“When you think of video games, the very first thing that comes to your mind is Nintendo.” Minutes in, Tommy Tallarico sums it up perfectly. Anyone who’s ever heard relatives calling a random console “The Nintendo” can attest to this statement. Nintendo’s history is well recorded but, for all the impact it has made, it’s strange that we haven’t seen more documentaries focus on its history. Having previously directed Video Games: The Movie, director Jeremy Snead has taken aim with his latest project, Playing with Power: The Nintendo Story. Borrowing its name from Nintendo’s famous marketing line, Playing with Power has just launched through Crackle as a free five-part documentary series. By taking a US-centric approach, die-hard Nintendo fans will find it surprisingly lacking in places – but there’s an entertaining watch, nonetheless.
Outside of interviews, events are illustrated with archived news footage. Where that’s unavailable or simply didn’t exist, Snead uses diorama sets instead, making for a colourful presentation. We’ve got a strong line-up of industry veterans weighing in here, and representing Nintendo is (mostly) former Nintendo of America staff, including Reggie Fils-Aimé, Howard Phillips, Ron Judy, Don James, and Perrin Kaplan. It’s certainly not a puff piece and, keeping it balanced, we’ve also got Head of Xbox Phil Spencer, Gears of War designer Cliff Bleszinski, former Sega of America President Tom Kalinske, Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell, EA founder Trip Hawkins and Digital Eclipse editorial director (and former games journalist) Chris Kohler, to name just a few.
Nintendo’s influence in gaming cannot be understated and over the decades; its actions have helped shape the destinies of industry competitors, meaning these people offer some valuable insights on both sides. Playing with Power is not a completely exhaustive history – it’s missing a few aspects which feel strangely overlooked – but it offers a good introduction. Unfortunately, the mini-series peaks early within the first two episodes, which both come in at around 70 minutes. Episode 1 takes us back to the very start in Kyoto, 1889. With Western playing cards outlawed at the time, it showcases Fusajirō Yamauchi’s early leadership, before passing the company down to his son-in-law, Sekiryo Kaneda. It mostly skips Kaneda’s contributions, quickly moves onto his grandson instead, the now-legendary Hiroshi Yamauchi.
Episode 1 offers an informative look at Yamauchi’s attempted expansion of Nintendo outside of playing cards, including early Disney deals, taxis, and those infamous “love hotels”. Having found success within the toy market, it sets the scene well, leading into their earliest home gaming efforts, when they began distributing the Magnavox Odyssey in Japan. Soon enough, we’re onto the arcade scene, talking about Radarscope’s failure paved the way to Donkey Kong’s success. With some delightful insights from Howard Phillips and Ron Judy, it paints an engaging look at Nintendo of America’s creation too, going into detail about Minoru Arakawa, and Universal Studios’ failed lawsuit against Nintendo. The latter segment doesn’t get a lot of coverage, which is disappointing as it neglects to mention John Kirby’s efforts in winning the case.
It ends by leading towards the video game crash of 1983, with Nolan Bushnell being quite candid about Atari’s misfortunes. Calling it “Suicide, not homicide”, he specifically singles out Pac-Man and E.T. like many before him, though this segment curiously omits the New Mexico landfill. That segues nicely into Episode 2 and 3, which initially details Nintendo’s earlier efforts like Game & Watch and Gunpei Yokoi’s contributions, the NES’ struggle to find distributors in the wake of that crash, before dominating the early era. Touching upon the Nintendo Fun Club News and their gameplay counsellors, Atari’s legacy is thrust into the spotlight again, showing Nintendo’s battle with quality control and the firm’s reputation as being difficult to work with – a sentiment backed strongly by Ron Judy – before leading into the console wars.
By bringing in Tom Kalinske, Playing with Power offers some genuinely interesting insights about Sega openly challenging Nintendo’s supremacy. By creating a rivalry through adverts, Kalinske reveals that Arakawa would actively avoid him at conventions, and there’s a fine effort in painting this rivalry between the two companies. Unfortunately, for such a critical period in Nintendo’s history, Snead doesn’t focus that heavily on the 16-bit era itself. Bafflingly, it ignores criticism around Nintendo’s censorship policies, which contributed to the Entertainment Software Rating Board’s creation. We get a look at landmark games like Sonic the Hedgehog and Donkey Kong Country, and then quickly move onto the emergent challenge from Sony’s PlayStation, touching upon the Super Nintendo CD-ROM project with Phillips and Sony.
Outside a brief mention, Snead almost entirely skips over the Virtual Boy’s failure too, and goes right towards the N64. It’s at this point where it offers a more solid focus on Shigeru Miyamoto’s contributions, who you’d think would receive a lot more focus than he gets. In this moment, we can clearly see the passionate man who brought us Super Mario 64, having briefly detailed his history in Episode 1, but it doesn’t showcase his wider legacy, and most games are only given a brief focus. It’s here where we found Snead’s event timeline to get a bit strange, as Episode 3 ends with a 6th generation introduction, before immediately looping back to N64 at the start of Episode 4.
Going into Pokémon’s enormous impact and Nintendo’s choice to continue using cartridges over discs, there’s a critical outlook here at how the PlayStation succeeded by comparison. By the time we get back to the 6th gen, we’re a third of the way into this episode and suddenly, we’re also getting looks at the 3DO and 32X. Considering Trip Hawkins also helped create it with Panasonic, it’s as out of place as it might sound, but the framing was certainly questionable. Even more so when you realise the Game Boy Advance gets little screen time, either. Most questionably is how Playing with Power barely acknowledges Satoru Iwata, a man so pivotal to Nintendo’s modern history that excluding him is borderline outrageous.
Instead of detailing Yamauchi’s retirement in 2002 (Arakawa’s too), Playing with Power carries on into the Nintendo DS and Wii era and how they successfully tapped into the casual market. By Episode 5, we’ve suddenly got a clip of Yamauchi’s funeral in 2013. By framing it this way, Snead seems to believe that Playing With Power’s audience is already aware of more modern events, not needing to explore them as a result. In some ways, that’s probably true, but assumptions make for poor storytelling, especially within a documentary. To that extent, you can’t help but question how little focus there is on Nintendo Japan.
As the shortest episode in this series, Episode 5 certainly felt more rushed. Framing the Wii U’s failure due to the emerging smartphone market, it discusses Apple’s work with iPhones and iPads in capturing casual gamers. In terms of the 3DS, our beloved handheld doesn’t get much focus at all, outside of how this new market challenged dedicated portable devices. Highlighting Nintendo’s first foray into smartphone gaming with Super Mario Run, it ends on a positive note, looking at Pokémon Go and the Switch’s runaway success, but also offers caution, highlighting the recent flood of eShop games against 1983’s crash.
For a mini-series that started off strongly, it was disappointing to see Playing with Power trail off towards the end. Jeremy Snead does an excellent job of highlighting Nintendo’s early history but, once we leave the 8-bit era, it seems to be rushing to a conclusion. By providing a balanced perspective on Nintendo’s history, there are some entertaining moments that’ll keep you engaged, but die-hard fans will find little here they didn’t already know. By skimming over key events in Nintendo’s history, Playing with Power is a missed opportunity – but one you’ll likely enjoy regardless.
Have you watched Playing With Power yet? Let us know in the comments.