Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Extent of Their Storage Media (Galaga and Galaxy 5000)

Galaga. Released in 1981, a classic shooter in the Space Invaders mould, the game features nothing but a lone fighter opposed by unceasing waves of enemy spacecraft. Its plot is so scant as to defy even the word threadbare. Inasmuch as any context for its unceasing carnage is offered, it comes from its position as a sequel to Galaxian, whose title screen proclaims "WE ARE THE GALAXIANS / MISSION: DESTROY ALIENS." It is unclear, then, whether the endless warfare is a last desperate act of defense against an alien siege, or a galactic rapine casting us in the lead role of genocidal butcher. That we are xenophobic is a given, but the line between alien and indogene is obscured behind a symphony of chirping space lasers.

I joined the symphony a year after. By the time I developed memories, I was already a video game player. I have never known a time without Galaga, Pac-Man, and Space Invaders. That I have my place on a continual upgrade curve of computer technology is a given of my life.

The contours of this curve, however, are arcane. Obsolescence is a simple fact of embodied existence. The Commodore 64 gives way to the NES, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. An existence defined by media is, in the end, defined by that final scrapping, the ferrying of boxes of VHS tapes, tracking shot all to hell, out to the dumpster.

I sold my NES games for the first time in the summer of 1991, $10 a game from the driveway of my grandparents' house in Mahopac, New York. The tag sale in question was a step along the road to my grandparents' retirement to an apartment attached to the house in Newtown my parents had bought the summer before. Thus in one year I went from a summer burrowed into the basement of that Mahopac house, caught between two residences and playing Mega Man like my life depended on it to a summer selling games off to the scrapheap in anticipation of the resplendent August I did not know was to come.

One never knows the future, despite games like Galaxy 5000 promising a sparkling ferment of racing spaceships blasting merrily at one another. If these games are taken seriously as auguries, the future is merely obsolescence in waiting, the same ropey and awkward controls of the present housed in a new chassis. Thrill as your spaceship awkwardly crashes into wall after wall, then is lapped by another spaceship and shot. Then sell it for $10 on your grandparents' front lawn.

The comfort of the future is that it shall someday be as obsolete as the past, just as the comfort of the past is its quiescent endurance. In an arcade cabinet older than I am, transistors pulse out the unceasing waves of alien invaders. Their obsolescence is predicated on their sempiternity.

In practice, the slew of pugilistic spaceships is not so much eternal as it is bigger than you. Galaga is one of many games to suffer a rollover bug, counting its levels with a single counter maxing at 255 such that the game crashes out at that point. This is not so much an error on the part of the game as an error on the part of the player, who was never supposed to be good enough at the game to see that level. In time, then, the end resolution of the unceasing cosmic hecatomb is obsolescence. Neither the Army of One nor the barbarous hordes cease on their own. Instead the very system they are framed upon, the entire cosmos, the infinite void in which the chirping of their weapons does not echo, in time, is what gives in. 

If the end of the Nintendo Generation is the end of death, its beginning is the perpetuity of death. The knowledge that video games predate the NES is the knowledge of the upgrade curve. As we quickly learned from the ramshackle futures of Galaxy 5000 and the endless legion of futures that are, ultimately, indistinguishable from one another save in their pained mediocrity, the future is nothing more than another box for the dumpster, or another $10 flat rate sale. In time, we too shall fall off the curve, leaving the churn of history for others to navigate.

What video games are played in the world we are gone from? The posthumous entertainments fed by the unfathomed quarters of tomorrow?

Today's Nintendo generation clutches the turquoise mica finish of the 3DS. The lenticular folds of the latest future to fall to earth project anonymous vessels into imagined spaces overlaid onto our own. The latest fad, augmented reality, collapses being into pixels. No longer chained in quarter-fed cabinets, the voids we fly through occupy the same spaces as the air that cycles through our lungs. Our avatars become mocking caricatures of ourselves instead of nameless spaceships. And yet the indogene and the alien have never seemed more comingled.

If gaming has now stumbled off the screen, into the real spaces of our lives, what more frontiers does the upgrade curve have? The naivete necessary to believe the curve ever ends is beyond me, at least. In time these real spaces will make their solemn march towards the dumpster, burnt offerings to some future obsolescence.

