Playing with Power: The Nintendo Story, a documentary series from Jeremy Snead and Sean Astin about telling the full story of Nintendo from 1889 to present, arrives on Crackle tomorrow, March 1. It comes in five parts that add up to roughly five hours of content, making it perfect to space out across weeknight evenings or to gorge in a couple sittings as I did. It uses interviews with a variety of game designers and executives, game historians, former Nintendo of America staff, and media personalities in an effort to captures all the highs and lows of Nintendo’s history, and overall Playing with Power does an acceptable job. Despite its five-hour length, it won’t teach the hardcore fans a ton they don’t already know, and there are a few surprising oversights — but Playing with Power is still good fun and worth watching at the low price of “free.”
The early years of Nintendo are fun and fascinating
The first two episodes, each 70 minutes long, are often the most interesting and informative, providing the most behind-the-scenes insights. The documentary spends a long time in episode 1 establishing the origins of Nintendo as a playing card company and then as a manufacturer of entertainment products in Japan, and whenever archival footage is unavailable, charming dioramas are used to set the scene. It then segues into describing Nintendo’s earliest arcade and home gaming efforts, including distributing Magnavox Odyssey in Japan.
To give you an idea of how slowly (in a good way) the first episode moves, Nintendo of America isn’t established until roughly 40 minutes in. The first episode ends with the video game crash of the ‘80s, and the second episode ends with the rise of Sega Genesis. It would have been nice if the documentary could spend more time talking about the soft launch of the NES in New York City, but Gail Tilden has already done that herself in the past. Playing with Power: The Nintendo Story does spend a good amount of time discussing Donkey Kong though, including how it was created as a way to repurpose unsold Radar Scope arcade units and how Universal unsuccessfully tried to sue Nintendo over its likeness to King Kong.
With rare exception, Playing with Power does not discuss individual games very often, likely so as not to balloon its length. Super Mario 64 receives a spotlight with a slight few others. Otherwise, games are typically discussed in broad swaths according to their generation, which works alright at first, but come episode 3, cracks start to form in the documentary.
Playing with super power
Between episode 2 and 3, Playing with Power does a great job of setting up the “console wars” between Nintendo and Sega, offering a lot of appreciated insights from the likes of former Sega of America CEO Tom Kalinski. It also touches upon a lot of the things Nintendo was doing wrong at the corporate level that allowed Sega to swoop in. However, after setting up the table stakes of the console wars, the documentary kind of just moves on to the arrival of Sony and never examines the fallout of what really happened between Nintendo and Sega in the 16-bit era. The discussion of SNES in general feels a bit halfhearted, taking time to talk about Donkey Kong Country and Star Fox but never even mentioning SNES’s foundational Mode 7 capabilities.
Meanwhile, Virtual Boy is skipped over completely. It’s afforded more or less a single sentence to note that, yes, it existed, and, yes, it failed immediately. The fact that it’s treated as a comical oddity to be ignored rather than a major conversation point is disappointing.
However, this is part of a larger trend in Playing with Power: The Nintendo Story, where the documentary makes a conscious decision not to talk about the stories behind hardware in most cases. Playing with Power talks about the origins of Game & Watch and the Wii Remote, but that’s about it. Part of this decision may stem from the fact that the documentary does not interview any Japanese Nintendo employees, past or present (which is frankly not surprising).
Rivals to Nintendo also receive varying, sometimes confusing amounts of screen time. PlayStation understandably and deservingly receives a lot of discussion, and the original Xbox receives worthwhile discussion. TurboGrafx-16 is mentioned for the briefest of moments (also understandable, even if it was the thing that spurred Nintendo to announce SNES), and Sega Saturn is only briefly mentioned while Dreamcast is skipped entirely. Sony PSP and Vita are also skipped, which in the case of the former is disappointing since it was quite noteworthy how Nintendo DS defeated it decisively. Meanwhile, 3DO receives a surprising few minutes of coverage, perhaps because its company founder, Trip Hawkins, is a prominent (and valuable) interviewee.
In any case, from the Nintendo 64 era on, the interesting inside-baseball anecdotes start to disappear, and the documentary starts to become a retelling of events that the public mostly already knows about: Pokémon is really popular. GameCube landed in a decisive third place in its generation. Wii was an utter phenomenon (though Playing with Power does do a good job of capturing this particular part in a heartwarming manner). It’s all still entertaining for its own sake, but I wish the documentary could have dug up some more new insights.
Oversights and mistakes
It seems to me that Playing with Power: The Nintendo Story is a pretty reliable and well-conceived framing of events, and by no means do I question its overall integrity. However, I did notice a few little nitpicky mistakes and a couple substantial oversights worth mentioning.
For mistakes, episode 3 has a CNN clip for “Pokémania” and Pokémon cards in the United States that is inevitably misdated, since it is labeled as being from 1995, prior to the launch of the series. More seriously, Pokémon creator Satoshi Tajiri is cited, but a photo of Pokémon Company CEO Tsunekazu Ishihara appears on screen instead — a rather embarrassing mistake. Additionally, the ending credits of episode 4 include an anecdote about Kirby cover art that is completely inaccurate and could have been fact-checked and omitted pretty easily by the producers.
The oversights in the documentary are more bizarre. Firstly, Playing with Power presents Nintendo 3DS as an abject failure that was defeated by the iPhone, which is a preposterous mischaracterization considering 3DS ultimately sold nearly 76 million units. Secondly, the documentary skips the life and death of former Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata completely, which is a critical oversight considering how beloved he was by the public and how important he was to Nintendo in general. The documentary doesn’t dedicate an enormous amount of time to Shigeru Miyamoto for that matter either, but the fact that Iwata receives no spotlight at all is outright insulting to the man.
Playing with Power: The Nintendo Story tells most of the story
Playing with Power: The Nintendo Story really drops the ball with Virtual Boy, Nintendo 3DS, and Satoru Iwata, among other things, and it would have been nice if it delved more into the stories behind the hardware development (or anything pertaining to Nintendo in Japan). Still, there is a good amount that the documentary does right, with some great insights from an appreciable range of people, and Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell in particular delivers some excellent, sometimes cutting commentary.
Ultimately, casual fans will learn a lot from Playing with Power: The Nintendo Story if they are willing to stick around for its full runtime, but hardcore fans are only likely to learn new tidbits here and there. Still, it’s an overall entertaining watch, and the first two episodes at the very least are worth your time. After that, its value stems more from being a trip down nostalgia lane.