After Video Game: The Movie and Unlocked — two doc projects centered on the culture of gaming — Jeremy Snead was set to turn his attentions to other topics. But then came the chance to go deeper into that most foundational, enduring, and sometimes mysterious video game company: Nintendo. The result is Playing With Power: The Nintendo Story, a five-part exploration of the company’s mythos told through the experiences of insiders, experts, and competitors that is now streaming on Crackle.
Does it tell the whole story? As he told us when we spoke with him and his producing partner (and the docuseries’ narrator) Sean Astin, that may not be fully possible. But throughout, you do get a sense of that which keeps this company afloat (going all the way back from its creation as a playing card manufacturer in late 1800s Japan thanks, in part, to the use of miniatures that play a role throughout) — a seemingly mismatched blend of stubbornness and a willingness to bet big on not just innovation, but the idea of play and, especially, connection and immersion.
Here’s our talk with Snead and Astin on that and standing out in a crowded field of video game documentaries, edited and condensed for clarity and length.
What has your personal relationship to Nintendo been over the years?
Jeremy Snead: It’s funny because one of the first conversations Sean and I had was how he was pre-Nintendo. He was an Intellivision guy and I was a Nintendo guy and Sean probably has way more memories of Intellivision stuff than I do of NES.
Sean Astin: I was a very blessed kid. My parents had means and I had means. So I played everything. But when you asked that question, the image that popped into my head was sitting in the bed in my wife and I’s first home. I got married very young. I was 21 when we got married. And I had never really liked Mario. I just didn’t get the Mario thing, but we went into the wormhole and there were many, many, many days that I don’t think we came out of the bedroom for several reasons. Not the least of which was Mario’s journey. [Laughs]
How long did it take to develop this project?
Astin: This project is the culmination of at least a decade of Jeremy’s blood, sweat, and tears. He has dedicated his life, his business, his creative expression to the world of video games and has collected and conducted interviews with thousands of people in the video game space. And when it came time, as he did his movie, his documentary, and then the Unlocked series, the question inevitably inexorably became, where do you go now? What, one thing [would you focus on] if you could really zero and telescope in and really explore something specific? Jeremy was like, it has to be Nintendo because of its history and its importance in the video game world. And its continuing relevance. He just liked the story. I didn’t know anything about the story.
The market has seen a lot of documentaries in this space. Obviously, you guys have been a part of some of them, but how do you look to make this stand out when you start the process?
Snead: Especially in this documentary renaissance that we’re in, people are super drawn to kind of exposé type stuff. And that’s not a bad thing. It’s just that I think with journalism and stories that we’ve seen the past few years, people have kind of been trained to be drawn to that type of stuff. And again, not that it’s a bad thing
Astin: In terms of the storytelling, it was really a question of, how much do you do it as a love letter to the company and how much do you look at it as a kind of a critical analysis of what the company has done over time? And I feel like this is Jeremy. It’s critical in some ways, but not like in a mean-spirited way. And it’s a love letter in the sense that this company is really, I mean, I’m sure if you’re Universal, you don’t love them as much, but you know, for the audience, for the people who are at any of these game design schools that Jeremy’s shown me or whatever… people who watched this documentary series… [We want] it to speak to them. It’s a purist communication, I think.
Was it harder to cast this or bring people in to talk about this than it was in past works that you’ve done, and do you think that’s partly because of the culture where people are kind of looking to kind of blow things up a little bit more?
Snead: Oh yeah. No question, this was the most difficult subject matter to get interviewees for. We should definitely make a distinction here between NOA and NCL. So Nintendo of America, Nintendo Company Limited, which is, you know, Nintendo Japan… anyone who’s kind of worked in video game journalism knows Nintendo NCL just doesn’t really do interviews. They don’t really grant the Miyamoto’s of the world… I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing Reggie Fils-Aimé a handful of times, and he’s great, but he’s on the Nintendo of America side. And so it’s like anyone and everyone wants to go into the hallowed halls of R & D 1 and R &D 2 or R & D 3, where Mario is made, where Zelda is made… to see how the sausage is made.
But you know, smartly, that’s their secret sauce and they know it. And as definitive as I want for this series to be, I don’t know if anyone will ever really get into the Willy Wonka factory there and really see if we requested it. We requested Nintendo of Japan and they weren’t able to participate at that level, but it really worked out even better because the veterans of the company, Nintendo of America, they have this perspective on both NOA and NCL. In hindsight, if they had been at the company now as an active employee, it’s like, I’m not going to say they would be muzzled, but they’re definitely going to sort of pull their punches a little bit on what they’re talking about. And so I think getting the veterans of the company to talk about it, in retrospect, both Nintendo of America’s point of view and Nintendo Japan, we get a very pure voice from the people that, you know, want their contributions and their legacy to be remembered, but also to tell a true story.
Lastly, what’s your favorite Nintendo game?
Snead: I have to tie my favorite Nintendo game to my favorite Nintendo memory, which would be… you know, it’s kind of a cliche, but I mean, it was Christmas ’86. I got the original lunchbox grey box NES. Like so many kids around America, me and my siblings played it into the wee hours of the morning and had to kind of share it for, for a couple of weeks. And then my brother lost interest and I had it to myself. So, I’m an NES kid through and through, and that original Mario is the white hot center of my Nintendo nostalgia.
Astin: Oh, for me, it’s Donkey Kong full stop, but I have to give an honorable mention for the thousands of hours that my daughters and I, and my wife and I have played Mario Kart on the Wii. If I added all of the video games that I’ve ever played, including the countless hours of Call Of Duty and everything else, it’d be about half of the amount of time that we spent playing Mario Kart.
Doesn’t that speak to the enduring appeal of the thing? I mean, you guys touch on it a little bit in the last episode of the series, but that family connection and the ability to kind of sit and play with someone else and share that. Especially generationally. It really does speak to the appeal of Nintendo because they obviously court that experience above all others. Is that a fair assessment?
Astin: I think it’s a communal meditation, that game in particular. I mean, we play lots of games together… you know, sometimes when you play board games with a family, there’s a competitive element to it, or it’s shaped around an evening with dinner or Pictionary or something like that. But there’s something about these games that, yeah, it’s just meditative. I can just picture all the discussions we’ve had over Bowser. It’s hilarious. If you walk in and listen to any one of us, my wife included, or the three girls describe which of the bikes have the greatest aerodynamics, you would think that we have like a Ph.D. in it. There’s no question that they’ve created technology and the creativity that they’ve come up with is a solve for this terrible world that we sometimes inhabit.
Snead: I agree with that. I mean, it’s the, the couch co-op or whatever you want to call it… That’s the most successful of Nintendo’s products and they, somehow have found a way to do it better than anyone else. I mean, you look at Sony Move and the Xbox Kinect. I mean, they’re great, but they kind of came and went and how many people still have their Wii connected in their living room? Cause it’s just easy and it works. That’s what makes Nintendo special. And I think, you know, Phil Spencer in the series, was probably one of my favorite interviews that we got, because here you have one of Nintendo’s direct competitors saying, no, this company is special. And here’s why. I think that’s a big part of it is like knowing the community… That communal aspect is always going to be at the heart of gaming and what brings people together, and what makes it special.
You can stream all 5 episodes of ‘Playing With Power: The Nintendo Story’ on Crackle now.