Wednesday, March 16, 2022

The Official Nintendo Player's Guide - Review of the First US-Based NES Game Guide

When the NES was just starting out in 1985 and 1986, there really was not a whole lot of information available about the games for the system other than TV and magazine ads and the manuals, advertisements and posters included with the games.  At the beginning of 1987, Nintendo began publishing a subscription newsletter called the Nintendo Fun Club.  Priced at $2.50 an issue and continually improving for its seven issues before Nintendo expanded the magazine to become Nintendo Power, it was one way by which Nintendo could connect with its ever-growing audience of fans and game players.  The magazine began by offering tips and previews for the latest games, but the early issues were fairly limited in their ability to provide a comprehensive look into more than one game per issue.  So Nintendo advertised a special book in its later issues of the Fun Club, The Official Nintendo Player's Guide, copyright 1987.  In this blog post I will take a look at it and its significance to Nintendo's history.

The Official Nintendo Player's Guide was not the first or even the second publication Nintendo sold dedicated to exploring games in detail.  Nintendo was advertising How to Win at Super Mario Bros. in Fun Club Issue #1 and The Legend of Zelda: Tips and Tactics, in Issue 4.  Also advertised in Issue 4 (Winter 1987) for availability in January of 1988 was the subject of today's blog entry, The Official Nintendo Player's Guide (TONPG).  The Mario and Zelda hint books were translations of previously-published Japanese guides, but TONPG had the distinction of being the first official publication outside of Japan specifically geared toward US gamers with a focus on just the games.  Going by the credits it appears that the bulk of the work to produce TONPG, including the game play, screen shots, map making and descriptive text, was done in Japan and translated for the US market.  The work was printed by Tokuma Shoten, which was one of the largest publishers in Japan

TONPG is a "State of the NES" as of the end of 1987.  Every game available for the NES by that time (90) was given a short description in the "Game Guide", and 24 of the most popular games were given "In-Depth Reviews".  It also mentions several games which were upcoming for release in the Coming Attractions section.  By the time the publication would have been available to the public, it would not have been as current as it was when it was proofed as new games were being continually released for the NES.  

Let's start with the "In-Depth Reviews".  Here many of the more substantial NES games available by this time were given four pages on average in a book with 164 pages cover to cover.  Nintendo's heavy hitters like Super Mario Bros, The Legend of Zelda, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, Metroid, Kid Icarus and Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! were given generous coverage as expected.  Less expansive first party games like Excitebike, Pro Wrestling, Donkey Kong and third-party games published by Nintendo like Rad Racer (Square) and Kung Fu (Irem) also get the in-depth treatment.  

So with Nintendo taking up nearly half the entries on the In-Depth Review list, what did third parties contribute?  Konami has almost as strong a presence as Nintendo, with Top Gun, Gradius, Double Dribble, Castlevania, The Goonies II and Rush 'N Attack getting the prestige treatment.  Capcom contributed Ghosts 'n Goblins and Commando.  Taito's Arkanoid, Tecmo's Rygar, Data East's Ring King, SNK's Ikari Warriors and Sunsoft's Spy Hunter also made the cut.  

TONPG has two handy indexes in the back which sort games by alphabetical order and by company.  Publishers of the likes of LJN, Bandai, Acclaim, Broderbund, FCI and Activision also had releases described in the "Game Guide", but they did not want to spend the money to be featured in the Nintendo-published book. All games given coverage in this book were programmed by Japanese developers with one exception, Rare's Slalom.  Two more Rare games, R.C. Pro-Am and Wizards and Warriors were given space in the Coming Attractions section.

Focusing solely on the games available at the time, Konami could have put Gradius over Rush 'n Attack or Top Gun.  Capcom would have done better to devote pages to Mega Man than to Commando.  Kid Niki or Karnov would have been better entries for Data East than Ring King, which is clearly overshadowed by the other boxing game given a special feature. 

Strangely, there is an In-Depth review for Zelda II even though it would not be released until December of 1988. If you bought this magazine in January or February of 1988, you'd have a long wait to play this game.  And the screenshots show evidence of the game being in a beta stage, as it had been released for the Famicom Disk System in December of 1987.  Some of the screenshots show the status bar in different positions above the main action area of the screen.  This suggests that Nintendo had not yet come up with a method to keep the status bar in place regardless of the X scroll position.  This is also seen in a certain pirate cartridge port of Super Mario Bros. 2, which has a similar issue with scrolling.  The Famicom Disk System, from which both Zelda 2 and SMB2 originated, has the ability to generate an IRQ at regular intervals which these games use to set the scroll registers after the status bar has been drawn.  Many cartridges, even those with the MMC1 mapper chip like Zelda 2, had to rely on cycle timing or sprite 0 hit detection polling to scroll the main play area while keeping the status bar fixed.  

1/2 of Zebes (Note the careful repair)

In terms of the comprehensiveness of coverage, some games got better coverage than others.  Most games are given coverage of the 1st half of the game.  Metroid has a full map of Zebes, plenty of good hints but not a complete walkthrough through the game.  Legend of Zelda gives maps to Levels 1-6, but the cartridge version of the game came with a pamphlet giving maps to Levels 1-2.  Mike Tyson's Punch-Out ends when the game starts to get really challenging.  Ghosts 'n Goblins and Gradius do not give any maps, which would have been very helpful for those difficult games.  Pro Wrestling's entry is particularly devoid of insights that would not be obvious by playing the game for 15 minutes and reading the manual.  Excitebike's writeup is only slightly more helpful.  By contrast, Rygar gives four very useful maps and tells you pretty much what you need to do to get to the end of the game.  Goonies II, the third "Metroidvania" like game given a special feature in TONPG also has a very handy section.  

