How Nintendo Power Turned Propaganda Into Nostalgic Comfort

Nintendo Power may have been an elaborate bit of marketing, but it remains a vital part of gaming's culture and history.

Nintendo Power First Cover
Photo: Nintendo

Nintendo in the mid-to-late 80s sure was something to behold. It’s probably the closest thing the video game industry had to a monopoly. Sure, the Sega Master System was around and Atari was still on life support, but the Nintendo Entertainment System was absolutely dominant in society. We didn’t even call it “the NES.” It was just “Nintendo.” For many, “playing video games” was “playing Nintendo.”

Nintendo’s major market share led to some interesting marketing experiments. Captain N: The Game Master was an animated series that not only advertised different games as part of its lore, but even included third-party game heroes like Simon Belmont and Mega Man as supporting characters. Then there’s The Wizard: an attempt to promote the upcoming Super Mario Bros. 3 via a bizarre family film version of Rain Man that included the questionable choice of casting Christian Slater and doing nothing with him.

However, the biggest experiment of them all was Nintendo Power: a magazine that lasted from July 1988 to December 2012. While it understandably fizzled out, and it’s a surprise it lasted as long as it did, the publication was untouchable during those first ten years or so. It was “THE Source For NES Players Straight From the Pros!” Just that tagline represented what Nintendo Power truly was under everything: a prime source of information for Nintendo fans in a pre-internet age that was also full-on Nintendo propaganda.

And we loved it.

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The Opening Chapter

Nintendo Power was born out of a short-lived free newsletter called The Nintendo Fun Club that’s mainly remembered for the way Doc Louis randomly hyped it up in Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out. That newsletter leveled up into the first issue of Nintendo Power, which came out swinging with an iconic clay sculpture cover of Mario being chased by King Wart, promoting Super Mario Bros. 2.

When compared to its contemporaries like Electronic Gaming Monthly and Gamepro, which started roughly around the same time, Nintendo Power was like what the Nintendo consoles have been like for the past several generations. The competition might have more to offer, but this first-person Nintendo stuff is just high-quality warmth and wonder. It stood on its own by being a crowd-pleasing controller of information and opinion.

Even the first issue of Nintendo Power was a bit wonky, though. Not just because of how the cover had Mario’s color scheme all wrong (blue hat?), but also the art used within. While there were many images of Mario that looked like his classic art style (his hat changing from red to blue depending on the whims of the colorist), it also had several images that looked strangely…off. It’s as if the artist decided Mario and Luigi had belts on their hats and the Princess lacked a nose. One of these images was even a two-page spread that illustrated their abilities by having the cast take part in Olympic events. Mario competing at the Olympics…what a concept.

Weird in-house art choices were a regular occurrence in the early years of Nintendo Power. For instance, we got Mega Man and Dr. Wily looking like something out of Thunderbirds for a couple of issues. Though with Mega Man 3, the characters were so overly shaded that it starts to hurt your eyes. Then there’s WWF WrestleMania, which featured an appearance by Botched Botox Ted Dibiase.

Nintendo Power Ted Diabiase

At least we got that Castlevania II cover on the second issue where a live-action Simon Belmont held Dracula’s severed head and caused parents to send angry letters.

Still, the debut issue did a great job springboarding all the rad stuff we could look forward to in Nintendo Power. You got your game spotlights, featuring a bunch of screenshots painstakingly merged into level maps. Pages of codes (back when codes were a thing), FAQs for how to get past the harder parts of newer games, previews of games coming down the pipeline, and kickass fold-out posters for new titles on the horizon.

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There was even a “Goofus and Gallant” knockoff comic called Howard & Nester (later, Nester’s Adventures) about the magazine’s editor and the magazine’s slacker jerk mascot playing the newest games from inside the games. Monthly contests of crapshoot quality asked you to send in your game opinions, with many of those opinions eventually being used for a Top 30 survey in a later issue. It also certainly helped that the magazine came out at the point where there were already a few years of games out for the NES, which gave the publication plenty of initial material.

The whole thing was also a brilliant way for Nintendo to keep fans in the loop. If you didn’t have a subscription to Nintendo Power, how else were you supposed to know what was coming out and roughly when? You would just have to wait for it to show up at Blockbuster or Toys “R” Us and hope for the best. Granted, there were plenty of classics and wonderful games to look forward to, but early on, the Pak Watch section tried a little too hard to sell games the staff obviously knew little about.

