A Comprehensive Oral History Of Tips & Tricks – The #1 Video-Game Tips Magazine

It’s high time to set the record straight.

A Wikipedia query for Tips & Tricks does not lead to an individual article on the magazine, which ran for one hundred and fifty issues across just about fifteen years, from 1993 to 2007. A spinoff magazine that had been published concurrently, the Tips & Tricks Codebook, continued on a bi-monthly schedule until February of 2011. The query leads here, the “Other magazines” subheading of the article for Larry Flynt Publications. 1)At the time this article was published, this was true. However, T&T now has its own article, here. This article is cited. You’ve got to wade through several NSFW titles before getting to the paragraph dedicated to T&T. Though it is true that LFP published T&T, it’s a magazine that deserves more than to be buried under piles of Hustler.

T&T was and, in all honesty, still is my favorite magazine ever. As someone who deeply appreciated both video games and the work that went into making them from a young age, I held a deep respect for this magazine focused on picking these games apart. Unlike Electronic Gaming Monthly or Game Informer, which typically relegated cheat codes and strategies to a couple of pages in the back of the magazine, Tips & Tricks was all about the codes and strategies.

I have the December 2003 issue right here. It advertises, accurately, that there are “Over 4,000 video game secrets” deep within the pages of the magazine. The cover game is Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando, which has an 8-page guide written by Charlotte Chen (now Charlotte C. Thai). A guide for Kirby Air Ride, written by Raphael Minchella, also runs eight pages. SSX3, by Geoff Arnold, six pages. Star Wars: Rebel Strike, Pat Reynolds, six pages. Castlevania: Lament of Innocence, seven pages, Ara Shirinian.

This is, of course, not counting the Readers’ Tips section (where the staff would answer reader mail), the Select Game Previews section (which never dedicated more than one page of time to previewing a game), 30 pages containing those over 4,000 video game secrets, vol. 4 of Final Fantasy World, vol. 45 of the Tournament Report, vol. 38 of the Sports Desk, vol. 27 of the Collector’s Closet, vol. 71 of the Japan Report, the Gaming Gear section (formerly Cool Zone), and two Pencil Puzzles.

Also from Dec 2003. It's probably been completed since then.
Also from Dec 2003. It’s probably been completed since then.

All that work—remember, that was just one issue I described—doesn’t disappear. It just gets forgotten. T&T folded in 2007 and the Codebook followed suit in 2011. People moved on. They found other jobs. The website for the Codebook, last updated in November 2010, looks like a ghost town; it wasn’t even updated for the February 2011 issue of the Codebook. But when I’m curious about the history of Tips & Tricks, I don’t want a ghost town site nor do I want a paragraph buried under Hustler mags.

So I went to the source.

‘A monthly love letter to video game culture’

“I used to say that Tips & Tricks was all about PLAYING games. Getting the most out of them, beating them…collecting them, even. We celebrated video games, you know? The other magazines would build up a game with hype, then rip it a new one in a review and move on to the next. Whereas we would take a game like Armored Core and talk about it in every issue…like, for a year after it came out!”

The “source” is Chris Bieniek, who worked on all 150 issues of T&T as Editor-In-Chief. He’s been in the gaming industry for longer than I’ve been alive! The Readers’ Tips section from the issue I mentioned previously had a reader who asked if any employees worked for game companies in the past. A portion of the answer: “Editor in Chief Chris B. was interviewed for a job at Atari Corp. back in 1991, but the president of the division refused to hire him because he was a ‘game goof’ (whatever that means). Having observed his behavior in the office on a daily basis, we can testify that he still is.”

Bieniek, whose site, Video Game Ephemera, is dedicated to preserving video game-related collectibles that might not have originally been intended to be collectibles, is definitely whatever a “game goof” is. With his help, as well as a few other people involved with T&T during its lifetime, I have constructed probably the first-ever comprehensive history of Tips & Tricks.

“We had the most amazingly talented game player editors who just dug into games and tore them apart like nobody’s business. They would just dismantle them and turn them inside out and expose them. Chris did that, too. He would literally—and I’m not kidding here—literally, spend days digging for a line of code on one game disc! It was an amazing thing to witness,” says Jim Loftus, who worked as an art director and then an executive editor from 1994 to 1999. These are people who picked games apart until there was nothing left to find. Back to the words of Bieniek, T&T was a “monthly love letter to video-game culture.”

Their work deserves the same amount of attention they put into the games they featured. So here we go.

