Before the internet came along and made sure that every possible hint, tip and cheat was just a Google search away, players relied on magazines and telephone lines for their gaming wisdom. In North America, Nintendo's Powerline game play counselors became almost God-like thanks to their incredible knowledge and skill, and players of the NES era will no doubt still hold such individuals in high esteem.
AV Club has interviewed a group of former game play counselors about their time with Nintendo, and have uncovered some incredible revelations.
In the early days, things were pretty rough and ready, as Greg Lowder explains:
At that time, the warehouse was still in the 4820 building and took up most of the building. We were actually in a loft above what was then the main building, which now doesn't exist. [Below us] all the forklifts were trying to load up what was back-ordered after Christmas. That was the first big Christmas for the original NES. We would be up there getting fumed out because all those forklifts ran on natural gas. It stunk to the high heavens.
It was all bare wood, banquet tables lined up with little 13-inch Sonys and NES [consoles], which all eventually ended up on our desk. NESes laid out, just strung all over. By the way, there was no testing for getting [the job]. It was just literally, "You can do this. You know how to play video games. You can walk and chew gum at the same time. Boom, you're hired." For me, at least.
I'm trying to think who all was in that [first class]. It was maybe a group of 20. I'd say within two weeks we were on the phones. We had this original phone system [that] somehow didn't get along with the way the cubicles were set up. You would put this headset on, and if you touched your feet to the ground, it would shock you.
And nobody complained about it! I'm not one to ever not be quiet about things, and I finally asked what's going on. And we figured out it was static electricity. But at the time, nobody complained! Basically, Blaine and all those guys told me to shut up. I'm like, "Dude, it hurts!" It was in your ear you're getting shocked every time you touched your feet, or shuffled your feet on the ground.
It is also revealed that the counselors themselves were far from the gaming masters that Nintendo liked to portray them as, and often had no more tools available to them than the players there were assisting. Greg Lowder again:
And we didn't have any more information than the public did, except we had done our own research. It was very, very rare that we would get things that weren't available to the public. Everybody always thought we had these secrets or cheats or different things like that. The only thing we had—we had all the available information in front of us, or we had some amazing people who would literally hand-draw these maps.
Back then, color printers weren't that common. We'd have to get permission to make a color print or whatever. Eventually, they got a computer system. But again, it wasn't any great information that we had that wasn't available to someone else. Anybody else could've sat down and literally played the game like we did. Most of the time, we didn't even get the games until they were released. There would be always games, especially from Capcom: "Oh, what, Mega Man 3's out? Yeah, we don't have that one yet."
Given the volume of calls the service was handling at its peak, it should come as no surprise to learn that a few "odd" ones got through, as Shaun Bloom recalls:
I was on the phone, and I was answering a question about Shadowgate. It was with a guy probably in his 40s. Someone picked up the phone while we were talking, and it was a gal—I'm guessing it was his wife or something—and she goes, "Honey, I'm upstairs. Do you want me to bring anything down before I come?" And he said, "Yes. A popsicle and some clean underwear please." Oh, my God. That was one of the funniest calls I've ever had. To this day, I'm like, "Boy, I would like to be a fly on the wall that day."
Greg Lowder remembers one caller who wasn't strictly looking for gaming tips:
I didn't get too many of them, but there were some older ladies that would try to cougar some of the younger guys. That definitely happened on the PowerFest, more with the crew than with us. You always hear about some lady—I think she was Italian from back East—and somebody would joke about how they were talking to her and she sounded like she was talking all sexy from some movie, or something like that. If you treated it like a regular phone call, she'd almost get mad.
Another topic is the Christmas parties, which were, according to Caesar Filori, pretty impressive:
A limo for everybody. They provide free transportation, so you can drink. Of course, when I'm there, I was 17 or 18 years old, and people thought it was fun to give me all of their drinking tickets. I'm just wasted out of my mind doing karaoke, as was everybody else. So much trouble came from those parties, as you might imagine, with open bar in the late '80s, early '90s. Somebody smashed the mirror on the back of an elevator once, at the Sheraton Hotel? I remember somebody groped Mrs. Claus one year, because they were wasted, and got fired. Lots of weird stuff at those parties.
Filori is famous for his boasting of being able to complete Contra in 15 minutes using the much-derided Power Glove controller. He reveals that the story isn't poppycock, but he bent the truth a little:
I hate to demystify and take away the intrigue around that entire bit of internet fame. It is true that I did beat Contra in 15 minutes with one life. There is a controller on the Power Glove, so you don't have to use the glove itself. I'll say that in a roundabout way, it's mostly true. [Laughs.]
The full interview is quite long, but well worth a read, if only for the reminder that Nintendo was once so huge that it could employ a legion of people purely to take phone calls for video game tips. Ah, the good old days.
Thanks to Zach Kaplan for sending this in.