Before the Internet, before dedicated video game strategy guides, before even Nintendo Power there was Jeff Rovin's How To Win At Nintendo series of paperback strategy books. The best-selling series of the late 1980s packed page after page of tips and tricks for the emerging Nintendo Entertainment System game library such as timeless advice for Double Dragon: "Take out the foe on the left with three quick Jump Kicks, then turn to the crumb on the right. Indeed, for the first four foes-who come in groups of two-stick with the Jump Kick (the A and B buttons) unless your foes get in too close in the early going. If that happens, go with a Hair Pull Kick-push the pad in your foe's direction, then hit B. Pick up the Bat and use it to play a little T-ball against the two Lindas who attack next, from the doorway." It all reads like someone transcribing the progress of another player and, of course, it turns out that it is. One of author Jeff Rovin's sons, Sam Rovin, has written an autobiographical account of how the series was written with his father watching he and his brother Michael plowed through the NES games of the day just as quickly has humanly possible. How We Won at Nintendo: The True Story Behind the "How to Win at Nintendo" Series takes you behind the scenes on how the operation worked.
There’s really only one visualization that describes my father during those initial hours and weeks and months. He’d just sit there on the wood floor, legs fully extended and ankles crossed, slippers on and usually a grey sweatshirt and jeans or sweatpants, and he’d be hunched over an over-sized yellow legal pad with a felt tip pen in his right hand, scribbling notes, his thick, boxy glasses dangling right on the bridge of his nose, loosened from looking up and down at the TV. He rarely broke from that mold. Sometimes just to scurry off to his office to answer a phone call. Michael would refortify his gamer will and attempt any kind of major progress in the interim, and then we’d hear the swish of my dad’s slippers coming back through the hall and into the den again where Michael would be the same six feet from the TV, struggling at the same exact stalemate in Rush ‘N Attack.
As the series went on, the crank 'em out nature of the series became increasingly obvious, but with the books selling so well, it didn't seem to matter. The original volume went into additional printings with expanded entries for "the hottest games" and then branched out from the NES to volumes for the Game Boy (featuring a few pages on Atari Lynx games), Super NES, and Sega Genesis. By the time of the Genesis book the series was wrapping up as the Rovin brothers drifted away from assisting with their father's writing projects in favor of girls and gaming just for fun.
But the most telling throw-away about the writing of the Genesis book was revealed on the very first page; the page before the title page, before the copyright page, and the “Other St. Martin’s Titles by Jeff Rovin” page. The page that taunts the reader into buying the book in the first place by claiming “the answer is in your hands” and “your friends are already training.” In the middle of that page, written by my dad (as all synopsis’s and interior/ exterior cover details usually are) is a single line that truly lifted the mask on our process and summed it all up fairly well: “After weeks of eye-crossing tests and trials, Jeff Rovin has nailed down the hottest ways to win at today’s most awesome video games.” That entire book was indeed accomplished in only a couple -maybe a few -weeks and we’d finally admitted it. Book in and book out we always had to pretend we were some top notch game factory, like those working at Nintendo (or so we thought), like Men in Black in training, the best of the best, the elite, providing the best secrets like it was easy, when in reality we were always like monkeys at a typewriter with a really good editor to clean up the mess. “Eye-crossing” and “tests and trials” really does perfectly explain our concentrated gaming process. And for once, every single game included our guide (except the ones I played) was completely detailed in the book, from the start of each game to the finish. And I believe it was even the first Genesis book to make it into national bookstores, though without all the notable fanfare of the Nintendo series.
Official publications from the likes of Nintendo and Sega as well as third-party magazines such as Electronic Gaming Monthly and GamePro with their glossy, color covers and page after page of screenshots instead of just "go to the right and kick the guy" text took over and that was pretty much that for the series. A proposed edition focused on the Atari Jaguar never came to be and the advice in the books is fairly dry reading today just as it was then, but at the time these were passable guides. I eagerly bought the first and third editions plus the Game Boy volume and still have them around here somewhere even though the binding has come apart. Reading Sam Rovin's remembrances after all these years finally provides a little closure on my lingering questions from twenty-five years ago about how this series was written and just how much work went into it.