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A Review of "Nintendo Quest"

Sometime I wish people wouldn't make documentaries as personal as Nintendo Quest - it makes it hard to criticize them without sounding like you're being a dick.  Just to be perfectly clear: nothing I say should be construed as a personal attack on the people involved.  They seem like wonderful folks and I'd probably enjoy spending an afternoon in their company if I was invited.

Nintendo Quest is one of several nostalgia-laden documentaries that has flooded the market in the last couple of years to appeal to that awkward generation bridging the later Xs and the early Millennials.  I had just become aware of how to play video games when the original Nintendo system hit its peak in North America, so before anybody accuses me of not "getting it," let's be clear - I'm part of that demographic.

It's not that the subject matter doesn't grip me.  It's not that I'm too young or too old to appreciate it.  My lack of enthusiasm for the film is because it's just not that well-constructed from a story perspective.
The plot, for lack of a better word, is that an introverted Canadian musician / 8-bit gaming fan named Jay takes up a dare from his friend / director Robert to buy every single Nintendo game ever released in North America in 30 days without buying anything from the Internet.  Ostensibly the dare has a secondary goal in getting Jay to move out of his comfort zone and try new experiences, and that right there is probably the first problem.

Nintendo Quest can't really decide if it wants to be a loving tribute to Nintendo and nostalgia, a reality show contest, a journey of personal growth, or an edutainment piece about Nintendo games and the people who collect them.  It spends most of its time either digging into Jay's psyche and showing how Nintendo has shaped his life, or showing how his enthusiasm is a universal phenomenon that manifests in other collectors around the continent.  But it all ends up diluted by a lack of clear direction and a "throw anything that will stick" attitude with the editing.

In many ways, it reminds me of Craigslist Joe, another documentary about an affable protagonist who goes on a big road trip and who probably learns a lot of lessons, but which never goes far enough to make you feel like you learned anything.  Just like Joe at the end of that movie, I'm sure Jay has grown a lot by the end of his quest - but I kinda don't care.

A big reason for that is they never establish any kind of stakes or conflict other than the logistics of Jay's arbitrary limits.  Why not show us more of the specific challenges associated with building a complete NES collection?  The documentary is at its best when it gives us a peek behind the curtain and gives you an idea either of the logistics of building a collection or some background on the rarity of certain games and the high price tag that can go with them.  Let's get more of that.  We get some understanding of why Stadium Events is such a hard game to find, but why don't we hear more about something like Bonk's Adventure?  Why not tell us a little more about the history of Nintendo or the specific games to give better context for the collectors' fanaticism?

Most notably, why not tell us how much Jay is spending on his games?  The movie takes great pains to avoid talking about his budget.  The intent, as the IMDb trivia tells us, is to keep the focus on his journey - but leaving that information out just creates one giant, frustrating, unanswered question.  If we knew what the costs involved were, we'd know the stakes and we'd have a better sense of scale.  Leaving that information out seems somehow nefarious - as if Jay would be too embarrassed to admit it.

I hate to dwell on the financial aspect, but it's a major point of contention for me.  Look, I'm part of your audience.  I'm one of you.  And I have major responsibilities now with my two daughters, my mortgage, and my second career as a writer.  Life is often frustrating because I don't have the time or money to invest in the things I like to do for the sake of the things I need to do.  If you want to convince me that you're going through some kind of personal growth, show me that you have accounted for those same challenges.  What have you sacrificed to make your collection complete?  And how impressed should we be that you got that far?  If that's not part of your story, then frankly, you haven't learned a damn thing.

It's a real shame, too, because the director is technically very capable.  The footage is well-shot, the sound is perfect, the graphics and interstitial animation are cute and well-done - in pure filmmaking terms, the documentary is fantastic.  And again, as I said before, the subject matter is inherently interesting.  Sadly, it seems to be wasted.

...but damn if I still kinda enjoyed watching parts of it simply out of nostalgia.  Nintendo fans will probably still find enough to sink their teeth into, so it's not a total loss. Just a missed opportunity.

My Rating: 3 / 5