Monday, September 22, 2014

Nintendo Power - When they Got it Right and When they Got it Wrong

When the NES was released, video game journalism did not exist.  Nintendo Power became a hugely popular magazine and practically required reading for NES players.  One did not use it like a movie review column, which would tell you which films were worth seeing and which were worth skipping.  Instead, you subscribed to the magazine to find out about the hottest new games that were to be released.  Nintendo Power began to assign ratings to games with Issue 5, but the ratings were a joke.

I remember salivating over all the great games revealed in its pages every other month.  Most of the time, Nintendo Power gave proper coverage to those games that deserved it.  A game with a cover or a feature indicated, usually, a certain level of quality.  Some games were overlooked, and in this blog I will offer a tip of my hat when the classics are given their due and a wag of my finger when they are not.  I will start by briefly going through the Nintendo Fun Club News and then proceeding to the issues of Nintendo Power published in 1988 and 1989.  During this period, all games with a cover were genuine classics (with one exception), and the coverage gravitated toward good to great games far more often than not.

Nintendo Fun Club News, Issue 1, Winter 1987

Game(s) on Cover : None

Game(s) on Cover : None

Featured Games : Super Mario Bros., Excitebike, Hogan's Alley

Previews : Pro Wrestling, Slalom

Comments : The NES was released in October, 1985 in test markets and nationwide in 1986.  By the end of 1986, the console had been sufficiently successful that Nintendo could put out a newsletter

Nintendo Fun Club News, Issue 2, Summer 1987

Game(s) on Cover : None

Featured Games : The Legend of Zelda, Volleyball, Slalom, Pro Wrestling, Super Mario Bros.

Previews : Metroid, Kid Icarus

Product Feature: NES Advantage

Comments : There is not much to say about issues 1 and 2, they function more as advertisements for games rather than detailing strategy, displaying maps and giving hints and tips.  Nintendo released "Hot to Win at Super Mario Bros." and "The Legend of Zelda - Tips & Tactics" booklets around this time.

Nintendo Fun Club News, Issue 3, Fall 1987

Game(s) on Cover : The Legend of Zelda

Featured Games : Metroid, Kid Icarus

Previews : Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!, Rad Racer, R.C. Pro-Am, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link

Product Feature: NES Advantage

Comments : Issue 3 is the first issue with a full-page artwork cover.  There will be many repetitions of featured games.  Nintendo was featuring games it was publishing at the time.  Nintendo published games developed by third party developers like Rare (R.C. Pro-Am), Square (Rad Racer) and Irem (Kung Fu).  Advertisements for third party games begin to appear in Issue 3

Nintendo Fun Club News, Issue 4, Winter 1987

Game(s) on Cover : Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!

Featured Games : Rad Racer, The Legend of Zelda

Previews : Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, Dragon Warrior

Product Feature : Hands-Free Controller

Comments : Issue 4 would begin Nintendo's magazines' long love affair with Zelda II, but Dragon Warrior would not arrive on U.S. shores for almost two years.  The Nintendo Hands-Free Controller was eventually released, but in a more streamlined design.

The Official Nintendo Player's Guide, 1987

Featured Games : The Legend of Zelda, Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!, Commando, Super Mario Bros., Ghosts 'N Goblins, Top Gun, Double Dribble, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, Metroid, Rad Racer, Ring King, Gradius, Kid Icarus, Pro Wrestling, Castlevania, Excitebike, Arkanoid, Rush 'N Attack, Donkey Kong, Rygar, Spy Hunter, The Goonies II, Ikari Warriors, Kung Fu

Capsule Reviews : Deadly Towers, Baseball, Golf, Soccer, Slalom, Tennis, 10 Yard Fight, Volleyball, Winter Games, M.U.S.C.L.E., Family Fun Fitness, Stadium Events, Tag Team Wrestling, Karate Champ, Side Pocket, Lunar Pool, Track & Field, Pinball, Balloon Fight, Ice Climber, Urban Champion, Clu-Clu Land, Star Voyager, 3-D Worldrunner, Tiger-Heli, Super Pitfall, Chubby Cherub, Ninja Kid, Spelunker, Stinger, Raid on Bungeling Bay, 1942, Trojan, Section Z, Mega Man, Kid Niki, Breakthru, Karnov, Zanac, Sqoon, Jaws, The Karate Kid, Athena, Alpha Mission, Sky Kid, The Legend of Kage, Renegade, Mighty Bomb Jack, Solomon's Key, Hogan's Alley, Duck Hunt, Gumshoe, Wild Hunman, Gotcha!, Mach Rider, Wrecking Crew, Lode Runner, Mario Bros., Donkey Kong Jr., Popeye, Donkey Kong 3, Burgertime, Elevator Action, Gyromite, Stack-Up, Donkey Kong Jr. Math

