As 1996 faded into 1997 and the hectic holiday season grinded to a halt, 14-year-old Julius Harper felt his desire to own a Nintendo 64 escalating to a fever pitch.
Gifted a Nintendo Entertainment System nearly a decade before, Harper had been desperate to upgrade to a more powerful home console. “By this time, Nintendo had long stopped putting out games for the NES,” Harper says. “The last game I picked up for the system was the Yoshi puzzle game, and that came out after the Super Nintendo [shipped]. I had stretched the NES as far as I could.”
His pleading and well-thought-out arguments for adding Nintendo’s new 64-bit console to the Harper household had been thwarted on multiple occasions by his mother and father. Their reasoning: It didn’t matter that the Nintendo 64 had advanced graphics or superior games; their son already had a perfectly good gaming system and he didn’t need another. It was the same mentality that had denied Harper a Super Nintendo years prior.
Adding salt to the wound was Harper’s monthly reminder that he was behind the times: Nintendo Power magazine. Despite his obsolete setup, Harper was still an avid fan of everything Nintendo, poring over each new issue with a mix of wide-eyed amazement and despair. “The graphics on [the N64] system were revolutionary at the time,” he says, “and it was like ‘Look at all the beautiful things that you won’t have.’ It was pretty bad.”
Harper had held out hope that his parents were bluffing, holding their cards close to their chests in order to surprise him on Christmas morning, but that hadn’t been the case. He had to find some other way to get his hands on one of Nintendo’s newfangled three-pronged controllers.
“It was do or die,” he says, “It was kind of like ‘I’m not going to have this gaming system unless I figure out a way to finagle this myself.’”
The game for your brain
Flipping through the March ‘97 issue of Nintendo Power, which featured a guide for Turok: Dinosaur Hunter and a sneak peek at the ill-fated EarthBound 64, Harper finally saw his chance to secure the sought-after console. The magazine debuted a contest dubbed “Design the Game of the Future,” which tasked readers to imagine a console, game or character that might be all the rage in the year 2064.
The grand prize winner would receive a computer for their school, a trip to Nintendo of America’s headquarters and a Nintendo 64 of their very own. Harper didn’t feel confident he could win the whole shebang, but he was optimistic that he might be picked as one of the 10 runners-up, who would each also walk away with Nintendo’s new system.
“The idea came to me pretty quickly; I was a pretty nerdy kid,” Harper says. “I was very much into Star Trek: The Next Generation, and around that point I spent a lot of time on the internet researching technology. Even though I was in eighth grade, I had a fairly good handle on how something like an MRI worked.”
By melding the look of Geordi La Forge’s iconic visor from Star Trek with a basic understanding of medical technology of the time, Harper soon formed the idea for a console that would wrap around a player’s head and beam the action directly into their brain via tiny game discs. “It was supposed to be a computer that could decode electrical signals the brain put out,” he says. “I just had an intuitive sense that some game company could probably build that by the year 2064.”
After jotting down his best ideas and sketching out prototype blueprints, Harper officially christened his device “The Nintendo Virtual Dream Machine.”
The contest instructed entrants to present their ideas as simple Nintendo Power covers. “You don’t have to be an artist to win,” it said. Determined to stand out, Harper requested the use of his father’s home computer and fired up CorelDraw. Harper had used the vector graphics editor in the past to design his own cardboard Pogs, and he was certain he could produce a console mockup worthy of his futuristic concept.
After a week or so of redesigns and finishing touches, Harper filled out all the appropriate entry forms, said a prayer, and walked his plans for The Nintendo Virtual Dream Machine to the mailbox.
A winner is you
By the time June rolled around, Harper had all but forgotten about the contest. His days at La Mesa Junior High were coming to a close. He was far more focused on his upcoming summer vacation and his transition to high school. As he sat in science class one morning, feeling strangely uncomfortable about the frog he was about to dissect, he was suddenly called to the principal’s office. Harper racked his brain, trying to think of what he might have done to deserve disciplinary action, but he couldn’t think of a way that he had stepped out of line. When he arrived, his principal, Rochelle Neal, greeted him with a smile and revealed that they needed his help fixing a computer in the school library down the hall.
“I was used to this sort of thing,” Harper says. “I would have teachers ask me to come help them reboot a computer or format a floppy or whatever, but I had never been approached by the principal.” Always willing to lend a helping hand, Harper followed the principal to the library to see what he could do.
As Harper entered the room, he found a mob of professionally dressed onlookers waiting for him. Local reporters stood on the sides of the room with video cameras rolling and flashbulbs popping in all directions. Harper was suddenly intimidated and fearful that the job he had been called in for was much more serious than he had anticipated. What if he failed to fix anything? “I didn’t have an understanding of what was happening at all,” he says. “I just kept thinking, ‘This is so bizarre. I can’t work under these conditions!’”