One rather curious feature of TONPG is that it categorizes all games which had been released up until that time into the various "Series" categories Nintendo introduced with the Black Box games, even games which had not been released by the date of publication.  Nintendo defined eight Series, Adventure, Sports, Action, Light Gun, Programmable, Arcade Classics, Robot and Education.  On the boxes, manuals & labels, only Nintendo-published games got a "Series" label.  The characterizations are not terribly surprising, sports games like Double Dribble and Side Pocket go into the Sports Series, most sidescrollers and any kind of miscellaneous game goes into the Action Series. The Robot, Arcade Classics and Education Series were not expanded, even though there were many arcade ports by third parties.  Light Gun got Gotcha!! and Lode Runner was added to the Programmable Series.  After this publication there would be no further effort to classify games into "series" in North America.  

Its a Mystery to Everyone!

There is a two-page "Coming Attractions" where eleven games are given short blurbs with the name of the publisher included.  All but two of these games would be released by April of 1988.   Dragon Warrior would not be released until August of 1989, having a lengthy time in localization.  The game was first discussed in Fun Club News Issue 4 (Winter 1987).  In that issue, the game is still using the Dragon Quest graphics, the Hero is the decendent of "Roto" and the villain is called "Dragon King."  The article indicates that a password system will be used, as was the case in Dragon Quest.  When the game was actually released, "Roto" became "Edrick", "Dragon King" became "Dragon Lord" and mercifully there was a battery-backed save instead of a password.

TONPG may be the first Nintendo publication outside of Japan to mention a game which was never released.  This is "Return of Donkey Kong."  It says "This is your chance to get hold of that barrel-throwing, mischief-making rascal Donkey Kong and take control!  Nintendo's best known character is back.  And he's up to more tricks and trouble than you can imagine!"  Not much of a description there is it?  The first sentence implies that you can control Donkey Kong, but the third suggests he is the villain of the game.  Fun Club News Issue 5 (February-March 1988) also has a slightly longer blurb, but the extra is devoted to discussing the three previous Donkey Kong games and sheds no light on what kind of game Return of Donkey Kong was supposed to be.  

We know that Nintendo released Donkey Kong Classics, a compilation cartridge of Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr., in October of 1988.  The description quoted above is so general that it could apply to just about any game with Donkey Kong in it.  The first game in which you could play as Donkey Kong would be Donkey Kong Country, released for the SNES in 1994.  While Nintendo and Rare were not obviously not working on Donkey Kong Country in 1987, nonetheless the blurb was predictive in that there would be a game released someday in which you could control Donkey Kong.  

Stadium Event's availability is not accurately reflected here

It should also be noted that the Game Guide section includes Stadium Events from Bandai.  This game was quickly pulled off the market and re-released with the Power Pad and retitled World Class Track Meet when Nintendo rebranded the Family Fun Fitness Mat into the Power Pad.  The Game Guide also has an entry for "Family Fun Fitness".  This is really Athletic World, and the picture shows the title using the same kind of label style for Stadium Events, which also had the "Family Fun Fitness" banner.  Athletic World was originally called "Series 1" while Stadium Events was "Series 2." Interestingly, when Nintendo took over the mat games, Bandai relabeled Athletic World to remove "Family Fun Fitness" and "Series 1" items from the box and cartridge label..

You can always tell 2C03 PPU Screenshots by the Mustard Yellow

The quality of the screen captures in Nintendo's early publications is rather good.  In these days Nintendo had two ways of showing gameplay screens.  They could draw a representation of the graphics with pen and pencil or they could take photographs of a game running off a TV screen.  In this book, Nintendo often took the former course for maps and the latter course for character, enemy, item and gameplay shots.  Nintendo would take photos of the games running on a Sharp C-1 TV, which used the NES 2C03 RGB PPU.  The RGB PPU boasted far superior video quality compared to the NTSC 2C02 PPUs used in the NES.  If you can distinguish the edges of colored pixels, then that image was probably taken via this method.  The RGB PPU does not present exactly the same colors as an NTSC PPU, with some color choices looking rather garish.  The tell-tale sign of an RGB PPU is in the yellows.  An NTSC Composite PPU uses something of a pale orange-yellow whereas an RGB PPU presents a mustard yellow for the same palette value.  Even though the colors were a little different, using the higher quality RGB PPU in the early days helped set Nintendo's official publications apart from third party publications which relied on NTSC PPU screenshots.

Someone clearly liked Rygar

I acquired a physical copy of TONPG from a retro video game store about a year ago.  This was not the first time I had been in the store, but I noticed this rather well-used copy of the book stored in a rather indifferent manner.  I eventually took pity on it and rescued it.  The book was very well-thumbed before I got to it.  The corners were dog-eared, a small part of the lower spine had ripped off but otherwise the book was in decent shape with no missing pages of importance.  The book had two torn pages which were taped back together with care and less writing than I expected.  Judging by the areas of damage and writing, the prior owner probably owned or rented The Legend of Zelda, Excitebike, Metroid, Rygar, Castlevania and Pro Wrestling.  There was a sticker sheet at the end of the book but mine only had a small corner of the sticker page left to alert me to its existence.

TONPG would not be the last of Nintendo's game guides, although for a while it was the only one.  When Nintendo Power was originally released, it came as a bi-monthly publication. Starting after issue 12 in 1990, it released special Strategy Guides or Player's Guides with a subscription and later as additional purchases.  Some of these covered multiple games, generally centered around a peripheral like the four player adapters or the Super Game Boy or a system like the SNES and Game Boy.  While works of interest in their own right, they owe a real debt to the first Player's Guide.

1 comment:

  1. Oh you are still active! This was one of my favorite go-to blogs for a long time but I got out of the habit of checking when there were gaps in the posts. Time for me to catch up!! Can't wait to read this and your other posts from the last year or so!