All that remains, it seems, is the conversion of time into void. When at long last, the upgrade curve carts itself out to the dumpster. This is not the end of obsolescence, but rather the end of the process of becoming obsolete. When games take place over the lived memory of video gaming, proclaiming their obsolescence at release.

The future is closer than we might admit to Galaxy 5000. The 3DS, for all its sparkle, remains a maddening mess of switches and sliders requiring eternal tinkering, nudging the depth of field into its proper confines. The games sit uneasily in space, as though space recoils from their touch, withering as the shadow of the curve passes overhead. The third dimension is not some immersive fantasy, but an endless reminder that one is at the shiniest point on the curve, sinking inexorably towards not even death, but something far worse - the knowledge that there are those yet to be born, for whom all our futures are nothing more than boxes for the dumpster. And as this final product launch approaches, in the distance, in our own blood and memory, the chirping of the space guns echoes on.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Word That Means Sacred and Profane (Freedom Force, Friday the 13th, Fun House)

I had a friend once, in grad school. (I mean, I suppose he still is my friend. He was the best man at my wedding. I just don't have current contact information for him, and the bugger's not on Facebook, which, let's face it, is increasingly a major barrier to anyone keeping in touch with you.) He and I got along well, but my occasional tendency to get into savage flame wars on the grad student listserv, particularly coupled with the fact that I was really good at savage flame wars occasionally proved a source of tension. One day, I finally figured out a way to articulate the basic difference, and why I was the way I was. In my teenage years, I got in flame wars on Usenet via a VAX-based system.

Because, you see, there are these moments in the history of our culture where you were either there or you weren't. It's possible these moments are more accurately described as "childhood," but I don't think so. But there are occasional outbreaks of culture that are, in the end, for those who were there and those alone. And prior to about 1996, when AOL made national news for their stunning accomplishment of knocking themselves offline, the Internet was one of those things.

These days, people talk about how those embarassing photos of you drunk that are up on Facebook could harm your reputation. Wusses. You want digital embarrassment, try having a post well-preserved by Google in which you are remarkably well-informed on the subject of whether Lala Ward, the actress who played Romana opposite Tom Baker in seasons seventeen and eighteen of Doctor Who, ever appeared in porn. (Apparently, and I base this purely on my old post, she was conned into appearing in a film that they edited into being porn via a body double.) A post, I should stress, from 1995. When you were 13. (Which, to be fair, is really the ideal age to be obsessed with Doctor Who actresses appearing in porn. Still, not what you want preserved forever. Almost as bad as a blog about video games in which you admit to knowing details of Lala Ward's nude scenes or lack thereof.)

The underlying point here is not just that the Internet changed everything, but that there is such a thing as growing up with the Internet. We've mentioned 1991 before, and stressed its importance. Let's go one better. If you were born early enough and privileged enough that the NES was part of your childhood, then August of 1991 is the single most important month in your entire life. August of 1991 demarcates a fundamental divide in the very fabric of existence. Why?

Three crucial events. On August 23rd, the Super Nintendo launched in North America. Prior to this, for our generation, home video games were NES games. The terms were interchangable. There were systems like the Sega Master System that were cheap knockoffs for people whose parents didn't understand what they were supposed to buy, but anyone with a Sega knew full well that they had a sub-par NES. (It is worth noting that there is a tremendous and complex web of privilege embedded in that summary. To a child of the middle class, class distinctions were not economic, but a matter of parental competence. Those who had lesser video game systems did not have them due to any economic, social, or cultural circumstances. They had them because their mothers were too thick to buy them the right system. It was as simple as that. If any of us were sufficiently clever to realize that there was a strange correspondence between single mothers and kids who owned lesser video gaming systems, we simply assumed the increased workload of being a single parent was what kept them distracted enough that they would screw up such a simple task as "buying a NES.") Eventually things like the Sega Genesis lumbered onto the scene, and for once there was such a thing as someone who didn't have a Nintendo but still had something cool - a period we covered in part way back with Bonk's Adventure. But everyone knew that eventually Nintendo would catch up, and with the SNES they did.

Two days prior to that, a three-day coup was put down in the USSR, ensuring, for all practical purposes, the collapse of the Soviet Union. This too we have dealt with before, so for now let's just say that this marked a fundamental shift in our sense of the end of the world.

And then, on August 6, 1991, Tim Berners-Lee posted to the Usenet group alt.hypertext announcing that he had a nifty project running over at CERN called the World Wide Web that people might want to check out. As it happens, they did, in fact, want to check it out.

