One from the archives

I had to write a brief bit about the mysterious “Return of Donkey Kong” today, which prompted me to look up the copy of The Official Nintendo Player’s Guide I keep at my desk in the event of such emergencies, and it hit me with the weirdest nostalgia. I remember buying that guide not too long after picking up my NES — after buying Metroid, but before I managed to track down a copy of Castlevania — and flipping through the pages reminded me of the way I used to feel about games. It’s hard to explain, but there used to be something alien, even awe-inspiring about them.

This was back when I could afford to buy maybe one game every few months, when I’d longed to own a system of my own for years and years. The NES and its warm red LED felt powerful and futuristic back in 1988. Its games felt sophisticated, almost ineffable in their mystery. Metroid! So expansive. Castlevania! So dense and atmospheric. The Legend of Zelda! So enigmatic and vast, sheathed in its golden casing. And so on, and so forth. The first time I saw the Guide, I thumbed through it and pored over extensive dissections of all these games I’d never played, games whose style I’d never seen before. It all felt so grand and enticing. I miss that sensation.


The Player’s Guide is pretty interesting, though. Especially the “coming soon” section where “Return of Donkey Kong” was listed. This book was published in 1987, but it already lists the localized names for Dragon Power (Dragonball) and Dragon Warrior (Dragon Quest), the latter of which wouldn’t be published in the U.S. until the end of 1989. Clearly, that project was in the works for quite a while.

I spent far too much time studying pages like this. In the days before the Internet and information being crammed down our throats every waking moment, this was how we learned about upcoming games… and as tenuous and imprecise as release dates were, you’d never know if that enticing-looking game you read about was simply delayed for a year or two (like Dragon Warrior) or if it was promoted before it really existed and would never come out (like Return of Donkey Kong). It was in no way a better system than we have now, but it certainly escalated certain titles to “legendary” status. Which is why I picked up a copy of Chesterfield last time I was in Tokyo. Vic Tokai advertised that for U.S. release but never followed through, and dammit, I wanted to play it. Now I can.

9 thoughts on “One from the archives

  1. Can’t wait to see what you have to say about the mythical “Return of Donkey Kong.”

    But yeah, I saw the book when I was a kid and getting into the NES, but my parents wouldn’t get it. I guess they figured Nintendo Power was enough (it wasn’t; there was never enough).

    I did get this as a Christmas gift a few years ago, though, along with the companion How to Win at Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda: Tips and Tactics, each a treasure in their own way. Reading through the Guide, though, what blew me away most was the story for Punch-Out!!– doesn’t seem like something Nintendo would do today, at least not with a title like that.

  2. A local retro toy store in my area has a nice little library of old Nintendo Power issues. Every time I stop in, I dig through a few of them to try to muster up that same feeling you mentioned. Sometimes, I think back to the first few days of owning my NES and renting Legend of Zelda and I almost get it, but then I snap back to reality. I remember a few years ago, you and Frank Cifaldi were podcasting and he mentioned trying to put together a magazine in the vein of an old NP issue with tons of pixel art and previews/ reviews/ features of games that don’t actually exist so he could try to capture that feeling, too. I wish he would have pulled it off.

    Are we going to see anything on Chesterfield? Is it good?

  3. I never heard of Dragon Power, so I googled it and OH MY GOD that cover is Mega Man 1 level of ugly. I guess nobody foresaw Dragonball becoming a pretty big deal in the 90s.

  4. I used to feel the same way when I would get the Sears Christmas catalog. They would show all these Atari 2600 games I wanted so badly with one tiny (probably fake) screenshot. But a lot of those games never came out. Hobbit, I am looking at you. It didn’t stop me from imagining elaborate and expansive game experiences based on a tiny single screenshot, though. I also longed for Chesterfield, but when I finally got the ROM, I was not as impressed by the actual product as I was with my younger self’s imagined version.

    As for the excitement brought on in those days, I think the context of when they were released played a big part in the experience. It is hard to feel that way now about newer games because we have experienced so much over the last 30 years. Or so I like to tell myself. Sigh…

  5. I always imagined that The Return of Donkey Kong eventually arrived on the GameBoy as Donkey Kong ’94. That gave me some much-needed closure!

    You know what other game I wanted to see on the NES? Bashi Bazook. Mostly because it’s just fun to say “Bashi Bazook.”

    There was supposed to be, unbelievably, a sequel to the sad-sack platformer Super Pitfall, adapted from a Japanese game with a similar theme (Atlantis no Nazo, I believe). Fortunately it never arrived here, because the word on the street is that it was even worse than the first game!

    I need to find a PDF of that Player’s Guide. I remember drooling over it on store shelves… nobody knew how to trigger the salivary glands of young gamers than Nintendo.

  6. I clearly remember that feeling, looking in the back of Nintendo Power. I saw a preview of S.C.A.T., realized it was basically Contra but with flying, and then spent at least a year and a half scouring the world for it, not knowing when it would ever be found. I built up so much mysticism around that game and many many others.

    Wizards and Warriors 3 was another one I remember seeing in the back of an old issue and I never once saw it in a store. To this day, it’s almost just a myth to me.

  7. Yeah, I forgot to mention myself how games just felt different back then. I think part of it is that so much of it felt so much… newer than things do today, for some reason. At least in my view.

    Having nearly everyone you communicate with playing the same console and same big hits helped the whole thing feel a bit more community-minded as well.

  8. I often wonder if that indescribable but all too real magical feeling we all enjoyed with the video games, toys, cartoons, etc. (but mostly all things Nintendo!) in the 80s and early 90s was just because we were naturally young and impressionable back then, or if those years really were the best in human history to be a child… If its the former, then I wonder if it is possible for kids nowadays to feel about something of what they have today the same way we did then with our prized treasures? Will they struggle some 25 years from now to relive the magic of THESE days? Or maybe this new era of information overload is far too cynic in nature, and the magic is actually gone, even for the chronologically young…

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