Howard Phillips might not be as big a name in Nintendo history as men like Shigeru Miyamoto, Satoru Iwata and Gunpei Yokoi. But his story is just as interesting, and the story of his role in the company’s American invasion of the 1980s is one all Nintendo fans should enjoy.
Speaking with Phillips – who has since worked with Microsoft Game Studios, THQ and Lucasarts – last week, I had to ask about his role with Nintendo in the 1980s, which saw him rise from a virtual nobody to become one of the company’s most high-profile and best-loved employees, his trademark red hair and bowtie making him as much a mascot of Nintendo’s early success as any plumber or kid in a green tunic.
“In the early ‘80s Nintendo was a small company (6 staff in the USA!) trying to develop its historically weak arcade business in the US and I was hired by a school friend to manage the warehouse and shipping”, he told me. “I really love games of all types so every day was really fun.”
Sounds easy enough, but then something came along to change all that. “Then Mr. Miyamoto designed the arcade hit Donkey Kong which got things rolling and made me, at 24, the largest volume shipping manager for the entire Port of Seattle, having over 100 40′ shipping containers full of games arrive every day and needing to be shipped out by late in the night. My personal record for unloading 11,000lbs of 44 arcade games using a hand-truck was around 9min 30 seconds — I was pretty proud until my skinny assistant Duane bested me by more than 30 seconds”.
Because Nintendo of America was, at the time, still a relatively small operation, Phillips soon found himself with extra responsibilites. “One of my roles then was also to manage Nintendo’s test locations for Donkey Kong and the follow-on arcade games such as Sky Skipper, Popeye, Donkey Kong Jr., Mario Bros, Donkey Kong 3, Punch-Out!!, and the awkward Vs. system.”
“I would hang out in the arcades playing games and watching others play games and report back to Mr. Miyamoto as to what players in the USA liked or disliked about those games and all the competing games produced by companies like Namco, Atari, Sega, Midway, and others.”
“At the time Nintendo Co. LTD in Japan was also dabbling in toy-like handheld (Game & Watch) games and home video games (the Famicom in Japan). Mr. Arakawa [Luke: Nintendo of America’s first president] regularly asked me what I thought of the various new games and what I thought North American players would think of them if we chose to market them here. When we decided to test launch the Famicom (NES) in New York in the fall of ’85 Mr.Arakawa used me as a surrogate for US gamers, asking me to pick the 16 NES games from the larger list of 40 Famicom games.”
“Then things got a bit crazy.”
Having begun his career with Nintendo in a warehouse, he would soon find himself thrust into the very different role of public spokesman. And sales professional. And game producer. “I moved to New York for the duration of the NES launch to set up a new distribution warehouse in Hackensack, New Jersey, and spend every waking hour, seven days a week working on the launch. Each day began at the crack of dawn coordinating the incoming and outgoing shipments followed by afternoons, evenings, and weekends driving all over the greater New York area setting up in-store displays and giving live demos in shopping malls. It was really fun showing literally 1,000s of eager players the great NES games along with the zapper and goofy ROB the Robot and talking to them about what they liked and disliked about games.”
“When I returned to Seattle from the successful NES launch Mr. Arawaka asked me to devote most of my time to setting up and managing Nintendo of America’s system to identify and support the best NES games which Nintendo Licensees had begun to produce in quantity for the Famicom in Japan and now NES in North America and Europe, a number which grew to 250+ games over the next four years. I also was executive producing the games being developed by Chris and Tim Stamper at RARE, beginning with Slalom and R.C Pro-Am, and helping translate games from Mr. Miyamoto and others at NCL (Nintendo Japan), who continued to create titles like Super Mario Bros, Zelda, Metroid, and Tetris.”
As if Phillips’ business card hadn’t gotten cramped enough as it was, it would soon need room for two more roles, both of which will be familiar to those old enough to have been Nintendo fans in the 1980s. “By then I was so immersed in Nintendo’s games, and those of our competitor’s, that I literally knew more about them than anyone else, so when Nintendo initially started up the Game Counselor 800 number to help gamers find all the fun in the games, I managed that effort.”
“We came up with the idea for a quarterly mailer called the Fun Club News, of which I was naturally the President given my position and game knowledge. This quickly grew into Nintendo Power Magazine where I was co-editor, making sure all the content was accurate and relevant to gamers.”
By now, Phillips wasn’t just talking about Nintendo, he was part of the company’s roster of characters, his personality serving as the inspiration for the comic strip Howard & Nester, which appeared in every issue of Nintendo Power magazine for years.
“Around that time Nintendo started regularly using some of my time as their ‘lifestyle’ spokesperson, giving press interviews and talking about the coolest new games about to be released. While this PR work was fun initially, it took me away from the games themselves which is where I found the greatest fun. Ultimately that’s why I left Nintendo in 1991 — I wanted to focus 100% of my energies on making great games.”
Phillips’ departure from Nintendo saw him work first at JVC, then Lucasarts, then THQ and later Microsoft Game Studios. He now works as a consultant, where helped Epic complete their “integration” of Infinity Blade and Shadow Complex developers Chair Entertainment. He’s now working on a “prototype app” that looks at how gamers “develop expert skills and lasting knowledge while playing”.
Given the length of time since he left, and the companies he’s worked for since, I asked how he felt Nintendo has changed between 1991 and 2012.
“Nintendo is still a great company but obviously it has changed immensely since its heyday in the ‘80s”, he says. “Back then there was literally just a handful of us who formed the core of the company — we worked closely together on almost every facet of the business and the camaraderie and friendships enjoyed then remains very special to me. Also, in the early years (1985-1991) the games were more fun as emphasis was on the simple but fun mechanics with deep and challenging levels to entertain and reward players.”
“Since then the industry became overly-enamored with character and story and to some degree content. The fun in games is determined primarily by what you do, but that fact has been lost or never realised by many current-gen game creators. Generally speaking Nintendo still honours an emphasis on gameplay but the big budget productions and marketing efforts of today’s games can pull them off point.”
While his work as the public face of Nintendo of America will always be an important factor in the foundations of the company’s current success, sadly his other big contribution – Nintendo Power – is no more, with the magazine due to close down after the December issue ships.
Oh, and one last thing; that image up top comes from this Vice interview, done by…Phillips’ son Alex. It’s awesome.