A Conversation with Patrick Hickey, Jr. – Part 1: The Minds Behind the Games

A Conversation with Patrick Hickey, Jr.

One of the reasons Retrovolve exists is to document forgotten stories and facts about retro video games so they don’t get lost to the ages. It turns out, we have a partner in this great endeavor. Patrick Hickey, Jr., has recently released his book The Minds Behind the Games: Interviews with Cult and Classic Video Game Developers, in which he interviews the developers of 36 video games. In this book, he records the stories behind a broad range of games.

Besides being the author of this fascinating book, he is also the voice behind The Padre and Relentless Rex. He also runs the website ReviewFix.com.

I recently had the chance to chat with Hickey for about 45 minutes, so we dove into the inspiration behind The Minds Behind the Games and explored his journey from video game journalist to voice actor and more.

Below is the first part of our conversation, which was edited for clarity and flow.

Josh: One of the things I said in my review is that you followed your curiosity, and you covered a lot of things that I don’t think would be instinctual for a lot of people. That made the book a lot more interesting, obviously, but I’m wondering what drew you to the particular games you picked for the book.

Patrick: A lot of these games influenced me as a gamer growing up. Super Battletank was my father’s go-to game when I was a kid. I really didn’t enjoy it that much until I got older. King’s Bounty was another game that my father played a lot when I was a kid that I didn’t get into until I was much older. It’s funny, because the first time I played Pokémon was in like 1998 when it first came out, and I immediately thought of King’s Bounty.

Desert Strike and Road Rash were games I rented as a kid from the video store. ToeJam & Earl was my brother’s and my go-to couch co-op game.

I run ReviewFix.com, and I’ve had the opportunity to meet and interview a lot of developers. That’s how Squids and Mushroom 11 and TowerFall all came to be a part of the book. I got kind of “in the know” about those games way before anybody knew what the hell they were. And that worked out for the book.

For example, Celeste is probably one of the best games on the Switch right now, so writing about TowerFall and letting people know the creative genius that Matt Thorson is, I think that will get even more people interested in Celeste.

Squids was just released on the Switch. In the book, I talk about how it was one of the best – if not the best – iPhone games, but now it’s on the Switch.

While I was writing about Wonder Boy in Monster Land, there were two companies doing their own spiritual successors. Those were announced while I was working on the book, so I ended up contacting them.

The Night Trap remaster was announced well after I did my interview for the book. As a matter of fact, it was like a week before my manuscript was due. I found out about the remaster and I immediately reached out to the developers. I was like, “Guys, I’m writing a book. I need a couple of quotes from you.”

Yeah. It was all curiosity. It was 30 years of playing video games and 15 years of being a journalist. It was like Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure with just video games and journalism.

Josh: You must have been a Genesis kid growing up.

Patrick: Yeah. I mean, the original Nintendo was the first system I owned, and then I got a lot of mileage out of the Genesis. The NES is what I learned to play video games on. I fell in love with Contra, Super Mario Bros., Kirby, Side Pocket, Play Action Football, Pro Wrestling, and all that stuff.

But the Genesis just took it to a completely new level. I remember the first time I played Sonic the Hedgehog, and I was like, “Video games just don’t move this fast!” You know? There wasn’t a game on an 8-bit console that moved that fast.

Josh: Yeah, a lot of the stuff in the 8-bit era wasn’t even scrolling yet. You look at Mega Man, and it’s just one stationary screen, then you move to the next stationary screen. I mean, Mario was scrolling, obviously, but…

Patrick: And with Mega Man, you had all that slowdown when there were multiple enemies on the screen. Even the death scene slowed it down. But Sonic was just so fast.

I’m a big sports gamer. I love sports games, and I loved Ice Hockey and Blades of Steel on the NES, but NHLPA ’93 and NHL ’94 were some of the first times I could play a hockey game with my favorite players, and that changed the game entirely for me. Then later the Madden series and things like that.

