Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Here, Where the Daylight Begins (Castelian, Castle of Dragon, Castlequest)

Autumn, my preferred season, has a charming tendency to arrive with minimal fanfare, switching with reckless aplomb from "turn the air on" to "holy fuck where the hell are my sweaters" in, if it's taking a slow way around, a day or so. Which is where today went. Autumn is inexorably bound to New England for me, although it's been seven years since I've gotten to properly experience it. Though here I am.

In the past I've gotten my fill of autumn, when possible, by dashing back for a few days for my sister's birthday. Now I'm calmly waiting for my birthday, and, a few days later, all in less than a week, my sister going away to college. In England. So I don't much see what else to write about but that. And her. And castles. Which fits in well with England.

Castelian, technically starting with castel instead of castle, is the odd duck out, or in this case, the odd pig out, as the game consists of walking a strange pig creature around surprisingly well-rendered 3-D towers. I played an earlier version on the Commodore 64. It's a remarkably innovative game, but sinks limply into awkward controls and non-intuitive puzzle-solving necessitating repeated trial-and-error playing.

This is one of those points where reality and gaming diverge sharply. Reality is intensely trial-and-error. Relationships and family? Trial-and-error. And let's face it, there's a lot of error. Even in a relationship as essentially unfraught with tension as mine with my sister. Look, let's not mince words, we get along spectacularly. Famously. Dynamic duo of snark. She looks up to me. I stare in baffled marvel at how someone who is so self-evidently cooler than me in every regard would ever look up to me.

It's not that we don't fight, butt heads, and generally piss each other off. We do. Like any sibling relationship. No, it's this. If you or anyone else ever hurts my sister, I will rip your intestines out, fashion a noose from them, and hang you from them while repeatedly punching you in your now-exposed kidneys. And crucially, she'd do the same if you hurt me. Only because she's cooler than me, she'd do it better.

It's important to stop and recognize these things. The Nintendo Project, by quirk of chronology, is largely my childhood before Tori. This is an almost unfathomable concept to me - the idea that I walked around for ten years without her to tag along. Or longer, really, because, let's face it, even someone as cool as Tori isn't that cool before she's toilet trained. She was born in 1992, just about a year after the SNES came out.

I don't know if I want this. I don't know that it is good to exist without her. I don't know that I want a history sans Tori. Such a thing is not worth excavating.

So let's take a new approach. A new sort of secret history. Instead of disinterring lost knowledge of myself, let's sneak off to the scene of the crime and bury some new evidence. Punch a cheat code in on history. The secret history of my NES days, co-starring the Fantastic Tori, regardless of her existence.

We've always shared England. It's a family trait. We are hopeless anglophiles. It was part of her earliest geek training - Doctor Who. I had her knowing that a Dalek says "Exterminate" before she could read. Useful knowledge for life, that. (An interesting thing has just happened - along with her, Doctor Who has crossed the barriers of chronology, embedded itself in a past it couldn't occupy. This will pay dividends somewhere. Just you watch.) And we share more. English soccer. A love of the accent. Across the board, we share this. Castles are a part of this.

In reality, a castle is a defensive fortification, distinct from a palace. Castles are not the seats of governmental power, but of military power. Which is why damn near every town in England has at least one. So in London proper, you've got relatively few castles. Most of the good stuff - Kensington, Buckingham, Hampton Court - are palaces. The Tower of London is technically a castle, but you never call it that. The lone major castle is Windsor Castle. All the same, the mythos is familiar. But not mere mythos to us. Castles are not some exotic phenomenon for us. They're what you see in England, where we like to go. It's what we do.

On the other hand, when you are confronted with something like Castle of Dragon, a rightfully obscure NES game? My sister and I fire on all cylinders, fully recognizing this as, simply put, the absolute best title that anything has ever had.

Here we diverge - my sister is less the fiend for precise and crunchy details than I am. I'll take this section solo, then. A side-scroller in which you infiltrate a castle and kill the threats within, Castle of Dragon has two major problems. First, it is clunky, and this renders it difficult. Second, you have one life. Seriously. You die, you start over. This is very possibly the most unreasonable difficulty setting I have ever found on any game. It's brutal.

What would my sister do with Castle of Dragon? I don't know. But she'd rock it. That's how it works. She's possessed with a ruthless pragmatism that borders on ontological force. Put her in a situation, and she makes it happen. I remember her striding boldly into the bar at Dragon*Con with me, because we saw Felicia Day there. She wingmanned me as we sat down on the sofas near her and chatted amicably with her. Except she did the talking. I did the... actually, basically I just went out for gin and saw Felicia Day. It didn't require masses of talent. Still, that's our dynamic. She does awesome stuff, and I'm lucky enough to tag along.

Video games occupy a strange space between us. I am better at them than she is. I think she'd even admit this without too much grudge. I love playing them with her, as a result, because it's about the only sphere in which I can outdo her in any sort of a material way. I cling to them in part because I've gotta have something.

I think that she believes me smarter than her. It's a lie. I just have a decade more practice. But I'll allow the lie. But seriously, consider the evidence. I slogged off to rural Ohio at a small liberal arts college. It was a good school for me, and I made success, but there was no glamor to it. Her? She's off to the University of Manchester in England to study Japanese language and culture. So yeah, she's fusing our love of England with Japan, where the video games come from. Not to knock my alma mater, but dude, she's got me smoked here.

I look up to her more than she could possibly realize. But here, perhaps, is my moment of greatest admiration and greatest pride. I see my fingerprints all over this. 18 years of being the cool older brother (God she's a poor fool) has caused me to pass on a scattered melange of interests. England and Japan. Yeah. This is all my fault. It's unmistakably her path, not mine. But she's entwined herself around the same rod I have. We're two strands of one caduceus, she and I. Snakes on an endless upward climb towards enlightenment, or wisdom, or maybe just a high score. Doesn't matter. "Why are you twining your ways up that staff towards infinity?" "Cause it's there."

And here, then, in our last game, it comes together. Castlequest. Speckled with Japanese oddities and a European sheen of narrative, an action puzzle game. She's never played it. I've never played it. It came out in 1989. She was -3. I was still living in New Milford, a town she's never lived in. It's an OK game. A strange game mechanic, in that you start with 50 lives. Awkward, in ways, but based on a reasonably fun exploration, get keys, evade enemies mechanic. I could have killed an afternoon or two this way. I reckon she could have too.

This is what defines friendship and love, I imagine. We are not mere blood, she and I. Here, at the deepest point of this archeology, right where I was meant to lay the evidence, she's there, grinning mischievously, shock of pink hair glinting in the memories. Friendship is what happens when your pasts are intertwined even at the points they don't touch. When a game that's part of neither of your lives, that could never be part of one of your lives, is still full of points of commonality.

There's no me without her, nor her without me. Ten years of fucking around on the Nintendo waiting for her to show up, and another few of waiting for her to be cool? Just me biding time and setting things up for her. I didn't need to know this for it to be true. I rarely need to know what I'm doing with her. Just follow the bright pink hair, and it's all gonna rock.

Off to England with you, slimeface. I'll be over here playing my video games and writing my weird little blog. Plow on forward, and we'll catch up again on the other side of the caduceus, ascending with savage mirth towards the top. Why? Cause we're just awesome like that.

But one thing. While you're in England? Watch out for Daleks. You'll know them by the sound of their exterminations.

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