MY DAD WAS THE GAME MASTER
BY ALEX PHILLIPS
While most kids’ parents limit their children’s time playing video games, my Dad did the opposite. That is because my dad is Howard Phillips, Nintendo’s former spokesperson and creative director, known better to first-generation Nintendo players as the Game Master. Idol to thousands of young Mario Bros fans, Dad knew every trick in the gaming book before he left the company in 1991. I reached him at our old home in Seattle through Skype to talk about his career at the forefront of mass-consumer gaming and as a cultural icon—a position that helped leveraged playground status for me and my sister Katherine.
Vice: Hey Dad, can you hear me?
Yeah, the connection is all right. Let’s get going so your Mom and I can—
OK, OK. For the benefit of our readers, can you tell me what your job as the Game Master entailed?
I was asked to play all the games, develop the ideas, and to send them to Mr. Arakawa, the former head of Nintendo America, and Mr. Niromoto, who was in charge in Japan.
Video games were just getting going again in the US after Atari had come and gone. It was still a toy, not a format, so not a lot of people were familiar with them. People saw ads for Nintendo, but we wanted to personalize it and let people know why gaming was cool and fun. That was my job.
You were also the President of the fan club.
When it came to tips for games, reviews, or high scores that kids were sending in, I knew all of that stuff. That’s the reason I became president. Do you remember your sweatshirt?
Am I in trouble if I say no?
It was white and the logo was pink and blue? Katherine wore it a lot. That might have been when you were a little piece of mush, like six months old.
Yeah, eyes, mouth, toes. Smiling, but not a lot going on.
I remember seeing you in Nintendo Power magazine a lot.
That was the first really great gaming magazine because it covered the most popular game system.
The one you worked for.
We only had 18 games when it first came out, but we thought it would be cool to be able to tell people when there were others coming out—something specifically not corporate. The coolest thing about it was that we gave it away for free for the first few years.
That is a cool idea.
Kids loved the magazine because it included screen shots. Pre-internet and VCRs, actually showing kids the games was the only way to explain how to do tricks. They couldn’t just look it up online.
Of course it was marketing. But for the kids it didn’t matter.
And the Howard and Nester comic?
Howard and Nester
was another idea to present tips and tricks to the kids. Nester was the quintessential video game kid, not wanting to ask for help but needing it. We could use him as an example of what most kids were trying in the games and wasn’t working. Howard was just me—the one who knew all the games and tricks.
Is there any truth to the rumor that Nester was also based on you?
Maybe a little bit. But many boys are like that. They want to do everything themselves and figure things out on their own. I was that way, and still am.
Why did you wear the bowtie?
I never liked wearing ties. They are big honking pieces of cloth that weigh a lot, and when you wear them and go around corners you can feel it. Bowties are simple and easy, just like tying a shoe. It was a better thing all around.
Did Nintendo try and brand you with it?
They didn’t play it up at all. It was my choice. But the media did because they were a bunch of straight-tie goofballs.
That’s weird, because I haven’t seen you wear one since you left Nintendo.
I haven’t been dressed up recently.
Can you tell me the story of that shiny purple sports jacket that I love so dearly?
Yeah it just says “Nintendo Rocks the 90s.” Looking back on it now it's kind of lame but still fun because it was talking about how cool the 90s were going to be.
How did you go from working in the Nintendo warehouse to becoming the Game Master?
I had a job in the warehouse shipping all the Donkey Kong arcade units around the country. I would personally move the games to the local places, like behind the hotdog machine at the 7-Eleven, and would also do maintenance. I took it as a chance to watch kids play and see what they liked and didn't like so I could pass that information on to Mr. Arakawa. I would also give them pointers on how to improve.
You made yourself indispensible.
In 1985, when they decided to release the Nintendo game console in the US, Mr. Arakawa asked me which games they should release. After examining them, I gave him 16 games and my reasons. I think it was the first game portfolio.
That sounds like quite a bit of responsibility.
Soon after that I was doing nothing but running around developing and playing games. At meeting with developers, Mr. Arakawa would come to me and say, "Play this game and tell me what you think.” It was kind of embarrassing. It was hard to say things that weren't popular, like "Your game sucks." I would just say it wasn't fun.
Were us kids ever part of your game analysis? I always felt really important. Every kid's opinion was important. Sorry for bursting your bubble. I just made sure that I got the most out of it when I saw a kid playing. It was fun watching you and Katherine with boys because you would breeze by with a high level of game knowledge. You liked being experts. Were there gamer groupies? Yeah, there were. Katherine thought it was really cool. I still get emails from people who remember me from when they were six years old. They write about how much they loved the games and the company. For me, that is really validating. I wanted to be an advocate of the kids. I said “groupies,” not kid gamers. The parents could be creepy though. There was some lady at an event who gushed to your mom about how good my manual dexterity must be. Oh my God. That is nasty. Yep. Some of the moms were crazy. How did your job change over the years? It was such a different ballgame when you left the company. I had been doing the creative director thing for four or five years and the industry was really starting to grow. It was like the dotcom boom but obviously well before that. It was the beginning of the tech age. My skill, which was that I knew every game, wasn't possible by the time I left. It was quite a bummer. What do you think the future holds for gaming? We still have the same traditional themes, such as the unlikely hero, but as the production of games becomes less expensive, people will use the medium in new and different ways that aren't as classically "game-like." This new core is really about problem solving. Can you explain? With games, we are given an opportunity to explore the world, and I think the technology of games will allow us to do more of that in the future. Things like feeding the poor in Africa. So you’d like more fantasy. Why don't we try doing what we would never do in the real world but would do in a game? This will allow us to expose how we are doing things in the real world. You’re a good person, Dad.