How Nintendo Power helped introduce the United States to console RPGs
Nintendo has made it official: the December issue of Nintendo Power magazine will be the last. Many fans and writers who grew up reading the magazine have expressed their sadness, although it seems hard to find people who still read Nintendo Power after leaving high school. We may be mourning our youth more than the magazine itself. Nintendo Power will always be important for another reason, however. This is the magazine that helped introduce me, and indirectly the country, to role-playing games on video game consoles. It accomplished this impressive feat by giving away an Enix game called Dragon Warrior.
A free game? HOLY SHIT
It’s useful to set the stage. In the late 80s and early 90s video games were expensive; there were no Steam sales and no $2 iPhone games. You paid $50, or more, for your game cartridges at the store, and many of us only received new games on our birthday and Christmas. And you had better hope those two games were good, or you could borrow a better game from a friend.Nintendo Power offered an amazing deal for subscribers: Sign up or renew your subscription, and they would send you a free copy of Dragon Warrior. It didn’t matter what game it was, or how good it was, it was an NES game that we could “buy” for around $15. The Nintendo Power subscription was the free bit when I did the math in my head, and we were still saving money on the free game. This was an easy sell in my home, at a time my mother was constantly barraged with demands to take me to the local video store to rent games. Even the letter Enix sent with the game was epic. “As a subscriber to NINTENDO POWER magazine, you undoubtedly enjoy game playing on you Nintendo Entertainment System,” they wrote. “We at Enix America Corporation would like to introduce our unique series of role-playing video games. For a limited time, receive a free copy of Dragon Warrior I and the big map for our newly released Dragon Warrior II adventure with your new or renewed subscription.” This is how the game was described: “In Dragon Warrior I, you are a stranger in the Kingdom of Alefgard. The once tranquil land has fallen into darkness by the hands of an evil Dragonlord. Ruthless creatures roam the countryside and fear plagues the land. Assistance from townspeople, magic spells and special devices aid you in your quest to destroy the Dragonlord. You are the DRAGON WARRIOR. You must save Alefgard.” And they say Japanese games have gibberish stories! This stuff was magical to the ears of children ready for a more “mature” game. Even the art on the cartridge was badass. What we didn't know at the time, or at least most of us didn't, was that this a last-ditch effort to do something with all the Dragon Warrior cartridges sitting in storage. “My understanding later on was that Nintendo was stuck with a lot of unsold copies of the game, since they'd placed a big bet that since it was so astoundingly popular in Japan it would be the same way here,” Game|Life’s Editor-in-Chief, and Nintendo authority, Chris Kohler explained. “So they decided to go crazy and give them away with the subscriptions, thus seeding copies of it in the hands of what were basically their mavens. Remember, when there was no Internet, kids who subscribed to Nintendo Power ruled everything since the other kids would go to them and ask to see their magazines and ask them for tips. So these kids who were at the center of their social circles now all had copies of the game.” He's right. This was before we received our up to the minute news from any number of gaming blogs; video game magazines were brought to school or shared around the neighborhood. Information was spread through these magazines, and purchasing decisions were made. Because of the Dragon Warrior promotion, the kids that controlled the flow of information to the neighborhood were introduced to a new genre. This was a game that many of us wouldn’t have tried on our own, and it would have been a hard sell next to the more action-oriented games in the local Babbage’s. But after a few months it arrived, and I was taken aback. There was much reading to be done, and I was stuck fighting slimes? The action moved slowly during random encounters, with the player taking turns with the enemy, exchanging blows until one or the other succumbed to their wounds. We learned the joys of gaining levels, fighting increasingly powerful enemies, and exploring a fantastical map filled with secrets and eldritch knowledge. This as the first time many American players had experienced an Eastern-style role-playing game on a console, and some of us fell in love. It felt different, more deliberate and engrossing that the side-scrolling action games of the time. It was easy to play the game and pretend to be a hero. Who could forget the simple plea of “But thou must!” at the end that alerted you to the fact there was no choice to be made at all? I remember being slightly annoyed at this fact, decades before Mass Effect 3 presented me with a limited number of options at the game’s end. It was marketing, pure and simple, but it worked. I was hooked.
Were others as enamored of the genre?
Nintendo and Enix were hoping to plant the seeds for an RPG market in the United States, but it’s hard to tell how quickly those seeds grew. Kohler, for one, is skeptical that it made a lasting impact. “Did it work? Sort of. Eventually. Enix published the other three Dragon Warrior games on their own in the US and Square got Final Fantasy somewhat off the ground, but RPGs were a niche market until Final Fantasy VII. They were certainly bigger on SNES than they ever were on NES,” he explained. “One industry type I spoke to for Power-Up called RPGs in America the ‘12-year overnight phenomenon’. They seemed to come out of nowhere one day, but it was only because a few companies had really believed that there was a market there and worked very hard for many years to chip away at the wall that separated Japanese tastes from American ones. Nintendo of America did a lot of that. RPGs were so damn huge in Japan, and they wanted some of that sweet cash. Hence their bringing over Dragon Warrior, and Final Fantasy, and nearly releasing Mother 1 in the US.” I've often bumped into other gamers who fell in love with RPGs thanks to that “free” copy of Dragon Warrior, so even if those seeds of love took years to grow, they were clearly successfully planted. I read Nintendo Power every month, and used the strategy guides to get through many tough games. It was a big deal when the magazine arrived in my mailbox, even though it only came with a game in that one instance. Nintendo Power may have existed to sell us more games, but it was also a shared experience for many gamers, and an important part of early gaming culture. It will be missed.