Steven L Kent is the man who brought us The Ultimate History of Video Games, yes, the one that’s on all of our shelves. To say he has a story or two is an understatement! He talked to our Adrian about the good ol days. Thanks to Jordan Freeman at ZOOM Platform for putting us in touch with him, it’s a pleasure to feature him on the blog.
Steven, great to have you here at Arcade Attack! You have interviewed so many gaming legends in your career. Did you ever feel star struck before talking to any of these legends and which of these people most impressed you?
Sure I felt star struck, but I was lucky. I got in pretty early. The first time I interviewed Shigeru Miyamoto, he still wondered why an American journalist wanted to chat with him. When I contacted Dave Theurer (Tempest, Missile Command, Major Panic), I suggested we conduct the interview over dinner. Dave thought he was supposed to pay.
I spent a lot more time playing Mario Bros. than I spent at movies or maybe even breathing. Of course I was star struck when I met Miyamoto-san. And Dave Theurer; I mean, COME ON!!!!! Tempest is my all-time favorite arcade game. I ruined dates by making the girl stand and watch me play every time I passed a Tempest machine. I couldn’t help myself.
I mean, Nolan Bushnell, Al Alcorn, Ralph Baer, the great Ed Logg, Yoshiki Okamoto, Yuji Naka, Hideo Kojima… these were practically religious figures in my life. When somebody casually says, “Why yes, I created Mario, Donkey Kong and Zelda,” how can you stop yourself from falling to the floor and worshiping them? (I don’t know!! – Ed)
You are now a successful writer with many published and hugely successful books. Out of all the books you have written, which one are you most proud of and why?
Huh? Could you tell that to my agent? (we’ve already sent a memo… – Ed)
I have written a couple of books that have sold around 100,000 copies and a lot of books that haven’t, but in a world with J.K. Rowling and Stephen King and Dan Brown, I would not describe anything I have done as “hugely successful.” I’ve done okay. My novels have done okay. My history of games has done okay. I wrote a strategy guide for Prima that is universally listed as “the worst strategy guide ever written.”
I loved writing The Ultimate History because it allowed me to relate tales that truly fascinated me. I was a hardcore, hardcore fan. (BTW, do not mistake that to mean I am an excellent player. My gaming skills are kinda pathetic.)
As a rule, my favorite book is whichever one I am writing at the time. That’s what keeps me writing. That said, my lingering favorite is a young adult novel titled What a World! What a World! that even my agent refuses to read. I LOVE that book, and I know it will never be published. Breaks my heart. (we’ll have a read! – Ed)
You mentioned it there, and we think The Ultimate History of Video Games is a must read for all gamer fans. How did you prepare for writing it and how do you reflect back?
I did not create that title. In fact, I asked the publisher NOT to use it. Calling anything “ultimate” begs for challenges. Now that the book is nearly 20 years old, it is anything but ultimate.
My life prepared me to write that book. I lived it. I owned a Telstar, hung around with friends who owned VCSs, practically lived in various arcades, bought an NES early on, you name it. Once I broke into the business, I set about meeting the people who changed my life. The Ultimate History of Video Games was written around 500 interviews.
The biggest problems with that book were: 1) that I couldn’t stop adding to it, 2) that no one wanted to publish it. I first released a typo and error-spangled self-published version called The First Quarter: a 25-year History of Video Games. I printed 5,000 copies and it sold out quickly; then Prima bought the book from me. My editor at Prima renamed it “The Ultimate History” and with good reason, too. He said, “With a title like the first quarter, no one will know if it is about football, finances or coin collecting.”
Would you ever be tempted to release a more up to date version of it?
In the works. (ooooooh exciting! – Ed)
How different is it writing a book compared to a magazine article and which do you prefer?
I loved both. Back in the time when I wrote The First Quarter, I published an average of an article a day in a newspaper or on the web, or possibly a magazine. After I got my article out of the way, I would switch to the book and write late into the night. The articles and the book fed off each other. I had a retro stories column in Next Gen. Shortened versions of my chapters often appeared in my columns.
You have also written a number of sci-fi fiction novels. If you could turn any of these books into a video game, which of your books would you choose and why?
I am currently finishing the first installment of a short post apocalyptic series that would lend itself well to games. Bernie, Jordan (at ZOOM Platform) and I need to have a chat.
We are huge fans of Bernie Stolar’s work at Arcade Attack. What was it like interviewing him and gaining such a memorable and powerful quote as “People say that I’ve been driven by vengeance in going after Sony, and I think they’re probably right.”?
Despite my rather pronounced pro-Nintendo stance, I almost always had good relations with SEGA. The first time I visited the company, Arnie Katz (my editor at Electronic Games) warned me that they might just drive me into the desert and shoot me. In truth, I always considered Richard Brudvik-Lindner my closest friend from the industry. He was SEGA’s head of communications during the Genesis days.
Through Richard I came to know Tom Kalinske. I liked him and he was always very cordial. You never really know if they liked you. The best executives are generally polite even if they feel they need a shower after putting up with you.
