With so many entertainment options available to consumers today, the bygone era of all-encompassing Nintendo mania in America seems quaint. During the late ’80s and into the early ’90s, the company’s characters were licensed for breakfast cereal, trading cards, clothing, and even ceiling fans as its gaming systems became a way of life. In 1989 alone, the company sold $2.7 billion of product—spurring The Los Angeles Times to proclaim that Nintendo has “suddenly become a pervasive, possibly even significant cultural force.” To many desperate players, though, the company’s stars weren’t Mario and Link but rather the oracle-like game play counselors who manned the “Powerline” tip hotline. These experts doled out advice and secrets to players stuck on the trickiest parts of NES games. The 8-bit (and later 16-bit) brain-trust was based at Nintendo Of America’s headquarters in Redmond, Washington, 15 miles outside of Seattle. By calling the counselors at (206) 885-PLAY, players could get one-on-one instruction to defeat a pesky boss or navigate a challenging dungeon.
Inevitably, the reality of being a Nintendo expert was less magical than it seemed, as three former Nintendo game play counselors—Shaun Bloom, Caesar Filori, and Greg Lowder—revealed in a recent roundtable discussion with The A.V. Club. The three hotline veterans delved into the idiosyncrasies of work at Nintendo, recalling details like a security guard named Dick Force and unique dishes served at the on-site Café Mario, such as Pasta Pronto and the Mario Muffin. And then there were the mullets: The trio noted the diverse hairdos sported by counselors around that time, which ranged from an “ultra mullet” to a “super mullet.”
Hairstyles aside, the three ex-tipsters say they learned a great deal from working at Nintendo, and they applied that experience to their eventual careers, both directly and indirectly. In addition to being a talented guitarist, Filori spent time at other video game companies around Seattle before landing at Nike. Bloom is a web developer by trade (and has built sites for, among other places, a company that makes custom multi-arcade cabinets), and Lowder is a wedding DJ who worked at several call centers post-Nintendo. They all have fond memories of their time at the Powerline nerve center, and the ex-Counselors still keep in touch with former colleagues from the telecom temple of Nintendo mastery.
The A.V. Club: How were you hired at Nintendo?
Greg Lowder: I was hired in February of 1988. Before that, the last full-time job [I had] was Red Robin. [I was] a cook and a waiter and stuff. I was also in the Navy Reserve at that point, too. I still remember where I was: I was sitting at a friend’s house and looking for a job after I left Red Robin. I’d go over Monday morning, borrowing their Sunday paper. There was an ad from Volt temporary services that said, “Do you like video games?” I played [games] a lot growing up—my dad, Magnavox was a client of his, and so we played the original Odyssey and Odyssey2 video game systems, which people had never heard of. It paid $5.50 an hour, and I was like, “Woo! That’s great.” I was in the first training class they had at Nintendo. They had other people come in that were Game Counselors, but they hadn’t run a class yet. Tim Dale was in that class.
Shaun Bloom: Was Tom McConville the trainer?
GL: No, he hadn’t even been hired yet. We were on the first run of that. Blaine was quote-unquote the trainer. I don’t even remember his last name…
SB: Blaine Phelps. He struck fear in the hearts of everyone as soon as he walked by your desk.
GL: After training, he almost had no power, so it’s kind of funny. He was just one of those big, goofy guys that didn’t know how to lead, so he led through intimidation. We had some of those guys when I was in the Navy.
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.
GL: 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 was literally, like, “Call 885-PLAY.” We didn’t even have area codes then. Everything was 206. People would just call in and get routed right to you.
SB: I started June of 1989. I had a friend that I went to high school with. This gal that he was dating said she was going to get a job at Nintendo over the summer doing consumer service stuff. Then a guy I went to church with, Mike Robinson, said, “Hey, I’m a game play counselor at Nintendo.” And I was like, “Really—how’d you get a job there?” He [told me to call a temp agency]. So I talked to them, went in there. They basically told me they had a quiz for me.
It was a written test, and it was on [The Legend Of] Zelda. And I am a horrible test-taker. I had not even played Zelda at the time. So I had a pair of big Ray-Ban sunglasses, and I cut out pieces of paper that were the same exact shape as behind the eyes, behind the lenses. And I wrote all the answers to the test, because my buddy gave me [the answers in advance]. I had my sunglasses on my head, and I went in there to take the test—I just set them down in front of me and wrote out all the answers. I got the job and never looked back. They made you play Zelda anyway when you got there, so I wasn’t too worried about it.
I was super stoked. I had just bought an NES, like, a year before that or so. It had just come out—like Greg was saying, it had just had its big Christmas before that. When I started training, Tom McConville was the trainer. He would sit with each of the people and go through phone calls with you, and show you how he does it. Kids would call up: “I can’t beat this guy, he’s so hard to beat!” And Tom would say [Affects a twang.] “Well, what you want to do is go make yourself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, eat it, and when you come back, you’ll whip him!” He would always say dorky stuff like that. He was a nice enough guy.
He got very angry when you did not know the question he asked you about a game. He would sit there and point at you: “Dungeon one, Zelda,” and you’d have to tell him exactly what it was that you got out of there. Or he’d say, “Tell me where all the hearts are.” And you’d have to tell him all the locations of the hearts off the top of your head. After that training class, I could’ve taken that test and aced it.
I ended up working there for eight years. I worked there for two years, and then I graduated high school, went to a fine arts music school down in California. Once I graduated that, I came back, and I swore I wouldn’t work at Nintendo again. I wanted to make music. But when I got back, I had bills to pay and I needed a car, so I called up one of my old leads at Nintendo. I went through a training class again, was out on the phones as a Game Play Counselor, and was there for six more years.
Caesar Filori: [I was hired] in 1989, with my mullet in full effect with dreams of rock ’n’ roll stardom—in fact, Shaun and I have done music projects together in the past as well. I had just graduated high school in June of 1989. Over the summer, I was going to help a friend out who was working at a silk screening shop—they made T-shirts. I had just come back home from working there, and I was running to go inside and play guitar. I tripped and fell and broke my wrist. That sort of put the kibosh on meaningful guitar playing. I had my Nintendo in my room, so I was playing lots of Zelda, Dragon Warrior, Mario Bros.—all that stuff, and really got kind of into it, more than I had before. I got really good at those games.
My sister worked briefly at Nintendo, and she said, “Well, you know, you can be a game play counselor.” Much like Shaun, I went to another temp agency. They gave me the little test, and I knew the answers because I had been sitting around my room bummed out playing games for the summer. I went into the training—also with the legendary Tom McConville, and some of the other guys, Ed Ridgeway, Joel Niedrich—where you sit and you play games for a few weeks: Dragon Warrior, Faxanadu, Castlevania.
Honestly, what really got me from that to my current career, is that I got lucky enough to be asked to take a special project during training to go do some software evaluation testing over in our testing group, because they needed some extra help for a few weeks. At that point, I thought: Okay, wait a second—there’s a job here at Nintendo where I can sit and test-slash-play video games all day, and get paid? I couldn’t believe this actually could even exist in life. In the back of my mind, I knew I had to get into the testing organization. My whole goal was to do that.
The first [phone] shift they put me on was the dreaded 10-hour Saturday. [I only knew] a small handful of games, and I had no idea really what I was doing. And back then, there was no computers. We didn’t have our database called the ELMO, which was our crappy 1990 database thing that would have answers to a ton of questions. We had these manuals that were mostly incomplete, so you had all your own notes you were like rifling through to get the answers. And when you’re early on, you don’t know what all the answers are. Eventually, you realize you get all the same questions. There were only 50 or 60 games.
My first day on the phone was just terrifying—just call after call after call. I had no idea what these people were talking about. They were playing The Goonies II, which was one of the most dreaded calls you could possibly get—that and Legacy Of The Wizard. [Bloom and Lowder groan.]
SB: As soon as someone called me and said, “Legacy Of The Wizard,” I was just like, “There goes my day.”
AVC: What was wrong with that game?
SB: We had maps of it, like screenshot maps, and we could see the whole entire game. It was basically a side shot. But how many rooms were in that? Like 100 rooms?
CF: They all kind of looked the same. “Yeah, I’m in a room with gray bricks.” [Laughs.] You’re like, “Kill me. Kill me now.” So I made a horrible impression my first day. All the veteran game play counselors wanted to kill me. They kept getting transfers from extension 782—why I remember [my extension number], I have no idea. That was a rough first time on the phones.
Greg actually helped get me through my earliest days and all throughout my game play counselor career. We were fortunate enough to usually sit within a few cubes of each other. He had this thing called an extendo-cable. We had secretly wired one NES to our two different TVs with an extender cable for the controller. We played Baseball Stars while taking calls all day.
The “dark secrets” of game play counselors
CF: If you lose at a game, you can’t blurt out expletives at the screen, because you’re on the phone. So, two tactics people would use. One is just to hit the mute button and say something to the game if you’re frustrated. Or maybe you’d use a gesture—say, a certain finger—and you’d press it against the TV screen. I think we’ve all done that, I believe.
SB: I still do that to this day. I did it today—I couldn’t get a piece of code to work, and I constantly flipped the screen off.
GL: We would take the same call over and over and over again—or you would get stuck in one of those games, where you’d have to spend 10 minutes just trying to figure out where they were. Back then, there wasn’t a lot of saving in games. People would be playing this game, go to bed, and pause it all night long. It might’ve been days since they knew where they were. The same thing would come up over and over and over again. You’d have to have something to distract you. Baseball Stars—we would play a 162-game season.
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. Shaun, I think you did a bunch of them. And they’d get passed out.
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.”
SB: The way that it worked originally was—we were answering calls on [Nintendo-created] games. But we kept getting calls from all these other games that were out for the Nintendo system, so we kept referring them to the licensee company that made the games. Eventually, these licensee companies got sick and tired of taking gameplay calls that were passed on from Nintendo. So pretty soon it became standard that any time a game was released, the licensee company would send us a whole shitload of them, and we had a “check out” center where you could just go check them out.
GL: We would have them originally, because they would have to send them to us for the testing, like Caesar was talking about. You really would live for these little side projects—that was where the politics of any office came into play there. There’d be two or three hundred game counselors probably all together at the high point, and even just a day off the phones [was a relief]. Even doing grunt work…
SB: I’d rather scrub Café Mario’s floor than be on the phones at some point.
CF: On Café Mario—this was back when smoking was allowed in buildings, and there was this smoking room which was right next to it. And I swear, if you walked through there you got instant-onset lung disease. It’s like a sauna of nicotine right there on the second floor, right next to Café Mario.
GL: All the supervisors smoked! All the leads smoked, so if you wanted a promotion, people would go hang out with the smokers.
AVC: What were the most popular games that people called in about?
SB: Zelda was probably our number one call, huh?
GL: Or how to beat Mike Tyson. There’s a couple of tricks in Mario. The Minus World. And then also the jumping on the turtle for 1-Ups.
CF: The extra lives thing, yeah.
GL: I used to have to try to do that live when I was on the PowerFest. That always sucked. It was me and Tim Dale on there.
AVC: What was the PowerFest? And Greg, how did your path go from that to music and DJing?
GL: [At first] it was done kind of like an MTV show. I don’t know how else to put it. We had different music groups come out—two different ones I did we had DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. Then it transitioned. It all came down to money. They weren’t making enough money. [They started] emphasizing the counselors. By the time Shaun got out there, it was very much emphasizing us. And also the kids. It was less showy and more about the games.
