Howard Lincoln: Kicking Ass Before Reggie Came Along

Howard Lincoln

Howard Lincoln started off as a lawyer who helped Nintendo beat Universal in a lawsuit where Universal sued Nintendo over the name “Donkey Kong”.  The issue was that “Donkey Kong” was too similar to “King Kong”. Lincoln found out that Universal never registered the rights to the name, and it became a huge win for Nintendo. Lincoln later became one of Nintendo’s top executives at Nintendo of America.  Lincoln joined Nintendo in 1983 as its Senior Vice President and General Counsel.  In 1994, he was appointed its chairman.  When you watch old interviews of him, his voice came off somewhat bland or monotone.  Lincoln didn’t have that ability to hype up Nintendo fans like Reggie does.  Everything Reggie says or does turns into an animated gif or meme.

But make no mistake about it.  Howard Lincoln was Nintendo’s attack dog.  He was much more aggressive behind the scenes than he was in front of a camera or an interview.  If you have ever read about Howard Lincoln, and his business relationship with Nintendo of America president Minoru Arakawa, you get the sense of how cutthroat Nintendo of America’s management was back then. Lawyers are super competitive people, and I believe his competitive edge made him one of the most influential Nintendo executives of all time.

At times, he was very outspoken.  In a 1995 issue of Edge magazine, Lincoln gave his opinion on the 3D effect in gaming“The 3D effect alone doesn’t actually bring anything new to the gaming experience.”   Interestingly enough, gamers found themselves debating this exact argument during 3DS’s launch.  When Lincoln was asked about Virtual Boy, he simply said, “It just failed.”

The duo of Minoru Arakawa and Howard Lincoln was some of the best leadership I’ve ever seen at Nintendo of America.  Even when they were stuck with a cartridge system like Nintendo 64, they made plenty of solid efforts to get developers to jump on board with the console (LucasArts, Acclaim, Electronic Arts, Midway, Blizzard, THQ, DMA Design).  They ran the company with an iron fist, and they were never hesitant about expanding  the company with talented second party studios.  With that said, there were many occasions where their management style of running  NOA came off as “bullying” in the eyes of both competitors and retailers.

To say the least, this was when Nintendo of America had balls.


Howard Lincoln “steals” Tetris license from Tengen and Atari

Tengen tetris

When Hide Nakajima, president of Tengen, found out that Nintendo refused to give him special licensing terms, they found a way to copy the lockout chip.  Tengen then sued Nintendo for $100 million, claiming that Nintendo had an illegal monolopoly.  Nintendo countersued Tengen for copying the lockout chip and then threatened retailers not to sell Tengen’s games.  Many stores decided not to sell Tengen’s games because they were afraid of losing shipments from Nintendo. Howard Lincoln saw an opportunity to teach Tengen and Atari Games a lesson for suing Nintendo.  It was time for a little revenge.

Tengen had a sub-licensing agreement to publish Tetris with Atari Games behind the Tengen version.  Howard Lincoln noticed that Mirrorsoft made a major negotiating error which gave Nintendo an opportunity to acquire rights to produce handheld and console versions of “Tetris”.

According to the book “Game Over: Press Start To Continue”,  Howard Lincoln says, “We knew we had those bastards by the balls. We knew we were going to make a fortune on this product and they, in turn, were going to get kicked in the head.”  The courts decided that Tengen had to recall all Tengen versions of “Tetris”.

Hide Nakajima knew what Nintendo was up to.  Nakajima says, “Something went on between the Russian author and Nintendo”, he claimed.  “Nintendo knew we had the license, and it urged us to go forward with the game.  Nintendo only cared once we filed the antitrust suit against them.  They went after us.  Howard Lincoln and Arakawa wanted to stop us. It was revenge.”

Howard Lincoln affirmed this last point, “It  was revenge” he says “And you know what they say about how sweet revenge can be.”

Because of Lincoln’s quick thinking in snatching up the license, “Tetris” would go on to become a massive hit on Nintendo platforms such as the Game Boy.

(Source: 1 , 2 . 3 )


Lincoln’s War on Sega.

Night Trap


Fast forward to the 16-bit days.  It is 1994 and Joseph Leiberman is holding congressional hearings with Sega and Nintendo about the violence of videogames.  What does Howard Lincoln do?  Instead of defending the industry, he uses it as an opportunity to get revenge by getting the government against Sega while painting Nintendo’s image as saints.  Here was Lincoln’s chance to destroy Sega in front of congress.   Bill White, a Sega representative, was at the hearing.