I am not arguing that these three events - the SNES, the fall of the USSR, and the World Wide Web - are of equal importance in any absolute sense. (Though if you can find a more eventful set of 17 days in which the events are simultaneously so important and so unrelated, I'm always interested in stretches like that.) But they are of absolute and unwavering importance to anyone whose childhood was defined in part by the NES, because all three of these combined to provide the fundamental moment when the NES Generation gave way to the present. In other words, for anyone who had a NES, August 1991 was the end of childhood. We realized this fact at different times, and I think few of us knew it in 1991 itself, but without a doubt, August of 1991 was when we grew up.

I say all of this because the three games today, taken together, form a triptych depicting that process. Which is odd, as all three games came out before August of 1991. But bear with me here.

At the left of our triptych, in the earliest position, is Fun House. Based on the kids game show of the same name, the game is surprising in its not-badness. It's not a good game as such, but let's face it, we're talking about a game show that I was genuinely surprised to find out wasn't on Nickelodeon. Of course, given that Fun House was obviously a cheap Double Dare knockoff, and Nickelodeon had actual Double Dare, that is less surprising than it might be. To my surprise, that Double Dare entry I linked to is utterly threadbare, so hey, lucky me, I get to expand on this a bit.

The thing about Fun House, as a TV show, was that it depended on the fact that it was pre-Internet. Fun House was entertainment that depended specifically on a low volume of information. Nothing it signified gestured in any way towards a larger world. This is a mode that exists less and less today. These days we take for granted that television exists in a complex and multi-media environment such that the airing of an episode of Glee, for instance, takes place not only at 8pm on Tuesday, but is an event actively foreshadowed by a week of trailers, and by several weeks of spoilers and rumors before that, and that furthermore continues taking place via DVR, iTunes rentals, and DVDs for weeks and months afterwards, further being contextualized by a raft of online discussion, and, of course, the inevitable one week chart-runs of the songs. And Glee, like any major television show in 2011, is written to function in that environment.

The idea, meanwhile, of thinking about an episode of Fun House more than three minutes after it has stopped airing is patently ridiculous. Fun House is a textbook case of the dumb licensed game - a game that has a license only because somebody decided that all games should have licenses, but also decided that paying money for a good license is stupid. So instead we get a game based on a license nobody actually cares about. This is the crucial thing. There is actually no such thing as a Fun House fan. Nowadays, almost every show has fans. The question is really just how often they bathe. But Fun House  doesn't. It was never designed to. It's a form of wholly disposable entertainment. It showed up, in syndication, at arbitrary times during the week, and was watched because it was on, and not unpleasant.

In this regard it is the opposite of Freedom Force, a game that, in modern times, is experienceable almost entirely through its paratext. It's one of the handful of Zapper games to come out besides Duck Hunt. The Zapper is poorly supported on later emulation platforms, making it a tricky game to play. (I was unable to get it working on anything I had access to.) Instead this is a game knowable only through its ghost-like traces. It was not a game aspiring to classic status at the time. Like Fun House, it was disposable, made with no thought whatsoever to its future preservation. And like Fun House, it persists anyway, stretched out and preserved indefinitely. This is what the Internet enables - the preservation of moments without any effort to preserve them. Like my own 13-year-old knowledge of erotica featuring Richard Dawkins's wife, the ability to know this game exists for no clear reason, and indeed in spite of clear reasons. The game is nothing but an 8-bit version of the shooters that still populate dusty corners of most movie theaters and bowling alleys. There is a sense in which the loss of any knowledge is ground for mourning. But it is difficult to argue seriously that if Freedom Force receded fully below the waterline of the River Lethe that the world would be poorer for it.

If Fun House and Freedom Force mark two sides of this divide - the show designed to function in a pre-Internet world, and the game preserved incongruously in a post-Internet world. Then there is Friday the 13th.

The rise of the Internet was a gradual thing, and part of a process. For me, the process began in earnest around 1990, when I got a 286 computer with a CD-ROM drive running GEOS, a GUI skin for DOS that, to my surprise, apparently still exists. With this computer came, over time, a wealth of significant oddities - Prodigy, a proto-ISP offering a vestigial version of the Internet (I still remember my login. EUPD96B), and various CD-ROM reference books, most notably an Encyclopedia or two and Microsoft's Cinemania.

