Full disclosure: I adore Nintendo. A proud owner of a Nintendo Entertainment System in the early 1990’s, we never managed to upgrade to a SNES. My brother and I played the NES through the decade, obsessing over classic titles including Mega Man 2, Super Mario 3 and California Games.
Nintendo Quest, a Kickstarter-funded documentary, holds the same obsession. Director Rob McCallum and pal Jay Bartlett have set themselves a challenge: to find all 678 original NES video games. Such a tale sits awkwardly between being a playful journey meeting intriguing people and a deeper, engaging story about collectors and American culture. Nintendo Quest sadly fails on both counts and instead only teases insightful topics while bullishly refusing to explore further.
Nonchalantly, Jay was “dared” to entertain us by his best friend, and director, Rob. Immediately, this snarky tone leaves a bad taste – what makes Jay so important that we need to witness his provocations? This documentary gives him the impetus (“He has thirty days!”), exposure and attention he clearly craves to commit a personal collecting goal. With a curl in his lip, McCallum introduces segments that become tiring and would be better suited as narration rather than independent sequences. A brief “Nintendo History 101 – the two-minute version” flies past what could be an entire documentary in itself. Those of us not interested in Jay’s unknown bandmate’s opinion (or the outlook of “Joe” who’s “Known Jay for 20 Years”) would have been much more engaged with Ninty factoids. Alas, this is skimmed over as McCallum takes almost two minutes to introduce an app that, for all intents and purposes, is a checklist.
It is nevertheless playful, with tongue firmly in cheek throughout. Ignoring the faux-sincerity of the Quest, the guys are clearly passionate about nerd culture. Nostalgic coin sound-effects and electronic tracks connect the film together seamlessly, with a quirky health bar, as Jay “fills up” his Nintendo sack and loses his life force (money) in the process.
Personally, my own NES playing is merely revisiting favourite levels on the Wii U (hundreds of NES games are available via download), but Nintendo Quest is all about the hard-core vintage gamers. This is a fascinating element to witness as we go behind the stores, customers and lifestyle of these (white, late 20’s/30’s) men. It begs the intriguing question as to how such an interest is funded. What do their families think and how do they support them? How do such stores survive month to month? McCallum tells us how “millions” of people play NES games today, but no one ever thinks to deeply explore the roots behind this surge of interest (is it a disillusionment with modern games? Or a desperate need to relive their youth?).
Nintendo Quest desperately tells you how crucial and “life-changing” this journey is, but a tour around the US and Canada seems too limited to appreciate the scale of interest. Mysterious phone calls and chance encounters add brief drama to the pace, but as it’s built on such loose foundations, it’s difficult to care. In one interview, Jay reveals how his Father passed. It’s clearly difficult to discuss but it’s woefully out of place. It also reveals a resentful and angry side to Jay that only underlines our waning interest in the subject matter.
The funny graphics, colourful credits and quotes from games like Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest (“Published” in 1988) is successful in its Scott Pilgrim vs The World tone. But as Jay tells us how his Quest is all about “if you want it, you’ll get it”, there is a distorted sense of purpose to his entire decision to find widely-sold, mass-produced products. He even compares himself to Dave Grohl and explains how Grohl’s parental support is an inspiration. In contrast, his parents didn’t support his addiction to gaming. The years of practice of an instrument, I’d argue, isn’t entirely the same as completing Metroid twenty times or buying game cartridges. But still, we’re expected to cheer after Jay makes “the most expensive purchase of his life”. Nintendo Quest depicts a warped American Dream that, like the capitalist mantra, doesn’t fulfil and fails to show the darker demons that lurk behind such self-obsessed Western attitudes.