Harper sat down at the computer in question, still overwhelmed by the sudden barrage of attention, and he was informed by his principal that he had been selected as the grand prize winner in Nintendo Power’s contest. He stared back at her, unable to process this news. On the computer screen was a message from Nintendo Power editor-in-chief, Gail Tilden, stating the same fact.
“At that point it kind of clicked,” Harper says. “Like, ‘Oh. Oh! The contest!’ And I was like going backwards in my brain catching up to the moment.”
Still reeling from the excitement of the situation, Harper learned that the computer in front of him was none other than the state-of-the-art “media center” his school had received as a part of his grand prize package. He also heard he would be flown from his home of Santa Clarita, Calif. to Nintendo’s American headquarters in Redmond, Wash. in the coming weeks. These facts were quickly overshadowed, though, as a Nintendo representative sauntered over and handed him a special Nintendo Power T-shirt along with his very own, brand new Silicon Graphics-powered Nintendo 64. He could hardly believe it.
Despite La Mesa’s strict school uniform dress code, the administrators present agreed to let Harper wear his new Nintendo Power shirt for the rest of the school day. A Nintendo photographer followed him back to class where they snapped a few celebratory pictures of Harper surrounded by his fellow classmates. As the media filed out of the building, Harper was left to revel in his glory.
“As you’ve probably gathered, I wasn’t at the top of the social hierarchy at my school, because I was a nerd,” he says. “I helped teachers fix their computers and kept to myself. So when they gave me this shirt and let me wear it all day, I felt like the big man on campus. All the teachers were making a big deal and they’d called it out over the intercom. I mean, I fully understand I was being a bit obnoxious about it, but it did not go well for my social status back then.”
While his peers might have been annoyed with his antics, his friends and family were thoroughly impressed. Everyone knew Harper was smart, but few were aware he could be so imaginative.
“It was a big confidence boost for me, as a middle school student, to understand that my ideas had value and if I tried hard I could make an impact,” he says. “When you’re into something nerdy and you really enjoy it, people tend to look down on you. But this contest turned that idea on its head. Nobody in my immediate social circle was that into Nintendo — I was the big Nintendo fan — but then these adults from another state, from this company that I loved, had deemed something about my nerdiness to be worthwhile. It was really something special.”
Wrapping up his eighth-grade year in style, Harper and his parents flew to Nintendo’s American headquarters a week or two after the official start of his summer vacation. The trip didn’t take him too far from his California home, but the thought of getting a look inside Nintendo seemed like an invitation to explore Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Not many kids had been inside, and few knew all the magic that was held within.
Once they landed in a rain-soaked Seattle, the Harper family was quickly carted off to Redmond, the long-time home of Nintendo of America. The first stop on their whirlwind two-day tour was a small museum located deep in the bowels of NoA’s main building. Harper marveled at the ancient playing cards, colorful toys and decades of classic gaming hardware. He knew a lot about Nintendo, but this was a whole new level of history. “It was just super fascinating to see the evolution of these ideas,” Harper says. “You could see the timeline of Nintendo moving from one business or media to another.”
“It was like getting a glimpse of a whole new world. I couldn’t believe that it was their job to play these games, to love the content, to understand the audience and to write about it,” Harper says. “These people were kind of living the dream. They had turned their love of video games, or of graphic design, or writing, into a career and nobody was bullying them or ignoring them. They were succeeding and winning at life, and it totally changed my perception of what was possible just to see that.”
Before he dove into his duties as Nintendo Power’s “honorary editor” for the day, Harper was allowed to test out a game that was scheduled to be released in the coming months — Rare’s GoldenEye 007. Harper was struck by how odd the test cartridge for GoldenEye looked, standing double the height of a normal cartridge and bearing a few innards. Not having played many first-person shooters in the past, Harper was expertly taken down by the Nintendo Power staff. He fared much better in Star Fox 64, one of the few titles that he had purchased since he got his Nintendo 64 a few weeks prior. Though a follow-up Nintendo Power article would note that Harper was quickly shot down by editor Paul “Fox” Shinoda, Harper is adamant that he was the one bringing the hurt. “That line in the article is garbage. I destroyed them,” he says, laughing.
Harper’s visit wasn’t just for his sake. Nintendo Power was planning on detailing his winning entry and his visit for its 100th issue, due to be mailed to readers in September. Various magazine staffers snapped pictures of Harper as he answered online questions and looked over tips and tricks for upcoming guides. The majority of his time was spent with art director Kim Logan, who had been assigned to help recreate Harper’s original entry cover.
