How We Played With Power: The Secret History of "Nintendo Power"

On the one-year anniversary of Nintendo Power's final issue, we remember the creation and humble beginnings of the greatest gaming print magazine.

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Complex Original

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Nineties kids remember the adrenaline chills that ran down their spines when they received their latest copy of Nintendo Power in the mail.

What a sensory delight: the familiar smell and texture of the paper; the logo, with its racing stripes and blocky font; the professional, glue binding, until the production department made the bizarre decision to switch to staples; and, of course, the front cover – a beautifully rendered action shot of the featured game that month – a visual teaser for the precious contents inside. Whether it was a Claymation Mario, or a live-action Link, or a Samus Aran sketch, the cover art captured pubescent imaginations nationwide.

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 In those pre-AOL days – before ‘Let’s Play’ tutorials, before live streaming, before comprehensive game FAQs – there was only Nintendo Power. Were you stuck on a level? Didn’t know where to go next? Tough luck, there was no way to Google the problem. A young gamer would either subscribe to Nintendo Power, or start being nice to the kid in his class who already had a subscription.

Other competitors’ magazines, such as GamePro, were little more than advertising space with high-resolution pictures. Nintendo Power, by contrast, was the source for strategy. There were overhead maps of dungeons, side scrolling maps of levels, enemy descriptions, item checklists, final boss tips, and cheat codes galore.

Nintendo Power wasn’t just about getting customers to open their wallets – it was about ensuring that customers would enjoy their purchases and continue to play them for a long time afterwards. Nintendo Power created lifelong, loyal Nintendo fans – a core community of Mario/Link die-hards that persists today.

Like most great ideas, Nintendo Power was born out of public demand. And, like many things that endure, it had a rocky start.

Gail Tilden is one of the movers and shakers in popular media – she helped bring the Pokemon craze to American shores in the late 90’s, and she’s currently working with Enterplay to create a My Little Pony collectible card game, just in time for Season 4 – Bronies and Pegasisters worldwide can rejoice.

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Before all of this, however, Tilden was the founding Editor-in-Chief of Nintendo Power, serving as its leader and visionary for its first ten years. Today, the 56-year-old Tilden is fairly unknown in nerd culture despite these noteworthy contributions – in fact, her photo appeared only once in Nintendo Power during its entire run. For Tilden, however, it’s always been a deliberate decision to avoid the spotlight, particularly when creating Nintendo Power.

     (Gail Tilden with her son in Australia (1989), celebrating the first anniversary of the magazine)

“No reader wants their mom to be the person running their video game magazine,” Tilden says with a wry laugh. “It was very conscious that the editors did not have pictures of themselves in the magazine. It took away from the idea that the magazine was about ‘you,’ the consumer. Nintendo Power never referred to parents or school – anything that had to do with adults speaking to kids. This was a peer-to-peer product.”

In 1987, Minoru Arakawa, then the President of Nintendo of America, came up with the idea for Nintendo Power– in Japan at the time, similar publications drove interest in video games. They were a major part of teenage and tweenage life in the Land of the Rising Sun, and Arakawa saw the potential for similar success in the States. Tilden, who worked in Nintendo’s marketing department at the time, remembers the dramatic, initial success of the magazine.

“When we started collecting data from people who had bought our hardware, we offered them memberships to the Nintendo Fun Club,” Tilden says. “The Fun Club newsletter started as a six page, simple thing in 1987. It was a direct response program to get a database of all our users.”

“By the time we got to the Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! issue, however, we were at 600,000 readers, and it was a bigger bite out the market budget than we had anticipated. We thought that a great way to keep delivering this kind of information would be to convert everyone to a paid subscription magazine."

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It’s a Cinderella story, to be sure, but it wasn’t an easy trip to the ball. In the States, Tilden ran a staff of about three to four American writers, who produced most of the editorial content. All of the artwork and assembly, however, was done in Japan. Email didn’t exist yet, and fax wouldn’t do the trick – that meant that someone – usually Tilden – had to fly to Japan once a month, see all the proofs, and sign off on them before they were printed in California. These meetings were improvised, often taking place in hotel rooms rather than conference rooms. Tilden, who was 31 years old at the time, was a headstrong, American woman, and she often found herself at loggerheads with the traditional Japanese culture that governed the magazine’s production. In retrospect, she would have done things differently.

       (Nintendo of America President Arakawa, Gamemaster Howard Phillips, and Tilden from 1989)

“I wasn’t very sensitive to Japanese culture,” Tilden admits. “I was behaving the way an American who was buying something would act – I expected to get what I wanted. It was my job to make the magazine the best it could be, and I really threw my weight around, which is why they nicknamed me The Dragon Lady.”

