I’ve tried to watch just about every gaming-related documentary out there. Truthfully, there’s not that many but each time something like Man Vs. Snake hits the market, I’m usually quick to nab a copy and delve into the subculture of gaming, which I continue to find fascinating. My own experience with this medium started at approximately three years of age and hasn’t slowed and I am forever fascinated by anything that allows me to view this world through a different lens. Gaming – despite still being a relatively new medium when compared to its closest cousin, film – has been around long enough to have developed an interesting and expansive history and that history is now effectively being archived by a legion of collectors, artists, and enthusiasts, something I mentioned in my previous blog.
Nintendo Quest is easily one of my favorite gaming documentaries, as I adore slice-of-life endeavors and I can also relate to the heady nostalgia of this particular era of gaming. For those of us who grew up in the NES era – an era largely defined by an entire medium that was essentially rebounding on the shoulders of one innovative company and their console – there are few things that resonate more than the look and feel of classic NES cartridges and Nintendo Quest is a fun, well-made distillation of that period while simultaneously offering an interesting peek into the lives of retro-game collectors.
The premise of the film is simple: director Rob McCallum challenges his close friend Jay Bartlett to collect every single game released on the NES in North America – 678 in total – in 30 days. The biggest stipulation to this challenge is that Jay cannot purchase these games from online retailers but instead must acquire them physically, in-person. This sets up an unapologetically geeky road trip spanning several states and encompassing visits to numerous small, retro-shops along with interviews and discussions with several like-minded individuals about the almost intangible magic of the NES and its many, many games.
Jay is also working within a fixed (though undisclosed) budget, meaning that he must manage his money carefully given that some of the harder to find NES games often suffer from astronomical grey market values. These negotiations are of particular interest, as Jay is continuously trying to balance his need to get a game versus his ever-dwindling resources.
Essentially a road trip documentary, the viewer is given a sense of Jay as an amiable and decent fellow who enjoys an extensive knowledge of the NES library. As he acquires cartridges, each game collected is tallied on screen so that the viewer has a running log of his progress. Jay is a savvy collector and seems to possess a firm grasp on fair market values of the games he is purchasing, always careful never to pay too much and sometimes walking out of stores that have inflated prices, poor selections, or staffed with people unwilling to haggle. He’s also privy to generous transactions with friends over the course of his journey, many of whom drop a handful cheap cartridges into his lap, some of which are relatively rare and valuable.
Along the way Jay also meets up with an eclectic and varied stream of interesting, like-minded collectors and enthusiasts, among them several gaming luminaries including Marc Ericksen, Walter Day and Todd Rogers. The film also gives the viewer a concise history of the NES, punctuated by testimonials from NES devotees who explain what this system and its library means to them. McCallum also injects some gravitas into the proceedings as the film proceeds, specifically delving into Jay’s turbulent past with his now-deceased father along with his attempt to acquire a rare and expensive title, which clearly carries some hefty emotional significance. These intermittent doses of pathos however never feel overwrought or artificial but rather do a solid job of mining the deeper compulsions and motivations that compel people to collect and subsequently examines the weight we give these cherished objects, which is something I can personally relate to as a collector myself.
The film is also interesting in that it gives viewers an education about the most valuable and rarest NES games being coveted by collectors, many of which are relatively obscure titles valued primarily for their scarcity rather than their excellence. Many of the most expensive games aren’t necessarily the oft-cited classics usually associated with the NES but instead are, ironically, the stuff that didn’t sell particularly well back in the day or suffered short production runs. There’s a certain alchemy to what makes something collectible; most products advertised as such never become even remotely valuable and what is interesting about this film is that many of the rare games being pursued have their own interesting backstories, some of which make it into the movie. Interestingly, the most valuable game in the documentary is one I have only a vague recollection of and certainly isn’t a title I immediately associate with the storied legacy of the NES.
I won’t reveal here if Jay is successful in his attempt to garner the entire NES library in 30 days but what I can state is that Nintendo Quest is a fun and good-natured examination of the gaming subculture presented through the eyes of collectors, all of them clearly moved by their respective passions. More than anything however, this documentary is a celebration of the NES, it’s library, and the many people who glean enjoyment from its numerous software. It also acts as a proponent regarding the importance of preservation, emphasizing the need to archive the artifacts of this medium before they gradually erode away entirely.
I first stumbled onto this film some months back on Amazon Prime and enjoyed it enough to purchase a copy for the very reasonable sum. Only available on DVD (I doubt the Blu-ray format would add much to the proceedings given the nature of the camera work and cinemaphotography), the disc is a bit sparse in terms of additional content but given the price and the quality of the film, it is easily recommended nonetheless. Nintendo Quest is also available on iTunes and I hope it garners a widespread notoriety among gaming fans and collectors at it most certainly deserves it.