“Well excuuuuuuuuuuuuuuse me, Princess!”
-Link the Asshole
The year is 1989. President Reagan gives his farewell address, and President George Bush, Sr. takes over. Emperor Hirohito passes away, and the Heisei period begins in Japan. It was a year of change for both the United States of America, and for Japan. Luckily, Nintendo was here to be super weird to usher both nations through their transitions. The year is 1989, and we have two goofy guys, one played by Italian-American wrestling manager Lou Albano and the other by Canadian Danny Wells, giving us the backstory of the Mario Bros. when they were just plumbers before they went to the Mushroom Kingdom.
In the late 80’s, Nintendo was on the ropes. You might not remember it that way, but it was true. It was the beginning of the 16-bit era, ushered in by the Turbografx-16 and the Sega Genesis. Nintendo didn’t want to transition to the new technology. This was partly because they still felt they owned the video game market, and partly because they had invested so much in the original NES they didn’t want to start over with a new console. I’m sure it comes as a shock, but people were attracted to the better graphics of the new systems. Slowly but surely, Nintendo realizes they are starting to lose market share and need to do everything they can to delay the sinking ship while they scramble for a 16-bit system. What do they do? Turn to television and film, of course!
In the Beginning
The first show to feature Nintendo characters was Saturday Supercade. This predates the weirdness of ‘89 quite a bit, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it. It aired from 1983-1985 on CBS, and had short segments based on arcade characters. The show featured Q*bert, Donkey Kong (with appearances by Mario and Pauline*), Donkey Kong Jr., Pitfall Harry, Space Ace, and Kangaroo. This is largely an arcade and early console specific cartoon, but Mario appearing is a precursor of his later success. It’s not exactly a widely remembered cartoon by any stretch. During the four years between this show and the return of Mario to television, his popularity had skyrocketed and Super Mario Bros. 2 had been released the year before.
In 1989, Nintendo unleashed the animated dogs of cartoon war. Three television properties appeared in the first week of September. The Super Mario Bros Super Show! premiered on September 4, and only ran for one season. This is a little bit confusing, as you’ll see. The series was a daily show, Monday through Friday, and produced a whopping 65 shows before its cancellation. Technically, this show was a frontend for two other shows, the Super Mario Bros cartoon, largely based off of Super Mario Bros 2, and The Legend of Zelda, which ran on Fridays instead of the Super Mario Bros cartoon. 52 episodes of the Super Mario Bros cartoon were produced, but only 13 episodes of The Legend of Zelda cartoon were created. It was originally planned to be continued, but it was cancelled along with The Super Mario Bros Super Show! the following year.
This show was crazy bizarre. It featured Captain Lou Albano and Danny Wells in a live-action portrayal of Mario and Luigi in their mundane job as plumbers before being transported to the Mushroom Kingdom. Popular celebrities made their way into the show each day, playing themselves. Mario and Luigi were apparently plumbers to the stars, I guess. The celebrities were often people that children would not really recognize. Sure, you had Danica McKellar during her Wonder Years time frame and myriad wrestling stars thanks to Captain Lou Albano, but you also have Cassandra Peterson as Elvira, Nedra Volz (Adelaide from Diff’rent Strokes), Norman Fell (Mr. Roper), Eve Plumb to promote A Very Brady Christmas, Vanna White, and stuff like that. Kids just really wouldn’t care about who these people were at all. I know I certainly didn’t know who the heck they were when I was young and watching the show. The live-action portion also had a lot of meta stuff like Mario wanting to meet the famous Captain Lou Albano, you know the guy who was playing Mario. So Mario leaves, Captain Lou Albano then shows up as himself, and only Luigi gets to meet him. You also have the two crossdressing and playing female cousins with similar names. It’s really weird stuff. The show was split between this, and the cartoon portion.
