Playing With Power: The Nintendo Story (Documentary Series Review)

If you have loved video games all your life, no doubt Nintendo is a household name. In a new docu-series entitled Playing With Power: The Nintendo Story, which arrived on Crackle on March 1, 2021 thanks to Screen Media, we get an inside look at the story behind the company that changed the face of gaming forever.

Written and directed by Jeremy Snead (Video Games: The Movie documentary 2014, Unlocked: The World of Video Games, Revealed docu-series), the interesting documentary features commentary from the likes of Wil Wheaton (Stand by Me 1986, Star Trek: The Next Generation series), Alison Haislip (Mega Shark vs. Kolossus 2015, Dead Night 2017), as well as several cool gamer personalities and a number of former and present-day gaming executives. Sean Astin (The Goonies 1985, Lord of the Rings trilogy) narrates and executive produces.

The film is divided into five parts, or episodes, and starts with the obvious: the beginning. Here, we learn about Nintendo’s—the name loosely means “Lucky Heavenly Gathering Place”—entrance into the gaming world in 1889, when they first manufactured cards in Kyoto, Japan. At that time, the Japanese government had passed laws against importing anything from the West, specifically targeting Western playing cards.

To fill the void in his homeland, Fusajiro Yamouchi created beautiful cards called “hanafuda,” featuring artwork from nature such as tulips, violets, and cherry blossoms. However, when Western style cards were again allowed in Japan, the Nintendo Company made them, as well. In fact, they distributed the first plastic cards in the world and, to this day, hanafuda cards are available for purchase at convenience stores throughout the island nation.

Then came the third generation of presidents, namely Hiroshi Yamouchi. Though he had a reputation as being difficult to work for, he would go on to broker a licensing deal with the Walt Disney Company in the late 1940s. And by 1962, Nintendo would take a chance on the US Stock Market. Though they had tried, and failed, at many business ventures, it was their reincarnation into a toy company that would prove most fruitful.

Failure often provides the foundation for success, and for Nintendo, it was no different. Creations such as an extendable arm and a “love tester” paved the way for games such as Duck Hunt, an original projector and gun game manufactured in the 1970s. From there, it was a natural step to enter into the world of video games. As they dipped their toes into this brave new world, Nintendo mimicked several already successful games, but it wasn’t until Shigeru Miyamoto’s “Donkey Kong” was placed in the converted cabinets of an unsuccessful Nintendo arcade game in the 1980s that the world took real notice—and not necessarily for the right reasons. Universal Studios felt the narrative game too closely followed their “King Kong” and took umbrage: they sued the little Japanese company, but despite their gargantuan size, the judge found in favor of Nintendo.

And so David beat Goliath once, and would have to make an entire career repeating this performance. Thus, in the episodes that follow, we explore how the underdog company would go about getting their products into the hands of consumers and the birth of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). This being a documentary on their history, of course there are mentions of the company’s products: from NES and first monochromatic Gameboys, to the evolution into Nintendo DS and 3DS. And please do not forget the Nintendo 64, Gamecube, Gameboy Advanced and its DS, 2006’s Wii, the failed Wii U, and Nintendo Switch. They are all present and accounted for herein, with a look at their influences on pop culture, as well as the evolution of Nintendo’s creative and marketing strategies.

In fact, Playing With Power: The Nintendo Story goes on to detail the 1980s gaming market, and how Atari nearly shattered the retail field before it was fully developed. Further topics include the use of focus groups, the musical compositions of Koji Kondo, Super Mario Brothers, the “Fun Club Newsletter,” designer Shigeru Miyamoto, Super Mario 64 and its renewal of love for Mario, an almost partnership with Sony, the influence of Golden Eye, partnering with Pokémon and Pokémon Go, intuitive analog controllers, and much, much more.

And Snead does not ignore Nintendo’s biggest competition. Early rivals such as SEGA and their lovable Sonic the Hedgehog are touched upon, along with the arrival of the more adult-oriented Playstation. But by the time PS2 and XBox arrive, the entire playing field is snowballing toward an inevitable drastic evolution, and ultimately, the financial rivalry for consumers’ cash would come in the form of Apple and other smartphones with the dawn of apps.

For those that wish for more technical speak, there are some mentions of Nintendo’s 8-bit technology early on, while Episode 3 goes big on the new technology of the late ‘90s/early 2000s. This is the time when rudimentary polygon rendering through Argonaut Games allowed enhanced 2D and 3D graphics, all as the internet was providing mind-expanding possibilities. This understandably inspires the discussion of pirating and counterfeiting, which fails to take into account that Nintendo had its own history in parroting other company’s work.

On a lighter note, some of the series is apt to amuse those that were not around in the NES days, you know, back when the internet did not exist. There was no popping onto YouTube to research game tactics and find free help in overcoming a particularly difficult level. Instead, Nintendo developed their own system for providing their customers with strategy tips and secret tricks: the Nintendo Counselor who was just a phone call away. One such individual, Shaun Bloom, became something of a Nintendo celebrity in the 1990s. But where is he now?

Joking aside, Playing With Power: The Nintendo Story is chock full of information, as it should be with its total runtime of 297 minutes over five episodes. However, besides some trivially amusing anecdotes from its commentators, this is a largely surface-level exploration of Nintendo that is meant to conceal as much as it shares. Some will no doubt fault Snead for this, though sometimes controversy is best avoided—especially when paying homage to the “most addictive toy in history.”

Therefore, if you live and breathe Nintendo and the game maker’s history is something that titillates you and will inspire you to trade one monitor for another, sure, this series will bring more than “64 bits to your fingertips.” However, it is still largely just a retelling of what you can easily read online, but done so with some fun interviews, flashy colors and intriguing transitions. So be sure to medicate those thumb blisters, because Cryptic Rock gives Playing With Power: The Nintendo Story 3 of 5 stars.

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