Remembering Nintendo Power, the Pravda of Video Games

25 years ago, Nintendo dressed naked sales pitches in the trappings of journalism, and millions of children rejoiced.

Article by Jeremy Parish, .

Sometime toward the middle of 1988, something fantastic happened for three million kids who had noticed the product registration card in the Nintendo Entertainment System they'd received for Christmas a few months prior: A free magazine showed up in their mailboxes.

This wasn't just any old magazine, though. It was the premiere issue of Nintendo Power, nearly 100 pages crammed full of screenshots, artwork, previews, tips, and features dedicated entirely to games for their NES. And for a modest sum, kids (who dutifully asked their parents, of course) could subscribe to the magazine and be assured receipt of a similar stack of information every other month.

Sure, it was thinly veiled advertorial; endlessly effusive coverage of games with nary a critical word inserted edgewise comprised the sum total of Nintendo Power's content, and you had to look really hard to find a hint of snark or lack of enthusiasm for even the most mediocre piece of software. But that was perfect for the audience. Nintendo Power mostly sold to kids for whom the NES was their first-ever gaming experience, or the first console they owned, or who had weathered the Atari crash and hungered for new and exciting experiences outside of arcades. The NES audience 25 years ago didn't want to hear what was bad; they wanted to hear what was cool, what they should be excited about, and why their purchases were totally justified and brilliant. You know, exactly the same as today's console fanboys.

Before wikis, we had a bimonthly tips section.

Unlike other game companies, Nintendo has always operated under a closed, insular business model. Nintendo Power was one of the first times we truly saw that style in action -- and the first indication of how effective it can be when executed properly. Nintendo Power focused entirely inward on Nintendo products, promoting only software for the company's platforms and giving first priority to first-party software launches. Much like Nintendo's hardware business, their in-house magazine served their own needs first and foremost and offered a far from egalitarian platform for third parties.

Yet for those proselytized into the Nintendo way -- which, let's be honest, meant most '80s kids who liked video games -- Nintendo Power's singular focus was perfect. Young gamers who owned an NES and could afford to buy only a few games each year didn't want to waste their time and money on magazines highlighting computer games or a section of screens of games on sale in Japan. They wanted information on the system they owned, details on games they could (and should!) own, and Nintendo Power offered those things and nothing but.

Nintendo Power also represented a microcosmic view of the Nintendo software ecosystem on a less obvious level. Much of the magazine's content (and even its design) was handled in Japan, with its American staff collaborating closely to tailor the content and design for the U.S. audience. Nothing about the magazine overtly screamed, "This was made in another country," but its garish design and jumbled layouts adhered closely to the Japanese periodical aesthetic that defines the country's gaming magazines to this day. Not surprisingly, NOA President Minoru Arakawa had conceived the Nintendo Power brainchild after being inspired by imported publications such as Famicom Tsushin (aka Famitsu).

The magazine's Top 30 section was constructed on the same polls that helped determine the magazine's general editorial plan.

Where Electronic Gaming Monthly cheerfully swiped Famitsu's four-man "cross review" format, Nintendo Power's appropriation of the Japanese publishing discipline ran deeper. Features like its tips-and-tricks section, its expansive game maps (built from screenshots captured painstakingly in an era before emulation and digital video), and even goofy cartoon features like "Howard & Nester" echoed Japanese publishing tendencies despite having been crafted specifically for American readers. Top-flight Japanese illustrators like Katsuya Terada and Shotaro Ishinomori (of Cyborg 009 fame) contributed regularly to the magazine well into the 16-bit era, bringing into play unusually high-quality artwork that didn't come off as overtly anime-like (a style which, NES publishers strongly believed, was so deeply offensive to Americans that they were better off changing anime-style box art into ugly, amateurish paintings).

At its debut, Nintendo Power in many ways represented a culmination of Nintendo's existing publishing experiments, the Fun Club Newsletter and the Nintendo Player's Guide. The former took the form of a bimonthly newsletter (initially printed with two-tone ink but ultimately evolving into a glossy, full-color publication produced at considerable cost) that essentially read like Nintendo Power in miniature, highlighting upcoming games and offering tips and strategies for popular titles. Add to that format the essence of the Player's Guide, which laid bare the secrets of the system's best early-era releases (Kid Icarus, Castlevania, Metroid, etc.) through extensive maps, and the science of the magazine fell efficiently into place.

A gallery of Nintendo Power covers during the NES era represents a lineup of the finest 8-bit classics the system had to offer, with only a handful of duds breaking the streak

Surprisingly enough, you'd be hard-pressed to find serious criticism of the early years of Nintendo Power online. While its contemporary publications tended to brush it off (one roundup in a mainstream news periodical memorably described its design as "peanut butter-and-jelly layouts") and not take it seriously, its target audience -- the NES faithful -- loved it. The fact that it was decidedly one-sided, a step removed from advertorial, didn't matter. Nintendo Power preached to the choir, and those who hadn't been indoctrinated simply ignored it.

