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.
Let’s go back to 1988: a pre-internet, pre-digital era, when news traveled a lot more slowly. That was the year that Nintendo Power released its debut issue.
Back then, if players got stuck on the Turbo Tunnel in Battletoads, there was no tutorial video on YouTube showing them how to conquer it. If it was the holiday shopping season, there was no Metacritic algorithm to tell them that that Shaq Fu was awful. Nintendo Power was an unchallenged wealth of information; every issue included full-blown maps of levels, tips for beating final bosses, and codes for unlocking secret characters and skipping levels.
But for Nintendo Power it wasn’t enough to be the authority on gaming strategy. This was no clinical list of codes and walkthroughs; the staff exerted a lot of effort to entertain their readers as well. And one of the many ways they retained their audience’s attention was through comics, always based around the popular games of the time.
These comic adventures usually stretched over the course of multiple issues, and covered the narrative material for some of Nintendo’s most famous characters, such as Mario, Luigi, Link and Samus Aran. These longer length features, however, didn’t come until a few years into Nintendo Power’s history, around the release of the Super Nintendo. For the earlier, 8-bit console years, Nintendo Power’s sole comic was a two page feature called “Howard & Nester”—one of Nintendo’s earliest marketing successes.
Starting with its debut issue in 1988, Nintendo Power published the “Howard & Nester” comic every month for a total of three years. It has since passed into the annals of video game history. But the story of this comic—its genesis, its creation, and its sustainment—is no self-contained narrative. It’s also the story of Nintendo in America, and how an ambitious team made video games accessible for a whole generation.
Comedy relies on foils.
Someone needs to make the jokes, and someone else needs to react to them. One person needs to be the rule breaker, and the other needs to be the worrywart. It’s a reliable trope that entertainment has used for as long as entertainment has existed: Laurel and Hardy. Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin. More recently, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey; Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson.
Howard and Nester were cut from this cloth. On one hand, you had Howard, the neatly dressed adult with his bowtie and saddle shoes, the “President of the Nintendo Fun Club.” Howard’s character was the know-it-all expert on all things Nintendo; he knew where every secret in every video game was hidden, and he knew how to defeat every final boss. He dispensed advice in a confident, friendly fashion.
On the other hand, you had Nester, the recipient of Howard’s wisdom. Nester was a bratty, irritable kid—overly confident in his gaming skills, but lacking in expertise. And like a cocky kid, he assumed he knew better than any of the people around him, and plunged headfirst into any game-related conundrum.
The template for a “Howard & Nester” comic was standard from month to month. Nester would either be playing a video game or role-playing within a video game, such as Super Mario Bros. 3. At first he would progress nicely and get a full head of steam. But then he would come across a problem, such as finding the second Warp Whistle in SMB3, that he couldn’t solve.
It was at this point that Howard would swoop in and save the day by providing the solution to the problem. Nester would then either follow the advice and grudgingly accept Howard’s tip, or he would ignore Howard completely and suffer the consequences.
Sometimes the tip was an overall strategy of how to win, rather than a solution to a specific obstacle, like in this Super Spike V'Ball comic, which gave a general strategy about moving back from the net rather than blocking up close.
What made “Howard & Nester” fun was that the comic was told from Nester’s standpoint; thus, your sympathy always lay with him. You wanted him to succeed without Howard’s help, for the same reason that you wanted the Coyote to catch the Roadrunner, and you wanted Daffy to outwit Bugs. It wasn’t going to happen—ever—but the appeal was in seeing him try.
THE MAIN PLAYERS
The story of “Howard & Nester” really starts with a woman by the name of Gail Tilden, the founder and first Editor-in-Chief of Nintendo Power. Tilden was one of the first employees of Nintendo of America, starting in 1983. Then in her mid 20s, Tilden rose quickly in the ranks. Nintendo had a small operation in the States (only about 40 people in the Washington state office), and when the original Nintendo Entertainment System was released in 1985, Tilden, then the marketing manager, headed up the advertising and PR campaign.