Cinemania is worth looking at as an example of a product that simply no longer exists. It compiled a handful of major books of film reviews - most notably Leonard Maltin's, but also writings from Ebert, Kael, and other major writers, along with stills from movies, a handful of clips, and other such things. What was most interesting about it, to be honest, was its relationship with the forbidden.

Long before Cinemania, I was aware of a band of forbidden movies. I'd go to the supermarket, which was also the video rental store, and peruse movies and games I might want to rent. Friday the 13th was obviously important because there were a gazillion of them, or, at least, eight of them. Seeing no meaningful distinction between a film series there were a lot of and a film series that was good, I assumed Friday the 13th was the latter. My parents, on the other hand, being more or less sensible people, never let me rent them.

You can see where this is going. My computer had a CD with information on thousands of films. So, of course, I fired up Cinemania and learned what there was to learn about the Friday the 13th movies. Forbidden knowledge was mine, all mine. The continuum, of course, stretched from there. It was a multi-year process, certainly. 1991 was not the year of my learning about these forbidden things. More like 1994, 1995, well into the SNES era. But Friday the 13th, as a concept, was part of the forbidden knowledge. There was more, of course. Prodigy had a wealth of fascinating content if one knew where to look.

By Internet standards, of course, looking at summaries of Friday the 13th movies and reading encyclopedia articles about sex is preposterously tame. And Prodigy's fascinating content remained wholly tame compared to what one could get into come 1997 or 1998. (Star Trek: Voyager fanfiction was jaw-droppingly pervy, by the way.) And yet it's the early content that feels formative. The experience of being able to breach the forbidden was, in the end, far more important than the forbidden itself.

And so it is, amusingly, that I have still never seen a Friday the 13th movie, despite remembering a surprising amount about them. I have little desire to. Though they are surely not as bad as the NES game (rightly hailed as one of the worst of the system), I have little doubt they would disappoint. It's not that I think they're (all) bad movies. It's just that there are few other alternatives. Nothing can be as shocking or as impacting as the first thing one looks at illicitly. I never played the game either, I don't think. Or maybe I did, at the house of a friend whose mother paid enough attention to buy a NES, but not enough to buy sane games. It wouldn't have meant much to me, being a wretched game with awkward controls. If I played it, it would have been a few minutes before I walked away, realizing even then that the taboo should remain as sacred as it is profane.

Now we assume access to the illicit, and for that matter assume it doesn't start with anything nearly so tame as Friday the 13th plot summaries. Hell, by today's standards some Star Trek BDSM fanfic is downright wholesome. In my day, access to pictures of boobies was actually something worth coveting. This, more than anything, is what is lost from the NES era. The NES was the last flourishing of a world before nostalgia and before forbidden fruit was in every supermarket. It was the last thing that offered no temptations. The last thing that existed to be forgotten.

Ironically, that, more than anything, is why it is so unforgettable.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Monster at the End of This Post (Formula One: Built to Win, Frankenstein: The Monster Returns)

What does it mean for a monster to return? We recall that the monster is from the Latin monstro, a verb meaning to show. A monster is an object of spectacle and wonder, stalking along the line between the fantastic and the terrible generally referred to as "the uncanny." For a monster to return, then, is to be re-shown. 

The most obvious analogy for re-showing is the phenomenon of the television repeat. It is important to understand what a television repeat is, and, more importantly, what it was. One of the things that is an emerging theme over at TARDIS Eruditorum is the fact that there is a fundamental difference between television in the 1960s, which was expected to air and then never be seen by anyone again, save for maybe one repeat that summer, and television today, in which it is assumed that the episode will be immediately rewatchable online, have a DVD release, and be re-studied endlessly. The television repeat, however, is a phenomenon from before that.

In America, it is closely tied with the phenomenon of syndication. With a wealth of local stations, many of which broadcast 24/7 without material reliably being provided by networks for all hours, buying runs of old television programs to show was simply sound financial practice - as opposed to in the UK, where national public service channels were the norm and new material was provided constantly. But crucially, all television was still an event - a single broadcast. If you were unable to get to your set in time to watch it, it was gone.

Monsters must be taken in that tradition - a spectacle that exists only in the moment of its demonstration. After that, it is captured into memory, known, and no longer a monster. Once the act of unveiling and staring is done, the monster is just a caged beast. So for the monster to return is an attempt not to re-capture the monster, but to de-capture it. Not even to release it, but to remove the experience of ever having known it and understood it as caged and defined.