“I can’t sit here and allow you to be told that the industry has been transformed today from children to adults. It hasn’t been. And Mr. White, who is a former Nintendo employee, knows the demographics as well as I do.  Furthermore, I cant let you sit here and buy this nonsense that this Sega Night Trap game was somehow only meant for adults. Fact of the matter is, this is a copy of the packaging.  There was no rating on this game at all when the game was introduced. Small children bought this at Toys R Us and he knows that as well as I do. When they [Sega] started getting heat about this game, then they [Sega] adopted the rating system and put ratings on it. But today, just as I’m sitting here, you can go into a Toys R Us store or a Walmart or a Kmart, and you know as well as I do, you can buy this product and no one..certainly no sales clerk at retail, is going to challenge you.” Lincoln told congress.

After Nintendo’s Howard Lincoln accused Sega of selling violence to children, congress released a statement saying “the American public… decided that Sega’s games were unfit for American youth.

“It was terrible,” says a former Sega spokesman. “First there was Lieberman, who had it out for us, then Howard who was all over us. And we’d get back from the hearings only to find out that Howard had blasted us in the press as well.”

Sega said they were “amazed” that Nintendo “would so irresponsibly drag retailers and the entire video game industry through the mud in their efforts to slow our momentum.”

According to the Chicago Tribune, Nintendo’s Howard Lincoln wrote a poem in a news release with a personal message to Sega’s Tom Kalinske.

“Dear Tom, Roses are red, violets are blue, so you had a bad day, boo hoo hoo hoo.  All my best, Howard.” read Lincoln’s poem.

This poem was published in numerous major newspapers. Rumors swirled that Nintendo had provided footage (Sega Genesis version) of Mortal Kombat to reporters and congressional investigators as the controversy over the violence in video games heated up. Sega’s Tom Kalinske described the act as “a desperate response to Sega’s rapid growth… from a company frightened by its slipping market share.”

“Howard plays a little dirtier than Tom,” said Greg Chiemingo, who was an account supervisor at Sega’s public relations firm, Manning Selvage & Lee. “Tom is very straightforward. He doesn’t have a bully mentality, which I think Nintendo has. They bully all the third-party suppliers, they bully the retailers.”


Howard Lincoln in Attack Mode


What made Howard Lincoln amusing is he could throw verbal jabs at his competitors, but also pretend like Nintendo was “above” insulting others. At CES 1994, Howard Lincoln gave a keynote speech to speak on the future of the game industry, and he also took an opportunity to trash 3DO and Atari.  He told the media that the “first is best” theory is dead, and then compared how Betamax lost to VHS though Beta was first on the market.  Lincoln drew parallels of the Neo-Geo, CD-I and 3DO systems, which offer advanced technology but failed to grab much of the marketplace.  Lastly, Lincoln spoke on the idea that “technology sells systems” is wrong because it’s a combination of gameplay, video, and sound.

An attendant at the CES keynote speech reported the following:

“Just for the record, Lincoln was extremely negative about 3DO and Trip Hawkins, both mentioned by name (in his word) as failed.”, said the reporter.  “He said that Trip again had been wrong in his 1993 keynote speech: hit games get customers, not strong hardware.”

This wouldn’t be the first time that Lincoln would call out Trip Hawkins.  He would attack him again in a later interview.

Lincoln said in an interview,“Trip Hawkins has made a career out of bad-mouthing Nintendo and Sega and everybody else in the video game business for a number of years, and now the marketplace has given him his comeuppance.  Quite frankly, I think a lot of people in our industry are having a big chuckle–including me.”

Hawkins fired back, “3DO has obviously touched a nerve; maybe that’s why Howard’s on the defensive.” Hawkins noted that sales of the 3DO game machine have accelerated in the last three months as more software becomes available. “I think deep down inside Nintendo is scared to death.”

Lincoln told the press that the Nintendo 64 shouldn’t be compared to 32 bit systems because, “Our work with Silicon Graphics enables us to actually skip a generation by diving straight through to 64-bit, 3D video entertainment.” In a June 1996 interview with Next Generation, Howard Lincoln responded to Sony cutting the price of PlayStation to $199 before the Nintendo 64 launches:

“It suggests to me that there is fear in the corporate boardroom at Sony. I think that they have heard the hooves coming, and that this is simply a desperate attempt to do something before Nintendo 64 launches. You know, there really isn’t that much difference between 32-bit and 16-bit anyways. So presumably, their natural price-point is probably $149. Maybe they should go to that. It seems to me that the timing of Sony’s announcement suggests panic and desperation. They didn’t have to make that price adjustment because of anything Sega was doing, so the only logical explanation, unless they’ve simply lost their minds, is that they’re fearful of Nintendo 64” said Lincoln.

Lincoln then added that 32-bit games are not significantly different from the best 16-bit titles such as Donkey Kong Country. Lincoln brushed off the notion that Nintendo 64’s price needed to match the PlayStation and Saturn price drops. He explained,“It’s no different than Chevrolets and Cadillacs. If you’ve got a $5000 Chevrolet and somebody is coming in with a Cadillac, you better get your price down to what it’s really worth. What they did was a tacit admission that their Chevrolet is overpriced.”

By 1997, IGN reported that Howard Lincoln was throwing more harsh words at Sony. “I think the poker saying is ‘read’em and weep’ – and that’s precisely what Sony and Sega will do when they see our software at E3. You can hook up ten Cadillac engines to 32-bit machines and see what you come up with, but it won’t be 64-bit games.”

Howard Lincoln discovers Rareware on a 1993 European trip.

donkey kong country

Rareware’s relationship with Nintendo crumbles after Lincoln steps down in 2000.

According to N-Sider and IGN, Howard Lincoln would discover Rareware’s ability to create rendered images during a routine scouting trip through Europe in 1993.  After becoming impressed with what he saw at Rare, he pushed for further collaborations between them and Nintendo. Howard Lincoln did not realize his discovery of Rareware would lead to one of the biggest chapters in Nintendo history.

Howard Lincoln became the glue that kept Rare and Nintendo’s relationship from falling apart.  Lincoln did not know Japanese, and Yamauchi did not know English, but they always communicated with each other through a translator.  Rare’s four-member board of directors included Rare Coin-It Companies’ Joel Hochberg, Rare Ltd.’s Chris Stamper and Tim Stamper, and Howard Lincoln, NOA’s chairman. Lincoln championed Rareware throughout the years, and played a monumental role in establishing a strong relationship between Rare’s founders, Tim/Chris Stamper, with NCL.

When Donkey Kong Country was released, Howard Lincoln had this to say about Rare:

“Based on the tremendous worldwide success of Donkey Kong Country and Killer Instinct, it’s clear that Rare is the best video game developer in the world.  Just like the movie industry where there are a handful of people who make great movies, the video game industry only has a few people who make great games.” Lincoln continued, “Nintendo considers the Rare team the `Spielberg’ of video game development.”

Lincoln was one of the biggest supports of the Stampers, and he would regularly hype up their projects.  For example, he hyped Project Dream through the roof.  Project Dream would later be renamed to “Banjo-Kazooie”.

“One of the games that we will be showing at E3 is codenamed “Dream” and I think it sets a new standard in graphics technology on any home system. In fact, I’m willing to stick my neck out and say that this is the same leap for Nintendo 64 as the SNES experienced with DKC. It’s really outstanding work and people will be stunned”, said Howard Lincoln.

Gamespot asked Lincoln what would happen if Nintendo lost Miyamoto or Rare, and Lincoln said Nintendo would be in a very tough situation.

Lincoln replied, I think we’d be in a hell of a fix, quite frankly. I think the same could be said of any company, whether it’s Sony or Sega or anybody in the interactive entertainment business. The fact of the matter is that the small group of people are the real creative geniuses that are driving the business, and that’s not to deprecate upon all the other people that are developing games. But the reality is that there are only so many Miyamotos to go around. I think that one of the biggest challenges the industry faces, not just Nintendo, but as an industry – developing, identifying, nurturing and rewarding development talent.”

Howard Lincoln seemed very excited about Rare’s future.  His relationship with Tim/Chris Stamper and Joel Harper had been the strongest its ever been.

“First of all, Banjo-Kazooie, as you know, has been under development for a number of years and is a huge title. At 128 megs, it’s a large memory configuration, but it is a big, big game that will sell in the millions, and it will be one of the great N64 games of all time.  Conker, I think, will be in the same league.  I think both of those games will be very strong titles for 1998.   I think Perfect Dark represents a tremendous creative achievement on the part of Rare.  We knew that the fellas that were working on the GoldenEye game wanted to go beyond that and had a lot of ideas and concepts that they couldn’t put into GoldenEye.   So I’m excited about that title as well because it shows off the potential of N64 technology.” said Lincoln.  “Some of the other Rare games, Jet Force Gemini, and there are a couple of other games that they’re working on that they’re not showing, show equal promise. One of the most exciting things about Rare is the depth of the creative talent. I think Chris and Tim Stamper and Joel Harper have done a marvelous job driving down that creative talent so we’ve got a lot of young people (of course, everybody’s young when you’re my age) who have tremendous creativity and great potential for the future of Rare.”

A major shakeup in Nintendo’s management happened after the Nintendo 64 era.  After Howard Lincoln retired in early 2000, Hiroshi Yamauchi stepped down as NCL president in 2002.  Then Nintendo’s first ever Nintendo of America president, Minoru Arakawa would retire in 2002.  Peter Main, Executive Vice President of Sales & Marketing, would retire the very same year.

On May 26, 2001, one year after Lincoln retired from operations at Nintendo of America, he was interviewed by Gaming Intelligence Agency.

“It is very difficult to find outside companies you can invest in and who will have the capability to make great video games. “ said Lincoln.  Rare is a great example of a very successful investment by Nintendo, a relationship that goes back 20 years between the principles of Rare and Nintendo, one that included working very closely to nurture that talent.

You’re going to have instances where that investment doesn’t pay off, but we’ve been very fortunate with our second party developers. One of the things Nintendo has been trying to do is find those development gems, but there aren’t very many out there.

With Lincoln/Arakawa/Main/Yamauchi gone, the glue that kept Nintendo’s relationship with Rare strong was gone. Losing a long-time ally like Lincoln was a major blow to Rare’s relationship with Nintendo.  In 2002, new management was taking over Nintendo both at NOA and NCL, and it played a significant role in Rare being sold to Microsoft.

Lincoln’s fight to make Nintendo systems popular for sports games.

Electronic Arts

Lincoln creates a new relationship between Nintendo and EA

According to a 1997 article from Bloomberg Businessweek, Electronic Arts had refused to create games for Nintendo 64 due to high royalty fees and up-front costs.  But Lincoln was persistent in negotiating with EA, and in mid-March, EA agreed to produce six Nintendo 64 sports titles by Christmas ’98.   Forty games doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s decent for a cartridge based system in a generation that moved on to CD’s.

The point is, Howard Lincoln saw a big weakness with Nintendo’s sports, and he was aggressive in making sure that the sports genre was strong for Nintendo 64.  He couldn’t pursue something like RPG’s because most popular RPG’s were mainly created by Japanese companies in the 1990’s.  NCL would have had to pursue that genre.

Nintendo sent out a press release to the public: “This agreement with Electronic Arts demonstrates Nintendo’s full blown commitment to make Nintendo Ultra 64 the unparalleled sports platform,” said Howard Lincoln, chairman of Nintendo of America. “We’re pleased and excited to be teaming up with Electronic Arts, the superstar of entertainment and sports video game publishers.”

IGN had an interview with Howard Lincoln back in 1998.  He realized that Sega and Sony consoles were always getting more sport games than Nintendo consoles.

“I think the one area that we needed to dramatically improve over our experience with Super NES was sports games. I think we’re making some good moves into that direction with Griffey and Kobe Bryant. There will be a lot more Griffey and Kobe Bryant games in the future. I think we are committed to our sports franchise. It will take some time to convince gamers that Nintendo Sports is a serious sports franchise, but it is indeed important to Nintendo and we will continue to focus on it. I think we have high expectations for some of these Rare games that are coming — including games that are not being shown. They’ve got some great games coming that will be megahits,” said Lincoln. He continues by saying, “One of the reasons, as I read it, for Sony’s success is that they’ve gotten a lot of great EA sports titles, as well as great Sony sports titles. That is what is driving their business and we have got to do a better job in the sports franchise are. So I’m more concerned about that. Maybe I’m not looking at it as a gamer, but a business man.”

In a separate 1998 Gamespot interview, he brings up the subject again, and talks about how Nintendo is rallying publishers like Midway and Acclaim to offer more sports titles.  “I think that we were woefully deficient in the category of sports when the N64 was launched. I think that’s been addressed with the EA games, Nintendo Sports games, with sports games from Acclaim and Midway and what not. So I think there have been some things that we’ve had to overcome, but I think you have to take a long-range view of these battles.” said Lincoln.

Howard Lincoln builds relationship between Nintendo and LucasArts.



One of the shrewdest moves by Howard Lincoln was building the relationship between LucasArts and Nintendo. On August 29, 1995, Nintendo Power announced that LucasArts Entertainment was the newest member of the “Dream Team”.  The Nintendo 64 would be getting an exclusive game called Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire. On 1998, Lincoln strengthened the partnership between Nintendo and LucasArts even more.  Nintendo of America, LucasArts Entertainment Company LLC, and Lucas Licensing signed a five-year worldwide deal that would bring games like “Star Wars Episode 1: Racer”, “Star Wars Episode 1: Battle for Naboo”, and “Star Wars: Rogue Squadron” to the Nintendo 64.

