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A Peek Into the Mushroom Kingdom

‘Playing With Power,’ a five-part docuseries exploring the history of Nintendo that debuts on Monday, is an extended but incomplete look at what makes the company a unique enigma

Ringer illustration

Nintendo is an enigma, as confounding in its corporate strategy as it is unerring in its feel for great gameplay. In some respects, the past year has been a banner one for the august game-maker, as it has for many others in an industry that revolves around indoor activity. The end of this month will mark the completion of Nintendo’s most profitable fiscal year ever. Switch sales soared despite the system’s portable capabilities being less in demand; Animal Crossing: New Horizons, released last March, made the perfect pandemic companion and became one of the bestselling titles of 2020; and the company’s share price set a new high score. As it forged forward, Nintendo drew on its nostalgia-inducing past by celebrating Mario’s 35th birthday in September and releasing remastered versions of Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, and Super Mario Galaxy in a Switch collection called Super Mario 3D All-Stars.

As always, though, events told a tale of two companies. The Mario package prompted plenty of discontent. Why was it so expensive? Why were the games merely remastered instead of remade? Where was Super Mario Galaxy 2? And why in the World 1-1 did Nintendo decide to pull the package from its eShop after roughly six months on sale? (Answer: to create artificial scarcity.) Rereleases and Wii U ports couldn’t completely disguise a dearth of new games: New Horizons is the only entirely original, Nintendo-developed game released since 2019, and last month’s eagerly anticipated Nintendo Direct—the first of its kind in almost 18 months—didn’t tease any such titles to come in 2021. The launches of Sony and Microsoft’s new systems last fall widened the graphical gap between cutting-edge consoles and the relatively low-powered, four-year-old Switch. And a game-maker that defines its mission as “putting smiles on the faces of everyone Nintendo touches” made many fans frown by issuing cease and desists with even greater fervor than the notoriously secretive, protective company has in the past.

This is Nintendo in a nutshell. Some of its systems have flopped, and others have flourished (often back-to-back). But throughout the boom years and down years, Nintendo has remained a fascinating study in contradictions: brilliant and bewildering; lovable and bullying; accessible and insular; inventive and antiquated. More than 130 years into its history—and almost 40 after the Famicom launched in Japan—it’s impossible to ignore Nintendo, and just as difficult to truly understand it. The video game god moves in mysterious ways, its wonders to perform.

A new docuseries aims to offer an exegesis and explain Nintendo’s enduring ingenuity. The five-part Playing With Power: The Nintendo Story premiered on Monday on Crackle, though it’s expected to appear via other avenues eventually. Narrated and executive produced by Sean Astin, the series traces Nintendo’s whole history, setting its scenes through extensive use of archival footage and recounting the company’s successes and setbacks through interviews with former Nintendo of America executives, their long-ago corporate rivals, Nintendo historians, and geek-culture celebrities. By the standards of previous video game documentaries, it’s a deep dive. In spite of some potentially off-putting stylistic choices, Playing With Power provides enough material to give Nintendo neophytes a sense of the company’s cultural impact while also supplying those who grew up gaming on Nintendo systems ample opportunities to reminisce. Yet despite its length, it’s a selective look that only superficially explores some of Nintendo’s creative and relational complexities.

Playing With Power was written and directed by Jeremy Snead, whose previous directorial credits consist of Video Games: The Movie (2014) and 2016 docuseries Unlocked: The World of Games, Revealed. (After working on Playing With Power for four years, Snead says, “I think a little break into some other subject matter would probably be good for me.”) Snead initially envisioned telling the story of Nintendo as a dramatized feature film, but production demands and budget constraints convinced him to triple down on the documentary format. When he realized that a standard documentary length would force him to trim or compress vast swaths of the story of a company whose history dates back to 1889, he opted to “just take a deep breath and give this the time that it needed,” which he determined to be roughly five hours—about as long as it takes to play Super Mario Bros. 3 or Super Mario World start to finish.

The resulting series debuts at a busy time for scripted content concerning video games; not only have game adaptations taken off amid Hollywood’s intensifying pursuit of IP, but documentaries about video games (and video game history) are also arriving at an F-Zero-esque pace. High Score and Console Wars came out (on Netflix and CBS All Access, respectively) last year, and Playing With Power is at least the third video game–related docuseries to premiere in 2021, after Gamebreakers on Amazon Prime Video and RESET on Vice TV. (An NBA Jam documentary was also announced in January.) Some of the talking heads in Playing With Power have done double or triple duty in the recent rash of retro docs; Atari founder Nolan Bushnell, Electronic Arts founder Trip Hawkins, former Nintendo marketing tag team Howard Phillips and Gail Tilden, and former Sega of America president and CEO Tom Kalinske, among others, must have spent a significant part of the past few years on camera, reminiscing about the console wars like old combatants trading tales at the VFW.

