Nintendo – perhaps more so than any other video game company – knows the captivating power of rose-tinted nostalgia. Many of its key franchises were established during the '80s and '90s, and in recent years, Nintendo has doubled-down on its efforts to exploit our love of the past with its 'Classic Edition' consoles, and at E3 2015 it resurrected another legendary part of its history: the Nintendo World Championships.
The reason the resurrected World Championships made such an impact three years ago is because the first event – which took place in 1990, following 1989's Nintendo Challenge Championship – made such an indelible impression on Nintendo fandom. It saw participants from a trio of age groups competing across three days to determine the very best Nintendo players in North America. Those who tasted glory have since passed into video game folklore; Thor Aackerlund (who won in the 12–17 category) is perhaps one of the best-known, but it's the story of Jeff Hansen, winner of the under 11 category, that is perhaps more fascinating.
Not only did he come top of his age group at the 1990 Championships, he went on to become the undisputed World Champ following success in Japan and would later defend his title at the Consumer Electronics Show in 1993. He's one of the most fascinating characters in the history of competitive gaming, and – had he achieved his victories in the modern age of social media and the internet – would no doubt be something of a superstar in video game circles. Instead, Hansen retired gracefully from the spotlight in 1994 and over the past few decades has taken on other challenges outside of the world of Nintendo.
It's like a story right out of Hollywood, and it's easy to draw parallels with the cult 1989 Fred Savage flick The Wizard, save for the fact that unlike the traumatised Jimmy Woods, Hansen's upbringing was – in comparison – relatively idyllic. "Much of my earliest years in Bennion, Utah were spent in front of a TV screen, holding a ColecoVision controller from age five to six, and then a Nintendo controller from age six on up," says Hansen when asked how he got into gaming. "I usually wasn't the only one watching the TV screen, however. If my brothers weren't watching me add another game to the tally that I had 'beaten' there were most certainly others from my neighbourhood staring blankly along with me. In fact, it was a regular event for many of the children of the neighbourhood to all gather at my house when a new game had come out so that they could all watch me play it."
Hansen's amazing talent for gaming didn't go unnoticed by his friends, but his route into competitive play was anything but preordained. "A year after moving to Murray, Utah at age ten, I saw an ad on the TV for something quite remarkable for a young boy like me: an extravagant show at the Salt Palace where I could play all of the latest Nintendo games for free before they had even come out! This was way before I even knew what CES or E3 was, but even in my wildest dreams I couldn't have imagined something so wonderful. So I convinced my dad to take me to the Nintendo PowerFest."
Getting his hands on the newest games was one thing, but the PowerFest boasted another vital element that caught Hansen's attention: competitive play. "My Dad and I noticed that there was also a competition going on at the event," he explains. "I don't remember if it was myself or my Dad who thought I should enter, but I gave it a shot." Tetris was the game in question (that year's PowerFest was focused on the recently-released Game Boy), but there was a catch – Hansen had never played the Russian puzzler before. "Luckily my score was high enough to qualify for the next round, which immediately got me up on the PowerFest stage with Terry Lee Torok and the other contestants with qualifying scores," he explains. "This was yet another experience that I had never had before. While I'd had all of the neighbourhood kids watch me play on many occasions, I'd never had quite this many people watching, not to mention all of the lights and music that went along with it."
Hansen's nerve held, and he was able to progress through the ranks. "I played another round and scored high enough to qualify for the final competition later on that weekend. Two days later, I competed against the other contestants in Salt Lake City and earned third place in the 11 and under age category. As an award, this secured me a brand new Nintendo Game Boy, which happened to have the competition game Tetris bundled with it. The other competition games, Super Mario Bros. and Rad Racer, were ones that I had played many times before, but Tetris was mostly unknown to me."
Hansen had been bitten by the bug, and almost unconsciously began preparing himself for a career in competitive gaming. "From that time on, all of my free time was dedicated to mastering Tetris, my new favourite game," he says. "I started to literally dream about what I would do with Tetris pieces falling, and in my idle time, Tetris pieces would start falling from the sky, awaiting my next move. I eventually grew a love for the game and had no idea that this would be my preparation for my re-entry into the PowerFest competition one month later."
