Understanding the Retro Gaming Road Movie of ‘Nintendo Quest’
Guys like old video games, we get it – so what separates 'Nintendo Quest' from any other story about retro obsessives? We spoke to its makers.
Collecting old video games is something that plenty of equally old dudes do. Nothing new there. So a film about some an old dude – okay, not that old, but a few years up on gamers who've not seen a halfway decent Sonic game come out since they've been of legal drinking age – doing just that doesn't exactly make for an exciting elevator pitch. Guy sits at his computer, clicking up his eBay bid for a cartridge that he never owned when he was young(or did, but sold it for beer money as a student). Wins the auction. Whoops to himself, just loudly enough to stir the cat. The cat yawns, stretches and drifts off again. Guy opens another tab and clicks some more. Cartridge arrives several days later and sits on a shelf with some others that look a lot like it. Might get played once, for 20 minutes, on a rainy Sunday, and then never again.
So it's fortunate that Nintendo Quest is a documentary on collecting with a difference. For one thing, it focuses exclusively on the catalogue of the Nintendo Entertainment System, probably the most important games console of all time, responsible for righting the industry's course after a colossal financial slump in the early 1980s and ultimately becoming a fixture in more American homes during the decade of Ronald Reagan and Molly Ringwald than causal racism. Secondly, it features a fantastically passionate Nintendo fan at its core, one Jay Bartlett, a Canadian with Bowser and Bomberman in his blood. The starting point of the film is Jay's friend (and executive producer here) Rob McCallum challenging him to acquire every one of the 687 NES games officially released in North America in just 30 days. Piece of piss, you'd rightly think: get online and get bidding. But here's the third selling point, and it's the twist: Jay can't buy anything from internet retailers.
Nintendo Quest very quickly becomes a road movie, following Jay and Rob and crew south, cruising highways into the States and an array of second-hand stores and basements so impressively stocked with mint-condition gaming relics that they'd turn anyone a Hyrulean shade of green with envy. Online sales being off limits, Jay meets a world of comparably enthusiastic sorts, some who are more than happy to aid his mission, while others basically get in the way. Collecting can be pretty competitive, so it turns out. As Jay's quest unfolds, we're given a basic history lesson on Nintendo, and learn why it is that this one system's software means so much, not just to this film's makers but also video gaming as we know it today.
But still one question above all others lingers at the back of my head: why?
"Dreams are worth it, regardless of obstacles," is Rob's reply to me, the same response he gave anyone else asking the same question during the film's production. "This just happens to be a cool, gamer-related dream."
"The NES redefined gaming in many ways, and showed that it could be profitable as a business too," Rob continues. "The industry was on life support before the NES hit, in North America at least. So when they introduced high-quality games with narrative elements that told a story, instead of games mainly based on beating a high score, people could identify with them and the games took on a new inherent value and connection. Final Fantasy for the NES is directly responsible for me becoming a storyteller. I didn't know stories could be like that, until that game. Gaming became about personal expression and that's incredible.
"It's Nintendo's ability to inspire and create memories that inspired us to make this film. The influence and effect their games, culture, and ethos has had on us is something we wanted to share and in turn inspire people with Jay's journey. So the games are the ultimate documents that inspire us."
Jay feels that the NES era was one of broader gaming appeal, which naturally led to more kids-back-then getting into the culture, with less of a, let's say, unsavoury stigma attached to being a "gamer".
"I don't think gaming was as male-centric as it is today," Jay tells me. "Games back then were for everyone, and appealed to everyone. There is a lot more testosterone in gaming today then there ever was back then. Now we have franchises like Call of Duty and Gears of War, whereas back then it was Pac-Man and Super Mario. To me it didn't really matter who your character was, you made them your hero. You had to use imagination, while today in gaming the story is directly told to you and your character has his or her own voice."
That said, Rob's quick to admit that there's not as much female representation in Nintendo Quest as he'd have liked – the vast majority of guests, be they high-score masters at NES classics, fellow collectors or simply amazingly invested gaming fans, are male. "We wanted more," he says. "As a filmmaker, I wanted and needed more for a balance of opinions, but time and access to the right people was limited and unfortunately you gotta stop making a movie at some point. It's a glaring issue for me because Nintendo is very universal regardless of gender yet our film doesn't do that aspect justice."
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Jay and Rob go back a long time – they bonded, as children, over the games they shared, their families living just two doors apart in London, Ontario. "Jay actually introduced me to gaming, starting with Spider-Man on the Atari 2600," Rob recalls. "But the NES was the first console I had. We were collecting games back then, and not just amassing the library but preserving the boxes and displaying them like a museum would; it's just always been a thing for us and we've been friends for over 30 years."
The obsession's been there since day one, then. And day one of Nintendo Quest finds Jay and Rob endeavouring to deliver anything but "a boring history lesson with stats", to quote the latter. I think they just about pull it off. There's little in terms of Nintendo's story in this movie that I didn't know prior to watching it, and I'm sure that'll be the same with many a gamer (of my vintage, or thereabouts); but nevertheless, it succinctly highlights both the cornerstone releases of the NES catalogue and the titles that, for one reason or another, have become incredibly sought after. The very rarest of these, carrying an astronomical price tag when sold online (check the still, below), is Bandai's Stadium Events. Although it goes for several thousand times as many dollars as, say, Super Mario Bros., the game was as essential to the completion of Jay's challenge as any other. Just another box to tick. It needed to be found.
I'm not about to spoil the film by revealing whether or not Jay did pick up Stadium Events, or any of the NES catalogue's other (official, expensive) rarities – amongst them Bubble Bobble Part 2, Bonk's Adventure and Mega Man 5. But I can confirm that Stadium Events isn't close to being Jay's favourite game on Nintendo's breakthrough console.
"Zelda II, Donkey Kong and Little Samson are my favourite three," Jay says. "Those games are timeless. The gameplay is perfect, the challenge is steep, and the replay value is there. I absolutely think they are on the same level as modern games. It's just like saying Return of the Jedi stands up to newer movies, like Avatar. Jedi is timeless and absolutely goes toe to toe with any new film out there."
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And why is it important to own these games on their original cartridges, when emulation options are so rife, not to mention entirely legal eShop downloads of old-school classics? "I simply collect because it's in me," Jay says. "The artefacts themselves mean so much to me, holding so many great memories that I had with that library, and continue to today. Digital-only gaming will never take over. I buy a game digitally and I feel like it's never really mine, I can't do what I want with it. This past year I've seen a lot of gamers start to realise this.
"It's all about the human connection we have with the artefact. The memories, friendships and experiences tied to it. There's no excitement or fun to acquiring a digital game: you just click a button. Whereas, in the old days of gaming, going out with friends and getting the games, those stories you had along the way make it have a long lasting personal connection with you and your friends. That, arguably, is just as fun as the game you just purchased."
Nintendo Quest is, if nothing else, a tribute to those stories we used to create for ourselves even before a game was played. The build up, the anticipation; the small quests we all went on, from home to the store and back, perhaps on the bus, perhaps in the back of a car. The tearing away of the shrink-wrap, and that first-time clunk as the cartridge found its home. Satisfying. It's about people, joined by a love of a medium that's still growing but preserves its previously shed skins like few forms of expression before it. "I think our film has touched the lives of many people," Jay concludes. "To hear them come up to us and just say, 'Thank you for making this,' it's the most incredible feeling in the world. The film continues to change my life on a daily basis, and I am so grateful."
Nintendo Quest is available to view on Vimeo on Demand now, and is released on physical formats and via other digital platforms on December 1st. More information here.
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