Article 7—The Facts on Home Video Games… (1989)

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Just as American B-29 bombers dropped propaganda leaflets over Japan during World War II, so did Nintendo blanket the United States over 40 years later with a cautionary message of its own.

This helpful brochure is titled “THE FACTS ON HOME VIDEO GAMES…From the man who plays games for a living.” The man in question is Howard W. Phillips III, the public face of Nintendo of America in the late ’80s/early ’90s, and the “facts” are basically tips that encourage parents to buy a Nintendo Entertainment System instead of a Sega Genesis or an NEC TurboGrafx-16, both of which had been recently introduced.

Then at the peak of his popularity, the affable Phillips is shown striking a variety of playful poses in pink argyle socks, saddle shoes and his trademark bow tie. In fact, he appears to be wearing a different tie in nearly every photo. “My job as Game Master at Nintendo of America, Inc. has allowed me to play more video games than even the most avid young video game enthusiast,” he writes.

Many of Phillips’ “10 Tips on Shopping for a Home Video Game System” are actually useful and still apply today. “Look for a system with a broad range of games available.” Makes sense. “Choose a system that offers both top-quality graphics and depth of game play.” Can’t argue with that advice. “Go with the system that has the games players are talking about.” These might sound like quotes from Captain Obvious, but remember that they were aimed at parents who knew next-to-nothing about video games. And Nintendo was still actively trying to dispel the stigma associated with the decline of the Atari 2600 era, which collapsed just a few years before this brochure was printed.

After telling us to “look for systems that play the top arcade hits,” page 4 of the brochure gives some very odd examples of “arcade hits available for the Nintendo home system”: Super Mario Bros. 3, Tetris, Double Dragon and Batman. Sure, Double
Dragon was a legitimate “arcade hit.” But Mario 3 was only available to arcade players in Nintendo’s PlayChoice cabinets, and that was essentially a conversion of the NES game, not the other way around. The only reason why Tetris resembled the arcade version from Sega is because they were both based on the original PC game. Likewise, Sunsoft’s NES Batman game was not related to Atari’s Batman coin-op, even though both games were based on the 1989 Batman movie.

On page 7, Phillips encourages us to “find out if the game system is expandable,” explaining that the NES “has the capability of networking for coast-to-coast game play competition.” An undocumented feature of the NES hardware, or just public-relations smoke and mirrors? Even more curious: “Japan’s version of the NES, known as the Famicom, features a floppy disk drive to run games and a keyboard that teaches basic programming. There is also a disk-driven, facsimile transmitter for the Famicom. It enables users to be part of a large home information network—without ever having to leave the house.” Well, maybe that was true in Japan…but if you bought an NES because you thought that you’d be able to use it to send faxes, learn how to program and network with other computers, you’re probably still wondering why these “expandable” features were never implemented in North America. It’s no small irony that both the Genesis and TurboGrafx-16 were eventually expanded with add-on CD-ROM drives and optional enhancements like the 32X, while NES owners got nothing more than a four-player adapter and a Robotic Operating Buddy that played two games.

For those who have not seen a video game since the heyday of Space Invaders and Pac-Man, page 8 breaks down the differences between NES games and early-’80s fare. The games of yesteryear were “limited by poor quality graphics” and “played at their best only in arcades.” On the other hand, “today’s games” boast “three-dimensional screen images” and “extremely challenging action thanks to compact, powerful computer chips.” To illustrate the difference, a large, full-color screen shot of Super Spike V’Ball is juxtaposed with a tiny black-and-white photo of what looks like a lame homebrew version of Centipede.

Finally, Phillips brings in some authority figures to explain why video games are beneficial…and even educational. Among them are prominent psychologists and researchers like USC’s Dr. David Brooks, Dr. Edna Mitchell of Mills College and the
authors of Mind at Play (a 1983 book which is still used as a source whenever students need positive quotes about video games for their term papers). Most of these experts were known for their public ruminations on the psychological aspects of the video-game boom in the early ’80s. Several of them are known to have attended a conference on “Video Games and Human Development” at Harvard University in May of 1983. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of their comments originated from that event…which would be ironic, since the conference was hosted by (and primarily funded by a grant from) Atari Corporation!

I don’t know the story of why Howard Phillips left Nintendo in 1991, but I often wondered what role he might have played in the congressional hearings on video-game violence that took place just two years later. His would have been the perfect face to put in front of the cameras and microphones at a time when U.S. senators were actively vilifying the video-game industry for producing violent, tittilating games like Night Trap and Mortal Kombat. We used to call Phillips “bow-tie boy” in the VideoGames offices, and that wasn’t necessarily a disparaging nickname. I was always a bit jealous of him, to be perfectly honest.

© 2010 Chris Bieniek. Certain video game images, characters and logos on this Web site are copyrighted or trademarked by their respective publishers.