Anthology Excerpt: "How Mega Man Got His Pistol Back" by Michael P. Williams February 19 2015

When I was a kid, I didn’t often have the luxury—much less the sense of spontaneity—to purchase video games without first doing my research. My monthly subscription to Nintendo Power was a great source of information, but the featured walkthroughs and “Pak Watch” previews were a poor substitute for actually playing Nintendo games. Luckily for me, my family didn’t live far from a video rental store. West Coast Video, a chain founded in my own city of Philadelphia, began stocking video games along with VHS tapes. I saw this video games section grow rapidly from a dedicated shelf to an entire rack, and finally to a complete section of the store. Eventually, West Coast Video and the recently moved-in Blockbuster became not only cheaper alternatives to buying games, but also libraries—places to find video games that had long stopped selling in stores. Unlike retail stores, where games were often locked inside towering plastic cases, video rental stores gave me full access to the packaging. Often enough, video games boxes were my first impression of games, and their imagery influenced the way I approached their contents.

In the late 1980s through the 1990s, the video game boxes that I mostly loved, sometimes hated, and often tried to imitate with pencil and paper, differed vastly from their counterparts in Japan. In some extreme cases, box art might be mutually unintelligible to players on opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean. With the help of the internet, it has become an easy task to make side by side comparisons of North American, Japanese, and occasionally European box art. Discussions about transoceanic box art differ- ences usually highlight the subjectively poor artistic merit of North American artwork compared against its Japanese predecessors, though defenders of the Western aesthetic are not in short supply. Box art comparisons, then, tend to become simple arguments over which region did it best, though recent matchups have also demonstrate subtle changes in the box art of American and Japanese versions, like how Nintendo’s beloved pink puffball Kirby tends to look angry and battle-ready on North American boxes, but seems to be having a jolly time on those same adventures in Japan. These slight variations, however, are nowhere near as noticeable as the radical splits in box art during the early days of console gaming. I began wondering just why box art localization has shifted away from highly idio- syncratic repackaging—why the inspired, sloppy, thrilling, ridiculous, or just plain baffling box art styles of yesteryear have mostly disappeared.

No one in my family seems to remember just when we bought an NES. I maintain that it was a present for my fifth birthday in 1987, though true to its original Japanese name, it soon became a “Family Computer.” My earliest memories of playing Nintendo were swapping controllers with my sister to play Super Mario Bros., cheering when my dad finally knocked out the celebrity final boss of Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!, and attempting to make urban legend into reality by trying in vain to shoot down that mocking dog in Duck Hunt. None of these, however, can hold a candle to the events of April 3, 1988. That Easter Sunday, I awoke to a special kind of egg hunt that could only have been dreamed up by my mom. Golden (plastic) eggs had been scattered throughout the house, and I had to track each one down to unlock a hidden treasure. Inside the shiny eggs were all sorts of strange artifacts: an hors d’oeuvre skewer in the shape of a sword, a toy apatosaurus, a small metal key, a monster finger puppet. After I had assembled all of these items, I was given the ultimate prize, The Legend of Zelda.

I instinctively knew it would be special. The heraldic box art was already whispering to my imagination. The upper left of the regal escutcheon on the box was a win- dow to something shinier than any of the eggs I had found that Easter morning—the aureate cartridge itself. For me and countless other players, The Legend of Zelda was a golden ticket into the world of epic gaming. Japanese players, however, did not receive anything close to this spe- cial treatment. The box art of the original Famicom disk version, The Hyrule Fantasy: Zeruda no Densetsu, shows an anime-style Link crouched in front of the Hyrulian land- scape. The game itself was an elongated yellow floppy disk, a pale comparison to the shiny cartridge released in North America. 

The box art conceived for other fantasy questing games in North America took cues from The Legend of Zelda’s packaging. Its own golden-carted sequel, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, shows a large jewel-hilted sword, and Square’s Final Fantasy took the typical role-playing imag- ery further, showing a crystal ball above a crossed sword and battle-axe. The Japanese Famicom boxes have vastly different imagery. Rinku no Bōken shows the elven hero slightly matured and adventuresome, and Fainaru Fanatajī depicts a fey swordsman in ceremonial armor in the now timeless style of series artist Yoshitaka Amano. Neither of these cartoonier approaches seems to have found favor with early marketers of Japanese games localized for North Americans. Instead of the heavy anime stylings of Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Quest series, for instance, the Dragon Warrior games feature scenes that could have been lifted from the covers of generic Western fantasy novels. These box art localizations exchanged cute for cool, childlike for adult, and play for adventure.

