My childhood heroes all had the first name “NOA”. They were the living, breathing avatars of Nintendo of America. And Nintendo was God, for all practical purposes. But like Jesus, they were simultaneously divine and human. NOAPaul was a tough guy. A real street thug, with a tongue ring and everything. NOATravis, he was your boyband jock. Oh, the envy. And NOAAmy… did you know that she played Secret of Mana and Chrono Trigger? I did. Imagine it: a girl who played RPGs.
One day, I was going to be a Nintendo Power Cyberjock too. It was my highest aspiration. Forget astronauts and fire fighters. If Paul and Travis could become Nintendo of America, so could I. And maybe I would make Amy my wife, though she was a withering old spinster of 24.
At 11 years old, I was dedicated to my future career. To become a professional avatar of Nintendo, you had to really know your facts. I was already on the right track, because I owned all 84 issues of Nintendo Power magazine. The knowledge was at my fingertips, but it was vast… so I decided to cheat.
I booted up my Gateway 2000 386/25–it was mine in practice, since my mother finished college–and I headed straight to WordPerfect. If I could quickly search a game name and know exactly which issue and page to check for information… A month later, I possessed a complete index of the entire Nintendo Power catalog. And you thought you were a lame kid.
But there I was, equipped for battle. Ask me about a game. I dare you. I had it down to a science. I could look up a relevant article and spit out an answer within a minute, and Nintendo of America would never know that I cheated. They would think I was just that good. I sent in my job application right then and there, along with a crayola masterpiece of Samus Aran battling Ridley.
I didn’t get the job, but that was probably for the best, since we did not actually subscribe to dial-up internet for another six months and “Cyberjocks” worked online. A minor technicality. Still, I kept Nintendo Power Issue 84 close at hand.
The fame. The glory. The honor.
*Section removed due to copyright issues. They were compressed scans of an out of print magazine spread welcoming you to the Nintendo Loud House with some amazingly dorky-looking staff members striking a pose.*
My first actual experience on http://www.nintendo.com, some time in 1996, was overwhelming. I had waited so long for this. Line by line, the pixels of that jpeg unfurled in slow motion. “Nintendo Power Source”. “Welcome to www.nintendo.com”. I was there. And it was wonderful.
Nintendo.com was a disorganized sea of information that you could spend all day exploring (especially on a 14.4k modem). There was a frame up top filled with totally nondescript or misleading images that would link you to different parts of the site, and each of those sections had its own upper frame of links. They could take you anywhere. The internet had no rules yet, you see. For instance, there was a really buried subsection called the “N-List” that linked all kinds of random fan sites totally unmoderated by Nintendo, mostly hosted on Geocities. As a consequence, through Nintendo.com you discovered such wonders as this flattering photo of the founder of popular present-day gaming website RPGamer:
Ultimately though, I went to the Loud House. That was where the NOA gods resided. To get there, I had to travel underground, down an elevator shaft that consisted of scrolling really far in a narrow frame to the left. If I thought the main site enormous, the Loud House was madness. They had a proto-forum–everyone still called them bulletin board systems then, though it was not an authentic BBS–where topics appeared in a single endless list set to a fire-engine red background with the texture of an aluminum tool box. Damn was it beautiful.
I knew there had to be at least a few dozen RPG fans out there besides myself and NOAAmy, but I never predicted this. The realization that I could be a part of a secret society of hundreds of Square(soft) aficionados must have waylaid my dreams of working for Nintendo for a time, because I don’t remember doing anything but theorycrafting Final Fantasy III (sic) for the next few months. I would spend every school bus ride studying my official players guide, looking for minute typographical errors that could be exploded into radical theories to share with my peers. I actually killed 4,000 dinosaurs in that forest near the Veldt in the false hope of resurrecting General Leo.
Eventually the forums changed, and so did I. They became more manageable and subdivided into “boards”. Me, I became 12, and that meant responsibility. I couldn’t just be another anonymous Joe researching Final Fantasy VI anymore, aging in obscurity as fame and fortune passed me by. I needed to get back to my dreams, and that required becoming involved in the social community. So I did what anyone would have done back then to turn the page: I changed my name.
