The NES Interview

Welcome to the NES interview, a hopefully occasional installment in Special Features. Here we'll interview the people responsible for making the NES - and the video game world - what it is, from programmers to designers to those who found themselves simply swept up in the revolution.

In this installment, |tsr interviews Zach Meston, strategy guide author, game magazine writer and current employee of Working Designs. With Rusel DeMaria, Zach either fully wrote or co-wrote most of the books in the Secrets of the Games series for Prima Publishing, including the three Nintendo Games Secrets books. He's got his own web page too, with articles on the seamy underside of the game industry.

Q: OK, give me the hard statistics on yourself.

A: 26 years old, 6'2", 185 pounds of Soloflex-hardened beefcake. Well, okay, more like 185 pounds of donut-softened thunder-thigh. Single, never married, and never will be because I'm looking for a woman who doesn't exist. (She immensely enjoys videogames, gives and receives great foot massages, and doesn't look like a cross between Chris Farley and Ernest Borgnine. Oh, and she has big breastesess.) Born and raised in Maui, Hawaii; moved to southern California roughly two years ago; moved again to northern California roughly two weeks ago to take a job in game development with Working Designs, the RPG company gamers either love or love to hate.

Q: How did you get started with videogames? What were the first things you played?

A: I don't remember my first experience with videogames, but I know I've always loved them (and technology in general) very dearly. I recall spending every hour of every weekend in Maui's best two arcades, Tilt and the wonderfully named Lahaina Galaxy Wars, during the Golden Age of arcade games (1981 to 1983 B.P.--Before Pubes).

I recall staying up all night to achieve a score of 100,000+ on the Atari 2600 game Laser Blast, and finally nailing it at 330 A.M.--but my mom's camera wasn't working, so I couldn't take a picture, which you had to send to Activision in exchange for a mega-cool patch. I was so devastated (and exhausted) that I literally went to sleep for 24 hours straight. I still have the bedsores.

The NES is special to me because I bought it (mine was one of the earliest units, which included the infamous R.O.B.) right around the time my hand-eye coordination was sharpening to the point where I could consistently beat videogames. And, let's be honest, the NES was the first system with gameplay depth. Almost everything in the Atari 2600 era used a single unchanging screen and a single repetitive gameplay mechanic. No, I'm not forgetting stuff like Pitfall! and Adventure; I said ALMOST everything.

Super Mario Bros. was a freaking marvel by comparison. Huge side-scrolling worlds! Power-ups! Bosses! Ending sequences! Music (insanely repetitive loops of calliope music that I can still hum in their entirety, but music nonetheless)! And then came The Legend of Zelda, and Mike Tyson's Punch-Out, and on and on. I can't tell you how many NES games I played through in my middle-school years, but easily into the dozens.

Q: I take it you got started writing video game stuff via the Nintendo Games Secrets books from Prima. How did you land that job?

A: Before I started with Prima, I spent most of 1989 editing and co-writing a fanzine called the Amiga Games Guide. It was devoted entirely to the Commodore Amiga computer, which was, for a time, also the butt-kickin'est game system around. I developed my writing style (which currently sucks, but back then blew chunks) and learned how to call up companies, shmooze PR babes, and scam free games. That's why I got into the fanzine thing in the first place, to be very blunt. I never dreamed I would end up writing strategy guides, or writing for magazines, or eventually working ON games; I simply didn't have enough money to support my gaming habit, and rather than enter the world of X-rated cinema to supplement my paltry income, I took the wimpy approach. The irony, of course, is that I now have more games than I could play in two lifetimes. (And, no, you can't have any. Heh, heh.)

Q: (doh)

A: Anyway. During the time I spent toiling on the AGG, I attended monthly Macintosh user's-group meetings with my partner in crime, Doug Arnold. At one of those meetings, we met a guy named Rusel DeMaria. Rusel, also a Maui resident, had been in the game-magazine industry for quite a while, and he'd just signed a contract with a company named Prima Publishing to launch a new line of videogame books called Secrets of the Games.

The problem was, Rusel had to churn out FOUR books in a matter of a few months, and he simply wasn't capable of doing it all himself. (For a variety of reasons, as I later learned.) Doug suggested to Rusel that perhaps I could help out, seeing as how I was both a writer and a gamer. Rusel hooked me up with the NES game Fester's Quest--which I will always love and cherish, since it broke me into the biz--and asked me to play it, although I don't think he was particularly confident in my abilities. I took it home, beat it the same day, wrote up the strategy, and came back to Rusel's on the weekend to videotape it. He was extremely impressed, and started assigning me more and more stuff.

