Movie Review: Behind Nintendo Quest's Game Collecting, There's A Surprisingly Human Story

For the love of the find

Kickstarter-funded movie Nintendo Quest isn't exactly a documentary about NES games. They're definitely in the film; don't worry about that. You'll see so many shelves and boxes and displays chock full of gray cartridges that they'll dance behind your eyelids whenever you close them. But those who expect huge reels of play footage and storied histories behind each title are not going to find that so much here. Instead, the focus lies more on the enthusiasts who pursue the artifacts of an era and why they still hold these relics so dearly, and between these ideals a nice little tale is told.

At the heart of Nintendo Quest lies a very straight-forward challenge. Jay Bartlett, the collector, is tasked by film director and longtime friend Rob McCallum to hit the road and track down all 678 NES titles that were available for retail in North America. His time limit is 30 days and no purchases can be made online. The journey begins in Bartlett's hometown of London, Ontario, Canada and makes a number of stops across the border in the United States. McCallum - who also serves as narrator - and a small video crew come along with Bartlett for the ride.

One element of the film that becomes particularly striking is how honestly it appears to take its experiences. In a world overrun with reality TV, the temptation would seem high to edit events out of context and fabricate drama wherever you go, but it just doesn't feel like the case here. When conflict arises between Bartlett and a seller or other collector, it isn't played up with bias toward the side of the star or stupidly amplified for the sake of battlelust. Respect is given to others as being people with their own goals, and even someone who is immediately painted as a rival gets a fair (and amusing) shake.

If the film's perspective is admirably real, Bartlett himself only makes it more so. Slightly reserved and often hiding his eyes behind a pair of shades, this is not some big celebrity nor does it feel like someone with major desires to become one. He comes across as a relatively average guy leaving his comfort zone to fulfil his challenge, bearing with travel and learning how to haggle along the way. You can see him working through the anxiety of large purchases because this is his own money he's spending on rare yet ultimately whimsical pieces of plastic and circuitry, and it's easy to root for him because you'd likely be or have actually been in the same exact boat, weighing reason against the desire to have something you may not see again. The film also takes some time to dive into Bartlett's back-story, using friends and family to build a decent frame of him as a person and even going surprisingly deep to touch upon what might be a reason he is so fond of collecting certain things.

The progress of the quest itself is not extremely detailed, but it's not hard to keep general track of how things are going. A heads-up display of sorts gives the count of games, with many current acquisitions noted in a ticker at the bottom of the screen. There's also a meter representing Bartlett's budget that changes depending on the situation, but aside from a few figures being tossed around during the movie, you never really know exactly how much money he has or what he paid for most items (it's certainly never portrayed as cheap, though). Also, while a number of games are mentioned or briefly discussed, only a scant few rare titles are talked about with any real depth. Again, the intention doesn't seem to be centred on the games themselves, and those yearning for more info will have to look things up on their own.

Interspersed between parts of the quest are quick sections that focus on how Nintendo amassed its popularity during the NES era and various aspects of the games and culture that keep it so appealing to many today. The portrayal of this enthusiasm is nicely constructed, mixing interviews with known figures such as composer Tommy Tallarico and King of Kong competitor Billy Mitchell with regular joe game shop owners and collectors. Everything from music to box art is touched upon, and of particular note is a fun little interview in which the illustrator of the Mega Man 2 cover art proudly explains how such an infamous-yet-beloved mess was created.

Whether Bartlett ends up completing his quest or not - we'll leave you to find that out - it's rewarding to see him make ground along the way, both in his cartridge totals and developing a perspective on what he's doing. Overall, Nintendo Quest not just paints a positive picture of the hobby-obsession of game collecting, but also one that is down-to-earth, truthful, and accessible. Acquiring a retro game is best when there's a story attached to it, and this story is worth watching for anyone who feels that tug of mystery whenever they pass their local used game store.


Join us for the UK premiere of the movie at the Nintendo Life Gaming Night in Cambridge on the 25th July. Click here for other worldwide screenings.

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