“For instance: I might want to say, “No one thinks of Batman as having a pink background. I don’t care if you put two weeks into it.” A Japanese person might say that in a way that would allow the designer to save face. Today, I might continue that conversation for a long time to get to the point where the designer himself admits that black would be a better idea. Back then, however, I would cut to the chase and just say, “Pink sucks, make it black.”

“The design team quit. They found it so offensive that I was providing redirection at the eleventh hour.”

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Fortunately, there were several members of the design team who stuck around, and the debut issue proceeded as planned, minus a scandalized artist or two. The first issue of Nintendo Power was released in 1987, and it was offered as a free giveaway – Nintendo ended up giving away about 3 million copies. About half of those early readers stuck around, and within five months, Nintendo Power reached a paid subscriber base of over a million and half people. At the time, it was a record-breaking feat – no magazine had reached that number of paid subscribers in such a short amount of time.

There were certain sections of the magazine that would meet an early death – the celebrity profiles never really found a firm footing – but three sections, from the very start, became the features that every gamer flipped to first.

The first was “Classified Information.” Nintendo Power released codes and cheats on ‘top secret,’ manila envelope backgrounds, allowing gamers to start their adventures with additional lives, advanced weapons, and more. 30 lives in Contra? Up, up, down, down, left, right, left right, B, A. A Ryu versus Ryu fight in Street Fighter II: The World Warrior? Down, R, up, L, Y, B. It was a surefire way to impress friends and cheat to win.

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“Certain editors were responsible for contacting licensees and digging out information, such as codes,” Tilden says. “Every game had to come to Nintendo to be reviewed and bug tested – whether it was a licensee’s game or Nintendo’s game – and one of the agreements was that Nintendo Power would have first access, from the time the game came through the door.”

“If there were going to be codes and secret unlocks, the developers had to provide that when the game was submitted for approval,” Tilden says, recalling the controversy from the GTA: San Andreas ‘Hot Coffee Mod.’ “We couldn’t be at risk for those kinds of things happening.”

The second must-see section of Nintendo Power was the “Counselor’s Corner” where gaming experts would give in-depth analysis on troublesome levels, difficult bosses, or apparent dead ends.

“Up until a certain point, game counseling was free,” Tilden says. “Later, Nintendo switched to a 900 number. Similar to the Fun Club newsletter, when something explodes in popularity, it becomes a burden, because so many people wanted to call Nintendo. We had, literally, hundreds of people on shift, because we were serving the whole country.”

 “For “Counselor’s Corner,” we went through our customer service department to find out what areas were the most challenging. Also, sometimes, a game didn’t score a big feature, but it was still a popular game that gamers were purchasing and running into problems with. “Counselor’s Corner” was a great way to get people over those particular humps.”

 And then there was “Howard & Nester.” A cartoon starring Howard Phillips, the President of the Nintendo Fun Club, and Nester, a bratty, know-it-all kid, the monthly feature became one of the magazine’s most popular recurring features. An idea that was devised on one of many plane trips to Japan, the cartoon was part of Tilden’s objective to present gaming tips in as many forms as possible.

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For the many kid subscribers who saw his face sprinkled throughout the pages, Howard Phillips became the de facto mascot for the magazine. Phillips was also tasked with fact checking and proofing the early issues of the magazine - as one of the “Big Four,” he had played nearly every NES game released up until that time, and Tilden often relied on his fast-fingered expertise.

“Mr. Arakawa asked me to use Howard for the magazine,” Tilden says. “He had already started assisting me in public relations in 1985. He had that kind of quirky thing with the bowtie and the saddle shoes, and Nintendo embraced and put that forward.”

“There was a lot of Nester in Howard,” Tilden laughs. “He was a really fun, never-grow-up guy. He was imaginative with lots and lots of unique and crazy ideas – very smart.

“It’s a bit surreal to see yourself as a famous comic figure,” says Phillips. “The character ‘Howard’ was pretty true to my role as Nintendo Gamemaster. The bowtie is all me. Long ties are predictable, and to me, they feel like a part of a uniform as opposed to a choice of attire.”

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When Tilden left the magazine to promote Pokemon in 1998, the Internet was a mainstream phenomenon, and it had begun to replace the printed word as the authoritative source for video game strategy.

“Player’s guides are still dedicated to single title purposes, so the consumer can still go in that direction,” Tilden says. “For things that are breaking news, however, or for sharing a tip or a cheat, the Internet does such a better job than the printed format.”

Today, Nintendo Power is no more, replaced by other resources that reflect a faster paced, digital world. For old school gamers, however, nothing will compare to unwrapping that monthly issue, delving into the contents, and beating that previously impossible level. Here’s to the Power - Nintendo Power.

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