Nintendo Hotliner Life 1990–93: Controlling Phones During the Console Wars

Over the holidays, we are re-posting some of our best articles, interviews, opinions, and talking points from the previous 12 months. from both employees and participants – Articles that we think represent our best of 2021. In them you will find our usual mixture of thoughtfulness, frivolity and retro. expertise, nostalgia for games and, of course, enthusiasm for everything related to Nintendo. Enjoy!

“Video Game Enthusiasts Wanted!” the ad in the Portsmouth Evening News teased. Other than a phone number, this mysterious call to arms provided no further information. But being obsessed with the games of an 18-year-old boy looking for a job after completing a BTEC Computer Science course, I was mesmerized by the possibilities – I had to call. A female voice replied and began to test my playing skills: what games did i like? How many games have I completed? And what’s curious have i had any experience in telephone sales or call centers?

A month later, in December 1990, I found myself joining five other new Game Advisors on the UK’s first official Nintendo helpline, a helpline dedicated to providing live tips, advice and tricks to confused Nintendo gamers.

Mike Barnes, one of the first six hot liners. (Image: Keith Pullin)

Call of nature

Our humble call center was located at Nintendo’s UK headquarters in the Fairham Heights industrial estate near Portsmouth. My simplest company workstation consisted of a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) connected to a 14-inch CRT TV, an old beige phone (unplugged until I finished training), and an ashtray.

Mike Hayes, then managing director of Nintendo UK, recalls how the UK incarnation of Hotline came about. “The UK Hotline was created following a great success in the USA. Nintendo saw a direct relationship with its users as key, while SEGA did not. To be honest, there was no choice. Serif and then Bandai had the distribution rights for Nintendo in the UK, and we were forced to set up a hotline as part of the distribution agreement. Plus, Nintendo has never been as strong in the UK as it is in Japan and the US, ”he says. “We had to fight against SEGA.”

Despite the success of the Nintendo of America hotline, there was no guarantee that the UK version would become as popular. No one was sure if British gamers would be willing to pick up the phone and ask for help.

“For any hotline,” Hayes says, “the biggest challenge is knowing what the capacity will be, and therefore how many lines and people that will serve the phones. Learning was easier because the people we hired were Nintendo enthusiasts. “

Live and kick

This 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 joy. Others, such as Castlevania, Fester’s Quest or the infuriating Faxanada, to a lesser extent. Each Hotliner had its own kryptonite, but our strengths and weaknesses have been well researched. Together, we’ve created maps, guides, and step-by-step instructions for the entire NES catalog. Without the internet, six of us have developed our own collective intelligence.

Daryl Jones takes the call while an unknown NES game Snow Bros tries to lure him in.  Mark Todd and Mike Barnes are working behind.
Daryl Jones receives a call during an unknown NES game Snow brothers trying to lure him. Mark Todd and Mike Barnes are working behind. (Image: Keith Pullin)

We started the concert in January 1991. The lines opened at 11 a.m. and after ten minutes of nervous silence the phone rang. Soon, another rang – and mine. I grabbed the receiver and gently greeted my first caller. There was a short conversation that I will never forget:

“Nintendo Hotline, Keith Says, How Can I Help?”

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

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

“Yes – sorry Super Mario Bros.

I thought, “Piece of Pie” – it should be “Fake Bowser” in “World 1-4”. “Shoot him with fire or just run under him.”

“Uh, good. Thank you. I’ll try.

We got down to business. When the lines closed that evening, we received 100 calls to the six of us. It seemed like a lot at the time, but we had no idea. Shortly thereafter, we started covering Game Boy games, and by the end of 1991, the number of calls had increased to about 500 per day. Three more Hotliners were hired, then three more …

Feeling the burn

Super Nintendo launched in the UK in 1992, which means we had to cover games for the NES, Game Boy and SNES. Nintendo has moved to a new office in Southampton (to the dismay of the Portsmouth contingent), and our musty hotline has changed. Includes wall posters, state-of-the-art headsets and a state-of-the-art call distribution system that tracks and records vital statistics. There was nowhere to hide.

