Behind the Scenes at Nintendo
There are fields of office parks in SeattleÕs north suburbs. They dot the rolling green hills with careful randomness, like tulips, or wheat. But inconspicuously nestled among the freshly paved parking lots and well-trimmed sod stands one three-story rectangle that belies its benign appearance. Somewhere deep in the bowels of this cookie-cutter office building, an electronically secured unmarked door hides a seven-foot, 700-pound, half human/half reptilian warrior splintering the skull of a 2650-year-old newly resurrected and energized skeleton -Ñ while one man stands back, cracking an "I just diddled the cat" smile. The man is Armond Williams, and noooo he didnÕt really just diddle a cat! He helped develop and test "Killer Instinct," the video game those battling monsters call home. But for Williams, home is right there in Redmond, Washington, site of the headquarters of Nintendo of North America. Gotcha! Williams works out of a specially secured room at Nintendo headquarters where he and a few other Nintendo staffers look for flaws in Nintendo games soon to hit the market. He plays games seven hours a day, five days a week. When a giant reptile cracks a skull the way itÕs supposed to, he beams like a proud father at a Little League game. But Nintendo pride doesnÕt stop with crackinÕ skulls or with Armond Williams. During a two-day, all-access, all expense-paid tour of NintendoÕs headquarters, the company who gave the world "Killer Instinct" the arcade game, "Killer Instinct" the Super NES cartridge and "Killer Instinct" the cartridge for the soon-to-be-released "Nintendo Ultra 64," showed seven editors from the Gen X press just how dedicated, generous, well-mannered and yes, proud, a corporate video game giant can be. We saw so much. We met so many people. We ate so much food. We listened to so much Green Day. From the moment we landed (smooth) and enjoyed a gratis taxi ride to our hotel in Seattle (smoother!), it was obvious Nintendo was seriously committed to showing us a great time -Ñ and making great video games! Nintendo had taken a chance though. TheyÕd invited the Gen X press (Might, The Source, P.O.V., Bikini and two CD-ROM magazines, Go Digital and Blender) -Ñ that is, the young, cynical, and very hungry Gen X press. But the delightful Eileen Tanner, surely one of Golin/Harris Public RelationsÕ most charming representatives, made it clear from the outset that Nintendo wasnÕt worried. She rolled our itinerary off her tongue like a long red velvet carpet. There was the tour of NintendoÕs headquarters and its state-of-the-art distribution center; the round-trip flight to Seattle via Alaska Airlines; the spacious room overlooking Elliot Bay at the elegant, comfortable Edgewater Inn; lunch and then dinner, and then lunch again. We met Howard Lincoln. He was proud. He is the CEO of Nintendo of North America, and he chatted with us for almost 15 minutes. He said that meeting the press was very important to him. "I think Nintendo got a bad reputation in the press as being cold and impersonal. WeÕre not. I want to show people the quality of our people, open up a dialogue with the press, simply to better explain what weÕre doing, who we are. WeÕre very proud you know." It was morning, and before he left, he offered us bagels and orange juice. We met Mike Rasciaer. He was proud too. HeÕs one of over 300 game-playing counselors who answer NintendoÕs customer service phone line. He addresses the concerns of frustrated gamers everywhere. He said he loves working for Nintendo. And has he ever considered leaving for say... Sega? Hell no! "I love working here, and I havenÕt seen a system better than our Ultra 64. Sometimes we try the Sega stuff to see how they look, how they play. WeÕre usually better." We had lunch with Mike and some of the other game-playing counselors in the afternoon. We met Dave Clifford -Ñ proud. And clean. He runs NintendoÕs state-of-the-art distribution center in nearby North Bend, Washington. We toured the facility and he told us it was "probably the prettiest factory youÕll ever see, and the cleanest." It was very clean. He told us Nintendo had built a water tower for the people of North Bend. He also offered us some gum. Pride -Ñ thatÕs what Nintendo is all about. You can see it among the small gray cubicles that honeycomb the building, each with its own NES game system and TV monitor. You can hear it in the small cheers that erupt every so often with yet another close finish of "Donkey Kong Country." You can feel it when, before you leave, NintendoÕs P.R. team loads you up with a Nintendo Sierra Designs backpack filled with a brand new Game Boy, two cartridges, a "Killer Instinct" T-shirt, a Nintendo "Play It Loud" specially commissioned jean jacket and a press kit. But it was the night before we left, toward the end of a dinner at one of SeattleÕs finer local bistros with our hosts from Nintendo and Golin/Harris, that something crystallized. For a moment, just a moment, it seemed as if we were all floating inside a big warm bubble, enveloped in one of those hazy, golden afterglows that descends like a sunset after an evening of fine food and drink. We lay back, absently swirling the small pools of wine left in our glasses, lazily spooning sugar into our coffee with brandy. We smiled and spoke of the precious hints of basil in the grilled mahimahi, of the chocolate-covered strawberries that had greeted us in our hotel rooms, of the awe-inspiring graphics and playability of NintendoÕs hot, new, soon-to-be-released cartridge for NintendoÕs Super NES system -Ñ "Killer Instinct." And for that moment nothing else mattered. Not that some of us were editors from white hot Generation X magazines around the country, able to make or break NintendoÕs reputation among the most sought-after consumers in the country, or that some of us were public relations representatives from Nintendo and Golin/Harris, or that we would all reconvene tomorrow at Nintendo to continue our "special V.I.P. press tour" of the heart and soul of the reigning king of the multibillion-dollar video game industry. For that moment, around that table, bathed in that warm satisfied half-light, we were all just... friends. Good friends.