The White House in Nintendo 64’s Cruis’n USA. (Photo: rusha/YouTube)

Have you ever completed the Nintendo 64 version of Cruis’n USA? If you have, or if you saw a friend beat it sometime in the late ‘90s, you may remember that the game’s cross-country road race — which takes you across the Golden Gate Bridge and through a redwood forest at speeds close to 200 MPH—ends up in Washington D.C., at the White House. Once you’ve triumphed, the camera pans upward and a farm comes into view on the White House roof. Cows and secret service agents surround your victorious car as it spins on a platform. [screengrab

This might strike you as a very subtle commentary on the Arkansan upbringing of then-president Bill Clinton. But the scene wasn’t meant to be subtle. 

It turns out that the arcade version Cruis’n USA — the original — has a slightly different ending. In this version, before showing the roof, the screen flashes “Political Cartoon” for a moment. And once the camera’s panned up to the roof, a different cast appears: among the secret service and cows sits Bill Clinton, relaxing in a hot tub placed in the back of a pickup truck. Accompanying him are two smiling, bouncing women in pink bikinis — one a tall-haired blonde, the other: present-day Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Rodham Clinton.  

The roof of the White House, complete with Bill Clinton hot tub, in the arcade version. (Photo: YesterPlay 80/YouTube)

For those of you who’ve never sat down to play Cruis’n—either on N64 or in an arcade—the game’s premise is simple: you participate in a series of races that take you across the USA, west to east. First is San Francisco, then down the California coast, across Beverly Hills, Nebraska, Iowa, Chicago, West Virginia, finally the District of Columbia. At the height of its popularity, the game was ubiquitous in arcades and basements all across the United States. Known not only for its high-speed action, but also for its campy disregard for physics, Cruis’n USA presented an alternate reality in which school buses bounce off your car’s bumper, shirtless men pump their fists at every finish line, and the soundtrack samples breathy female oohs and aahs. (The track in question is “House Special,” though “Deadwood Ride” is worth a listen.)

But why did a game meant to thrill and titillate contain a “Political Cartoon” that — in light of Hillary Clinton’s current candidacy — seems so relevant more than 20 years later? And why did Nintendo see fit to excise the scene from its home console version?

Nintendo 64’s Cruis’n USA. (Photo: rusha/YouTube)

The reason for the discrepancy was Nintendo’s interest in editing out racy and political content for the home video game audience in 1996. The Clintons and the hot tub were gone. So too was the ability to hit and explode cows and deer at high speed. And the gyrating woman who presents a trophy after each stage? She had changed outfits, from bikini top to t-shirt.

Nintendo also insisted on removing a more subtle political moment from the arcade game. In the N64 version, about halfway through the D.C. racetrack, you pass through a tunnel whose walls are plastered with $100 bills — pixelated Ben Franklins repeat endlessly as you scream by at 180 MPH. Another subtle commentary, it seems, this time on money in politics. But the arcade version had a different face grafted onto the bills: Hillary Clinton’s, smoking a cigar.

Once news had broken about the upcoming N64 port, infuriated gamers penned anti-censorship letters to Nintendo headquarters. At the time, Eugene Jarvis, the director of the original arcade game, vented his frustration to a game news website. “It seems like they don’t have any sense of humor,” he said of Nintendo. “I don’t know what’s wrong with those people.”

The opening of Cruis’n USA. (Photo: 0405G/YouTube)

When I reached Jarvis earlier this week, he seemed to have cooled off. “The whole censorship thing bothered me back in the day,” he wrote in an email, “but it is understandable as Nintendo does have a strict policy against political content.” He also wanted to clarify that the scene was not meant to be as politically pointed as it might seem in hindsight. “There was not really any political agenda per se,” he wrote. “Just having a little fun with the ‘body politic.’”

That said, there is some unexpected specificity to the hot tub scene.

In 2011, Cruis’n’s lead programmer, Eric Pribyl, fielded questions about Cruis’n on Reddit, and identified the blonde in the hot tub as Gennifer Flowers, an actress and model who had made her affair with Clinton public in 1992.

In Cruis’n World, the 1996 sequel to USA, the hot tub reappears, again with Hillary and a blonde to Bill’s left and right, though this time they’re on the moon — for some “lunar hot tub lunacy,” as Jarvis put it. Hence Bill’s memorable line as the tub leaves the surface of the moon: “Hold on, Hillary!” 

And in 1999’s Cruis’n Exotica, the third installment (tagline: “Get Exotic!”), Bill and his hot tub appear once more, though Hillary’s been replaced by a cow, and the bikini blonde to his right has gone brunette. A nod to the Monica Lewinsky scandal? Jarvis wouldn’t confirm it.

The road map in the Nintendo 64 game. (Photo: rusha/YouTube)

Revisiting the Cruis’n controversy turns out to be unusually timely, not just because of another Clinton’s bid for the White House. “Coincidentally we are working on a new Cruis’n game right now,” Jarvis wrote. But he downplayed the notion that a President Trump would be a natural fit for the hot tub. “Trump seems a little too angry to have Bill’s joie de vivre.” Of course, if Trump does win the upcoming election, Jarvis could see the Trump clan enjoying themselves in the presidential hot tub in “photogenic bliss.”

In the end, elements of Jarvis’s original joke turned out to predict certain elements of the future. The Clintons did maintain a small vegetable garden on the White House roof, and in 1997, after undergoing knee surgery, President Clinton did install a hot tub on the White House grounds.