When you think back to being in middle school, staying up all night with your friends playing video games, what games are you playing? Is it Mass Effect? Maybe some iteration of Smash or Mario Kart? The big one when I was that age was Street Fighter II in all its iterations. But there's another game that brings back the most vivid memories, and it's incredibly stupid: Wall Street Kid for the NES.
My friend Russ and I loved JRPGs, and Wall Street Kid fit the bill, I guess. After finishing another playthrough of Final Fantasy II (now properly known as FFIV) on our brand-new SNES, we'd switch over to the older Nintendo system to engage in raw casino capitalism. This game was, frankly, much more challenging than levelling up Cecil, Rosa, and Kain, and I vividly recall tossing my rectangular controller when I failed to make a million dollars to buy a starter home, inadvertently toppling a two-litre bottle of Pepsi. It was three in the morning.
Wall Street Kid is a deeply weird game, and I'm always vaguely grossed out when I remember that it exists. Released in Japan in 1989 as The Money Game II: Kabutochou no Kiseki and in North America the following year, this title is a celebration of wealth and its accumulation while offering enough tongue-in-cheek commentary to let you know we're all in on the joke. Maybe.
But the world has changed a lot in the last 30+ years. The image of the investment tycoon is not quite so uncritically revered, especially post-Wolf of Wall Street, post-housing crisis, post-bank failures, and, well, all the rest. Which isn't to say there aren't a great many folks who strive to be Wall Street Kids, or the equivalent in the venture capital game or crypto. So I was curious: how would it feel to play Wall Street Kid today, in the Year of Our Lord 2023?
Weird. It felt weird.
At the start of the game, you are told that your wealthy uncle has just died and has left you his $600 billion estate — but only if you can prove your money management prowess in the stock market. You're fronted $500,000 to invest and given a deadline of one month to earn enough to buy "a decent $1 million house." You know, your standard starter home. If this isn't outrageous enough, I might just throw out there that $1 million in 1990 would be $2,321,063.50 today.
But wait, there's more! Once you've got your fixer-upper and completed a few other major purchases, the endgame is to buy back the family castle. Sure, why not.
Alright, let's dive in! Each day of in-game time in Wall Street Kid begins with a newspaper stock report, letting you know which types of stocks are doing well and a few hot investments. Through a point-and-click interface, you then spend cash to buy stocks with names like YBM and Boing, mirroring real companies popular at the time, or sell what you have and reinvest. There are a few other activities (more on this in a bit), and then you can punch the clock to end your day and see how your portfolio performed.
As you play an investor buying and selling stocks based on day-to-day trends rather than anything inherent to the companies they represent, you can't escape the feeling that our entire economy revolves around dudes trying to double their money in 30 days to buy a fancy house. It's not a good feeling.
In the midst of buying and selling stocks to make your first mil, your character also must attend to his physical health and his fiancee, Prisila. (Yes, that is how they spell it.) Neglecting either of these will result in game-ending conditions.
Prisila adds a few additional gross dimensions to the game. First, presenting your relationship as a task to be completed is… not great. The entirely transactional nature of your dates is highlighted by the very specificity of dialogue like "I will really enjoy these four hours." But then there's the deeply problematic dynamic of the relationship itself. Prisila frequently will ask our hero to buy her things — a dog, a car, an engagement ring — and missing these opportunities risks losing the game. We do not see our protagonist and Prisila together, we do not get a glimpse into their life; she literally only exists as a cost in time and resources, presented in that old-school misogynist fashion of men who hate their wives.
After you've bought your million-dollar house, the first thing you need to do — unless you've done exceptionally well up to this point in the game — is put it up for collateral on an $800,000 loan so you can keep on buying and selling, right back on the hamster wheel to your next big purchase. A yacht, if you were wondering, for your wedding. Once again, this game strips the value of everything down to its ability to create more value. Which, to be fair, is a pretty accurate portrayal of late-stage capitalism. What is a home if not an "asset?" We literally use "property" as a synonym for where we sleep.
No, none of this crossed my mind in the early 1990s.
In fact, I get why I loved Wall Street Kid as a tween. It's like a caricature of the American dream, where pointing and clicking in the right sequence unlocks riches beyond imagining. The mechanic of selecting your investments and then tapping the clock to end your day gives both the satisfaction of choice and the rush of surrendering to the whims of fate. In an era when fewer adults played video games, it felt like a window into what someone older might play. Wall Street Kid felt, somehow, cool.
Wall Street Kid is meant to be aspirational. It's just a game, yes, and one that seems to be very aware of its cartoonishness. But it's a game that is at least nominally based in the real world, and it's a game that wants you to want things. You want the fancy house. You want to make your lovely girlfriend happy. You want to be a millionaire — check that, billionaire. And there's always more to want.
Revisiting Wall Street Kid as an adult, though, I'm mostly just kind of sad that this is still the way many folks see the world — stocks as a bet rather than an investment, family life as an obligation to be checked off a list — and distressed at the degree to which our real-world economy is gamified.
But I'm also heartened by how far we've come. "This couldn't be made today" is usually a complaint, and is at any rate just flat wrong — plenty of awful things continue to see the light of day. But Wall Street Kid almost certainly wouldn't be made today, at least not in the same way. For one, modern systems allow for a lot more complexity — I can imagine having some fun with a GameStonks-style quest, and instead of a one-dimensional fiancee there could be Persona-like romance tracks — but moreover, I think the material would be treated differently.