Desperately Seeking JUSTIN BAILEY

I wrote this up this morning for Mapstalgia; cross-posting it here as well.

It looked something like this

This is just a best-guess sketch; I can no longer remember clearly the details of the password screen on Metroid.

Did the alphabetic selection field have only letters and numbers like this, in four rows of nine?  It feels doubtful.  I suspect there was a space, maybe a dash, maybe a dot?  Maybe in four rows of ten?  Or was it three rows of twelve?  I don’t think there was a backspace; I feel like I remember having to go forward through the whole password again one character at a time if I needed to fix a typo.  Was the default character 0, like I have here in the bottom row, or dashes, or blanks, or something else?  I can’t remember anymore.

But there was, for sure, a 24-character password field, and that was laid out in two lines, one on top of the other, each of those lines composed of two separate six-character fields.  And there were letters and numbers to select from.  White letters, or maybe yellow, on a black field, those squarish block letters that were such a standard part of NES cartridges.  That much I remember for sure.

In any case, at this late date the only password I can remember is the password, the skeleton key, the built-in game genie code:

JUSTIN BAILEY.

With JUSTIN BAILEY, you were in.  You got Samus with her power suit off, running around Zebes with her long hair flowin’ and wearing a bikini out of Barbarella (which, for a mid-80s platformer, qualified as straight-up empowering); you got a bunch of power-ups like the jumpboots and the spinjump, and a bunch of missiles and energy tanks.  You were ready to kick some Mother Brainful ass, at least after a tedious energy refill at the nearest wasp fountain — those energy tanks start empty, magic password or no.

The password needed 24 characters total, but the first twelve were all that mattered in this case: you just put in J U S T I N   B A I L E Y up top and underneath you could throw in any junk you wanted and it’d work no matter what.  Line noise, lottery numbers, S M E L L S   M Y B U T T, whatever you liked.  No matter what, Samus Aran came out the other side in full-on badass mode.

I don’t know where I learned about JUSTIN BAILEY anymore; it was more than twenty-five years ago, now.  On the playground?  Maybe.  From my Nintendo Power subscription?  More likely.

But why JUSTIN BAILEY, anyway?  That was the question in my mind as a kid.  And at some point as a kid, I came up with an answer, the origins of which, like the details of the Metroid password entry screen, are now lost to me: did I invent this story myself?  Hear it from a friend?  Internalize and extrapolate something in a Nintendo Power issue?

My guess is I made it up and then presented it to friends at school as having been Something I Read because that had more authority and put me at less risk of being told that I had a dumb idea; if it’s something Someone Else Said, it’s unassailable, right?  I did a lot of pretending to have heard stuff elsewhere (and, conversely, pretending to know what TV show or movie or song people were talking about or riffing on), when I was a kid.

But if I made it up but then pretended it was someone else’s factoid, step two would have been to repeat that fiction so often that I’d forget, at least on the surface, that I’d made it up.  Fake it till you make it.  And so now here I am, a quarter of a century later, not sure where the story came from and feeling obliged to call my younger self a liar, because it’s the best bet.

But the story.

The story goes like this: once upon a time, some kid had an idea for a game, an idea about an outer space bounty hunter with a gun for a hand who killed space monsters and defeated a weird monster in a jar.

And he wrote this idea down in a letter, and he mailed that letter to Nintendo, and Nintendo said, hey, this is a really great game idea.  What do you call this game?

Metroid, he thought it should be called.  Because you have to fight the dreaded metroids.

And they said, Metroid it is.  We’re gonna do it: we’re gonna make your idea into a game.  By the way, kid, what’s your name?

My name, he’d clarified, is Justin Bailey.

It’s a short and ridiculous story, but as a kid it was a kind of ultimate wish fulfillment fantasy.  I loved video games, I loved my NES; I drew what I thought of in naive eight-year-old terms as video game maps and design documents, pictures of levels and characters, graph paper renditions of character sprites, Legend of Zelda fanfiction (though I’d never heard of fanfic in the 80s).

So what could be better than inventing a game?  And as a kid who only knew, of games, that (a) they were awesome and (b) Nintendo made them, how else would it work than to write them a letter with some drawings and just knock their socks off?

Later, growing up, I got into programming and started to realize for the first time that video games were something I could make myself.  That there was no step in the process where someone waves a magic wand and performs a miracle; there was no impassible barrier on the wrong side of which I and the rest of the non-videogame-making world were trapped; it was just a thing you could do with computers if you learned a lot and set your mind to it.

There was a point of transition, somewhere in high school, where I went from being someone who wanted to be a Nintendo Game Counselor when I grew up to being someone who felt like he could Make Videogames when he grew up.

I ended up doing neither; I studied programming in high school and computer science in college, and did plenty of programming and made the occasional small proof-of-concept game, but life went in other directions and I ended up not getting work at a game company or investing myself seriously in independent game development.

I knock out the occasional silly experiment (e.g. FLEE! or Faverunner) and toy with ideas I could put real energy into if I tried, but it’s all a lot of work and a lot of frustration and throwing out stuff that doesn’t work and cursing unfamiliar libraries and chasing down weird bugs and performing intensive physical therapy on my atrophied coding muscles.  And I have other hobbies as well, and a wife I like to spend time with, and a job I care about, and all these other videogames people have made that need playing, and, and, and.

And it’d all just be a lot simpler if I could just write a letter to someone at Nintendo and say:

Hi, my name is Josh Millard, and I’ve got an idea for a game.  If you want to make it, that’s okay with me.  Just make my name the best password in the whole game.