Forum Flashback – A Look At The Next Level Message Board (Game On Expo Article Series)

Every year I put together a few video game related articles in celebration of the yearly Game On Expo held in Phoenix. You can revisit articles from years past right here. The first article in this series for 2018 is a special one for me. Right around the age of 16 I really got into video game forums/message boards because that was my passion, playing and talking about video games. I bounced around to different message boards for a few years and in 2002, after my favorite video game message board bit the dust, I migrated over to one called The Next Level (TNL). I spent the next THIRTEEN YEARS (as Hot Like Wasabi) reading so many different threads, posting and sharing opinions on a wide variety of topics, and enjoying the small community that was TNL. I’ve met a few other board members in person over the years and still follow a few on various social media platforms. I wanted to reach out to a few members from TNL to revisit those peak days and get their opinion and input on a few different questions.

Participating in the article are:

Yoshi (@YossyDesuNe)
DHG Otaku (@Emperor_Ernest)
Satsuki (@battyhearst)
Will (@Willdogma)
Some Stupid Japanese Name (@PaulWasAllTaken)
Pineapple 
(@LookItsPineappl)


How much did you rely on TNL for video game news, impressions, etc?

Yoshi: The primary values of TNL for me were impressions and context, such as history. I personally tried to bring as much news as I could to TNL so that others could add their opinions to it and help better inform me. I used this knowledge to make better purchasing decisions and to have a better grasp on history. A great example would be the European computers. Guys like bVork and Neozeedeater knew a lot about these, and I knew relatively little, so I tried to soak up some of that, while also pulling their chains about how much better Japanese games were at the time.

DHG: I relied on TNL almost exclusively for game news and impressions, because the collective opinion of the mainstay board members aligned close enough with my own tastes. It was like being part of a truly dedicated, almost niche, video game community that I always wanted to be a part of as a kid, complete with snark and jokes aplenty.

Satsuki: Back in the day, I relied on it a great deal for the impressions of other members. The early to mid 00s TNL had a very active and diverse board (in terms of tastes.) Every game, speculated release, whatever – someone would weigh in on it. And that usually led to a lot of differing opinions, lol. And a lot of online fights!
As far as straight up news, that would depend. At the time, I was really into JRPGs and music games (Bemani & DDR especially) so I would tend to stick to Bemani forums for news about those things. I don’t think I ever intentionally checked the front page of TNL for news.

Will: TNL was my primary source of gaming news and all that stuff. If a story broke, it was there in minutes.

SSJN: I completely relied on TNL! I’ve always been myopic when it comes to the internet. My browsing history began in the late 90s thanks to a Sega Saturn and the Netlink. Eventually I graduated to a Dreamcast and its web browser. I didn’t own a PC until the mid-2000s! All that to say, everything was sllloowww loading so I didn’t do much exploratory web surfing. If I found a site I liked, I tended to stay on it until it went away. I found Gamego which led me to TNL and I’ve been there ever since. It certainly wasn’t as large as other message boards, but I felt the community did a great job of curation. Chances were that if no one on TNL was talking about it, I probably didn’t need to know about it.

Pineapple: I relied on TNL for video game news/impressions for a long time. From about 2007 through 2014 I relied on TNL exclusively for this type of thing. I would search through each new thread in Gaming Discussion looking for the best and worst reviews and impressions of games. Certain members became go to guys for their thoughts, either from having a similar taste in games or because they were much better at said games than I, but I would always check a new thread to see if the people who played “my style” of games had given it a shot. This was essentially my main way to tell if I’d like a game for nearly a decade.


Whether you still use any type of message board, do you see value in them or has Twitter/Facebook made them obsolete?

Yoshi: I still use message boards but only very specialized ones that tend to skew older. I have no use for general gaming boards. Too many of the members know very little about gaming history and instead parrot ignorance from guys like Jeremy Parish and only visit to participate in a politicized echo chamber of idiocy. I get most of my gaming news these days from Twitter, though I always try to follow the links to read the whole story from the original source, unless it’s some digital rag like Polygon or Kotaku. I haven’t visited Facebook for any purpose in years.

