Nintendo was a phenomenon back in the 80’s and early 90’s. Kid’s shared playing tips on the school bus, discussed game secrets at lunch time, and went home to watch the Super Mario Bros Super Show after school. Nintendo was on pencil boxes, trading cards, backpacks, clothes, wall decorations, toys, and just about anything else that could be packaged and sold. Between watching TV shows about Nintendo and talking to your friends about Nintendo, you played games on your Nintendo. A few years later the market would be split and the Nintendo discussions would be replaced by console debates but that’s a topic for a different day. At this point in video game history it seemed that everyone you knew had an NES.
Early in the lifespan of the NES when Nintendo began gaining momentum the company started a loyalty program called the Nintendo Fun Club. Joining was free and each member would receive a quarterly, and later bi-monthly newsletter filled with game tips, news on upcoming releases, high score competitions, and member letters. The Nintendo Fun Club was immortalized in Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out with an in game mention.
In July of 1988 members of the club were mailed a thicker than usual envelope. Inside was the first issue of Nintendo Power and a letter notifying members that the Fun Club was being discontinued and replaced by a bi-monthly paid subscription magazine. Although it would no longer be free, the new magazine would be packed to the brim with more features and tips than would otherwise be possible.
The cover of the first issue features a Play-Doh looking Super Mario running away from the evil Wart while notifying readers of the 20 page Super Mario 2 spectacular within. This was an era before Nintendo firmly established the look of most of their characters and as a result Mario has a blue hat. In fact, throughout the magazine Mario is depicted as having both a red hat and a blue hat. Other features include an in depth review of the second quest of the Legend of Zelda, a breakdown of new baseball releases, and over 50 pro tips. On the bottom of the page in red the tagline notifies readers that Nintendo Power is “the source for NES players straight from the pros”. When I was trying to convince my mom to get me a subscription to Nintendo Power back in the day I used this tagline as part of my sales pitch. It failed miserably on her. “What pro’s?” was her response. I didn’t really have a good answer to that and my hopes of getting a subscription went down in flames. At least I was impressed by the tagline. I didn’t get a subscription until the Wii era but I did end up getting subscribed to Sega Visions as a child. I’m not sure how that happened.
Open the magazine and this meets you on the inside cover, an ad for the Nintendo Powerline. Call that number and get instantly connected to one of Nintendo’s patented game counselors that will help guide you through the game when you’re stuck. Nothing like racking up a huge long distance bill because you couldn’t find level 7 on Zelda. Apparently in addition to game help you could call the number and order games direct from Nintendo or find the location of an authorized repair center. Last I heard the number is still active although it’s a customer service line now.
We are immediately greeted with the cover article featuring Super Mario Bros 2. On the left page we have an assortment of enemies from the game including Wart, Bomb-omb, and Shy Guy. Super Mario Bros 2 had an interesting array of classic villains that never really saw much use after this game. Aside from Bomb-omb most of those villains only made cameo appearances later in the series at best. All of the other Super Mario villains would appear repeatedly throughout the years. On the right page we have an image of our heroes. What is Princess Toadstool doing? I guess she’s supposed to be winking but it looks like she had a gnat fly into her eye. Here we are given a brief description of the game’s plotline and a breakdown of all the playable characters. Why is the princess able to float after jumping? Although that isn’t explained it was of no concern to me anyway. Since she was a female character I avoided her like the plague.
Check out the photos on this page. I cannot overstate how exciting it was to a child of the 80’s to see a magazine filled with in game screen shots of the action and secrets. You can tell that the editors simply photographed a TV screen as the scanlines are clearly visible in the pictures. Today anyone can take screencaps of games, movies, tv shows or anything else they want but when this magazine was published these types of features were really pioneering efforts. The first few pages basically act as a refresher to the instruction manual explaining some basic moves and showing them in action. But damn if it doesn’t look cool.