The larger adventure genre similarly translated approachable and ethereal Japanese box art into more intimidating and straightforward North American terms, sometimes with hilariously bad results. Perhaps the most infamous example of North American box art localizations is Mega Man. The character immortalized by this cover is far removed from the version on the Japanese release of Rokkuman (“Rockman”). Instead of a friendly robo-boy with an arm cannon who battled other bipedal robots, North Americans saw an adult in safety pads awkwardly wielding a pistol on a futuristic pinball landscape. Beyond the sheer incompatibility of this art with the game’s con- tent, the box art version of Mega Man is off-model, with strange bodily contortions and a misshapen helmet. His hangdog, almost haunted expression tells us what we can easily ascertain—there is nothing mega about this man.

Ultimately, North American NES players didn’t adapt the old adage about not judging a book by its cover— despite the fact that the gameplay of Mega Man had little to do with its packaging, the game sold poorly. But the North American manual for Mega Man tells a different story, and one closer to its Japanese origins. After skipping past the steroid-fueled welcome from Capcom’s partially eponymized mascot Captain Commando, the reader gets a glimpse at how Mega Man was envisioned for Japan— a plucky hero who is more playmate than action figure. Here in this 1987 package begins a long-standing tension between the Japanese Rockman and Western depictions of Mega Man.

(Read the rest of this essay in Continue? The Boss Fight Books Anthology.)


Editor vs. Author: Boss Fight's Gabe Durham Chats with Chrono Trigger Author Michael P. Williams April 28 2014

Since I started Boss Fight Books last summer, one of the biggest pleasures of running/editing “the 33 ⅓ of video games” was discovering Michael P. Williams. Boss Fight’s Kickstarter backers selected Chrono Trigger as the game they most wanted to read a book about, and when I put out a call to writers for Chrono pitches, it was Michael’s that blew me away.

What sealed it was a three-hour phone “interview” about Chrono Trigger, Dragonball Z, Secret of Mana, Japanese culture, and I think maybe the Star Wars prequels. My question, “Could this guy I’ve never met write a whole book about Chrono Trigger?” was more than answered. Michael’s writing is energized by a deep curiosity, a willingness to delve into his subject, to take Chrono Trigger as seriously as possible, and have a blast while doing it.

Case in point: In this interview, I asked him a dumb question about Spekkio, one of Chrono Trigger’s minor NPCs, and found, to my delight, that he had plenty of thoughtful Spekkio commentary ready to go. When I emailed him, “That’s a better answer than I deserved,” he replied, “It's an answer I'd thought about too! I didn't get to do nearly enough NPC analysis but there was just no room. I could have written a whole chapter about them. Ah well! This'll have to do, in the expanded gaiden of my book.” I need to go look up gaiden, but already I’m into the idea.

Now that his book is written, edited, and published, I thought I’d interview Michael again--this time not for his job, but just for the fun of picking his brain one more time. - Gabe Durham


Gabe Durham: In what could be the most controversial part of the book, you DARE to criticize the game's time travel mechanics. What--in movies, games, books, pop culture, whatever--is an example of a time travel plot that really gets it right? And what's a time travel plot that is just garbage?

Time travel is general is always going to involve a bit of bullshitting! Stories that get too hung up on paradoxes end up being really cumbersome, smarmy, and sometimes plain old unfun. One of my favorite masterfully handled time travel stories has to be 12 Monkeys (I haven’t seen La Jetée, on which it was based). The finality of time, the merciless grip of causality—it just gets so much right. But it’s a dark movie. And as you approach the ending you feel the noose of the time loop tightening around you. It’s a really tense movie. But it’s not fun.