Perhaps this respect (or lack of disrespect, anyway) comes from the fact that despite its promotional nature, Nintendo Power had a remarkably amount of editorial integrity. For years, the book eschewed paid advertising. Of course, the periodical existed entirely to sell kids on NES games, yet the leads behind the magazine -- editor Howard Philips and Nintendo Vice President of Marketing Gail Tilden -- ran the coverage plan as a meritocracy. As they explained to Gamasutra, before being included in the magazine, each NES game first had to be evaluated through a "power system" that determined the "heat" each title generated among players and professionals alike. Licensees could beg all they wanted, but ultimately Nintendo Power focused on games whose quality and appeal held up; as such, the book effectively curated the system's highlights.

A gallery of Nintendo Power covers during the NES era basically represents a lineup of the finest 8-bit classics the system had to offer, with only a handful of duds breaking the streak. The inner pages admittedly tended to be a little less discriminating, with previews and even post-release coverage for obvious junk (e.g., LJN's dreadful offerings) penned by writers whose frustration becomes clear with the hindsight of adulthood and a proper understanding of irony. Still, truly poor NES games could only ever hope for a small box-out in the upcoming releases list at best, or perhaps a sympathy cheat code somewhere down the road. Nintendo Power curated the greats in expansive spreads and downplayed junk software through omission.

The "Howard & Nester" cartoon represents the essence of Nintendo Power: Though ultimately little more than a combination tip/promotion for a current game, its entertaining presentation made it into something memorable.

Nintendo Power's nature changed over the years as Nintendo's hammerlock on the U.S. gaming market weakened. As Sega's Genesis assaulted the company's American monopoly with both withering commercials and soaring sales, Nintendo Power shed its friendly NES-era trappings and took on a harder edge, with louder design, bolder colors, and even more aggressive typefaces. The transition into the 3D era saw Nintendo Power go into full propaganda mode, trumpeting Nintendo's official marketing line to ignore competing consoles like PlayStation and Saturn until the N64 finally launched and it was at last time to "change the system." While the magazine had always existed as a marketing mouthpiece -- its title reflected the company's NES-era tagline, "Now you're playing with power" -- that fact grew more evident as Nintendo's dominance slipped and its blinkered focus on Nintendo products began to ring false, like a state-run paper that echoes the hollow propaganda of a crumbling regime.

Still, even if its ulterior motives consisted entirely of building sales, Nintendo Power stood as a valuable ambassador and tool for discovery in its prime. Among other things, the magazine made a heavy push to promote role-playing games and other niches. Clearly Nintendo hoped to recreate those genres' success in Japan, but thanks to its constant emphasis on the likes of Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy (and eventually the launch of a regular RPG column that even highlighted import-only titles) countless gamers discovered a style of game they might otherwise have ignored. Even brief blurbs for quirky mid-tier titles like River City Ransom and Golgo 13 lent them an air of intrigue that encouraged many players to investigate them.

Eventually, Nintendo's marketing ventured in a different direction as DS, Wii, and the so-called Blue Ocean deprecated the core gamer who had comprised the Nintendo audience for so long. The company handed over the reins of the magazine to Future, who revitalized Nintendo Power for several years until Nintendo elected not to renew the NP license. The magazine wheezed its last breath last year, and though self-published enthusiasts aim to take up the torch, no magazine will ever quite be like Nintendo Power... both for better and for worse.

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Comments 14

  • Avatar for GustinHardy #1 GustinHardy 4 years ago
    Great article! I remember in my fanboy days getting angry at Nintendo Power for suggesting Ocarina of Time would be bigger than Final Fantasy VII. Didn't stop me from subscribing to the magazine for the entirety of the run. The Final Fantasy II issue is still a prized possession in my collection.
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  • Avatar for SpaceDrake #2 SpaceDrake 4 years ago
    So as a fun little fact: the "regular RPG column that even highlighted import-only titles" was a major factor in me choosing the career I eventually did. When NP made clear that certain titles, like Tales of Phantasia or Star Ocean 1 weren't coming to America due to both lack of resources and willpower, a young SpaceDrake was filled with an ardor to do something about that, to make sure games didn't get "abandoned". It still informs what I do to this day.

    An excellent article.
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  • Avatar for touchofkiel #3 touchofkiel 4 years ago
    Great read, Parish. As much as I enjoy your game reviews and critiques, you really excel at this type of history and analysis.

    I was never much of a NP guy - I picked up various issues for their guides/hints on certain games - but you're right, the magazine was something a little more than pure advertising. Eventually they added some cool stuff, like the serialized version of the Link to the Past comic. I still have those 12 issues in a box somewhere, along with the collected edition.

    And hey, plenty of magazines have had cover features for games that turned out pretty lousy. I would guess that Game Informer has always had the most, considering that they seem to be willing to sell their dignity for an exclusive.

    This does bring back memories. Would love to see more features on game magazines - especially the Ziff Davis line, which always had the most interesting publications to me.
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  • Avatar for metalangel #4 metalangel 4 years ago
    I was one of the thousands who subscribed in the Dragon Warrior offer, and stuck with it until around the time Mortal Kombat (the original) came out.

    It always seemed to have a unique, often bizarre take on games and news that set it apart from all the other magazines. I'm thinking of stuff like the weird NP-produced descriptions for the SF2 characters.

