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"Captain N": The Greatest Video Game Cartoon Ever

Back in the late 80s, Nintendo decided that its super-successful Nintendo Entertainment System could support a cartoon or two; the results included The Super Mario Bros. Super Show and The Legend of Zelda: The Animated Series. After those two series became hits, Nintendo decided to show off the rest of its library in Captain N: The Game Master.

Kevin Keene was just a normal teenager playing Punch Out! on his NES with his Super Advantage controller when his TV started to short-circuit and poured electricity into his body. As his mother told him for the last time to clean his room, Kevin and his dog, Duke, were warped into Videoland, a place where all Nintendo games come to life. There, he joined Princess Lana, Simon Belmont (the hero from Castlevania), Kid Icarus (a.k.a. Pit from Kid Icarus), and MegaMan in the fight against Mother Brain (from Metroid) and her lackeys King Hippo (Punch Out), Eggplant Wizard (Kid Icarus), and Dr. Wily (MegaMan). Armed with a Zapper and a Power Pad, Kevin is ready to defend all of Videoland, as he has been chosen by the mighty Power Glove as the ultimate Game Master.

This series dates back to 1988, when video games didn’t include a lot of story or detail, so the writers of this show had a lot of leeway in how they wrote the characters. Simon goes from stoic, leather-clad hero to pompous hiker; MegaMan becomes the Green Bomber, gets a raspy voice, and eventually turns human; Mother Brain becomes an over-the-top godmother of soul; and King Hippo becomes an actual hippo. Even Donkey Kong, who is a more neutral character in the show, becomes Godzilla-sized and looks more human than ape. And while Kevin’s Zapper and Power Pad look like their real-life counterparts, the Power Glove looks like a metal gauntlet, and the Power Pad is slightly modified (pressing the Select Button initiates the Pause feature). Sadly, R.O.B. never appears, as the robot was unloved back then.

This series takes “video game cartoon” to a whole new level. In several episodes the characters run through particular video game levels, complete with sound effects and music. Depending on the world, destroying enemies (who digitize into pixels) will yield energy pellets, tiny energy hearts, or coins. Platforms and rivers hang mysteriously in mid-air. Warp Zones abound. One episode has the N-Team going through the original MegaMan‘s Cutman level, complete with electrified ladders and stomping robots. (Unfortunately, MegaMan’s Robot Masters—especially Cutman—look very little like their video game counterparts.) There’s even a world about Tetris. Freaking Tetris. Dr. Light also appears, though due to a translation error in the original video game he’s called “Dr. Wright.”

The series also has some rather odd omissions, with the biggest being the absence of the Mario brothers and Samus Aran. I understand that the writers wouldn’t want to overwork the Mario Bros. crew (Link and Zelda didn’t appear until Zelda had ended production), but it still feels wrong to have a Nintendo series without Mario and Luigi in at least one episode. Samus’s absence is a bigger mystery, but I guess they felt Lana, who does jack squat, was enough of a female heroine to satisfy the bigwigs. Other Nintendo games without a presence include Kung Fu, Duck Hunt, and Bible Adventures. A shame, too. I’d have liked to see Kevin use Baby Moses as a weapon to defeat giant spiders in ancient Egypt.

The first season (discs 1 and 2 in this set) features basic stories and action, typically centering on Mother Brain’s latest stab at taking over Videoland: maybe by conquering the world of Dragon Warrior (as Dragon Quest was known back then, and yes, Slimes did eventually appear, but they’re more zombie-esque than the cute little balls of goo we’re used to today); or maybe by searching out Kevin’s deepest fears and bringing them to reality. The episodes vary in quality, but some still hold up: the episode where the gang goes through the MegaMan game, and another where our heroes travel to the Mirror World to find Lana’s father. Some have surprising moments. One features a rather gross scene in which Simon literally rips off Donkey Kong’s toenail. Even sanitized for kids and coupled with the primitive 80s animation, it’s still hard to watch.

The producers tried spicing up the second season (discs 3 and 4) by adding a talking GameBoy to the cast. Many people think this is when the show jumped the shark, as GameBoy is a lousy character, but he stops being pivotal after the season’s second episode and just becomes a minor background character. ISeveral episodes also guest-star The Legend of Zelda‘s Link and Zelda. Unfortunately, that show’s supporting cast doesn’t also appear, and Link seems to have grown up some, as he’s no longer trying to get into Zelda’s pants every five minutes or saying “Excuuuuuse me, Princess!” all the time, which makes him boring. The Link and Zelda that appear here were based more on their Zelda II: Adventures of Link versions, so some stuff (like the Master Sword, which wasn’t created until Link to the Past) is still missing.

