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Why ‘The Wizard’ Captivated a Generation of Nintendo Fans

The movie was derided by critics as little more than a video game commercial masquerading as a ‘Tommy’ knockoff. But to ’80s babies, it tapped into something deeper.

Jaya Nicely

This weekend marks the 35th anniversary since our favorite overall-wearing, mustachioed plumber ingested his first mushroom in Super Mario Bros. To mark the occasion, Nintendo is releasing new games and holding events in the coming weeks. The Ringer is also celebrating, looking back at the legacy of the most iconic video game character of all time, both in games and his forays into film and television. So jump down the pipe and warp to the Mushroom Kingdom.

In the glorious and strange universe of the 1989 film The Wizard, to be a drifter kid in the remote reaches of Nevada on the cusp of the 1990s was to have some of the world’s finest contemporary video game equipment constantly within reach. Every dusty, hostile bus-depot-slash-saloon on the long, hot road between Utah and Lake Tahoe? Outfitted with a state-of-the-art Nintendo PlayChoice-10 arcade machine, the better for a bunch of young runaways to toggle between Double Dragon and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles while hustling the locals.

Those classifieds lying around some random rural diner? They just so happen to contain ads for an upcoming live, lucrative gamer showdown within macro-hitchhiking distance called Video Armageddon. And that one faintly-mustachioed young townie lord, who is worshiped by his pack of loitering goons? Oh, that’s just Lucas, the proprietor of not only 97 extremely organized Nintendo cartridges, but also one satisfyingly bespoke carrying case containing the semi-mythical, proto-VR Nintendo accessory known as the Power Glove.

“I love the Power Glove,” says the character, with sneering final boss menace, literally flexing on a quiet young video game savant named Jimmy as an unforgiving desert vista sprawls beyond them. “It’s so bad.” And I love that line; I remember it in the same visceral, full-body way I remember the jingles for My Buddy and Juicy Fruit gum.

Which is all to say that it feels incomplete, more than 20 years later, to consider The Wizard by its regular old movie theater receipts. (It was made for $2 million, grossed just over $14 million, and was never higher than fifth on the weekly box office charts.) To really account for the film’s cultural relevance when it came out and in the years since, you’d want receipts from, say, Toys-R-Us too, or to quantify things like: How many kids saw the movie, endlessly pestered their parents for a Power Glove afterward, and then abandoned the underwhelming equipment in disappointment? How many heard that clinkety earworm, the Super Mario Bros. 3 theme song, for the very first time when the game was unveiled to the American public via The Wizard (as part of the championship round at the aforementioned Video Armageddon, of course)? How many babies of the early ’80s bonded, years and years later, because one of them chose the movie’s perfectly pixelated poster to enhance their dorm room aesthetic?

“When people say it was a 90-minute Nintendo ad, they’re not wrong,” says Luke Edwards, who as a 9-year-old kid was cast as the mourning and mostly wordless wanderer Jimmy, in a phone conversation. “It kinda is!” A 90-minute Nintendo ad with a pretty stacked roster of endorsers, to boot. Playing Jimmy’s older half-brothers were the worried Fred Savage, who at the time was near the height of his The Wonder Years fame, and the smirking Christian Slater, who was on the upswing following his breakout role in Heathers. (In the movie, Slater’s character loves his NES so much that he brings it on the road so he can hook it up to motel room TVs.) Jenny Lewis, who had recently made her debut in Troop Beverly Hills, was the street-smart, roulette-fluent, trucker’s daughter named Haley. Her performance—coupled with the ambient presence of other-people’s-Nintendos throughout the movie—made The Wizard particularly relevant to a great many of my girlhood interests.

The movie was loosely inspired by 1975’s Tommy, the satirical rock opera film based on an album by the Who that depicted a troubled but ascendent pinball champion, and was also so reminiscent of 1988’s Rain Man that The New York Times’ Janet Maslin dismissed it as “a blatant kiddie knockoff” of the film. That was one of the more gentle assessments in her review and others. Maslin also called it “shameless” and “a giant promotion for Nintendo.” Roger Ebert agreed, writing that once he got over his many concerns around the plot—“Wait a minute,” he asked. “Do businessmen on their lunch hours really gamble on video games with little kids?”—he became preoccupied by “the ethics of the film, which is, among other things, a thinly disguised commercial for Nintendo video games and the Universal studio tour.” (In addition to a lot of Mario, The Wizard’s climactic scenes also involve a chase through the theme park’s late King Kong ride that, if you squint, all feels a little bit like Jurassic Park.)