DHG: I don’t use message boards as much today, as Twitter is more immediate and ‘to the point’. The truth is that I just don’t have as much free time these days to relax and chat about all things gaming. I spent so much time on TNL in the past that I would spend more time talking about video games than playing them. While Twitter has made them obsolete in terms of pace at delivering breaking news and encompasses a wider range of players, the group discussion aspect, and special assortment of personalities can never truly be replaced.

Satsuki: I love message boards. LOVE them. I personally see value in all the social media outlets – from forums, to twitter, to Facebook. I like having the mix. I think reddit has picked up where traditional message boards left off – it’s as anonymous as you want it to be, you can weigh in on just about any subject, and depending on interaction level you can gain a certain amount of social capital on there like you would have on a message board. I don’t think Twitter and Facebook fulfill the same niche in the internet usage spectrum. Facebook isn’t anonymous enough (and your great aunt doesn’t usually care about your weird hobby that a message board would have indulged.) Twitter doesn’t have the ease of lengthy rants that niche hobbies bring out in a user. But, it’s hard to monetize message boards these days and people favor the quicker forms of delivery.

Will: I still frequent two or three message boards currently. They may be on their way out, but I still like ’em.

SSJN: I don’t FEEL like Twitter/Facebook has made them obsolete but judging by how many message boards have become lost to history they obviously have. Both of those platforms have strengths, but neither one is conducive to longform discussion. That’s something message boards will always be better for. Also, neither platform is particularly well suited for being a resource of knowledge either. Over the years, TNL has amassed a number of informative gaming related threads. One member in particular, Neozeedeater, would create a thread about a vintage system, its history, and then post screen shots/ Youtube videos of various games he felt displayed the strengths of the system. The rest of the community would crawl out of the woodwork to share experiences and more technical tidbits and before you knew it a faq- worthy amount of information would have pooled together. Interested in the Acorn Archimedes? Go here! http://www.the-nextlevel.com/tnl/threads/52450-Acorn-Archimedes. One guy even created an Official TNL Gaming Knowledge Database thread, where all the links to threads such as that Archimedes one were listed. How do you compile something like that on Twitter?

Pineapple: I still use TNL on an almost daily basis (not as much as I used to), I just don’t post like I did back in the day. To that end, I would rather spend 30 minutes a week reading through TNL than 1 minute reading through Facebook or Twitter. I find those sites too full of spite and people one-upping each other to enter into the conversation, for the most part. TNL has grown up over the last several years, and despite lower participation, the people who are talking still make great points that I actually care to read or reflect on.

After all these years, TNL still has the familiar look I remember


Was there a game you were convinced to buy based off impressions posted on TNL?

Yoshi: The short answer is absolutely “yes,” but I’m going to struggle to recall a specific example. One might have been Stuntman: Ignition, one of the most underrated games on Xbox 360. I’m not 100% sure that TNL is what made me try it, but it’s a reasonable bet. I believe it’s backward compatible on Xbox One now, so your readers should give it a shot, if they haven’t already.

DHG: I was convinced to buy many games, or at least check them out, as these were the days before you could jump to YouTube for some quick gameplay video, and I trusted the many opinions of my gaming brethren. Glover (N64), Resident Evil: Code Veronica (Dreamcast), Devil May Cry (PS2), God of War (PS2), Onimusha: Warlords (PS2), Rez (PS2), and Killer 7 (Game Cube) are but a few examples.

Satsuki: Wario Ware! I bought a GBA and the game after everyone was raving about it so hard. I had to see what it was all about. It was pretty good, I’d say it lived up to the hype. I think if I wouldn’t have been a member of TNL, I would have never picked a GBA up. At that point I considered myself too cool for portable gaming. It ended up being probably my favorite console and provided my favorite game library of all time.

