Interview: Howard Phillips (Ex-Nintendo Power Co-Editor)

Interview-Howard-Phillips-Ex-Nintendo-Power-Co-EditorHoward Phillips sits down with us to chat about Nintendo, reflects on the cancellation of Nintendo Power and tells us more about his time in the video game industry.

Growing up in the United States, the name Howard Phillips may be familiar to most long time Nintendo fans, but on an international level, Howard Phillips may be less well known. Phillips was an essential part of creating the American market for Nintendo as well as working on Nintendo Power, a magazine that was recently shut down in late 2012. Before the last issue went to print, I was able to acquire the privilege and honour of interviewing Phillips. Below is a glimpse into the mind of the man who helped bring Mario to western shores, where he's been since he left Nintendo, and what he's been up to now.

Interview with Howard Phillips

RC: Tell us how you got your start with Nintendo of America. I've read you were working at one of the warehouses when you gained the role of corporate spokesman. Is this true? If so, can you tell us how this came to be and how you adjusted to the role?

HP: I started out as the fifth person at Nintendo of America (NOA) when they first set up shop in Seattle. A school friend of mine Don James had just started working there and told me they needed help running the warehouse and shipping so I joined to manage both. I was never the corp spokesperson; my expertise is in the games and so that’s what I was regularly asked to talk to the press about. My “day job” was to serve as the director of game creative at NOA helping Miyamoto tailor games to the US and European players’ tastes and to executive produce second party games such as the games from Chris and Tim Stamper at RARE. At the time I also managed the game evaluation system which reviewed all the games using professional game players, the game counsellors, and real players who came in to our lab to play new games. I also was co-editor of the Nintendo Power magazine; it was a busy time!

RC: What was the initial goal with Nintendo Power and how did it evolve from the Nintendo Fun Club?

HP: It was to provide game info to players who were salivating to get it and to provide info from a gamer's perspective as opposed to somebody in marketing. It grew from the Fun Club News because there was so much new information coming out every month. We had a free 800 number game counsellor service that players could call to ask gameplay questions but that was becoming too expensive to offer for free so the magazine allowed us to get in front of many of the common questions gamers had when they’d get stuck in games.

RC: Take us through a normal day at Nintendo in the late 80s during the Nintendo craze. What were some of the highs and lows of your job?

HP: Arrive at work to no new email as these were pre-email days. Yes! (I'd) check for faxes from Nintendo in Japan about new shipments coming to NOA, review faxes if any from Miyamoto asking questions about Nintendo games, play new games for hours, have editorial meetings for the magazine, plan travel to Japan for monthly week-long press checks in Tokyo, press interviews on the phone, television interviews in the office, more playing new games. Low points were pretty infrequent. Probably the lowest was when developers or publishers would bring in prototype games that were clearly sub-par quality compared to the growing NES library and expect full support.

RC: Can you tell us any funny stories about your work? Any behind the scenes information you can provide? Also, as editor, did you receive fan mail that was on the disturbing/creepy/funny side of things? Can you tell us about some examples?

HP: It was always fun and funny. I’m actually going to be releasing on the Gamemaster Howard Facebook page an illustrated serial comic that’s shared The Game of My Life as related to those fun times at Nintendo. Fan mail was fine and usually pretty heart-warming coming from 6-year olds, etc. Creepy was some of the moms at the public events that were overly friendly – ack!

RC: What are some of your favourite games of all times on any video game system?

HP: Arcade: Donkey Kong, Robotron. NES: Super Mario Bros., Zelda, Metroid.

RC: You delved in North American game development/helped bring games from overseas to the North American markets. Can you share some of the work you've done on bringing NES games to the North American market and share your input?

HP: The first was likely Mario Bros the arcade game which a “black-out” level where the platforms disappear in a manner very similar to a Donkey Kong arcade game in for service that I showed to Mr. Arakawa as an example of fun gameplay and presumable this got back to Miyamoto. Much of the “adjustments” came in the form of different expectations regarding the difficulty of the game progression and the amount and type of in-game help. Of course there was lots of renaming of characters, etc.

RC: Was there ever a time when you thought about/actively pursued creating a Howard and Nester game? If so, how far did it get?

HP: Nope.

howardphillips

RC: At what point did you start wearing bowties? It's part of your infamous look and it carried into your Howard persona in the Howard and Nester comics. I was always curious about your opinions on them/how you came to make them your signature style.

HP: It was not Nintendo-driven. I always disliked long ties as they choked me and even made me pass out a formal events when I was a kid. Then in the 80’s leisure suits and super wide ties became fashionable to others, not me. Ties felt heavy around my neck and when I went around corners quickly I could feel them pulling at me. Boxties are simple to tie and lack the negatives of long times. I got married wearing a bowtie.

RC: I've read that one of the reasons why you left (or the main reason) Nintendo was because your interactions with the games stopped or slowed down. If it didn't, what would have been something you wanted to accomplish (i.e. during the Super NES days?)

HP: It wasn’t that it stopped or slowed down, it was more that the public figure stuff started demanding way too much of my time. The new non-gamer marketing guy hired from Colgate (the toothpaste company) wanted 100% of my time (understandably so) and so it got harder and harder to stay close to the games. The GM at Lucasfilm games Steve Arnold offered me a compelling role running both their nascent Learning Group as well a launching their Videogame Group (they had been exclusively PC games). Also, after ten years Nintendo had grown to be 1,000+ people and just wasn’t as much fun as it had been during the early days.

RC: After leaving Nintendo, you worked for various companies (JVC, Lucasarts, THQ and Microsoft) which of these was your favourite to work for? What were some examples of games you worked on for them and what role did you have in the creation/distribution of these titles?

HP:(I) Never worked for JVC. They distributed some Lucasfilm Games titles and so the errant web-history. They were all fun in their own way. Too many games to list (167?). I was either producer, executive producer, designer, or creative director.

RC: When you look back on your days with Nintendo and you look at the company now, what would you say is the biggest change to the company (besides just overall work force increase.) In regards to game development and distribution processes, are games built better now or then?

HP: Big companies have a hard time making games that players simply enjoy playing. It's more important for them to make games that will sell or compete better.

RC: With your current company, do you still get to be involved in the games the way you wanted when you left Nintendo? Can you give us some examples?

HP: Yes – I’ve been working with a few good friends in the games industry to create a mobile game that is smaller but just as fun as its bigger cousins. In addition, it has a twist that I will tell you more about very soon. (Editor's note: Please note that this interview was conducted in November 2012 and as such, certain information may be slightly old or outdated.)

RC: Nintendo Power announced it's being cancelled. I personally was devastated to hear the news. As a video games journalist, my one goal was to write for Nintendo Power. Any words on the news of the closing of Nintendo Power? As a long time fan it's heartbreaking, but to someone who helped build it, I'd like to know how you feel about the loss of one of the most important gaming magazines of our time?

HP: The only thing that comes close to the fun of actually playing a game is sharing that fun with others. I hope Nintendo Power did just that…

After the interview, Phillips started a Kickstarter campaign that, sadly, didn't get financed, but the video for it is shown below:

Gamemaster Howard's Know-It-All


Last Updated ( 14 April 2013 )  

Michael "Miketendo" Levy

Raised on an NES, Saturday AM cartoons and sugary cereal, Michael Levy was your average 80's kid growing up. Despite having odd obsessions with bears, peanut butter, zombies and Tifa Lockhart, 'Miketendo' is also the creator of the YouTube review series: D.Y.H.P.T.G?! (Dude, You Haven't Played This Game?!)

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Comments 

(Link to this comment) suzzopher 2013-04-15 11:07
Great interview. Enjoyed that :)
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