Fancy graphics are fine, but all gamers know in their hearts that nothing will ever top the drama of Final Fantasy VII or the pure physicality of Super Mario Bros. 3. Playboy’s Retro Gaming articles look at why we love the classics and give you your nostalgia fix.
You know the scene. It’s at the end of the 1989 kid’s movie The Wizard, during the climactic video game tournament. Nine-year-old Nintendo prodigy Jimmy Woods (Luke Edwards), in last place, struggles with Super Mario Bros. 3. Suddenly, somehow, Jimmy discovers one of Mario 3’s hidden Warp Whistles. It’s just what he needs, and Jimmy wins the championship. The crowd goes wild.
“It’s a fun movie,” Jeff Hansen, a 35-year-old computer engineer, tells Playboy. Like so many other gamers, Jeff spent his childhood pawing through the pages of Nintendo Power magazine. He stayed up late on weekends, clutching a controller and dreaming of tournament gold.
Unlike most gamers of the era, though, Jeff actually got that gold.
“Growing up, it was awesome to think of the possibility of someone winning a video game championship,” Jeff says. “And then…it actually came true for me.”
In 1990, Hansen took first place in the Nintendo World Championships at Universal Studios, Hollywood (11 and under category). This year, on Sunday, June 14, the Nintendo World Championships returns for its 25th anniversary, but Jeff won’t be competing.
After all, he already had his shot at video game glory, not to mention the prizes: a $10,000 savings bond, a 1990 Geo Metro Convertible (which Jeff sold immediately—he was only 10), a 40" television, and a three year career as a combination Nintendo spokesperson and mascot.
Even by today’s standards, that’s pretty decent, especially for a kid who entered the contest on a whim.
Jeff was a big gamer. He kept a tally of every game he beat—somewhere over a hundred, he thinks—and travelled with a sheet full of cheat codes tucked into an armband. “Anywhere I went, I was prepared,” he says.
When he saw an ad for Nintendo’s travelling PowerFest show, which hosted the World Championship’s qualifying matches and showed off demos of upcoming titles, he begged to go. But he wasn’t interested in the competition. “All I wanted to do was go and play the new games,” he says.
Still, once Jeff arrived at the Salt Lake Convention Center, the allure of the Nintendo World Championships proved too strong to resist. Jeff handed over the $3 entrance fee and tried his luck.
GO HOME, MARIO
Despite what The Wizard taught us, Super Mario Bros. 3 never appeared at the Nintendo World Championships. Instead, the competition used a special cartridge that mashed up three different games. Contestants had to collect 50 coins in the original Super Mario Bros., finish a lap in Rad Racer, and then use the remaining time to rack up as many points as possible in Tetris.
“They’d start a round and you’d start playing,” Jeff says. “After the round was over, they had some people go by and get the high scores from that round. If it was high enough, they’d invite you back, and say, ‘Y'know, you can compete in the finals for the city.’”
The regional finals were held on Sunday night. First-place finishers won an all-expense paid trip to Hollywood and a spot in the championship tournament.
Jeff placed third in his age group, good enough to win a Game Boy, but not enough to move on to the next round. That should’ve been the end of the story, but the Game Boy came with Tetris, one of the competition titles.
“I played my heart out on Tetris for the next couple of months—not necessarily practicing, but just because I loved playing Tetris,” Jeff says. “A couple of months later, my parents figured that I was good enough that we would fly down to the very last city on the tour, which was Tampa, Florida.”
For the next few weeks, Jeff practiced five to six hours a day. His work paid off: in Florida, Jeff won first place. He was in Hollywood a week later.
Nintendo put the contestants—thirty in each age group, 90 in all—in a swanky Hollywood hotel, and filled one of the conference halls with consoles so they could practice. “We would eat breakfast, then we’d go practice for a couple of hours, then we’d eat lunch, then we could do whatever we want,” Jeff says.