In some ways, to continue the television analogy, the nearest equivalent is a sporting event - a piece of live television that not only bound to the moment of transmission, but that is fundamentally unrepeatable. The entire purpose of a sporting event on television is that the final outcome is actually unknown to anyone at the start. The sporting event cannot proceed with narrative teleology. Any attempt to write a narrative to a sporting event is simply a lie. So in Formula One Racing: Built to Win, the purpose of the game is very much to provide a series of these un-teleolgoical events. The title, in fact, is a clear commentary on the lack of teleology of Formula One Racing. Yes, every car in Formula One is built to win. Every car's teleology is victory, but hardly any of them will actually attain their own teleology. It is only after the race that the event is captured by teleology, as one car becomes usefully built to win and the others lose all purpose save the enabling of victory in the first place.

Likewise, by 1990, when Bandai released Frankenstein: The Monster Returns, Frankenstein had gone from monstrosity to teleology. Consider the fact that, in the original, Frankenstein is firmly the name of the scientist, not the unnamed monster. It's not until the existence of cheap horror films that Frankenstein began to firmly signify the monster who, rather than the cobbled together freak show of Shelley's novel, had a coherent and designed look.

Oddly, then, Frankenstein is one of the few monsters one can imagine a return of - the shambling flesh decoupage of Victor Frankenstein's monster looming up behind the green bolted head of Boris Karloff.  There is something that is clearly and definably lost in the caging here. Karloff's Frankenstein is a marker for what we know is a far scarier beast. Even for those less literary folks who have not read Shelley's novel, there is the sense that there was something scarier before, that there is something more to the monster than Franken Berry cereal.

Certainly Bandai's game makes a stab at rescuing the gothic horror of the original, but any attempt at a monstrous return is swiftly consumed by the fact that the game is, and this should not be a remotely surprising refrain at this point in the Nintendo Project, complete shit.

And yet. (Do I say that as often as I think I do?) Perhaps in the wandering through a non-descript gothic village awkwardly fighting forgettable versions of classic horror monsters, there is something of Frankenstein's monster. The collage of viscera that is Frankenstein's monster bears more similarity to the miasma of pixels of a crap Nintendo game than we perhaps would like to admit. There is a reason the bad games of the NES era are still fascinating.

Frankenstein's monster is the cut up remnants of others stitched into monstrosity. The simplicity of the NES means that games have a certain uniformity and interchangeability. A bad game, then, stitches together the fragments of good games into a grotesque parody of fun. Perhaps the monster did return.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Pixels Without Organs (Flying Dragon: The Secret Scroll, Flying Warriors)

The usual refrain about Japan - that it doesn't exist - feels crassly inappropriate today. But firing up two games with tons of martial arts makes it enormously tempting anyway.

Except, of course, that both Flying Dragon and Flying Warriors are kung fu games. To the 7-9 year old I was when these games came out, this would mean they were Japanese. This is because the only major distinction I had about East Asian cultures was that China was where the food came from and Japan was where the video games came from. Kung fu and karate were split decisions, but since they appeared more often in video games than in Wonton Soup, I tended to put them on the Japan end of things.

This is one of the many places where being under ten is not entirely helpful to developing an accurate understanding of the world. If one is actually going by empirical facts that have happened in the world, after all, Kung Fu is Chinese. Karate is Japanese. That's pretty much that. Flying Dragon and Flying Warriors are both about kung fu, and so even if they were made in Japan, they are not about Japan.

On the other hand, just because they have kung fu does not particularly mean that they are about China any more than Super Mario Bros is about Italy. 

So what are they about? Flying Dragon: The Secret Scroll, on the most basic level, appears to be about running along punching yard trash enemies in the face and occasionally doing some jumping. Being an NES game, there's not a lot more to draw on. Some plot exists about the secret scrolls teaching Hiryu-No-Ken, the ultimate kung fu fighting stance, but let's be honest, this is a fairly standard The Magical Foo Has Been Broken Into N Parts, Please Go Fight Through N Levels and Defeat the N Bosses Guarding The Parts of The Foo, Then Defeat The Evil Bar plot. The scrolls of Hiryu-No-Ken are fundamentally interchangeable with every other damned broken up quest object in video game history.