The Legend of Zelda cartoon is technically part of The Super Mario Bros Super Show! but it is treated separately as it was originally intended to be a separate program. This show aired only on Fridays, and was mostly based on The Legend of Zelda, except for when it drew on stuff from The Adventure of Link. The plot mostly consists of Link and Zelda battling Ganon, who is trying to get the Triforce of Wisdom. Sometimes Zelda is kidnapped, but she does still fight alongside Link quite a lot and is pretty badass. The show was also very weirdly young adult, as large portions of the dialogue were devoted to Link begging for kisses, and explaining why he deserved them. The show spent a lot of effort to always interrupt the kissing, too. When they weren’t interested in Hyrulian Tonsil Hockey, they were being complete buttholes to each other, sniping and insulting one another. Link had a catchphrase, used at least once every episode, for when Princess Zelda decided Link was an idiot. It was, of course, “Well, excuuuuuuuuuuse me, Princess!” Not to be outdone, when Link was insulting Zelda over some suggestion or other, she would break out, “Well, pardon me!” Yep, a confrontational relationship with sexual powerplay undertones, just what every 7 year old would understand! I mean, I didn’t really understand any of that stuff when I was a kid, and it didn’t detract from liking the show. I thought the catchphrases were funny and silly, and repeated them endlessly. Only in retrospect is it obvious how hella weird it is.
On Saturday of the same week, Captain N: The Gamemaster debuted. The backstory of this is actually fairly sordid. The character was created by the magazine editor of Nintendo Power, Randy Studdard. Randy pitched the idea of creating a spokes-character for Nintendo, independent of any games. Captain Nintendo, as he was then known, fought against Mother Brain, who had gone rogue after one of the games was infused with an experimental organic ROM after an explosion. Seems like every superhero/villain backstory to me, so sure. Captain Nintendo defeats Mother Brain, but Mother Brain swears she will be back, and Captain Nintendo swears to protect the world from her, whenever that may be. Nintendo took the Studdard’s creation, shopped it to animation studios, and created a different version of the story, which ultimately became Captain N: The Gamemaster. In a sad turn of events, Studdard received no mention as the creator of the concept and character, nor did he receive any sort of monetary benefit. There was likely a clause in his contract that made it the entire property of Nintendo, but companies generally reward employees in some fashion after something major like that. Nope, not in this case.
Radical Product Placement
The show was just a marketing tool for Nintendo. The story followed Kevin Keene, a California teenager, who got sucked into the world of Videoland through the Ultimate Warp Zone that appeared in his TV when he was playing Punchout! Kevin is armed with a Nintendo Zapper and a belt that is his console controller, and has an energy display. He’s able to super jump, move quickly, and even pause time with the controller, though it drains the energy. His zapper dematerialized foes into pixels when he shoots them. He shows up to defeat Mother Brain, voiced by Levi Stubbs, and her henchmen, King Hippo and Eggplant Wizard. The heroes fighting against her are Princess Lana, who is ruler in her father’s absence, Mega Man, Kid Icarus, and Simon Belmont. Mega Man is says mega in front of things all the time, Kid Icarus sounds like he’s from Jersey and adds -icus to words or says stuff like “This is terrible to the maximus”, and Simon Belmont is basically just Professor Lockhart from Harry Potter, years beforehand.
As you might expect, every video game has its own world, and the heroes have to go through the worlds in order to solve whatever problem is occurring that week. Sometimes it is the result of a larger story, but mostly it is just whatever of the week. Like in The Legend of Zelda, the hero is always trying to get the princess to be his girlfriend and get smooches. This is complicated in this show because Simon Belmont is doing the same thing, only 100% douchier and more cowardly. The heroes encounter troubles and characters related to the game, and show off the game’s premise before finally doing whatever needs to be done.
This show was created only as a way to show off new games Nintendo was releasing. Make no mistake about it. It’s basically like watching a cartoon infomercial with slightly better plot and dialogue. The tv show is completely shameless, hyping stuff no one would otherwise remotely care about. The second episode has the team going to visit Bayou World, highlighting the game Bayou Billy which is like a hydrox Crocodile Dundee. There are episodes about Puss ‘n Boots: Pero’s Adventure, Marble Madness, Jordan vs. Bird: One on One, and Bo Jackson’s Baseball. I’d include California Games on this list, but that game is awesome. I don’t even want to hear it.
The interesting thing about this, to me, is that Nintendo never felt the need to use Mario in the show. Link and Zelda makes appearances, acting the same way they did on The Super Mario Bros Super Show!, but this was after their show was canceled. The characters they selected were from popular games, to be sure, but not quite to the level of the Mario or Zelda franchises. Mega Man is really recognizable and really popular, but not Mario popular, you know what I am saying? In the modern era, Nintendo has divorced themselves from the creative genius behind Mega Man. It’s a sad state of affairs.
