03 September 2010


In a medium that moves only a couple miles per hour shy of the speed of light, many aspects of gaming are constantly being cast aside and left behind. One such aspect is the old if-you're-stuck-dial-this-number tip line.

Back in the '90s, before the Internet roamed the earth, you were basically shit out of luck if you found yourself at an impasse while gaming. Your options were to 1) hope the subsequent issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly addressed your particular impasse (sometimes it did; sometimes it didn't), or 2) dial a phone number for a dollars-per-minute charge and speak with a gaming expert who could talk you through your problem.

I'm not the most skilled gamer on Earth. I think of myself as persistent more than anything else. I don't give up on a game easily, especially if I've spent $60 on it. But even I have my limits. Back then, after a few nights of back-to-back-to-back frustration, I'd usually reach for the phone.

I hated these moments. Dialing the 900 number was an admission of defeat. "I can't do this. This game has gotten the better of me." Etc.

It also felt shameful somehow. I called a few sex lines in college. You know, just to see what they were like. Usually I got some woman who was slurring her words from an obvious vodka drunk, asking me if I was "mama's dirty boy."

I was speaking with a woman named Peaches once when she asked me if I had my "pecker out." There is nothing remotely alluring about the word "pecker." I hung up on Peaches and then moped around the rest of the night in my apartment, feeling ashamed of myself, and ashamed of the credit card charges I'd accrued just to listen to a strange woman slur the word "pecker."

I felt a similar kind of shame when dialing the game-expert hotlines. I'd start pressing the numbers and think: "Am I really going to go through with this?" And then another voice inside my head would say: "Yes, you are going to go through with this because you can't afford to waste one more night of your terrible life searching for the seven Cuccos for that one lady in Kakariko Village."

All the bigger companies -- Nintendo, Capcom, Konami -- had hotline numbers at the time. But the only one I called regularly was the Nintendo hotline. Zelda games were the bane of my existence. There always seemed to be something I needed but couldn't find, or something that I'd found but couldn't figure out how to use. I basically spent the bulk of Ocarina of Time just walking around and playing my ocarina every couple of feet in the hopes that something magical might happen. Sometimes something magical happened. Most of the time, nothing happened.

I've been a gamer all my life, but I've struggled with feeling OK about my love of games. I love them now, unapologetically, but when I was younger I desperately wanted to think of myself as a Serious Person. I brooded a lot in coffee shops. I read "The Iliad" in public. Gaming was not something a Serious Person would do. It's nearly impossible to brood while gaming. Go ahead, try it. See? Impossible.

That said, because of all the years I had wasted on brooding and trying to read very large books that I didn't enjoy, I was well into my 20s when I dialed the Nintendo hotline most frequently, making me without a doubt the oldest regular caller to the Nintendo hotline.

Here is how it worked: The phone would ring a few times. I imagined a phone ringing in a giant castle. The symbolism of calling Nintendo was not lost on me. Nintendo was this amorphous fantasy place in my mind. It was like Santa's workshop, only it was real. The fact that I was doing something so tangible as calling Nintendo was an exciting act. It was almost as exciting as calling 1-900-U-GETOFF1.

A jolly pre-recorded voice would say, "Kids! Be sure you've got your parents' permission before we connect you with one of our Nintendo Game Counselors!" My face would always get hot with shame when I heard this.

I'd wait on hold for a few seconds, listening to some semi-obscure Nintendo tune playing in the background, like the theme music from World 4 in Super Mario Bros. 3. As far as I was concerned, this was the greatest on-hold music that I'd ever heard.

Eventually, a very chipper person would come on the line. "Thank you for calling Nintendo! I'm Greg, your game counselor. What can I help you with today?"

I was teaching literature classes at Syracuse University at the time. I tried to raise my voice an octave or two, trying not to sound too old and creepy on the phone. "Hi Greg! I'm having trouble finding the seventh Cucco for the lady in Kakariko Village. Can you help me?"

At this point Greg would ask me a series of questions. (I will make up some questions here for conversation's sake; do not email me about there not being a "Horn of Triumph" in Ocarina. Please. Thank you.) "Do you have the Ocarina of Woe? What about the Boomerang of Fate? And the Moon Medallion? And the Gravity Boots? What about the Horn of Triumph?" (Yes. Yes. No. Yes. No.)

This was usually the point in the call when I would hear the whooshing sound of my Serious Person rushing past me on its way to throwing itself out my apartment window, down to its certain death in the street below.

