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Zach Meston

Notorius videogame author and previous employee of Working Designs.
Zach has written an enormous amount of the content for the Secrets of the Games series for Prima Publishing and several Nintendo Games Secrets books as well as dozens of other strategy guides by Prima & Sandwich Islands Publishing. He also has his hands involved in a few other projects.

MT> How did you get the nickname "Freelance Weasel"?
It started out as an affectionate term for my frantic career, in which the goal of each and every day is to weasel as much freelance work as I can get. It's not a lifestyle for the weak of heart, by the way -- no less a figure than Bill Kunkel recently told me that "You got a better shot at winning the Super Bowl than you do of becoming a successful full-time game journalist / consultant / designer / scripter."

In 1995, shortly after the debut of the Saturn, I begged and pleaded with Sega to send me a special CD-ROM, called a "key disc," that would allow me to play prerelease versions of Saturn games. How it worked was you booted up the key disc, which loaded a special piece of code into the Saturn, then swapped in the beta disc and reset the console. To play prerelease discs for the current generation of systems -- GCN, PS2, Xbox -- you need special versions of the hardware called "debug units." These are outrageously expensive and very hard to weasel, although I've managed to procure two out of three; Nintendo would sooner fire Shigeru Miyamoto than send me a GCN debug, alas.

Anyway, to get the key disc, I had to fill out a voluminous contract in which I agreed to give Sega the rights to my eternal soul if the key disc was lost, stolen, or looked at funny. One of the lines on the contract asked for -- nay, DEMANDED a company name, and after three seconds of careful consideration, I wrote down "Freelance Weasel, Inc." This became my company name on all future correspondence from Sega, and a few of their third parties as well.

A year or two later, I incorporated myself for tax purposes, and so Freelance Weasel, Inc. became a genuine entity of sorts. I even printed up a book of business checks with Freelance Weasel, Inc. emblazoned across the top, which caused more than a few smirks on the faces of store clerks and bank tellers.

Last year, I started writing for GameSpy, which requires all of its reviewers to use goofy nicknames; hence, GameSpy readers know me as Zach "Freelance Weasel" Meston, which I think is awesome.

I also appeared in a single mid-'90s issue of GamePro as "Ninja Slug," but that's a longer and even less interesting anecdote.

MT> You grew up playing games in Maui, Hawaii. Is it true that you used to wear a lei and a grass skirt while playing Space Invaders?
ZM> Not true, although I was usually wearing "rubbah slippahs," the local term for what you mainlanders call "flip-flops."

There were two great arcades in my hometown of Lahaina in the early '80s: one called Tilt, and another with the extremely unlikely name of Lahaina Galaxy Wars. For probably two years of my childhood, I spent almost every evening and weekend in one of those two establishments, forsaking a deep, rich tan for what turned out to be prep school.

Living on Maui was great, and not just for the obvious reasons; it was also a great "gimmick" that made me stand out from every other videogame journalist. Now, I'm just another schmo who lives in California; albeit the gorgeous northernmost section of the state, where you can actually breathe the air. Back then, I was the guy who lived on Maui!

I've only been back home a few times since I moved to California in mid-1996, but I'm taking a mini-vacation later this year to see how much more overdeveloped the island has become since my last visit. I wish I was kidding!

MT> How does it feel to be the only individual to have gaming books published for the Atari Jaguar and 3DO?
ZM> As I recall, Prima published a 3DO guide from my former boss, Rusel DeMaria, but I am the only individual to write two official 3DO strategy guides, which makes me very dumb -- er, dedicated indeed. I just really liked the hardware and the people behind it, and the first book made money, so Sandwich Islands Publishing went ahead with a second guide.

