Tales from Counselor’s Corner
Things like MySpace and Facebook have proven that the internet can connect people like never expected. Frankly, I feel good old e-mail can’t be beat, but call me old fashioned. Nonetheless, while I trusted that the internet would keep me in touch with friends and family, I am always amazed how it connects me with people I never expected and will never meet. A lot of visitors are just random strangers that probably follow some random forum link or Google search. Never did I think my web site or the vastness of the internet would connect me to someone I wrote a random letter to back in 1994.
Getting help in a pre-Internet time
Back then I wrote letters to Nintendo Power magazine to get tips on how complete video games. I mailed them in and got responses from Game Play Counselors (GPC), people whose job it was to reply back to gamers like me with the answers to life’s great gaming questions. While cleaning the house I found the letters I received from Nintendo way back then and they were just too classic not to share so I wrote an article. I wanted photos for the article so I Googled “Counselor’s Corner,” which was the section of Nintendo Power magazine where GPCs lived and got published.
One of the images I found was a scan of Game Play Counselor profiles, which usually accompanied articles in the magazine. That photo led me to the web site of one Kirk Starr. For a brief minute I didn’t think anything of it, I was just after the photo. But then I did a double take at the name. Kirk Starr. Why did I know that name? I knew it because I had just spent 15 minutes prior scanning my old Nintendo letters, one of which was from Kirk Starr. This proves that the internet is indeed making the world smaller.
I left Kirk a comment on his blog where I found the photo with no more intent than to share an artifact that once linked us, that I was a kid he had helped 13 years ago with some stupid Nintendo game. I think Kirk was as surprised to see a comment me about the letters as I was to find him.
After a few quick comments back and fourth I thought it would be a fun idea to interview the man that had the best job in the world – a Game Play Counselor for Nintendo…someone who got paid to play video games. Kirk graciously agreed to play along and so I present to you an interview an ex-Game Play Counselor.
And I’d like to thank Kirk for his willingness to partake in this interview and humor old Nintendo fans like myself.
Interview with Kirk Starr, Nintendo Power GPC
Morning Toast: When in your timeline of jobs did being a Nintendo Game Play Counselor fall? How did you find the job?
Kirk Starr: I started working for Nintendo in May of 1989, while I was still in college. I heard from a friend that Nintendo was hiring for the summer rush, so I applied (more on that below). It was probably my first “real” job in the sense that my prior work experience was all fast food and summer-hire work.
MT: What was the application process for that type of job?
KS: Nintendo didn’t hire me directly, but rather chose me from a pool of temps. In order to even have a shot at the job, I had to apply at a temporary employment service and hope that I stood out as Nintendo material. Nintendo did choose me, of course, but not for Game Play. I actually started at Nintendo in the mail room. I wasn’t there for long, however. My mail room lead, a former GPC himself, saw the maps I had drawn of the entire Wiley stage in Mega Man 2 and was so impressed that he asked the head of GPC training to have a look. Next thing I knew, I was sat in front of a 15″ television in a training room, playing games and being paid to do it!
MT: I assume the job was in Seattle at Nintendo HQ or thereabouts. What was the Nintendo campus like? Did your have your own building?
KS: The Nintendo of America headquarters are located in a neighboring city called Redmond and that is indeed where I worked. There were two buildings when I worked there; one housed the production facility and the other held all the rest of us. Nintendo Power was published one floor below where I sat every day.
There was no “campus” per se. Two buildings surrounded by parking lots with grassy places here and there to sit and have lunch. But being inside the building was as you might expect: colorful, fun, shiny, with plenty of free upright vids to play and a cafeteria – Café Mario – to buy greasy burgers and espresso.
MT: I always imagined all the Counselors on one big floor having a blast with toys, games, and a lot of laughter. What was the environment like where you worked?
KS: Yes and no. We were all on one big floor – though there were cubicles to keep things contained – and we did have a lot of great times. When you have a bunch of gamers in one place, things are going to get crazy from time to time. But you have to remember that Nintendo is a Japanese company and takes productivity very seriously. If there was a customer waiting for game play help, there was absolutely no excuse for anything else to be going on but game play counseling. Work had to come first. Nintendo always went out of their way to make working there a lot of fun, no doubt about it, but you always knew where your priorities were and they were always with the customer.
MT: What was a “good” day as a Game Play Counselor?
KS: Most days were good days. I mean, come on. But there were times that stood out, such as those days when a new Nintendo system was released (more on that later).
MT: What was a “bad” day as a Game Play Counselor?
KS: Every now and then it seemed like the grouchy adults would come out of the woodwork and call up just to scream at a GPC because they couldn’t get past level 50 of Adventures of Lolo or something. Adults always had a tougher time dealing with game challenges than kids did. Kids just wanted a tip most of the time; adults wanted the GPC to come over to their house and show them it could be done. There’s nothing worse than trying to convince a cynical adult that, yes, Adventures of Lolo is beatable and that yes, I’ve done it myself. So, you know, too many adults made for a bad day most of the time.
MT: When I was young (and even now), getting paid to play video games is a dream job. At the time did you realize how cool your job was, or was it “just another job”?
KS: Oh, I knew how cool it was, to be sure. I wasn’t all snotty about it, but it was hard to keep my ego in check sometimes. I’d be mobbed by little kids every time I walked into a World of Nintendo with my GPC jacket on. They’d hug my legs and try to hold my hand and jump up to touch the image of Samus on the back of my jacket like she was some sort of Holy Grail that could make everything right with the world. That all felt great, but I did try to use my great power responsibly. Har.
MT: When I sent in letters to Nintendo Power for game tips, I always pictured the Counselors actually playing the game to find the answer to my question. Now it’s obvious that there were probably tomes of game tips and answers where you looked up answers quickly and easily. How many tips and questions did you have to research yourself by actually playing the game?
KS: There were tomes of tips, but they were written by GPCs. The reason for this was simply that, using the directions I sent you for Golgo 13 as an example, no one wants to have to type that out more than once. So, on commonly asked questions that had meticulously detailed responses, there were stock answers to use. This also helped cut down on errors. One typo in those Golgo 13 directions and you’d have been writing back quite unhappy with me!
But as a rule, I tried to personalize my letters. Nintendo wanted players to know they were being answered by a person, not a computer. I took that to heart as much as I could. If a kid mentioned, for example, that he’d just defeated Kraid in Metroid and now was looking for Ridley, I’d begin by congratulating him on his accomplishment before going into what to do next. That sort of thing. It was actually really easy to do because I loved Nintendo so much.
MT: As a Counselor, were you given time to just play games to discover and collect game secrets? Which game secrets are you proudest of first discovering yourself?
KS: I had a Nintendo system at my desk (several, actually, after the GameBoy and SNES came out) and was allowed to play games all day as I worked, but during training was the only time Nintendo ever paid me to just play and do nothing else.
I did find some cool stuff, but by far the most exciting was when I discovered that the Crash Bomb Room in Wiley’s castle could be beaten without dying and coming back with more Crash Bombs so long as one made prodigious use of the three Items. This lead to my completing the game with one man which, until that time, had been considered an impossibility. When that accomplishment appeared in Nintendo Power magazine, the calls I received challenging my claim were unbelievable! So it stands today as my most cherished discovery.
MT: I know first hand that you replied to game questions mailed in from players, but how else did you help gamers with their troubles? Which form of communicating did you prefer?
KS: I started as a GPC on the phones. It was several years before I moved into the correspondence department and started writing game tips to people. I definitely preferred writing letters. Obviously, people can’t scream at you in a letter, but more than that I felt like I was reaching people who otherwise wouldn’t get help: those who couldn’t afford the long-distance charge or whose parents didn’t understand it wasn’t a 900-number scam. I thought those kids got the short end of the stick and deserved to be compensated. Writing letters definitely gave me a bigger sense of pride than taking calls.
MT: If you had to guess, what percentage of Counselor’s had mullets? And on a scale of 1 to 10, where would you rank your own mullet compared to others around Counselor’s Corner?
KS: Ha! I knew this was coming. Look, it was the early nineties. Mullets were the thing. I’m not proud of it, but there you go. You’ll be happy to know that I promptly grew my hair out all one length, down almost to my waist, and kept it that way for ten years until I had to cut it due to the unstoppable ravages of middle-age. By the way, if you look closely at the picture [on my site], you’ll notice that the character on my shirt is Nester. Remember him?
As mullets go, mine rocked.
MT: Nintendo Power always had a fan art showcase section and it was always thought that Counselors kept fan art they received. What was the coolest fan art you remember receiving or keeping? What fan art was weirdest?
KS: I had this one huge fan. I won’t mention him by name, since I don’t have permission, but his initials were AC. This kid not only sent me a letter one time with a crayon sketch of Link and the words “KIRK STARR RULEZ!!!” across it, but also gifted me with a small figurine of Raiden from Mortal Kombat he had made himself out of Play-Doh. I still have that little figurine. It’s one of my most cherished possessions.
As far as the weirdest, well, I always thought kids were just a little too in love with Samus Aran. Let’s just leave it at that, okay?
MT: Besides having a really cool job and getting a bad ass jacket, what other perks did being a Counselor offer?
KS: This is where we get to the really good days at the Big N. When I worked there, it was policy that whenever a new Nintendo system was released, every GPC and customer service rep was given one of their own, to keep. So, the day the GameBoy shipped, I arrived at work to find one on my desk waiting for me. Same went for the SNES.
Also, any day that I finished a popular game. It was always great to add another notch to my proverbial belt.
MT: What type of pre-release stuff/games did the Counselors get their hands on before everyone else, if any?
