Back in 1991, 12-year-old Kyle Rechsteiner was nuts about Nintendo games.
He was less enthusiastic about his school project, an anti-drug campaign that involved watching educational films and drawing posters.
But he was an imaginative child. In a moment of inspiration and clarity, he pulled the school lessons and his love of NES together and created a killer game idea, in which Mega Men takes on the evil of addiction.
He believed the idea was so good, Nintendo would be fools to let it pass by. He created a story and some artwork. He found a company address in Nintendo Power magazine and sent his bundle off the the great company. A few weeks later he received a reply.
Kyle, now in his mid-30s, recently married and decided to sort through the massive collection of junk he accrued over the past few decades. He came across the letter from Nintendo. It made him smile. He sent Polygon a digital copy.
If Kyle's 12-year-old self was ever disappointed at the rejection, he doesn't recall. He does remember sitting at his desk in school, flaunting the letter to his envious pals. A rejection letter from Nintendo was a prize. For a few weeks, he could hardly talk about anything else.
As video game rejection letters go, it's thoughtful and kind. It's clearly from another age. These days, for legal reasons, game companies do not accept unsolicited game ideas. Times have changed. Nintendo has changed. A few days ago, Polygon contacted Nintendo to ask for an interview about the company's long-ago policies regarding fan letters. We didn't receive a reply.
Back in 1991, Kyle thought that a message of social responsibility against drug use, married with the all-action hero Mega Man, would be a big win for Nintendo (being 12, he did not know, nor care, that Mega Man was made by Capcom).
He used Mega Man's system of simple bosses based on themes and powers. He wanted to tell a story about a child who became addicted to every drug in the world, and how Mega Man went about releasing that child from the bondage of dependency by beating bosses based on each drug.
And so, Alcohol Man was born.
Also, Cigarettes Man.
Heroin Man ...
... and Chewing Tobacco Man.
Kyle does not have the original artwork. He made these drawings from memory. He says they're pretty accurate representations of the originals.
"I remember being bored of drawing 'Just Say No' posters and wanting to draw pretty much anything else," he says. "At that time, I was crazy into the NES and my favorite poster was a Mega Man 2 gatefold poster of Dr. Wily and his evil robots that I got in an issue of Nintendo Power. So I thought maybe I could make a poster like that but tweak it a bit to shoehorn in a drug theme.
"Limited by my artistic abilities, a sweet dynamic group shot was out of the question, so I had to pare down my idea and just draw characters into a traditional Mega Man level select screen. To make my drawing fit in with my assignment, I designed all of the evil bots after drugs and gave them super on the nose names, like Alcohol Man, Heroin Man, etc.
"At some point, I had convinced myself that it was a solid enough basis for a game that I needed to get it into the hands of Nintendo. I wrote up a flimsy back story about a kid who was addicted to every drug that I could think of and Mega Man was the only one who could help him kick his addictions. By defeating each evil drug-bot, The Blue Bomber would help this kid get closer and closer to a clean bill of health."
A sucker for nostalgia
Designing comic book heroes and villains has been a staple of many childhoods for years. But the 8-bit era of games represented an opportunity for kids to create characters that really weren't that far away from on-screen representations designed by professionals. Simplicity inspired emulation.
"I grew up right in that sweet spot where Nintendo was a constant in every kid's life," says Kyle. "The NES dominated all of my free time as a kid. It didn't matter if I was at home or at a friend's house, the routine was always the same. We'd ride bikes to either the comic shop or to the candy store, then haul ass back home to drink sodas and play games. Getting a new game, beating a game or figuring out how to beat a boss all became huge milestones in our lives and those things were all we'd ever talk about at school.
"I had never really thought about trying to design a game or anything like that; I was content enough to just play them. I think once I had actually created these [Mega Man] characters of my own and got them down on paper, I got excited about what I could do with them even though they were ridiculous. As a not so bright kid, I was clinging to the hope that Nintendo couldn't possibly pass up my idea. After all, it was about an important social issue. That's got to count for something, right?"
Nintendo, never really an organization interested in controversy or social change, disagreed. But Kyle's joyous reaction to his rejection is another slice of '90s schoolyard gaming culture.
"Obviously, I showed it off," he says. "Having a letter from Nintendo meant you could brag. Most kids that age love to brag and I was no exception. I remember having it out all the time. On my desk, holding it, re-reading it, whatever. I wanted to be able to look at it whenever the mood struck. The honeymoon period lasted a few weeks before I put it in my room and promptly forgot about it for years."
So, how does he feel about his letter, all these years later?
"Just the fact that the game idea was so stupid will always put a smile on my face," he says. "I love showing the letter to people these days with no context at all and seeing their reaction.
"I'm also a sucker for nostalgia. Because of that, I am a total pack rat. As my wife and I get ready to buy our first house, I realize just how much crap I have stored up. Little by little, I am doing my best to part with things but I am grateful that so many of my favorite gaming memories can be preserved through small physical items. From this piece of paper to my Nintendo Player's Guide to the tiny map that came with Zelda, these are things that I don't have to get rid of. They take up next to no space and because of that, I'll never have to part with them."