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November 27, 2007 - 1:48 AM
This wasn't an oversized Toys'R'Us. This was an event. Competitors were trying for prizes, real game show prizes!

Nintendo World Championships - Prelims Approach

"Bob, you've got to enter!" Larry told me excitedly. In his estimation I was exceptionally good at video games, probably because I usually beat him. I knew better. Other Street Fighter II players at the Fun N' Games regularly humbled me. Larry shoved a copy of Nintendo Power Magazine into my hands. He pointed to a page that announced the competition.

In March of 1990 Nintendo launched the Nintendo Power Fest, a grand tour of 29 US cities. Aside from hyping their latest games and showing off everything Nintendo, the tour served as the local preliminary competitions for the 1990 Nintendo World Championships.

The tour was coming to the nearby Jacob Javits Convention Center in just two weeks. I had to start practicing right away! We scoured the ad for competition details, but all we found was which three games were involved. I was already an expert player at Super Mario Brothers. I knew all the secret blocks, warps and free guys. I could finish the game on a single life. I could do the turtle bouncing trick that earns infinite lives. Tetris was even less of a concern because of the vast amounts of practice I had from playing the various shareware and freeware versions that I had downloaded from BBSes. But I had a problem.

"What's Rad Racer?" Already I felt at a disadvantage. A real competitor would have mastered this game already. Larry and I rushed to the Rockaway Townsquare Mall, bought the game from Electronics Boutique, and rushed back home to start practicing. It was a disappointing racing game. We were used to the realistic physics and force feedback steering of the arcade hit Hard Drivin'. Rad Racer was hardly racing and not the least bit rad.

My father gave his encouragement and help while I practiced. He watched how my score changed while I played Tetris and discovered the crucial revelation of the fastest way to earn points. Two days later I'd already "beaten" Rad Racer. On the Thursday two weeks later Dad drove his excited 18 year old son to the convention center.

I craned my neck at the impressive glass and steel architecture of the Jacob Javits Convention Center. Inside the grand lobby a 20 foot tall Mario balloon stood like a statue of Zeus watching over his temple. We turned right and headed down the stairs into the Nintendo Power Fest, a grand hall packed with banners, game demonstrations, excited children and parents trying not to look too excited. In the center of the hall two large projection screens hung over a stage. Seven podiums were spaced along the stage, and each podium held a TV that faced the audience. Behind each podium stood a kid staring intently into it. They were competing! The projection screens showed the competitors' games to the crowd. On either side of the stage there were long lines of game stations, perhaps 100 of them.

This wasn't an oversized Toys'R'Us. This was an event. Competitors were trying for prizes, real game show prizes!

Dad and I wandered through the kiosks showcasing Nintendo's products. We played the latest games, tried out new controllers, and poked at Game Boys. The featured game was Super Mario Brothers 3, which was and always will be the best game of the series. We gradually made our way over to the long rows of competition game stations.

We had to sign up and agree to the official rules, but I don't remember any of that. I was focused on the game stations. Each one had a TV a bit below eye level and a controller tethered to the front. The entire lineup showed the same Nintendo World Championships logo. I heard the hasty instructions—Get 50 coins in Super Mario Brothers. Finish a lap of the first track in Rad Racer. Get points in Tetris. Time limit just over 6 minutes. Something about scores multiplied and added for a final tally. I stepped through a turnstile like a boy getting on a ride at Disney World.

I found a station near where my father stood behind a railing. Other tentative kids and a few adults shuffled up to the other stations. My heart was beating faster. I wanted to prove my prowess. What if I didn't even make it past the first round? How embarrassing! Dad called out from behind me, "Go get 'em Bob!" For some reason his enthusiasm didn't embarrass me. I didn't want to take this too seriously. Maybe he got it and was enjoying the surrealism of a video game competition with me.

His encouragement was familiar from Little League. It helped me relax.

At the start of the game the world was vivid. I was aware of the enormity of the hall. I heard the drone of the crowd. I glanced at the other players, then quickly back at the TV in front of me. The logo blanked out. Was it broken? I made sure I was holding the controller properly in my hand. The familiar Super Mario Brothers logo appeared. The game still hadn't started. Thumb tip on the B button, poised to rock down onto the A button. 99 lives? Whatever. Get coins!