One of the many games I bought thanks to TNL

Will: Not really. Most of the time the really lauded fames were for systems that I didn’t own at the time.

SSJN: Plenty, and they were usually multiplayer games that by the time I bought them, TNL was done with them and had moved on to another game. My fault for waiting a week to buy a game, right? Two not multiplayer TNL sweethearts that come to mind are Smashing Drive and Beyond Good and Evil. To this day, I maintain that the fervor over Smashing Drive was a troll, because that game was so bad no one could possibly like it as much as TNL pretended to. However, BG&E was thankfully at the direct opposite end of the spectrum. That was a great game both the critics and marketplace of that era owe an apology to.

Pineapple: There have been MANY games that I bought based on TNL member suggestions through the years. I got into Demon’s Souls because people were really talking it up, making it sound like the kind of thing that really rewarded you for learning it and “getting good”. When I first tried it I was drinking way too much, and I was so bad I couldn’t get past the tutorial. But I liked the actual game, enough that I stopped drinking and gave it a second shot. Now I’m 7 years sober and I’ve completed each and every Dark/Demons Souls game 100%, maybe even just to prove I could! There are MANY games I’ve been turned onto from TNL, from Culdcept to Halo, but the Souls series is my favorite of ALL TIME and will always stand out.


Do you play video games the same, less, or more today compared to the days of TNL?

Yoshi: I probably play a similar amount, but it is much less consistent. I’ll go a couple of months of playing only here and there until something new and exciting drops. This could be a new release, DLC for a favorite game, or even something like a Rocket League seasonal event. Then I’ll play a lot in a relatively short burst. Because of the release calendar, these bursts tend to be more frequent around the holidays when new stuff is dropping more consistently.

DHG: Now a days, I play more on average and actually beat games, as opposed to stopping half way through. The scale depends on extremities of work and school, but I typically play games in the chronological order that they were released.

Satsuki: So much less. I barely touch video games now. I’ll play through FF7 once a year, maybe a stray RPG like Undertale comes along and I’ll try that. I have zero interest in multiplayer experiences, and by 2006 or so, that was the main draw for consoles and gamers. If that’s what people want, that’s fine – but it’s not what I personally like in gaming. As mentioned, I was mostly into JRPGs, and that genre has died out completely. I miss the escape and the experience those games provided. I’m just from a different gaming generation, one that favored different aspects than what is favored nowadays. That’s fine, every generation deserves to have its benchmark. I think once AR/VR becomes more streamlined and the hardware less ridiculous looking, I’ll definitely get back into it. That platform seems to favor the individual experience – the exploration, the atmosphere – that older style games utilized.

Will: About the same.

SSJN: I think about the same, but I stopped being a person that played games for more than a couple hours a week early in my adolescence. There were just too many other things I needed to do. I still liked games, and discussing them, and very much liked gathering them! I never bought a game I didn’t plan on playing at some point, but I rarely played more than a handful a year. Before the internet sucked all the fun out of collecting games I found great enjoyment in searching countless local game stores in order to track down older 8 and 16 bit games. What an intense feeling it was to finally scratch some obscure rpg off my list! In those days I truly believed I’d be able to get to them all at some point in time. I’ve since grown wiser and my library of games-smaller.

Pineapple: I would say I play games about the same as in the “prime” of TNL. The difference is that back in the day I used to start as many games as possible and rarely if ever finish them, whereas today I reserve my game time for things I know I want to put serious time into with the goal of completing them. I also used to play A LOT more online games (and having a bustling TNL roster of friends to play with helped that a lot), while today (being 36 years old now and married) I tend to focus on single player adventures that take me 100+ hours. It’s been strange to notice that change in myself, and I’m not actually sure I like it! I remember playing Left4Dead2 with Nick and Nomi, two people who were at one time very active (and one who owns the site!) and having a wonderful time, but now I have a serious commitment issue with even paying Ark with my IRL best friend! I can’t say for sure that the decline of the TNL userbase caused this, it’s probably just that I got old and ran out of time to play MP games, but I sincerely miss the fun times we had and long for them to happen again. Mr.WhiteFolks taught me the glory of a Grenades-only win in Worms, and that had stuck with me for a literal decade. I miss when we were ALL that close, or at least I felt that close to everyone!