The Salt Lake City event Hansen had attended was, in fact, one of the last on the PowerFest tour, so opportunities to re-enter were limited. However, his parents clearly felt he had what it took to win, and booked him into one of the final cities of the tour. "I still to this day don't know how my parents knew that I had progressed enough in Tetris to buy planes tickets for my dad and me to fly out to Florida," he says. "I knew that I had gotten much better than before, but maybe we all just wanted to see how good I had gotten. The last two cities on the PowerFest tour were Miami and Tampa, both in Florida. From what I recall, the Miami event fell over Thanksgiving weekend, and the prices were drastically higher due to the short notice of the trip, so we decided to head to Tampa to attempt to win first place at the very last city on the tour. We decided that if I won the entire competition, that I would have to pay for the trip to Florida with my earnings, and that I didn't win, then my parents would pay for it."
Since it was the final city on the tour, Tampa was predictably full of challengers who knew that this was their last and final hope. Many of those who had won previous PowerFest events on the tour were in attendance, since being at the PowerFest was the only way for them to practice on an actual PowerFest cartridge in preparation for the finals. Highly-rated players such as Jeff Falco and Rich Ambler would offer up killer strategies to help out the younger, less experienced contenders, earning them much in the way of respect and admiration. Hansen, however, had joined the competitive circuit relatively late and was effectively playing catch-up.
"There must have been over 100 TVs, all lined up in a row, blockaded off from the rest of the PowerFest where the qualification rounds occurred," Hansen recalls. "Since you had to pay a small fee for every time you played a round in the competition, I recall telling my dad that I could probably be done practising since I didn't want to waste more money. I still got in plenty of practice, and easily qualified for the final round in Tampa. Later in the weekend, I was able to secure my spot in the World Championships in Hollywood slated for the very next weekend. After the Tampa competition, we made a couple-day trip to Disney World, since we were in Florida. We had planned to do this regardless of the outcome of the competition. This was certainly a period of my life were the childhood dreams just kept coming true."
The PowerFest events were quite a spectacle – certainly more lavish than anything North American gamers had witnessed since the glory days of Atari in the late '70s and early '80s – but they were nothing compared to the pomp of the inaugural Nintendo World Championships. "The competition in Hollywood was all about the contestants," Hansen explains. "Nintendo made it a point to pack in as much fun and entertainment for the contestants – and their families – as possible. We did the traditional tour of Hollywood Studios with King Kong and Earthquake – I recall feeling bummed about the Back to the Future ride being under reconstruction due to a recent fire accident. Bumping into Mario and Luigi was not an uncommon occurrence throughout the weekend, and since we were at Hollywood, many other movie characters graced us with their presence. On Saturday night, Nintendo filled an entire restaurant with all of the contestants and their families where they announced that each contestant would be returning home with a copy of the PowerFest competition cartridge." These, like the golden Mario statues handed out to the winners, have predictably become desirable collector's items.
During the weekend, Hansen admits that a camaraderie evolved between the competitors, who saw one another as kindred spirits rather than rivals. "I came to know that many of the other challengers were like me, hard-working students with good grades, and we spent plenty of our time on the computer, whether it was playing games or basic programming," he says. "We ate, played, swam, and practised together for those few short days. Many of the strategies and tips for the competition game were shared among the entire group, I believe not just because getting better at the most important game, Tetris, was not something that actually could be taught, but also because of the close friendships that were developed among competitors. In addition to playing hard, we also practised hard, with several-hour practice sessions scheduled into our weekend."
As the finals progressed, Hansen's skills began to set him apart, though he is humble enough to point out that he was anything but overconfident heading into the competition. "I personally had no idea whether I would win or lose – I just wanted to play my very best. During the practice sessions, I sat at the very end of the row of TVs since I was the finalist from the very last city, and my consistent high scores were enough to drive one of the nearby contestants to tears. I felt very bad for him, but I knew that I had to keep going because this was the best practice I could possibly get. I like to think that I did become one of the hopefuls for the youngest age category, but I still had no clue that I could win the whole thing."
The night before the finals, nerves finally began to set in. "I was very nervous, but I know that my mom was much more nervous than I was. Nintendo only paid for one guest to accompany each contender, so we had to pay my mom's way to the competition, but I was very glad to have her accompany my dad and me. That night, I remember asking my dad for a father's blessing, and he blessed me that I would do my very best. I knew that it was not necessarily important to win the entire thing – nor did I really think I would – but I felt satisfied knowing that I would at least do my best."
Despite his preparation, Hansen had a nightmare start to the finals. "Nintendo put on a small introduction show with all the contestants singing 'We Are the Champions' by Queen, but it was hard not to think about where I would stuff that next T-block in the Tetris game in my head. After the small show, they held the qualifying round, which would advance the top seven finalists to the next round. I played one of the worst games I had ever played, and I was very worried that I was not going to make the cut to the next round. I actually played so terribly in Tetris that I died very early on and had to watch as the rest of the contestants finished their games. I do feel, however, that this first round helped me prepare my mind for the next rounds, where the lights, lasers, and volume would be kicked up a few more notches."
