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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 formany others在一个以室内活动为中心的行业里。本月底将标志着任天堂游戏的完成most profitablefiscal year ever. Switch salessoareddespite the system’s portable capabilities being less in demand;Animal Crossing: New Horizons, released last March, made the perfectpandemic companion并成为其中之一bestselling titlesof 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’s35th birthday9月发布了Super Mario 64,Super Mario Sunshine, and超级马里奥星系in a Switch collection calledSuper Mario 3D All-Stars

As always, though, events told a tale of two companies. TheMariopackage prompted plenty of不满。Why was itso昂贵的? Why were the games merely remastered instead ofremade?Wherewas超级马里奥星系2? And why in theWorld 1-1did Nintendo decide to pull the package from its eShop after roughly six months on sale? (Answer: to createartificialscarcity。) Rereleases and Wii U ports couldn’t completely disguise a dearth of new games:New Horizons是自2019年以来唯一一款完全原创、任天堂开发的游戏,上个月备受期待的任天堂Direct也是近20年来同类游戏中的第一款18 months—didn’t teaseanysuch titles to come in 2021. The launches of Sony and Microsoft’s new systems last fall widened the graphical gap betweencutting-edgeconsoles and the relatively low-powered, four-year-old Switch. And a game-maker thatdefines its missionas “putting smiles on the faces of everyone Nintendo touches” mademany粉丝frownby issuing cease and desists with even greater fervor than the notoriously secretive, protective companyhasinthepast


A new docuseries aims to offer an exegesis and explain Nintendo’s enduring ingenuity. The five-partPlaying With Power: The Nintendo Storypremiered 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提供足够的素材,让任天堂新手感受到公司的文化影响,同时也为那些在任天堂系统上成长的玩家提供了充分的回忆机会。然而,尽管篇幅很长,这是一个选择性的研究,只是表面上探索了任天堂的一些创造性和关系的复杂性。

Playing With Powerwas written and directed by Jeremy Snead, whose previous directorial credits consist ofVideo Games: The Movie(2014) and 2016 docuseriesUnlocked: The World of Games, Revealed。(After working onPlaying With Powerfor 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 playSuper Mario Bros. 3orSuper Mario World从头到尾。

The resulting seriesdebuts at a busy time for scripted content concerning video games; not only have gameadaptations随着好莱坞对知识产权的不断追求,关于视频游戏(和视频游戏历史)的纪录片也在迅速崛起F-Zero-esque pace.高分andConsole Warscame out (on Netflix and CBS All Access, respectively) last year, andPlaying With Power至少是第三个视频游戏相关的文档在2021年首映,之后Gamebreakerson Amazon Prime Video andRESET在电视上(安NBA Jamdocumentarywas also announced in January.) Some of the talking heads inPlaying With Powerhave 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 Powertakes some steps to set itself apart both aesthetically and in terms of material from高分andConsole 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国会听证会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也能够在pre-8-bit和逗留更长时间吗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 Powerextends 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 differentiatesPlaying With Power从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 ofThe Lord of the Rings。这不是真正铆钉的东西,但它比再次回到倒车再次骑行。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.

斯内德倾向于频繁削减,他说,这是为了帮助年轻观众参与。一个旧游戏、剪报或新闻报道的片段,如果四个或五个合适的话,似乎永远都不够。有时它是过度的:一个神志不清的孩子在圣诞节早上打开礼物看起来很像另一个,不管有多颗粒状的视频或古老的控制台。再一次,看到一个孩子因为收到一个开关而兴奋,就像他们的父母为打开一个NES而兴奋一样,这提醒我们任天堂有它自己的游戏机hookshotin 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 asConsole Warstold the story of Sega, a Japanese company, almost exclusively through the lens of Sega of America,Playing With Powertells 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. AlthoughDonkey Kong,Super Mario Bros., andThe Legend of Zeldamastermind 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 inConsole Wars,游戏杰作主要是推进公司拥有北美市场的计划的手段,而不是分析和阐明的艺术品。

The familiarity of the faces from高分andConsole 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 viewPlaying With Power当任天堂错过与宫本茂的对决时,Genyo Takeda,Masayuki Uemura,冈田佐郎, or any of Nintendo’s other livinglegends—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 howR&D1, or2or3作品。这就是这片小小的梦幻之地背后发生的一切。他们就是这样想出新技术和新程序的。“但我只是没看到他们这么做。”也许任天堂有朝一日会在它有趣的工厂威利旺卡式的内部欢迎公众。现在,阅读游戏结束or询问岩田will have to do.

