The Nintendo World Championships
Taken from Video Games & Computer Entertainment magazine.
Remember The Wizard? The film that premiered last year, starring Fred Savage of The Wonder Years? The Wizard had everything - great stars (besides Savage, there was Beau Bridges and Christian Slater), great lines like "Keep your Power Glove off my girl," not to mention excellent product placement (Nintendo galore). In fact, had there been an Oscar category for "Best Product Placement in a Theatrical Film" The Wizard would have won hands down.
The movie's plot centered around Fred Savage's character running off with his little brother to compete in a nationwide Nintendo competition. It turned out that his quiet sibling was not only an excellent Nintendo player but the best in the world. Of course, all this stuff about a Nintendo tournament was purely fictional.
Or was it? Earlier this year, Nintendo of America announced the Nintendo World championships, a nationwide tour encompassing 30 major cities in the US and Canada. At every stop, the best Nintendo players would compete in a specially designed triathlon game pak. Local area winners would then be sent to Orlando, Florida, to compete in the finals championship to be held and televised at Universal Studios (the company that financed and marketed The Wizard).
The premiere of the Nintendo World Championships (NWC) was held in Dallas, Texas, March 8-11. Naturally, since this was the first city to play host for the tour, there was a lot of local area hoopla and publicity about it. And they were determined to make sure that nothing would go wrong.
A good time was had by all. Everybody came out happy - Nintendo, the kids and their parents.. well, most of the parents.
As the VG&CE writer who lives in the northern region of Dallas, it was my assignment to cover the event. My intention was to cover all four days of the event from several angles - to provide a glimpse of what it was actually like to be there. Armed with copies of the latest issue of VG&CE, I wasn't just ready to fulfill my assignment - I was prepared for Nintendo Armageddon.
- Tuesday, March 8
This gargantuan event requires the largest convention facility each host city can provide. Dallas' Fair Park's Automobile Building fits that order.
The building covers the area of two football fields. This fact is pretty obvious - an inflatable Mario, looming three stories tall, greets everything at the building's entrance.
The first thing I see - well, run into - is the "Power Walk": a conglomeration of NES game booths displaying some of the newest, yet-to-be- released titles, including Rescue Rangers, Astyanax, Rocket Ranger and Super Spike V'Ball. Recently released titles like Robocop, Batman and Baseball Simulator 1.000 and sequels like Double Dragon II, Bases Loaded II, Ninja Gaiden II, Castlevania III and Super Mario Bros. 3 are available for everybody to sample.
Overhead, huge blowup figures fill the sky. An inflatable Bat logo hangs over Sunsoft's section of the Power Walk, where they're appropriately showing off their newest NES title. Jaleco has a Bases Loaded II emblem; Data East suspends a blowup Robocop doll who looks like he's been hung at the gallows; Seika has Bugs Bunny; Tecmo proudly displays a ninja that resembles Donkey Kong; and then there's Nintendo itself with Mario and Luigi. It was the invasion of the Nintendo inflatables.
As if these 130 NES game stations aren't enough, there's another section in the building with Game Boys to play. Located diagonally across from the Power Walk, these Game Boy displays are the same in retail stores - except there are 200 of them arranged in multiple aisles.
At the other end of the Power Walk is the NWC Super Stage, where - according to the NWC guidebook - the attraction include "Nintendo Game Counselors with answers to the most asked game play questions, in addition to their favorite 'pro tips.'"
Right across from the Power Walk is a video stage where kids can make their own rap video. This attraction is sponsored by the Thomas J. Lipton company, who make Nintendo Real Fruit Snacks (chewy, bite-sized Marios, Koopas, Zeldas and Links in a variety of fruit flavors). The stage is made up to look like a scene from Super Mario Bros., complete with plush turtles, Goombas and other colorful characters from the game. Participants move to the beat of a rap song, lip-syncing the lyrics.
All of this is lovingly captured on videotape by an operator who zooms in and out along with the repetitious beat. The end result looks bad and goofy, but the few brave kids who engage in this kind of production appear to be having a good time. Those definitely enjoying themselves are the people who have gathered to watch, gnawing on free samples of Real Fruit Snacks. As if to show us all how to do the Mario rap the "right" way, Mario himself (a short guy wearing a cephalically bloated costume) goes on stage to demonstrate.
