Editor’s Note: This introduction was part of the original post, pre-newsletter. Last week’s letter talked about how I came to the idea of a newsletter. I kept this in as a memento of the project’s inception.
I’ve had this idea for quite some time, just meandering in the background of all my other ideas. I had the opportunity to work as a freelance guide writer, exclusively for IGN, from 2014 through 2019. I find the guide process fascinating (shocker) and thought it’d be fun to share my stories and experiences working on game guides for some of the biggest games in the 2010s. I hope you enjoy.
I’ll never forget when it dawned on me that people could be paid to play video games. I was working as a “Backroom Locator Specialist” at Kmart. That’s a fancy term for stock boy. In the storage area for towels and bathroom knick knacks, I was listening to Podcast Beyond. Those were the Greg Miller, Colin Moriarty, Ryan Clements, and Andrew Goldfarb days. Greg talked about an oft asked question about how they got their respective jobs.
Essentially, “get out there and do it” was the gist. Make a blog, get in front of a camera, make content.
To awkwardly quote Albuquerque by Weird Al, “So I did.”
That eventually led to getting a Capture Card for my 13th birthday, which led to some YouTube videos and a blog.
I dabbled with the IGN wikis a bit, I mostly remember recording videos of late-game levels in Super Mario 3D World.
The night before Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze launched, I remember deciding I’d just do the guide for IGN. I had no idea how their process worked or if they even had someone assigned to the write a guide (they did). I just plopped down my $60 and preloaded the game the night before release. I was in my freshman year of college at the time, so I may not have had classes that Friday and just spent the entire day working on the guide.
I was totally flying by the seat of my pants. I was just playing the game and writing. It seems like I was just writing in the wiki editor too, because I cannot find a native document where would have written down each level/entry. Absolute monkey madness!
I also had very little idea how to use my Elgato Capture Card and the impact adjusting video size on my Wii U would have on the recorded video. There is a black boarder in every. single. screen. shot. I am ashamed to admit that this would be an issue I’d struggle with on and off during my wiki writing days.
I do recall early on in my blind efforts, getting in touch with the managing editor—Sam Claiborn—on Twitter. I just tweeted at him to see if he’d look at my work on level 1-1 “Mangrove Cove.” That Twitter thread led to Sam coming up with a color-coding system and showing me some wiki ropes.
Sam also mentioned that Andrew Eisen was IGN’s hired freelancer for DKC. Sam put us in touch and we came up with a loose strategy that helped them the most. I was just going to keep going in order and Andrew would start from the back and we’d meet in the middle. Andrew would also make all the videos for the levels since he had the equipment and Content Management System (CMS) access.
As far as the actual task of writing a guide for the game, it seems like I just went in order. I’d play the level, find everything, take screenshots from my videos, and then write it all in the wiki editor. I cannot believe I wasn’t writing in at least a document to copy and paste from. I have no clue what I was thinking. I know I lost plenty of work to crashes and errors over the years. This clearly indicates how green around the gills I was. Goodness gracious.
Based upon my searching for this post, I clearly used Twitter as a primary means of communication. This is a terrible idea. I was tweeting at Sam and Andrew at a rapid pace. I was so excited to be working with IGN in a pseudo-official capacity. I was being noticed.
I remember that feeling good, like my career goal was one step closer. Ultimately, this spontaneous effort led to my freelancer gig with IGN for five years. It gave me the opportunity to work with a wholly dedicated team of the best guide writers in the business. I would go on to work on the biggest games (both in scope and critically). I also would work on some weird projects and truly terrible games. But mostly, I got to work on the good stuff. That’s part of why I am sharing these stories now. I’m proud of that work and feel like there is value in sharing it.
Ironically (or perhaps poetically), the first and only time I visited IGN was on May 3, 2018; the same day that Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze came to the Nintendo Switch. I remember that day pretty vividly. I stopped by Kinda Funny studios in the morning then walked to the nearest mall to pick up a copy of the game. Then I went to IGN’s offices to meet with the wiki team. We had a delicious bowl of ramen for lunch. I got to meet some of the IGN team. I argued with Dan Stapleton about why Iron Man 3 is my favorite MCU movie. 1 I asked Filip Miucin what it was like to follow in the footsteps of Rich George and Jose Otero. 😬 I even pitched hiring someone else for the role of a PlayStation writer: I remember Sam being surprised that I wasn’t pitching myself.
