I am Howard Phillips, Gamemaster, ask me anything!
Hi and welcome to my iAMA. While I've completed the "active" response period, I will revisit this topic several times over the next few days and try to respond to as many of your questions as I can. I am the creator and former writer of Nintendo Fun Club News and Nintendo Power. Don't forget to check our my segment on the EMMY nominated series “8-Bit Legacy: The Curious History of Video Games,” available now on www.greatbigstory.com.
I was responsible for keeping current with the competition so I had to play all the leading competitor games. My favorite competitor game was the arcade game Robotron.
Hi Howard, you might not remember this but yeeeeaars ago in the early days of the internet, you reviewed Super Mario 64. I can't recall the site it was on or even what company you were working for at that time (this would been a few years after you left Nintendo), but the thing that always stands out in my memory is that the Gamemaster gave Super Mario 64 a poor review.
One of your central criticisms, as I remember it, was of the lack of interesting powerups. More specifically, you called the Wing Cap a massive disappointment and compared it to the Feather powerup in Mario World--you could fly around do cool moves, but ultimately there was nothing interesting to discover, no hidden secrets in the sky.
My question for you is (if you can even remember writing this review), have you ever revisited Super Mario 64 since then, and has your opinion of the game changed at all?
Hi - I remember having a hollow feeling with the power-ups - much like pilotwings which simply got old quickly. Players like to explore the possibilities and discover the unknown - simply flying around gets old quickly.
I haven't played SMB64 in years : 0
Did any "heads roll" due to the graphic Castlevania image on Nintendo Power's second issue?
Nope - it was Gail Tilden's idea and the controversy / PR was good for the game
What is the most underrated Nintendo game in your opinion?
Faxanadu - a great game lost in the release of so many highly promoted sequels
Do you still have contact with Nintendo? Do they ask you to test new games on the Switch?
I have a few friends still at Nintendo but they rely on a new set of eyes and fingers to do their testing now...
What was the most obscure piece of Nintendo merchandise/product/media?
The Knitting machine
Super Mario Bros. 2 was deemed too hard for American audiences, and we didn't see a console version of it until the Lost Levels.
Did you have any input to that decision?
I believe so - ultimately Mr. A decided but I lobbied hard that the game had some sucky bits in it. Unpredictable and so unavoidable kills like the wind gusts on jumps is not good design IMHO.
What is your favorite piece of Nintendo memorabilia that you own?
Favorite? hmm... I like the few protos I still have, the serial# 0002 Super Famicom, but I gues its my original Gameboy with my initial scratched on the back so I could recognize it and get it back when others at Nintendo "borrowed" it.
What does Gamemaster mean?
Its a term that game from Nintendo Japan - the engineers and staff there startrted telling me I was gamemaster as in "the gamemaster" - kinda weird, kinda fun...
What's Nester up to these days?
I'm not sure - that an NOA question ; )
Did you feel like you were personally playing with power at Nintendo?
A marketing agency came up with that phrase - it didn't resonate with me but... playing with Nintendo Power (the magazine) as a companion piece made sense to me.
Why did North America immediately lose the SNES cartridge locking mechanism just after launch while the rest of the world kept it? I suspect maybe Americans kept trying to yank-out game paks and damaged them.
Americans were pretty dopey-hard on the hardware compared to the rest of the world where players treated their systems better. One of the things we did at NOA was help Nintendo Japan appreciate just how hard American players could be on their game systems.
Original card carrying member of the Nintendo fun club here. I remember begging my grandma to buy me a wallet just so I could have something to put my Nintendo fun club membership card in! I felt like I was part of an elite group. Chat me up, where did the idea for the NFC come from, and what happened? I wish it were still around.
The Fun Club came from Gail Tilden and others in marketing as a way to establish ongoing marketing communication with players. It morphed into Nintendo Power which then was replaced with the internet ; )
What are your thoughts on socks? Noticed you weren’t wearing any in the GBS video...
Socks are a winter city thing - the segment was filmed in the Summer and I live in the high but warm desert : )
Hi there.....were you involved with game development back then? What games?
I provided feedback on the arcade games and Game & Watch products to Mr. Arakawa (NOA) and Nintendo Japan. I also ran the test route for the arcade games. The I played all the FCS games as potential future NES games and gave feedback to Mr. Arakawa and Nintendo Japan. The I was a 2nd-party producer of sorts for the RARE NES games and the North American liason for the NES versions of the Nintendo's FCS games...
Was the bowtie your idea? Did you dress yourself that way?
I disliked long ties as they made me pass out when I was a kid - I did dress myself ; )
What’s the most memorable moment you’ve experienced in your career? Thanks for all the fun moments you helped create!