His hunch was correct, and he began to assert himself. "Somehow I made my way into the second round of seven contestants, and I was able to focus much better. I found that as long as I didn't look at anyone else's screens – or absolutely anything else for that matter – the lasers, music, and announcing of Tetrises by my competitors were all dulled enough that I could focus on my own game. I was one of the top two scores of the second round, along with Adam Misosky, and we immediately played one more time against each other for the title of World Champion. It was close, but I was able to focus and play my very best." Hansen's career as a Nintendo World Champ had begun; he had won the 11 and under age category, and eventually came second in an 'unofficial' contest between Thor Ackerlund and Robert Whiteman, the other two age category winners.
Following his triumph, the PR machine kicked in – a process that the young Hansen was totally and utterly unprepared for. "Many local Los Angeles TV stations – along with Nintendo's Public Relations group Golin-Harris – conducted question and answer sessions that unfortunately wouldn't last very long due to my short, one-word responses. I even appeared on the national morning show 'The Home Show' with football great Lynn Swann to promote the Nintendo Four-Score adapter. However, having been glued to either a computer or TV screen for much of my life, I didn't have the social skills to conduct an interesting interview. It was for this reason that after I was slated to appear on the Johnny Carson show, I was bumped off by Charlton Heston, who was deemed to be much more entertaining for a TV audience. My mom would eventually coach me on how I should properly respond to reporters' questions." While high-profile interviews didn't go according to plan, one aspect of the championship win that was more appealing was Hansen's earnings from the competition: a $10,000 savings bond, a Geo Metro convertible car and a big screen TV. "I sold the car immediately to a local dealer, as did Thor and Robert, from what I heard," Hansen reveals. "All of the other contestants, including myself, also won a pair of Reebok Pump shoes, $250 cash and a gold trophy for their city."
Keen to leverage Hansen's appeal as a young, relatable gaming expert, Nintendo's PR firm Golin-Harris enlisted him to serve as a spokesperson for the brand, and he attended various events with the purpose of raising awareness of Nintendo's latest software. "I helped introduce the game NCAA Basketball in the cities of Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco," Hansen recalls. "At each event, they would invite local college basketball stars and news anchors to play against me in area malls. The most memorable contender was Rasheed Wallace, who showed up with a Super Nintendo controller wrapped around his neck like a towel, determined to beat the World Champion in a Nintendo basketball game." Needless to say, Hansen sent him packing.
It's easy to imagine what must have been going through Hansen's young mind at the time; new games, cash prizes and paid-for PR events – this was perhaps the ultimate dream of any pre-teen video game fan. However, there were concerns from some quarters that his newfound gaming superstar status would have a detrimental impact on his formative years. "Not all of my school teachers agreed with the new lifestyle I was living," he explains. "One of them was certain that I was going to fail out of school if I kept travelling to a different city each weekend to promote video games. My mom was fairly confident that that would never be the case, and my parents both helped me maintain a balance between school, chores, piano – and Nintendo."
It wasn't long before Hansen found himself once again in front of the camera – but this time in Nintendo's homeland. "In the fall of 1992, Nintendo invited my parents and me to Japan so that I could play against the Japanese champion on the Super Mario Club TV show," he says. "Super Mario Club was a hugely successful show for Japanese kids my age. They also held many competitions on the show and the winner of my duel was to be crowned the World Champion." Although Hansen effectively shared the honours with Thor Ackerlund and Robert Whiteman at the Nintendo World Championships in 1990, he was selected as America's champ in this case. "This is just a guess, but the demographic of the competitors in the Japanese competition was quite a bit younger – I think their oldest kids were 15 at the time," explains Hansen. "So Nintendo wouldn’t have taken Thor or Robert since they were much older."
It's easy to forget that at the time, Hansen was your typical American schoolboy and the culture shock that is Japan left a real impact; he was treated like a famous celebrity, despite his humble nature. "The whole experience in Japan was surreal," he admits. "I was given sunglasses as I entered the studio, and was treated like an American movie star in front of the Japanese audience. The Japanese champion was to be determined as part of the show that day and so several rounds of competition were held just for the Japanese contenders. Yuichi Suyama eventually won, and then it was my turn to take the stage. There weren't any of the lasers, lights, or music that attended the original Nintendo World Championships of 1990, but the tension was still very high in the studio – especially for my mom."