This section of the game is followed by an attempt at a straightforward fighting game on the NES - a decision that really never once worked out in the developers' favor. This one turns into a straightforward "hit the button corresponding to the flashing signal" romp, only with some memorization over what buttons go with what signals. Inasmuch as this is about anything, it appears to be about the tedium of late capitalism where even our entertainment is an abusive labor relationship. In capitalist America, game plays you. This, it should be noted, is the main game mechanism of Flying Warriors.

The fact of the matter is that NES games are a poor mechanism for ideology. They lack things. The background of both games is an ill-defined sludge of pixels that, at least to a Westerner, poorly correspond to any actual cultural signifiers besides "Asian." But crucially, displaced through ancient mythos and cultural lines, one gets the strong sense that these kung fu games were not ever usefully signifying a specific culture.

Which has always been the underlying point of denying the existence of nationalities. Because in the NES, the technical tools to represent reality with that kind of detail just aren't there. This is not China, or Japan, or Asia, but a strange non-place of non-objects, a vague cultural reference that points to nothing save its own constructed irreality.

This is why, contra-XKCD, it's absurd to treat the endless stream of low-level villains in a video game as people. The flood of kung fu fighters in Flying Dragon are not merely interchangeable with one another, they are actually indistinguishable from one another. There is actually no difference whatsoever between one and the next. That's the entire point of an enemy in these games - that they reappear with infuriating regularity. Every kung fu guy in Flying Dragon is merely a copy of the first one, containing no meaningful attributes beyond their iteration from the original.

Likewise, in Flying Warriors, every fight is exactly the same. Enemies are at best sprite-swaps of the same endless pattern, taking place still in some space that is not even imaginary. Imaginary spaces can at least possess imaginary objects.

The danger comes when one signifier encompasses both categories. When "Japan" signifies both an archipelago that has suffered unimaginable devastation and a mental construction of interchangable non-things, there is indeed a problem.

The most obvious solution is to simply give up on representationalism entirely in media that cannot offer seamless realism. Better solutions welcome in comments.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Oh Come On, You'd Have Ended On The Exact Same Crap Pun If You'd Thought Of It (The Flintstones: The Rescue of Dino and Hoppy, The Flintstones 2: Surprise at Dinosaur Peak!)

Well if you lot are willing to defend Felix the Cat, I suppose a claim about the inherent worthlessness of the Flintstones is going to be a tough sell. Which is a pity, as I've long considered them a cartoon franchise better suited to cereal and vitamins than actual narrative.

I recognize that there is some cleverness in the central joke of The Flintstones, even if it's not particularly a joke I enjoy. Mostly, I find the idea of paleolithic civilizations interesting in terms of a pseudo-Lovecraftian fascination with ur-culture. The joke that ur-culture is really just like modern culture only with humorous de-inventions of modern technology is... not, to my mind, quite enough to build a massive consumer franchise on. When modern fails to be meaningfully updated since about 1970, the joke... does not improve, oddly.

But The Flintstones, seemingly through force of dogged marketing and the fact that it's bland enough that nobody is going to have a violent reaction against it, are ubiquitous. The vitamins are perhaps the most inspired, in that they render the Flintstones a kind of inexorable part of childhood identity. But not an entirely pleasant sort.

What's funny is that if you jump to the 1960s, you get an entirely different sort of show. From 1960-1962, The Flintstones had Winston Cigarettes as their major sponsor, with Fred and Barney smoking like Mad Men. That only stopped when Winston dropped their sponsorship because Wilma got pregnant. Giving us the stunning spectacle of a cigarette company trying to be moralistic about which children's television shows it sponsors.

Through all of this, there's a repeated theme of The Flintstones being not quite out of step with their times, but... unsettled. Children's entertainment and cigarettes, sexual ethics, the cartoon most associated with annoying things your parents make you take... which perhaps explains why the first Flintstones game, The Rescue of Dino and Hoppy, post-dated the SNES, and the second managed the stunningly odd decision of being a rental-only game exclusive to Blockbuster and released in 1994 as one of the last four NES games ever.