We actually spent a lot of time—I don’t know if you did, Shaun—but we spent a lot of time with Terry [Torok], the host, training. We would get a boardroom in one of our hotels. During that time, I was averaging 80 hours a week. Half that was on the show, about a quarter was travel, and the other quarter was practicing. Tim Dale was the spokesperson for Nintendo for a long time. He directly relates being out on the tour to inspiring him to further train himself and get good at that—he’s actually a DJ, too.
We had those headphone mics, like Garth Brooks and Britney Spears used to use, and we would literally have those on and be playing and doing the Mario trick or whatever. The fact you can get up and do this in front of anywhere from 400 to 4,000 kids, makes doing a wedding not particularly intimidating.
I came home with the money. I had banked everything. I didn’t spend a cent the whole tour. I was on the road with stuff the rest of that year, had no expenses. I came home, bought a car and started my DJ company with the money.
SB: We didn’t have to do the training with Terry. By that time, it was more focused on the games and the counselors, getting up on stage. We had something called Stump The Pros. At work, it was really easy, because if you didn’t know the answer, you could either find someone that did, and transfer it, or you had all of your manuals in your computer. And if you were good at reading, without making it sound like you’re reading, you usually had no problem.
On tour, we’d have these kids out in the audience. They’d raise their hand, and we’d go, “What’s your question there?” There would be two or three of us on the stage. [Kids] would ask crazy questions, like, “How do you get through Room 17 on Legacy Of The Wizard?” And you’re like, “Holy shit, I have no idea.” So we’d always say, “You know, that’s a really detailed answer. Why don’t you find me after the show, so I can walk you through it?” And then we’d just go hide in the back by the stage.
The friendly yet weird nature of phone culture
SB: 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.”
CF: I just had a range of bizarre stuff—not really funny, just kind of scary stuff from random people. I have nothing funny. It’s just all weird and dark exchanges. Greg, you might have a funny one.
GL: I don’t remember too many of the funny ones. The one that I do remember is just making friends with people. Most of them would be playing when they called. People would call long distance. It was expensive then. They’d be calling from all over the place and just chat. They’d be playing, and you’d help them out.
We had certain numbers to hit and a certain amount of phone calls—and all this changed throughout the years—and you tried to keep your average up. I think it was three-and-a-half minutes, at that time, for a call or something like that. We also knew that because we just had 25 calls that were all one minute each, that we could stretch this call for 10, 12 minutes. If you got a familiar person to talk to, your leads understood that at that point. These would be very loyal customers.
For me, it was nice, because when I was on the PowerFest, I got to meet all of these people. There were probably a dozen of them that I got to meet. They’d come out and say hi. They were never, ever like what you thought they’d be like. They’d send us letters and write. At its core, we were providing really good customer service to these folks. They were extremely loyal.
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.
You did have your normal phone kooks. I later worked at a cell phone company on the phone, and we had kooks there too. At least when you’re talking to people about video games, for the most part people are happy. Some people would get so mad, though, if you couldn’t tell them exactly what to do on this system—where to turn left or where to turn right.
CF: The funny thing was, we were originally told to just counsel them into the answer, and help them feel like they’ve figured it out themselves. Give them some hints, or kind of coach them along. But people sometimes would lose their patience completely with that, and want the answer immediately. Which didn’t always end well on the phones.
GL: You guys probably remember Tim Wilson? This kid would call me—he was one of those regular guys I was talking about. He lived about three hours south of Seattle. His dad was a police chief. He was a good kid. His aunt lived in Redmond, so one day I get this call from the front desk, “Hey, somebody’s here to see you.” We came in the back door. We weren’t even allowed to come in the front door.
I go down there, and it’s Tim. I talked to him for a while, and answered some questions, took a picture in front of the sign. Later, when he graduated from high school, he literally came up, lived at his aunt’s house and got a job working at Nintendo as a Game Counselor. It was 10 years later. He probably first called me when he was 8.