Playing With Power takes some steps to set itself apart both aesthetically and in terms of material from High Score and Console Wars, which also touched on Nintendo’s past. Snead’s doc intentionally and mercifully detours around some well-trodden territory, most notably the uproar about video game violence that led to 1993 congressional hearings and the formation of the ESRB. Because it’s longer than either of the preceding documentaries and focused on a single subject, Playing With Power is also able to linger longer on the pre-8-bit and post-16-bit periods. It’s a gift to get a documentary about video game history that doesn’t roll the credits after 1995. (Remind me, what happened to Sega shortly after it overtook and toppled Nintendo?) Even though Nintendo has typically trailed its almost-partner-turned-console-competitor Sony (and sometimes Microsoft too) in American market share through the past quarter-century, Playing With Power extends the story to the present, covering the full sweep of the company’s history rather than catering to only one generation’s childhood sweet spot.

Snead is also smart not to skimp on outlining the company’s origins. It’s tempting to fast-forward past the company’s formative years of making playing cards and gimmicky electronic toys, but the doc does a decent job of drawing a line between more primitive pocket entertainments and those of the Game Boy and beyond. “You look at the Switch and what a weird idea that was, coming out of the Wii U,” Snead says. “And it’s like, well, they’re going back to their roots of making novelties, and making those into toys, and toys into electronics. And so it’s just fascinating to me how that [spirit] is still there to this day.”

Another way in which Snead differentiates Playing With Power from its closest competitors is by eschewing a very video-gamey art style. “It’s almost become a little bit of a trope in video game documentaries, where it’s just like, ‘Oh, OK, we’re doing this again, the whole 8-bit, 16-bit thing,” he says. Instead of SNES-style animations, he stages certain scenes that can’t be shown via archival video using static, shoebox-style dioramas loosely inspired by the “Bigatures” that Astin remembered from the making of The Lord of the Rings. It’s not really riveting stuff, but it’s better than going back to the retro well once more. Less effective are the documentary’s periodic attempts to situate Nintendo’s activities within the larger American cultural context: It’s of questionable relevance that, as Astin reminds us, “Julia Roberts was the queen of Hollywood” as Nintendo was designing the GameCube, or that “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley was in heavy radio rotation the year the Wii came out.

Snead tends toward frequent cuts, which he says are intended to help keep younger viewers engaged. A clip of one old game, newspaper clipping, or news report never seems to suffice if four or five would fit. Sometimes it’s excessive: One delirious kid unwrapping a present on Christmas morning looks a lot like another, regardless of how grainy the video or archaic the console. Then again, to see a child as thrilled about receiving a Switch as their parents probably were about opening an NES reminds us that Nintendo has its hookshot in a few generations. At first the frenetic cutting was somewhat overwhelming. But my brain became accustomed to Snead’s rhythm, which allowed him to make room for a wealth of footage, including many new clips that hadn’t before been digitized and required the production team to maintain meticulous legal clearance logs. “If we were to print those out, they’d probably be bigger than the Gutenberg Bible,” Snead says.

As useful as some of that footage is in evoking earlier eras, none of it sheds a lot of light on one of the most intriguing Nintendo unknowns: How the company has maintained its institutional knowledge and sustained its boundary-breaking creative continuity for so long. “How they do it is—who knows?” Snead says. “I think that’s their secret sauce that they’re not telling anyone.”

They definitely weren’t telling Snead. Just as Console Wars told the story of Sega, a Japanese company, almost exclusively through the lens of Sega of America, Playing With Power tells the story of Nintendo, another Japanese company, almost exclusively through the recollections of former Nintendo of America personnel. The reason for the two docs’ myopic perspectives is the same: a complete lack of access. Although Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros., and The Legend of Zelda mastermind Shigeru Miyamoto spoke to Snead for his two previous video game projects, the idea of a documentary focused entirely on Nintendo made the company clam up. Snead says he “tried valiantly to get Nintendo of Japan involved,” but it declined to participate. Thus, there’s no firsthand testimony about the company’s culture across the Pacific, and scant detail about how the gaming magic happens. As in Console Wars, a gaming masterpiece is mostly a means of advancing the company’s plans for owning the North America market, rather than a work of art to be analyzed and illuminated.