Hansen ultimately emerged victorious but it would prove to be a hollow achievement due to circumstances outside of his control. "I completely obliterated Yuichi, and the short, dead-silent moments after the championship game finished were quite awkward since I really didn't know if they were going to do something to me for beating the national champion so badly! After being asked what had happened, Yuichi stated that he had never played this particular cartridge before and therefore was not prepared to play against me, so a rematch was scheduled at CES in America, where he would be more prepared." Hansen's keen sense of fair play is obvious as he recalls this situation; unlike Yuichi, he had been given a competition game cartridge well in advance before the trip to Japan and was expected – by his mother – to practice eight hours per day. "I would write down score after score after score to ensure that I was making improvements, and I even started to write a computer program to help me keep track of my scores. While I had been practising the competition game, Yuichi had been practising Yoshi's Cookie, a completely different game, in order to win the Japanese title."
Hansen may have demolished the Japanese champion on TV, but there were no hard feelings on NCL's part; the superstar treatment was extended beyond the studio. "After the competition was over, Nintendo furnished my parents and me with an every-child's-dream-come-true tour of Nintendo's headquarters in Kyoto," he recalls. "We had a translator with us – Seisuke Yamauchi, the grandson of Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi, who actually escorted us all the way from Seattle – and we rode the bullet-train down to Kyoto from Tokyo. In one of my most magical moments, I was able to meet Shigeru Miyamoto and Koji Kondo. We toured many historical Japanese sites for the next few days and then left back for Tokyo. Before the trip, my parents had convinced Nintendo to extend our flights five more days so that we could sight-see more of Tokyo before we had to go home. We stayed in the Japanese Missionary Training Center for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints for the last five days of our trip. Luckily this was close to a McDonald's, since Japanese food was not something that I had grown a love for – at least not that point."
While the impact of this amazing trip was not lost on the young Hansen, he admits today that the incredible experience actually left him feeling rather empty. It wasn't just the excitement of playing video games and visiting Nintendo's headquarters, either; rather, it was a newfound affinity for Japan itself. "After arriving home from the trip, I felt a void in my soul and cried for several hours the night we returned. Every day of the trip was a fantastic dream, and I couldn't believe that it was over. I knew that I had to go back someday, and I got my chance when I served as a Latter Day Saints missionary there seven years later."
The rematch between Hansen and Japanese champion Yuichi Suyama was scheduled to take place at the following year's CES show – this time on equal ground. "Shigeru Miyamoto attended that CES, and pro-wrestling stars Jake 'The Snake' Roberts, Paul Heyman and Terry Funk emceed the event," remembers Hansen. "Nintendo gave the competition a 'Karate Kid' theme and placed posters throughout the CES show. During the event, Nintendo's booth was packed with onlookers. I kept up my eight-hours-per-day practising routine before the competition, and it paid off because I was able to defeat Yuichi again." Hansen was duly crowned 1993 Nintendo World Champion.
The youngster's stature continued to grow in Nintendo's eyes, and the company leveraged his status as World Champion as often as it possibly could. One of the more notable examples involved a cross-country train journey to publicise the release of The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening on the Game Boy. "The train trip was especially exciting because neither I nor my parents had ever done a cross-country train trip before. I think they had a hard time deciding which of them would go; usually, my mom would go with me on our trips, so it was my Dad’s turn."
The gimmick of the press jaunt was simple; each person involved would be given a Game Boy and a copy of Link's Awakening, and the objective was to finish the game – which was unreleased in America at this point – before the train reached its final destination. The unusual thing was that the event was focused on the press rather than the general public. "The only people on the train with Nintendo were me, my dad, the Golin-Harris and Nintendo marketing people, and a bunch of journalists," Hansen says. "Everyone that participated received a fresh new Game Boy and Link’s Awakening – even my Dad, who played it for about 10 minutes and then went back to reading his PC Magazine. Nintendo had only purchased a couple of rooms on the train that had beds, so we all took turns getting some sleep."
It all sounds like a well-drilled – if rather tenuous – press junket, but things didn't exactly go according to schedule. "The original plan was to go from New York City to Los Angeles, but shortly before the event, there was a major bridge on that route that collapsed, killing many people," explains Hansen. "So plans were changed to go from New York City to Seattle instead. We were a little scared to embark on the trip after hearing the news, but we were also glad that we weren’t the ones on the bridge when it collapsed. There were several major stops along the way where we would wait for hours at a time before embarking again, and some journalists came and went at the Chicago stop."