I only met Bernie briefly at Sony. Sony and I were not on speaking terms during the original PlayStation launch. That cleared up, but by that time Bernie was at SEGA. As far as I was concerned, he and I hit it off right from the start. There was a nice hotel next to SEGA’s old headquarters. Bernie and I ate lunch there on several occasions.
I’m sure the reason for all of that hospitality was hoping for good ink, but SEGA’s CEOs always, always made themselves available. Meetings with Bernie or Tom or Peter Moore were something to look forward to. I knew Michael Katz and David Rosen as well, and still consider them friends, but I met them away from SEGA.
What was a typical day like while working at some of the world’s biggest video game magazines and how do you reflect on those days now?
I never did work at any of the magazines. I was a freelancer. A lone wolf. I had a home office with a Super Puzzle Fighter arcade game and a big desk and a Mac and a PC (I wrote the entertainment section for Mac Home Journal at the time.) and I traveled a lot. I also received over 1,000 video games in the mail every year. I was on a first-name basis with my FedEx and UPS delivery people.
People used to ask, “What’s it like playing video games for a living?” They should have asked me what it was like being a spoiled brat for a living. I was very full of myself at the time, and I spent a lot of time being a jerk. I owe a lot of people genuine apologies. I should probably start with the president of Mechadeus.
Video game magazines were so important before the internet exploded. How do you reflect on the industry today and do you think it is shame that so many old magazines are no longer published?
The world has evolved and the video game industry was always right on the forefront of that. I love the old days of Electronic Games and Next Gen. I miss them. I remember when PR people prioritized television news ahead of everyone, followed by the big game magazines followed by magazines followed by newspapers. They used to politely ignore game sites. Boy has that all changed. One by one the old guard magazines have closed shop. Good websites are now far more influential than network television.
Out of all the games you ever got to preview which one got you most excited and did it ultimately prove to be a commercial and critical success?
No question about it–Ocarina of Time. I was born a Zelda-geek and always remained one. Not only did Ocarina of Time prove a financial success, I consider it one of the pivotal points in modern gaming.
Was there ever a game that you didn’t like the look of, but later proved to be a huge success?
You’re joking, right? I am the world’s WORST prognosticator. I AM ALWAYS WRONG. Even when I predict I will be wrong I am sometimes wrong.
Here’s the deal–I was forced to play endless FPS games back in the early days when those games had fisheye distortions and horrific frame rates. I would play until I got sick, and then I would rest and resume playing so I could complete my reviews. I got physically ill on many occasions. I was classically conditioned, like Pavlov’s dog, to have a bad reaction to FPS games. To this day I try to avoid them.
At E3 ’95 in Atlanta, as the Nintendo Briefing got out, Nintendo spokesperson Perrin Kaplan caught me as I was leaving and asked if I thought Pokemon would catch on. There, in that crowded hall with literally dozens of people listening, I said, and I quote… “It will never catch on. It’s too Japanese.”
Wish I could take that one back!
Can you describe a few key games you previewed but were never completed and released to the public?
There was a Nova Logic Comanche game for the SNES. There were Virtual Boy titles as I recall. There was a wonderful game called The Manhattan Project that I LOVED. As I recall, it was kind of like Power Stone, only in a room that was spinning.
The most disappointing game (that did come out) was a car combat game set at sea called Blood Wake. It was an inaugural Xbox project that looked so incredible that I couldn’t wait. I found the final game hugely disappointing, not horrible looking back through the rear-view mirror, but it was disappointing. It wasn’t that bad, but I was disappointed and I included it in an article called “Generation Drex: The Worst Game For the New Consoles.” It did not belong in that article.
Here’s the deal, one of the designers from that game contacted me the next day to complain about my including the game in the article. I defended my choice. Microsoft had been planning to release Blood Wake 2, but the following day, Microsoft discontinued the project and that game designer was out of a job–AND HE WAS STILL KIND ENOUGH TO CONTACT ME TO SAY THAT MY ARTICLE HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH MICROSOFT’S DECISION. Can you imagine that? Here the guy just lost his job, and he was worried about my feeling guilty.
What new console were you most blown-away by when you first set eyes on it and why?
All of them. Even Jaguar and Pippin. And, NO, I am not joking. I even thought game.com looked cool the first time I saw it. I went wild over 32X!
What do you think are the most important skills for anyone looking to get into video game journalism?
Drive, my friend. Drive! Drive! Drive! And integrity, too. People often disagreed with my articles, but that was okay so long as I knew I was being honest.
Which are your personal favourite video games of all time?
Console: Zelda (the entire franchise save Yohiki Okamoto’s good-but-not-great Game Boy games and that awful CDi title!)
Computer: In its day, WarCraft II was the finest game I had ever seen. Obviously it has been surpassed many times, but in its day it ruled.
Thanks Steven, it’s been quite the insight to the life of a freelancer! One more question before you head back to your projects, if you could share a few drinks with a video game character who would you choose and why?
ToeJam. I want to see where his mouth is and how he drinks. Otherwise, probably Link, Anybody but Brentilda from Banjo-Kazooie.