For instance, here’s what the first issue had to say about Blaster Master (with zero images to go with the blurb): “About the only thing we know so far about this game is its name. But from the sound of the title, we expect it to be another high-action game from Sunsoft.” Weirdly, they had plenty of coverage for it in the second issue. Still, talking it up with, “No idea what it’s about, but it sounds rad, right?” is pretty funny.

The crew just had so little information to work with and decided to pass along what little they knew anyway. For instance, the Nightmare on Elm Street game was so early along in development that Nintendo Power incorrectly insisted it would have you playing as Freddy Krueger. That was kind of a trend with the early licensed NES games. Sometimes the team would have nothing to say about what kind of game it would be but would throw you a bone via an 8-bit image of RoboCop or a cover image of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game. When it came to Star Trek, they simply stated that there would be a Star Trek game at some point, but did not even know who was going to develop it!

Mind you, the crew was occasionally on top of emerging trends. For instance, the Pak Watch entry for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the second issue explains how it’s based on a cult comic series, followed by, “These mutants are really making the rounds, as we understand they’ll also appear in a new cartoon show this fall.”

That’s the thing about Nintendo Power, though. The publication largely existed to generate hype, and it sometimes did so through whatever means necessary.

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Everything Is Awesome! EVERYTHING!

It wasn’t long before reviews started showing up in Nintendo Power, which was an editorial decision that was just playing with fire. Yes, Nintendo Power gave us the kind of biased reviews you’d expect from a Nintendo publication, especially with first-party games. All that needs to be said is that Fester’s Quest got a 4.45 out of 5. Fester’s Quest. For reference, EGM gave it a 5 out of 10, Nintendo Life gave it a 1 out of 10, IGN called it the 45th worst NES game of all time, and GamesRadar called it the 73rd worst game ever made.

Nintendo Power‘s 97th issue contains the perfect visual that shows how ridiculous Nintendo Power’s self-promotion could get. The cover game for that issue was Clay Fighter 63 1/3: a game that the same issue explained was incomplete and not ready to review. Well, they did review it in that issue anyway and gave it a 3.8 out of 5. A page later, they gave Mega Man X (re-released for whatever reason) a 3.9 out of 5. You remember Mega Man X, right? That beloved game that pops up in most top ten lists of best SNES games ever?

The 100th issue (which also had a blurb that explains Clay Fighter 63 1/3 had been delayed again) also had a list of the 100 best games ever…on Nintendo hardware. Other than some questionable inclusions like Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire and Killer Instinct Gold, it was a fairly solid list. It even included Mega Man X at #58! Not bad for a game that was only slightly better than an incomplete version of Clay Fighter 63 1/3!

That was all part of the magazine’s charm, though. Nintendo may have been calling the shots, but Nintendo Power did their damnedest to sell you on everything, whether it was greatness or crap. For instance, probably the best thing to ever come out of the invention of the Virtual Boy was Nintendo Power issue #75, which hyped up the system and its games by making those pages 3D. The issue even came with free 3D glasses that made everything look legitimately mind-blowing. It was an advertisement for a historic failure of a console, but damn if I didn’t appreciate the way they promoted it.

Mind you, Nintendo Power‘s sometimes hilarious biases weren’t always a bad thing. In fact, the publication’s close connection to Nintendo was sometimes the source of its best attributes.

Straight From the Yoshi’s Mouth

There was a time when Nintendo Power‘s slogan was, “The only inside source for all Nintendo games.” That was helpful in itself. Not just in the sense that they would let you see images of the Super Famicom before anyone else, but because Nintendo Power existed at a time when tips and codes were so important and Nintendo Power had the connections.

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I remember back when Killer Instinct 2 hit arcades, Gamefan did a strategy guide issue for it. However, when it came to playing as the game’s final boss Gargos, they were empty-handed and included a page explaining how they simply could not get an answer from the developers and publishers on how to unlock the guy.

On the other hand, issue #39 of Nintendo Power, released one month after the Street Fighter II cover story, had Mario Paint on its cover. The only headline for anything else was an ominous “STREET FIGHTER II SECRET CODE.” They had the goods and they wanted you to know it. How else were you going to be able to play as Blanka vs. Blanka in that game? The schoolyard? How do you think your friend learned that trick?

Of course, this really only helped if you were strictly a Nintendo household. You were not going to see them talk about Sega unless they were explaining that the Genesis’ “blast processing” was bupkis. It reminds me of how they would also ask readers to be on the lookout for non-licensed NES carts in any stores or video rental places and let Nintendo know about it. Not me, man. I wasn’t going to narc on West Coast Video for having the superior Tengen version of Tetris. I’m no snitch.

