Whenever a celebrity or person of public interest passes away, my thoughts usually gravitate toward the reality of video gaming relatively being an infant when compared to other media. With a handful of decades now under our belt, it will become inevitable, though that the people who built the foundation of video games and brought us years of enjoyment will eventually pass on and hearing about such instances will become more of a common occurrence. I just didn’t think one of the first of these major players would impact me personally.
When I first learned of Bill’s passing on Sunday evening, much like any other person in such a situation, I was immediately filled with regret. My thinking was self-centered because I wanted Bill to still be around. I regretted not having the time to drive across the state border and visit him at his home while I scrambled to complete my bachelor degree. I regretted never getting around to mailing out that Virtual Boy headset he had always wanted for his game display because I always wanted to deliver it in person.
I regretted not being able to pick him up for my annual gaming event this July because my first child, Kai, was born two days prior. I could have hung out with him one last time. I tried to make up for this by recently inviting him to the annual U-Con in Ann Arbor, but I now I’m saddened this is one e-mail that will never see a reply. When I received a copy of his book Confessions of a Game Doctor, he signed it “To a true next-gen video game journalist.” I regretted that, as one of the few people to believe in my goal over the years, he wouldn’t be around to see what happens with my career.
I just know Bill would scold me for thinking this way, though. That is just the kind of guy he is. Getting over the initial shock of the news, I can always appreciate the principles of balance – if it weren’t for death, we couldn’t ever truly appreciate what life is. Bill had one hell of a life – one I could only ever accomplish a small portion of – and I’m grateful he gave me the time he did.
As a product of the early ‘80s, I did read any gaming magazine I could get a hold of, but at such a young age, I just cared about the games as opposed to the people who worked very hard on its content. I’d be lying if I said I had ever heard of Bill until the mid to late ‘90s when I finally made my decision to enter journalism and desired to know more about the gaming industry.
Growing up, I was inspired by much of the Tips & Tricks staff including Tyrone Rodriguez and Betty Hallock. When I started gravitating back to the classics, though, one name always popped up when video game writing was discussed – Bill Kunkel. Writing for Tips & Tricks was my dream, so you could imagine how much I geeked out when Bill served as the editor for the full magazine’s final year in publication.
The classic gaming shows Bill frequented were always too far away for me to drive, so, unlike others, my first encounter with Bill came by chance. Although I had secured some solid freelance games writing work starting in 2006, this really dried up by 2008 and, on a whim, I decided to reach out to Video Game Collector Magazine to see if it could use any writers. As luck would have it, the magazine’s publisher had signed on Bill to serve as the editor for the 10th issue of the quarterly publication.
Like a dork, I tried to be completely professional and hide any trace of fanboy, but when my first e-mail came back with a response stating, “Please, call me Bill. Or Doc. Whatever works,” it slowly became clear that he was a fun-loving person just like anyone else that played games. Prior to getting into journalism, I never had celebrity brushes, but part of growing up was realizing my heroes and people I had admired were full-fledged people just like I was.
Still, Bill was different. Instead of making people feel like nerds for tracking him down and trying to talk games with him, he encouraged it so much he even published his personal e-mail address in his book, Confessions of a Game Doctor. On J2Games, numerous times Bill shared a story about a fan that tracked down the mailing address location of a magazine he was working for at the time and waited by the P.O. Box to meet the staff when it came to pick up the mail. While most people would be reaching for the restraining order forms, Bill remained great friends with this fan all the way up to his passing.
That’s only one of the million or so stories the Doc had to share, too. For every story I have about playing against Tommy Tallarico in Punch-Out!!, Bill had at least 50 crazy stories in return based on his insane amounts of experience in fields such as science fiction, pro wrestling, comic books and more. Being able to interact with Bill was like having access to all of the chapters missing from his book. A phone call with Bill lasted until your phone battery died out. One minute we would speculate where the SwordQuest Sword of Ultimate Sorcery really went to after Atari cancelled the contests and next thing you know we’re talking about the surprises that resulted from the Tips & Tricks offices being connected to Hustler’s inside Larry Flynt’s publishing company. If you’ve ever wondered why stores still sell cordless phones, it’s because they can’t die out while you were talking to Bill.
It got even better when you got to see him in person; too, as nearly everything he saw reminded him of something he experienced. I had this honor during the final VGXPO event in Philadelphia as we walked around and looked at the classics such as the Brown Box prototype at the Rolenta Press table and dabbled into the obscure bits at the event such as attempting to talk to the pro wrestler The Blue Meanie.
Due to whatever circumstances at that event, Bill was left on his own for a few of the expo’s panels and he actually wanted me to join him at the table and talk about the subject – I believe it was in regard to media portrayal of video games (as in being represented in movies, television, etc.). At first I felt like a nobody that had no business being up there and that no one would care what I had to say, but being able to play off Bill, I stopped caring about what other people would think and we had a ton of fun with it, talking about Bill’s time working on the DOS CD version of Batman Returns and ripping on movies such as Double Dragon and Super Mario Bros. I haven’t since hosted a video panel at an event as fun as that one.
Bill and I had kept in contact pretty much since we ran into each other working on VGC #10 and I went from being surprised that he would ask me to copy edit his work to talking with him like I had known him my entire life. I notice most of today’s gaming world doesn’t know who Bill is and I honestly have to say, while the generation gap makes this understandable, it is their loss for not having a chance to know a man who has given so much to gaming. Many of the video game terms we toss around today – “screenshot,” “playfield,” “Easter Egg” – got their start from the endeavors Bill, Arnie and Joyce gave to the industry.
It could be so easy for someone to say, “If they hadn’t done it, it wouldn’t have been long before someone else did,” but I can’t imagine video game journalism any other way. Bill is a one-in-a-million personality and that came through because he loved the subjects he wrote about and it didn’t annoy him in the slightest to talk about them with any random person. The man just loved to talk with others and he always did it with a smile or plenty of laughing over the phone. If even one-tenth of the number of people are talking about me when I pass away as the number of people wishing Bill well right now, I’ll know I did something right.
The great thing about the Internet, though, is I still have the e-mails and forums messages for Bill. It’s sort my own personal collection of Confessions of the Game Doctor. In this regard, I can always revisit those stories and I have a score of fantastic memories Bill provided for me. I know Bill doesn’t want good-byes and tears as he always kept low-key, even among his accomplishments. So, instead, I’ll say this:
I still say Niles Nemo is cool and I’m still going to give you crap about your inexperience with fighting games.
Right now, I know he’s laughing at that previous sentence.