Kid Icarus is now called Pit, which might confuse some people. Also, his franchise is a little bit like Rygar, in that the franchise lay dormant for twenty years before it was picked up for a sequel. The original came out in 1986, a Game Boy sequel was released in 1991, hoping to capitalize on the moderate success of the cartoon, and then nothing until Pit was featured as a character in the Super Smash Brothers series. Then, in 2012, a 3DS sequel was released, but the game had morphed into a shooter.
Castlevania is still a fairly popular franchise, and Simon Belmont is still my favorite Belmont. Suck it, Richter. I said it. However, turning Simon Belmont into a coward claiming credit for things he didn’t do and having him preen over his looks made me angry, even as a kid. This is the dude who originally defeated Dracula! Not just once, but twice. Only one other Belmont did that. He’s also the only Belmont to lose his life in the process of defeating Dracula. In the both cool and frustrating reboot of the franchise, his dad is Alucard and his grandfather is Dracula, but he still manages to be rad, even if the game was not so rad. It is really strange to watch Kenneth Branagh portray Professor Lockhart without thinking he’s basically just being Simon Belmont from this cartoon.
Eventually, Game Boy was added to the cast as a character, coinciding with the release of the handheld system. He was exactly as awful as you would expect him to be. In the story, he was sent through the Mirror Warp, which only opens every thousand years, by Princess Lana’s father, rather than the king escaping himself. Why? Marketing, that’s why! It doesn’t really make a lot of sense, and Game Boy makes everything worse.
Whatever, the show was easily the best of the cartoons from this time period, and it withstands the test of time. IT WITHSTANDS THE TEST OF TIME, DAMN IT! I actually gave the complete series to my nephews as a gift one year, and they absolutely loved it. It just goes to show it holds up for nerds in that age group, even if it is twenty-seven years old. Nothing but love for Captain N: The Gamemaster.
It’s the Power Glove. It’s Super Bad
You might think we’re done talking about Nintendo’s media blitz, but oh no, not by a long shot. We have to cover the best one**. That’s right, I am talking about the Fred Savage/Christian Slater marketing vehicle, The Wizard. Fun side note, this movie was Tobey Maguire’s big screen debut. He played a henchman of the main antagonist, Lucas, wearer of the Power Glove. The movie was filmed over only six weeks, had a budget of $6 million, and made $14.3 million at the box office. All in all, a small success. It’s even more successful if you count the fact it unveiled Super Mario Bros. 3 during the climax of the film, and ushered in the Nintendo World Championships the following year. It probably helped Power Glove sales, but that thing was a flop no matter how you slice it. It’s just crappy tech.
There is an overabundance of plot in this movie. What’s that saying? All plot, no story. The backstory is about a family of divorce where the two oldest brothers Nick, Slater, and Corey, Savage, live with their dad, Sam, played Beau Bridges, and the youngest brother, Jimmy, played by Luke Edwards, lives with their mother, Christine, played by Wendy Phillips. Jimmy has an unnamed mental condition that manifested after he witnessed his sister drown. His mother and her new husband commit Jimmy to an institution, but Corey breaks him out, and the two of them take off for California, which is all Jimmy says, over and over. Christine panics, and hires a bounty hunter to retrieve Jimmy, but doesn’t give a shit about her other son, Corey.
Corey and Jimmy embark on a road trip, and soon run into Haley, played by Jenny Lewis, yes, the singer for Rilo Kiley and later solo artist. Haley is trying to get back to Reno, to see her dad. After finding out Jimmy was a video game savant, Haley convinces Corey to use Jimmy to hustle people. Given they are pre-pubescent kids, it’s a miracle it works out as well as it does. She also convinces the pair to head to Video Game Armageddon, a big tournament awarding the winner $50,000. Along the way, they encounter Lucas Barton, an obviously villainous child with a Power Glove (“it’s super bad!”). After intimidating Jimmy, he announces he will be competing in the tournament, as well.
