They were on the road towards Oklahoma, six hours out, when the van began to sway.
For filmmaker Robert McCallum and his friend Jay Bartlett, who had spent the past 26 days chasing obscure vintage video games across North America, making a schoolboy mistake and running out of fuel on the highway was just the logical next step of a madcap journey that had left them as sleep-deprived as it had exhilarated.
Not that the two men were about to let that stop them.
Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of Nintendo Quest; the story of a couple of gamers who hit the open road with a mission to buy all 678 official retail licensed Nintendo NES titles in just 30 days, with no online purchases allowed.
In total they covered more than 10,000 miles, travelling through 18 US States as well as Ontario in Canada, where Rob and Jay hail from.
The result of all this passionate endeavour is a documentary, Nintendo Quest, directed by Rob and acting as both a compelling buddy road movie, and a love-letter to the joys of retro games.
Obviously, the first real question that springs to mind is…why?
“I’ve always been fascinated with the process of collection as much as actual collections,” muses Rob. “I had finished up a B-movie called Unearthly that required more special FX shots than I could count and I wanted to get away from those headaches and go with a small crew, doc style, for my next project.
“Just in talking to Jay, I dared him to get all the NES games because that was his eventual goal. So what if we could start from scratch and capture the collecting process from beginning to end on film? That sounded really fun, but we had to make sure it stayed fun which is why we introduced some rules: 30 days, start from scratch, and no internet. Game on!”
The resulting month-long mission took in not only visits to copious video game shops and collectors, but also a fascinating roll-call of interviewees with connections to the era of classic Nintendo titles.
They met the world’s first pro gamer, the winner of the original Nintendo World Championship, and along the way, both Rob and Jay found themselves assessing their own love of retro gaming, and pondering the widespread, enduring popularity of 8-bit experiences from decades ago.
“The easy answer is nostalgia,” says Rob, “but I think the right answer is that they represent a methodology of gameplay that’s been lost in recent console cycles. People are plugged in now instead of being connected. Gone are the days of playing in the same room until all hours of the night. Now we do that in isolation. We’re moving more and more to digital so that means everything is less tangible and our connection, in a physical sense is even erased.
“Even the graphics, while they look pretty, they’re being served to us like huge meals that we really don’t like to eat. Retro games required us to use our imaginations while we played. That’s why we were hooked. We told part of the story with our mind and it was informed by the graphics, the box art that wasn’t a simple screen shot, and the manual that had backstory to your adventure.
“Remember that line in Jurassic Park? ‘T-Rex wants to hunt, he doesn’t wanna be fed’. Same thing.”
The process of travelling long distances in short spaces of time while also attempting to plan, produce and film a workable documentary took its toll on Rob and co; resulting in the fatigue-induced ordeal teased at the start of this piece.
Having run out of fuel on a busy road four days from the end of their task, they were forced to coast the van across three lanes of interstate to an exit, pull off on to a frontage road, and use the momentum of their fading highway speed to trundle to the crest of a small hill. The momentum died, and they had to jump out of both sides of the van, push it over the ridge, and roll it to a gas station at the bottom of the road.
At this point, if none other, did they seriously consider throwing in the towel?
“No. When I set my mind to something, I wanna see it through to the end. This film was just too much fun, too. While it was long and hard days, it never felt like work because I was surrounded by friends talking about something I love every second of the day.”
And Rob really does love NES games.
It’s hard to convince him that anything is better than Ducktales or any of the classic Disney/Capcom team ups such as Rescue Rangers, Darkwing Duck, Talespin, and the Little Mermaid (remember those?).
He even cites the original Final Fantasy as a crucial influence on his approach to filmmaking, noting that “it introduced me to narrative storytelling in a way that no other medium had”.
But aside from the obsession with dusty cartridges from years ago that so many of us share, and the sheer audacity of the quest he and Jay embarked upon, Rob believes that Nintendo Quest tells a genuinely relatable and powerful story that transcends its subject matter.
“Being Jay’s friend for more than 30 years, I can say he’s an interesting guy with universal strengths and flaws that other folks can relate to. And I literally saw him transform and evolve from Day 1 to Day 30. This film is all about transformation. I was once told there are two kinds of movies: a man walks into town and a man leaves town. Jay does both in this in that he leaves the comfort of his home and returns different. It’s classic Joseph Campbell really, and very interesting to see the mindset of someone I know shift in a month.
“I was rooting for him and biting my nails during certain scenarios to see his decisions and the outcome. There’s a lot of stakes in this film, mainly Jay’s dream of owning a complete collection but also him doing it on his terms – that’s compelling. In a nutshell, can this guy achieve what he hopes to do even though it sounds impossible to others? That was the driving force. To take on the impossible.”
If you want to know whether the pair were successful in their ultimate aim, you’ll have to watch the movie.
But one compelling question naturally remains.
Can we expect an epic sequel, Super Nintendo Quest, revolving around collecting ever SNES game ever made?
“Well, SNES and Mega Drive are the two most requested follow ups,” teases Rob, “but what we do have planned, and it all hinges on the appeal of Nintendo Quest, is something far bigger, and far crazier.
“I really hope we get to do it.”
Nintendo Quest is available to watch On Demand on Vimeo now, and will be released on all other major digital platforms and DVD in North America on December 1.