Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Phish self-released the double album Junta in 1988 (Bionic Commando and Black Bass)

I am going to venture a hypothesis. Actually, no. I'm going to speak authoritatively for the whole of humanity based on a minimal amount of thought and evidence. Nobody has ever enjoyed a childhood fishing trip. (To clarify, if you disagree and have enjoyed a childhood fishing trip, you are a liar and I will cut you.) I would say that nobody has actually ever enjoyed fishing at all, but this appears untrue. Not for the reason you might think - that a massive industry of fishing gear exists. No, no. This is a world where the electric knife was released on the market not because anyone would use one (market research said they wouldn't) but because they would buy them for other people. The mere fact that people spend large swaths of time and money doing something has nothing to with its actual pleasure. No, I will agree that somebody has once enjoyed fishing because my uncle apparently quite likes it, and he owes my sister graduation money, so I'd rather not anger him because I like my sister.

My own childhood fishing experience involved a child size fishing rod that in my mind was made by Fisher-Price, but I suspect this is a lie. It was on a family vacation that involved a cabin. I remember reading the novelization of Ghostbusters, and playing with a sort of spinning top fighting toy where you released two tops with robot heads on a bowl-shaped arena and let them "fight." I am fairly sure I caught nothing but sharks while fishing. A brief and token amount of research suggests that there is no chance whatsoever this is true, because I am reasonably certain I was fishing in freshwater. I should clarify that this is an inordinately hazy memory that it is possible I completely made up. In any case, fishing mostly consisted of disappointment. I still did better than some people.

All of which is buildup to discuss Black Bass, a game that really I have no business talking about. Black Bass sits in the vast ocean of casual games, an ocean that I generally avoid venturing into because, well, it annoys me. The overlap between the casual pool of video games and the pool of video games I usually play is minimal. Occasionally something like Tetris will vault over the gap. Usually, though, you've got something like Deer Hunter, one of the most popular video games ever, despite it lacking anything visible in the way of quality, at least to a standard issue video game player.

Black Bass fits neatly into a major genre of these games, the fishing sim - a genre that eventually went on to have its own peripherals for most video game systems. Here's a rough summary of my time with the game.

Minutes 1-20: Sitting, fruitlessly waiting for a fish to come play.
Minutes 21-25: Reading a FAQ to learn how to fish.
Minutes 26-30: Catching a fish.

In this regard, it coincides 2/3 of the way with my actual experience fishing. And yet these games are popular - Black Bass, in fact, spawned a sequel, Blue Marlin, which we'll be getting to in two entries' time. This despite the fact that, so far as I can tell, fishing in Black Bass is a matter of, if not pure luck, at least painfully systematic trial and error. But there is a simplicity to the game that is, perhaps, appealing. To someone else. Possibly the same mythical person that likes fishing in the first place.

Which is why I say casual games and "mainstream" games are fundamentally divergent markets. Because a game like Black Bass or Deer Hunter appeals to people who, ordinarily, would like to go fishing or to shoot Bambi in the face. Whereas, and this is fundamental, a game like Halo or Half-Life 2 appeals to people who are cowardly wimps who are never going to touch a gun in their lives. Here. We'll do a comparative illustration.

One of these men is a hunter. You can tell because he has a bloody deer carcass in front of him that he killed with a bow and arrow. The other picture depicts Halo players. You can tell because the man in the other picture could kill them with his bare hands. These two pictures do not depict people who like the same things.

On a similar note, we have this picture. This man does not have a bloody dear carcass in front of him. However he does have a massive gun and a bionic arm. Clearly he is the Bionic Commando, a fabled figure in video game lore. Bionic Commando presents an interesting problem for several reasons. It is unquestionably a massive classic for the NES. It is also one of a handful of games that are both mind-wrenchingly difficult and still widely regarded as great games. Part of the difficulty of Bionic Commando is that the game aggressively fails to work in the standard side-scrolling platformer mode. For instance, as it turns out, Bionic men can't jump. Instead, they can pull themselves up with their bionic arms, and swing around. This makes the game hard enough, since it completely eliminates all default assumptions a player has about how to approach a problem. Add to this the fact that health is scarce, continues are scarce, and there are a lot of people shooting at you and you have a legendarily difficult game.

Despite the difficulty, though, the game is quite good. The changes to the mechanics mostly work - the bionic arm is a bit persnickety at times, but there's something strangely alluring about the mechanic, as it turns even relatively banal parts of the game into interesting tactical puzzles. Its status as a classic is deserved, but also strange - like Battletoads, this is a classic that most people have not meaningfully experienced.

The lack of full experience of Bionic Commando, is perhaps a larger issue than that of Battletoads. Bionic Commando, you see, is tragically better known by its US title than its far superior Japanese title, The Resurrection of Hitler: Top Secret. Today, with the Internet, it has become common knowledge that Bionic Commando ends with a gruesome graphic of undead Hitler's exploding head.

I swear to you I am not making any of this up.

The thing is, the game is really well known for this now. To the point where when they remade Bionic Commando for the XBox, they kept exploding Hitler. What's weird, though, is that because Bionic Commando was so ruthlessly hard, I don't think much of anyone knew about exploding Hitler in 1988-89 when the game was in its heyday. I certainly had never heard about it, despite having a familiarity with the game. The odds that you knew someone who had beaten Bionic Commando were pretty slim.

I have talked before of secret histories. By this I mean the history that was going on unseen while you were busy experiencing your own version of history. Secret histories weave their ways in and out of lived experience. Two months before Bionic Commando came out, Ministry released The Land of Rape and Honey. One month after that, Milli Vanilli's debut album came out. The month Bionic Commando came out, Vanessa Hudgens and Roy Orbison traded places in the world. That year, My Neighbor Totoro came out. So did Crocodile Dundy II. This confluence of facts was known to few people in 1988, and yet it somehow across these facts is the core of the historical experience - the truth of what 1988 was, buried far away from how anyone actually lived 1988.

Bionic Commando poses an interesting problem for memory, however. Simply put, it is now remembered for and in a way that has precious little to do with its actual historical experience. Exploding Hitler, a massive part of the game's legacy, could not possibly have been a large part of its reception. He could only have been known to a handful of players, who lacked the mass communication tools to form a community around this knowledge. Its secret history was more of a secret than most, uncovered only now, grafted back on as a history almost totally unexperienced.

Did Gina Hudgens sit, eight months pregnant, watching the election returns come in for the first President Bush and listen to Ministry? Was she a lover of Japanese cinema who realized the massive shift that was happening as Akira, Grave of the Fireflies and My Neighbor Totoro all came out? Did she, shortly before giving birth, play Capcom's Bionic Commando and beat it? Did her water break to the image of exploding Hitler?

And if not, does anyone truly understand 1988?

Merzbow (Bigfoot, Bill and Ted's Excellent Video Game Adventure, Bill Elliott's NASCAR Challenge)

It is an ironic fact that memory is a collective act, while the actual relics of historical experience are personal. Case in point - I am a nerd. Accordingly, of the following three cultural touchstones, only one is distinctly part of my memory: monster truck rallies, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, and NASCAR. Thus it is unusual that these three games - Bigfoot, Bill and Ted's Excellent Video Game Adventure, and Bill Elliott's NASCAR Challenge - should be presented sequentially.

Playing these games, absolutely none of which are even remotely good, I came to realize something, though. Although monster truck rallies are in no way part of my memory, they were distinctly a part of my past. I can't put my finger on exactly when monster trucks crossed the thin line from awesome to redneck, but it is clear that at some point they did. I remember growing up, however, that monster trucks were simply a part of my cultural landscape, and they were awesome. Reconstructing this signifying chain is a challenge - they were inexorably linked to Hulk Hogan, and thus to professional wrestling, which accompanied them across the line to redneck. (In the 80s, professional wrestling was not redneck. This is easily demonstrated by the fact that, in the 80s, professional wrestling was gayer than Justin Bieber.) Past that, I'm not sure. I suspect these things existed as part of the general cultural mishmash that was Saturday morning cartoons. (There is an entry to be written about the role of Saturday morning cartoons in creating cultural hegemony and collectivism, in which I argue that the preposterously large margin of victory Obama enjoyed among 18-29 year olds is primarily due to Saturday morning cartoons. This is not that entry.)

Somewhere on the road from the 1980s to today, however, monster trucks passed out of my cultural background. This is in many ways a pity, because the fundamental idea of gigantic machines crushing other machines is not redneck at all, a fact that Battlebots, Mythbusters, Transformers, and the bulk of giant robots will readily attest to. Bigfoot, then, represents this earlier, naive time period in which a man could drive a giant truck over cars without shame or cultural judgment. Regardless of whether this act is fun (and in Bigfoot it amounts to little more than a generic car stunt game of the most disposable rent-only kind), it is something that ought to be part of our culture.

I can readily imagine, on the other side of this seemingly insurmountable cultural divide, someone sitting at a monster truck rally. A sense of sorrow creeps over them. They are past the point where their childhood imagination ever took them, past having grown up and into some strange twilight state their childhood never made room for. For no reason, a pang of memory strikes, and they remember an afternoon watching a scratchy VHS tape of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. Their intake of science fiction is limited now to the culturally prescribed mass appeal movies. They have no concept that Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure is, among other things, an elaborate send-up of Doctor Who, the longest-running science fiction show of all time. They are unaware that most of the best jokes in Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey come from parodies of The Seventh Seal. All they know, and even this they know in a way that is beyond words, is that there is some secret history, some alternate mode of being contained in this thing that is not a memory, that is an uncanny other to their entire cultural apparatus. Before a tear can form, a gigantic truck crushes a mobile home, and all is forgiven.

If memory is the personal treason that rewrites history into a cultural milieu, nostalgia is the drive to connect impossibly with lived experience. It is nostalgia that sends one to the dust-ridden gray rectangles of NES games, where these strands of lost history coexist. That Bill and Ted's Excellent Video Game Adventure is a tedious piece of drek involving a lot of awkward isometric dodge-sprite, just as Bigfoot is an unmemorable entry into a basically uninteresting genre is, perhaps simply an idiotic historical accident of poor design. Or perhaps it is a crowning arch-metaphor for the impossibility of reconciling memory to actual lived experience - of the impossibility of carving a cultural position where the individual love of giant cars and sci-fi can co-exist.

The fantasy that this cultural hegemony that separates giant robots and giant trucks forevermore is in some way permeable underlies the film Billy Elliot, in which we learn that the harsh realities of fading Welsh mining towns and the cultural elitism of ballet dancing exist on opposite sides of a gauzy piece of tulle. Is it mere coincidence that this British film appropriates the name of a NASCAR driver whose name was in turn given to the first licensed NASCAR video game? Is the film itself a fugue on cultural permeability, suggesting the bleed from male ballet dancing to the ultimate in masculinity? One is adapted by Elton John into a musical. The other is appropriated by Rush Limbaugh to define an agrarian fantasy of America. One plays at the other's wedding. This is surely a false history, constructed from coincidence and culturally determined memory.

But the Other plays at all weddings. The line between memory and experience is a haze of noise that we endlessly ascribe signal to. In that din, who can tell the difference between a Wyld Stallyns concert and the roar of a monster truck engine?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Daisies Break Their Fetters (Big Bird's Hide and Speak)

An oft unremarked upon aspect of the famed RCA Dog is that its fundamental concept of the image is that the dog is entranced specifically by the sound of his dead master's voice coming through the gramophone. The game today is Big Bird's Hide and Speak, and as you can see, we're setting up for a cheery little number.

Caroll Spinney, the voice of Big Bird, is well past the life expectancy for an American male. Despite this, he still both wears the quite large Big Bird suit and provides the voice for Oscar the Grouch, which, he claims, is actually the harder character to perform. Nevertheless, and I am
not the first to note this, the very real fact is that Caroll Spinney is going to die, and this event will most likely occur in the relatively near future.

Big Bird's Hide and Speak contains what is a surprisingly good rendition of Big Bird's voice for an 8-bit video game. The rendition is skillful enough to form a major part of the game's presentation, as it explicitly credits Spinney as providing the voice of Big Bird in the game. I am not privy to the technical details - I do not know how much the voice is in fact based on actual recordings of Spinney. Let us, however, assume that the game is as presented, and in fact it is one of the earliest games to use actual sound recordings of people. (Is it perhaps the first? I assume not, but I've no particular proof for this assertion)

The core concept of the RCA Dog is that the phonograph is a physical remnant of his master's life. That is, ther eis a specific uncanny artifact that the dog peers puzzledly at. But Big Bird's Hide and Speak differs in two regards. First, it is functionally infinitely copied. Because NES games have been reduced to transmissible ROM files of relatively small size, they have been decoupled from physical media and physical devices upon which they can be played. A reasonably large number of people have downloaded or copied the ROM file, and it can be played on dozens of different systems. For my part, I have no fewer than four devices capable of playing Big Bird's Hide and Seek right now, and I'm pretty sure I've got about eight more on which it could be installed with a touch of jiggery pokery.

This is distinct from fetters. For me, there are two fetters of Caroll Spinney worth remarking upon. The first is Big Bird’s Red Book, a Little Golden Book in which Big Bird fretted about where he put the red thing he was going to show the reader, as various other red things whiz about. Eventually, he sits down on a paper bag and crushes the tomatoes he was going to show the reader. I liked tomatoes. (See also
Attack of the Killer Tomatoes)

The other is the
Electronic Talk ‘n Play, which I affectionately remember as the Big Bird Computer. It was a tape player with four colored buttons and specially made four-track tapes that would change tracks depending on which button you pressed, allowing the tapes to pose interactive puzzles and games. The best of the set was Grover’s Don’t Push the Red Button, in which Grover implores you not to push the red button, and you, no doubt, push it anyway, you bastard.

I have neither of these fetters anymore. I looked, yesterday, for Big Bird's Red Book at the town book sale. It was not there. Nor was the best of the Sesame Street Little Golden Books, The Monster at the End of this Book, a book notable for many things, including having one of the best examples of Wikipedia prose as art in its article, which describes it drolly as "a post-modern children's book." They did have the pointless sequel, Another Monster at the End of this Book, which Wikipedia notes features the "ubiquitous Elmo." The Big Bird Computer is as abandoned as the cassette medium it depended on. These things pass not into history but into the awkwardness of memory - the fetters are irretrievable.

Big Bird's Hide and Speak is different. As opposed to being bound up in a fetter, this element of childhood is spread vastly, transmitted throughout the Internet, perfectly iterated, undistorted by the vagaries of memory. Big Bird's Hide and Speak perfectly preserves this voice, ironically squawking the now impossible commands - find Grover. Find Elmo. And perhaps most tragically, find Ernie. Poor Ernie, the Muppet most marked by death following death of Jim Henson. There are, in my childhood, few celebrity deaths I have any sense of. Jim Henson and Roald Dahl are the only two that spring to mind. Jim Henson's death was, of course, marked with one of the greatest Muppet specials of all time, with the heartbreaking moment of the Muppets looking down and realizing that there are people down there... but one of them is missing.

As all of these things, Spinney included, pass to history and memory, Spinney's voice is perfectly preserved, compelling us to find what is lost. With the rise of wireless transmission and networking, packets of Caroll Spinney's voice whiz around, past, and through us. A waste transmission, mis-aimed, spreads upwards, outwards into space, a whisp of noise floating out towrds the edges of creation. Right now, my body may be permeated, run straight through with the voice of Caroll Spinney.

Our childhood, then, is well preserved. But this preservation is contingent on our continual storage and transmission of the data. A fetter is mildly self-preserving - indeed, through something approximating random chance, we have what we now call the history of the Western world. But this ghost is preserved only by our own transmissions and receptions of it. Perhaps Spinney lives forever, transmitted in wave form out into space, but this wave is always ahead of us - the signal cannot be caught up with. Spinney is immortal for everybody but us - we depend on the continual transmission of the signal.

The tragedy here is that the moment of this ghost has already passed. The game is a preposterously simple game consisting of selecting among four windows to spell words, identify characters, et cetera. All four directional buttons simply move clockwise around the windows. A and B do the exact same thing - select the current window. Start and Select also do the same thing - exit and let you pick a new minigame to play. It is a game that one grows out of exceedingly quickly. On top of that, it is, like all Nintendo games, a matter of archeology - an experience that belongs distinctly to another time.

Caroll Spinney has outlived his own ghost. Were it that he could outlive childhood.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream for 8 Bit Representations of Michael Keaton (Beetlejuce and Best of the Best Championship Karate)

I was getting ice cream yesterday, and behind me in line was a very upset child. I am usually one of those people with a certain minimalist tolerance for the reproductive errors of others. Not childfree by any measure - I desperately want kids. But my attitude towards them is much like my attitudes towards dogs - I intend to like my children. Other people's can bugger off. But I digress.

This kid, I found tolerable, indeed endearing. His initial objection, indeed his objection through most of the line, was that because he could not read, he could not know that he was ordering the ice cream that he wanted. Accordingly, he was insistent that his father read to him the entire menu board. This struck me as a fundamentally rational request. His problem was not so much that he was not getting what he wanted as that he understood enough to have a clear and cogent vision of how the world ought to be, and he was deeply upset that it was failing to adhere to this understanding.

Which brings us to the unplayably bad Beetlejuice. Somewhat astonishingly, and I say this primarily out of a sense of fear, Beetlejuice is not a regular on worst-NES-games-ever lists. One of the things I have not done a lot of in this blog is discuss what makes a game bad. This is surprising, because it's actually a fairly straightforward answer - most games are bad because they behave unexpectedly. That is, the game sets the player up to fail. Some examples from Bettlejuice.

  1. Enemy knockback (i.e. when you hit you fly backwards) that is about a quarter of a screen, making it incredibly easy to get knocked down pits.
  2. Enemy knockback that occurs from things that are not actually enemies.
  3. Deeply unpredictable rules on whether backtracking downwards will kill you or not.
  4. Enemies that appear to follow a pattern right up until you try to jump past them, at which point they break the pattern and murder you.
  5. The thing that appears to be Beetlejuice's attack... isn't. Or at least, it is wholly ineffective in hitting bad guys.
What is depressing is that Beetlejuice has so many of these, not that it has them at all. And our other game of the day, Best of the Best Championship Karate, is similarly frustrating, as I found out after a lengthy battle that despite the fact that I knocked my opponent to the floor roughly 50 times, the "knock my opponent to the floor" attack does not actually do "damage" as such, and so I was basically being totally useless.

Which brings us to the kid, and my suspicion that the ice cream place would be much less traumatic for him if only he'd been playing video games his entire life. Or, at least, if he'd been playing shitty old video games his entire life. Because seriously, those prepare you really well for the horrifying realization that you are completely impotent in the face of a callous reality that in no way conforms to your will or expectations.

And then you can shut up and enjoy your ice cream without pissing me off.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The realm of the dead is as extensive as the storage and transmission capabilities of a given culture: Battletoads and Battletoads & Double Dragon

Sorry for the lengthy absence - moving left my access to the games themselves out of commission for several weeks longer than I expected. We now return to your irregularly scheduled programming.

So, Battletoads. This game is, somewhat perversely, a classic. No. Not somewhat perversely. Really perversely. This is possibly the least likely game to be tagged as a classic of the system ever, for one basic reason - it is basically completely impossible.

Let me stress this, because it really bears mentioning. I cheated to play this game. I cheated heavily. And I could not beat it. The third to last level has a racing section that is as close to impossible as I have experienced in a video game. It is a festival of ruthless brutality.