Comments :  This publication was much thicker than the Fun Club News issues, and had the ambitious task of "reviewing" every game available for purchase for the NES as released from October 1985 through December, 1987.  When I say "reviewing", I do not mean giving a critical review of the game title but a description of the game in an advertising friendly format.

Games that should have been relegated to the Capsule Reviews sections, in my opinion, include Commando, Top Gun, Ring King, Donkey Kong, Spy Hunter, Ikari Warriors and Kung Fu.  Commando is too repetitive and buggy, Top Gun and Ring King aren't great, and Ikari Warriors and Spy Hunter are poor arcade game conversions.  While classics, Donkey Kong and Kung Fu are too simple for the pages they take up.  I would have instead have given the following games full reviews : 3-D Worldrunner, Ice Climber, Trojan, Mega Man, Wrecking Crew, Zanac and maybe Renegade or Kid Niki.  Mega Man and Zanac are classics that were Criminally Overlooked (Nintendo eventually righted this wrong with Mega Man), Trojan is pretty good for an early Capcom game, and Ice Climber and Wrecking Crew are two pre-SMB Nintendo Classics.

Even in 1987, the number of crap games is fairly disturbing, and many games from the early period simply haven't aged well (most of Nintendo's early sports titles).  The NES would have been better served if garbage like Deadly Towers, Star Voyager, Urban Champion, M.U.S.C.L.E., Super Pitfall and Athena were never released.  Arcade ports were in many cases, Karnov, Spy Hunter, Ikari Warriors, Karate Champ, 1942 rather uninspired.

Nintendo Fun Club News, Issue 5, Feb/March 1988

Game(s) on Cover : R.C. Pro-Am

Featured Games : Ice Hockey, Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!, The Legend of Zelda, The Goonies II

Previews : Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, Super Mario Bros. 2, Return of Donkey Kong (never released), U.S. Golf (eventually released as NES Open Tournament Golf)

Product Feature : NES Max

Comments : First issue to feature a game published by a third-party developer, Konami's Goonies II.  One of the greatest NES games ever, Contra, was released in February, but you would hardly know about that by reading this magazine.  Criminally overlooked during the transition from the Fun Club News to Nintendo Power.  I like Metroid-style games like The Goonies II alot.

Nintendo Fun Club News, Issue 6, April/May 1988

Game(s) on Cover : Zelda II: The Adventure of Link

Featured Games : Double Dragon, Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!, The Legend of Zelda

Previews : Super Mario Bros. 2, U.S. Golf

Comments :  Technos' Double Dragon NES port first rears its infamous head in this magazine, there were many better games that could have been featured.

Nintendo Fun Club News, Issue 7, June/July 1988

Game(s) on Cover : Sports Wrap-up 1988 -  Ice Hockey, Rad Racer, R.C. Pro-Am, Pro Wrestling, Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!

Featured Games : Metroid, Wizards & Warriors

Previews : Super Mario Bros. 2

Comments :  Five of the best sports games for the NES are on the cover.  Wizards and Warriors was a bit too easy because it had infinite continues, but is still a fun game.  This was the end of the Nintendo Fun Club News magazine, its successor, Nintendo Power, would be much larger and better.  More and more third party games were being released, so Nintendo's first party and published titles need not have to carry so much of the slack.

All the covers for and most of the featured games in the Nintendo Fun Club News were classics.