EA could do no wrong for a really long time on the Genesis. There’s a reason why NHL Hockey up until NHL ’98 on the Genesis all pretty much played the same — because it wasn’t broke. They had this really good gameplay engine that they just kind of tweaked over time, and it worked really well. Even to this day, there’s a big modding community that updates the rosters of NHL ’94 so you can go online and download the ROMs and play it in an emulator. So I can play NHL ’94 with the 2018 roster. It’s so much fun. That gameplay is just so great.

The Super Nintendo was a fun system for me because I got introduced to RPGs. Secret of Evermore, Secret of Mana, Final Fantasy III, which really isn’t Final Fantasy III.

Josh: Right, it was Final Fantasy VI in Japan.

Patrick: Right. And Super Mario RPG was, oh my god. I remember playing Super Mario RPG and just being like, “Super Nintendo games don’t look and sound and play like this. This is nuts.” Super Castlevania 4, Contra III: The Alien Wars – it was like everything I really loved about the NES, plus some great RPGs. And I was young and impressionable when all that was happening. I mean, I was ten, eleven, twelve years old when all this stuff was coming out.

My father had gotten into a car accident at work, and he got a nice settlement out of it. He gave my brother and me each $500 and said to just do whatever we wanted with it. So I said, “I’m getting a Sony PlayStation.” The only thing that sucked about the Sony PlayStation when it first came out was that it had no RPGs. I had to wait until like Wild Arms came out. After that, Final Fantasy VII came out and then came the flood of JRPGs. You know, Working designs, Atlus, Square Enix, all these great companies started making great RPGs.

Josh: The Lunar remake? Oh my gosh!

Patrick: Absolutely!

I can tie pretty much every experience and moment in my life to a game I was playing at the time. When I first started teaching, Fallout 3, that was my jam. I’d come home after a long day of teaching and I would just get lost in the Wasteland. When I was in graduate school, it was New Vegas. When my daughter was born last year, I was playing NHL ’17 with my nephew like every day.

I’m a lifelong gamer. I’m also a journalism professor, and I’ve been an editor at NBC. At one time, I was the highest ranked video game critic on Examiner.com. That site got 15 million views a day during its heyday.

Josh: I did a little bit of work for Examiner when I was first getting started in games journalism. I think I got into it right at the end of their heyday, so it didn’t work out for me.

Patrick: If you knew how to work their system, you could make a lot of money. A lot of people didn’t. But that was a lot of fun. And 2K, Electronic Arts, Activision – they were all sending me games and they were paying for me to fly places for Examiner. I met a lot of developers over the years. I really enjoy interviewing people.

Josh: I’ve noticed that in games journalism, it seems like people who like doing interviews are really rare. I worked for Cheat Code Central for a while, and there was a long stretch where I was the only one who would do interviews. Everyone else would turn them down. So I got to interview some really cool people because nobody else wanted to. There’s so much cool information you can get from an interview, especially when you’re talking to someone who was making games 20 years ago and there’s no NDA.

Patrick: It’s funny you mention that, because right now I’m trying to get an interview with a producer about a game made 20 years ago for the N64 that is still affected by an NDA.

Josh: Really?

Patrick: Yeah, there’s still a lot of stuff he can’t say because there’s still a non-disclosure. It’s insane.

But I love being able to go behind the curtain and tell the stories of these games. To me, The Minds Behind the Games is the most important thing I’ve ever done in terms of journalism. Video game journalism is weird because a lot of the people who write journalistic-style pieces about video games are not journalists. They don’t understand journalism. The thing is, journalism is very selfless. You have to listen. You have to find the story. You have to try to connect with the person. A lot of the people writing video game stuff are just writing reviews. And they know a lot about games. They know a lot about how games are supposed to work and what’s good and what’s not, but they’re not connecting with the person who made the game. If you connect with the person who made the game, you’d understand why something plays the way that it does, and you could write a better review because of that.

That’s the reason I wanted to write this book. All of these guys – and women, there are women featured in the book as well – have gone through so much for their creations.

