The early issues of Electronic Gaming Monthly contain the words of people who were living on the cusp of the fulfillment of a strange Gibsonian future. They talk about immersion in “softs,” a term that appears seemingly from nowhere that they use to describe the videogames that they’re buried in.
The print magazines of the 1990s also offer up sections devoted to “strategy” that would help anonymous reader/players make their way through softs. These sections, produced for the most difficult games of the time period, were intended to give insight in how you would make it through the levels of the games with minimal life loss. It’s important to remember that this was a time when lots of games were selling themselves based on ads that said things like: “you cannot beat this game.” Difficulty was king, and playing through a late-80s or early-90s action game was always a strange combination of hubris and perseverance that might takes years of your life.
Part of the appeal of the print magazine strategy guide was that had maps. These maps were crucial to the enterprise precisely because it was the left-to-right scrolling nature of a lot of games that made them so difficult. The absolute unknowable nature of what was coming when the camera scrolled over is what generated the terror that games like Ninja Gaiden held. What enemies are going to spawn? Will I be able to get away?
Many players dealt with this by playing through levels hundreds of times. They developed muscle memory and predictive twitching. They learned the structure of worlds translated through timed inputs. The scrolling world of Ninja Gaiden was not really a world.
The strategy sections of print magazines changed this mental space. No longer was it about about programming the hand. Instead, it was about understanding the shape of the world, and having a preconception of what might be waiting for you.
How were these maps made? If these guides were about showing the world-to-come, a future that was waiting in the scrolling-forward, then what was the process that made them? How do you represent space that is there but not yet present for players?
This is a drawn cartoon map of Super Mario World from a feature in Issue 3 of Electronic Gaming Monthly. This is maybe the most wonderful kind of map; hand drawn, it shows us what is there without wholly capturing everything that could appear. Enemies are not represented, and the player is wholly absent. It is the duplication of a mental projection; it is the mental map rendered into artwork.
This is a photographed map of The Legendary Axe. It has nothing to do with the mental space of the player, and there isn’t a process of translation. Someone placed a camera in front of the screen and took a photograph as the player made her way through the level. This game becomes less about the memorization of process and more about how easily the player can map her experience onto the world that she knows is there. The mystery is eliminated. The corners of the maps are filled in. The globe wraps around.
And it isn’t that I mourn for the loss of unpredictability, but it does seem that the current field of gameplay yearns for surprise. We play Spelunky or Dark Souls in order to wash ourselves in the same cybernetic processes that Ninja Gaiden required in a world before maps; we want to be augmented beyond our understand. We want to be written over.