Perks and claims to fame
SB: When we worked at Nintendo, that was the heyday. If you worked at Nintendo as a game play counselor, you were awesome.
CF: If we wore our game play counselor coats out in public at that time, that was a problem. You’d get, like, beat up.
SB: You took the words right out of my mouth. We had the windbreaker jackets, and some of them had [Metroid’s hero] Samus on the back. Some of the game play counselors would go down to the mall at lunch time, with their jackets, just because they would get hammered by little kids. They thought, “This is awesome.” I didn’t really think it was awesome to get hammered by little kids.
GL: They were just looking to meet the little kids’ sisters and mother.
SB: [Laughs.] Greg used to have—was it a Nova?
GL: Yup, a ’74 Nova.
SB: A ’74 Nova, and it had a custom plate on it. In Washington, custom plates were yellow at the time. And it just said LOWDER. [Laughs.] I don’t know why I found it funny.
GL: They ended up using “Lowder” for one of the creatures in [Zelda II: The Adventures Of] Link. Remember that, Caesar? One of the small, slimy creatures? It was one of those guys that translated all the characters from Japanese to English.
Whoever did this one did it to insult me, because the description of it was all “slimy creature.” I’m like, “You know what? There’s now a creature in The Adventures Of Link named after me, so I really can’t argue with that too much.” Caesar, you’re in the Griffey game [Ken Griffey, Jr. Presents Major League Baseball] too, right?
CF: In Griffey and NCAA Basketball. My claim to fame, actually—other than the Power Glove-15-minute-one-life [Contra] thing, which got me internet-famous for about a second-and-a-half—is the Maniac Mansion hamster in the microwave. Long story short, I put the hamster in the microwave in the game. And, of course, the hamster blows up in the microwave.
I remember the guys in the testing group that had done that project. I walked over to this guy Michael Kelbaugh I knew over there, and I said, “Dude, this doesn’t seem right, man, I just blew up a hamster in the microwave. There’s blood splatter”—8-bit, pixelated blood—“all over the inside of the microwave now.” They’re like, “Holy shit.” They basically had to pull the game and landfill ’em, and re-release the game. There’s a book called Game Over, there’s a story in there about Maniac Mansion getting landfilled because “someone put the hamster in the microwave.” [Laughs.] That was my claim to fame. It caused some problems.
GL: I had a roommate at the time named Jeff Hutt. He was Nintendo’s liaison with Griffey, which was a lot of fun, because Griffey then also played for the Mariners, and the Mariners were owned at the time by [then-Nintendo president] Mr. [Hiroshi] Yamauchi. We got to do some fun stuff. I never got to do anything with Griffey beyond wear one of his uniforms for Halloween.
But that’s what I was talking about with Caesar before. Jeff named a lot of the players. They could only use certain players’ real names because they didn’t have the license from the Players’ Association. They just had the license from Major League Baseball. I think I was a shortstop or second baseman. It was kind of fun, because Jeff named them all after his friends and people at Nintendo.
AVC: Caesar, I want to know about the Contra thing.
CF: 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.]
SB: A lot of those Counselor’s Corner [columns in Nintendo Power] were “mostly true.”
CF: I would come in and beat Contra in 15 minutes in one life, every morning, right when I started work. Every single day. It was super-fast. I ran through the whole game. It was this thing I had to do to complete my morning. I’d come in, log in, and I’d sit down in front of the TV. If I died, I’d start over again.
SB: [The Legend Of Zelda: A] Link To The Past was the one that I always played at my desk. I played other games too, but I would sit down and play all the way through Link To The Past in one shift, from start to end. I don’t know why I liked that game so much, but I did.
Life at Nintendo HQ
GL: People always ask me about working for a Japanese company, kind of one of the first big ones, at least locally. I don’t know about you guys, but I always thought it was great. They worked really hard to make it a great experience. The Christmas parties were absolutely incredible.
CF: Oh my God, those were insane. Insane.
AVC: In what way?
CF: 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.