It’s a huge problem in the video game industry that we connect games with publishers. We don’t think about the people who actually made these games. We idolize people like Martin Scorsese and Shakespeare and all these people, but what about the Scorseses and Shakespeares of video games? We don’t even know who they are yet.

Josh: There were a few things I was really surprised and happy to see in the book. I don’t feel like a lot of people remember Desert Strike, but it’s a great game.

Patrick: And the physics engine in that game is incredible. I was trying to get it into the reader’s head that Mike Posehn is such a smart guy. He was able to squeeze every ounce of RAM into that game to make it work. Did you ever burn a CD back in the day, where you’re trying to squeeze as many songs as possible on the disc?

Josh: Oh yeah.

Patrick: That’s what he did with this game. It almost didn’t fit on the cartridge. Most people will never even think of these things.

A lot of great games get forgotten, and a lot of games get labelled incorrectly. For example, E.T. is not the worst game of all time. E.T. suffered from one of the most disastrous development cycles of all time. It suffered from some of the worst internal management by a publisher of all time. Atari stuck their rock star on this – a guy who had made two games before that that had both sold over a million copies, which was huge back then. I mean, a million copies is still a big deal now, but back when the market share was much smaller, Howard Scott Warshaw made a licensed movie-based game that sold over a million copies, and then he made an original game that sold over a million copies. This guy was a rock star. Then Atari gives him five weeks to make a game. And the thing is, he actually did make a fully functioning game. It’s not a good game. I don’t enjoy playing E.T., but I know why I don’t enjoy it. It’s because I keep falling in these goddamn pits.

Josh: [laughing]: Right!

Patrick: If the collision detection were just a little bit better, E.T. would be a far better game.

Josh: I’ve never thought about this before, but when I read your book, I realized that E.T. and ToeJam & Earl have the same premise.

Patrick: I’m so happy that you said that!

When you listen to a song the first time, you’re immediately saying, “Oh, this kind of sounds like this other song that I heard.” Video games are the exact same way, but most people don’t do that. Gamers have really short memories. They don’t resonate with the history the way that, say, film buffs or music fans do. That’s kind of strange.

That’s one of the reasons I decided to write the book. I wanted people to see that a lot of these games have had a long-lasting effect on the video game industry.

And going back to ToeJam & Earl, I don’t think that Greg Johnson and Mark Voorsanger had decided intentionally to make a 16-bit version of E.T.

Josh: [Laughing] I don’t think anyone wanted to do that!

Patrick: Exactly. But the similarity is real, because it’s this 2D game in a 3D world that has all these working parts. You know, the randomly generated ship parts and things like that. ToeJam & Earl has those things too. It’s pretty crazy how it all worked out.

Josh: I was really glad that you got Greg Johnson in your book, because he’s great to talk to. I’ve talked to him as well, and he’s a fantastic guy. And I don’t want to say this because it sounds kind of mean, but I mean this in the best possible way. Greg feels like he’s perpetually stuck in the 90s, but in a good way. I mean that in a good way! He’s such an awesome guy!

Patrick: I understand what you’re saying, absolutely. And the thing is, if you’re a game creator and you’re stuck in that era, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Josh: No, it’s great. And for him it works, because he has that sense of humor, and he has the sensibilities of that era. That means the stuff he makes feels instantly classic. It doesn’t feel lame or old; it has this classic feel to it.

Patrick: Greg is very intelligent. He takes himself seriously, but he doesn’t project that seriousness. He projects this kind of carefree, laid-back personality. When he answered questions for my book, he had fun, but he gave me a ton of information. His answers were totally free and flowing, but informative at the same time. I wanted the chapters in The Minds Behind the Games to match the tone of the game they were about, and I think the ToeJam & Earl chapter matches the tone of the game really well.

Josh: Yeah, and ToeJam & Earl really is a manifestation of Greg’s personality. 100%.

Patrick: I agree.


In the second part of this interview, we talk about Hickey’s strange journey from video game journalist to video game voice actor. Click here to continue.

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