On Sunday, I was finally able to mark off a lifelong goal from my bucket list. I was in the audience when 16 competitors took the stage to compete in games from throughout Nintendo's long history for the second ever Nintendo World Championships, which are best-known for having produced the amazing gold cartridges that have been sold for tens of thousands of dollars on eBay and elsewhere.
The first Nintendo World Championships found Nintendo near the height of their influence, the Super Nintendo still being more than a year away at that point. Hundreds of prospective contestants competed at events across the country, culminating in a grand finale at Universal Studios, where seven competitors battled for the right to be named the best all-around gamer in the U.S. I wasn't there with them, but like every other kid in the country, I desperately wanted to be. So when I heard that Nintendo would be holding a new World Championship competition some 25 years after the original, I jumped at the opportunity. How could I not?
So I found myself at the ironically named Microsoft Theater in the midst of a large and boisterous crowd, who cheered and laughed through a Yoshi's Wooly World demo, then roared when Shigesato Itoi appeared to announce that the original Mother would be released on the Wii U Virtual Console as Earthbound Beginnings. These were the diehards wearing Splatoon hats and waving their Nintendo 3DSes. It was the sort of lovefest that remains unique to Nintendo among the current console holders.
"I still think Nintendo releases the best titles," host Kevin Pereira said, buttering up the crowd to appreciative cheers.
The competition was set across eight rounds, with losers being forced to fight it out in a retro Nintendo game to avoid eleimination. In a sign of the times, the competitors all went by their Internet handles. Many were well-known Youtubers, with the biggest cheer being reserved for Arin, who co-hosts Game Grumps. The rest had earned their spot at competitions held at Best Buy, earning a chance to stand on stage in a black and gold Nintendo World Championships shirt and try to follow in the hallowed footsteps of Fred Savage.
There was an element of winking self-awareness to the proceedings. The logo was pulled straight from 1990, hearkening back to the days when Nintendo was truly synonymous with gaming, and one of the commentators was a child going by the handle miniWheat, who offered level-based tips that would have put Nintendo Power to shame. But the actual competition was plenty serious. When BFG4000 eked his way to Round 2 by being the first to beat the original Legend of Zelda's first dungeon, he pumped his fist hard and yelled, and I felt like I was watching EVO, League of Legends, or any other of the other more "serious" competitions.
And as with any good competition, there were moments of drama. Groans of horror ensued when TMR was accidentally sent to the Wii U Virtual Console menu in the middle of the tense race to beat the first dungeon. There were also moments of anticlimax, like when Nintendo teased a "World Premiere" for Round 2, conjuring memories of the Super Mario Bros. 3 reveal in The Wizard, only for it to be a rather generic-looking first-person shooter/game show for the Nintendo 3DS called Blast Ball.
The biggest reaction of the afternoon came when Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime took the stage to make good on his promise at last year's Smash Bros. tournament, where he promised to beat Hungrybox, a well-known Smash Bros. player (his exact words were, "I'm going to kick your ass.") Reggie's appearance garnered a standing ovation, but like Mayweather-Pacquiao, it didn't live up to the hype. Reggie didn't even attempt a recovery move for most of the game, ultimately dying at least a dozen times, prompting me to turn to Sam with a minute remaining and mutter, "This is the longest minute."
In the end, after eight rounds featuring Splatoon, The Legend of Zelda, Blast Ball, Super Metroid, Mario Kart 8, Balloon Fight, Super Smash Bros., and a nightmarish (but amazing) grand finale fueled by custom levels in Mario Maker, John Numbers was crowned Nintendo's second world champion. The level of competition was mixed, to put it kindly. Watching the competitors bump awkwardly through Mario Kart 8, I couldn't help thinking, "Geez, I could probably win this." My favorite moment of the actual competition came during the climactic fight in Super Metroid, which had more to do with the communal excitement of experiencing the baby metroid's grand sacrifice together than the actual play on stage. But I'm not sure that was the point, despite all the hype that came with the stage, and the lights, and the crowd.
We're a long way from 1990, when the very idea of the Nintendo World Championships was a novelty, games being mostly relegated game shows and world record competitions, of course. We're at the point where DotA 2 and League of Legends are being shown on ESPN, even if we're not quite to the point where they're considered legitimate sports (spoiler alert: they are). But there's still a charm about Nintendo's competition. It was like going to a really big party, with the the Microsoft Theater filling in for the living room.
That, ultimately, was what I wanted out of the Nintendo World Championships when I looked upon them with such envy in 1990. It was less about the competition, and more about the communal excitement of coming together with other video game fans to share in something we all love. Times have changed, but that at least remains the same.