Nintendo Power, Issue 1 - July/August 1988

Game(s) on Cover : Super Mario Bros. 2

Featured Games : Legend of Zelda, Double Dragon

Now Playing : Gauntlet, Contra, Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy, R.B.I Baseball, Bases Loaded & Major League Baseball

Video Shorts : Legendary Wings, Iron Tank, Gun.Smoke, Rambo, Dragon Power, Metal Gear, Bionic Commando, City Connection, Ikari Warriors II: Victory Road, Star Force, Freedom Force

Poster : R.B.I Baseball, Bases Loaded & Major League Baseball

Howard & Nester : The Legend of Zelda

Comments : Super Mario Bros. 2 was huge at the time, and Double Dragon was a something of a classic even if it wasn't especially true to the arcade.  The arcade game was especially difficult for home console and computer ports to capture.  While classics like Metal Gear and Bionic Commando are relegated to the shorts section, they would get their due in later issues (and Metal Gear came with a map in the box). Contra's relegation to four pages in the Now Playing section utterly failed to do that game justice.  Its a much better arcade port than Double Dragon, in fact, it may be one of those rare games where the home console version is better than the arcade original.

Nintendo Power, Issue 2 - September/October 1988

Game(s) on Cover : Castlevania II: Simon's Quest

Featured Games : Bionic Commando, Life Force, Super Mario Bros. 2, Renegade, R.C. Pro-Am

Now Playing : Golgo 13, Blaster Master

Video Shorts : Xenophobe, Seicross, Superman, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Lee Trevino's Fighting Golf, 1943, Jackal, Hudson's Adventure Island, Magmax, Donkey Kong Classics, Pac-Man, Defender, Millipede, Joust, Xevious, Galaga

Poster : Bionic Commando

Howard & Nester : Super Mario Bros. 2

Product Feature : Power Pad

Comments : The featured games are all classics (Bionic Commando, Life Force, SMB2) or at least very good (Renegade, R.C. Pro-Am) for their time.  While the AVGN (back when he was the Angry Nintendo Nerd) began his Internet career with a roast of Castlevania II, I still believe it is a very good game despite its flaws.  The graphics and sound are first rate, the open world is vast and the item collection and multiple endings by game time completed are obviously inspired by Metroid.  The stiff controls, enemy hit bounce back, easy bosses and losing all your hearts when you lose your third life.

Like many games to come, Nintendo spread out its coverage of SMB2 into two magazines.  There is alot of crap in the shorts this month, but a classic like Jackal or a very good game like 1943 should have been in the Now Playing section over the middling Golgo 13.  Most of the classic arcade ports are pretty decent, or very good (Donkey Kong, Galaga).

Nintendo Power, Issue 3 - November/Decembet 1988

Game(s) on Cover : Track & Field II

Featured Games : Mickey Mousecapade, Blaster Master

Now Playing : Ultima: Exodus, Legacy of the Wizard, Anticipation, Blades of Steel, Cobra Command, Racket Attack

Video Shorts : Bubble Bobble, Paperboy, Ghostbusters, Tecmo Baseball, Challenge Pebble Beach, Dr. Chaos, Tecmo Bowl, Platoon, Milon's Secret Castle

Poster : Blaster Master

Howard & Nester : Castlevania II: Simon's Quest

Product Feature : NES Advantage & NES Max

Comments : I am no expert on sports games, but if one had to be featured, it is best that it is a Konami title.  I like Mickey Mousecapade more than its reputation would suggest.  Its fairly difficult for a child-oriented game.  Cobra Command should have sent to the shorts section and Bubble Bobble put in its place.  

I have used both the NES Advantage and the NES Max, and I am not particularly found of either.  While I appreciated the trubo fire for Contra, the Advantage's joystick was too imprecise for many games and the buttons could stick.  The circle thing on the Max was not nearly as useful as the features made it out to be.

Nintendo Power, Issue 4 -  January/February 1989

Game(s) on Cover : Zelda II: The Adventure of Link

Featured Games : Wrestlemania, Sesame Street 1-2-3, Skate or Die

Now Playing : Marble Madness, Operation Wolf, John Elway's Quarterback, N.F.L. Football, Tecmo Bowl, Metal Gear

Video Shorts : Friday the 13th, World Games, Star Soldier, Dr, Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Bump'n Jump, Rampage, Othello, RoboWarrior, Spy vs. Spy, Gyruss, Q-Bert

Poster : Skate or Die

Howard & Nester : Track & Field II

Product Feature : Hands Free Controller, Playchoice-10

Comments : In case Nintendo hadn't covered it enough, this is the first of two features for Zelda II. In my opinion, there are exactly two good wrestling games on the NES, one had been released early in the console's life, and Wrestlemania is not the other one.  I know the WWF was big at the time, but the game sucks.  In addition, two out of three of the football games also suck, but Tecmo Bowl more than makes up for them.  Skate or Die, World Games and Spy vs. Spy were better on the C64.  All-in-all a slow pair of months, which is probably why Zelda II got the cover.  