I worked harder on that second 3DO guide than virtually anything else I've ever written, excepting the two Lunar guides I did during my three-year stretch at Working Designs. "3DO Games Secrets: Book Two" (which I notice is still available for purchase at had a huge buyer's guide and several beefy interviews along with the usual brain-bending assortment of walkthroughs for such obscurities as Immercenary and Lost Eden. It was an absurd amount of information that took roughly three months to compile. Of the fifty-plus guides I've written over the past dozen years, that's one of the fewof which I am really proud.

There were many behind-the-scenes nightmares involved with the production of the "Atari Jaguar Official Gamer's Guide" (also at -- will the shameless plugs never end?!), but it was a cool experience nonetheless, because it fulfilled a lifelong dream to be associated in some way with a legendary company. These kids today associate gaming with Nintendo or Sony, but we old-and-moldies know that we owe it all to Atari.

MT> During the late 80’s you were editing and writing for the Amiga Games Guide fanzine. Is this how you initially hooked up with Rusel DeMaria?
ZM> It is indeed. In 1989, while working in a local bookstore, I struck up a conversation with a guy who'd brought a bunch of Amiga magazines to the counter. I stocked the magazines purely for my own benefit, and no one had ever purchased them besides me. I learned that the customer turned out to live in an apartment quite literally down the street, as I could walk from my front door to his in about 45 seconds. I also learned that he was the part-owner of a local publishing company. The offspring of my terrible writing and his decent layout was the Amiga Games Guide.

Later that year, I accompanied my AGG cohort to a meeting of Maui's only Macintosh user's group, and was introduced to Rusel DeMaria (not his real name, but a catchy pseudonym). Rusel was a videogame journalist who had just signed a contract to produce a series of videogame strategy guides for an upstart book company called Prima Publishing. My AGG cohort had told Rusel of my gaming and writing "skills," and Rusel gave me a homework assignment: play through and write up the NES game Fester's Quest as quickly as possible. I beat the game and wrote a walkthrough in a day, which impressed Rusel enough that he eventually hired me away from the bookstore to play and write about games full-time. I was the ripe old age of 17 at the time, and I've been involved in the videogame industry ever since.

Rusel went on to write the official strategy guide for Myst, which I'm fairly certain is the second-best-selling strategy guide of all time, after Ken Uston's Mastering Pac-Man. Rusel made so much money from Myst that Prima and other strategy-guide publishers have since stopped offering royalties; authors now receive flat fees, which is cool if you're writing the guide for The Mummy Returns (which will sell 100 copies), but not so cool if you're writing the guide for Grand Theft Auto III (which will sell 100,000).

MT> When you contacted companies for early builds of their games for use to create a strategy guide, what type of reactions did you receive? Were they happy for the coverage or resistant?
ZM> As I recall, we usually pitched it to the companies as free publicity, and most of them went for it on that level. This was in the early '90s, when there wasn't really a strategy-guide industry; we were kind of inventing it as we went, so game companies didn't realize how much money was involved at the time. They sure do now! A few companies didn't want to participate, which was okay. In those days, we didn't feel any pressure to ship a guide at a certain time. Our books were compilations with dozens of games -- most 16-bit games could be completely diagrammed in 10 to 20 pages -- so waiting to obtain a final copy of a certain title also allowed us to cram other titles into the book. It was a win-win situation.

MT> Describe the processes involved in writing a strategy guide.
ZM> To describe the process of writing a strategy guide would take up a book of its own -- not to mention that the process has completely changed in recent years, and all for the worse. I can safely declare that, in the modern era, there's more actual orange juice in a bottle of Sunny Delight than there is fun in the creation of a strategy guide. I'm not whining, just making clear that it's very much a job. I think the biggest misconception about videogame journalism is that I get to play the games I want to play, when in fact, I play the games I've been TOLD to play. It's an enormous difference. Believe me, if I could spend eight hours a day with Artillery Duel (Astrocade version) and GTA: Vice City instead of Evolution Snowboarding and Simpsons Skateboarding, I would.