The opposite of a Fatality

Believe it or not, Tips & Tricks started off as a spinoff. “If you really want to go all the way back, I think the original idea [for T&T] was suggested before my time at LFP [Larry Flynt Publications] When Donn Nauert left VideoGames & Computer Entertainment magazine, I took over some of the monthly columns he used to write, like ‘Tip Sheet’ and ‘Easter Egg Hunt,’” Bieniek says. “I also inherited his desk, and in one of the drawers, I found a copy of an old memo in which he had pitched the idea of a ‘tip guide special’ to the company president. I guess they shot him down at the time, but he did plant the seed for Tips & Tricks by explaining how a separate cheat codes magazine could be profitable.”

In the interest of fully exploring this context, please watch the below video to learn a little bit about Donn Nauert.

Yes, there was, in fact, a “United States National Video Game Team.” This was the early 90s, mind you. Though I’m tempted to get derailed and start wondering where I can get one of those USNVGT jackets, I won’t. Instead, I’ll comment on how it makes sense that the seed for T&T was planted by someone dedicated to playing and beating video games to the best of their ability, as opposed to someone who was primarily a journalist or reporter.

Bieniek goes on: “The name of the cheat codes column in VG&CE was changed to ‘Tips & Tricks’ after a focus group study, where we learned – among other things – that a lot of our readers were confused by the term ‘Easter egg’ as it relates to video games.” For the record, “Easter egg” is a pretty obtuse term for those not intimately familiar with video games, especially in the early 1990s. The reason for the term is because finding these hidden things in video games (and other forms of media) is like an Easter egg hunt, but that’s too much for casual readers to worry about.

“Then Andy Eddy left the company in 1993, and his replacement was Chris Gore, who became very successful at starting up new magazines for the company around that time. He changed VG&CE into VideoGames, and launched a whole bunch of different magazines, not all of which were video game-related. He thought the “Tips & Tricks” column would do well as a spinoff magazine, and he was right – it lasted for 150 issues, much longer than VG&CE and VideoGames combined.”

I’d agree. That’s pretty good for a spinoff. But originally it was just a one-shot special issue featuring codes, cheats, tips, tricks, and strategies that had all already appeared in VideoGames. Regardless, it sold well enough to justify making it a regular thing. Why? “I think Mortal Kombat was the key, really,” says Bieniek. “The public just had an insatiable appetite for Mortal Kombat information around that time. We had Mortal Kombat II on the cover of three of our first four issues!”

So the birth of Tips & Tricks can be attributed to both the captain of the United States National Video Game Team as well as Mortal Kombat II. That’s…whatever the opposite of a Fatality is. Regardless, the hunger for MKII as well as a new niche that hadn’t yet been filled created a steady readership and T&T gradually grew, from that first one-shot to quarterly, then bi-monthly, and then finally monthly with offered subscriptions. Tips & Tricks had arrived.

“Footballs of the Past”

T&T’s success coincided with the rise of the first 3D generation of video gaming. By 1999, the Nintendo 64 and Sony PlayStation were both firmly entrenched in the collective cultural consciousness, and the Game Boy Color had been released one year prior. There was no fear of an impending video game crash like that of 1983, and print media was still strong as the World Wide Web hadn’t encroached upon it just yet.

Tips & Tricks was unique in the video game magazine market. No other magazine was as dedicated to beating games as T&T was. Be it though cheat codes, strategies, or something else, the point of T&T was to help players get an edge however they could. In today’s world, cheat codes and Easter eggs almost seem archaic but they have their own storied history. In the earliest Atari days, programmers had to hide their names in the code of the game—the first “Easter egg” was hidden in the 1979 video game Adventure, and when found it simply displayed the name of the game’s creator, Warren Robinett.

A hollow voice says, "Created by Warren Robinett."
A hollow voice says, “Created by Warren Robinett.”

“You have to look at all the historical examples of games that used secret codes to get players talking, and to keep their interest for longer periods of time. When you put in a code to unlock a secret character or give yourself a big head in NBA JAM, it didn’t “ruin” the game or make it any easier. It just made the game more fun for a while,” Bieniek says. “I guess the trend nowadays is to make you pay extra for that kind of content, or just patch the game to add new features.

“But when you do it that way, you’re removing one of the key elements that made cheat codes so much fun in the first place: People enjoy knowing something that others don’t know, and they really enjoy sharing that information with their friends. That’s empowering somehow. When you tell someone, ‘Hey, there’s a secret level in that game, and here’s the code to unlock it,’ that person is gonna get more enjoyment out of the game. It’s like you’re giving them a gift, you know?”

