In the documentary Nintendo Quest Jay Bartlett sets out to collect every game cartridge for the original Nintendo NES system in 30 days without using the internet. This last part is the most pertinent. By refusing to use online shops and traders, Nintendo Quest returns collecting to its very real roots: person-to-person swaps, secondhand shops, traders, dealers and collectors.
The internet has completely changed the game for collecting. It removes the geographical challenges and lucky breaks and turns it into a completely financially driven game – if you’ve got the money, you can have anything.
By refusing to use the worldwide web in the quest, the documentary also wistfully reminds us of a time where part of the fun of experiencing media was in its very pursuit. Has the digital age given us more time for leisure or has it robbed us of this small but very rewarding part of the experience?
Nostalgia comprises some part of what a certain generation of collectors get out of the whole experience. Baby boomers are driving the vinyl reissue market, buying up the Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin albums from their youth and reliving them in a way that is much more meaningful than listening to ‘This Is Classic Rock’ on Spotify.
Nintendo Quest captures this beautifully with a visit to the original Bart Simpson-esque treehouse where the protagonist Jay and his childhood friend (and the film’s director) Rob McCallum reminisce about falling in love with Nintendo they were kids.
But the phenomenon of collecting things that exist in the ether isn’t completely built on nostalgia. For a younger generation of fans who have never experienced the physical reality of a game or a record, it’s a novelty and a window into a time when these expressions of art were carried to their ultimate commercial conclusion as a thing you actually own rather than invisible data on the cloud. Ownership is demonstrative of a more serious and genuine connection.
There are tangible aesthetic advantages to an actual physical product. The cover art is certainly one reason most vinyl enthusiasts would list if asked why they find joy in records over digital files. A thumbnail is no match for a glossy printed 12-inch record cover which can be hung on a wall and pored over every time the album is played.
Nintendo Quest explores this angle as well by interviewing a box art designer talking about the way they created the game packages – these kitschy artefacts have become collectable in themselves.
Former A&R man for Warner Bros. Records Geoffrey Weiss, pictured above, has been called the World’s Greatest Record Collector. He literally bought a house beside the house he lives in for his record collection to live in.
On-demand delivery of some forms of media makes more sense than a physical object, but perhaps this is more to do with our relationship with how we experience it. Movies and television have become somewhat easier to replace as streaming only. DVDs and VHS tapes were more often rented than purchased, most people happy to watch a new movie once, and maybe get it again when it dropped down to the weekly shelves months later. Even still, VHS collections and audio cassettes have become hot property as well, despite their indisputable technological obsolescence.
Online delivery of some products hasn’t become as all-encompassing as it has with films, games and music. Even though the publishing industry saw e-books and kindles as their imminent doom, it actually hasn’t suffered the same fate. While physical magazines and newspapers may have all but disappeared as disposable items, sales for e-books in 2018 only represented a quarter of all books sold in the US.
There’s an argument to be made about the actual preservation of content thanks to physical copies. There were many films on VHS and even Laserdiscs that will either never be archived digitally or have been changed and edited dramatically over time. It’s not even possible to purchase or rent the original Star Wars trilogy without George Lucas’s 1997 re-edits unless you find VHS or DVD copies. The digital files that exist of these films were captured from the physical copies.
Collecting is also a luxury for the privileged, and a lot of the reasons to be free of physical purchases come down more to the harsh realities of living than adopting a Buddhist-like outlook on life. Collections take up real physical space in the same space you have to store yourself. Moving house is hard enough without carrying boxes and boxes of stuff that you’re ultimately just going to put on a shelf again.
Nintendo Quest certainly doesn’t set out to answer deeper questions about our irrational attachment to these things – it takes it as a given – and so do the many collectors and enthusiasts Jay meets on his most noble quest.
In this transitional time between physical and digital media, it’s far too much of a stretch to say that we would be better off as consumers and lovers of art if we completely relied on the cloud.
Watch Nintendo Quest at SBS On Demand: