Nintendo Power's Greatest Gossip Gremlins

Nintendo Power had a fascinating look in its early years. It was, of course, a promotional sheaf for all things Nintendo, but the magazine’s staff enjoyed an unprecedented relationship with Japanese publishers. With that came artwork and layouts rarely spotted in America.

Within Nintendo Power you’d see spindly Clash at Demonhead heroes, plastic Blaster Master and Metal Storm models, Mega Man robots somewhere between an American cartoon and a Japanese comic, and lavish art for the lesser-known likes of Astyanax, Code Name: Viper, and Legacy of the Wizard. And you’d see the detailed illustrations of the now-respected Katsuya Terada adorning features for Final Fantasy, Dragon Warrior, and Ultima. Even the comic-strip adventures of Howard and Nester, the former based on Howard Phillips and the latter a bratty little mascot, had distinct manga styling. Nintendo Power wasn’t just a bundle of previews and tips and news about video games that would define an embarrassing volume of childhoods. It was a kaleidoscope gaze into another realm.


The Gossip Gremlins had a small but memorable role in this. No doubt borrowed from Japanese publications, the Gremlins were fanciful critters who popped up at the bottom of Nintendo Power’s Pak Watch previews section. They spouted tidbits about games too early to have plentiful screenshots or solid details, giving the magazine a cute package for random information.

The Gremlins also offered some of the most creative art in Nintendo Power, as they weren't based on actual games. Unburdened by commercial demands, the artists cut loose and drew marvelously odd creatures from the heart of Japan’s late-1980 pop culture. And I picked out my favorites.
 
THE EYE KNIGHT 
January/February 1989 
If the Gossip Gremlins rarely came from real NES games, many were cut from the same aesthetics. The Eye Knight is a perfect example, familiar enough to make young readers wonder if they'd encountered such a creature in The Legend of Zelda, Dr. Chaos, or the inner reaches of Deadly Towers that few had the patience to reach.


An armored warrior with a huge Technodrome iris where his face should be? That’s almost too good of a design to waste on a blurb about Defender of the Crown—a blurb that’s half inaccurate, since the game isn't really about Robin Hood.


In fact, Nintendo Power liked the Eye Knight enough to use him (her?) twice. The creature shows up again in the March/April issue to mention some news about Hi-Tech. Too bad, Eye Knight. You deserved to be skewered by Link in Zelda II, not reduced to bandying Chessmaster rumors.



THE LIPS GOBLIN’S MOTORBOOT
May/June 1989
That large-lipped pink goblin seen in the Gossip Gremlins intro turned out to be their most frequent contributor. She (he?) showed up in later issues, often sporting binoculars or an excited expression, and my favorite is her appearance in a roller skate converted for highway use.


The footwear car underscores the whole “gremlin” theme of the characters. Most of these little gossip-mongers didn’t look like miniature monsters, but the shoemobile is a neat little creation, like something you’d see in Gremlins 3: The Revenge of George.

By the way, "that distinctive LJN style" might've been a diplomatic way of saying that the Back to the Future game looked like garbage. Which it was.


BORD THE MONSTER TRUCK 
July / August 1989 
The Gossip Gremlins seldom reflected the news they delivered, but every now and then the two converged in delightful ways. Meet Bord, a cumbersome vehicle who told Nintendo-addled kids all about a Bigfoot game. That game turned out awful, but Bord looks great.


He has personality well beyond his brand name, a legality-dodging joke you’ll see everywhere from the "Stony" TVs of Mystery Science Theater 3000 to the "MgRonald's" burger joints of The Devil is a Part-Timer. I especially like how you can’t tell if he’s a personified truck or if he merely has a big red blob for a driver.


SPACESUIT ALIEN
September/October 1989
This insect-mawed alien told a simple joke: a creature sweltering inside a human costume inside an astronaut suit. And just to assure the kids that he wasn’t some Giger-ish abomination hatching grotesquely from a man's innards, there’s a zipper. Consider yourselves prepared for the insane conspiracies of the 1990s, children.


Double-disguised alien has nothing to with Bases Loaded II, apart from his possible experience with Bio-rhythms. Nor does the little parrot in a bicycle-plane have any relation to the news; in the full page, he doesn't even have a word balloon. But Nintendo Power liked him anyway.


SUSIE THE ATV CATGIRL
September/October 1989
Susie is among the few Gossip Gremlins to have an actual name. Outfitted with either strange headgear or a cat-ear band, she rides a four-wheeler with her logo on the side. The artist even drew some debris for her vehicle to toss around!


In fact, Susie and her ATV show much more detail than the usual Gossip Gremlin, making me wonder if she had a larger role in the Japanese magazine that spawned her. Was she a publication’s mascot or a recurring character? Or did her creator merely give Susie a few more touches in the hope that she’d catch on and get her own regular comic, perhaps even in the pages of Nintendo Power? If it’s the latter case, my sympathies go out to that artist. It would be a good ten years before manga catgirls drew demand outside of college anime clubs and furry conventions.

Perhaps Susie fell short of Nintendo Power stardom because she lacked a proper helmet. If she'd been a major character, how many kids might die convinced they could off-road in cat ears? Probably none, but Gossip Gremlins should set a good example.


THE CLAY CREATURE
November/December 1989
The Gossip Gremlins served two purposes. They let Nintendo Power cram in extra snippets of news, and they provided a cuddly deflection if those snippets were wrong. Readers would forgive errors more readily when they issued from helicopter turtles or a talking blob of ancient Play-Doh. That’s what happened with this freshly unsealed golem and his blurb about Asmik.