Getting to Bowser at the end of SMB and not being able to beat him because the draw bridge was missing - the game wasn't finished yet and Mr. A had a great time teasing me while I struggled repeatedly saying I should be able to figure it out - I must have played through to the end at least a dozen times saving lives for that final moment - I'd drop Bowser and then burn lives trying everything before the timer ran out only to lose again and again : P
Have you ever watched "speedrunning", where players try to finish games as quickly as possible and if so, which games are your favorite to watch?
I was always a fan of SMB speed running - this started being a thing around the office once Sonic came out - you could play SMB like it was Sonic.
I'm in the middle of reading Console Wars currently. I'm actually at the part where Sega of America tried to woo you but it's from their point of view. How do you remember that dinner meeting?
The dinner meeting as described didn't happen : /
I did have dinner with Shinobu Toyoda (I recounted the story of that in the post reply below)
Who do you want in the next Super Smash Brothers?
Nintendo Power gave away a free copy of Dragon Warrior with every new subscription. I actually got two copies for some reason and sold one for the cost of the sub, so thanks for that! About 10 years ago I booted up that cartridge and my save was still on it.
Some credit this strategy as a way to introduce North American gamers to the RPG genre.
Why was Dragon Warrior chosen for the free game, and were other games considered?
Dragon Quest tested poorly primarily due to the relatively limited action play and the dated graphics - Mr. Arakawa badly wanted to get the benefit of releasing the whole series in the US as it had been hugely successful in Japan. Unfortunately, the graphics of Dragon Quest 1 looked really dated and this helped depress expectations. After ordering manufactur of 1 million copies, Mr. A decided to give it away to promote Nintendo Power subscriptions (it was originally a free magazine!), launch the series in the US, and get rid of the million copies of the game.
Whats the coolest/best/maybe most valuable/rarest item that you have from working with Nintendo?
I have some detailed info on each game cartridge that hasn't seen the light of day (yet ; )
Hello there, thank you for doing this AMA! I was wondering if you have ever read the book "Console Wars"? If so, do you feel the book gave you, Nintendo, and Sega fair portrayals when it comes to culture? As a third party reader it seemed a bit biased.
Blake interviewed me. His retelling is somewhat reflective of what really went down. His dialog attributed to me is made up, e.g.; I never had a dinner with Shinobu Toyoda and Tom Kalinske - I did have one with Shinobu-san and it was one of the more awkward and embarrassing moments of my career - I had decided to turn SEGA down (for reasons not mentioned in Console Wars) but Shinobu-san got on a plane and flew up to Seattle before word got to him - he thought he was signing me to SEGA over dinner and I had to let him know I had changed my mind - ack!
What is your favourite Nintendo game? Mine is Super Mario 64! 🍄
So many really great games - Donkey Kong, SMB, Zelda (the first one). But the list is easily dozens...
Have you ever played "A Week of Garfield", a Japanese Garfield game for the Famicom that mysteriously didn't have a U.S. release, and if so, do you have any thoughts on it? If not, what is your favorite game for the NES which is often looked at negatively but that you've always thought is pretty good?
A Week of Garfield didn't release on FCS until Spring of '89 - by then things were so hot in the North American NES market that most of my time was spent on those 1st party and 3rd party games.
Maybe Ice Climber? Challenging gameplay, interesting ice block effects, rewarding vertical progress - hmm...
What is your favorite Game & Watch? Mine is Climber!
Fire and Greenhouse. FIre because it got really hard quickly reaction-time-wise and Greenhouse because it was weirdly on the side of the Nintendo character set (Stanley!)
Was your character Nester based on you or someone you knew?
You (all) are Nester - so many of you responded to offered (and even requested) help by saying "I new that" ; )
Apart from the infamous fan letter from Mark Discordia published in Nintendo Power in the 80's, what are some examples of weird fan mail that you guys just couldn't publish?
Really almost all of you were so wide-eyed and innocent - those that wrote in were 99% cool - on only a few occasions did I get a nasty you-suck-my-ideas-are0great letter.
Nintendo brought over some VS Arcade games to arcades, but one game, VS Urban Champion is so ultra rare it's never been found for preservation. (until an upcoming Switch port) Did you guys ever even release that one over here, and if so, was it underproduced compared to Vs Castlevania or Vs SMB?
We released it on NES but I don't recall that we did on VS Arcade - the game was a bit slow for arcade
- Of all the hardware you've tested, which was your favorite?
- Did you test the Virtual Boy and, if so, what was your initial reaction to it?
