Oh, hello there! I'm still chugging along on my highly subjective, personal top-ten list of NES games based on how influential they were to me, one at a time and in no particular order. The second spot on my list goes to NES homebrew title Zooming Secretary by Shiru and pinwizz.
I wrote about Zooming Secretary for FEMICOM Museum when the game came out in 2011:
Zooming Secretary is a breath of fresh air, or perhaps a gulp of fresh coffee. This platformer-meets-office sim, released in December 2011, is an entirely new game created for an entirely retro system: the 1980s-era Nintendo Entertainment System. Indeed, it's hard to think of a video game with more old-yet-new charm. It is minimalist yet pixel perfect, a Donkey Kong world furnished in mid-century Steelcase. The creators of Zooming Secretary are veteran NES programmer Shiru and artist pinwizz, both of whom live in Moscow. The duo finished the game in about six months—an impressive feat given the technical knowledge needed to create a game for the decades-old console. They've made the game available for free as an NES ROM that can be played in an emulator or, with enough patience and solder, put on an NES cartridge.
In Zooming Secretary, you play as a secretary who answers an unending parade of phone calls. Each caller wants to know some bit of information that must be retrieved from one of the level's filing cabinets. To complete each level, you must quickly navigate between filing cabinets and ringing phones while avoiding obstacles like talkative coworkers that (literally) slow you down.
Right away, Zooming Secretary was remarkable to me for raising the bar for NES homebrew games. The aesthetic and concept are retro yet original with a personality all their own. There are so many fabulous little visual details in the sprites and backgrounds. Look at the coffee machine! It communicates so much in just four colors and a handful of pixels. And I love the shadow cast by the open drawer on the filing cabinet. What other object in a single-screen game like this one casts such a prominent shadow? Zooming Secretary is delightful, a game you want to play again and again.
Zooming Secretary also got me thinking more deeply about the role of diverse influences on game developers. When I wrote the FEMICOM article on Zooming Secretary, I had the pleasure of interviewing the game's artist, pinwizz. He spoke about influence from Hanna-Barbera cartoons and Russian films such as Ivan Vasilievich Changes His Profession.
It was so interesting to hear a game developer talk about drawing inspiration from outside gaming. I'd so frequently heard developers talk about other video games that inspired them but not the cartoons, books, roadside attractions, and other cultural forms that can bring so much freshness to games. At the time, I was relatively new to game development, and I thought myself an anomoly for drawing primary influence from childhood playthings such as dollhouses, electronic diaries, and teen magazines. But after the pinwizz interview, I began to embrace this practice even more and with more intention.
There's yet another reason that Zooming Secretary left an indelible impression on me. Looking back, I realize that the game made me feel something I rarely feel with video games: a personal connection with the protagonist.
When Zooming Secretary came out at the end of 2011, I was working my first "real job" after earning an undergraduate degree in chemistry. I worked as a science textbook editor, and one responsibility I had was fact checking. I had a filing cabinet—much like the one in the game—where I held dossiers about the periodic table, genetic engineering, and other scientific topics. I also happened to be quite enamored with mid-century office furniture, perhaps instigated by some mix of the Herman Miller design exhibition that had recently come to Austin and the popularity of the TV show Mad Men. Finally, in my free time, I'd begun taking NES glitch art and homebrew more seriously, having just come off a big NES glitch art performance at Blip Festival in New York City.
Zooming Secretary was this wonderful amalgamation of my life's changes. In it, I saw this beautiful 8-bit version of... myself, running from beautiful filing cabinet to beautiful rotary telephone. A few months later, I quit my job as a textbook editor and began attending design school, where I studied the cultural implications of retro game aesthetic.
If you're interested in learning more about Zooming Secretary, I'd encourage you to check out the entire FEMICOM interview with pinwizz and to play the game for yourself! I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.
Posted December 23 at 7:53 AM while drinking a cup of coffee.