After a few pages showcasing the various items and enemies in the game we flip pages to this bizarre scene. Holy crap who came up with this? A very minimal amount of text describes what we are seeing. It explains that Luigi is the best vertical jumper, Toad is the strongest, the Princess is the best long jumper, and that Mario is an all around athlete. I can buy the other events but why does Mario running around a track with a bomb-omb illustrate that he’s the most well rounded of the group? Flurry is stuck in there watching events that are clearly from the summer Olympics. Considering that those guys used to routinely commit suicide by sliding on the ice and over a cliff I guess their death wish here makes sense. Wart is wearing boxing gloves and throwing a javelin. It appears as if Luigi is wearing Little Mac’s green boxing gloves so maybe the artist just struggled with penciling hands or he really liked boxing.
Next we have the map screens. The editors went screen by screen through the levels, taking photos of each section and putting together some amazing collages detailing each item and secret throughout the level. It was pages like these that gave readers a feeling of omnipotence. All of the secrets, problem areas, and strategies were revealed. There’s a phrase that has been created in the gaming community called “Nintendo Hard”. It’s definition is pretty straight forward. If a game is “Nintendo Hard” it means it’s extremely unforgiving and difficult. These NES games had a reputation of causing players to slam down controllers in anger. For once with features like these, it felt like the gamer finally had an edge.
Remember that part in Super Mario 2 when Mario puts on a cowboy hat and pulls out a gun on Tryclyde? I don’t either. Despite never showing up in the game with this outfit the editors at Nintendo Power saw fit to stick a wild west version of Mario into the article. Next to him is a picture of Mario with a blue hat which is a recurring theme throughout the magazine. One of the great reasons to thumb through this old Nintendo literature is to see the artwork of famous characters before they were standardized by Nintendo. Today you would never see blue hat Mario or US Cavalry Mario in any official publications. When this was published Mario’s appearance was still being subtly tweaked. This game was the first time Luigi was depicted in all green rather than white with green highlights as well as being totally different in appearance than Mario. Previous artwork had him looking like a twin with different clothing. Even Super Mario 3 and Super Mario World used simple palette swaps of Mario and Luigi in the game.
Next we have the coverage of the second quest in The Legend of Zelda. If you think about it, it’s amazing that a game this vast even had a second quest. The Legend of Zelda was the first NES game to use a battery backup feature to save the player’s progress. It was completely infeasible to expect the player to complete the game in one sitting like other Nintendo games. This was an adventure the likes of which we had never seen before. For most players it took weeks, months, sometimes years to reach level 9. After defeating Gannon, collecting his piece of the Triforce, and rescuing Princess Zelda, the game would end and the player was treated to a second quest. Now if you hadn’t beaten the game or had a catastrophe with your save file but still wanted to play the second quest Nintendo lets you in on how to access it here. Simply type the name “Zelda” at the registration screen.
Nintendo Power comes through with a foldout map of the second Zelda quest. All of the shortcuts, power ups, hidden rupee locations, and level entrances are marked for your convenience. In addition to the overworld map, levels 1 through 6 also have detailed maps disclosing all of the item locations and showing game screens of each room. At level 7 onwards rather than a detailed map the player is given tips on how to succeed in the dungeon as well as revealing which items are hidden within. Personally I think Nintendo should have just gone all the way and finished the strategy guide since revealing secrets of each game was the purpose of this publication, but I can’t complain too much. I do have a confession though. I’ve never beaten the second quest of Legend of Zelda. In fact I’ve barely even played it.
Holy crap. Talk about ending the feature with a bang. Not only does the reader get a fairly detailed breakdown of the second quest in the Legend of Zelda, but they are treated to half a page of images and descriptions of the upcoming Zelda II! This was enough to give any Nintendo fan an awkward pre-teen boner. In retrospect a lot of people look at Zelda II as the dark horse of the series and quite frankly it is. Mixing RPG elements with side scrolling action and ditching the overhead view with the exception of a map screen, the gameplay is not nearly as addictive or fun as the other Zelda games. However, that doesn’t mean its a bad game. Super Mario 2 was completely different than Super Mario Bros but it’s still considered a solid entry in the series. Nintendo obviously made a conscious effort to differentiate their titles in the NES days rather than pumping out sequel after sequel that looked and played identically and I applaud them for the effort. With all that said, nobody reading this magazine would have had any idea what Zelda II would play like and the sneak peak at a new Zelda adventure was something worth drooling over.