FCS - if you all could imaging playing arcade games for years and crappy Atari 2600-class games then to find the FCS could play games JUST LIKE IN THE ARCADE - AMAZING!!!!
Virtualboy was interesting but cumbersome and the games were overly simple and uninspired
Why was there never a Howard the Gamemaster video game?
I'd like to think its because gameplay was more important than game theme - start with novel interesting play, not some weird character : )
Did you ever get to meet Shigeru Miyamoto or anyone like that?
yep - when he visited Nintendo of America and at various trade shows
What is your proudest achievement in your life?
Two amazing daughters and still having fun
I noticed that the SNES SuperScope and its receiver were clearly designed by Lance Barr since it matches the styling of the North American SNES. The Japanese SuperScope has the same North American style design. Other than the Super Scope and HVC-101 / SHVC-101, are there any other designs from Lance that were released overseas in Japan?
Good question - I'm not sure if one or more of his controller designs made it back to the Japanese market or to Europe. Good question!
What was your biggest achievement you have yet do far, and what do you wish to accomplish in the future?
Effective and engaging applications of game design and game theory in training and therapy - the cognitive science and neuroscience underlying play is fascinating to research and explore - I hope I can contribute to knowledge and understanding in that area...
You and Nes were my heroes growing up. Which was your favorite issue of Nintendo Power?
The first one!
Did Asciiware have access to original Nintendo parts like buttons, pads, connectors, etc? The Asciipad for SNES seems like a first-party product in many respects, especially when compared to other licensed controllers. Also, I love the NES Advantage joystick. It has many similarities to other sticks made by Asciiware (especially the joystick shaft and removable ball), but nothing on the package mentions the name. "Asciiware" was front and center on the Super Advantage box. Can you confirm if NES Advantage is related to Asciiware at all?  clarity
I don't think they did - the Advantage was a roll-your-own entirely by NOA industrial designer Lance Barr
How’s it going? Also, what are you up to nowadays?
Researching and writing - cognitive science, neuroscience, and play. Thinking about contributing to "the real story" of the early 8 Bit days...
maybe slightly off topic but, dont you think arcades could still thrive if arcade games were released a few months before any console, just like years ago? It seems as though it could still work, I mean this is how theatres still thrive...
That could work - the thing that really made arcades work well as a launch promo was the shared public experience that was time-limited. Standing in line watching someone else play and thinking "I'm going to beat that Boss, etc." really got you enthusiastic about taking the game cartridge home and playing it for hours.
Aw man, you're cool dude! Who owns the rights to the cartoon version of you? Would it be possible to make a new Howard-centered action adventure comic series?
The legacy H&N is Nintendo - future comic images would belong to whoever creates them I suppose...
What do you feel was your shining achievement while working at Nintendo? Also, Do you still play games today, if so what do you like to play?
I'm most proud of helping you all have access to fun games (not sucky ones).
For fun I play more casual games today and for professional interest I play games under development, especially games that are designed to provide benefit (therapy, etc.)
Have you ever tasted the switch cartridge?
no, have you?
Hello, thank you for doing this AMA. As a kid I was a big fan of the Nester Comics that came in the Nintendo Power magazines and always wondered, did Nester ever appear as an Easter egg in any game?
Not while I was at Nintendo 1981-1991
What was one of the biggest games that Nintendo pushed, that you actually thought was a sub-par game?
that's an easy one - Dragon Quest / Dragon Warrior - it was sub-pay because it was pushed into the Western market several years too late.
What is your favorite flavor of Nintendo Cereal System?
considering the impacts processed sugar has on mid and long-term health, my favorite is 'no thanks" ; )
Have you met Shigeru Miyamoto and or Reggie Fils -Amie in person? If so how are they really like in person? Also how was it like working for Nintendo Power Magazine? I remember getting that magazine was always the highlight of my life every month!
Miyamoto-san is a very nice guy who was always thinking about the gameplay and how players would experience it.
Reggie was an outsider newcomer who post-dated my time at Nintendo (I left in 1991 - 12 years before Reggie started). He came our of Proctor and Gamble marketing like Peter Main.
Working on Nintendo Power was a blast - so much new info every month!
Why doesn’t The Guardian Legend get more love?
It should - it deserves it - possibly because Broderbund was not strong at marketing and it didn't have a positive NES legacy to build upon - also, two words NINJA GAIDEN ; ) Ninja Gaiden came out about the same time and rocked the NES world.
What were your hopes, dreams and aspirations before working at Nintendo? Hearing your story, it sounds like you kind of lucked into what was probably the most coveted job of many a kid of the 80s and 90s. I'm just curious what you would have liked to have done with your life had providence not led you to Nintendo and a career in video games.