If I want to go with fun, I’d go with Futurama. While the show does have its share of flub-ups in continuity, it does treat time travel with both irreverence for its conventions and with respect for its possibilities. As the series progresses, for instance, we continually learn more about the 1999 life of protagonist Philip J. Fry, and the circumstances surrounding his importance to the space-time continuum. At first Fry’s coming to the 31st century is a bit of a comedic fluke, but later it seems that many events have conspired to make this happen. The most vulgarly amusing of these is Fry’s having sex with his own grandmother to become his own grand-father/son—a special kind of incest that renders his brain “special” (read: “often stupid”), making it the most powerful counterweapon in the universe against a species of intergalactic brains that want to destroy all of existence. While autograndparenting is only hinted at in Chrono Trigger, Futurama provides a hilarious parody of the classic Grandfather Paradox that cripples many other time travel stories.

Meanwhile, there are far too many time travel flops to list, but Martin Lawrence’s Black Knight strikes me as one that is potentially offensive on any number of levels. Its worst sin, however, is its predictable fish-out-of-water storyline, and it’s a stark contrast to Futurama’s successes with the same trope.


Your book pokes at Chrono Trigger from just about every angle you could think of: The Hero's Journey, gender, physics, translation, etc. Why do you think CT is so ripe for this approach? And were there other angles that you tried to pursue that didn't work out?

Michael P. Williams: Since Chrono Trigger was a game designed by the collective input of a huge team, it felt right to take an unapologetically “kitchen sink” approach to never analyzing and critiquing it. It didn’t feel like bad form to mix and match approaches—critical race theory, queer studies, traditional literary criticism, and whatever else I smushed in there—though this would have passed muster as a “research book.” I also knew this was going to be a grab bag of topics—the game is just too multifaceted and too diffusively authored to articulate a single auteur-like vision.

I originally did have the idea of making this more academic than it ended up being—using words like auteur, for example. But then I got both intimidated by what I didn’t know and by what I’d have to learn just to start the process of learning more. I didn’t want to get paralyzed by unknowledge, so I just dove in at a certain point, leaving many sources unchecked. I had to remind myself that I was emphatically not writing a dissertation on Chrono Trigger, and that therefore I didn’t need a thesis. When I tossed out trying to find a unifying principle to rectify the disparate content of the game, I was actually able to start really writing.

I had had the serendipitous foresight to pack the prospectus I originally pitched to Boss Fight Books with tons of topics. Then again, I had also had the dedicated madness to watching ten straight hours of Chrono Trigger playback videos on YouTube while scribbling down notes. Of the 70% or so that was legible, I ended up with a huge, messy list of potential ideas. This very loose collection of talking points eventually was reshaped into many of the final chapters of the book.


One of the pleasures of editing this book was watching your balance of lucidity and generosity as a critic. Who are some arts critics you admire? What are some venues/websites that are really killing it?

I have to admit I approached this with some virgin eyes. I am not a huge follower of criticism. In fact, I’m poorly read when it comes to current culture. I read the Onion A.V. Club sometimes, or maybe a book review now and then, but in general I try to experience the original and don’t often look for critical consensus, or outliers.

It’s funny to me, though, that I tend to only seek out reviews when I loathe something—I want to feel vindicated. Many of my Google searches have been formatted as “___ is terrible” or “I hate ___.” I’ve had many things to fill in those blanks, often TV shows and movies. I will list three for you: The Gilmore Girls, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the TV series), and Sideways. I have always found at least one excoriating review to justify my viewerly ire.


Something you don't get into in the book: What do you make of Spekkio? It always feels like a weird power play when Spekkio, before gifting the power of magic to the Future Saviors of the Earth, makes them walk around the room three times. Also, if his level of power matches whomever is in the room with him, what does he look like when alone?

Spekkio is a unique character in that, we have no idea what he really looks like. He's sort of like the lightbulb in the fridge, or the tree falling in the unheard woods—we can only guess what face he shows when he is showing anyone his face. Skilled players might be able to meet Spekkio in his weakest form, a small froggy. Most players will first encounter him as a furry kilwala, a kind of rabbit-ape. And as your party's lead character gets stronger, so do Spekkio's six distinct forms. His final form might be the toughest enemy in the entire game.

