Playing With Power: Looking Back At The Comics Of ‘Nintendo Power’
If you adjust for the fact that I grew up in South Carolina, I wasn't raised in a particularly religious household. I mean, we went to church every now and then, but it wasn't, like, a thing, you know? There was, however, one publication in my household that I read with a faithfulness and devotion that bordered on religious fervor, that I looked to for guidance in times of struggle, and that may have even helped to shape my world view more than any other: Nintendo Power.
This week, the first thirteen years of the magazine were uploaded to the freely accessible Internet Archive [The issues are no longer available as of Aug. 7 due to a takedown notice served by Nintendo. - Ed.], and looking back through them, I'm pretty sure they're why I still, to this very day, have a completely irrational hatred of the Sega Genesis. It wasn't just the secret codes or hyped up previews for Daydreamin' Davey that kept me hooked, though. Those were definitely interesting, but there was something else in each issue that kept me wanting to read every single month: The comics.
Nintendo Power featured comics from the very beginning, but for the first few years of the book, that was mostly limited to Howard and Nester. If you're not familiar with it, it was a truly bizarre little project, even for what essentially amounted to the propaganda engine of Nintendo of America's vast empire. The idea was that each month, Howard Phillips, Nintendo Power's real-life editor and the president of the Nintendo Fun Club, would join the fictional Nester, the prototypical Rad '90s Gamer Teen, for a trip into the world of that month's featured game.
Needless to say, the adventures occasionally got pretty weird, and were usually based on the contrast between friendly Howard, who was bland but extremely knowledgeable, and Nester, who was a little slow on the uptake and, despite being truly obsessed with Nintendo games, didn't really seem like he was actually all that good at playing them.
This, I can assure you, made him pretty easy for me to identify with.
The thing was, as goofy and disposable as those strips might've been, they also marked one of the first times that NP's young readers --- like me --- were exposed to that kind of comedy dynamic. I think that calling them "my generation's Abbot & Costello" is definitely pushing it, but still. For whatever reason, they resonated with me, to the point that Howard's last appearance in the strip in NP #25 --- in a comic based on the utterly forgettable Lone Ranger for NES that came out when the real-life Howard left Nintendo for a job at Lucasfilm Games --- left me emotionally devastated, despite the fact that the strip itself had no emotional content whatsoever.
In my memory, those panels were a tearful goodbye between best friends. But then, I suppose that finding out new information about Battletoads left me a little emotionally compromised.
Speaking of Battletoads, the same issue that marked Howard's departure also marked the first time that Nintendo Power's use of comic strips was expanded into something else. In their coverage --- which assured readers that Battletoads was a playable game and not a well-designed exercise in punishing players for the hubris of thinking they could fly a jet-bike and survive --- the usual maps and tips were broken up with a comic that dived into the story of the game.
The strips gave the story some much-needed background, and along with that bass-heavy dubstep drop that played on the pause screen, have to be at least partially responsible for Battletoads being as fondly remembered as it is. And apparently, it was a pretty big hit among readers, too.
Not long after its initial appearance, Nintendo Power offered up a second Battletoads strip, and this one was bonkers, even by Battletoads standards. Rather than sticking to the rad-to-the-max TMNT-in-outer-space riff of the game, the premise of the strip was that the Battletoads were a video game played by a team of expert gamers in what I guess was a prototype of modern e-sports, except that the villains of the game came to life, and so the players had to jack into the Matrix and take the form of Battletoads in order to defeat the Dark Queen.
I really don't think NP ever got quite that weird again, but this strip did change how it presented games through the medium of comics. In Howard and Nester (and its solo successor, The Adventures of Nester), the strips had mostly stuck to slightly more fleshed out illustrations of game mechanics. From here on out, though, there was a lot more creative license involved in how artists presented games.
Especially once the magazine got to The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past.