I wanted to work hard, accomplish stuff, and have fun while doing it. I've always been a builder and a fixer. Optimizing the use of resources and materials towards useful ends is intellectually and creatively the best job in the world... and with the ongoing tech revolution, the opportunities to do so are ever increasing. If Nintendo and I hadn't crossed paths, I'm sure I would have been building, fixing and optimizing stuff elsewhere
What are your thoughts about Microsoft's acquisition of Rare?
That said, i wish Chris and Tim the best - I enjoyed working with them when it was just the two of them (R.C Pro-Am!)
How good did you get at games with all that playing? Did you typically beat the games you were testing? I'm curious what game you think was your biggest accomplishment to beat.
I beat almost every one - it was my job to do so.
Were you involved with anything to do with the animated show "Captain N: the Gamemaster"? It has you written all over it.
no - I was blocked out of that project - I wish I could have been asked to contribute : |
What is in your opinion the worst Nintendo game that you have ever played?
A tie between several of the US-developed games released in '87 and '88 - a few LJN titles come to mind : 0
I assume you played many prototype games in your day. What were some of your favorites that were never released in the US?
Ack! - so many games... my favorite (quasi-)game is Ikinari Musician - not really a game, but...
The 8-Bit Legacy video mentions that in 1985 you were asked to list the 15 best games for the American market (https://youtu.be/h815ocHjbwI?t=176), do you happen to remember what games were on that list?
I posted my best recollection of the list below. I think Wrecking Crew was a later addition.
10-Yard Fight Baseball Clu Clu Land Duck Hunt Excitebike Golf Gyromite Hogan's Alley Ice Climber Kung Fu Mach Rider Pinball Stack-up Tennis Wild Gunman Wrecking Crew
I've read that you believed "Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels" was to difficult to complete for it to become the official "Super Mario Bros. 2". If you had changed your mind back then, what do you think would have happened to the franchise?
Hard to know - many variables impacting that hypothetical - possibly we would have burned a bunch of players with the overly punishing difficulty and shifted interest away from the SMB series? Also, the sensibilities at Nintendo Japan might have been reinforced in a manner that resulted in most punishing games being released - alternatively, it could have been a great success - we'll never know : |
What's something you believe Nintendo could do better?
Get back to its roots and put more resources into play - marketing is important but the big opportunity lies in new game development
Hi Howard. Since you were (at least partly) responsible for renaming a lot of the Japanese characters and other game elements for the early Nintendo games, I have a question that's been bugging me for years: did you rename Lakitu for the U.S. release of Super Mario Bros., and if so, where did the name come from and what is the intended pronunciation? (La-KI-tu? LA-ki-tu?)
I didn't - likely Gail or one of the writers from Nintendo Power did - LeslieS, ScottP, GeorgeS?
Any interesting stories from the days of the Nintendo Tip Hotline? My parents almost killed me for making a really long call once.
Only that we HAD to create Nintendo Power magazine to preclude so many phone calls - at one point it was a toll-free 800 number and then we needed 100+ game counselors just to answer questions - Nintendo Power really helped get in front of a lot of those questions/calls...
As game master does the opposite hold true? Are you a master of a game(s)? If yes, what game are you best at?
mastery is aspirational - its a concept that we all pursue throughout our live - being labeled "gamemaster" was a relative descriptor I guess - at the time (late '80s) it seems clear that no one in the world had access to and played as many games as I did - this isn't bragging or anything, its just recognizing the uniqueness of my circumstance at the time..
i know this is probably something i can look up online, but since you're here...
okay, i've always wondered. is the howard from the "howard and nester" comics from nintendo power you, or is it howard lincoln? if it was you, how did that whole thing come about?
you're a gaming legend, thanks.
Howard Lincoln was Nintendo's corp lawyer at the time - he was older and not a game player at all. H&N was Gail and my idea as a novel way to present tip info in Nintendo Power.
Did you get to play new games in Japanese or were they translated by the time you played them? Do you have any favorite import games that you were disappointed never made their ways overseas?
I played both FCS and NES prototypes - I played and completed the original Zelda before it had been translated to english and I didn't know Japanese so the puzzles were extra challenging and fun to solve.
There were a lot of not-so-inspired games in the later years of FCS that didn't make it to NES (thankfully). I don't recall any one that was great that I wished we could release on NES but didn't.
What do think of the Gaming Historian on YouTube? You are mentioned in some of his videos, most notably in his Super Mario Bros. 2 and ROB the Robot videos.
On a somewhat related note, what was the weirdest game that you play-tested?
