Sometime in 1987, Nintendo of America’s then-president Minoru Arakawa — the son-in-law of Nintendo Company president Hiroshi Yamauchi — made the bold decision that players of his Nintendo Entertainment System console needed their own magazine to read.
There had been video game magazines before — several, in fact — but they’d all died along with the entire video game industry during the infamous crash of 1983. But if Nintendo was able to prove that kids were still interested in buying new games after all, he thought, perhaps they could prove that they’d be willing to pay to read about them too.
Thus, Nintendo Power — sort of a combination of the free Fun Club Newsletter Nintendo was already sending its fans and a print version of its game tips hotline — was born. It was the first of the new wave of video game magazines, and it managed to outlast all those who followed — Electronic Gaming Monthly, GamePro, Game Player’s, VideoGames & Computer Entertainment, and the list goes on — until the final issue was released on December 11, 2012.
Nintendo Power founding editors Gail Tilden and Howard Phillips were gracious enough to share their memories of launching — for better or worse — one of the most influential periodicals for those of a certain generation.
Gail and Howard were an unlikely combination — she was the company’s head of marketing and PR, and he was the Gamemaster, Nintendo’s in-house video game nerd — but together they managed to produce a magazine that somehow toed the line between being a marketing tool for selling products and an everything-you-need guide for telling game players what they should play and how they should play them.
Howard Phillips: When we first launched the NES in 1985, we figured out very quickly that kids were just dying to get extra information about the games — not just new games that were coming out, but also how to play them. We knew that in part because the Famicom had preceded the NES in Japan and we were seeing that phenomenon in Japan as well. So we decided that we would set up a mechanism that would help kids out with the games, and that’s when we started the game counseling line.
I had about five or six guys who worked for me who answered questions on the phone, like how to find the third coin in level three, that sort of thing. But that was only one (expensive) way to solve that problem. We looked at other ways, and one way was to use the registration cards to send out information to the kids in the form of the Fun Club News.
Gail Tilden: I was an advertising manager, so I was doing PR and advertising for the NES. We’d been doing a lot of inserts in both the hardware and software, trying to get people to send us their names and addresses. In exchange, they would become a member of the Fun Club and receive the Fun Club News. That’s what was going on in 1987.
The database was growing bigger and bigger, and I think we were at around 600,000 people when we made the decision that we didn’t want to continue having a free magazine. It was creating a big burden to send this out.
HP: We were paying for it. It was good that we did that, because it eventually grew to over 100 people in game counseling who were answering questions. We really needed to respond to that in a forceful way.
GT: Ultimately, it became a burden because the database was growing so quickly, and we decided to start charging for it. That didn’t mean it was extremely profitable to do that. In fact, it was still a marketing expense. But it helped pay for the cost of sending out the information, certainly.
Also right at that time, we came out with the very first Nintendo Player’s Guide. That was one of the first times we had something where we had a lot of information and maps, and the kind of support they were giving games and gameplay in Japan. In fact, we used a Japanese resource to create that publication.
Nintendo Power was a combination of that idea and what was happening with the Fun Club News. Mr. Arakawa saw that there were several magazines in Japan that were supporting gameplay in a way where they used maps and helped people finish the games, and therefore helped consumers be more satisfied with the games. He wanted to follow that kind of format.
HP: Looking at Japan with Famitsu and Famicom Tsushin and things like that…I would get these really thick, dense magazines as part of the regular weekly shipments from Japan. I’d get these in the warehouse and I’d crack them open and look at the cool new games that were coming out. I’d almost get down with a magnifying glass to look at screenshots and things like that. It was natural for us to think that the kids in the U.S. would be eager to have that as well
GT: Mr. Arakawa was trying to capture the kind of print medium culture in Japan where kids would buy magazines like Jump and read them cover-to-cover every week. They had huge subscription bases. His own kids, who were born in the U.S. and knew how to read Japanese, would do the same thing. He would buy them copies of everything and they would just pore through them. He didn’t feel there was a cultural bias. He just thought that no one had really hit on it. He wanted to use people who were involved in the Japanese print magazine business to help us make a magazine that would approach it editorially from that same point of view.
HP: So that was when Gail and I started up Nintendo Power. Gail was really the driving force behind the whole thing. I was more of a player’s advocate for things that had to do with games specifically, like which ones were cool and why they were cool. When we were doing press checks, I would always say things like, “This screen is mirrored,” or “This guy isn’t in this area of the game.” I made sure it was accurate so that it wouldn’t cause more grief to send it out to all of the kids.