But to the kids like myself (and to many of the older kids-at-heart) all of this was a feature, not a bug. Those scenes in which the children call the Nintendo Power Line for gaming advice, and the camera scans the binder-filled cubicles of those godlike expert voices on the other end of the phone? To me, that was basically 1989’s version of Almost Famous taking viewers inside Ben Fong-Torres’s chaotic Rolling Stone. (During The Wizard’s premiere weekend, theaters distributed “Pocket Power,” a special issue of Nintendo Power magazine.) Children of the late ’80s and early ’90s had already grown accustomed, for better or worse, to entertainment products that existed largely to sell toys and move merch. And the movie’s strategic inclusion of the as-yet-unreleased Super Mario Bros. 3—which had been released in Japan a year earlier but hadn’t yet hit U.S. shelves, thanks in part to a bottleneck in the memory chip supply chain—was an additional lure for gaming enthusiasts of all ages. The Wizard’s meta-entanglement with a great moment in actual video game history ultimately gave it staying power and even, for many, an almost emotional appeal.

“People have such a personal relationship with it,” says Edwards (whose own performance continues to endure thanks to newfangled technology, by which I mean the “Califoooornia” GIF.) Over the years he has seen and heard it all: He’s been recognized from car windows, and he’s marveled at the specificity and enthusiasm (at times bordering on anger) of the viewers who have bones to pick with the video game scenes. Rarely are they upset about the Nintendo product placement. Quite the contrary: They are so engrossed in its every detail that they seem to enjoy quibbling over and cataloging every minor gameplay flaw.

“Today, no one even blinks at Transformers being a wall-to-wall GM commercial,” The Wizard director Todd Holland told Arcade Attack in 2019. “We expect on-screen characters to be drinking Coca-Cola and using Apple computers. We expect Jack Bauer to dial on his Nokia brand phone. That’s just the way everything is done now. But that kind of product placement was news then.” What was news then is nostalgia now. Everyone who watched The Wizard or played NES or both—a healthy Venn diagram overlap, to be sure—still has their associated memories.

That includes Edwards, who says with a chuckle that the movie’s producers promised to send him a hot-off-the-presses copy of Super Mario Bros. 3, but never did. (That’s showbiz!) Edwards also, like a generation of let-down gamers, recalls that the movie’s most infamous product—that Power Glove—actually was so bad. “It looked cool, but, you know, it didn’t really work,” he says, laughing at the memory. “The first time you use it, you’re like … oh. That’s disappointing. You know? I mean, the ads made it look so sweet. As did the movie.”

In truth, though, much of what stands out for me about The Wizard is tangential to the Nintendo. As someone who grew up in the green-grass suburbs of New Jersey, I still remember being struck by the film’s brown, barren Western landscapes. (I now live in a town where several scenes were filmed, and to this day whenever I drive to the nearby city of Reno I hear Jenny Lewis’s voice bragging that it’s the Biggest Little City in the World.) The Wizard was of a piece with other popular films of the time, from Goonies to Adventures in Babysitting to Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, in that they all depicted some epic manner of kids’ quests, adults be damned. All of them had a lot in common with video games that way, come to think of it: the assertions of independence; the winding, zany journeys; the ability to tune in while blessedly tuning out the grown-ups, even if just for a little while.

“How are we supposed to blind ourselves to the central fact of this movie,” wrote Ebert, “which is that a 13-year-old boy and his 9-year-old brother, accompanied part of the way by a 13-year-old girl, manage to walk, hitchhike and con themselves all the way from Utah to the National Video Game Championships in L.A.?” Uh, yeah, answers some sassy grade-school vintage of myself, rolling my eyes and channeling Haley. That’s kind of the whole point.