The Hands Free Controller got a redesign, and its actually fairly usable in practice.  Its certainly no harder to use than the Power Glove or the U-Force.  You can watch a video of it being used here :

Nintendo Power, Issue 5 -  March/April 1989

Game(s) on Cover : Ninja Gaiden

Featured Games : Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, Hudson's Adventure Island

Previews : Strider, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Cobra Triangle, The Adventures of Bayou Billy

Video Shorts : World Class Track Meet, Dance Aerobics, Super Team Games, California Games, Taboo : The Six Sense, Nobunaga's Ambition, Desert Commander, Mappyland, Airwolf, Predator, Flying Dragon

Poster : Strider

Howard & Nester : Zelda II: The Adventure of Link

Product Feature : None

Comments : A classic game in Ninja Gaiden, another two part feature.  Hudson's Adventure Island seemed a bit dated by the time it was featured.  The shorts were mostly deserved, but Desert Commander is a decent wargame for the time.  The Koei strategy titles were intimidating and boring back then and have aged very poorly.  

Nintendo Power, Issue 6 -  May/June 1989

Game(s) on Cover : Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Featured Games : Ninja Gaiden, The Adventures of Bayou Billy, Cobra Triangle, Life Force

Previews : Mega Man II, Faxanadu, Fester's Quest, Clash at Demonhead, Dragon Warrior

Video Shorts : Super Dodge Ball, Bugs Bunny's Crazy Castle, Fist of the North Star, Kung Fu Heroes, Street Cop, Athletic World, Amagon, Monster Party, Adventures of Lolo, Hydlide

Poster : Mega Man II

Howard & Nester : Ninja Gaiden

Product Feature : None

Comments : TMNT is one game that did not deserve its vaunted status as one of the top ten bestselling NES games.  The game is a flawed effort from Konami, but not without its redeeming features. Unfortunately, its merciless difficulty earned it a reputation as black as its box.  Its biggest sin, in my opinion, is that it didn't have the same feel and tone as the ultra-popular cartoon series of the time.  Fortunately, Konami would improve its TMNT licensed games for the next two games in the series.  

Another Konami game crippled by the difficulty was The Adventures of Bayou Billy.  Unlike Golgo 13, this game did two out of three of its gameplay types well.  Unfortunately, the main gameplay type, the side-scrolling beat-em up, is plagued by stiff controls, too few moves and too many palette swapped enemies.  Life Force is the best Konami game in this issue, and it was already featured back in Issue 2.

Super Dodge Ball, despite slowdown and flicker, deserved better than the video shorts section, as did Adventures of Lolo, Kung Fu Heroes and Monster Party.  Interestingly, there is a "HOT" label next to the listing for Mega Man II in the table of contents, indicating that the editors knew something good was coming. The poster included would also tend to suggest this.

Nintendo Power, Issue 7 -  July/August 1989

Game(s) on Cover : Mega Man II

Featured Games : Faxanadu, Dragon Warrior, Strider

Previews : Robocop, Duck Tales, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Ironsword: Wizards and Warriors II

Video Shorts : Bad Dudes, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Guerrilla War, Defender of the Crown, King's Knight, To The Earth, Shooting Range, Sesame Street ABC, The Adventures of Dino-Riki

Poster : Robocop

Howard & Nester : Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Product Feature : Nintendo Game Boy

Comments : Few better games were ever released for the NES than Mega Man II.  Dragon Warrior was a classic and extremely important for JRPGs, but the first game plays like a cross between Wizardry and Ultima II.  The extremely stingy awards of experience and gold made the game far, far longer than it had any right to be, which was essentially the norm of 1980s RPGs, console and computer alike.  Strider is kind of buggy and no patch on the arcade game, but it is interesting in its own right.  Guerrilla War, which like Ikari Warriors was released by SNK, is a great game that deserved a Feature.  Criminally overlooked, and better than all three Ikari Warriors games for the NES combined!  Interestingly, To The Earth was a Nintendo published game, but still relegated to the shorts section.