    Their so-called reviews were often better than standalone strategy guides, and with a bit of imagination I could often just look through all the lists of items and maps and visualize the game myself. At the same time, they didn't seem to provide enough cover for other aspects of games (I had almost no idea about the RPG elements in Gargoyle's Quest from their coverage).

    Here are some fun factoids I remember about NP:
    -They misprinted the ten lives cheat for TMNT 2: The Arcade Game. They made almost no mention of the error (apart from titling the correct code 'Cowabunga Correction' in the following issue) until a retrospective on the mag's history years later. They also dripfed the two other codes out over the following two months.
    -Joe & Rob took over the previously informative 'Now Playing' summary section with their inane and ill-founded views on the current releases. The tagline of 'two guy's opinions...' was pretty apt. The aforementioned retrospective confirmed their unpopularity with the readership.
    -The bizarre Battletoads comic, including the final panel where it looked like even the artist had given up.
    -An amusing, barely-veiled attack on Sega, correctly proclaiming that 'Blast Processing' was a load of hooey while carefully avoiding the fact that the Genesis had a higher clockspeed than the SNES; and also attacking the limited colour palette and fact that Sewer Shark didn't compare to Starfox (Silpheed CD would have been a better choice).
    -changing 'Fokker' to 'Folker' for their review of WW1 game Wings 2: Aces High, presumably to stop their readership getting grounded or their subscription cancelled for reading the swear-alike name to mommy and daddy.
    -The absolutely superb puns in the Howard and Nester 'Deja Vu' comic.
    -The epic Mario and Link comics, which were released as graphic novels later.
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  • Avatar for metalangel #5 metalangel 4 years ago
    I meant George and Rob.
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  • Avatar for Spazgadget #6 Spazgadget 4 years ago
    "Nintendo Power, the Pravda of video games".

    Probably the best metaphor I've seen yet on this site. I tip my hat to you, Mr. Parish.
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  • Avatar for Stealth20k #7 Stealth20k 4 years ago
    I own every issue. I subscribed at the very beginning. I posted pics of every issue on twitter
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #8 jeremy.parish 4 years ago
    @touchofkiel Yeah, writing this piece made me want to write about other magazines. I'm sure there'll be more of those down the line...
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  • Avatar for jeffcorry #9 jeffcorry 4 years ago
    Nintendo Power. Like a nice mug of hot chocolate while a winter storm is blowing outside. I don't know that I read every issue...but thanks to a friend who subscribed I probably got pretty close...
    Kind of miss it. It was just a happy place.
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  • Avatar for limbeckd #10 limbeckd 4 years ago
    I was a long-time Nintendo Power & EGM subscriber. The NP maps were a godsend in the (mostly) pre-internet days.
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  • Avatar for helpfulmole #11 helpfulmole 4 years ago
    I gave all of mine away except for #1. Not for collector reasons but because it was such a powerful issue. I believed every word out of its mouth.

    I definitely bought, borrowed, or rented every title in the Top 30.

    Great read.

    Also the fact that Bad Box Art Mega Man lives on rules.
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  • Avatar for SargeSmash #12 SargeSmash 4 years ago
    The early days of the mag were indeed impressive. There was actually a good amount of coverage of overlooked gems. It wasn't all Nintendo-only products, and it was much more fair than one would have ever expected.

    And yes, I still have a large stash of magazines at home. I'm not biased at all. No, really, I'm not. (Well, maybe a little.)
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  • Avatar for docexe #13 docexe 4 years ago
    Nice article. We didn’t have Nintendo Power here in Mexico (although, from what I can understand, you could acquire some issues in a few prestigious stores that sold imported books and magazines). But we eventually got an equivalent of sorts in Club Nintendo, a magazine that apparently was originally meant to be a translation of Nintendo Power for the Latin American market, until the editors decided that it was better to produce original content tailor made for our region. It appeared just before the American launch of the SNES and it is still in circulation to this days.

    I don’t want to deviate too much from the topic of your article, but reading your description of the editorial line and history of Nintendo Power, I can’t help it but be amazed at the similarities it has with Club Nintendo (I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, considering it was the officially sponsored Nintendo magazine, the editorial guidelines must have been similar). Club Nintendo was also pretty much a mix of advertisement and guides catered specifically to the Nintendo crowd, tended to dismiss its competition (although Sega never really made much of a splash in the Mexican market, Nintendo didn’t lose its hegemony on the home console market here until the arrival of the PlayStation), and it was nevertheless a formative and treasured experience by many young Nintendo fans. Interestingly, its content and reviews started to get a bit more critical in later years (and remained that way until the late years of the N64, when many of the writers and collaborators jumped ship to multiplatform publications). Nowadays, the editorial quality of the magazine leaves a lot to be desired, but I still collect it for nostalgic reasons.
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  • Avatar for WillowWolf #14 WillowWolf 4 years ago
    I find myself wanting to go and dig up my old stack of NP. I'm not quite old enough to have the original magazines, since I'm five years younger than the magazine itself is, but I still loved my mags when I got them in. I wanna collect 'em all!
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