The other Nintendo Power employees had been more than friendly and accommodating, Harper says, but Logan was the first Nintendo staffer who made Harper feel like he was part of the team, a peer. “When I first arrived there was a lot of attention and a lot of fuss,” Harper says. “I was a little bit nervous and uncomfortable because I had never been in an experience like that. I didn’t know what was expected. Kim went above and beyond to kind of shepherd me through the experience.”
Logan approached Harper like a long-time friend, genuinely interested in his thoughts about the Nintendo Virtual Dream Machine. With her, there was no talking down, no stupid questions, he says. “It was her quiet approachability and friendliness that had the biggest effect on me,” Harper says. “I was this nerdy kid who felt he wasn’t particularly special or outstanding in any way, but I had come up with this idea. It seemed like an amazing privilege to combine that idea with the professional skills of a person like Kim. It let me know that I should give myself more credit, that maybe I should believe in myself a little bit more. And I think, for any child, one of the most valuable gifts that you can give them is just to give them confidence.”
In that moment, inspired by an office of like-minded nerds and creative types, Harper gained the hope that there was a job out there for someone like him.
Living the dream
Just as quickly as Harper’s fairy-tale visit had begun, it was over. His two-day tenure at Nintendo Power was up. He wasn’t sure what his future would hold, but he was more optimistic that he was going to accomplish great things. He sat back and waited for his exploits to show up in the upcoming 100th issue.
As Harper began his freshman year at Valencia High, he found that his reputation hadn’t really changed. In fact, due to the way his new high school admitted students, a good chunk of his classmates had never even met him before. Few people outside of Harper’s circle of friends even knew, or remembered, his big win the prior spring. “High school was a whole different social stratosphere,” Harper says. “I was just getting established at Valencia and I wasn’t campaigning for people to notice me. The contest had happened while I was over in La Mesa and it was kind of like putting a bow on the end of my junior high career.”
Then, before the fabled 100th issue of Nintendo Power was sent to print, Harper was notified that his story would no longer be featured within its pages. He was told his article would be bumped to the next available volume.
Harper didn’t have long to wait, as his grinning face peered out at readers from page 28 of Nintendo Power issue 101. Pictures from the bewildering day at school and his time in the Nintendo offices were spread over four colorful pages, along with a few details on the runner-up entries. Much to his chagrin, the magazine had chosen to refer to him as “J.J.,” a long-running nickname used solely by his parents. Though it was a tad embarrassing, and some of the content was exaggerated, he says, Harper was thrilled with the final article. It was his proof of success. A transcript of his phenomenal idea.
As Harper worked his way through high school and college, his passion for game design gave way to a general love of storytelling and interactive media. Graduating from the University of Southern California with a business degree, Harper was soon snapped up by one of the few places he felt was even more magical than Nintendo — Disney. Dabbling in everything from radio to digital strategies to online games, Harper was dedicated to putting his creative spin on every project he touched.
The 14-year-old Julius Harper, wandering excitedly through the Nintendo Power offices, certainly would have been thrilled to see how his life had turned out.
Back to the future
As of 2019, Harper has moved on from his 10-year stint within Disney to the role of creative executive of interactive content at Netflix. He is currently involved in a variety of children’s shows for the streaming giant, working to bring a new kind of “choose your own adventure” format to younger viewers around the globe.
While he’s still a Nintendo fan, and has managed to pick up almost every Nintendo home console since 1997, Harper doesn’t find as much time to play these days. If he does pick up a controller, it’s usually attached to his prized Nintendo 64, the one he received on that muggy June day back in junior high. “I still play it,” he assures. “I just played Smash Bros. with my best friend on it last weekend. I treasure that thing.”
When asked what kind of futuristic console he would create now, 20 years later, Harper says that he wouldn’t change much from his Virtual Dream Machine. “In my estimation, the basic design would remain the same as the original, with the the whole ‘ring on the head’ idea,” he says, “but with some modern updates. Obviously swap out the mini CDs for onboard memory; no need for cartridges. It would all be wireless. The internal machinery would use something more advanced like neural networks based on machine learning algorithms to decode what your brain sees and send it new image signals and sensations. Feedback would be using technology similar to what’s used in some ‘mind-controlled’ prosthetics.”
Harper isn’t even convinced gaming fans will have to wait until 2064 to get their hands on such a complex device. “If someone wanted to put those things together and make a system like this, I really think they could,” Harper says, “It might cost 17 billion dollars and only play Pac-Man, but just like every technology, it has to start with something simple. With each new generation, gaming gets smarter, faster and better until eventually you wind up with something people never thought was possible, something amazing.”
A search result for Julius Harper will bring one to his no-frills online resume. And under various prestigious job titles, professional experience and awards is a single line, an accomplishment that Harper still likes to include: Grand Prize Winner of the Nintendo Power “Design the Game of the Future” contest. A small blip in the history of Nintendo and Nintendo Power but a life-changing experience for a young boy from California.