This review was authored by Allison.
Although I’m not an avid video game player, I do play one every now and then. My parents were late approvers of the technology – many of the kids in my school had game systems years before me – and after some begging, I received a Jungle Green Nintendo 64 for having good grades sometime in the early 2000s. Since then, I have been dedicated to the Nintendo brand more so than any other game system and spend the majority of my (albeit small) gaming time playing iterations of Mario and Zelda.
Thus, I was just interested enough in Playing with Power: The Nintendo Story – a 2021 non-fiction mini-series – to bring it home from the library and give it a go. The series’ five sixty-minute-ish episodes unwrap the history of Nintendo through small, illustrative dioramas; interviews from employees, celebrities, and self-proclaimed video-game-nerds; and plenty of archival footage. Although it is highly detailed and historically focused, the series provides an interesting narrative that is both informative and entertaining.
Episode 1 – Play Your Cards Right
The first episode begins with the dawn of the Nintendo company in 1889 when it was founded by Fusajiro Yamauchi as a trading card company.
The episode continues by discussing the company’s expansions in the 1950s (a licensing agreement with Disney), the 1960s (branching out into toys and toy stores) and the 1970s (video games), before culminating with Donkey Kong, one of the first video games ever to allow players to control a human character, as opposed to a spaceship (like Galaga) or an abstract shape (like Pac-Man).
Episode 2 – A Trojan Horse
Nintendo’s first forays into the world of video game consoles included The Game & Watch, a pocket console that had the world’s first “d-pad”, and the Family Computer (Famicom).
The episode discusses Nintendo’s ability to successfully break into a market that wasn’t seemingly interested in video game consoles (see: “The Video Game Crash of 1983”) with the NES (Nintendo Entertainment System).
Other items that contributed to the success of ‘80s and early-‘90s Nintendo include the Nintendo Power magazine; the “Official Nintendo Seal of Quality”; and the introduction of the Game Boy. (Nintendo’s acquisition of rights to Tetris from the Soviet Union also helped.)
Episode 3 – A Sleeping Giant
Emerging from a console war with Sega (which offered new 16-bit technology, more flexible relationships with game developers, and Sonic the Hedgehog), Nintendo introduced the Super Nintendo and the Super FX chip that allowed for “3D” games.
Sony replaced Nintendo as the number one game company after releasing the disc-based, 32-bit PlayStation. With competition this strong, Nintendo tried to finish out the decade strong by partnering with Pokemon and releasing the Nintendo 64, which included true 3-D graphics and a revolutionary analog controller.
Episode 4 – Forward Motion
Unfortunately, the Nintendo 64 flatlined because its game cartridges were much more expensive to produce than Sony’s CD-ROM based games.The GameCube’s release brought Nintendo up to date with Sony’s technology, but didn’t much improve the company’s standings.
Microsoft’s release of the Xbox and its Xbox Live option allowed players to connect with each other in ways no system had before and solidified Nintendo’s new position in third place. Unhappy with this position, Nintendo fought back with the Nintendo DS (the biggest selling handheld console of all time) and the Wii, which featured motion-based controllers for the first time.
Episode 5 Reset Button
The advent of the iPhone and the iPad began to drive game development and revolutionize video game playing. The WiiU’s release, in comparison, did little to impress their audience and was largely a flop.
In 2014, Nintendo decided to make a new console that was remarkably versatile, and it revitalized the company: The Nintendo Switch was the right innovation at the right time and sold more units than any previous system. Today, Nintendo continues to connect with players of all ages, while leaving behind a legacy of dedication, quality, passion, and joy.
In general, I found the series to be engaging and informative, and I was particularly interested in the development of the different consoles and their back-and-forth race for higher-bit graphics. I also enjoyed seeing the brand through the eyes of its employees, early-adopters, and Wil Wheaton. While I can see this mini-series appealing to the individuals who played these consoles growing up, I’m not sure that it would appeal to folks who don’t feel nostalgia toward the topic.
Overall Rating: A-