Nintendo Hotliner Life 1990-93: Manning the phones during the Console Wars

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“Video game enthusiasts wanted!” Teased the ad in the Portsmouth Evening News. Except for a telephone number, this mysterious call to arms contained no other information. But as a game-obsessed 18-year-old looking for a job after completing his BTEC in computer science, I was fascinated by the possibilities – I had to call. A female voice answered and proceeded to ask for my playing permissions: Which games did I like? How many games did I complete? And strangely enough, did I have experience in telesales or call centers?

A month later, in December 1990, I joined five other rookie “game consultants” on the UK’s first official Nintendo Hotline, a telephone line dedicated to providing live hints, tips and tricks to confused Nintendo gamers.

Mike Barnes, one of the original six hotliners. (Image: Keith Pullin)

call of the Wild

Our humble call center was at Nintendo’s UK headquarters in the Fareham Heights business park, just outside Portsmouth. My rudimentary corporate workspace consisted of a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) connected to a 14-inch CRT television, an old beige phone (switched off until the end of the training session), and an ashtray.

Mike HayesMike Hayes

Mike Hayes, former Managing Director of Nintendo UK, who set up the hotline.

Mike Hayes, then Managing Director of Nintendo UK, remembers how the British incarnation of the hotline came about. “The UK Hotline was founded after a great success in the USA. Nintendo believed that having a direct relationship with its users was key – and that was something that SEGA didn’t have. To be honest, there was no other choice. Serif and then Bandai had the distribution rights for Nintendo in the UK and we were required to set up the hotline under the distribution agreement. Also, Nintendo has never been as strong in the UK as it is in Japan and the US, ”he says. “We had to fight SEGA.”

Despite the success of the Nintendo of America hotline, there was no guarantee the UK version would take off the same way. No one was sure UK gamblers would be ready to pick up the phone and ask for help.

“With any hotline,” says Hayes, “the biggest problem is the capacity and thus the number of lines and people who operate the phones. The training was easier because the people we hired were Nintendo enthusiasts. “

Live and kick

That training consisted of completing the entire NES catalog, about 100 games, in one month. Some, like The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Bros., Metal Gear, and Mike Tyson’s Punch Out !! were a pleasure. Others – like Castlevania, Fester’s Quest or the angry Faxanadu – less so. Every hotliner had its kryptonite, but our strengths and weaknesses were well put together. Together we created maps, guides and walkthroughs for the entire NES catalog. Without the internet – the six of us have developed our own crush.

Daryl Jones answers a call while the obscure NES game Snow Bros tries to lure him.  Mark Todd and Mike Barnes work afterwards.Daryl Jones answers a call during an obscure NES game Snow bros tries to lure him. Mark Todd and Mike Barnes are struggling to follow suit. (Image: Keith Pullin)

We went live in January 1991. The lines opened at 11 a.m. and after ten minutes of nerve-wracking silence a phone rang. Soon someone else rang – and then mine. I picked up the phone and hesitantly greeted my first caller. There was a short conversation I’ll never forget:

“Nintendo Hotline, Keith is speaking, can I help you?”

“Hi! Well, um, maybe … this is really a bit embarrassing, there is a dragon and it breathes fire and I can’t get past it and I don’t know what to do.”

“Okay no problem. First, what game are you playing? You’re playing a game, right?”

“Yes – sorry, Super Mario Bros.”

Child’s play, I thought – it had to be Fake Bowser on world 1-4. “Shoot him with fire or just sprint under him.”

“Uh, okay. Thanks very much. I’ll try it.”

We were up and running. When the lines closed that evening, six of us had answered 100 calls. It felt like a lot back then, but we had no idea. We started coverage of Game Boy titles soon after, and by the end of 1991 the calls had grown to around 500 a day. Three more hotliners were hired and then three more …

Feel the burn

Super Nintendo was launched in the UK in 1992 which meant we had to cover NES, Game Boy and SNES games. Nintendo has moved to a new office in Southampton (to the horror of the contingent in Portsmouth) and our musty hotline has got a facelift. There were also wall posters, modern headsets and a “state of the art” call distribution system that monitors and logs important statistics. There was nowhere to hide.

(LR) Keith Taynton, Clayton Brown, Matt ?, Mark Todd and Mike Barnes soothe the afflicted and reconcile the confused.  The folders on the shelves are crammed with maps and travel guides - a veritable treasure trove of lost secrets.(LR) Keith Taynton, Clayton Brown, Matt ?, Mark Todd and Mike Barnes soothe the afflicted and reconcile the confused. The folders on the shelves are crammed with maps and travel guides – a veritable treasure trove of lost secrets. (Image: Keith Pullin)

“There was a ‘traffic light’ system on the wall that showed off / green / yellow / red to indicate waiting calls. We had to try to stop the red, ”recalls Ben Gunstone, hotline supervisor (’92 to ’95). “Call times were based on an average and this was tracked. To ensure that the call volume was answered, we tried an average call of two minutes. “

People lasted for about a year before they were burned out … We didn’t have any support as it was considered a “dream job”

But during ’92 and ’93 these lights were permanently red. Twelve hotliners answered around 200 calls every day. After big game launches, we were able to make 2500 calls a day without any problems, but the light was still red and that inevitably took its toll.