Ah, the 80’s. All the while, they are being chased by the bounty hunter. One of the segments has Haley claiming that the bounty hunter molested her, as a way to escape. It’s definitely a gag you wouldn’t see in a film today, that’s for sure. I’m fairly certain you can’t joke about accusations of child sexual abuse in a kid’s movie. You also can’t make constant, derogatory jokes about mental illness the way this is done in the film. Jimmy in belittled and insulted consistently in the film. In fact, his mental issues are the crux of the scam the children are pulling with their video game hustling. It’s pretty bleak stuff, all played for a joke in a way that is just indicative of the time.
The children run into a trucker friend of Haley’s, yeah really, who drives them across country and you learn Haley’s dad is never around and abandons her all the time. Haley wants to take the prize money share to buy a house so her dad doesn’t have to do that. It turns out that she knows a lot of truckers thanks to her dad, and there is some unwritten rule of the road that requires the truckers to look out for her. I’m pretty sure this would have left her skinless and buried in a ditch, but it doesn’t in the film. Maybe you could have gotten away with that in a kid’s film in the 80’s.
The Wizard…of Product Placement!
This is a lot of shit going on to really just exist to sell product. That’s really all this movie is doing. One of the plot points revolves around Haley spending lots of time on the phone with the Nintendo Power hint line to get walkthroughs and tricks for Jimmy on games where he is having issue. This phone line was a pay-per-minute line, though there is zero mention of this in the film. I can only imagine how many kids accidentally ran up charges for their parents, thinking this was just a free service. It also heavily features the PlayChoice-10, which was an arcade platform featuring ten different Nintendo games that were previously only home release titles. This was actually released a few years prior to the film, but I am positive it upped awareness of this, leading kids to look for them or ask for them in arcades, which were starting to wane.
Of course, the biggest features were the Power Glove and Super Mario Bros. 3. Everyone wanted the Power Glove, but luckily the price point was so high it wasn’t bought my most people. $75 for a peripheral still means a lot of people would pass it up, if they could play the games through their existing tech. Yeah, I know people drop $100 for collector’s editions of single games, but it generally means it’s a beloved property. After all, we are the same people that will spend $500 on something and then not buy it because we don’t want to spend $15 in shipping. We make a lot of sense. Anyway. Super Mario Bros. 3 being included was crazy smart. Mario was still their signature property, and it also showed game secrets in the film. Every kid who didn’t see the movie was going to hear about it from their friends who did see it, and be tortured in the way that only kids can torture other kids. Not Lord of the Flies torture, just being assholes. Really, this was the reason most kids wanted to see this film. Special sneak peak of a hot new title!
Finally, the movie hit a ton of other games, and introduced the idea of a giant video game tournament, which Nintendo was savvy enough to make into a reality the following year. The movie highlights Ninja Gaiden, Rad Racer, Double Dragon, Top Speed, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and many others. The Nintendo World Championships were absolutely based on the Video Game Armageddon tournament, and took place in 1990. They were not held again until 2015, when the contest was held as a 25th anniversary celebration, and introduced Super Mario Maker as a game. I attended the tournament when it came to my town, and managed to make it up on the big stage. It was a dream come true for a kid, having a huge crowd of people watch me play Tetris.
It’s amazing to think that all of these projects came out not only in the same year, but in a three month span. This was how Nintendo chose to keep up brand awareness, and stave off competition. To give themselves time to develop a console, they created television shows and a movie to promote their new and existing titles. It was absolutely a genius move. I definitely knew about everything going on there, and had very little knowledge that the Sega Genesis was even a thing. It’s strange to think that Nintendo was this savvy, and has yet to really make any progress into television or film after the early 90’s. Funny enough, on May 17, Nintendo announced they are getting back into the film industry after almost twenty-five years.
Next time around, I will start discussing the multimedia attempts of D&D, which are markedly different than those of Nintendo, and to much different result. Of course, soon after that, we get to discuss the movies that embarrassed both of them!
*-Pauline is the name of the woman held captive by Donkey Kong. She didn’t get the name Pauline until the animated segments of Saturday Supercade, and was known as Lady before then. She is a recurring character in the Donkey Kong franchise, appearing in the original, the Gameboy remake, and all of the weird minis games. Pauline was the first female character to speak in a video game.
**-It’s terrible, but I love it.