GL: They rented every limo in western Washington. They thought they’d get around it by having the party on a Sunday night, which always kind of sucked. Most people made arrangements and didn’t have to work the next day. They had limos to and from for everybody. It was nice to be treated like that, at that age, and having all this great fun, but also be treated in a way that I’ve rarely seen since then, as far as corporate stuff. While there was still that political stuff within the ranks, the upper management—to me at least—was very fair.
SB: We had tons of video games in the lunch room. People used to go out there and compete all the time. Nintendo came out with Killer Instinct, which was an amazing two-player fighting game. That’s when Street Fighter was all the rage, and Mortal Kombat.
GL: They had the real arcade games out there from the very beginning. You had the original Mario Bros., Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr. They were mint condition. They were all free.
SB: I get asked this a lot: Every time a system came out, we got one, for free. We got to buy stuff from Nintendo, at a relatively good discount. And the one thing I liked about Nintendo, and the way they did that employee store, you could bring anyone you wanted in there. You didn’t have to pretend like, “Hey, just point to what you want and I’ll pretend like I’m buying it for myself, ’kay?”
CF: Do you guys still have your green binders that were a hodgepodge of notes and maps and stuff like that? Do you still have your own personal binder of your own personal gameplay maps and notes? I actually found mine, my binder with weird stickers. Back in the day, before the internet, you’d collect pieces of paper with jokes on them—like memes before they were digital. There’s such random stuff in this binder, it’s ridiculous.
SB: I had one of the PowerFest competition game packs for a long time. The actual cartridge. It was sweet. They had the cutaway on it with the switches, so you could change the time limit and stuff like that. I ended up trading it for an upright Centipede arcade machine down in California.
AVC: Those cartridges go for a lot of money on eBay.
SB: I wish I had never gotten rid of that thing, and I kick myself today. But at the time, I was like, “Dude, a full-size arcade Centipede machine? Sign me up!”
AVC: Were you guys there when they did the recording of the video games for The Wizard?
SB and CF: No!
GL: So if you watch The Wizard, and when they’re playing the games, at one point they go to this convenience store. The little kid goes up and starts to play some fighting game.
AVC: Double Dragon.
GL: Double Dragon. Except he’s playing an arcade version, but it’s the NES version of the game. That was a bunch of us—I played Mega Man 2, I think, and something else. A couple other guys did that. That was fun, because they literally rolled up this movie projector VHS to record [us] playing that, so they could record it on the film. It was this huge thing about the size of an A.V. cart, that big. The whole thing was a machine, and it was on wheels. You plugged in your NES via the A.V. cables into it, and you played it, and they would record it. It’s a video game being edited on film later. Digital to analog to analog, I guess. They were there for a few days. They didn’t really tell anybody why—they just said, “Go play. Get far in the game.” Then when the movie came out, it was kind of a version of the PowerFest in a completely obscene sort of way, over the top.
AVC: There’s someone on YouTube who’s gone through every mention of the games in the movie and pointed out inaccuracies.
GL: It was obviously done by people that weren’t gamers.
SB: The one thing I can say that was the biggest disappointment would be the Virtual Boy.
CF: They actually trained me to give eye exams to people. And for a month and a half, all I did all day was run people through, giving them an eye exam—with all the eye exam equipment—and write down the readings. I had to be trained to do that. Then they’d play the Virtual Boy for half an hour, then give them another eye exam and write down all the readings. That was my weird life for like eight weeks. They had an optometrist come in to teach me how to do it, and then he would come in and check every once in a while. It was bizarre.
GL: Later, we got these red LED displays put up in the call center. [CF and SB groan.] The leads, the assistant leads, supervisors used to keep track of how many calls were in. I don’t know about you guys, but that really increased my stress level.
CF: Oh yeah, you could see there were 50 people waiting for GPC calls in the queue. There would be colors on your phone, it would be no light if there were hardly any calls, and green if it was normal. But it turned red if it was totally backed up. And if supervisors saw that you were idling, you’re not in “take call” mode, for more than, like, seconds of time…
GL: Seven seconds.
