Image: Nintendo Life
When you think back to when you were in middle school and spent all night playing video games with your friends, what games do you play? Is it Mass Effect? Maybe a repeat of Smash or Mario Kart? The biggest game when I was that age was Street Fighter II in all its versions. But there’s another game that brings back the most vivid memories, and it’s incredibly stupid: Wall Street Kid for the NES.
My friend Russ and I loved JRPGs, and Wall Street Kid hit the spot I think. After replaying Final Fantasy II (now actually known as FFIV) on our brand new SNES, we switched to the older Nintendo system for some raw casino capitalism. This game was honestly a lot more challenging than leveling up Cecil, Rosa, and Cain, and I vividly remember throwing away my rectangular controller when I couldn’t make $1 million to buy a starter house , accidentally tipping over a two-liter bottle of Pepsi. It was three in the morning.
Wall Street Kid is a deeply odd game, and I always get a little disgusted to think it exists. Released in Japan as The Money Game II: Kabutochou no Kiseki in 1989 and in North America the following year, this title pays homage to wealth and its accumulation while offering enough tongue-in-cheek commentary to let you know that we’re in the middle of a joke. Perhaps.
But the world has changed a lot in the last 30+ years. The image of the investment tycoon isn’t worshiped quite so uncritically, especially after “Wolf of Wall Street,” after the housing crisis, after bank failures, and, well, everything else. That’s not to say there aren’t a lot of people aspiring to be Wall Street kids or something similar in the venture capital or crypto space. So I was curious: how would it feel to play Wall Street Kid today in the year of our Lord 2023?
Image: Nintendo Life
Strange. It felt weird.
At the start of the game, you’re told that your wealthy uncle has just died and left you his $600 billion fortune – but only if you can show your money-handling skills in the stock market. You are presented with $500,000 to invest and given a month to earn enough to “buy a decent $1 million house.” You know, your standard starter house. If that wasn’t already outrageous enough, I could just say that $1 million in 1990 would be $2,321,063.50 today.
But wait, there’s more! Once you’ve got everything in hand and made a few other major purchases, the end game is to buy back the family castle. Sure, why not.
Alright, let’s dive in! Each game day in Wall Street Kid begins with a stock news story, letting you know what types of stocks are doing well and some hot investments. Through a point-and-click interface, you can then spend cash to buy stocks with names like YBM and Boing that reflect real companies popular at the time, or sell what you have and reinvest. There are a few other activities (more on that in a moment), and then you can press the clock to end your day and see how your portfolio has performed.
When you play an investor who buys and sells stocks based on current trends rather than the companies they represent, you can’t help feeling that our entire economy revolves around guys trying to get their money in 30 days to double buy a fancy house. It’s not a good feeling.
Pictures: Nintendo Life
As you buy and sell stocks to earn your first million, your character must also take care of his physical health and that of his fiancée, Prisila. (Yes, that’s how it’s spelled.) Neglecting any of these conditions will result in game-ending conditions.
Prisila adds some extra rough dimensions to the game. First, it’s not great to present your relationship as a chore to be done. The fully transactional nature of your dates is underscored by the specificity of dialogues such as “I’m really going to enjoy these four hours.” But then there is the deeply problematic dynamic of the relationship itself. Prisila frequently asks our heroine to buy her things – a dog, a car, an engagement ring – and if she misses these opportunities, she risks losing the game. We don’t see our protagonist and Prisila together, we don’t get a glimpse into their lives; It literally exists only as a cost of time and resources, portrayed in the old-school misogynist manner of men who hate their wives.
The first thing you have to do after you’ve bought your million-dollar house, unless you’ve done exceptionally well up to this point in the game, is put it down as collateral for an $800,000 loan so you can go with can continue buying and selling, right back on the hamster wheel for the next big purchase. In case you are wondering, a yacht for your wedding. Once again, this game reduces the value of everything to its ability to create more value. That is, to be fair, a fairly accurate representation of late capitalism. What is a home if not an “asset”? We literally use “property” as a synonym for the place where we sleep.
No, none of that came to my mind in the early 1990s.
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In fact, I understand why I loved Wall Street Kid as a teenager. It’s like a caricature of the American Dream, where pointing and clicking in the right order unlocks unimaginable riches. The mechanism of choosing your investments and then tapping the clock to end the day gives both the satisfaction of choice and the rush to indulge in the vagaries of fate. At a time when fewer adults were playing video games, it felt like a window into what someone older could be playing. Wall Street Kid felt kinda cool.
Wall Street Kid is said to be ambitious. It’s just a game, yes, and one that seems very aware of its cartoonish nature. But it’s a game that’s at least nominally based on the real world, and it’s a game that wants you to want things. They want the fancy house. You want to make your dear friend happy. You want to be a millionaire – check it out, billionaire. And there is always more to want.
However, as an adult, looking back at The Wall Street Kid, I’m mostly a little sad that a lot of people still see the world that way — stocks more of a bet than an investment, family life a commitment that needs to be crossed off a list — and concerned about the extent to which our real-world economy is gamified.
Image: Nintendo Life
But I’m also encouraged by how far we’ve come. “Couldn’t do that today” is usually a complaint, and it’s definitely dead wrong – many terrible things continue to come out. But “Wall Street Kid” almost certainly wouldn’t be made today, at least not in the same way. On the one hand, modern systems allow for a lot more complexity – I can imagine having some fun with a GameStonks-style quest, and instead of a one-dimensional fiancé there could also be Persona-esque romance tracks – but beyond that, I think the material doing so would be treated differently.
For one thing, our attitude toward extreme wealth has changed. While many people continue to admire Elon Musk and company, there’s a feeling that the very rich should do something about it; There is an ongoing drive for innovation among the affluent people of Silicon Valley, or alternatively, by the masses, for justice. Simply buying a lock is not enough.
We should want more. But what that looks like is so different from growing up with the Wall Street Kid. For my part, I prefer an endeavor aimed at taking action together with your community and loved ones for the good of all.
You know how Final Fantasy IV.