I had no idea where Greg was getting these answers from. At the time, I imagined him sitting in front of a wall of televisions. Row 2, TV 4 would have Ocarina cued up on it. I imagined him playing five or six games simultaneously. Now I realize he was probably sitting in front of a row of loose-leaf binders. He pulled out the Ocarina binder, flipped to Kakariko Village, then relayed the information to me.

Still, I romanticized Greg's job to an absurd extreme. Here was a man who knew things. Here was a man with answers. Here was a man who was earning a paycheck for being good at videogames. I imagined him sitting in the Nintendo Castle Cafeteria and eating his lunch, and joking with Shigeru Miyamoto about the fact that THEY WERE SERVING MUSHROOMS AGAIN. (Oh no, not again! Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.)

I probably dialed the Nintendo number a dozen times over the years. Each time I spoke with someone with a name like Greg, or Tom, or Mike or Gary. They all sounded like the same person to me. One time I got a Tina. By the end of the call I was basically ready to ask her to marry me. Tina and I discussed the nuances of Super Metroid together. I am telling you, this was far more erotic for me than anything that I ever got from the 1-900 sex-talk numbers. And Tina didn't slur her words, and didn't pause after every other sentence to take a pull from her Smirnoff wine cooler. Tina was friendly and smart and very helpful. And she was a girl who could talk about games. Back in the '90s, there weren't many of them around.

During one of the final times that I called the Nintendo number, before I got into the habit of visiting GameFAQs.com, I tried to strike up a more personal conversation with Greg. (Or maybe it was Mike. Or maybe Gary.)

"You know, I've always wanted a job in videogames," I confided in GregMikeGary. I lowered my voice, and nervously looked over my shoulder, expecting Serious Person to creep up behind me and bludgeon me with a frying pan. This was, I knew, the ultimate betrayal of Serious Person.

I wanted GregMikeGary to tell me the secret. At that time in the industry, it still felt very much like a secret. Was there a password? A special handshake? A giant, golden key that I needed to find, like the one you use in Ocarina to open the last door in the dungeon? I was desperate. I sat in my tiny apartment on Genesee Street. Snow was falling outside my kitchen window. I listened as if the universe was about to reveal its greatest mysteries to me.

"Nintendo is a great place to work and everyone is really friendly here!" GregMikeGary said, to my great disappointment. Then he asked if there was anything else he could help me with. I considered asking him what Tina was like in real life. But then I made my peace with the fact that no mysteries were going to be revealed here. The mystery of the game industry was going to remain a mystery to me, at least for a few more years. I hung up the phone.


  1. Great post, as always, Jones. I never did call the Nintendo Game Counselors, but there were definitely times that I wanted to as a kid. Why didn't you just pick up a strategy guide for whatever game was bugging you? It had all the answers and was probably cheaper than a ten minute phone call to Nintendo.

  2. I was too cheap to ever call the hotline. I actually mailed them a question on Startropics once, and amazingly received a timely, well-explained and friendly response! I wish I still had that.

  3. The strategy-guide industry wasn't as ubiquitous in those days. I remember coming across a Super Mario Bros. 3 strategy guide in the B. Dalton at the mall, on the backest back shelf they had available. I revered it as if it were the modern-day Rosetta Stone. I almost dared not glance at its pages.

    There was also the matter of pride, because if you only needed one or two tips, you could still say that you finished most of the game yourself (with an asterisk). Whereas with a strategy guide you might as well have had someone else play for you. The modern day equivalent is checking GameFAQs, quickly scanning a walkthrough for just the one piece of information you need, and then closing the window as quickly as possible so you can pretend that maybe it never happened.

  4. Jesus Christ, you were a teacher?! lol! Have you apologised to their parents yet?

    Buddy and I used to prank call the Nintendo Hotline all the time. Sometimes we'd put THEM on hold and put on some Bette Midler showtune for 5 min or make it sound like Dad just walked in on his son dialing long distance for the 100th time and subsequently going postal, like that phone call in 'A Christmas Story' only x10. They'd rarely hang up. Those NES game sound tests (eg Ninja Gaiden) with all their variations of breaking glass etc came in most handy.

  5. Finding the Cucco.....how I raged...

  6. I don't see why you couldn't get the strategy guide and still only consult it when you got stuck. You don't have to follow along in a guide every step of the way.