It got to the point where I was working literally all day every day--half the time at my real job at Waldenbooks, the other half playing and writing about NES games. Exhausted, I told Rusel I couldn't do both. He then offered to match my salary at the bookstore to work for him full-time. I agreed in 2.3 nanoseconds, and I've never had a real job since. Well, other than that brief stint as a crack whore, but let's not go there.

Q: What was Rusel DeMaria like? He was writing for PC Games magazine at about the same time the Nintendo Games Secrets books came out, and the writing in that mag isn't exactly awe-inspiring..

Paco DeLucia
A: Rusel DeMaria. Where the bloody hell to begin (heh). Well, for starters, his real name is Russell Ehrman. Rusel DeMaria was a pen name he coined when he entered the writing profession; it was inspired by the time he spent wandering Europe in the entourage of a famous flamenco-guitar player named Paco DeLucia. (Rusel picked up mad guitar skills along the way.)

Rusel was prone to bizarre mood swings and temper tantrums very unbecoming of a man (then) in his mid-forties. Example one of Rusel's disk drives simply refused to work. His frustration grew with each passing moment, the volume of his profanity climbing higher and higher. Then, amazingly, he took a deep breath, stood up and walked outside. I thought Rusel had finally discovered the benefits of calming down. I thought wrong. Rusel picked up a plastic lawn chair and repeatedly smashed it against the wooden fence surrounding the yard, leaving hundreds of sharp scraps of white plastic scattered across the grass. The ultimate insult is that I had to clean up the mess, since I was the only one who went outside with any regularity, and didn't want to cut my feet to shreds.

Many people who have worked with Rusel describe him as being a temperamental asshole, an assessment with which I cannot disagree, and someone who did quality work, with which I also cannot disagree.

From what I recall, Rusel also wrote for GamePro (when they launched, no less) and was the editor-in-chief of the short-lived Computer Play magazine. He made the jump into game development several years back and formed DeMaria Studios, which to the best of my knowledge has never produced anything.

Every book Prima has ever published
Q: How much of the work in the "NGS" series was yours, and how much was his? How did you get out of writing Prima books?

A: While I didn't receive an authorship credit on the earliest Nintendo Games Secrets, about 30% of it was my stuff. (I also didn't receive authorship billing on Prima's other three line-launching books.) I was credited as co-author from NGS 2 through NGS 4, but I did the vast majority of the playing, videotaping, screen-capturing, writing, and editing in all three volumes, about 15 to 20 games per book. I know this will sound insanely egotistical, but it is not at all untrue to say that I played a very crucial part in the early success of Prima Publishing, and I don't think they would be the industry's dominant strategy-guide publisher without my contributions. (Which makes me cringe all the more when I see the endless stream of crappy books they churn out these days.)

Q: How did you get out of writing Prima books?

A: I got out of writing for Prima because my AGG partner, Doug Arnold, had convinced his mother - who just so happened to own a publishing company - to let him produce strategy guides of his own. I agreed to work for Doug because I considered (and still consider) him a friend, because I wanted to return to Maui (Rusel had moved about an hour away from Prima's northern California offices), and because I was tired of writing all these books and not only getting second billing, but - even worse - only getting half the royalties. Rusel made a LOT of money from my efforts and never once made an effort to make it a more equitable split of the profits. It pleased me very greatly to note that Prima had to hire a veritable army of players and writers when I left.

Q: What was the general process of making these "game collection" style tip books?

A: Step #1: Figure out which games to write about. The first-party stuff was obvious anything with Mario or Zelda in the title was in. The third-party stuff was tougher, because we essentially had to predict which games we thought would sell the biggest numbers (and this was well before the advent of the NPS/TRSTS videogame bestseller list). We guessed right maybe half the time, but every book had games that no one had heard of even back then. NGS 4, the last NES book I worked on, was the worst in that regard; it was filler from cover to cover. Gemfire? Darkwing Duck? Infiltrator? You know your book sucks when Mega Man 4 is the highlight.

Step #2: Scam the games. I'd call up contacts at each game company and beg and plead for them to send us prerelease versions of their stuff. Some companies, happy for the coverage, were eager to cooperate; others questioned the value of helping us tell their customers how to beat their games faster. But we were almost always able to acquire the games we wanted.

Step #3: Play the games. While I would occasionally play two or three games concurrently if they had password features, I'd usually focus my efforts on ripping through one game at a time. And I had to rip through the game at least twice once to get the feel, a second time to videotape it, and occasionally a third time to playtest the strategies and check for any missed secrets.

