How webmastering a Nintendo fan site changed my life

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by: Hairball

I first created Super Mario 64 Central back in the summer of 1998. I was 12 years old at the time, and a big N64 fan (Super Mario 64 was my favourite game!) and I wanted to create a Super Mario website, but with a focus on Super Mario 64, though at the end this specialization never took place.

I was inspired by other Nintendo websites such as N64HQ, and thought it would be cool to set up my own page on a little corner of the internet. There weren't very many Mario focused websites, and I felt that it would be a good opportunity to start this website and be an early information resource.

Coding with World of Nintendo Mario figure
Working on SM128C was my first foray into web development and coding

Early on, web hosting was something that was a bit of a hassle and expensive and I moved around the site a few times. I finally purchased a domain - sm64c.com in 2000, and in 2001 re-launched the website as Super Mario 128 Central at sm128c.com.

A lot of people ask me why Super Mario 128? Well, I guess partly to build on the hype for the next Nintendo console - the GameCube, and the next Mario game which was widely believed to be known as Super Mario 128. It would be the website focused on Super Mario 128, and more! There were many other websites with the "128" name as well, so I was kind of just following along.

In hindsight, that was probably not one of my best business decisions, I think it would have been better if I just maintained the original SM64C name, or come up with something more original or catchy. So basically yes, this website is named for a tech demo in a past era. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but a lot of times we never made sense with infamous wacky ways from the E-Mailbag!

For a time, SM128C was one of the most popular Mario websites online, at the peak we received 1000 unique visitors a day. We would get countless e-mails from our readers that we answer in the E-Mailbag. Unlike other websites that had similar sections, we would answer pretty much answer any type of question, even things that weren't even gaming related. It had developed a cult following with all the wild and wacky responses we came up with.

Besides the E-Mailbag, the only other thing that kept us with a readership in the lean years was the yearly April Fools jokes. I started doing the infamous Luigi in Super Mario 64 joke in 2000 - this wasn't even my idea, the rumours had long been rampant on the internet, but for some reason this resonated well online. I had wrote an article to make it sound like a news article along with picture proof, in other words this was fake news. Years and years later I still receive e-mails about this. I continued to do these jokes year after year, just missing out from 2015-17 when we were practically dead. These April Fools jokes are often planned months in advance, but I always have a lot of fun doing these and posting them every April 1!

When I look back at the old incarnations of the website (through archive.org), I'm still not really sure what I really wanted SM128C to be. In the early years, I tried to make the site into an information repository, with images, screenshots, etc, basically what Super Mario Wiki is right now. It became a bit of an impossible task because the website was quite basic and I had trouble managing all the content. For awhile I actually scanned every single issue of Nintendo Power magazine that I had as part of this repo! It was a lot of work and eventually I gave up.

Check out Super Mario 128 Central at sm128c.com! Check out Super Mario 128 Central at sm128c.com! Check out Super Mario 128 Central at sm128c.com! Check out Super Mario 128 Central at sm128c.com!
Previous designs used on SM64C/SM128C - thanks to "Smiley" and "Namek" for creating the last two!

I had tried to run a fan fiction section, where people can send in their fan fics and we would upload them. Again, it's a pretty crazy hectic task to manage manually. I'm not even sure why we did this, To be honest, I had never really read any of these stories.

Like any other gaming site, we also had reviews and editorials, but I'm not sure if anyone really took us seriously. We had never got any advance copies to do reviews like how big websites do, we purchased all the games that we review - just like any normal gamer. Since we were never going to be the first, in ways there's no real value in our game reviews, except to provide an alternative opinion from a fan point of view.

From my work on SM128C, I was fortunate enough to have that experience lead to other real life opportunities. Back in the late 1990s, the internet was still very new and it wasn't easy to create a website, I had to figure it out. I started off using ugly tools like the Geocities web builder, or Microsoft FrontPage (ugh!) - I did not know much HTML when I started. Eventually I realized I needed to know HTML and I started to learn it, and write my own pages instead of relying on editors.

As the site grew, I started having too many pages, I needed a way to manage the headers, footers and navigation, and I found out that there's a way to do "server side includes" on HTML pages, which allowed me to do some basic templating. Updating a couple of files to change a template is a lot easier than updating hundreds of pages!

