The morning of September 9, 1989 nearly equated the Apollo 11 Moon Landing for a nation of Nintendo-obsessed kids. This otherwise-ordinary Saturday marked the premiere of Captain N: The Game Master, a cartoon that promised to turn the blocky blobs of sprites from our NES games into fully animated spectacles.
Of course, given the landscape of televised animation at the time, Captain N couldn't have turned out much better. Outside of a few exceptions, like Disney's late-decade work, and Ralph Bakshi's Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures, in the 1980s, kids' TV was a wasteland designed to callously shill products in-between commercials for other products. Sometimes, clever writers managed to sneak some inspired scripts into cartoons engineered to promote merchandise—like J. Michael Straczynski's work on The Real Ghostbusters—but, with so little competition in the Saturday morning space, you didn't necessarily have to work too hard to nab a captive audience.
Captain N came in just under the wire, debuting a single year before the Children's Television Act significantly altered regulations for kids' entertainment. But perhaps if it arrived a little earlier, DiC's animated take on the Nintendo universe would have been a lot more brazen. Watch an episode, and you'll notice a conspicuous lack of the word "Nintendo" throughout—the show even takes place within the generically titled world of "Videoland."
In fact, an ancient interview with Captain N writer Jeffrey Scott points to how on-brand this cartoon was before special interest groups began their crackdown: "The series was initially called Captain Nintendo: The Game Master. But it wasn't long before we got word from the network that we needed to eliminate the Nintendo name. At the time there was a big outcry that Saturday morning cartoons were becoming commercials for toys. And to have the Nintendo name in the title was just too much for the networks. It would have been like naming a show Mattel's Barbie. So 'N' was as close as we could get."
"As close as we could get" also describes Captain N's faithfulness to its source material. Now, kids may lack a certain degree of knowledge earned through life experience, but if they find an interesting subject, more often than not, they become tiny scholars on the matter. And that's exactly the kind of obsession Nintendo engendered. Nintendo Power, the company's officially sanctioned propaganda, encouraged a nation of Nintendo fans to fixate on the smallest details of their video games, and its bi-monthly schedule meant readers had plenty of time to pore over a single issue ad nauseam. In 1989, your average kid was more likely to know Mega Man 2's boss weaknesses than their state capitals.
So it must have been a strange experience for this demographic to tune into the premiere of Captain N and see the show get so many things staggeringly wrong. Mega Man was green, Pit was named "Kid Icarus," (sort of like calling Samus Aran "Metroid") and nothing was as it should have been. Being seven years old at the time, I don't quite remember my initial feelings on Captain N, but seeing as I was the type of kid who got steamed when they changed the name of April O' Neil's workplace for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, I was probably flipping tables.
These days, Nintendo and its licensees would definitely have more control over the end product, but in the '80s, DiC's status as an animation behemoth implied some degree of professionalism. Really, the writing on Captain N is no worse than similar dreck of the decade: It features the same Vaudeville-era one-liners, ill-timed physical humor, time-eating montages, and aggressively unearned moralizing this era of kids' cartoons is known best for. And this spirit of "good enough" definitely haunts every frame of Captain N. Scott, who wrote all 13 episodes of the first season—not an uncommon occurrence back then—had little interest in video games; like many animation writers of the time, Captain N was nothing more than another job.
"[Series creator Andy Heyward] shipped me a Nintendo system and some games, and I started playing them," says Scott. "I didn't have to do too much, because all I wanted was to know the lay of the land and to understand how the various characters related to the game. It wasn't important that I be a fanatic and know everything about a game, because we had decided that the stories would only be loosely based on the game environment." When asked why he didn't include Samus Aran, Metroid's protagonist, Scott replies, "Never heard of her. That could be why."
To be charitable, Captain N at least made a few inspired choices. In a casting decision that can only be called "delightfully inexplicable," Levi Stubbs—fresh off of his role as Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors—plays Mother Brain, re-imagined here as a vain and vaguely drag-queenish villain. Honestly, it's a voice that's just fun to listen to, especially when you get the sense that Stubbs, an aging Motown musician, probably has no idea what he's saying 90 percent of the time. And if Captain N couldn't quite nail down its characters, the show at least gets the music right: Decades before chiptune remixes would become a thing, the series dressed up an assortment of 8-bit standards with some faithful arrangements. It should also be noted that Captain N has a relatively high animation budget, at least in its earlier seasons; you can really tell when its characters, with their incredibly busy designs, are being handled by anyone other than the Japanese production studios the series started with.
Captain N's biggest failure, though, can be found in just how little it takes advantage of its premise. While the "kid gets sucked into another world" concept isn't astoundingly original, the series doesn't quite know where to take it. And there's no sense of logic guiding these adventures in Videoland, giving viewers very little insight into how this world actually works. Now, that may seem like a tall order for a kids' cartoon, but the recent Wreck-It-Ralph goes for a somewhat similar idea, but actually does the legwork of describing how the different game worlds connect with one another. Meanwhile, Captain N just uses the nebulous idea of "warp zones" to conveniently answer any logistical question, though this concept mostly acts as a writer's crutch. Since characters can essentially teleport to another location on a whim, watching Captain N with adult eyes can make for a confusing time, since few scenes feel logically connected to what comes before or after.
1989 definitely marked a high point for both DiC and Nintendo; not only did Captain N debut this fall, so did the weekday-bound Super Mario Bros. Super Show. This meant that, for six out of seven days a week, kids could plop themselves down in front of the TV for some Nintendo-based entertainment—and even if it wasn't all that great, we tolerated it simply for the subject matter. 26 years later, and DiC's Nintendo's shows are remembered as the last holdouts of an entertainment era that would make a sharp 180-degree turn once creator-run cartoons like Ren and Stimpy (amongst others) would show the possibilities of TV animation.
And this former partnership with DiC could explain why Nintendo has been so gun-shy about the prospect of another animated series in the passing decades; even the rumored Legend of Zelda NetFlix show—live-action, at that—brought forth a wave of "Excuse me, Princess" responses within Internet comments section. (That being Link's on-loan-from-Steve-Martin catchphrase in DiC's Super Show.) We've had a long time to heal since then, and who knows? Maybe in today's animation landscape—one driven by passion and very little money—a group of talented souls can finally do justice to Nintendo's cast of highly marketable characters. With Captain N: The Game Master's place in history, they at least have a stunning example of what not to do.
Images courtesy of The Cartoon Scrapbook. And if you'd like to know more about Captain N, check out this episode of Retronauts Pocket we recorded on the topic back in the summer of 2013: