Best of ND 2014! Nintendo Power One Year Later: The Nintendojo Interview

In this special interview, Nintendojo is proud to speak to Nintendo Power veterans Steve Thomason, Chris Hoffman, and Justin Cheng!

By Marc Deschamps. Posted 12/29/2014 12:00 Comment on this     ShareThis

This story was selected as one of our best from 2014. It was originally published on January 27, during Issue 189.

In December of 2012, Future US published the final issue of Nintendo Power, one of the longest running magazines in the history of gaming. For many subscribers, it was the end of an era. But for some, it was more than that. It was a job. It was a place where they made friends. It was home. Nintendojo is very proud to present an interview with three of the magazine’s contributors as they reflect on the end of the magazine, and what it means for the future of the industry. This is Nintendo Power One Year Later.

Nintendojo: First things first, why don’t we have everyone reintroduce themselves, and tell us their role with Nintendo Power.

Steve Thomason: My name is Steve Thomason and I was with Nintendo Power just shy of a decade. I started as a Staff Writer, but through attrition and shameless backstabbing, I eventually ascended to the rank of Editor-in-Chief. I held that role for the magazine’s final year of publication.

Chris Hoffman: Chris Hoffman here, but some just call me The Hoff. I started at Nintendo Power in 2005, and I was editor of the Previews and Download sections, in addition to answering reader mail and working on plenty of other things. As longtime readers may recall, I was also NP’s Mega Man aficionado and resident gourmet chef, and I once put a photo of naked mole-rats in the magazine. Oh, and I totally ripped off Capcom’s artists to make those sprites of myself, Justin, and Steve that appeared on the last page of the final issue.

Justin Cheng: My name is Justin Cheng, and I joined Nintendo Power after it was picked up by Future plc in 2007. I was the editor of the Community and Reviews sections. I was also in charge of hiring the interns and keeping them in line.

It’s been about a year since Nintendo Power closed shop. Where have you found yourselves since then? Are you guys still working in the industry?

Chris: I was fortunate enough to stay on with Future after NP closed and for the past year I’ve been managing editor at MacLife magazine. But that’s just my day job; in my off hours I’m still doing lots of gaming stuff and contributing to Future’s gaming publications like @Gamer, Games Radar, and even Official Xbox Magazine. I’ve had the chance to review or write about Super Mario 3D World, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Dual Destinies, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD, Luigi’s Mansion 2, Pandora’s Tower, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, and Super Smash Bros. for Wii U/3DS, to name a few. I had to turn down an offer to review The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, and it was actually kinda nice to just play it in a relaxed fashion. My MacLife job is less about writing than it was at NP, but I still review the occasional game app, too, like the Professor Layton spinoff and the Ace Attorney HD Trilogy.

Justin: After a lengthy period of being unemployed, I started working part-time at Future, doing a handful of different editing and writing jobs. Unfortunately, almost none of them are game-related, aside from the one article I just wrote for @Gamer. My primary job is editing an iPad-exclusive graphic-design-focused magazine called Bold Line, but I’ve been doing some stuff for MacLife, too. On the plus side, I’ve been able to play games for fun again, which is kinda nice. But I would love to do something game-related again at some point.

Steve: I spent a few months doing the freelance thing and catching up on my gaming backlog, then moved up to the Seattle area to work for The Pokémon Company International. My primary duty there is figuring out how to wake up Snorlax, but I also help out the web team from time to time. As much as I loved writing for games magazines, I’d been doing it since I graduated from college, so it’s kind of refreshing to try something new.

Justin, you and Chris both mentioned the idea of playing games in a more relaxed fashion, now that you’re reviewing fewer titles. Do you find that life post-Nintendo Power means that you find yourself enjoying games more? Do you still view everything from that same critical lens, or is that something you can actually switch off?

Chris: I wouldn’t say I find myself enjoying games *more,* because I’d like to think I enjoyed playing games tremendously when I was still at NP. Hopefully I never came across as jaded, even after being in the gaming media for a while. I consider myself lucky to be able to work at NP and other publications, and, honestly, if I wasn’t enjoying it, then I should probably do something else. I don’t ever want my enthusiasm to wane! As for the second part of the question, I think I still look at most games from a critic’s perspective. Even though I didn’t review A Link Between Worlds, I was still kind of writing a review in my head as I played. I’d have given it a 10 out of 10, for the record. Spectacular game.

Justin: I’m enjoying games as much as ever, but I like that I can be more selective when choosing the games I play now. When I was at Nintendo Power, I played all kinds of games for reviews. Some of these were great, and I would have played them even if I weren’t reviewing them. Other games were… not so great. That said, I really enjoyed playing games for Nintendo Power, and I feel extremely fortunate that I was able to do so.

As for part two of your question, I don’t think I can turn off the critical part of my brain when it comes to games. When I love or hate things about a game, I’ll always ask myself why I loved or hated those things.

Steve: For my part, I certainly appreciate that I don’t have to rush through games to meet a deadline anymore, nor play them in a brightly lit office. And I think that’s actually an important topic when it comes to game criticism; reviewers are rarely able to experience a game under the same conditions as your average consumer. But I digress.

On the other hand, working at NP afforded me the opportunity to play through some amazing titles that I may have otherwise missed out on; stuff like Little King’s Story, Elite Beat Agents, and The World Ends with You. There’s only so much time in a day, and when your job lets you spend a little more of it playing games, you’re going to discover more of those hidden gems.

As for viewing games through a critical lens, that is something I still do and I’m not sure I’d want to switch it off if I could. I love thinking about what went into making a game, why it’s creators made the choices they did, etc. Maybe I’m weird, but for me, that enhances rather than detracts from my enjoyment of a game.

Over the last few years, we’ve seen not only a decline in gaming publications, but also the disappearance of the instruction manual and strategy guides. Do you think that the end of Nintendo Power says more about where print is going, or is it indicative of major changes in the way that the video game industry itself operates?

Justin: It’s no secret that print publications of all kinds (newspapers, magazines, etc.) had been on the decline even before Nintendo Power ended. In general, it seems that people prefer to get their information freely and immediately on the Internet. I’m not judging or blaming anyone for that at all. Heck, I get most if not all of my news from the Internet, and the number of magazines that I subscribe to has diminished significantly over the years. (Of course, this is sometimes because the magazines go away. I miss you, ToyFare!) I’m not saying that print is dead, but obviously print isn’t as big as it once was.

Regarding strategy guides, I’ve never been into collecting them, but I think many people ask themselves, “Why buy a book when I can hop online and read a written FAQ or watch a video walkthrough?” As I mentioned earlier, you can get what you’re looking for immediately on the Internet. This desire to get things straight away is, in my opinion, part of the appeal of digital downloads, because you can get the games you want instantly— or as instantly as your Internet connection will allow, anyway. Having said that, I don’t think physical copies of console games are going the way of print publications anytime soon. For many folks, there’s no real sense of ownership when you download a game. And there’s the risk that you might have to kiss your game collection goodbye if the servers ever get shut off.

Steve: Hmmm…probably a little of column A and a little of column B, but there were other factors that led to NP’s closure, which I’m not at liberty to discuss. I will say that the magazine enjoyed a large and devoted readership to the very end. (Not surprisingly, the final issue was one of our all-time best sellers.)

As for the print business as a whole, I think one of the big things that gets overlooked is that there are fewer and fewer places to buy magazines. Even if your readership consists mostly of subscribers (as ours did), the real money comes from newsstand sales. So when major bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders start closing shop, it has a significant effect. Thanks Amazon!

It’s a shame, because growing up, I enjoyed reading about games in magazines as much as I did playing them. There are obviously lots of websites doing great work these days, but it’s not the same. I don’t think you see as many long-form pieces on the web, for instance. That may sound weird given the unlimited space provided by the Internet, but people (myself included) tend to look for quick bites of information online before moving onto the next thing. When you sit down with a magazine, I think you have a different mindset.

It’s no secret that this was a tough year for Nintendo’s public perception. While the later half of 2013 saw several major software releases, the first half suffered a pretty substantial drought. Nintendo Power always seemed to counter these types of periods with coverage of more obscure titles and unique features such as the “I am 8-Bit Exhibit” (which was one of my personal favorites). Have you considered what kind of content strategy you might have had if the magazine were still in existence during this year? What games would you have pushed to the magazine’s forefront?

I am 8-Bit poster from Nintendo Power vol. 204; art by Gabe Swarr

Chris: Everybody on the Nintendo Power staff was involved in coming up with feature ideas, including “evergreen” content that isn’t necessarily tied to the latest releases. I’ve always been pretty nostalgic so I’m always ready to bring up a significant anniversary or another. First and foremost, it was NP’s 25th anniversary, so we would have been celebrating that all year long with lots of retro goodness. Maybe Howard would have wanted to make a return? This was Metal Gear‘s 25th anniversary, too, so I’m sure I would have done something with that, and it was the 25th anniversary of what I consider the “black sheep NES sequels”–Super Mario Bros. 2, Castlevania II, and Zelda II, which were all games that differed wildly from their predecessors. Plus, it was the Year of Luigi, and we’re all huge fans of Mario’s beleaguered bro, so he totally would have got some nice coverage, even outside his new games. I had a couple other ideas, too, but I don’t want to spoil them in case I actually go through with them someday.

Even with all that, we would have had some pretty challenging times. I’ve joked with the other guys that we would have been writing up 96 pages on Pandora’s Tower every issue for the first few months of the year! (And, seriously, we probably would have covered it pretty heavily.) In addition, I would have pushed Ace Attorney 5 through the roof– I had a bunch of unique ways I wanted to cover that one– and I really wanted to go crazy with EarthBound coverage after that was finally announced for North American Virtual Console. I would have done everything within my power (no pun intended) to get EarthBound on a special subscriber-only cover. The fans had been waiting for that game to return for so long, and I really wanted to do something amazing to celebrate the occasion. I’m sure DuckTales: Remastered, Project X Zone, and Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate would have gotten a lot of love as well. Of course, that’s in addition to all the obvious first-party stuff– just not Game & Wario, since that one was sorta awful.

Steve: Yeah, the first half of 2013 was pretty quiet, but I was with the magazine during the GameCube’s final days. Surviving that barren wasteland will prepare you for anything.

As Chris mentioned, we would have had to lean pretty heavily on “evergreen” content. I worried sometimes that we might be going overboard with the retro stuff, but it always got a good response, and being a Nintendo-centric publication gave us plenty of history to mine. There were a handful of great titles during those first few months, though. Chief among them for me was Fire Emblem: Awakening. In fact, I’ve officially logged more hours on that game than any other in my lifetime.

Later in the year, we would have gotten behind The Wonderful 101 in a big way. It’s an amazing game that sadly flew under the radar. I was always proud of the way we championed those kinds of titles; nothing thrilled me more than hearing from a reader who discovered some hidden gem because we featured it in the magazine. Also, I like to think we’d have scored the exclusive on Sonic Lost World. As some of our readers may have noticed, I have an affinity for that little blue hedgehog, and featuring him on the cover usually did well for us. This year saw some great eShop content, too, which we were always eager to get behind. Oh, and those new Mario and Zelda titles probably would have gotten some coverage.

It’s funny you should say that Steve, I never would have given Elite Beat Agents a shot if you guys hadn’t pushed it the way that you did. I bought it based entirely on Nintendo Power’s enthusiasm and I never would have tried it otherwise. And it’s still a very proud part of my collection.

Speaking in terms of reviews, did you ever feel that Nintendo Power’s credibility in that department was held to an unfair standard because of it’s status as an official magazine? In terms of the rest of the industry at large, I mean. Was this something you guys actively tried to combat?

Justin: I do think that there was the perception that we would praise Nintendo games because Nintendo Power was the official magazine, but we always tried to be as honest as possible with our reviews. Speaking for myself, I always tried to write about what I liked about a game, what I didn’t like, and why, and I never thought to myself, “I’m going to be overly critical to prove that I’m not a fanboy” or anything like that.

Chris: Held to a different standard? Maybe a little, in my opinion, but not too much. I liked the fact that online, whenever there was a conversation about Nintendo Power and someone would inevitably say that it was nothing but a propaganda machine, somebody else was always ready to come to our defense and mention that the modern NP had come a long way from the old days and that we weren’t just a marketing device. Some people were going to believe what they wanted to believe no matter what, and some people were going to notice that there were plenty of times when our reviews were lower than the average. Pretty much every publication gets accused of bias no matter what, so I really didn’t worry about it, personally.

Steve: This is something I worried about a lot more when the magazine was published in-house at Nintendo, especially during our switch to a more-traditional review format as part of the big redesign in 2005. It’s only natural to be suspicious of reviews coming from an official outlet, so I knew we’d have to earn our readers’ trust by being as critical and honest as possible. I always took very seriously the notion that someone might spend their hard-earned money based on our recommendation. And to its great credit, Nintendo was remarkably hands-off when it came to reviews. The first Nintendo-published game we really trashed after switching to the new 10-point scale was Geist, and I remember fretting about whether we’d get any pushback from on high. But we never heard a peep.

Eventually, I do think we built a reputation for offering fair, unbiased reviews. And ultimately, the proof is in the pudding. One of the review aggregators– I don’t remember which one– used to tally the average score given by each outlet, and we consistently ranked in the lower half. By and large, people who wrote us off as a Nintendo mouthpiece hadn’t read the magazine in years, if ever.

That’s not to say I personally never scored a game too high; I most certainly did. But it was always the result of some personal error in judgment– getting swept up by a particularly strong ending, for example– rather than any kind of outside pressure.

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