I discovered this state of the art (at the time) CGI content management system called NewsPro - anyone remember this nifty tool? This tool let you write some content and it'd generate the HTML pages like magic. It was like WordPress before WordPress came out.

Later on, I was inspired by my occasional frenemy Net-tech from Mario Guide to start creating PHP scripts to manage my content. He had started a competing website, but he had the foresight to create a web content management system. I always wanted to become a programmer, I guess I liked the job in theory, but really starting to work on my own projects really got me interested in it as a serious career choice.

In 2003, I started to migrate content into the PHP system that he helped me set up. It was a primitive system that mainly converted text files into HTML. This was my first time dabbling in web programming, and it was a good project to learn more about programming in general. Over the next few years when SM128C was still updated, I made some various incremental improvements but things have largely stayed the same. It was largely left dormant until I revamped the site in 2018, and I completely rewrote all the PHP from scratch and integrated it with a MySQL database.

From running SM128C, I've gotten to know some other Nintendo webmasters through online forums and chat rooms. They were awesome communities that I spent much of my teen life, it was great to talk about games or even just about anything. Later on, I've met a few people in real life, and still keep in touch with a few! When I think back, it's kind of funny how we all basically ran very similar style websites as if we thought that we were special... But it was fun and I have so many fond memories from those days.

Selling ads on the website was my first opportunity to make money. As a kid, it was awesome in that I would actually have money to buy my own games instead of asking my parents to get them for me. I wasn't rolling in the dough, but it was enough to buy a few video games a year. It taught me that making money isn't easy and that is something that I've come to take with me as I grew up - it was a great life lesson.

I've always been someone that has been interested in computers and the internet at a young age. My work on SM128C over the years helped me get immersed into programming and eventually into a career as a software developer, a job that I still do today. It helped kick start me into my career, and for this I will always be grateful for my work here, serving you - the readers. I'm not the best writer or communicator, but I've improved my writing skills significantly from all the articles I've written here.

It's hard to believe that it's been over 20 years since I started SM128C. Ok, maybe 20 years is a bit of a stretch since there were down periods, but still I've spent around 5 to 7 years regularly updating it. However, unlike many other websites, SM128C had a constant online presence and was never taken down for reasons such as web hosting or domain issues. It's always been around to reminisce the old times, and I want to say thank you and I greatly appreciate the support over the years.

I decided to resurrect SM128C back in 2018. There were a couple of reasons why I wanted to do this. I never stopped being a gamer, I'm a lifelong Nintendo fan, and I continue to love playing Mario games, that's never changed and there continue to be great games on the market. I had just played Super Mario Odyssey in the last few months, and that game was a masterpiece. I wanted to write about video games once again, and what's a better platform than the website that I still pay to maintain?

I also started to feel that most of the popular gaming media now seems to be consolidated in a few large players - major media companies. In the gaming media, there seems to be a lot of groupthink, everyone seems to say the same things about the industry. I find the major media outlets are afraid to upset the norm and to say things that might upset the companies which they have relationships with. As an independent website, I wouldn't be subject to those kinds of restrictions and I'm free to write about what I want to write about. I want our thoughts and opinions to be a breath of fresh air.

Lastly, as a software developer, I also wanted to do a programming project, just a side project that's different from what I do for work, something that can be a little bit more refreshing and fun. I wanted to build my own content management system to manage my content, and dabble into some front end design work to create a responsive web layout. I've known for awhile that mobile web traffic is the majority now, and if I was to run a website now, it had to be mobile friendly, so I rolled up the sleeves and started to work on it.

Nintendo games and SM128C have been a big part of my life. It gave me an early insight into operating a business - even though it was a super small one! I realize that video game fan sites are largely nonexistent now, and this is why I decided to change it to a blog-style format. I'm a programmer by day, so I just work on this website on my free time, it would not be possible for me to keep up with the news and reviews grind like the big sites, but what I can do is continue to offer insightful and creative commentary on the Super Mario series, and I hope that you can continue to support SM128C in the years to come!


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