Step #4: Write the strategies. I'd type very rough notes on the computer during my first play-through, and write the real chapter while referring to the videotape of my second play-through. We found out very early on that it was important to do this while the gameplay and patterns were still fresh in your head, or you'd have to play the game again. We also found out very early on that it was impossible to write strategies watching a videotape of a game you hadn't played, because you didn't understand the gameplay involved in what you were watching.

(Before and a while after meeting me, Rusel had a "team" of players which were all children of Rusel's friends, and invariably sucked. See, most parents think their kids are great at games, but that's only because the kids are great when compared to their heinously uncoordinated parents. When put to the test, our "team" would invariably choke--and on the very rare occasions when they could finish a game, they had no idea how to describe what they did, meaning I had to play through the game myself anyway.)

Step #5: Take screenshots. This was done in conjunction with #3, using a Super VHS VCR and a very expensive Macintosh-based capture board with a VERY loud cooling fan. As time went on, I cut the VCR out of the process, since it heavily reduced the capture quality, and jacked the NES directly into the board, using an elbow or big toe to work the keyboard and activate the "grab" command.

With a few games, I even delved into the realm of creating multi-screenshot maps, which are by far the least enjoyable aspect of strategy guides. It's mind-numbing work, and the only way to survive it is to listen to a lot of rock and roll at extremely loud volumes. (My hearing is definitely not what it should be at 26, and I'm convinced those long, lonely nights cutting and pasting together two hundred pictures at a time while Boston's "More Than a Feeling" reverberated through my head are largely responsible.)

Step #6: Write captions. I never worked on the layout, but I'd have to sit down when a chapter was laid out and add captions to each shot. My captions were serious for the first couple books I worked on, but became progressively sillier (along with the rest of my writing) over time.

Step #7: Proofread. I had to read the entire manuscript cover to cover, searching for typographical and descriptive errors--you don't wanna tell someone to run left when he's supposed to run right. Wish I could say nothing ever got past me, but I was usually so burned out at the end of a project that I would scan the pages more than read them, which led to numerous boo-boos finding their way into print.

Q: How much help did you get from the game companies themselves? Were you given maps, prerelease carts, or that sort of thing? Was it done through the publisher, or did you get to communicate directly with the game's staff? Did you get to keep any of the stuff?

A: The majority of the time, I had assistance from game companies--a videotape, an internally-written walkthrough, game producers and testers I can call. Then again, some companies supplied me with almost no help at all. Those are the books with which I really earned my dinero, because I had to play and write in a hurry. It was much more personally satisfying when I figure dout the shit on my own, but writing a strategy guide isn't about discovery and fun; it's about getting all the info written down as quickly as possible so I can meet my deadline.

Although game companies always wanted the prerelease carts back, seeing as how they are righteously expensive, I managed to keep a few. Rusel even got an empty EPROM of his own so that companies could simply send us ROM chips of their NES games, which were much cheaper to produce. Lemme tell ya, nothing is more stressful than prying a set of chips off a semi-fragile circuit board worth more than your life, then plugging in another set of chips while trying not to bend any of the two dozen extremely bendable pins.

Q: Did you try covering unlicensed games? Did Nintendo themselves ever bother you about the books' content?

A: We never wrote about unlicensed games, but mostly because (with the blessed exception of Tengen's Tetris) they were awful. Like, remember those Color Dreams carts? Blecch. I'd rather have written about the joys of splinters wedged under one's fingernails.

Nintendo never bothered us about the contents of the books, but as we (and they) entered the 16-bit era, they bothered us about the TITLES of the books. After Prima released Super Mario World Secrets in 1992, they got their first-ever letter from Nintendo's lawyer-weasels, pointing out the various trademarks Nintendo owned and requesting unusual changes in the phrasing of the books. For example, we couldn't use Nintendo's games as the subject of a sentence. "Super Mario World made my nipples erect with excitement" was not allowed; "The Super Mario World video game made my nipples erect with excitement" was okay.

(The relationship between Prima and Nintendo recently degenerated into full-fledged legal action; Nintendo came after Prima for their unofficial GoldenEye 007 book, which Nintendo claimed had maps lifted directly from Nintendo's own guide. I have both books, and I can tell you that Nintendo is absolutely right; Prima's maps are BLATANT copies, especially when you consider that GoldenEye doesn't have an automapping function! Unfortunately, the idiotic judge in the case sided with Prima's defense that the maps were public information. Map and atlas producers such as Rand McNally copyright their maps, and even slip intentional, but very obscure, errors into them to guard against plagiarism; maybe Nintendo should try a similar approach.)

[Note: This lawsuit was recently settled, as Prima and NOA have reached a deal for Prima to publish official strategy guides for Nintendo-made games.]