As you might recall if you were playing video games in 1992, Link to the Past was a pretty big deal. Along with Super Mario World, it was the title on Super NES, and the hype machine went along accordingly. The thing is, Nintendo Power didn't stop at just previewing the game or providing the usual tips. In January of 1992's Nintendo Power #32, it went all in, launching a twelve-part series that loosely followed the game, told as a manga that was light on game mechanics and very heavy on high adventure.
And to do it, they got legendary manga creator Shotaro Ishinomori.
Even if you're not familiar with his name, you're almost certainly familiar with his work and legacy. In a career that spanned almost four decades, Ishinomori created Cyborg 009, Kikaider, Skull Man, and his two most famous creations, the Kamen Rider and Super Sentai franchises, the latter of which would become the international phenomenon known on this side of the Pacific as Power Rangers.
That's who was working on comics for Nintendo Power in 1992.
Since it hit the year before Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Link to the Past was not just the first time most American readers encountered Ishinomori, it was probably the first time that they encountered manga, hitting right at the leading edge of the anime craze that would see a full-blown boom by the end of the decade. It was also a genuinely great comic, weaving through the story of Gannon, Link, the Master Sword and the Dark World in a way that was incredibly thrilling and engaging, even if it led to some unrealistic expectations for the actual game.
I mean, remember when this dude showed up on the SNES?
Yeah, I don't either, but whenever I think of Link to the Past, Roam the Mystery Knight is in there with Link and Zelda.
Link to the Past is remembered as the high point of Nintendo Power's comics --- and got a high-end reprint from Viz last year that's well worth getting if you've never read it and want to see it in a more prestigious form than a scan of a magazine that's old enough to vote --- but that same issue saw the debut of another comic that took a similar approach to tying into a new SNES game: Kentaro Takekuma and Charlie Nozawa's Super Mario Adventures, which features the best Princess Peach maybe ever.
The plot was vaguely inspired by Super Mario World --- maybe even more vaguely than LTTP, in fact --- but made for a pretty fantastic story that put every other comic book appearance of the Mario Bros. to shame. And look, I like Super Mario World a lot, to the point of it being one of my favorite games of all time, but it definitely didn't have anything as awesome as Peach storming Bowser's castle while cosplaying as Luigi and bringing in a cartload of high explosives.
And it's worth noting that while Zelda made it back into print first, Super Mario Adventures is getting a reprint of its own from Viz in October.
Those two strips marked the Golden Age of Nintendo Power comics --- loosely defined as "the period where I was reading them as a kid" --- but they weren't the only ones. Super Mario Adventures was followed by a great little strip that introduced Wario and established that he and Mario had been childhood friends, and led into some more short-form Mario comics. The last great epic that I remember, though, was Starfox, a beautiful, epic adaptation of the blocky polygonal space shooter by Benimaru Itoh:
While Zelda was an all-ages action adventure, and Mario was certainly a boisterous comedy, Starfox felt different. The art alone set it apart. Rather than feeling like the rounded, Tezuka-inspired figures that Ishinomori or Nozawa drew, Itoh's work looks like something out of Heavy Metal --- and the story matched that aesthetic.
Admittedly, it's pretty tame looking back on it as an adult, but when I first encountered Starfox as a kid, it felt like the Adult, Mature Drama of the Nintendo Power scene. In reality, it's not that much different from the PG adventure of Link to the Past, but it definitely has a scene where Fox McCloud has a nervous breakdown...
... and then Falco gleefully beats him into unconsciousness to keep him from going on a suicide mission:
If Zelda's PG, then at eleven years old, that seems like a hard R.
Even though comic books and video games have always gone hand in hand for me, those comics reached a massive audience that went far beyond the kids who were heading down to the grocery store to read Batman, and helped fuel the imaginations of players who wanted more out of their favorite games' stories than the limited technology of the 8 and 16-bit eras could provide. Those alone make Nintendo Power an interesting artifact of the era and a fascinating piece of comics history.
But, you know, that snarky-ass review of the otherwise inexplicable Blues Brothers NES game is something to check out, too.