Earlier this week, The Internet Archive and retromags.com teamed up to put a massive collection of Nintendo Power magazines online. It's an exciting development for nostalgic gamers everywhere, as many of us grew up eagerly consuming the publication to satiate our cravings for all things Nintendo.
Of course, it's not all rose-tinted memories: looking back on the earliest issues of Nintendo Power, it often feels like a poorly-written company propaganda device. And, let's face it - that's basically what it was! But even as it relentlessly shilled for the output of a single company, Nintendo Power changed the face of how North American gaming publications presented themselves, forcing other game magazines to scramble to adapt to Nintendo Power's ways of presenting things in order to compete.
So how did Nintendo Power transform the landscape of North American game magazines so drastically? The answer is a bit surprising—it took its influence directly from overseas.
A quick look in the masthead of early Nintendo Power issues reveals that the magazine was a joint production between Nintendo and Japanese publishing powerhouse Tokuma Shoten, who published Family Computer Magazine (a periodical devoted to the Famicom, the Japanese equivalent of the NES). There's a lot Japanese staff on the magazine, and many of the latter are on the design side of things. This, as it turns out, made a huge difference.
It's not hard to see why Nintendo Power became a phenomenon when you compare it to its contemporaries, like the Game Players issue above. Nintendo Power offered big, colorful illustrations and dynamic layouts that were instantly more exciting and appealing than giant blocks of text surrounding blurry screenshots. Sequential, stitched-together screenshot maps and the detailed pointers that accompanied them also felt like a revelation, as they were much easier to follow and utilize than text walkthroughs.
It wasn't just the big features on the games themselves that made the magazine such an appealing read, however. Nintendo Power brimmed with comics, stories, and other special features that varied from issue to issue. If you were lucky, one of your favorite games would have a cheat code or special strategy showcased in the Classified Information section—or, if the Nintendo Game Play Counselor line had received enough questions about a particular sequence in a game, they might print the solution to reduce the amount of headaches the then-live staff had to deal with. The Power Rankings that appeared in each issue gave an important pre-internet look into what the current gaming zeitgeist was: readers would send in survey cards with the games they were playing or looking into at the time, and those results (which always seemed a little slanted towards first-party products) would show up in the next issue.
Many of these standout features of the magazine had direct precedents in Japanese gaming publications of the time, including Family Computer Magazine. The busy, illustration-laden layouts were based heavily around Japanese game magazine layout style, which itself drew upon the eye-catchingly crowded layouts of kids' manga anthologies. Illustrations, breakouts, and creatively placed screenshots would be used to keep kids engaged and reading all about hot new and upcoming Nintendo videogames, even the ones they didn't care so much about.
Tips and tricks sections filled with secret cheats and codes were an analogue to "ura-waza" (hidden technique) portions in Japanese magazines. Even the Power Ranking section was inspired by similar features in Japan, where readers would be asked to send in a survey card to talk about what their favorite current and upcoming games were.
Almost all of the artwork done for Nintendo Power was created in Japan, and it shows. While it might not have registered with kids at the time, looking back on it now, it's easy to see the sort of hallmarks of anime- and manga- influenced design on many of the images decorating the pages. One of the artists featured is particularly noteworthy: Nintendo Power is the home of some very early works from artist Katsuya Terada, who has skyrocketed to international renown since. It's hard to believe that part of his pathway to fame was achieved by drawing Zelda illustrations to appear next to blurry screen captures in a foreign game magazine, but there you go.
Comics were a crucial part of Nintendo Power, and these were another carryover from Japan. (To this day, comics are still present in many gaming magazines.) As with the illustrations, these were handled on the Japan side. Howard and Nester, a comic which featured Nintendo Power's mascot character along with a caricature of Nintendo of America VP Howard Lincoln, feels especially Japanese in retrospect: the weirdly spaced lettering of the word balloons suggests an artist who was basically drawing and lettering what he was told without really understanding the conventions of the language or American comic presentation. Later issues post-SNES launch would actually see serialized manga based on specific game titles come into focus: one of the most beloved creators of enduring Japanese pop culture properties, Shotaro Ishinomori, would do a loose adaptation of Link to the Past, while illustrator and musician Benimaru Itoh would adapt Starfox and Super Metroid.
Nintendo Power would eventually drop most of its Japanese production side over time, becoming wholly US-based by the mid-90s, then shifting publishers to Future publishing in 2007 before ending its run in 2012. However, the mark the early Japanese production crew of Nintendo left on the fledgling world of North American game publications was indelible. While Nintendo Power has left us (though an unofficial follow-up, Nintendo Force, is going strong), Tokuma Shoten continues to publish Family Computer Magazine's successor, Nintendo Dream, in Japan to this day. Sometimes revisiting nostalgia rips the rose-colored glasses off of our face, but in the case of early Nintendo Power, examining it through a different lens entirely reveals something even more interesting than we first thought.