I applaud serious efforts such as the Gaming Historian
Did you ever get to try out the unreleased NES game “Return of Donkey Kong”, or did that game not make it past the conceptual stage?
Return of Donkey Kong
As I recall it was just early concept work ...
What's your honest opinion on the Nintendo Switch allowing other developers' games on the Switch itself (i.e. Skyrim by Bethesda)? Do you think this detracts from the origins of Nintendo having proprietary software, or does it help them rise among the XBox One and PS4? (Personally, I love it except the multiplayer/co-op features on the Switch are lacking.)
open systems make the most sense assuming other systems are in place to afford players (customers) that opportunity to quickly and easily find the play experiences that they find the most enjoyable and rewarding.
Hi there. I just finished reading an older book about Nintendo that mentions you quite a bit, "Game Over" by David Sheff. There is a chapter that talks about NOA's earliest days, and how they received a ton of Radarscope machines that would then be converted into Donkey Kong machines. What was it like being with NOA so early on? Was Donkey Kong as mind blowing as the author makes it sound? Thanks!
Sheff's book is 30% reality IMO ; )
Radar Scope was an also-ran game like many others but not as cat-nippy (Galaga!)
Donkey Kong was unbelievably good and novel with its repetitious pathing to succeed and its multiple screens (most games had just one screen - so rewarding to complete one screen and move to the next environment (as opposed to completing one wave of baddies and seeing a new wave)
What did you think of the Nintendo Power issue cover and backlash promoting Castlevania 2? I always thought it was badass.
you and everyone else - only the more conservative thinkers took serious issue with it.
Do you remember the full line up of games released during the test launch in 1985? If so, can you list all of them? No one knows for sure whether Super Mario Bros. was available in 1985 or 1986 and there's conflicting evidence.
I'm pretty sure SMB cam out post-launch (its weird that none of us can remember with certainty)
As far as I can recall;
10-Yard Fight Baseball Clu Clu Land Duck Hunt Excitebike Golf Gyromite Hogan's Alley Ice Climber Kung Fu Mach Rider Pinball Stack-up Tennis Wild Gunman Wrecking Crew
Thanks for AMA as Great big story sums up everything in less then 8 minutes what all things are not part of that video which you think are worth mentioning?
There was a whole lot of drama and intrigue that went on during the 8 Bit days - maybe there's a book that hasn't been written yet that needs to be?
Who did you like working with the most out of the entire Nintendo team at the time?
So many people dedicated to making fun games - I really can pick just one. This said, I learned the most from working with and watching Mr. Arakawa - he was a smart, calm, savvy leader.
Hi Howard, was a teenager during the 80s and saw your visage and read your work often during that decade. Being an "adult" during them heady console days, did you really feel like you had landed the dream job?
I didn't have time to stop and think about it - there was so much to do - shipping/warehouse manager, playtest manager, 2nd-party producer, and gamemaster. I also had a newborn daughter and was going to school full time (MBA) - who had time to think about it?!
Where did you get your jacket?
The jacket was made for a trade show event in 1989(?) Nintendo Rocks the '90's - it was a lame event theme / tag-line
What are you up to now? Still involved in games? We miss you!
Neuroscience of play - stay tuned ; )
If you've played them, in your opinion, which console released the best version of Super Smash Bros?
sorry, no opinion : /
First, thanks for doing this AMA. You, Nintendo Power, and your 'appearance' in the NP comics were a highpoint of a relatively sub-par childhood.
My question is: "Were there any really great games or concepts that you backed or thought would be great for the American audience, but were otherwise 'shot down' by those you worked for/with?"
Thanks for your time and candid responses. Have an awesome day, yo!
I always wanted us to do more with games for schools - there is so much potential to have fun with mundane stuff. Sadly, this opportunity has proven to be unattractive to commercial enterprises and investors...
Do you remember the original Contra cheat code!? (up, up, down, down, left, right, left right, A, B, A, B, start, select)...? And were you a fan of the Nintendo Powerglove or disappointed by it?
Everyone who played games then knows that code - it worked on so many Konami games (Gradius!)
The power glove was a disappointment; it was not as precise as I would have liked it to be (tech limitations at the time) and there were not games designed optimally to play with it
Did you have a hand in Monster Party from Bandai being released here but not in Japan? Always wondered how that decision was made. Also wondered how all the blood and gore made it past NoA censors. Thanks for the AMA!
I thought Shinsei released it in Japan?
By mid-1989 Nintendo was starting to "loosen" the approval criteria
Did Nintendo forbid you from playing/owning competitor’s systems like SEGA for example? If not, did you ever play the competition? Any favorite titles or characters?
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