“People lasted about a year before they burned out,” laments Gunstone. “The constant demand to take calls was relentless and some people couldn’t handle it. We didn’t have any support as it was seen as a “dream job”. In reality it was hard work (mentally) and we got abuse calls on a regular basis as well. I don’t think it helped that we all had to work on a weekend day combined with the working day from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Socializing was difficult. “

Hotliners asked their supervisor to take a break in 1993.  (LR) Keith Pullin, Shaun White, Marc Titheridge, Ben Gunstone, unknown, unknown, Oli?, Unknown - oh, and Mario.Hotliners asked their supervisor to take a break in 1993. (LR) Keith Pullin, Shaun White, Marc Titheridge, Ben Gunstone, unknown, unknown, Oli?, Unknown – oh, and Mario. (Image: Keith Pullin)

The Super Nintendo era was dominated by Zelda: A Link to the Past, Super Mario World, and Street Fighter II. Ex-hotliner Dan Carter (’91 to ’93) recalls: “We were taking Zelda calls on autopilot while we were beating each other out on Street Fighter 2 Turbo. Sometimes you accidentally stopped speaking when the game got too tense. At some point you heard this voice in your headset, which asked if anyone was still there. “

Mushroom Kingdom

When I started my third year as a hotliner in 1993, the 16-bit console war was raging. Mike Hayes recalls an article in Mail on Sunday that said, “Nintendo and SEGA compares the Beatles to the Rolling Stones; Cola versus Pepsi; Wranglers versus Levis. Funny times! “

At a glamorous Nintendo launch party in London that the night owls inside didn’t notice, a colossal Sonic the Hedgehog was projected onto the outside of the building in a particularly bold show by SEGA guerrilla marketing. When a force was formed to confront the perpetrators, they were gone.

“My opponents at SEGA were trying to hijack the launch event for the new SNES / Game Boy commercial with Rik Mayall (God bless his crazy soul) in the lead,” says Hayes.

Keith Taynton is startled by some boos while Daryll watches.Keith Taynton is startled by some boos while Daryll watches. (Image: Keith Pullin)

Because of the skill level of the hotliners, our skills were in demand: “We went to production studios to record gameplay material for television commercials,” says Keith Taynton (’91 to ’93). “I also did stuff for a TV show with Keith Chegwin. Can’t remember what it was called … “

Craig Charles stops by and asks Mike Barnes about his job. Check out the Super Mario All-Stars video here.

We caught the attention of local and national media – and suddenly our office became something of a celebrity hangout. Craig Charles out Red dwarf presented a bizarre advertising film in which, among other things, he chats with the hotliners and then dreams of becoming one. The competition winners were given a tour of Nintendo headquarters, the highlight of which was watching us at work.

I ended up commenting on Street Fighter 2 and ActRaiser for Channel 4 Game master. I also wrote the Nintendo tips for Sir Patrick Moore’s character of the same name. We knew exactly which games were getting stuck and where people were getting stuck, so the content was always relevant. Most of that segment of the show eventually revolved around Nintendo games – to the delight of the marketing directors upstairs.

The relationship we had with Nintendo gamers was unique. “Little kids called and asked if they could speak to Mario,” Dan recalls. “There was this wonderful innocence, like believing in Santa Claus. We never had the heart to say he wasn’t real, so we said he was busy developing a new game and couldn’t get on the phone. “

Dan Carter in 1992 - hotline heartthrob and Faxanadu ace.Dan Carter in 1992 – hotline heartthrob and Faxanadu ace. (Image: Keith Pullin)

“One of my regular callers was an elderly lady who needed help with Super Mario World,” says Ben. “She landed in the Sun newspaper as the oldest person in Britain to finish the game. She always called and we talked a little too. I got the impression that she was lonely and the hotline was a way to speak to someone. “

Insert coin to continue

In July 1995, the game was over for Nintendo’s hotline and all of Nintendo’s UK headquarters. After the boom in the early 1990s, Nintendo sold the UK distribution rights to Total Home Entertainment, a division of John Menzies. Many of the hotliners switched to marketing, public relations and QA careers within the gaming industry. In 2004 Mike Hayes became CEO of SEGA Europe.

Former Nintendo UK headquarters, 1992-1995.Former Nintendo UK headquarters, 1992-1995. (Image: Keith Pullin)

I’ve been working on games since then, but nowhere was there anything like the Nintendo hotline. There will always be a camaraderie among ex-hotliners, a feeling that we helped Mario make some new friends: the influencers of our time.

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