KS: Pretty much Nintendo titles only. Remember the very first Final Fantasy for the NES? I finished that game a month before it ever hit the shelves. I was playing Super Mario World, PilotWings and F-Zero on the Super Famicom probably a year before the SNES saw the light of day. Of course, the games were in Japanese, which made beating them a lot more challenging.
MT: Beyond playing games and helping gamers, what other duties did you have as a Counselor?
KS: I was sent to the Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago the year the Super FX chip was announced. That was pretty cool. My job was, of course, to answer game play questions, talk about the chip, and hand out swag. But other than that, giving game play advice to people who called or wrote took up my 40 hours a week.
MT: For which games were you considered the expert amongst your Counselor peers? Were any of your tips ever published in Nintendo Power?
KS: All things Mega Man. I’m sure I had tips published, but by the time they went through a professional re-write, it’s hard to say whose tips were actually used. I do know I was consulted on technicalities of Mega Man 2 more than once.
MT: Your profile from Nintendo Power claims that Mega Man 2 was your favorite game. Is that still true? What other NES games do you include in your list of favorites?
KS: Well, it’s an 8-bit game and you’ve seen what we have today, but as 8-bit games go, yeah, it’s probably still my favorite if only for nostalgic reasons. Later on, I became obsessed with the Zelda franchise. Hyrule is, to my mind, one of the most amazing video game universes ever created. It’s amazing and continually refreshing. Keep in mind this opinion comes from an old-school gamer who was a pro long before the advent of the first-person shooter. I also quite enjoyed Bionic Commando, Solstice, Metal Gear, BattleToads, and Duck Tales. That last one was ridiculously easy, but pogo-bouncing all over the place was a blast!
MT: What video games do you enjoy now, or did your time at Nintendo lead to video game burnout?
KS: I don’t play as much anymore, but I do play from time to time. I’m still stuck back on the GameCube, but I love A Link to the Past and my Metroid games. I do hope to get a Wii this Christmas and get back up to speed. Nintendo never fails to re-ignite my old passion.
MT: Your Counselor profile also begs to ask, do your hobbies still include listening to music, water skiing, and playing guitar? What else do retired Counselors now do for fun?
KS: Music, definitely. Water skiing and guitar, not so much. My wife Karin and I like to go to concerts, but having mellowed out with age, I mostly like to watch movies and play with my dogs and write snarky posts on my blog.
MT: In many jobs, seniority directly influences your power, or stroke, in the work place. At Counselor’s Corner, what made the difference between those that had stroke and those that didn’t? And was there any correlation between the size of the mullet and the amount of stroke a Counselor had?
KS: I will forever be apologizing for that mullet, won’t I?
Actually, seniority didn’t count for much there. What mattered was verifiable knowledge and the level of cross-training one had attained. An employee who had been there for ten years would have nothing on a second-year employee who had excelled past them in trainings. As I said earlier, Nintendo was all about the customer and as far as they were concerned, the customer wanted a trained professional, not someone getting by on their seniority.
MT: As an employee, what was the next step up from being a Counselor? Could you work your way up the ladder, or was it more a “dead end” job with high turn over?
KS: There was definitely promotion from inside. One could conceivably become a Game Play lead, then maybe move on to a position at Nintendo Power or further up in management. For my own part, being a GPC was where it was at! I had no desire to go into management.
MT: We have all left jobs for different reasons, but your job as a Counselor was a tad bit unique in my eyes. When did you leave Nintendo and what was your motivation for leaving?
KS: Good question and one I feared you would ask. I can’t go into too much detail, but suffice it to say my time had come. There’s only so much change a person can stand and the changes in both myself and Nintendo made the two of us not so compatible anymore. I left the company in 1995 on relatively amicable terms and I have never lost my love for Nintendo. It was simply my time to leave.
MT: Did being a Counselor at Nintendo look impressive enough on your resume to lead you to bigger and better things in the video game industry?
KS: Sure, having six years at a company like Nintendo always looks good, but more helpful were the contacts I had made while I was there. My friend Paul, for example, who also wrote to you, eventually got me a job working as a writer for the PlayStation game Shadow Madness. I was also offered jobs at Electronic Arts and Sierra which I turned down.
MT: Do you look back with fondness at your days as a Counselor with Nintendo? Do you now see it as a historically significant, “I was one of the few” type jobs?
KS: Yes, I have mostly fond memories. There are bad ones, though, like being required to finish Legacy of the Wizard and just wanting to kill myself. That game was @#%&! hard!
I’ve never really thought about the historical significance of it much. I guess I was part of a pioneering age and I should maybe appreciate that more. Thanks for helping me see that, by the way. Your obvious interest makes me think that six years of my life was more important than I allow it to be. It’s cool to know there are other people out there who would be interested in reading this interview and I’m inspired now to post more about my Nintendo experiences at my blog. Maybe I should dig out that old jacket.