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Playing With Power: The Nintendo Story Review

Ready to level up in your knowledge of all things Nintendo? The five-part docu-series Playing With Power: The Nintendo Story is here to unlock over 130 years of behind-the-scenes secrets to reveal how a humble family business became the defining voice of the video game industry. But, hey, listen: it’s not all fun and games.Written and directed by Jeremy Snead, Playing With Power: The Nintendo Story ushers audiences back to 1890 Japan, where an innovative playing card company would lay the groundwork for the Nintendo dynasty. Beloved for Lord of the Rings, Stranger Things, and Goonies, Sean Astin narrates, his friendly and familiar voice guiding audiences through the century of Nintendo history ahead of the Console Wars of the 1990s, and beyond. Interviews with an array of experts are presented. Historians recount Nintendo’s earliest days and latest innovations. Big wigs in gaming–like Atari Co-founder Nolan Bushnell, co-founder of Nintendo of America Ron Judy, and former CEO Sega Of America Tom Kalinske recount the heady days when gaming moved from the arcade to living rooms. Famous gamers like Wil Wheaton, Alison Haislip, and Nati “Zombi Unicorn” Casanova provide personal anecdotes and color commentary. Each of these interviewees exhibits a clear passion for Nintendo or gaming. Sadly, this excitement isn’t catching because Snead’s approach refuses to probe.As was the case with the documentary feature Console Wars, the voices favored in Nintendo’s story all come from the American branch. The founders who paved the way for Mario Bros. to dominate American gaming are paid respect in lip service from historians and colleagues. Yet these Japanese innovators aren’t interviewed. Instead, their personal and professional lives are presented as bland dioramas with plastic figures standing in for actual people. Sure, some of these Nintendo titans aren’t around to be interviewed. Still, for all the praise Super Mario/ The Legend of Zelda creator Shigeru Miyamoto is offered in this series, you’d think they’d talk to the 68-year-old living legend himself. Without such interviews, a jarring distance develops in the first episode that persists throughout the series, keeping some of Nintendo’s key players shunted to the sidelines of its narrative.More frustrating, Snead opts to give a glossy veneer to Nintendo, even in its shadier moments. It’s undeniable that Nintendo created a monopoly in American gaming that made it incredibly difficult for any other console to compete. However, the most shocking stories and treacherous tactics laid out in the 93-minute Console Wars aren’t addressed at all in 297 minutes of Playing With Power: The Nintendo Story. Rather than trying to draw tension from how Nintendo went from underdog to alpha dog, Snead races through these sections, as if complexity is the enemy.

Perhaps this is why he doesn’t press his interview subjects for follow-ups on curious admissions. For instance, one American exec recalls hating the name “Donkey Kong,” and requesting a different title for the stateside launch. Just as swiftly as he admits he underestimated the power of this peculiar–and now iconic–brand, he says his bid for a name change was rejected. Why did he hate the name? What did he suggest instead? Why was his proposal rejected? Snead doesn’t ask, so any path to tension or even the possibility to imagine a world without the Donkey Kong we know is just lost. Gold coins spilled to the brick floor.

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Instead of a deep dive into the darker realms of Nintendo’s story, Snead is happy to stay on the surface and even warp-whistle through awkward bits about lawsuits and missteps. Thus, he offers a glossing-over that isn’t all that thrilling. Maybe to make up for the professional tensions skirted, Snead stuffs his series with a relentlessly booming score. It’s so loud and persistent that at times I struggled to focus on what was being said by interviewees. The music refused to be background. It’s as if Snead were trying to make up for a lack of any dramatic tension with an orchestral score that screams at you to feel something. Not every scene is approaching Bowser. When music isn’t actually building to a climax, all these crescendos move from diminishing returns of tension to outright irritating. You wait for catharsis, and instead, it’s just another sloppy segment with more yowling orchestrations.

This series is inexplicably paced. The layout is simply linear. Snead locks into a chronological order that robs tension because we know this humble gaming stand in Kyoto will lead to towering success. Beyond that, he structures his chapters like movie trailers, relentlessly employing montages. Here is a montage, slapping together some cultural context of popular TV shows, Oscar mishaps, or music that rocked the radio waves. Here is another, stringing together a bunch of game footage. How about another montage of giddy kids tearing gift wrap away from NES on Christmas day? Is this bone-dry section about cartridge costs per unit boring? (Yes.) How about a sprinkling of sound bites that tease what’s coming up next, moments before an expert just tells us what happened next? Now, another montage of newspaper headlines!

All this makes it impossible to get into the flow of the show because there is no flow. Every section feels like a pop-up ad, blaring, disjointed, and trying to sell us something. This is weird because if you’re watching this show, you’re already sold! Likely you’ve owned a Nintendo system or three. You’ve got a favorite character. You know their best battle move. On some level, you’re Team Nintendo, so why does this whole show feel like a fevered sales pitch?

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