As someone who helmed “The #1 Video-Game Tips Magazine” for a decade and a half, Bieniek obviously feels strongly about cheat codes and Easter eggs as part of the art that is video games. Is this what a “game goof” is? Does a “game goof” make a good editor-in-chief?

The answer is yes: “Chris really believed in me, he encouraged me and inspired me. He showed me the meaning of integrity – unwavering integrity. And he is a genuinely nice guy, too. I don’t think he would hurt a fly, I’m serious. Super smart, too. I wanted to be like Chris, he was my mentor. He made me a better person and I am forever grateful to him,” says Jim Loftus.

“I really loved working at T&T and think much of the quality of the writing in it was due to the excellent editing performed by Chris Bieniek. I still remember when he pointed out a typo to me in one of my lengthier strategy guides (I think it was for Final Fantasy XII), where I described a section called ‘Footfalls of the Past’ as ‘Footballs of the Past.’ I think of myself as a good proofreader, but he was a step beyond,” says Charlotte Thai.

Bieniek says that although the magazine peaked in readership in 1999, the quality peaked a bit later. This makes sense, considering by that point most of the sections in the back had been firmly solidified. Those sections in the back, which at times included a Pokémon Report, an Animal Crossing Almanac for the GameCube version that ran for a year, and Hard Core, a section dedicated to custom Armored Core design, offered readers opportunities to still derive something from it even if they didn’t own a game that had been featured that month.

“I almost tipped over in my chair!”

Though T&T never assigned scores to individual games like other gaming magazines, it’s easy to argue that they reviewed plenty of games. They reviewed them very thoroughly. In the current IGN/Game Informer/GameSpot era it’s hard to think of a video game review as anything other than a given score out of five or ten. But I’d argue that what T&T did was just as valid as regular reviews.

T&T reviewed games but at no point felt a need to assign a score to them. “We successfully avoided a certain category of political/PR drama by just making it a policy to not give out opinions or hype in previews, plus the fact that we never did reviews,” says Ara Shirinian, who was Senior Editor at T&T from 1999 to 2003. But what better way is there to review a game then to pick it apart for the best strategies, cheats, and tips?

Unfortunately, my thinking is kind of a stretch. As the Internet and free-to-use sites like GameFAQS and GameWinners started compiling online repositories of cheat codes and strategies, Tips & Tricks started to find it a bit harder to bring something unique to the table. What made it worse was the gradual transition of video games from smaller to larger scales. Shenmue, released for the Sega Dreamcast in 1999, had a budget of $47 million. The PS2 was released in 2000 and the GameCube and Microsoft Xbox followed in 2001. These larger scales demanded more press coverage, for better and for worse.

“My most embarrassing moment for video game press in general was a panel about the press at GDC, where the panel members defended all the negative aspects of game writing by insisting that their jobs were to provide entertainment first,” Shirinian says. “This went against everything I valued about the video game media, and represented everything that was wrong with it. Readers do not read video game media because they think it’s entertaining, they read because they want to find out about what this or that video game is like. I thought it was the apex of self-aggrandizement.”

That perspective was shared by most of the staff at T&T, who never really considered shifting their focus to add reviews and more detailed, hype-generating previews. “It was discussed, yeah, but not until after the magazine had been around a very long time…and even then, it was never seriously considered. We had our own niche, and that was always more important to me. A couple of other publishers tried to compete with us for that niche, and we successfully defended our position as ‘the #1 Video-Game Tips Magazine’ every time,” Bieniek says.

He adds an anecdote that is telling of what people expected, not just from T&T, but from video game-related media in general: “There was one thing that happened…I’ll never forget this. We used to do focus group testing, where they would bring people into a conference room, show them the magazine and see how they reacted to it. I always worried about the feedback from those studies because I didn’t always agree with the conclusions they would draw, yet I felt obligated to make changes to the editorial package based on the random comments of total strangers. If a couple of those people said that they didn’t like the Animal Crossing column…well, that column had to get whacked.

“Anyway, in the last focus group we had, they were asked about the idea of adding reviews to the magazine, and making it more like the other magazines. And these people were not intimately familiar with Tips & Tricks; most (if not all) of them were seeing it for the first time that day. To my great surprise and delight, they basically said, ‘No, why would you do that?’ They recognized that we were trying to do something different and they thought it was cool the way it was. I was so pleased, I almost tipped over in my chair!”