The familiarity of the faces from High Score and Console Wars, and the lifeless, small-scale tableaux that stand in for footage from Nintendo’s offices, make those absences only more obvious. It’s hard to view Playing With Power as the definitive take on Nintendo when it’s missing sit-downs with Miyamoto, Genyo Takeda, Masayuki Uemura, Satoru Okada, or any of Nintendo’s other living legends—or even, for that matter, Nintendo of America founder Minoru Arakawa. Snead acknowledges that this is a hole—one he hopes to fill in the future, his desire to branch out from video games notwithstanding.

“The only thing I would love to do, that I don’t think will happen in my lifetime and may not happen in future documentarians’ lifetimes, is an open door to Nintendo Japan, because I think that would reveal some really interesting things,” Snead says. “Not in an exposé way, but in a, ‘Wow, so this is how R&D1, or 2 or 3 works. And this is what goes on behind this little fantasy land. And this is how they come up with new tech and new programming.’ But I just don’t see them doing that.” Maybe Nintendo will one day welcome the public inside its fun factory, Willy Wonka–style. For now, reading Game Over or Ask Iwata will have to do.

Even though the documentary presents an incomplete picture, all but the most ardent Nintendo devotees will discover something new or remember something forgotten as Playing With Power follows Nintendo’s winding path from underdog to dominant (and domineering) to underdog again: an obscure device that never made it to the American market; the serendipitous ways in which Miyamoto and Gunpei Yokoi arose from obscurity to alter the trajectory of the company; the pivotal parts played by early devices such as the Ultra Hand (not to be confused with Master Hand); the clones of Pong, Breakout, and Space Invaders that Nintendo pumped out before it developed its own visionary voice. (Even Miyamoto borrowed from King Kong.) There’s nothing in the series on Nintendo’s fraught relationships with fan communities and modders, there’s a little less than there could be on the company’s monopolistic impulses, and there’s a fair amount of fanboy/girl-ing among the interviewees, but most viewers won’t mind a little lionizing. How many people who are willing to watch a five-hour Nintendo documentary don’t have a soft spot for the Big N themselves?

Playing With Power ruminates on Nintendo’s capacity to stay creative in the decades to come, but it doesn’t speculate at length about its potential to become an even bigger business, a subject of some conjecture among investors and industry analysts. Nintendo decision-makers “don’t really focus on their competition,” Snead says. “They don’t really focus on what the marketplace is asking for or wants. They focus on what’s fun, what’s new, what’s interesting. … They’re like, ‘How do we do something new and different with every iteration of a new console or new game?’”

Given that philosophy, it’s easy enough to understand how Nintendo could alternate between breakthroughs and failures, as it has with each console release from the Nintendo 64 to the Switch. That’s the price of taking big swings, which Nintendo is both constitutionally inclined toward and pressured to do by the PlayStation’s more iterative and repeatable primacy. What’s more mystifying is how the same company that’s consistently led the industry in inventing, embracing, or perfecting transformative technology—D-pads, analog sticks, rumble packs, VR, dual screens, motion controls, portability—could be so slow to adopt disc-based games, smartphone games, and online games, to name just a few innovations that Nintendo turned its back on for too long.

Nintendo has outlasted a lot of competitors and weathered countless changes in market conditions. But can it keep competing with deeper-pocketed companies and more powerful machines as cloud gaming and smartphones threaten to swallow the mobile market (which Nintendo has targeted with the Switch instead of a 3DS successor) and non-Nintendo-ish “games as a service” and free-to-play phenomena dwarf the player counts of Nintendo’s famous franchises? Will it keep accomplishing enough to fill a sixth chapter of Playing With Power?

Last July, venture capitalist, essayist, and strategist Matthew Ball wrote an almost-9,000-word treatise on how Nintendo’s portfolio gives it Disney-esque growth potential but its corporate culture—for better or worse—prevents it from exploiting opportunities to expand. Ball noted that Nintendo and Disney are alike in “multigenerational success, four-quadrant appeal, and creative achievements.” But even though Nintendo once made Disney merch—and even though Miyamoto, who grew up watching Disney cartoons, has said he wants Mario to rival Mickey Mouse—Nintendo isn’t Disney in waiting. Nintendo does its own thing.