Across from the Game Boy section is the VIP area. Most of the VIPs are men and women dressed in dark business suits, but a good number are kids, too, who are probably children of close associates of these adults. Overall, the scene looks more like a convention of bank executives.
At the end of the Automobile Building is the main attraction - the NWC Competition Arena. It's a stage with two huge monitor screens. Toward the front are six NES competition stations with monitors for both players and the audience. Between the enormous screens is a "throne" for a seventh player to sit while playing. Behind this stage are 102 more game stations.
This is how the event basically works: After signing up, participants are led to the NES stations backstage to play the NWC triathlon game pak. The seven high scorers are then taken onstage; the one who scored the highest gets to sit on the throne. They then play the triathlon again - but this time there's an audience watching and an announcer blaring how game play is progressing.
Those who attain a certain score within their age category qualify for the semifinals competition to be held on the following Saturday night. That's when the Wizards from each of the three age groups will be determined. These competitors also receive an NWC t-shirt with the words "OFFICIAL SEMI- FINALIST" written in bold, black letters across the back.
At about a little after six o'clock - the actual opening time for the NWC - the general public stats milling in. It's at this time that the press corps starts going into a frenzy. Virtually all the local area newscasts arrive, lugging their video camera equipment and bringing model-like reporters. Photographers run rampant, too, snapping photos of everything and anything, with telescoping camers equipped with powerful flare-like flashes.
A reporter asks a kid for a brief interview. Not realizing what he's about to get himself into, the kid agrees. He's then promptly blinded by video camera lights and barraged with questions asked by the reporter, who aims the microphone right in his face. It's at that moment that the poor kid loses any ability he once had to articulate the English language properly.
- Friday, March 9
Today the NWC opened its doors at three in the afternoon - just in time to welcome kids getting off from school.
What was yesterday's VIP section has now been converted into the Parent's Oasis, a sanctuary for moms and dads who want a much-needed respite from the Nintendo gala. Now is the time for me to do some interviewing. I approach the competition stage and wait for the first group of competitors to come down.
A little boy, proudly wearing his brand new, oversized "OFFICIAL SEMI- FINALIST" t-shirt, climbs down from the stage.
I lightly tug at his shirt. "I'm with Video Games and Computer Entertainment..." I flash a copy of the recent issue of VG&CE to him. ".. Mind answering a few, brief questions?"
"Sure," he responds.
I give him the magazine to keep, softening him up for the interview.
He's eleven years old. His score in the event was over 300,000 points. When I ask what he thinks about the NWC, his response is a subtle, "It's great."
In fact, most of my interview subjects describe the NWC as "great." The number-one bit of advice for the NWC triathlon was to "practice Tetris," although one man, a 39 year old father, advised the younger crowd to "do your homework first."
The highest scores in the triathlon event seem to get higher and higher as the hours go by. First a score of a little over 400,000 points is the record holder. Then it's 500,000+ and 600,000+.
Competition on the stage is fast and furious. The announcer's frenetic voice calling out a running commentary of all the participant's plays, coupled with the constant switching of each of the player's game screens onto one of the two giant TV screens, makes the event nerve-racking. And that's just for those of us watching it. For the players themselves, it probably really is.
"Oh, I can't believe all the great players we have here! Whew!" overreacts the announcer. You'd think he was the one competing.
- Saturday, March 10
While heading toward the Super Stage, sounds and lights come alive, and an announcer comes on stage. He introduces two game counselors fro Nintendo's Seattle, Washington, headquarters. A pair of men come onto the stage wearing flashy "Nintendo Game Counselor" jackets.
"Well, I used to work at Safeway," one of the men answers as to how he got his job. "Then I came across this ad from Nintendo for people to be telephone game counselors." This is the Counselor's Corner segment of the shot. "Does anyone in the audience have a game question for our counselors?" asks the announcer.
A boy raises his hand, and the man goes up to him with his microphone, a la Phil Donahue.
"On Shadowgate, how do you get past the guard dogs?" the little lad inquires.