While he was going into the game completely cold, Hansen says that he soon found his feet on Koholint Island. "There weren’t any of my usual friends to ask for help, and there certainly wasn’t anything I could Google to get hints back then," he says. "There were a couple of Nintendo Counselors that rode with us on the trip, so I was able to ask for a couple of tips from them when I got stuck at the very beginning of the game. After that, though, it was smooth sailing." Despite the fact that miles of beautiful countryside was rolling past the window every minute, the laser focus that enabled Hansen to win his previous championships quickly took over. "The only thing I really cared about was getting into the game and beating it," Hansen says. "I was so occupied that I didn’t pay much attention to the outside world until I beat the game half-way across the country. Unfortunately, the Eastern United States is quite a bit more green than the Western United States!"
Sadly, his endeavour counted for little in the end as Nintendo pulled the rug from under his feet in rather a dastardly (if understandable) fashion. "Nintendo had announced that the first person on the trip to beat the game would be awarded $1000, so that was a big part of my motivation for spending every waking hour towards beating it first," he explains. "Unfortunately, there wasn’t really any incentive for Nintendo to give me – the only non-journalist – the money, so I was a little disappointed to find out that I did not qualify – after I had beaten the game! I recall that there were several others that also beat it before we arrived in Seattle, and the first one to do so after me was declared the official winner."
The following year was just as busy, but it marked a significant change in Hansen's fortunes – one he admits today that he welcomed. "I actually wanted to compete in the 1994 PowerFest, and had purchased a ticket to go to Portland since Salt Lake City was not one of the cities on the tour," he explains. "Unfortunately, they cancelled Portland, and around that same time, Nintendo invited me to the PowerFest to compete in the 'Celebrity Competition.' I played against a few TV sitcom stars and handily won the reward of being able to donate a Nintendo Fun Center to a hospital of my choice. I had actually just finished my Eagle Project, collecting money from several local businesses in order to donate a Nintendo Fun Center to Primary Children’s Hospital. So in the end, I was able to donate two Nintendo Fun Centers to Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake – one in the local businesses’ names and one in my name. From what I hear, they were in constant use for many years, helping kids cope with terrible circumstances by taking their minds off of their disease."
While Hansen's skills allowed him to give something back to society, the PowerFest '94 event was bittersweet as it saw him pass the torch to a new champion – Mike Iarossi – without actually picking up a controller to defend his title. "I never got to play Mike directly, and honestly I am somewhat glad," admits Hansen. "I had practised Ken Griffey Home Run Derby for many hours in preparation for the competition, and never improved from the moment I started; it seemed like complete luck to me. Anyway, I never lost to anyone in an official competition; I've never competed since 1993."
For Hansen, the timing was right. As amazing as his life had been as Nintendo World Champion, he was ready to savour a new challenge outside of video gaming. "I was OK not being in the limelight as much after that," he says. "When I turned 16 I started a business using the money that I won from the Nintendo Championships to focus on my true passion: computers. I started a dial-up ISP in 1996 and was the only kid in the high school that had a cell phone. My business was successful enough that I earned the Governor’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year award. In time, the company shifted into providing mostly web hosting, and then I sold the business a couple of years later to go on my Latter Day Saints Mission for two years. Today, I try my best to provide well for my six children and wife. I keep busy with my calling at my church, and especially with my job as a team leader at Ubiquiti Networks, which I love. I get to improve performance and reduce lag for millions of WiFi devices that connect to our UniFi Access Points."
Hansen hasn't totally turned his back on his Nintendo days, however, and still keeps in touch with the American arm of the company. "Every time I'm in the Seattle area, I try to give them a call," he says. "One time they announced that the Hansens would be visiting the Nintendo campus, and everyone was sorely disappointed when they realised that it was just the 1990 Nintendo Champion's family, and not Hanson the boy band!" While he was once considered the best Nintendo player on the planet, Hansen admits that today he doesn't get to game as much as he used to. "I still buy every new Nintendo system the day it comes out, and play through all of the first-party Nintendo titles, but my two brothers actually play quite a bit more than I do, even today," he comments. "Ever since I was 14 or so when I bought my Micron 486 DX 25MHz computer, most of my time has been spent programming."
Hansen achieved the kind of fame that few gamers could possibly dream of, but does he ever miss those glory days? "I can't say that the years from 10 to 13 weren't my some of my best – the only time I've ever travelled in a limousine after my Nintendo adventures was for Jr. Prom in High School! But I have had many other surreal experiences since then; winning the young entrepreneur of the year award, getting married, and having children." You could say Hansen has simply substituted one incredible adventure for another.