It was during this process, of taking something that was booming in Japan and translating it for the American marketplace, that Tilden met Howard Phillips, the namesake and inspiration for the Howard character in “Howard & Nester.” At the time, Phillips was working as the shipping and warehouse manager for Nintendo—a far cry from the editorial and PR departments. Tilden has fond memories of Phillips, one of Nintendo’s earliest employees, riding on his skateboard to get around the warehouse.
Working in delivery, however, had other, more tangible benefits: Phillips was one of the first people to receive the games when they arrived at headquarters, and thus, he was one of the first ones to play and master them. He then advised Nintendo of America President Minoru Arakawa on which games were good, which games were bad, and which games should be promoted.
“I became the ‘in-house go-to person,’” says Phillips in an interview with Playboy. “I had a perspective that was somewhat rational and informed—I could speak to why one game was better than another, and why one game fell short.”
Tilden, though she was a prodigal marketer and idea person, wasn’t a dedicated gamer; she needed someone who knew the games, could appeal directly to a young, male audience, and could market Nintendo in shopping malls and demos across the country. In other words, she needed Phillips.
“He had a fun and outgoing personality; at the time, he had just started dating his future wife, Dayna…and as the business moved forward, people used him as the ‘Nintendo Gamer’ persona,” said Tilden in a phone interview with Playboy. “So often, people in the press [wanted] to talk about the business and the numbers. But when they wanted to talk about the games, and which games were great, Howard was the best person.”
Phillips recounts a memory of Tilden approaching him and asking if he wanted to be the “Nintendo Fun Club President.” Phillips’ reaction was “Sure, whatever”—he didn’t see the extent that he would play in the company’s marketing success.
“I think Gayle, with her marketing background, could see the potential going out a year or two,” says Phillips. “I had no idea it was going to be such an all-encompassing thing.”
After a successful mall tour, Phillips and Tilden’s big collaborative project was Nintendo Power, a full-length magazine derived from the original Nintendo Fun Club newsletter. Gaming magazines similar to Nintendo Power, which provided maps, detailed layouts and walkthroughs of entire levels, were already popular in Japan. Arakawa wanted to bring something similar to American shores. And again, the project complemented both Tilden and Phillips perfectly.
Tilden, as Editor-in-Chief, handled the backend of the publication, and took care of things like layout, editorial consistency, and communication between the United States and Japan. Nintendo co-published with Japanese publisher Tokuma, and partnered with a small Japanese production company called Work House, which had the ability to photograph screenshots and compile maps of entire video games. Tilden met every month with her Japanese co-partners to ensure a high level of quality and detail, and also to ensure that the design elements were palatable to a Western audience’s eyes.
Phillips, on the other hand, had a more abstract, but no less important role. His job was to provide creative direction on which games to cover, and to fact check and confirm all of the tips and clues in the magazine. Consider: a single disorganized map, a single botched code or a single misuse of lingo could undercut the magazine’s standing as the final authority on Nintendo games.
As “President of the Nintendo Fun Club,” Phillips was also the public face for the magazine. He appeared in the advertisements and committed to a ton of PR work.
One would assume, by all outward appearances, that Phillips was the editor-in-chief rather than Tilden. This suited Tilden just fine; she felt strongly that the readers would not connect to the product if someone who looked like their mothers was promoting it to them.
The magazine’s goal was not only to give the readers a glut of information, but to package that information in a manner that made it accessible to a wide range of readers. In the field of education, this process of creating multiple entry points is known as “differentiation.” Some audience members might respond better to text, whereas others might respond better to visuals—which brings us back to “Howard & Nester.” The strip was created as one of the many ways that Nintendo Power could relay information and differentiate for its audience.
“We would have these 6-8 page stories with maps and game heavy information, and you needed some kind of relief,” says Tilden. “‘Howard and Nester’ was one those things we came up with to have a little breathing room editorially.”
Phillips devised the Nester character from his experience of watching kids play during his mall tours.
“I give tips to kids, and they say, ‘Oh I know that,’ or they act like they got it under control,” recalls Phillips. “And I can see, clearly, that they don’t know what they’re doing, or don’t know what what they need to do to get past a certain obstacle or block.”
“There was a natural relationship between someone who had all the knowledge [and someone who did not],” Phillips says.