If Disney makes one successful Star Wars series, it quickly commissions 10 more. Yet although Nintendo did break from tradition in 2019 by (gasp) remaking one Zelda game and announcing a direct sequel to another, the developer largely resists churning out sequels and remakes or outsourcing its IP (with a few disastrous exceptions). “If anyone else owned Nintendo’s IP, we would likely see a new The Legend of Zelda console title every two to three years, with a constant barrage of single-player spinoffs starring the Gerudo, Gorons, and the Goombas of Super Mario,” Ball wrote. He continued, “Not only does Nintendo not believe in #content, it staunchly refuses the idea and even the need. Nintendo only makes games and sequels when they believe there is a sufficiently new and ambitious idea.”

Analysts and investors who argue that Nintendo could create a perpetual platform instead of a series of short-lived systems, or transform into a sprawling conglomerate, discount the fact that Nintendo is committed to making consoles, even though it’s seemed for some time that the company could cash in by getting out of the hardware business and bringing its beloved characters to every system. The act of creating new consoles with new capabilities, in turn, inspires the company to take new approaches to its games. Without that virtuous circle, Nintendo might finally lose its unwavering grasp on its creative compass.

In recent years, Nintendo has expressed interest in establishing itself as an entertainment company, not just a gaming company. It will probably (belatedly) create a Nintendo+ subscription service—its equivalent of Disney+. It’s collaborating with Universal on theme park creation, and it’s given the green light to an upcoming Mario movie. More than four years ago, it took its first tentative step toward translating its core characters into the mobile arena with Super Mario Run. “The strength of their IP is hard to understate, however they explore that—game or theme park,” Snead says. “So as long as they can balance that right, like supply and demand, then it’s like that’s the golden goose, and they know it.”

But as long as that goose is still laying blockbusters, Nintendo doesn’t have much incentive to overhaul its business as drastically as it does its controllers, consoles, and flagship franchises. “Nintendo has, does, and will continue to actively decline areas of new profit/revenue to remain focused on its core businesses,” Ball wrote. To the extent that Nintendo is pursuing fresh revenue streams, it’s doing so through partnerships, not through internal efforts or outside acquisitions, as Disney did. (Maybe it’s still scarred by its brief 20th-century forays into taxis, vacuum cleaners, instant rice packets, and love hotels.)

When Animal Crossing sold well, Nintendo didn’t try to make it an even more remunerative mobile game; it walked back its mobile ambitions in favor of focusing on its own console, ceding its claim to an Animal Crossing clone. “The startup ecosystem and Triple-A ecosystem is now rushing to do to Animal Crossing what Genshin Impact did to Legend of Zelda,” Ball says via Twitter direct message. “The company that pulls it off will become a new giant.” Nintendo actively tries to suppress players’ spending on mobile platforms, lest raking in that revenue reflect poorly on its brand and impede its primary goal: selling more consoles and more sophisticated, creatively fulfilling software for those systems. And when Nintendo partnered with Lego, it took five years to make a set that satisfied it.

“The thing that irks me about shareholder arguments here is they want Nintendo to go to the Disney style, presuming that the company can treble output but maintain quality,” Ball says. “That’s an extraordinary ask—only Disney has pulled it off, truly—and it’s asking for an enormous cultural shift while also somehow staying the same.” As he concluded last year, “Nintendo is unlikely to take such an approach. It doesn’t want to be Disney, or Tencent, or Activision Blizzard. It wants to keep being Nintendo. And it’s important to recognize that some are driven by perfecting their specific process. Not scaling it.”

Nintendo’s policies are sometimes self-defeating in a way that hamstrings its own consoles’ libraries (for instance, by discouraging third-party support). But unlike investors, gamers don’t need to worry about whether Nintendo is maximizing its revenue or fully leveraging the power of its IP. Enough companies are already clawing for scraps of content; the world is awash in spinoffs, reboots, and money-making multiverses. And then there’s Nintendo, which is sitting on a treasure trove and still stubbornly limiting itself to a title or two a year. Frankly, it’s refreshing. The point of making games, Miyamoto once said, is “not to make something sell, something very popular, but to love something.” And to make something that others will love.

In the final few minutes of Playing With Power, Jon Pederson, former senior director of technical services at Nintendo of America, says, “You never hear of Nintendo doing something to improve quarterly earnings. It’s a longer game than that. It’s an eternal game for them, to stay in the gaming industry.” Nintendo trails some of the longest-lived Japanese companies by several centuries of continuous operation. But as Playing With Power imperfectly proves, gamers should be rooting for the flawed but beloved company to extend its streak.