Q: Is most of your business these days writing strategy guides, or free lance magazine articles? Is it lucrative, or "for the love" (heh)?

A: These days, my business is localizing Japanese RPGs and action games, and writing strategy guides, for Working Designs. It's groovy. Until two weeks ago, my business was about evenly split between strategy guides and magazine articles. The strategy guides were for Dimension Publishing, and the magazine work was mostly for Dimension (PSExtreme, Q64, Voodoo) but also for a couple other mags, including the retailer publication GameWEEK. All told, I've written for at least two dozen print, CD-ROM and Web magazines over the years, which is why I proudly call myself a freelance weasel.

The payment structure for strategy guides has changed a lot since I worked on the NGS series, and not for the better. When I did my unofficial books for Prima, I was paid an advance (usually around the $5,000 mark) and a 15% royalty. That is to say, I got 15% of the profits--which, depending on the cover price, could be anywhere from a quarter to almost a dollar per book. The $5,000 advance was a guaranteed minimum--even if the book never sold a single copy, I kept the money. If and when the accumulated royalties went over $5,000, I received additional monies in the form of twice-yearly payments (usually around May and November). These days, authors usually get feeble royalties (usually in the 5-7% range) for official guides, and 10% rates or single-payment flat fees for unofficial guides. Flat fees are a lose-lose situation for authors If the book sells well, the author doesn't reap any of the rewards, and if it doesn't, no one knows he exists.

The best-selling books I've ever done were two unofficial Prima books on SNES games: Super Mario World Game Secrets (half the profits of which I had to split with "co-author" Rusel DeMaria) and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past Game Secrets. Both of these books have sold well over 125,000 copies--more unit sales than many videogames, I feel obliged to point out--which would've left me in a cozy financial state, had my mother not blown all the dough I made and left me in five-figure debt to our nation's less-than-understanding tax collectors. (I don't blame my mother for what she did; it was my fault for allowing her to handle my finances instead of taking charge myself.)

In the post-Prima era, my books have made only modest cash at best. Even my most recent publications with Dimension, which have almost all gone over the 50,000-copy mark, haven't done too much more than pay my rent and allow me to hire the occasional "escort."

Q: What's your personal favorite video memory, and what's the thing you like best about what you do?

A: My favorite, there are way too many to count. Seeing my name in a strategy guide for the first time (the acknowledgements of Nintendo Games Secrets). Seeing my name in a game manual for the first time (Sir-tech's Bane of the Cosmic Forge--I did a bit of beta-testing and manual proofreading). Seeing my name in a videogame for the first time (the credits of the 3DO game Way of the Warrior--and I didn't even know it was there until I left the game running one day while talking on the phone, and saw my name scroll into view, at which point I totally freaked out). Seeing my writing in a videogame for the first time (Albert Odyssey, a Working Designs RPG for the Sega Saturn). And, of course, finding World -1 in Super Mario Bros.

What do I like best about my job? The fact that I can sit down on any given day and transport myself into another world--and get paid for it.

Q: I imagine you get at least a few mails asking how to enter the sort of career in the game bizzz you eked out for yourself. What do you say to them?

A: Well, seeing as how my path into the industry was an endless series of lucky breaks, I'm not exactly sure how much advice I'm qualified to give. In fact, few magazine writers or game developers enter the industry after setting out to do so; they kind of luck into it like I did. Lack of knowledge has never stopped me from flapping my gums in the past, of course, so here goes. Unless you have artistic or programming skills, you have one of two routes become a magazine writer or become a game tester.

If you prefer the first choice, you can't just call up a videogame magazine and say "I want to write for you." You need to obtain their writers' guidelines, send them samples of your writing, et cetera. You can also take the approach more and more fans are using and start a videogame website. If your writing is good enough, you'll earn the interest of the prozines and, if you're REALLY lucky, get to play in the Big Show. (I'll always consider videogame websites the minors, by the way.)

If testing seems like your bag, baby, keep in mind it will severely test your love of videogaming, because you will be playing games in their rawest form, and playing them over and over and over again. Here at Working Designs, we have people who have played completely through the same game 15 to 20 times, searching for bugs and typos. Even the best game loses its luster by then, I assure you.

The advantages to being a writer are obvious; tons of free games, flirting with hot PR babes, being relentlessly butt-kissed by game companies. But the pay generally sucks unless you're in a high editorial position. The advantages to being a developer are also obvious; the sheer joy of creation, flirting with hot babes in the office, being relentlessly butt-kissed by game magazines who want your advertising. (I can tell you that while I enjoyed the magazine gig for a long while, I got a little burned out on it, and am now VERY happy to be on the development side of things.)

- Thanks for the time, Zach!

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