This issue is the first issue to feature a new Nintendo console, the hand-held Nintendo Game Boy.  In its own way, the Game Boy would be at least as important as the NES for video gaming history.  

Nintendo Power, Issue 8 -  September/October 1989

Game(s) on Cover : Duck Tales

Featured Games : Dragon Warrior, Hoops, Fester's Quest, Who Framed Roger Rabbit

Previews : Willow, River City Ransom, Batman, NES Play Action Football, Tetris (Game Boy)

Video Shorts : Air Fortress, Bad Street Brawler, Casino Kid, Castlequest, One on One, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Sky Shark

Poster : Batman

Howard & Nester : Mega Man II

Product Feature : Nintendo Game Boy, NES Satellite, NES Cleaning Kit

Comments : Although perhaps not universally acknowledged as such, Duck Tales is a great game made by the team responsible for the Mega Man series.  The game captures the spirit of the cartoon perfectly, the graphics are colorful and cartoon-like, the music is brilliant and the levels are well-designed.  The only knocks against it are the too liberal hit detection and the awkward pogo control scheme.  Its easily better than any of the other featured games.  Fester's Quest and Roger Rabbit are both deeply flawed, but far from worthless, games.  Roger Rabbit does much better than Fester's Quest at capturing the spirit of the licensed material. 

For all those gamers who blew on their consoles to get their games working, advertised here was the NES cleaning kit.  Foolishly, the kit tells the user to use water instead of alcohol to clean the contacts.  Water corrodes contacts, isoprophyl alcohol does not.  

The NES Satellite saw its first mention, and its first supported game was NES Play Action Football. Relatively few good four player games were ever released.  M.U.L.E. may be the best of the bunch, even if it has some gameplay differences from its home computer originals.  Bomberman II is a good game and supports three players and Nintendo World Cup may be the best soccer game for the NES.

Nintendo Power, Issue 9 -  November/December 1989

Game(s) on Cover : Tetris (Game Boy)

Featured Games : Willow, Tetris (NES), Ivan Stewart's Super Off-Road, Ironsword: Wizard & Warriors II, Robocop, N.E.S. Play Action Football

NES Previews : Wheel of Fortune Jr., Jeopardy Jr., The Three Stooges, Stealth Eagle, Godzilla, Shadowgate, Silent Service, A Boy and His Blob, 720°, The Guardian Legend

Game Boy Previews : Super Mario Land, Revenge of the Gator, Castlevania - The Adventure, Motocross Maniacs, Tennis, Baseball, Alleyway

Video Shorts : Goal!, Thundercade, P.O.W., Twin Eagles, Back to the Future, 

Product Feature : Power Glove, U-Force

Comments : For the last issue of the 1980s, a Game Boy game gets the cover art for the first time.  However, the NES version was also featured in the same issue.  Willow is an excellent Zelda-inspired game, another Capcom game that used a license well.  Unlike its predecessor, Ironsword is too unforgiving.  Rare would strike the best balance in the third game.  Robocop was given far too much attention as it is not a very good game.  In fact, none of the Robocop games for the NES are very good, but the sequels are better.  

Unfortunately, although the glorious Game Boy had been released, so too had the infamous Power(less) Glove and U(seless)-Force.  Both are typically fodder for "Worst Video Game Controllers of All-Time" lists. 

Future Issues

If I receive positive feedback, I believe I can continue this series to encompass the remainder of the NES's lifespan.  


  1. Oh man, my childhood was essentially Nintendo Power and the Super Mario Brothers Super Show. I'd love to see you continue these little reviews.

    I'm especially interested in your thoughts on Issue 17, the Final Fantasy strategy guide which thanks to shoddy programming contains a bunch of hints from Nintendo which are unintentionally incorrect. As a guide it's pretty good, but the game doesn't quite function like it's supposed to.

  2. Nice write-up as usual. It would be interesting to see early 90s in the list, if you are so motivated. Love the site.

  3. Great post (great blog by the way). Please keep this up! Just looking at the covers brings back great memories of summer vacations, waiting and waiting for the latest issue to come.

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