Next we have the baseball roundup advertised on the front cover. It’s a nine page breakdown of three new releases, Bases Loaded, Major League Baseball, and R.B.I. Of all the features in this first issue of Nintendo Power, this would have to be the one that aged the worst. Sports games are generally the least desirable and cheapest games to buy in retro gaming because they are so common and because most people don’t want to play outdated sports sims when they can play more lifelike recreations on newer consoles. Typically when retro gamers dust off a vintage console or fire up an emulator they want to play timeless classics like the aforementioned Super Mario and Zelda franchises. Playing old sports games typically ranks very low on the totem pole.
Browsing through the pages it’s interesting to note some of the differences in these early sports games as convention hadn’t been established yet. The big innovation of Bases Loaded is that the main camera angle is behind the pitcher rather than behind the plate as in the other baseball games. This gives it a more TV style presentation. The game lacks any licensing however as it only contains 12 fictitious teams comprised of fictional players. RBI Baseball had an MLBPA license and as a result features real player names but it lacks any logos or team names. It also lacks a full assortment of MLB cities featuring only 8 cities plus two all star teams for a grand total of ten teams to choose from. Major League Baseball features all 26 MLB teams with accurate player numbers and statistics. The game lacked an MLBPA license so player names aren’t in the game.
Based on these facts alone you would assume that Major League Baseball would easily be the front runner of these 3 games. Unfortunately it was published by LJN which is a death sentence. I’ve yet to play an enjoyable NES game with that dreaded LJN logo on it, and keeping with tradition this game had a large number of flaws that killed it. Bases Loaded and RBI Baseball would go on to produce several successful sequels well into the 16 bit era. Major League Baseball was a one and done game. That’s what happens when a baseball game makes it almost impossible to catch a fly ball.
Counselors’ Corner answered the questions frequently sent in to the Nintendo Power staff by readers. As stated earlier in this post, Nintendo games were freaking hard. No quarter was given and none was expected. If you wanted to succeed you had to put some serious time into a game, and even then there were some aspects that virtually required outside assistance. Counselors’ Corner was a great source for helping plow past some difficult sticking points in a troublesome game. Ghosts ‘N Goblins which is a notoriously difficult game even by Nintendo standards is fittingly the first game ever mentioned in a Counselors’ Corner article. Metroid is featured with maps of Brinstar and Norfair complete with item locations.
The granddaddy of all tricks is historically revealed on page 52 of the first issue of Nintendo Power; the Super Mario Bros. unlimited 1-UP trick! If this is news to you then I’ll offer up a brief explanation. At the end of World 3-1 a Koopa Troopa comes cascading down the final steps towards Mario. With careful timing the player can hop on the left side of his shell causing the shell to continue bouncing back and forth between Mario and the step. Since Mario is never touching the ground the point total continues to increase for each successive jump until you begin earning 1 UPs. This is a famous trick which went mainstream due to it’s appearance right here. Other games discussed include Kid Icarus, Rygar, Castlevania, and Ikari Warriors. Check out this ridiculously long stage select code for Ikari Warriors: “On the title screen push up, down, A, A, B, left, right, A, B, up, A, down, right, right, left, B, up, left, A, right, B, left, right, A, left, up, A, down, A, right, left, A, start”. Are you kidding me? That was difficult enough to type much less enter quickly before the demo appears. There was no reason to make this code so difficult.
Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out wraps up the article with the intriguing question of how to beat Mike Tyson. Making it to the Dream Bout was an electric feeling in the NES days and even today if you get a group of guys the right age together and skip to Mike Tyson it will bring the 8 year old out in every one of them. Punch-Out was an addictive and challenging game with several pitfalls on the road to victory. Great Tiger and Soda Popinski were particularly troublesome for me as a youth. After clawing your way to the top it was stunning to be knocked out in a single blow by Tyson. Here the magazine gives the reader all the criteria necessary for a win. Avoid the Dynamite Punch for the first minute and a half of round 1. If Tyson winks, he’s throwing a straight punch. If he blinks both eyes a flurry of straight punches are on the way. Focus on dodging these blows, then gradually land as many counter blows as you can to rack up points. Once you’ve hit the magic number 5,000 you’ll earn a victory by decision after round 3.
