“Kevin…I thought I told you to clean up your room!”
A hero is born. Kevin Keene is an unsuspecting teenager from Northridge, California. He has a golden retriever named Duke and he is decent at Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out. When poorly animated blue waves of electricity emerge from his television Kevin and Duke are transported to Video Land where dozens of ridiculous adventures await them.
Thus we have Captain N: The Game Master, a 1989-1991 cartoon series capitalizing on the video game rage of the late 1980s. In the forest of terrible 80s cartoons, Captain N was just another tree, but for reasons laudatory and critical, it will remain the one I remember most fondly. No other show had such a cavalcade of video game characters, and that’s what made it so special. And with countless NES games, there was endless source material to keep the show running.
The infamous Power Glove, an NES accessory, appears in the opening sequence creating the ultimate warp zone sucking in our at first unwilling hero, transforming him from live action Kevin to cartoon Captain N and his dog from golden retriever to animated beagle. With his popped collar, tight powder blue jeans, and surfer boy accent Kevin is unmistakably a California extreme sports dude. Hard to believe he is also a game master. Realistically, Video Land would have instead summoned a frail, wordless, pasty boy with glasses. I guess I wished the game master would have been more like me, but maybe people would rather identify with cool Kevin Keene.
Equipped with his super power pad (an NES controller where his belt buckle would be) and his NES Zapper, Kevin immediately ascends to his role as the protector of both the kingdom and the beautiful Princess Lana, most often from the forces of Metroid’s Mother Brain. Like any good cartoon, our protagonists must thwart their nemeses’ various and often formulaic schemes. Kevin brings the N Team to victory by pressing the D-pad on his belt buckle at just the right time to dodge an enemy or projectile. Sometimes he holds the B-button to speed up, or presses the pause button (though he actually presses select) to paralyze everything around him so he can manipulate situations. You figure with such an unstoppable move he would use it more often.
Princess Lana manages to barely cross the line past cookie cutter video game princess. Though she speaks as if she were helpless often she takes action like Princess Leia from Star Wars. Unfortunately, she is never seen in any kind of political role, giving us the impression she sits on her throne all day. No explicit relationship with Kevin is explored, but she does kiss him in one episode. Though Lana shows herself to be at times vain and fearful, she manages to be the most mature and sensible of the group.
Kevin and Lana are not alone in Video Land. They are joined by an unforgivable cast of allies. Formerly, Castlevania’s Simon Belmont led the team. In the series Belmont is shown to be an egomaniacal narcissist and much of the show’s humor generates from his constant misfortunes. With the advent of Captain N, Simon drops to second in command further complicating his psychological problems. Simon’s self obsession plays like a broken record and gets tired fast. Though, largely in part to Simon, the show’s writers establish conflict in every scene, aside from the information dump narration.
Going back to when I was six-years-old, if I could have any video game ally it would be Mega Man. Think about it. He is a robot, so if he dies he can just be fixed. He has an arm cannon, a conscience, and is quite resourceful for a limited character. The whole Mega Man storyline provides good material as the rivalry of Dr. Light and Dr. Wily parallels that of Professor X and Magneto from X-Men. But Captain N got Mega Man so wrong it gave me a sick feeling in my stomach twenty years ago, and now.
What’s the first thing anyone knows about Mega Man? He is blue. He’s the blue bomber. His creator Kenji Inafune states he was specifically chosen to be blue because it would look best on the limited color palette of the NES. So what color do the creators of Captain N: The Game Master decide to make Mega Man? Green. He is green. And he’s about a foot tall. The my understanding, one of the creator’s TV color was off so Mega Man appeared green when he played. So it’s an inside joke. One that burrows away at the integrity of a great character. Supplement his greenness and limited stature with a throaty, not-really-but-sort-of-robotic voice and you drift even farther away from the Mega Man we knew and loved. Once his arm cannon is replaced by superhuman strength (aside from a few episodes) he really isn’t even Mega Man anymore.
If that wasn’t enough, the team is also joined by Kid Icarus, a whiny brat even smaller than Mega Man. Like the NES game, Kid Icarus flies and shoot magic arrows, but often he’s more trouble than he’s worth. Instead of emphasizing his abilities, his weakness is typically exploited to make Kevin look stronger by comparison. Maybe the show’s most annoying element are the characters’ catch phrases. By far, “mega” is the top adjective choice for the green bomber, and similarly Kid Icarus suffixes “—icus” to the end of most every phrase. This goes to the point where Mega Man exclaims “Mega hi!” in the opening and Kid Icarus calls Kevin and Lana “Kevinicus” and “Your Heinicus” respectively. These cringeworthy staples make me embarrassed to share an episode with anyone, or enjoy the program when anyone is within earshot.
Duke, as I mentioned, is a dog, so there’s not much to say. Think of him as the successor to Scooby-Doo and the predecessor to Rush from the “super fighting robot” Mega Man show. Duke often works as a Watson to Captain N so he doesn’t seem like he’s insane for talking to himself. Most importantly to the show, Duke is a plot-device when he chases robotic cats into dangerous warp zones setting the scene for the day’s adventure. Also, he wears a cool bandana.
In the show’s second season, Game Boy joins the cast. He is introduced as a sophisticated computer who floats around and assists the team. In reality, Game Boy was a shameless plug, since Nintendo’s first portable system of the same name was released the year before. Despite Mega Man’s inauthentic appearance, Game Boy perfectly resembled the system, aside from his animated face and stretchiness. Even when I was seven-years-old I knew Game Boy was a needless addition, even though at the time I didn’t realize the true reason for his existence. I cannot take the King of Video Land seriously when he entrusts Lana with Game Boy and tells her “He has been like a son to me.”
Although the Metroid game took place on Zebes, according to the show, Mother Brain and her minions live on a floating fortress called “Metroid.” The pivotal jellyfish parasites never appear on the show. Mother Brain sounds as ugly as she looks: a screeching voice and evil genius laugh to go with her wires, visible eye sockets, mangled teeth, bristly chin, bubbly forehead, and stretched holes where her nose might be. She orders around two principle lackeys: Punch-Out’s King Hippo and Kid Icarus’ Eggplant Wizard. More appalling than Mother Brain is King Hippo’s dark, droopy nipples which draw your attention more than they should. As expected King Hippo is a dumb lug, while Eggplant Wizard is more inventive but lacks common sense. The two of them fail repeatedly. If Mother Brain got rid of them she would easily conquer video land by herself. Unlike Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles the show doesn’t improve when we transition to the bad guys. Metroid, in this case, is no technodrome.
There’s a certain feeling I have when I approach my DVD shelf and pick up my DVD of Captain N: The Game Master. I am filled with excitement and anticipation for a show with many of the favorite characters. At the same time, I feel ashamed to own it and want to hide it in my closet. Sometimes I feel like this time I pop in the disc it will be the show I always wanted it to be.
There is so much to cover with this series I will in two future entries tackle individual episodes, humiliating moments and show goofs, while giving credit to the show’s music and sound effects, as well as crossovers to The Legend of Zelda series, and others. Until then, in the awkwardly adolescent voice of Kid Icarus:
“Princess, the palace is under siege!”