If there was any company as cheap as Filmation back in the 80s, it was DiC, and it shows in Captain N. The first season includes some animation that’s really horrible even by 1988 standards, and it’s coupled with a live-action intro so cheesy it’s hard to believe it actually exists. (Though before you wow yourself, the kid playing Kevin isn’t Matt Hill). Heck, several episodes even have unfinished animation and missing backgrounds. The second season offers slightly improved animation along with much better effects, but it still pales next to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or G.I. Joe. Unfortunately, Shout Factory decided to rush this boxset to store shelves, so we only get a basic restoration. Considering BCI’s excellent restoration of the resoundingly crappy Ghostbusters, it’s a shame that this better series only gets a minor restoration. Grain, dirt, scratches, halos, disappearing animation—all the problems associated with bad 80s cartoons are still present, and it’s a rather sad affair.

Much of Captain N‘s voice cast comes from the now-familiar Ocean Group Westwood voice pool. Matt Hill (Kira in Gundam SEED/Destiny) voices Kevin; Venus Terzo (Talia in SEED Destiny, Girl Ranma in Ranma 1/2) voices Lana; Alessandro Juiliani (Gaeta in the Battlestar Galactica remake) is Kid Icarus; Gary Chalk (Optimus Primal in Beast Wars, Colonel Chekov in Stargate SG-1) voices King Hippo and Donkey Kong. All sound pretty good, though Kid Icarus has this tendency to end many of his words with “-icus,” which gets annoying after about five minutes. But easily the standout in the voice cast is Levi Stubbs (from the Motown group The Four Tops), who turns the scripts to gold and can make even the worst episodes watchable. Elsewhere on the sound front: Much of the first season’s music, which originally included licensed songs (like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”), have been replaced with random BGM, but the second season keeps the made-for-the-show vocal songs. Unfortunately, those vocal songs really suck and make me wish they had got rid of them as well.

Extras are slim. The menu set up is designed to resemble a video game, and the way it separates extras based on worlds will probably annoy some people. Each disc showcases various backgrounds in a set of “Exploring Nintendoland” featurettes; they also include character bios that show off some early concept art. (GameBoy had about a dozen different designs.) Disc 4 also has the complete original story for Captain N and features Nintendo employees Brett, Max, and Tara. The story has Brett transforming into Captain N, who must face off against a silent Mother Brain and an evil Ganon by transporting Link to his world. It’s quite obvious Brett was the one who wrote the story, since all the women are in love with him and he does all the work. Unfortunately, it’s clumsy to watch a text story, especially a long one, being read on your TV. This feature should have come as a DVD-ROM pdf.

The biggest omission is the lack of anything about the games themselves. Part of the problem is that Shout Factory had to cancel an additional booklet so they could get the DVD out on time. The rest of it is Nintendo, which seems to be embarrassed about these late-80s cartoons and so refused to give Shout Factory permission to use anything from the games. That’s a shame, but Shout Factory could at least have interviewed the cast and crew, as many of them are still working today. Another hole: The seven-episode third season, Captain N and the Adventures of the Super Mario Bros., is missing. But as it featured horrible production values, new and crappier character designs, and a Bo Jackson and Larry Bird voiced by people who were not Bo Jackson and Larry Bird, its absence might be a good thing.

Overall, Captain N is only for nostalgia buffs. The series itself is hardly worth watching, but if you’re a big fan of 80s Nintendo games and have a sense of humor, you might enjoy this series. Everyone else, stay far away.

Episodes on Captain N: The Game Master Complete Series Boxset:
Episode #01: “Kevin in Videoland”
Episode #02: “How’s Bayou?”
Episode #03: “The Most Dangerous Game Master”
Episode #04: “Videolympics”
Episode #05: “Mega Trouble for Megaland”
Episode #06: “Wishful Thinking”
Episode #07: “Three Men & a Dragon”
Episode #08: “Mr. & Mrs. Mother Brain”
Episode #09: “Nightmare on Mother Brain’s Street”
Episode #10: “Simon the Ape-Man”
Episode #11: “In Search of the King”
Episode #12: “Metroid, Sweet Metroid”
Episode #13: “Happy Birthday, MegaMan”
Episode #14: “GameBoy”
Episode #15: “Queen of the Apes”
Episode #16: “Quest for the Potion of Power”
Episode #17: “The Trouble with Tetris”
Episode #18: “The Big Game”
Episode #19: “The Lost City of Kongoland”
Episode #20: “Once Upon a Time Machine”
Episode #21: “The Feud of Faxanadu”
Episode #22: “Having a Ball”
Episode #23: “The Trojan Dragon”
Episode #24: “I Wish I Was a Wombatman”
Episode #25: “The Invasion of the Paper Pedalers”
Episode #26: “Germ Wars”

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