I also remember being more of an awestruck fan than a professional coworker. I went up to folks and just chatted with them. Max Scoville played through Beyonce Two Souls with me. I think my walking around ultimately led to me being asked very politely to leave. I was treating IGN like a place to hang-out and chat—like it is presented in its shows—not as a place to work. That’s a lesson that has taken me a long time to process and learn from. I could have sat with my wiki team and even help on God of War, which I was working on at the time with Brendan Graeber and Casey DeFreitas. I was star struck, which led to me walking around San Francisco sad and disheartened.
I’m not sharing this for pity or to make anyone feel bad. I’m sharing it for the lessons I learned. IGN (any outlet) is a job. While the provide entertainment and resources, behind the website is a staff full of hard-working individuals. Guides are the backbone of sites like IGN. They pull in users and clicks. When someone is stuck in a game or needs to find one more item, their job is to quickly and clearly get the player to their goal. You have to anticipate users needs before they know themselves. It’s often a faceless and thankless task. They find the answer and move on. There are passionate people behind the guides. Not just passionate for playing games throughly, but for helping people. It’s a rare trait, but every single writer I worked with had it.
You didn’t really expect a story about Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze to get heavy, did you? That’s a core idea to this whole Wiki Stories project. It’s not just about “I played this game and wrote about it like this.” I want to share the life lessons too; maybe someone can learn from my actions.
While that’s the scope of my time with DKC:TF in relation to IGN, I thought it’d be nice to share thoughts and context for the games themselves. I never really reviewed most of the games I worked on, due to wanting to avoid a conflict of interest given IGN would provide the games early or compensate me for them, if I was hired for that wiki. Years later, I don’t think anyone would mind, especially with given how transparent I am being with the process. But that also doesn’t even apply to this game 😅.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is an absolute marvel.
The momentum of movement rolled into the precision platforming feels like a Donkey Kong December dream. The level layouts are richly dense, exploring multiple ideas in depth while telling cute narratives. Game Maker’s Toolkit on DKC: TF peels back Retro Studios design in one of my favorite videos of his.
David Wise returns to compose a soundtrack that I have been listening to regularly since its release.
No matter what console or display you play on, Tropical Freeze looks killer. On the Wii U, the game runs at 720p 60 FPS on a TV. The Game Pad is the lowest resolution of the bunch. Porting the game to Switch let Retro bump the game up to a flawless 1080p 60 FPS when docked or the same 720p 60 FPS you would find on Wii U in Portable Mode. The animations are fluid; character models are filled with life; the worlds are vibrant. It’s everything you could want out of a Nintendo game. Really, it’s everything you could want out of any game.
And speaking of Nintendo’s best console, it was a real shame that this banana hoard of platforming goodness was trapped on the Wii U. Like most of the Wii U’s absolute best, it was (thankfully) ported to the far more popular and successful Nintendo Switch. This did give Retro an opportunity to become familiar with the Switch’s architecture. I am eager to see what they can do with a game built from the ground up for the Switch.
They also took it as an opportunity to make everyone’s favorite shop owner, Funky Kong, a playable character, which I so graciously requested back at the original launch.
Funky Kong is broken in the best way. He has a double jump, a hovering surfboard; He’s immune to spikes and has five hearts of health instead of two. It’s a clever way to introduce an easy mode, while also allowing for new avenues of movement for high level players. Unfortunately, you have to pick the mode upfront for the save file and Funky Mode seems to automatically give DK more health as well. There’s no synchronous progress between Funky mode and normal mode.
Even eight years later, Tropical Freeze is a chef’s kiss of platforming. Retro Studios’ ability to bring classic Donkey Kong back into the limelight (banana light?) is another badge of honor they can proudly wear. They reinvented Metroid and they revived DKC. They also took a tried-and-true design principle from Super Mario and expounded upon it in a marvelous way.
And, it will always hold a special place in my heart as the first guide I worked on.
Tony Stark’s PTSD from the Attack on New York is formative to his actions for the rest of the MCU. Directly leads to Ultron, Civil War, and his actions in Infinity War and Endgame. This legacy impacts Spider-Man, Captain America, and so on and so on. Super Pepper Potts or not, Iron Man 3 is top-tier. ↩