Unlicensed NES Games, Noah, and Retrogaming: 6 Questions for Gabe Durham (Bible Adventures) November 12 2014

Today in our interview series Matt Bell (Baldur's Gate II) interviews Gabe Durham about Bible Adventures.

Matt Bell: It seems like as the editor and founder of Boss Fight Books, you might have a harder time than most writers choosing a game to revisit and write about. After all, you've seen a lot of pitches, and you've seen what works and what doesn't in other books in the series, and I'm sure you have a pretty good idea which kinds of games make the best choices. So why Bible Adventures?

Gabe Durham: I think that since I'm the guy steering this ship, one potential pitfall of writing a Boss Fight book would be feeling like I need to somehow write the ULTIMATE Boss Fight book--one that does it all. Picking this oddball subject immediately sidelines that sort of pressure.

That said, it IS a subject that lends itself to multiple approaches: a history of Color Dreams/Wisdom Tree, an analysis of each of the games, a reflection of my own experience with Bible Adventures and other Christian products, and a larger look at the legacy of these games.

Going into the project, my most useful guide for how to engage with a single work was Carl Wilson's Let's Talk About Love, about the Celine Dion album of the same name. Like Wilson, I liked the idea of looking hard at a cultural punching bag and investigating what the work can tell us about the world and ourselves. I became enamored with the question, "Why does Christian stuff like this exist at all? And what does that stuff have to do with religious faith?" So what looks at first like a winking history of a kitschy cult classic turns into an earnest look at the intersection of faith and commerce.

One of the odd things about Bible Adventures is that it's an unlicensed NES game. What does that mean, and what effect did that have on the game's development?

Nintendo of America had tremendous power in the NES era. If you were a third-party developer like Konami, you were Nintendo's bitch. Not only did they demand changes and censor content (no swears, blood, nudity, politics, religion, etc.), they also physically manufactured all the games and then sold them back to the developer at a high price per cartridge. This meant Nintendo decided when your game would be released, how many copies would be made, and how much they would promote it in Nintendo Power.

Wisdom Tree worked outside of this system. They were true indie developers (way before that was a term) who developed, manufactured, and sold their own games. The downside: They had to figure out where to sell the games, how to convince people that the games were legit, and how to get the game cartridges past the Nintendo's 10NES lockout system.

Bible Adventures stars Noah, David, and Moses's Mother. Last night, I watched the Darren Aronofsky film version of Noah's story, and was curious about how he'd turned it into a pretty decent action movie, among other things. To give us a taste of the gameplay in Bible Adventures, what's Noah's part of the game like?

It's a platformer where you pick up animals and bring them to the ark. Sometimes you've got to lure the animals with hay or knock them out cold to get them on board. The one really inspired game mechanic (referenced in the book's cover) is that you can stack multiple animals--so as Old Man Noah you can hoist horses and cows over your head and still run at a full clip back to the ark.

Unlike the other two games, which can be completed pretty quickly, "Noah" takes forever. It's fun for a little while and then most of us give up around stage 3. I've heard Afronsky's Noah is overly long too. I guess epic apocalyptic stories like the Noah myth lend themselves to overstaying their welcome.

For the purposes of the book, are you playing the game on an emulator or do you have an actual copy of the game? I once played it over a few beers at Salvatore Pane's house in Indianapolis, so I've had a very small taste of the real thing.

I played the real thing as a kid but this year it's been on a Sega Genesis emulator. (it's got slightly better graphics than the NES version.)

My own NES is packed away at my dad's place or I would have bought a copy of Bible Adventures on eBay by now. The game sold well in its day so it's not hard to find a cheap copy of Bible Adventures. Bible Buffet and Sunday Funday are another story.

The description of the book for the Kickstarter campaign mentions "our retro obsession with 'bad games.'" What do you mean by that? What are some of your favorite infamously bad games?

There's now a pantheon of famous bad games. Shaq Fu, Superman 64. The most famous bad game of all time is E.T. for Atari. And we all have memories of when we bought cheap games with high hopes and were sad to see them fail us. I remember buying a game called Hybrid Heaven for N64--I couldn't believe how awful it was and that I was stuck with my poor choice.

In the book, I get into the fact that retro games collecting has created a weirdly inverted retro games market: Classics like the Mario games can be bought for cheap, but Bonk's Adventure for the NES goes for a lot of money now because nobody wanted it when it came out. Same goes for several Wisdom Tree games. This phenomenon partially explains the recent rerelease of Wisdom Tree's lone SNES game, Super 3D Noah's Ark--it offers collectors a new shot at checking an item off their list.

As the editor of Boss Fight Books, what's the game you're most surprised you haven't received a pitch for yet? Is there something that seems obviously to deserve this kind of treatment but hasn't been suggested yet?

Star Fox. Starcraft. Mario Paint. Wild Arms. Bust-a-Move. That drug dealer game for TI-83. I also haven't seen a pitch for League of Legends, the most popular game in the world.

To me, it's all about the author's take, though. Any game could make a great book or an awful one. Finding out what happens when we devote all this attention to a single cultural artifact is the big experiment and the big reward, so I'm trying to not get too hung up on HAVING to do books on certain games but instead finding the right game/author combos that will open the series up in exciting directions.