Loftus agrees: “There were a dozen other magazines which served as ‘general purpose’ but we were the go-to strategy magazine. Can I just throw something out there for a minute? I was very proud to be a part of that magazine. Tips & Tricks was literally the number-one, best-selling video game tips magazine. No one else could come close.”

The 100th issue

All that said, T&T rode a dedicated reader base comfortably for most of the early 2000s. In June of 2003, the 100th issue hit newsstands and mailboxes, and to hear Bieniek tell it, it was just as hectic as any other issue: “Around that time, there was a TV show called Cheat! on the G4 cable channel, and they wanted to shoot an entire episode in our offices. So we scheduled a date for them to come in, and we were supposed to be finished with the 100th issue by that date. And of course we were late! When they rolled in with all their camera equipment, we were still trying to wrap up the last few pages of that issue.”

Many of the codes included in that issue were being revealed for the first time. One of the most memorable was a code in Klax that unlocked a secret marriage proposal. Other codes for games like the arcade game Sarge and the Sega CD game Wild Woody revealed secrets that were NSFW (helpfully censored by T&T’s unofficial mascot, the Cheat Biscuit). Most importantly, several of the codes were for Nintendo games—these codes had never before been seen or used.

One unlocked everything in the original Metroid for the NES. Another unlocked all the characters and courses (except one) in the N64 edition of Mario Golf. Yet another unlocked an exclusive item for Animal Crossing on the GameCube. “I never expected Nintendo to respond to a request like that, because they rarely leaked that kind of information, especially to a magazine that was not Nintendo Power. But they hooked us up with some good ones,” Bieniek says.

Having camera crews in the T&T offices for the 100th episode sounds like a big deal, but from what I’ve gleaned, more exciting (and weird) things have happened in the T&T offices. I’m going to be perfectly transparent and say that this is going to be my best opportunity to fit this fascinating anecdote from Jim Loftus into this piece. Take it away, Jim: “There are way too many memorable things about working for T&T to list, but a few stand out. One day a ninja appeared in our office. Another day our secretary was dancing on my desk to trance music, which was not a good thing.

“Not because it was trance music, but because she was lifting up her skirt and rubbing her breasts and the whole thing was just so incredibly bizarre. I thought I was being set up, to be honest. One night, I think it was around midnight while Tyrone Rodriguez and I were working late on the magazine, we discovered one of our copy editors pretending to be Larry Flynt’s cousin or something. Turns out he would have these hot girls come in after hours and take pictures of them half naked and do god knows what else. We literally caught him with his pants down and a camera around his neck, coming out of his office with a girl in a teddy. I guess he thought no one would ever see it. That was a mind-blower.”

As it turns out, though LFP typically “let [T&T] do our jobs and play games and write about them and kick ass” (in Loftus’s words) occasionally the fact that it was a company powered by the Hustler empire seeped through. This isn’t to speak wrongly of LFP—a niche magazine like T&T surviving for a decade and a half is an achievement to be proud of. None of the former T&T employees I interviewed had a single truly negative thing to say about LFP. But…

The death of Tips & Tricks

T&T did die, eventually. Loftus, who emphasized that he was not a part of the company when it folded, has this to say: “I would say that the inability of LFP to effectively adopt a working online business model was what ultimately hurt T&T. In fairness, LFP is a great company in many ways, and there are countless other print publishers who have died, and continue to die, at the hands of digital. But when Tips & Tricks finally did establish its online presence, it was purposely designed to offer a limited amount of information.

“Personally, I always viewed the name ‘Tips & Tricks’ as a pretty meaningful term, a valuable brand. Even as the magazine was showing signs of slowing down, I believe LFP could have parlayed it into a huge online presence if it would have had the right mindset behind it, and the right budget to support it. The ad revenue would have come, it was just a matter of believing in the Tips & Tricks brand and waiting it out. Just my opinion.”

Others have similar opinions. “The biggest and most obvious reason however was the code and strategy guide content becoming available for nothing on the Internet. Although I believe I authored much more value in my guides than the generic ‘go here and get that’ step by step snoozerama that was the unfortunate common structure of most guides, I don’t think there was enough of a market that cared about high quality, insightful analysis of video game strategies,” Shirinian says.