“The Star Wars franchise is undeniably one of the gold-plated entertainment properties of the 20th century,” said Howard Lincoln, Nintendo of America chairman. “This agreement, launching new Star Wars video games surrounding the eagerly anticipated new Star Wars movie, propels both Nintendo and LucasArts aggressively into the new century of interactive entertainment.”

The LucasArts/Factor 5/Nintendo relationship would continue as “Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader” would come to the Nintendo GameCube.  Factor 5 received early GameCube prototype development kits  in mid-2000, and they would go on a mission to create the most stunning Dolphin (GameCube) game at launch.

Lincoln makes Retro Studios a second party

retro studios

The idea of one team constantly developing Metroid games was never Howard Lincoln’s original vision for Retro Studios. Lincoln saw Retro Studios as a big supplier (much like Rareware) of consistent Western-styled games for older consumers like Raven Blade, Car Combat, and NFL Football.  This why Howard Lincoln pushed for Retro Studios in the first place.  According to IGN, former Retro Studios president Jeff Spangenberg negotiated a deal with NOA chairman Howard Lincoln to have Nintendo fund Retro’s 40,000 square feet office building in Austin, Texas. In return, Nintendo would own a minority stake in the company, and Retro Studios would become a second party developer.

The company, being made up of former Iguana Entertainment employees, would start small and rapidly expand into multiple teams and projects. After Lincoln would leave in 2000, Retro Studios turned into a Metroid factory. Retro Studios would end up creating games based on Nintendo franchises instead of creating new IP’s for older western audiences (as originally intended by Lincoln). Today, Retro Studios is now a first party studio that is 100 percent owned by Nintendo.


Howard Lincoln and Minoru Arakawa understood that second party studios + third party collaborations were both needed to create the type of games that Nintendo first party studios aren’t able to provide.

Here is what Howard Lincoln/Minoru Arakawa were able to accomplish in 7 years (1994 through 2000).

  • They discovered Rareware (Made them second party in 1994)
  • Retro Studios (Founded and established as second party in 1998 – Became first party later.)
  • Silicon Knights (Became second party on May 2000)
  • Left Field (Became second party in 1998)
  • NST – Nintendo Software Technology (Founded in 1998)
  • Built relationship with LucasArts and Factor 5 (Rogue Squadron 1+2+3).
  • Established relationship with DMA Design who later became Rockstar Games (One of N64’s original Dream team members)

Lincoln and Arakawa planted the seeds.  The purpose of acquiring or creating second parties was to create more western appealing games like “Perfect Dark”, “Killer Instinct”, and “Goldeneye 007” that Nintendo didn’t make.

In May 1998, Howard Lincoln said“What’s happened is that those [Nintendo] gamers are now adults, and from their point of view, playing videogames makes perfectly good sense. It’s not something new, it’s something that they’ve done, and it is a viable form of entertainment. Those people are gravitating toward video games. And we have to supply games for them. So, we’re recognizing that we can’t just do a certain genre of games, we have to do [all] kind of games.

Hiroshi Yamauchi gave Minoru Arakawa and Howard Lincoln freedom to pursue alliances with studios like Rareware, Retro Studios, Silicon Knights, and Left Field.  They also created studios like NST. Lincoln and Arakawa were even pulling off getting exclusive deals on the Turok trilogy and a  Star Wars/LucasArts deal with games like Shadows of the Empire, Episode 1 Racer (limited exclusivity), Battle for Naboo, and the Rogue Squadron games.

Howard Lincoln leaves his position in early 2000, and Minoru Arakawa/Hiroshi Yamauchi/Peter Main leave in early 2002.

So what happens after they retire? Everything that Arakawa and Lincoln accomplished between the years of 1994 through 2000 went down the toilet after new management takes control of  NCL and NOA.

  • Rareware is sold to Microsoft before 2003.
  • Left Field ditches their second party status by the end of 2002.  Buys back Nintendo’s minority stake in the company and goes independent.
  • Silicon Knights ditches Nintendo in 2004
  • Factor 5 releases “Star Wars: Rebel Strike” in 2003.  Last game they make exclusively for Nintendo.  Never works with Nintendo again.
  • Game Informer claims Rockstar Games was working on GTA3 port for GameCube to be released in fall 2002.  The GameCube version gets cancelled. (link)
  • As each year passed, NST’s role in the company became smaller and smaller.  They eventually became reduced to making random DSiware/eShop casual games instead of making full fledged games.

The transition of new Nintendo management replacing old management ended up killing most of their studio relationships.  Some of those relationships, in the case of Rareware, had been going for multiple generations.


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