CF: Seven seconds. You would hear about it in the next weekly review or whatever. “I see here you were on idle for 14 seconds. Yeah, what were you doing?” [Laughs.] It was insane.
GL: One of my jobs as a lead was to listen in to the calls. You could dial into the call—you could dial into anybody’s call, and listen in. Generally speaking, you would listen in and then toward the end of the call, you could push a button that says, I want to say, “Call your supervisor” or “Call me.” So maybe you’re doing things on a call you weren’t supposed to be doing—the alert would come up. And it was usually your boss on there. It happened to me a few times, and man, your heart would just be like…
CF: If you see Sandy Huffman’s or Blaine Phelps’ name pop up on your phone as you’re taking a call, you’re like, “Oh, I really stepped in it now. I’ve done something.”
SB: So I have to tell you how I left. I was super burned out after eight years. Instead of giving you promotions and raises and stuff, [Nintendo] would basically give you projects to do to make you feel special. The projects would usually get you off the phones. Once you got off the phones, you were like, “This is awesome. I’m not answering calls.”
I was so burned out, I had no projects going anymore. And I got called for jury duty. Long story short, they didn’t need me for jury duty, and I took a whole week off. I didn’t go to work, and then when I got back, I was like, “Yeah, crazy jury duty, that was a long week.” And they were like, “Okay, well, we just need the little card they gave you when you showed up.” And I was like, “Shit.” And I’m like, “You know, when I got there, they couldn’t find my name on the registry, so they said they didn’t have the proper paperwork, they’re going to have to mail it to me. So I’m just waiting for it.”
The card they “couldn’t find for me” was still attached to the paperwork they originally sent me that Nintendo photocopied. So if they had gone and looked at the paperwork, they would’ve seen that I had never even sent the card in. That basically forced me to get another job, because I was never going to get the paperwork—and then they were going to find out that I took a whole week off. It was just horrible. I’m telling you guys all my darkest secrets from Nintendo.
I got a job and put in my notice, and I left and went to another company, making 25 cents less an hour. I went to work for a porn company as a technical supervisor. That’s what started my life as a web developer.
GL: I got fired. I got escorted out of the building. After five years, it took me three hours to clean out my desk while a security guard stood next to me. It was rather humorous. I got burned out. They called it “Hell Week” between Christmas and New Year’s. Everybody and their brother was on the phone helping people mainly hook up their games. We had people that would work 80, 90, 100 hours that week. Everybody already got double time. Our supervisor was Sandy Huffman, who I’m still pretty friendly with.
I had gotten to the point where I had been almost off the phone altogether. I was a lead. We would monitor people and sit down and really just try to mentor people, which I found really great. I used that a lot in my future “real” jobs. But toward the end of that year, they were like, “Oh, you have to do 10 hours a week” [on the phones], and toward the end of the year for me, it was 20 hours. I went from being off the phones for quite a while, and now you’re back on 20.
At that point, we probably had—what, five, six hundred games toward the end of the NES? And the Super Nintendo had just come out. I knew a lot of the games, but I was also at the point where if you don’t do it all the time, you don’t know all those little idiosyncrasies. It just burned me out more. Sandy gave me the week off and said, “Hey, just try to get your whatever back.” I came back and made a good effort at it for a couple of months, and I just never hit that number that I had to meet. I still had to be back on the phones for 20 hours, and I couldn’t do it. She was very fair to me. It was just like you said, Shaun—at a certain point, you’ve kind of worn out your welcome, and then it’s time to move on after that.
I had four major call center jobs in my life. They all started and finished kind of the same way. You started out, and [it] was a team effort, and everybody got together and worked really hard to take as many calls as we could. And then at some point, they became very organized and started monitoring people and listening for quality. Everything became relatively automated. And then it became a numbers game.
AVC: What were your takeaways from your time working at Nintendo that you’ve carried with you throughout your career?
SB: We were talking about Tim Dale, and he came down on me pretty hard one time. I had written an email to him or someone else and CCed him on it. I didn’t re-read it, and he said, “Shaun, take a few seconds and read your email before you send it. You’re going to get in trouble for sending an email like that. You’re just going to be embarrassed.” I don’t know what it was. I really liked him, and I always thought very highly of him. And that has stuck with me forever. I have never sent an email without re-reading it since then.
The other thing I took away too is, there’s nothing you can’t do if you just put your mind to it. I proved to myself so many times in games that weren’t a lot about thinking—it was more about controls. So many times, you’d do it 100 times in a row, and you’re just like, “Guh!” And then you do it. You think about that, and you’re like, “You know what? How many times did I say I’m not going to be able to do this, and then you do it?”
I have used so many of those techniques that I used on the phone with my son. He will say, “Dad, how do I get through here?” and I’ll ask him a question—try to get him to answer it. The unfortunate part is, we’re starting to cross that line where he’s helping me. I have reached that point in my life where my son is the one figuring out the games now.
GL: While they were tough at certain times, I really respected and liked how Nintendo took care of everybody. We talked about the Christmas parties and some of the other stuff. While it was a job, and there were certain things expected from you, and they were tough and hard—coming from a guy that was fired, I know the repercussions of not doing your job. But I knew why, and I knew it was going to go down that path. And I was given every opportunity to succeed.
I’ve worked at other places that haven’t been that way. They don’t give you all the tools. And we had all the tools when I was there. They weren’t going to nitpick you on the little crap, as long as you had the stuff to get your job done. There was a level of respect given to us that maybe I didn’t have in any other job. Honestly, I don’t think they had to do that.
I don’t know if you followed when Mr. Yamauchi bought the Mariners and saved baseball in Seattle. That was right around the end of my time there. Literally, we wouldn’t have baseball in Seattle if it wasn’t for him stepping up. Everybody was freaking out that this Japanese company would be buying an American baseball team. Mr. Yamauchi never did see the Mariners play. He was doing it as a “thank you” to the Seattle area, for being a great place for him to have Nintendo Of America. They did a lot of things they didn’t have to do. To me, being 21 and seeing them do this, it was like, “Woo-hoo! That’s pretty cool.” This isn’t Kentucky Fried Chicken like high school.
CF: I fully agree with Greg on that. I was a full-time employee right out of high school. I was being given benefits. Like Greg said, they didn’t have to do that stuff for you. Here I am—I have a job that gives me vacation, sick time, benefits, and I’m like 18. It was just crazy. You’re still making like $5.50, six bucks an hour—but bottom line was, how many jobs that pay minimum wage offer you benefits?
GL: Not to get all political, but I just actually had this discussion with a friend. We were talking about this whole $15-an-hour minimum wage issue. I was telling him, “I’ve been there. I’ve been the guy working at Kentucky Fried Chicken” or whatever. Those jobs weren’t necessarily designed for people to make a full-time living and come out of poverty. Unfortunately, they’ve kind of rotated that way. But I look back on me and starting out and having my first office job, being 18 or 19 and starting at Nintendo. I didn’t meet any qualifications there except being able to basically walk and chew gum at the same time.
That’s another thing—you had to do good phones. There were a lot of people that came in there that couldn’t do two things at once, and could not talk on the phone and work on the computer, or talk on the phone and play video games. If you didn’t have a good voice. That’s another thing I’d totally take away from there. I can’t tell you how many gigs I booked just because I do good phones. From working at Nintendo [I learned] to express myself and talk well, and speak up and speak clearly.
CF: We kind of knew we were part of something special back then, or part of a pretty unique crew of folks. That immediate community. It’s like, “Oh, we’re game play counselors.” We’re part of that same family. It’s this automatic team feeling. It’s good. It’s family.