That was a principle of the Old Internet that runs totally counter to modern social media culture and may have culminated with 4chan and the birth of Anonymous–the hactivist organization that never actually existed yet frequented headline news throughout 2008. You were really empowered to dictate how a community perceived you. You could completely ‘reset’ your identity at the click of a button, experimenting with different personas until you found one that jived with the community. Nintendo Power even encouraged this behavior in Issue 72:
So died BobaFett207, and a new entity dove into the RPGs board with a mission to earn the unrivaled respect and adoration of its citizens. (His mom also lifted the half hour limit on web browsing, so he actually had time to read replies and stuff.)
What I found was appalling. My plans were immediately surmounted by a more pressing issue. The release of Final Fantasy VII was rapidly approaching, and people were actually discussing the Playstation.
The Playstation. The Sony Playstation, in what would one day be my Nintendo kingdom. These were the filthy traitors who planned to endorse Squaresoft’s debauchery, and they had to be destroyed. I charged head-first, furious and uncaring of the consequences. “JERK!” “IDIOT!” “HOW COULD U!” I let the hatred flow through me, channeling it into dozens of single-sentence replies, until a thread title appeared that gave me pause. It said “ATTN: SHADOW 4000”. That was me! Registered only one day, and my new identity was already known to the community! The post, no doubt, would praise me for my heroic defense of truth and the Nintendo 64.
It did. This was where, in retrospect, things got weird. I wasn’t banned by a forum moderator, or even told to shut up. No, I was invited to join the NES Knights–a legion of warriors who, like me, vowed to fight against the evils of the Sony Playstation. I was promptly recruited and informed that we were at war with the Freedom Knights, who had organized to defend forum-goers’ rights to enjoy non-Nintendo products.
I earned my first stripes when the PSX Invaders came to town. They were a band of ruffians that would show up every few weeks and ravage the RPGs board by posting hundreds of threads titled “N64 SUX”, “PSX 4 LIFE”, etc. Certain that I could stop the incessant barrage of spam posts, I set a clever trap. “ATTN: PSX INVADERS” the thread title ran, and when they clicked it… BAM! “***FIRE LANCE X***” As I am sure you expected, this worked phenomenally. Two invaders stopped spamming and engaged me with their own barrage of attacks. I parried them as best I could, while fellow forum-goers engaged them similarly in other threads. The battle was long and bloody, but we were victorious.
I had found my true calling. Every evening, after school, I would log on to the Loud House RPGs board and train with my allies or engage rival groups. I even started my own, which amassed over 100 members. This was clearly my best route to becoming an official Nintendo-employed Cyberjock… while that dream lasted. It all came crashing down on Thanksgiving Day 1997. Nintendo deleted the Loud House.
And in its place, they created NSider. NSider was ugly, stupid, and it featured Diddy Kong instead of Fulgore.
Worst of all, by far, they renamed my precious board “Other RPGs”. Other! Lesser! Inconsequential! And why? The only reasonable explanation was to emphasize the Zelda board. Practically in tears, I called my RPGs brothers to arms. The Zelda board must pay. That war would last for weeks, because the Zelda board was well organized under the Zelda Alliance. (This same game had been going on there all along, despite there being almost no overlap in users.)
As it turned out, the game was not just an RPGs board thing or a Nintendo.com thing, but a common trend throughout the internet. As we transitioned away from NSider to Geocities and forum hosts like VantageNet and InsideTheWeb, we encountered more of the same everywhere. It was as if thousands of kids were dumped into an empty field and told: “Play. No one is watching.” You will never find a Wayback Machine record of the bizarre, seemingly pandemic consequences, but if you were socially engaged in the 90s internet before high school, you probably belonged to some sort of guild.
I tended to see a change in people when they got to be 13 or 14, and the game for them might transition into an interactive story. These were shared universe worlds in which participants would write a collaborative fiction story through their individual characters’ perspectives. It wasn’t RP, but rather a real (poorly written and highly derivative) novel, and it could go on for years. The one that began on the Loud House RPGs board amassed thousands of pages (which were archived). Alternatively, the game would evolve into cyberbullying. Account security was non-existent and cracking tools were a dime a dozen on Yahoo!. A lot of sites also used forms to password protect their content, and the redirect link was usually embedded right in the HTML code. As a high school freshman, you were too “mature” to pretend you were a wizard anymore, so you pretended you were a 1337 hacker instead. It was not uncommon to see a Geocities site vanish over night, replaced by “Conquered by” so-and-so. My first email address got hijacked. It was actually kind of stressful.
But that was the 90s internet as I remember it. …Am I supposed to inject some sort of closing point or moral here?