If Nintendo Power was all insider information and inside agendas, though, it probably wouldn’t have had the lasting cultural impact that it’s had over the years. Instead, the publication managed to win the hearts of gamers everywhere through sheer charm.

Increased Power

It didn’t take Nintendo Power long to really solidify its approach and feel like a colorful celebration of gaming. Well, as long as you were on their side.

The magazine’s layouts and format were pure eye candy and had you pumped to see what upcoming game was going to get that rad fold-out poster. Maybe you would see all the Robot Masters from the next Mega Man game revealed. Maybe you would see the eight default characters from Street Fighter II in a big battle royale on a cliff overseeing a cityscape. Or, uh, maybe you would see Krusty the Clown being eaten alive by angry rats.

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Simpsons games got weird, guys.

It was a time when Nintendo properties seemed untouchable and the magazine did its damnedest to capitalize on that. They were already trying hard to make cover story games like Roadrunner and Pugsley’s Scavenger Hunt seem enjoyable, and they sometimes managed to do just that.

However, that was nothing compared to when they had a bonafide first-party classic on their hands. Amazing comics based on the likes of Super Mario World, Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Star Fox, and Super Metroid served as elaborate tributes to some of the best games of the Nintendo Power era. The publication even reprinted segments from Dark Horse’s Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire comic to tie into the N64 release.

Probably the pinnacle of cool shit from Nintendo Power was when, unannounced, they sent VHS tapes to all subscribers of something called Donkey Kong Country Exposed. In the video, a radical ’90s dude host would show us a behind-the-scenes preview of Donkey Kong Country, complete with a post-credits scene where he wanders into a top-secret room to find people playing SNES Killer Instinct before he’s screamed at to get out. This promotional stunt would be followed by VHS previews of Yoshi’s Island, Star Fox 64, Banjo-Kazooie, and others.

At a time when games still received very little media coverage, Nintendo Power always made games feel special. The issues often reflected how those games (and gaming) made us feel. At its best, Nintendo Power was a celebration of the things that often made people excited about gaming. However, no celebration lasts forever.

Out of Print

Nintendo Power just ran out of gas over time. They even started inserting third-party ads like a regular magazine. The internet was starting to take off and gradually made these publications more and more obsolete. Why wait weeks or months for what GameFAQs could tell you in hours?

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Still, the magazine will always represent a simpler time. It’s an artifact from the days when the video game industry went from nearly imploding on itself to becoming brilliant and full of potential. There’s a strange sense of wonder in looking at maps and walkthroughs of a brand-new game that stops just short of the last level so it could be vague and ominous about what the final boss is like. Seriously, they did that all the time and it made every final boss sound so damn threatening.

Years later, even the propaganda parts of the publication are almost cute in how harmless they are (outside of some light tribalism). When you see a two-page story about how Phillips is working on some cutting-edge CD technology, you can’t help but smile at the tone. It’s like you’re watching people get excited about the Hindenburg. There’s a genuine comfort in seeing the industry take shape while wrapping yourself in a fantasy narrative where every NES and Gameboy game is equally good. Unless it’s a first-party release, of course. That means it’s excellent.

And to be fair, Nintendo Power often got a pass because those Mario and Zelda games were constantly excellent and still are today. Well, as long as you’re not talking about the Mario and Zelda games that were released for that cutting-edge Phillips CD technology.

When the final issue of Nintendo Power came out, I was working at a bookstore and it had been so long since I had even looked at Nintendo Power. When I saw the modernized, and more competent take on that first issue’s cover (Mario’s clothes are colored correctly and Wart is replaced with Bowser), I had no choice but to buy it.

The most affecting part of it was the final two pages, where Nester (no longer a know-it-all child, but a proud father of the next generation of gamers) laments the end of the magazine. His son reassures him, and the last thing we see is Nester’s room, filled with reminders of how special the publication really was under all of its flaws. The strategy guide, the Virtual Boy, the Nester award statue, the Legend of Zelda map, the many posters, and even Howard Phillip’s bowtie.

It was a reminder of how Nintendo Power was a product of its time, but it made the most of it. It was never sustainable in the long run due to the diverse gaming marketplace and the internet making it feel obsolete, but for a flashy series of advertisements in print form, it truly felt like something special.

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