The strip was created entirely in Japan by Work House, from the drawings themselves to the lettering of the dialogue. Tilden and Phillips would receive the concept, and it was up to them and the rest of the editorial staff to fill in the dialogue bubbles and thought bubbles with English words. Phillips also helped train the official “game counselors” who worked on Nintendo’s phone tipline, helping them learn to explain game concepts in a transparent, no frills fashion. But he never wanted to just hand out solutions.
Instead, the tip would be deliberately vague. One of the best “Howard & Nester” comics cast Nester in the role of Simon Belmont in Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. The game had a notorious puzzle to enter Bodley Mansion—the player had to kneel at a dead end for several seconds while selecting the Red Crystal item. In the comic, Howard gives half of the solution—Nester cuts him off before he can finish it—but that’s a good thing. It nudges the player in the right direction without destroying the satisfaction of solving the puzzle by one’s self.
The process—of drafting, editing, and re-editing—was made even more difficult by a lack of the internet and a number of cultural differences. Even something as simple as a sound effect might be lost in translation. Every month Tilden and Phillips would fly to Japan to complete final editorial work before the issue went to the presses. Other than that, their options were long distance phone calls and faxes; at the beginning, there was one fax machine and one xerox machine at Nintendo of America headquarters. The original Nintendo Power staff only had five full-time employees, including Tilden.
When I asked both Tilden and Phillips about their fondest Howard and Nester memory, they both recalled the exact same thing: the Tetris cover story from November/December 1989. Arakawa was firm about it; he wanted a full length, cover feature on Tetris. And Tilden was at a loss.
“How are we possibly going to do 16 pages on this game?” Tilden remembers thinking.
“Howard & Nester” came to the rescue and injected some much needed cuteness and humor into the tutorial. The two characters were re-imagined as Tetris pieces: Howard was an L-piece, and Nester was a box-piece. The art staff used practical 3D models rather than drawings to give the art some much needed physicality. Phillips credits Tilden with this particular idea.
“It certainly wasn’t my idea to put a bowtie on a Tetris block!” Phillips says.
The Tetris article also proved that both Howard and Nester had arrived as pop culture figures. They were completely recognizable, not by their faces or builds, but by their iconography—Nester, by the tufts of hair sticking out of the top of his head, and Howard by his trademark bowtie. The famous bowtie, as it turns out, was not “part of the act;” the real Phillips wore bowties too. He often wore them at the suggestion of his future wife, then girlfriend Dayna, who thought that he looked completely dashing in them.
“I got married in a bowtie and saddle shoes, so there you go,” Phillips says. “My wife still dresses me today.”
“I didn’t like ties,” Phillips says. “They made me pass out when I was a kid. But a bowtie? You can tie it looser, and it still looks good. You also don’t have this huge chunk of fabric swinging below you.”
Howard Phillips left Nintendo of America in 1991 to pursue a new opportunity at LucasArts. The last “Howard & Nester” comic featured The Lone Ranger, and in the final couple of panels, Howard gives Nester his bowtie before riding off into the sunset.
Tilden stayed at Nintendo Power for several more years; Howard & Nester was renamed “Nester’s Adventures” and got a brand new artist. Eventually the comic ran its course and was cancelled in 1993. Tilden left the magazine in 1998 to market and introduce Pokémon to American shores. Nintendo Power lived on, but unfortunately its golden age was in the past. The magazine now had to compete against the internet for exclusive information, and that was a battle that, in the long run, it was not going to win.
Today, Tilden and Phillips work in different areas of entertainment. Tilden is a creative consultant for Enterplay, where she is currently promoting competitive card games such as My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Phillips is still involved in gaming, and also works as a consultant. He’s currently working in Berlin as Head of Game Design and User Experience at GameDuell.
And as for Nintendo Power, the print version was cancelled in 2009. It had outlived its purpose; today, we have YouTube video walkthroughs and collaborative online Wikis. With scant exceptions, any secrets are sussed out within a month of a game’s release. But the magazine and its “Howard & Nester” comic survive as a fascinating cultural artifact, from a time when video games were still new to a lot of people and gamers were still discovering how to talk about them and why they love them so much.
Wing-Man Wong has written about video games and popular culture since 2013, and has been published in multiple online and print publications. Follow him on Twitter to learn more.
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This article was updated to correct two minor factual errors.