“Print publications in general were fading out as the Internet became a more prominent space for gaming news, and niche magazines like T&T were some of the first to feel these effects,” says Thai. “There wasn’t really an infrastructure in place to transition T&T into an online space in a way that would truly differentiate it from the print issue, and we didn’t have enough resources to pour into an endeavor of that type anyway. The publisher tried shopping it around but it wasn’t picked up. I would say it didn’t survive because the people that cared the most about it didn’t have the power to make that happen.”

The larger narrative of the Internet killing print dominates, of course. But what exactly was the ending of T&T like? This was one of the things I wanted to clear the air about in this story. News articles about the end of the magazine paint it in a negative light: something ugly, full of lies and deceit, and that one Joystiq article calling Larry Flynt “porn-peddler supreme” is honestly kind of hilarious. But in truth, it was nothing like that.

For full context: Tips & Tricks Codebook continued for about four years after the main magazine folded. It had been published concurrently with T&T since 1999, just not as frequently. The plan was to switch both magazines to bi-monthly but LFP decided to move forward and kill T&T off entirely. I’ll let Bieniek tell it: “We were supposed to start that new schedule right after issue 150, but that’s when they decided to just kill off Tips & Tricks and keep the Codebook.

“What happened was that one of our freelance writers found out about it before anyone else knew. He got a letter with his last paycheck, thanking him for his contributions and letting him know that the magazine was folding. They mailed those letters on a Friday afternoon, and I guess they were planning to tell us on the following Monday that we were all laid off. But he got the letter on Saturday and sent me an e-mail over the weekend to confirm. When he realized that we hadn’t been told, he wrote kind of an angry, snarky blog post about how the layoff was handled badly. It really wasn’t a complete surprise to us that the magazine was being killed, and he deleted that blog post within a day or two, after he cooled off. But by then the “story” had been picked up and dramatized by a couple of Web sites, and everybody was talking about how we got screwed and all this kind of stuff. There was no drama behind any of it; he just wasn’t supposed to get that letter until the following week. That’s all.”

The (now-broken) link to that snarky blog post exists in both of the news articles above, so Bieniek’s conclusion is correct. Perhaps fittingly, the end of a magazine dedicated to avoiding over-sensationalizing things got over-sensationalized. The Codebook (along with the website) continued until 2011, and hey, you can still download a couple of Pencil Puzzles on the website!

For what it’s worth, though, T&T was wholly dedicated to print media. The Readers’ Tips section only accepted snail mail for its entire run, often hand-delivered by Earl the Mailman (who was also a jazz musician!). Though it was indeed a monthly love letter to video game culture, it was also a love letter to both print media and video game design. It’s a shame it didn’t last, but a decade and a half is a damn good run.

It also brought us the Virtual Boy King!
It also brought us the Virtual Boy King!

Chris Bieniek has earned the last word here, so I’ll give it to him: “Tips & Tricks was all about codes and strategy guides, first and foremost. But outside of our loyal readers, most people don’t know about all the other aspects of video-game culture that we brought to the forefront. I’m very proud of our arcade game coverage, for example. It was a real pain in the ass to include them, because it was very difficult to take screen shots of arcade games. But we put them on the cover all the time, and we had regular features like arcade high score lists and ‘Token of the Month’ to shine a light on the arcade industry whenever possible.

“We also did a lot to promote the competitive fighting game scene, first with the ‘XBand Top 5’ lists and later with our monthly ‘Tournament Report’ column. We supported the fanzine community, giving national exposure to aspiring video game journalists, some of whom we actually hired. We published interviews with a lot of Japanese game creators, including some lesser-known designers who rarely spoke to the American press. And I know for a fact that our ‘Collector’s Closet’ column introduced a lot of people to the concept of video game collecting as a hobby.

“We were just trying to make a great magazine, so it’s really gratifying when people say things like, ‘I got into pixel art because of the Tips & Tricks Pencil Puzzles,’ you know? It’s nice to hear that we inspired people in some small way.”

Endless thanks to Chris Bieniek, Ara ShirinianJim Loftus, and Charlotte Thai for helping out with this story. Look for the full interviews to be posted on Friday!

Notes   [ + ]

1. At the time this article was published, this was true. However, T&T now has its own article, here. This article is cited.

One thought on “A Comprehensive Oral History Of Tips & Tricks – The #1 Video-Game Tips Magazine”

  1. I feel honored to have worked a few doors down from the dedicated staff of Tips & Tricks as editor of a different magazine owned by the same notorious pornographer. We were two mainstream publications amid a sea of unseemly and unsightly trash rags. I always wished I knew enough about codes and Chronos to have contributed to T&T and rubbed shoulders with their esteemed staff members.

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