The Wizard makes the Nintendo World Championships look like a pretty cutthroat affair, but according to Jeff, it wasn’t that way at all. “It was a good group of people,” Jeff says. The night before the competition, the kids shared strategies, trying to figure out any last-minute secrets. No luck. “It’d pretty much been figured out,” Jeff says. “All the secrets were known.”
Every contestant received a copy of the competition cartridge. According to Jeff, that was the kids’ idea. He says, “A lot of people had said, 'You know, we really want a cartridge,’ so Nintendo finally caved.”
These days, those same cartridges are worth about $8,000. Jeff still has his. “It works,” he says proudly.
SCRAPING BY TO GREATNESS
The tournament itself “was totally nerve-wracking,” Jeff says. The competition consisted of three rounds. First, all 30 kids played, and Nintendo recorded their scores. From there, the top seven battled it out, and after that, the top two.
At first, Jeff ran into trouble. “I think I was the last place of the top seven. I did not do a very good job,” he says, “but luckily, I made it.”
The rest of the tournament went better. Jeff can’t recall who he faced in the last round, but he does remember the flurry of activity that followed. “A lot of PR, a lot of interviews, a lot of talking to people, a lot of pictures,” he says.
And then it was over. Childhood dream achieved. Jeff flew back to Utah that same night.
But that wasn’t the end of Jeff’s association with Nintendo. “For the next couple of years, they actually had me tour with Nintendo and promote video games,” he says. In conjunction with the NCAA basketball tournament, Nintendo flew Jeff to Philadelphia, where he played a video game against Rasheed Wallace. When The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening came out, they sent him on a train trip from New York to Seattle.
Jeff even travelled to Japan, where he faced off against the Japanese champ, Yuichi Suyama, on a show called The Super Mario Club. “I just totally killed him,” Jeff says, though it wasn’t exactly a fair fight; a few weeks before Jeff went to Tokyo, Nintendo sent him the SNES cartridge used in the competition. “I practiced that probably about eight hours a day,” Jeff says. Meanwhile, Yuichi had never played the competition cartridge, and had no idea that Jeff was waiting in the wings.
A year later, Jeff and Yuichi had a rematch. Jeff won again, but he says “it was much, much closer.”
By 1994, Jeff was more or less finished as Nintendo champ. He didn’t bother competing in Nintendo’s 1994 PowerFest tournament, and these days, he doesn’t have any contact with the company.
Nintendo’s moved on, too. When the Nintendo World Championships return this Sunday at 2 PM PDT, only half of the sixteen contestants will be regional champs; the rest will be popular Twitch streamers, speed-runners, and “Let’s Play” video stars from YouTube. Retro games will be part of the competition, but so will modern titles, like Nintendo’s new third-person shooter, Splatoon. Instead of reading about the tournament after-the-fact, fans will be able to watch the Championships live on YouTube, Twitch, and Nintendo’s website..
Maybe Jeff will watch, but maybe not. [Edit: Jeff will be at the 2015 Championships as Nintendo’s guest of honor, a fact he was unable to divulge at the time of this interview. His role there is strictly ceremonial.] He’s got other things to do. He has a job, and a family. Nintendo will always be a big part of Jeff’s life, but it’s never been his only concern. “I played a lot of video games, but I always made sure that I had my priorities straight,” he said.
Jeff thanks his mother for that. “She always made sure that I did my homework first,” he says, “and all my chores, and my piano…I think it’s important to make sure that you have a balanced lifestyle.”
It’s a lesson that Jeff’s trying to pass on to his own children, too. These days, when he games, it’s a family activity. “When we get a new game, we’ll just sit down, and we’ll all play a game together,” he says.
“And then we’ll go back to life.”
Christopher Gates is a writer and video game critic from Los Angeles, CA. In his spare time, he watches too much baseball, reads too many comics, and drinks too much beer. Follow him on Twitter at @ChrisWGates.