’ brains was indescribable. For first the first time in my life, I was looking inside the head of mine pixelated nemesis, and poking its brain with sharp high-voltage electrodes. I can make you jump, I can make you run, I can turn you into a treasure chest, I can shoot you to the ceiling and fling you to the ground at terminal velocity, and you don’t even know why you’re doing it, you poor little block of sprites. I felt like a wizard, or a poltergeist pretending to be one.

I came back to the music as I prodded, but it seemed the most developed part of the game. I couldn’t make heads or tails of how the music engine ran. Yuzo Koshiro and Mieko Ishikawa worked on it. Koshiro-san was better known for Streets of Rage and Revenge of the Shinobi. Ishikawa-san worked on Popful Mail and Brandish 2 for Nihon Falcom as well. As I fiddled with the music engine, I started to realize the actual scope of the project I wanted to achieve. More so, I started to develop a very different kind of respect for the developers than I had as just a player. They had built enemy objects and a music engine that essentially performed “live” every time the game was turned on, practically from binary.

I was disheartened, but I was intrigued. I played around with the secret sound test mode; clicking on a portrait of your ancestor in the character selection screen allowed the player to cycle through 16 fantastic tracks. Cycling through the songs a few times, something compelled me to identify the track selection byte in RAM, and place a hexadecimal x10 in it.

There was a 17th track, unavailable to the in-game sound test. It was a different rendition of one of the standard 16, but eerie and wistful, with the heavy footfalls of a far-off dragon fading in gradually. I didn’t know what I was listening to at first. All of sudden, I realized that I might be the only person in the world who had ever heard that track besides Koshiro-san, Ishikawa-san, and the other members of the development team. It was a relic, hidden in the highest garret of the castle, left there for the team and for the curious gamer who came searching decades later. It was the Legacy of the Wizard.

Video game developers are craftspeople and artists, and their handiwork forms and strengthens the heart of a like-minded community. Developers seem to make games to say, “I was here; my vision remains.” Gamers recreate, tailor, and even sometimes break these visions to their own tastes. As a community, we get to look through each other’s eyes–video games are fundamentally empathic. We give our fantasies tangible form and place our friends at the focal point of our characters.

Video games may be the single most exciting of the modern media. Though the medium has entered the mainstream, the real value of these games is still underappreciated. They are ends, not diversions. We live to play. The games are also means, in that we play to learn. Occasionally, we even play just to blow up Nazi zombies, but what a powerful means and end that can be in itself!

Video games reflect the unique historical significance of my father’s and my generation, and the exciting and even frightening context into which the next generation is born.

Our games and the platforms they run on exhibit a very powerful and recent universal language. I’m not yet fluent in the language of the development team that left their beautiful little relic for a curious gamer to find so many years later, but if it might reach them, I would say, “Koshiro-san, Ishikawa-san, すみません, ありがとうございます。” Maybe this would better communicate my meaning:

(2A03:) 4C 2A 03

(It’s in a graphics nametable, but perhaps you could allow me artistic license.)

Roughly translated, it means “Forever NES.” The form of the game will exist forever. I realized that I couldn’t rewrite that game, that it wasn’t mine to change, but I came away loving it more than ever.

As I try to fathom the zeitgeist at the knee of the exponential growth curve, I gradually come to speak the language of my father. I begin to appreciate my grandfather’s work and the Altair he kept as a permanent fixture in his basement. I realize how video game artists have spoken to me in ways that not even books, canvas, film, or any other choice of medium can communicate.

We are at a turning point. We are here, getting the power-up. We make and play video games about saving the world to do it for real.

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