Anyhoo. Writing a strategy guide involves playing several revisions of a game (and heavily rewriting your manuscript to reflect the numerous changes in each), begging the game's producers or testers for information -- especially if you're stuck on a particular puzzle (since there's no time to figure the stuff out on your own), and taking hundreds of screenshots with a PC card worth more than your own life. Depending on the complexity of the game, it's anywhere from two weeks to three months of 16- to 18-hour days.

The one thing I don't at all miss about '90s guides is the creation of 2D maps, which required sticking together hundreds and hundreds of screenshots. It was hours of the most mind-numbing, butt-numbing labor you can imagine, and it drove me slightly mad. Ask anyone -- they'll tell you I'm far from normal.

MT> How much assistance did you receive from game publishers? Were they happy for the coverage or resistant? Did they supply you with in-house videos, maps, or a line of communication with the developers?
ZM> In the modern era, strategy guides are usually being written at the same time as the game developer is madly scrambling to finish the game, so you're fortunate to receive any assistance at all. I wrote a guide for The Getaway without once speaking to anyone at Sony America or Team Soho. In the "olden days" of cartridge games, it was two or three months between when a game was approved by Nintendo or Sega and when it was manufactured, so publishers and developers were much more able to supply hints, tips, and maps.

I don't think I've ever received a gameplay video from a publisher, although Rusel and I videotaped the performances of other gamers in the early days. We later dumped that system for a couple of reasons; other gamers weren't as good as me (ah, to be young again), and they couldn't adequately describe what they'd done in certain sections of each game. It was easier for me to simply play through all the games on my own.

MT> Are there any games that you simply loved before starting to write a guide and loathed upon completion? Is there such a thing as too much of a good thing?
ZM> Unless a game is absolutely incredible, you will be sick to tears of it when you've completed a guide. It's simply unavoidable. I've never played the retail versions of Lunar and Lunar 2 for the PlayStation, since I spent at least a thousand hours in the localization of each, but I've also never gone back and revisited Tomb Raider, or Resident Evil. Maybe in another ten years. Heh.

I've also discovered that I remember almost nothing about any of the books I've written, or the games I've played for those books. Like, I paged through the Jaguar guide after you mentioned it, and noticed that I'd played through Iron Soldier. I remember literally nothing about Iron Soldier, other than it involved a giant robot.

I think this mental-block phenomenon is just my way of trying (and failing) to staying sane. I think it would be more frightening if, eight years after the fact, I still remembered all of the dungeon layouts in Vay, or how to defeat all 70+ missions in the Jaguar version of Cannon Fodder.

I've never done a precise count of how many games I've played through for strategy guides and reviews, but it has to be approaching two thousand by now. Trust me, no one can play 100 to 150 games a year for 14 years in a row without some lapses in memory.

MT> You have had the opportunity to interview many amazing and talented individuals involved in making videogames, such as Noritada Matsukawa, the senior manager of Konami's Suikoden series. What other famous gaming celebrities have you had the opportunity to communicate with?
ZM> That's the coolest part of this job, without question -- meeting the people who brought so much fun into my childhood, and who continue to entertain me as a grown-up. I've sat in on an interview with David Crane. I've received a signed certificate from Shigeru Miyamoto. I've shaken hands with Alexei Pajitnov. I've exchanged emails and attended press events with Bill Kunkel, my game-journalist hero. I was acquainted with Naughty Dog during their "garage days," and they placed me in the credits of Way of the Warrior -- probably as thanks for the most ridiculous article I've ever written, a dozen-page opus on Way of the Warrior. I've had lunch with Doug TenNapel, a very gracious guy. I've hung out at the multi-story mansion of Tommy Tallarico, the industry's best videogame musician, and had him hang out at MY humble abode. I've had Jeff Minter sign my Tempest 2000 manual (the last autograph I ever weaseled out of a videogame celebrity, by the way -- now I pretend I'm too cool for that). I've chatted with R.J. Mical, the co-creator of the Lynx and 3DO. I've met Mark Turmell, the designer of NBA Jam and MLB SlugFest (and Fast Eddie for the Atari 2600, lest we forget). I've heaped praise upon Brian Colin, the designer of Rampage. I've warmly embraced David Siller, the designer of Aero the Acro-Bat and Maximo. I'm not worthy of speaking with any of these people, but I do it anyway.