Howard and Nester was a comic starring the man-child President of the Nintendo Fun Club Howard Phillips and some kid named Nester whom I can only assume was fictional. Nester crosses his name out in the title only to write it in a different and larger font. He also has a very unlikeable smug look on his face. Throughout this comic Nester has some kind of rude remark or sarcastic thought in every frame to go along with his sneer. After reading this I’m of the opinion that Nester is kind of an asshole. Howard spends the length of the comic helping him out by telling him the locations of Level’s 8 and 9 in The Legend of Zelda. Instead of a thank you Nester acts like a spoiled brat. Screw that kid.
Classified Information was a column that released codes for various NES games. I believe that most of these codes were provided to Nintendo Power by the game developers. The first issue has codes for games like Ice Hockey, Rad Racer, Athena, Gun Smoke and an assortment of other lesser remembered titles. A few of these stuck out at me though. On page 58 we get some classified information for Contra. It’s the classic Konami code that has appeared in forums all over the internet for gamers to prove their nerdiness. There was a period when hipsters would bring up this code thinking that mentioning it made them somehow cool. If impressing people on the internet from a basement computer with an action figure of Princess Leia in her slave bikini on your desk wasn’t enough for you, they even made shirts with this code on it. Now you can look like a dork in the real world! Or at least wear the shirt while you’re typing from the depths of your lair. At any rate the code was up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, start. If entered on the title screen this gave your character 30 lives.
The other code that stuck out at me, which is one I’ve never heard of or tried before is from Punch-Out. If you enter the pass key 135 792 4680 on the title screen you’ll begin what’s called “Another World Circuit” with King Hippo as your first opponent. Having never tried this, I’m not sure what all is different about Another World Circuit but it’s exciting for me to see something I hadn’t previously known in a game released 28 years ago. Next time I fire up the NES I’ll be sure to check this code out. Maybe it will be interesting enough to write up an article about!
After Classified Information the magazine doesn’t let up, continuing to break down some other popular games. Double Dragon has 8 pages of coverage beginning with a breakdown of the different modes of play and the various attacks in the game. The reader is then treated to maps of missions 1, 2, and 3 supplemented with tips and strategies along the way. It wraps up with a few images of what to expect in mission 4. After Double Dragon we get some coverage of Gauntlet, Contra, Wheel of Fortune, and Jeopardy. The magazine then moves into new releases, showing screen images from the game along with a brief description of the premise. There aren’t any actual ratings or recommendations given however.
Check out that image. I used to love looking at pictures like that in these kinds of magazines and fantasizing about owning all the games pictured. To an NES player that would have been heaven on earth. See that guy on the bottom posing with the TV? That’s Howard Phillips from Howard and Nester. I told you he was a man-child. This ad was to encourage readers to send in feedback about the inaugural issue of Nintendo Power. If you sent the poll back you were entered in a contest to win any number of prizes. The grand prize was 10 NES games of your choice. Ten winners would receive Super Mario Bros 2, and 50 winners would receive a Nintendo Power jersey. The poll itself was pretty standard fare. What did you think of Nintendo Power? Do you plan on subscribing? Which game review did you enjoy most? Nintendo would use the feedback they got to refine future issues of the magazine while 60 winners would likely become Nintendo fanboys for life.
The magazine makes an odd choice by discussing some upcoming film releases on page 94 and interviewing Kirk and Candace Cameron on page 95. I’m not sure how long these columns lasted but I can’t imagine they were very popular with children. The movies discussed are Vibes, Pee-Wee’s Big Top, and Eight Men Out. For some reason as a kid I never realized how creepy Pee-Wee Herman looked but that picture of him is freaking me out. Kirk and Candace Cameron have a one dimensional interview talking about Nintendo and what games they enjoy. At least they didn’t stray too far off base with that article I suppose. If you didn’t get enough of those two by watching them on Growing Pains and Full House now you know that they liked playing Rygar, Super Mario Bros, The Legend of Zelda, Gradius, and Pinball. My life is complete.