即使纪录片呈现不完整的图片,除了最热烈的任天堂奉献者也会发现一些新的或记住遗忘的东西Playing With Powerfollows Nintendo’s winding path from underdog to dominant (anddomineering) to underdog again: anobscuredevice从未进入美国市场;宫本刚明和Gunpei Yokoiarose from obscurity to alter the trajectory of the company; the pivotal parts played by early devices such as theUltra Hand(not to be confused with掌握手); 克隆的Pong,Breakout, andSpace Invaders任天堂在发展出自己有远见的声音之前就已经开始了(甚至宫本borrowedKing 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 Powerruminates 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 someconjecture在投资者和行业分析师中。斯内德说,任天堂的决策者“并不真正关注他们的竞争对手”他们并不真正关注市场的需求。他们关注的是什么有趣,什么新鲜,什么有趣…他们会说,‘我们该怎么办一些新的东西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 thepriceof taking大波动, 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.

任天堂持久了大量竞争对手,并在市场条件下风化了无数的变化。但它可以继续与更深的备用公司和更强大的机器竞争cloud gamingand smartphones threaten to swallow the mobile market (which Nintendo hastargetedwith the Switch instead of a 3DS successor) and non-Nintendo-ish “游戏s 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 ofPlaying With Power?

Last July, venture capitalist, essayist, and strategistMatthew Ballwrote an almost-9,000-wordtreatise任天堂的投资组合给了它迪士尼式的增长潜力,但它的企业文化无论好坏都阻碍了它利用机会扩张。鲍尔指出,任天堂和迪斯尼在“多代人的成功、四象限的吸引力和创造性成就”方面是相似的made Disney merch—and even though Miyamoto, who grew up watching Disney cartoons, hashe wants Mario to rival Mickey Mouse—Nintendo isn’t Disney in waiting. Nintendo does itsown thing

If Disney makes one successfulStar Warsseries, it quickly commissions10 more。Yet although Nintendo did break from tradition in 2019 by (gasp) remaking one塞尔达游戏and宣布a direct sequel to another, the developer largely resists churning out sequels and remakes or outsourcing its IP (with a fewdisastrous例外情况)。“如果有人拥有任天堂的IP,我们可能会看到一个新的The Legend of Zeldaconsole title every two to three years, with a constant barrage of single-player spinoffs starring the Gerudo, Gorons, and the Goombas ofSuper 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 couldcreate a perpetual platform而不是一系列短期的系统,或者转变为一个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 itsbeloved charactersto 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.

近年来,任天堂有expressed interestin 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 ontheme parkcreation, and it’s given the green light to an upcoming Mariomovie. 四年多前,它尝试性地迈出了第一步,将自己的核心人物带进了移动领域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-centuryforays进入出租车,真空吸尘器,即时米包和爱情酒店。)

什么时候?Animal Crossingsold well, Nintendo didn’t try to make it an even more remunerative mobile game;it walked back its mobile ambitionsin favor of focusing on its own console, ceding its claim to anAnimal Crossingclone. “The startup ecosystem and Triple-A ecosystem is now rushing to do toAnimal Crossingwhat根申冲击did toLegend of Zelda,” Ball says via Twitter direct message. “The company that pulls it off will become a new giant.” Nintendo actively tries tosuppress球员在移动平台上的支出,以免斜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五年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.”

任天堂的政策有时候是以腿上自己的游戏机的图书馆(例如,discouraging third-party support). 但与投资者不同的是,游戏玩家不必担心任天堂是在最大限度地增加收入,还是在充分利用其IP的力量。已经有足够多的公司在攫取零碎的内容;世界上充斥着衍生、重新启动和赚钱的多元文化。还有任天堂(Nintendo),它坐拥宝藏,仍然固执地将自己的头衔限制在每年一两个。坦白说,这让人耳目一新。做游戏的意义,宫本一次, 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 ofPlaying With Power前任天堂美国公司技术服务部高级主管乔恩•佩德森(jonpederson)表示:“你从来没有听说过任天堂会采取措施来提高季度收益。这是一场更长的比赛。对于他们来说,留在游戏行业是一个永恒的游戏longest-lived Japanese companies经过几个世纪的连续运作。但作为Playing With Powerimperfectly proves, gamers should be rooting for the flawed but beloved company to extend its streak.

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