MT> Nintendo has a reputation for being very protective of their properties. Did you ever encounter any such acts of overzealousness by the BIG N?
ZM> My relationships with various companies have always gone up and down over the years, and it's always because of the relationships I have with the company's media-relations people. Videogame PR reps have an astonishing rate of turnover. I'll get along great with a PR person, but he or she (usually she) moves up the ladder into "corporate communications" dealing with retailers instead of journalists or leaves the industry. The replacement PR person hates the sound of your nasally voice, and you're establishing yourself with a company all over again. Trust me when I assure you that my "work experience" means nothing to most PR peeps; I'm begging and pleading for help every day, despite having been a professional videogame journalist for 14 years. The current crop of PR people doesn't know and doesn't care about my past accomplishments; they want to know what coverage I'm getting for them tomorrow.

Anyhoo, was there a point to that long digression? Oh, yeah. I've never, ever had a decent contact at Nintendo; they're notorious in the game-journalism industry as being impossible to work with. The modest N (we can't call 'em "big" when they're third in a three-horse race, now can we?) has come down on me a couple of times -- in particular, during my early years at Prima. For whatever reason, Nintendo's lawyer-weasels always required us to label our books with the phrase "Game Secrets." One of my best-selling guides has the awful title of "The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past Game Secrets." The reprint of "Super Mario World Secrets" was renamed "Super Mario World Game Secrets."

Another example of Nintendo's control-freak corporate structure: when people write Nintendo strategy guides, they have to fly to Nintendo's Redmond offices and work in a tiny office. Nintendo won't send out GameCube betas, for ANY reason. I've never been on one of these trips myself, but I've heard about 'em, and I can't imagine working under such stressful, bizarre conditions.

I give Nintendo enormous props for resuscitating the home videogame industry, but I really wish they weren't so jerky to the press.

MT> Okay, this is a loaded question: many comment that you have a BIG mouth, talk too much, and never shut up – is this true?
ZM> In my foolish youth, this was very true. I even, for an uncomfortably long period of time, had a personal website that got me into unbelievable amounts of trouble. But I'm a little bit older and a lot wiser, and I feel nothing but guilt and shame for all the stupid and hateful things I've done in the past. What's really disturbing is that a lot of people miss my old website, and ask if I'll ever bring it back. I understand the appeal of the dirt, but when I was writing those things, I was writing from a place of depression and despair. The Evil Zach might have been more entertaining, but the Good Zach is much more emotionally stable!

MT> Many of your book captions were quite humorous. What are some of your personal favorite quotes?
ZM> Without question, almost every caption in the three official strategy guides I did for Working Designs (Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete, Vanguard Bandits, Lunar 2: Eternal Blue Complete) still amuses me. I'll never have that kind of creative freedom again, unfortunately; injecting any kind of personality into modern strategy guides is disallowed, since it runs the risk of offending someone.

MT> How does it feel to be conned into making an official Citizen X strategy guide complete with maps for Good Deal Games?
ZM> It feels pretty good! I've become obsessed with classic gaming, rediscovering why I fell in love with this hobby to begin with, and writing a strategy guide for a classic game is another step in that direction. I also hope to contribute several articles to your awesome website in the future, presuming you don't hate the guide.

MT> If the guide works, meaning that it helps others get through the game, then I'm sure that our fans will support any future projects you propose. We just hope that you don't hate us after mapping the sewers of Citizen X!

Good Deal Games recognizes Zach as a founder of the videogame strategy guides, which
have helped us all conquor a certain game, despite our avid denials of ever using them!

e-mail Zach


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