One of the game counselors proceeds to answer, giving a thorough breakdown of the video-game dilemma. Inarguably, these guys really do know their stuff quite well.
It's all wrapped up by the Top 30 most popular Nintendo games countdown. Now the show becomes like an American Top 40. (The number-one NES game, by the way, turns out to be Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.)
A few minutes later I notice a guy near the Power Walk .. it's Howard Phillips of Nintendo, star of the 'Howard and Nester' comic.
I then immediately take off after the Nintendo bow-tied spokesman, quickly putting together brief questions to ask him. I introduce myself. He calmly agrees to answer my brief interview questions. He commented on how positive the resonse to the NWC has been so far, how much of a 'family atmosphere' the event turned out to have and the surprising female contestant turnout.
I then go into the question that personally interests me. How did he get this job?
"Well, I'd been working for Nintendo since '81, starting in the warehouse. When the company grew, I was in a position to give feedback on their projects. And I guess they liked what I did, so I grew along with them," he tells me.
- Sunday, March 11
Today's the last day of the Dallas leg of the NWC tour, which means the semifinalists competition. Before this evening's over, the Dallas Nintendo Wizards from each of the three age categories will be determined.
The first thing you notice is that there are an awful lot of semifinalists. The kids in the 10-and-under age group, most of them wearing their "OFFICIAL SEMI-FINALIST" shirts, stand in two lines that stretch from the competition arena all the way to the other end of the building, where the Super Stage is located. Surprisingly, within the next half hour all the semifinalists in both lines are processed. Efficiency has played a big part in the NWC organization during these past four days.
Another half hour later, Howard Phillips goes on stage. After that, the seven top-scoring semifinalists come on stage, where Phillips gets their names and asks if they have any triathlon game hints and tips to offer. "Practice Tetris," "Go fast on Rad Racer," and "Get 50 coins on Super Mario Bros. fast," summarizes their words of wisdom.
The announcer takes over, and once the semifinalists take their places at their game stations, the competition starts. These first few minutes are tense, since the kids playing are all very good. The audience crowds toward the stage, anxiously watching. They cheer when the first players complete the first part of the triathlon, Super Mario Bros., reacting the same way when they finish the Rad Racer portion.
The most excruciating moment comes when all the competitors are playing Tetris. This is when luck comes into play - the factor that will determine who the top two will be. The scores for all the players are very close to one another.
Once the time limit on the triathlon game paks simultaneously goes up, NWC roadies in blue jumpsuits carefully record the final scores and determine the top two placers. The two boys who place are cheered on by their families, friends and people in the audience, and the announcer has now become slightly hysterical. Those who didn't place are given autographed copies of Super Mario Bros. 3 and commended by Howard Phillips for playing well.
After a 3-minute rest period, the last two semifinalists begin the one-on-one tournament. The audience watches intently as camcorders and news cameras record the showdown. The announcer yells out "Whew!" several times while giving his play-by-play.
In the end, the winner, Peter Carter, is seen on one of the two giant screens - with a score of 280,190, much lower than previous points earned (the overall record was well over 840,000). The audience cheers. His photo is taken with Howard Phillips, who presents him a golden trophy. A representative from US Videotel (a local area telecommunications service) gives him a check the size of a flying carpet for $3333.33. His parents get a car, and what's more, he gets to skip school and go to Orlando, Florida, to compete in the finals competition this fall. When asked how he feels, Peter says he couldn't sleep last night because he was too excited, and it looks like he won't be getting much sleep tonight, either.
After the celebration ends, the audience reduces in size somewhat for the upcoming semifinalist competition for the 11-17 category. Like their predecessors, these young men are submitted to a similar questioning procedure by Phillips.
Howard Phillips wishes the last seven top-scoring semifinalists of the 11-17 age group good luck - I wonder if they'll need it - and the announcer returns to the microphone.
"Get your hands on your controllers, and assume a comfortable position," he advises the young men. Except for the high scorer, who gets the throne, there are no chairs provided for the other six competitors to sit on while they play. And so the final contestants crouch down for their supreme battle.
"Let's play some Nin-tendo!" proclaims the announcer, and the competition begins.