One of the best parts of skimming through vintage magazines is reading the reader’s letters. It’s a window into what life was like when the periodical was published. I never realized how many kids across the country formed Nintendo clubs. The common theme is that they would pool their money together and buy games that they could all play. By consolidating their resources they were able to purchase a larger array of games than they could independently. I wonder how many friendships were ended when a kid would have to move and tried to take ownership of a game? Maybe the system worked. I never knew anyone that tried this but it seemed to be a common tactic at the time based on the letters I’ve read in these back issues of Nintendo Power. Another comment that always made me laugh is how many people referred to their games as “Nintendo Tapes”. I knew one kid that called them that but the rest of us just called them “games”. I guess it sucked for some of them always having to rewind dem Nintender tapes. Along that same note, my friends and I always referred to stages in a game as “levels” but some of the weird kids would call them “boards”. Where did that come from? Losers.
NES Achievers was a section where readers would send in their high scores. Nintendo Power would then publish the name of the player, their location, and the score. Anyone could just write to Nintendo with a bogus high score so proof was required. You had to send in a photograph of your achievement if you wanted to be published in Nintendo Power. This was a legitimate showcase and they didn’t want some fibbers frauding it up. Now think about what was required for a moment and think back to 1988. In this day and age taking a photo of your achievement would be a piece of cake. Whip out your phone, point it at the screen, make sure you have a clear picture, then email it to Nintendo Power and you’re done. In 1988 that wasn’t the case. You had to take a picture of your TV, several if you wanted to be sure, waste the rest of the film on the camera or wait until you used it all on other things, go to the store and get it developed, and then check out your photos. Most of the time you got a picture of a TV screen with a flash on it and no legible proof of your accomplishment. Nintendo printed instructions on how to take a picture for the best results. “use a 35 millimeter camera, turn off all of the lights in the room, and don’t use a flash.” Sometimes technology has changed life for the worse but in the case of photography it has definitely changed things for the better.
Take a look at some of those scores. Chris Boswell of Channelview, CA got 999,999 points in Castlevania. Butch Jones of Chatsworth, GA got 970,000 points on Duck Hunt. I call BS on that one. I’m sure he had to be holding the zapper up to the TV to get a score like that. Ulises Caraballo of Bronx, NY got 9,999,900 in Karate Kid. I’m stunned anyone would spend that much time playing such a crappy game, but with a name like that I’m sure the other kids in the Bronx were waiting outside his door to pound him. Under such circumstances playing Karate Kid is a viable alternative. Speaking of beating people up, look at Howard Phillips in his bowtie. ‘Nuff said.
The last pages of every vintage Nintendo Power featured one of these Top 30 player’s polls. Here readers, dealers, and writers would vote for their top 30 NES games. Eventually the feature would include SNES, Game Boy, and even Virtual Boy games. The Legend of Zelda ranks #1 here with Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out a close second. Super Mario Bros comes in at number 4 which is quite an accomplishment for a game that was three years old at this point. Top Gun is number 9 on the list but Castlevania is only 12? I’m also surprised Mega Man and Contra are so low on the list ranking 17 and 22 respectively. One of the best parts about these lists were watching some games spend years near the top of the rankings. Nintendo could have taken the low road and altered the numbers to try and push newer games, but based on the results of these polls it’s apparent that they were on the level with them.
Although I never got to enjoy Nintendo Power while growing up it has been just as enjoyable looking back on them as an adult. Reliving the Nintendo glory years, reading about old technology as it was developing, and viewing the content in retrospective is a wonderful experience. These magazines are like a time portal to youth. I can pick one up and for an hour or so be transported back to a time when my biggest worry in life was beating a difficult level or counting down the days to an anticipated game. We spend our childhoods eagerly wanting to get older and have more responsibilities but once we’re older we fantasize about our youths. Even if it’s only temporary it’s nice to escape back to those days by immersing yourself in a Nintendo Power.