Now, I am all in favor of hard games, so long as they are fair. And Battletoads, to its credit, remains on the good side of that line. Mind you, it toes up against it, and holds its finger to the line and says in a nauseatingly mocking voice "I'm not touching you." But it doesn't cross the line. You always know basically what's happening and what you're supposed to do. It's just generally not quite possible to do it. But that's fine. The world of video games is broad enough to encompass games that are for hardcore maniac players.

The problem is, Battletoads isn't that. It's a game that is widely recognized and even fondly remembered. And that is bizarre. Part of that is no doubt down to an unusually extensive promotional push in Nintendo Power that built the game into one of the earlier anticipated Video Game Events. But events flame out all the time. And Battletoads should have been prime fodder for a flameout - hardly anybody could actually get past level three in the game. Doubly so if they were stupid enough to play multiplayer, which, in that level, required both players to beat a very fast, very hard racing sequence perfectly or both would get sent back to the start.

And if they were lucky enough to clear level 3, their reward was for the game to get harder. Sure, the later levels are great. The snake riding level is absolutely brilliant. Each level has palpably different challenges and different control schemes, each remaining intuitive and fun. But nobody loves the game for these levels, because there are about five people in the world who ever saw them without cheating. So, you know. Not a selling point.

Nor is the game remembered for its innovative premise, which was roughly "directly rip off Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but make them frogs."

And yet the game endures as a strange sort of classic. What, for me, Battletoads is an interesting reminder of is the room for idiosyncracy within the largely homogenous experience of playing video games. And make no mistake, playing video games is an exercise far more in structures of social control than it is in any sort of freedom or interactivity. This is why there are few more iconic images to be had in my generation than the first four question marks of Super Mario Bros. Battletoads has only slightly less iconic status than this, but the experience of playing it is, to my mind, deeply personal in a way few other video games are.

Simply put, to play Battletoads as a child is to confront death. I try, mostly, not to overanalyze games, but that's simply the case here. And not merely in the dully straightforward sense of losing lives. Rather, Battletoads is an encounter with impossibility - an impossibility that is unlike most of those confronted in childhood inasmuch as it is not one that seems likely to be overcome by aging. Video game skill is like this - when I grow up, I may be President, but one's sense of skill at video games is a peculiarly youthful property. (Reinforced, no doubt, by the fact that one is always better than one's parents at video games)

The result is a hard limit. Battletoads was harder than we were capable of grappling with at our prime. Ruthlessly, brutally, uncompromisingly so. And yet it was presented to us as a major video game event. As part of the basic landscape of our mass entertainment. As a child, this landscape mattered to me, as did my ability to navigate it. I doubt I was alone. To be so utterly overcome by it was significant. Because, and this is worth stressing again, unlike 90% of really hard Nintendo games, Battletoads was not hard because the control scheme sucked. It was hard because it was really bloody hard.

It helps also that Battletoads saw release a mere two months before the Super Nintendo, staking out a position at a transitory moment. It is the video game that beat the players right before a seismic shift in which the entire video game apparatus slid away from the known towards something else. What was key about the transition to the Super Nintendo was that there was no backward compatibility. To move forward was to leave an entire generation of games behind. Battletoads, though it was far from the last NES game to come out, marked the end of the era. To end that era with a game that reminded players of their own mortality and of the vagaries of human frailty was a powerful statement that explains, for me at least, why the NES embeds itself mythically in the history of video games in a way no other system can.

Battletoads also had its finger in the wave of games that came after the SNES was released - the sort of epitaph to the NES, with its fantastically ill-advised sequel, which crossed it over with the Double Dragon franchise. By this time the medium had jumped to the 16-bit era, and the NES was a dead system walking - indeed, Battletoads & Double Dragon got a Super Nintendo port a few months after it came out. The game by and large plays like the zombie it is - lifeless, a hair too easy, and somehow lacking all of the perversely brutal charm of the original. The less said about it, the better, really. I think I'll even pass on including a screenshot.