The clay figure presents Asmik’s new mascot, a sketchily drawn dinosaur named “Bronty.” That dopey pink flipper-dragon would pop up on the title screens of Asmik games like Wurm: Journey to the Center of the Earth and Conquest of the Crystal Palace, but his name isn’t Bronty. He’s known as Asmik-kun in Japan, and he’s called Boomer in the U.S. and in his Game Boy outing, Boomer’s Adventure in Asmik World. Nintendo Power used his earlier North American name, possibly cooked up by executives who hadn’t checked the copyrights on “Bronty.”

It didn’t make any difference, since Boomer’s Adventure was the only Boomer game Asmik released in the West. Sorry, Boomer. Not everyone can be a Captain Commando or a Blue Randar.


A TWO-WAY GOBLIN CAR
January/February 1990
A classic car driven by a pointy-eared Gremlin makes for a routine illustration in Nintendo Power…until one notices that there’s a second, identical Gremlin driving the car in the opposite direction. It’s a neat, entry-level Escherian detail for the readers who look closely.


Children of the Nintendo Era will note that the most intriguing Gossip Gremlins often discussed the worst games of the NES library. So it’s fitting that the goblin drivers spout off about the notoriously awful Total Recall game. That doesn’t matter, because they’re good enough to stand on their own. If the Gossip Gremlins ever became pull-and-go Happy Meal toys or gashapon trinkets, you’d see the double-driving imps right there alongside the Lips Goblin's shoe-car and Susie's quad bike.


THE U-FORCE KOBOLD
May/June 1990
Certain Gossip Gremlins got more interesting in retrospect. This caped dog-warrior isn’t a very creative design by the standards of 1990, but his attached word balloon is notable now. The U-Force, which opened like a suitcase to sense motion on two panels, was a flop among NES peripherals. While it’s compatible with many NES games, titles made specifically for the U-Force are elusive. U-Force Power Games, a collection of small diversions, never materialized, and this Nintendo Power kobold mentions two other games likely canceled after the U-Force flopped.


Appearing next to an actual Dragon Quest slime, the kobold speaks of a first-person fighting game and an RPG that used the U-Force’s motion sensors. It’s possible they were released without the U-Force support, but I can’t think of any NES game that matches this dog soldier’s description of the martial-arts game. The RPG could be a number of NES releases, but Broderbund, makers of the U-Force, didn’t release any such NES games after 1990. So that kobold left us something to ponder.


WINCHESTER BURGER
May/June 1990
In terms of rumor-mongering, no Gossip Gremlin tops this fanged sandwich. The critter itself is cutely horrific, a delight for those kids fresh off their eighth or ninth VHS viewing of Beetlejuice. But it’s what the burger says that’s important.


The monstrous double-stack chatters about the upcoming NES games from Mediagenic, which was Activision’s brand at the time. The first three games all came out, but what about the last one, a “Japanese action classic” called Winchester? Speculation runs rampant as to what this could be, whether a bungled translation or a port of some action game so obscure that even the Internet doesn’t remember it. Whatever it was, it’s the weirdest gossip these Gremlins ever found.


MEGA MERMAID 
September/October 1990 
I'll close with a personal favorite. This mermaid is utterly conventional in design and far from the pseudo-monstrous “gremlin” motif, but her word balloon delivered the most exciting Gossip I could imagine back in 1990.


I was a fervent member of the Nintendo cult as a kid, and Mega Man 2 was my favorite game. This Gossipy blurb was the first I’d heard of Mega Man 3, and I was enraptured. It promised 20 robots and named eight of them! Shadow Man! Needle Man! Magnet Man! Hard Man and Top Man didn’t sound so interesting, but Capcom could’ve called them Abscess Man and Long-Division Man and still dominated my dreams for months.

When Mega Man 3 actually arrived and had only eight new robot masters, I felt slightly cheated for a good minute or two. Then I got to enjoying it and forgot to tally up the level bosses. If I had, I might have realized that, technically, the game has over twenty major robots if you count the initial eight, the eight Doc Robots that recycle the Mega Man 2 cast, and the five stage leaders from Dr. Wily’s castle.

So you were right, Mega Mermaid. Sneaky, but right.

What became of the Gossip Gremlins? They disappeared from Nintendo Power by the end of 1990, swept aside in a design overhaul that gave the magazine a cleaner, more angular look. This trend continued in the years that followed, and the editors gradually cut down on goofier Japan-born doodles and original illustrations in favor of official artwork (though Terada stuck around long enough for a great Secret of Mana feature). By the late 1990s, Nintendo Power's aura was mostly commonplace and familiar. It looked more professional, but something was missing. And it wasn’t just the Gossip Gremlins.

2 comments:

  1. Damn man, your posts always deliver. I remember spending hours trying to figure out what game the gremlins were from.

    That Secret of Mana article you mentioned is hands down my favorite feature in any video game magazine ever. NP's greatest strength was the ability to totally sell you on any game they wanted to.

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  2. Wow, when you put them all together, this is some weird stuff. And hey, I think I can identify the mystery-game described by the Winchester Burger:

    the description of a "light RPG" with a space guy who has to deactivate a space computer made me think of one NES game and one NES game only...and I looked it up, and sure enough The Adventures of Rad Gravity was made by Interplay.

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