Our assistant editor Donn Nauert conversed with Howard Phillips, senior editor of Nintendo Power magazine and spokesman for Nintendo of America, on the floor of the NWC. Mr. Phillips commented that he had made over 900,000 points at one time on the triathlon event.
How could he have possibly have done that when the average scores in the comptition averaged from about 300,000 to 400,000 points? Only one or two players had earned scores of about no more than 850,000. Could he have found an easter egg?
To understand how this easter egg works, a knowledge of the specifics of the NWC triathlon event - including how scores for the three games are accumulated - is necessary.
The special game pak for the NWC competition contains modified versions of Super Mario Bros., Rad Racer and Tetris. The object of the contest is to complete certain requirements in these three games within a 6-minute time limit. Your overall score is totaled from how well you do in each event.
SMB - The object here is to collect 50 coins as quickly as possible. Using a watch, our associate editor estimated that it should take no more than a minute and 20 seconds to collect 50 coins. The higher scoring competitors were able to gather the 50 coins in just over a minute of play.
Rad Racer - After a 20-second delay of screens congratulating you on completing the SMB portion, it's off to Rad Racer. Maintaining a speed of over 200 km/h is the advice given by Phillips. Completing this event as soon as possible, which sends your car into a 'power slide,' is essential because it takes well over 2 minutes to finish the race. Points scored in Rad Racer are multiplied by ten during the final tally.
Tetris - This is where all the big points are earned - your score on this game is multiplied by 25. Thus, the time you saved by completing SMB and Rad Racer can pay off quickly here. On average, though, players get the same amount of time to play Tetris as they did in Rad Racer. Those familiar with this game know that at times Tetris can be more of a game of luck than skill. Because of the 25-fold increase in points, high scorers at the Dallas NWC were taking big chances - building up dangerously high structures in the hopes that a 4x1 piece would fall soon, enabling them to fill four lines at once for huge amounts of points.
An now, how the easter egg works:
SMB - Gather anywhere from 45 to 49 coins, but don't get 50, or you will automatically be sent to Rad Racer. Quickly play the game up to level 1-2, and warp to 3-1. From there, perform that well-known trick where you can block a turtle, enabling Mario to continuously jump on its shell. This will drastically inflate your score. The key to this easter egg is once you receive 8000 points for a jump, you need to get off the turtle without him sliding past you. This will reset the count so you can continue to rack up points; you don't receive points for 1-ups.
Continue doing this even when your fellow competitors are well into playing Rad Racer. When you see one of the going into their 'power slide,' have Mario gather the last couple of coins you need and advance to Rad Racer.
Rad Racer - The 'legal' details above to Rad Racer apply for this easter egg as well. But when you're racing your car to the finish, the other competitors should now be building their rows of blocks on Tetris.
Tetris - As soon as you arrive at this event, there will be less that 30 seconds left on the competition clock. Go ahead and lay down your blocks; there's no need to hurry to complete any lines.
Once the timer goes up, your tabulated score should be over 500,000 points - maybe higher, depending on how often you scored while hopping on the turtle. However, a skilled player who competes adhering to the 'legal' technique should earn 300,000 to 400,000 points. What happened here? Even though the triathlon game pak multiplies your score on Tetris by 25, the rate at which you could earn points in SMB can increase your overall score enormously.
Is this considered cheating in the NWC competition? That's difficult to answer because there was no official rule sheet provided!
At one time on stage, Mr. Phillips did state to competitors that they had to play all three events in order for their scores to be legitimate. Yet, what does 'playing' technically mean? Couldn't setting down just one block during the last five seconds of Tetris be considered 'playing all three events'? Without a doubt, the NWC's lack of a detailed set of written competition rules has opened up numerous ambiguities that could lead to contested rule judgments.
What can be done to prevent abuse? The answer is simple. The triathlon was probably tested under the natural assumption that competitors would play it the 'right' way. The game testers concentrated on making sure the contest was 'competitive,' forgetting to look into the possibility of alternative - and 'less conpetitive' - ways of earning points. It was later stated that simply finishing a lap of Rad Racer would qualify you.
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