I think his major function is to serve as a friendly foe, a kind of constantly upgrading Gato—the karaoke battlebot that you can fight early on in the game. He's a way to test your skills in a relatively risk-free place, and if you can best him, you can earn limited-supply power-ups. Spekkio then fulfills a limited "coliseum" function—a feature which was never fully integrated into Chrono Trigger except by hackers.

As a character, Spekkio's major contribution is to unlock our characters' latent magic talents, and to hint at the development of magic in the world. Since he tells us prehistoric Ayla cannot use magic, we can make some guesses that magic was an invention of the Zeal Kingdom siphoning off Lavos's powers, else it was a wild card that Lavos introduced into the human population and that Zeal learned to exploit. We also know from Spekkio's housemate Gaspar that other visitors had been popping up in the End of Time, so whether these people got powers unlocked is an open question for fanfic writers to answer.

I like to think of Spekkio as more a trickster than an asshole, and his little game of walking his chamber thrice-deasil is a way to humble the characters rather than humiliate them—sort of like a Zen master making students sweep floors, maybe? Maybe also helps prepare the characters to accept the absurdity of magic. Even Hogwarts kids probably laughed the first time they said some Latinish gibberish and a spirit animal appeared. Without a sense of humor, ultimate power can lead people down a dark path.

By the way, according to the Japanese guide Chrono Trigger: Ultimania, you can actually trick Spekkio into believing you've traveled the room three times by following a weird, zigzag path. I admit I accidentally exited the room a few times trying to hug the walls, but this frustration of having to start over again can generously be read as an extension of the Zen analogy. Try, try again! And curse at the screen a bit too.


You successfully tracked down both Chrono Trigger's SNES translator/localizer Ted Woolsey and DS retranslator Tom Slattery for the book, and you read up on countless interviews in both Japanese and English with the game's developers. What about the game's creation surprised you? Did anything ever burst the bubble of what you'd assumed the creation of CT must have been like?

Oh, yeah! I’m like a bloodhound with these things. I was surprised how accessible both Ted and Tom were, and so willing to answer my questions. I even tracked down the only copy of Ted’s master’s thesis, and found it had surprising connections to Chrono Trigger. It was like experiencing my own personal synchronicity, and it was incredibly inspiring. I’m sure Ted was a bit spooked by my stalkiness there, but I think he was also glad to receive a PDF scan of an early opus.

As far as the creation of the game, I was surprised by how little the “Dream Team”—the three major producers and creators of the game—had to do with the game. The sheer amount of uncredited effort by people like Masato Katō—who wrote a good chunk of the game—and Yasunori Mitsuda—whose music many of us can still hum in the shower—was astounding. Granted, both guys’ names appear in the credits, but Mitsuda got totally snubbed in the so called “Developer’s Ending”—instead of him, it’s Nobuo Uematsu, who barely scored half a track for the game. I call bullshit on Japan’s hierarchical respect there.

Disappointments like these, however, were strongly offset by gems of esoterica, like the fact that Frog would probably have originally been “Spider,” or that the game was sort of the best leftovers of a failed Secret of Mana prototype. In the end, it’s always good to take a peek behind the curtain—even the humbug Wizard of Oz had plenty of cool shit to give away, floating head or not.


You wrote this book pretty quickly! I had this unique experience of getting to serialize your first draft as you were writing it, getting a new chapter every few weeks. What was your regimen like? And did we awaken a bookwriting beast that lurked within you all along?

 The beast had always been lurking, and he was hungry! You just gave it something else to eat—though I assure you, many a cookie was consumed during the writing process.

After the initial research phase—which was a whirlwind two month process of gathering and compiling sources in English and Japanese—I started trying to flesh out the outline I had had in mind since the initial pitch. I started writing these chapters in book outline order, thinking I could keep the running train of thought on track. It became clear to me soon, though, that I was actually writing not a continuous narrative, but rather a series of interdependent chapters that could each be individual essays, if not for some transitioning thoughts that I later inserted to make the book flow more naturally. So, I’d have an idea for a theme, start taking notes. The notes would become a chapter outline, and then finally feel structured.