If you could go back to the year 2000 and deliver a message to any game developer, what would the message be?

Yoshi: Don’t be in a hurry to adopt online play and multiplayer. In ~20 years, you’ll miss the focused simplicity of the single player experience, but you won’t be able to put the genie back in the bottle. At best, resources will be divided, and in too many cases, the single player is forgotten altogether. I would also strongly recommend they start working on PC versions of their games. They’ll start/accelerate perhaps the best trend of the late 2010s. Thanks again for bringing Yakuza to PC, Sega!

DHG: If I could go back to the year 2000 to deliver a message to game developers, I would tell them to keep in mind that Nintendo will not be focusing on strong hardware after the Game Cube, but rather unique interactive experiences, particularly in the way games are controlled and played, which will have a way of dividing and fragmenting the gaming populous and industry.

Satsuki: I know this is a very 2018 perspective, and it’s hard to reframe the demands of the year 2000 with the knowledge I have of the current era. But I’d love to have seen developers be more inclusive. I realize that word means different things to different people in different eras, but I would have liked to see some female characters or portrayals in games that weren’t just fetishized visions of how a woman should look or act. I know games are meant to provide a fantasy, or means of escape from reality. But by failing to incorporate anything outside the heteronormative, even as supporting characters, it started gaming down a path that eventually led to the very divided community we have now. If we would have seen more realistic portrayals of women or LGBTQ characters back in the early 2000s, we wouldn’t have to fear the change to the field now.
On a personal note, when Silent Hill 3 came out in 2003, I was so, so, so excited. Obviously the main character, Heather, had some damsel-in-distress characteristics. But overall, she was a realistic character (in both looks and attitude) in a very unrealistic world. I cannot even begin to tell you how important it was to me that a character kind of reminded me of myself was in a game that I could play. It was almost relaxing. No, I was relieved! It was like, wow, this is what I want to see, this is so cool. Unfortunately, it’s still somewhat rare to see characters like her as main characters. I would be the time traveling snowflake or something. Hey! Year 2000! Add some women in your games that look and act like people you actually interact with!!

SSJN: Get out of game development, the coming decade isn’t going to end well for most of you. If they refused to heed that advice, I’d tell them to imagine building a game world in which you tear it apart, block by block, and then use those parts to rebuild it however you want, and then I’d ask for 10% of the gross.

Pineapple: This is tough for me, because it forces me to think in a way I haven’t before. I’ve never been someone who followed publishers or developers. I liked certain games and knew they knew what was up. Criterion knew how to race with Burnout (oh God I hope that was Criterion!), Blizzard knew how to RTS with StarCraft, Capcom knew how to fightmans with Street Fighter, and Bethesda knew to keep making Elder Scrolls games. I guess I could only go back to my favorite developer (of recent times), From Software, and I would just say thank you. Thank you for giving me a game that kicked my ass. Thank you for not giving a fuck about my feelings. You made the game you wanted to make and made me love it by telling me to learn it or get the fuck out. I have bought EVERY iteration of the game since it’s release and it has skyrocketed to my favorite series of all time. I have sincerely thought of my deathbed in recent years, and EVERY thought of it revolves around me playing Dark Souls as an old man in a hospital bed, reliving the glory days. That’s a true story. Thank you, From. I wish that I could work with you in making up new monsters to scare folks, that would make me happy forever.

 

The TNL message board community still is alive and kicking, if you’d like to join in on one of the best video game communities around, you still can right here.

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