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

“There was a traffic light system on the wall that was displayed off / green / yellow / red to indicate waiting calls. We had to try to keep it from being red, ”recalls Ben Gunston, hotline supervisor (1992-1995). “Call times were based on an average and this was tracked. To ensure that calls are answered, we tried to make a call in an average of two minutes. ”

People lasted about a year before they burned out … We had no support as it was considered a “dream job”

But throughout the 92 and 93 years, these lights were constantly burning red. Twelve hotlines answered approximately 200 calls a day each. After major launches of the game, we could easily make 2500 calls a day, but the indicators still burned red, and this inevitably affected the results.

“People held out for about a year before they burned out,” Gunston laments. “The constant demand to answer calls was ruthless and some people couldn’t handle it. We didn’t have any support as it was considered a dream job. It was actually hard work (mentally) and we also received calls about abuse on a regular basis. I don’t think it helped that we all had to work one day off in combination with a working day from 11 to 20 hours. Communication was difficult. “

Hot liners plead with the supervisor for a break in 1993.  (LR) Keith Pullin, Sean White, Mark Titeridge, Ben Gunston, Justin Wateridge, Unknown, Oli ?, Jim Phlox - oh, and Mario.
Hot Liners plead with their boss for a break in 1993. (LR) Keith Pullin, Sean White, Mark Titeridge, Ben Gunston, Justin Wateridge, unknown, Oli ?, Jim Phlox – 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. Former hotline member Dan Carter (91-1993) recalls: “We took calls from Zelda on autopilot, while Street Fighter 2 Turbo beat each other out of the box. Sometimes you would inadvertently stop talking if the match became too stressful. Eventually you will hear this voice in your headset asking if there is anyone else. “

Mushroom kingdom

By the time I started my third year at Hotliner in 1993, the 16-bit console war was raging. Mike Hayes recalls a Mail on Sunday article that “compared Nintendo and SEGA to The Beatles and Rolling Stones; Cox vs. Pepsi; Wranglers – Levis. Fun times! “

At one glittering Nintendo launch party in London, ignoring the revelers on the inside, the colossal Sonic the Hedgehog was projected outside the building in a particularly daring show of SEGA’s guerrilla marketing. By the time the squad was assembled to confront the criminals, they were gone.

“My opponents at SEGA were trying to hijack the launch of a new SNES / Game Boy ad with Rick Mayall (God bless him a mad soul),” Hayes says.

Keith Tainton is scared by some Bo while Daryl is watching him.
Keith Tainton is scared by some Bo while Daryl is watching him. (Image: Keith Pullin)

The Hotliners’ game prowess meant our skills were in demand: “We went to production studios to record footage of gameplay for TV commercials,” says Keith Tainton (1991-1993). “I also did stuff for the TV show with Keith Chegwin. I can’t remember what it was called … “

We caught the attention of local and national media – and all of a sudden our office became a kind of famous hangout. Craig Charles from Red dwarf presented a quirky promotional film in which, among other things, he chats with the Hotliners and then dreams of being one of them. The winners of the competition were given guided tours of Nintendo headquarters, the highlight of which was the observation of our work.

I ended up commenting on Street Fighter 2 and ActRaiser for Channel 4. Game Master… I also wrote the Nintendo Tips script for Sir Patrick Moore’s eponymous character. We knew exactly which games and where people were getting stuck, so the content was always up to date. Much of that segment of the show was devoted to Nintendo games – much to the delight of the marketers upstairs.

Our relationship with Nintendo gamers has been unique. “Little kids called and asked if they could talk to Mario,” Dan recalls. “There was such a wonderful innocence in that, like faith in Santa. We never had the heart to say that he was not real, so we would say that he was busy creating a new game and could not answer the phone. “

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

“One of my constant calls was an elderly woman who needed help with Super Mario World.,Ben says. “She ended up in the Sun newspaper as the oldest person in the UK to complete a game. She called and we chatted a little too. I got the impression that she is single and the hotline is a way to talk to someone. “

Insert coin to continue

In July 1995, the game ended for Hotline and the entire Nintendo UK headquarters. When the boom ended in the early 90s, Nintendo sold the UK distribution rights to Total Home Entertainment, a division of John Menzies. Many of the Hotliners have made careers in marketing, public relations, and quality assurance in the gaming industry. In 2004, Mike Hayes became CEO of SEGA Europe.

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

I’ve been working in games ever since, but nowhere has it been better than the Nintendo hotline. There will always be a camaraderie among the former Hotliners, the feeling that we helped Mario make some new friends: the influencers of our time.

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