My library was a great place to work. It’s so quiet there—but not deathly quiet! The ambient soundtrack of shoes on the hard linoleum; soft, insistent coughing in the distance; the sound of dry, hushed laughter in a seminar room—all of these were incredibly relaxing. Often I would just sip my coffee and start pounding the keyboard, connecting the dots of the outline basically. There were some points when I was so in the zone that I would finish a whole subchapter in less than an hour. So, I guess part of my speed was having the right writing environment. Plus, being surrounded by knowledge was not just gratifying, it was incredibly useful! Articles and books for reference were often literally at my fingertips, so I didn’t really need to put many things on hold while I waited for sources to back up my writing.

More practically: as the bookwriting beast had just emerged, it needed some training. I really wanted to make this book good. I have to say, as fueled as I was by Ken’s EarthBound excerpt on Kotaku, I was also intimidated by the skill of his wordsmithing. Writing something both longform and creatively scholarly was a foreign concept to me, so following the deadline of having a first draft by Spring 2014—we originally had aimed for a Summer 2014 release—I created my own “halfth draft” deadline of Christmas 2013. I just wanted to get everything I had in for an initial pass through before even attempting a solid “first draft,” which was completed much sooner than anticipated. Looking back, these fractional draft numbers were probably confusing—I did call my individual chapter submissions “zeroth drafts”!—but this was also a manifestation of my fear of “this isn’t good enough yet.”

I still feel this a bit. In fact, I’m sure I will never not find a fault with any edition of Chrono Trigger—or anything else I write—but at some point you have to let these things go out into the world and succeed and/or fail! I’m confident that after all the hard work we’ve put into Chrono Trigger—and despite any typos or omissions— it’s exactly the kind of book I wanted it to become.

Boss Fight at BuzzFeed & More March 24 2014

Hey Everybody,

A few tasty media morsels:

Buzzfeed interviewed Ken Baumann and Gabe Durham about Boss Fight & EarthBound.

On the new episode of the podcast My So Called 8bit Life, Michael P. Williams talks Chrono Trigger with host Roberto Villegas.

Polygon covered Darius Kazemi's Critical Proximity talk on what a game's code can tell us. The actual talk is here.

The first chapter of EarthBound gets the Rap Genius treatment.

WRITERS: Don't forget to reach out if you want an early digital galley of Chrono Trigger by Michael P. Williams.

Everybody else: It's coming SOON. The paperbacks are being printed as we type.


Boss Fight Books

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EarthBound Shipped + Book #2 News January 28 2014

Hi Everyone,

All print copies of EarthBound have shipped! Most of you have already gotten them in the mail, and the rest of you should be getting them very soon.

THANK YOU to all who have helped us celebrate this book across the medias. Photos of EarthBound in the world will be retweeted by @BossFightBooks, especially those featuring dogs or bumblebees.

Some cool press from the last couple of weeks:

"At last, EarthBound gets the paperback it deserves." - Kill Screen

"Ken reaches into his childhood and remembers Shigesato Itoi’s game. But much like Ness, by remembering the game and his experiences with it, Ken also remembers a part of himself." - Coin Battle 

"Excellent." 10/10 - Nerdlife

"So much fun." - Bookrageous

"The breadth of Baumann's interests and his infectious love for humanity make him the perfect writer to do this game justice." - The Rumpus

“I hope this book lives to be read after we’re gone.” - HTMLGIANT


Now let’s talk business. As I’ve mentioned before, the order of our Season One titles will be based on the order in which they are ready. Well, we’re now ready to call the next book: Book #2 will be Chrono Trigger by Michael P. Williams.

Chrono Trigger is the book that was decided by vote by our Kickstarter backers during the campaign last summer. To determine the author, we opened it up to pitches, and gave the job to a writer who wrote a proposal/excerpt that blew me away. He got to work immediately. Michael and I are currently hard at work on edits, and I’m really pleased with how the book is turning out.

In the meantime, anyone who wants can pre-order the book here or order it here when the book is out.


Last: Anna Anthropy just emailed me her ZZT first draft. I'm about to go print it out and dig in.

Last-last: There are 30 Kickstarter backers who have yet to fill out their surveys. Please head over to and fill out your survey so we can lavish you with book(s).

Oh! And last-last-last: I want to brag on our author, Darius Kazemi, for his Boston Globe profile. Let’s pray he never turns his bots against us. 

Thanks, all!

Gabe Durham, Boss Fight