The Flintstones, in other words, go sailing gamely over the cultural moment, landing with a dull thud in the 16-Bit Era and looking, frankly, terrible even for that. These games barely clear the bar to avoid being contenders for worst-of-system lists. I'd criticize them in depth, but that requires some sort of a starting point. The entire games are just banal smears of sub-mediocrity. There is nothing good about them, and nothing egregiously bad. The jump mechanics suck, but not memorably so. The fight mechanics suck, but not memorably so. The level design is tedious, but not memorably so. The difficulty settings are completely fucked, but not memorably so. Basically, playing these games has just sort of introduced a one hour black hole into my experience of the universe.

And yet somewhere, logic dictates, there is someone with genuine love of the Flintstones. Of the entire Hanna-Barbera catalog, no doubt, even though it has always struck me as the boring end of cartoons that you watch when nobody is bothering to show something good. Honestly, watching Hanna-Barbera cartoons always struck me as the sort of thing one did when stuck at an elderly relative's for a weekend. It's the sort of thing you do only when all actually fun avenues of entertainment are exhausted and the only alternative is... actually, usually at the elderly relative's house there isn't an alternative. Those visits are flagrantly about the social niceties of older generations, and the fact of the matter is that the nine-year-old is more or less wholly left out of any planning.

As a kid, I was perfectly capable of making my own fun. That wasn't a problem. But there were tools for this sort of thing. One didn't just pull fun out of the aether. It was a properly occult process. One had a sanctum, or at least, a playroom full of tools for fun manufacturing. The tools were often not fun in and of themselves. Among the things I had the most fun with as a child were a laundry basket, a three-foot long orange plastic tube about an inch wide, the sheath to a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles branded plastic katana (which outlasted the actual sword by years), and Omagles. (Not to be confused with Omegle. They are completely different ways of having fun.)

The point was that they were fetishes. In the traditional mystical sense, not the kinky sex sense. These objects could be wielded to produce fun, pulling it from the void of the mind and materializing it. But there was a process. It was something that could be created and manipulated, but only out of symbols and tools that one invested one's self in. This was the real dread of the Elderly Relative's. This is why it was a boring place. Not that there was nobody to talk to, but that one was far from one's place of power. Even if one lucked out and the relative, for some bewildering reason, had an NES, it was somehow never actually as good as one's own NES. (See some earlier post or another about the odd connectedness of the NES to the physical space of the living room. Bugger if I remember which one.)

That is what the Flintstones are. Entertainment that is never actually as good as what one actually likes. The second choice, and not in that vaguely redeemable "secretly the second choice is better than the obvious choice" fairy tale way. Just in the sense of not being as good.

It's difficult to express the degree to which I find active horror in this sphere of things. A childhood of mild social isolation and less-mild geekery made me quite invested in the magical tools of the playroom, and to this day the stultifying boringness of various elderly relatives (Not you, of course, if you're reading this. Some other elderly relative) instills a visceral reaction. Even after I've grown up and learned the human nature of my family instead of the oddly demiurgical nature they had in my childhood, the fact of the matter is, there are living rooms that I could step into today and shudder at the sense that the fell beasts that were Dino and Hoppy were approaching.

So this is how we celebrate the 100th Nintendo Project entry. Not with a bang but a Bam-Bam.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Dimensional Love Story (Fist of the North Star and Flight of the Intruder)

The corridor was the central metaphor for existence as he understood it. Its dimensions were simple. It extended infinitely forward, and no distance backwards. Even if he could go backwards, he would never think to try to. Destiny is forwards. Backwards is nothing, can be nothing, must be nothing. Backwards matters only inasmuch as its nothingness is why he must move forwards.

The world as he knew it was a sphere he lived inside, watching shadows on the glass around him. There is no up or down, no left or right, just the shadows shifting endlessly about him. A line differentiates sea from sky, but he has long since learned that this is a misnomer, that the sea and sky are just two divisions of  space, like day and night. One can no more crash into the sea than one can fly through the azure vault. 

He has long known that space is arbitrary. That the world is formless void between things. His corridor is divided by objects. The endless repetition of the fighting men. These are less obstacles than markers, there to make the corridor a corridor. He rarely falls to a low-level fighting man, able as he is to dispatch them with one kick. He rarely falls into a pit, as it is just careless to do so.

From time to time there are the pests. Irritating shadows that buzz around the periphery of his sphere. He struggles to train his sights on them, unleash the rattling hail that unnerves them and sends them away. Inasmuch as his life has purpose, this is it. Taking the shadows on his wall and spinning them, moving them into focus.

He does not know what stands at the end of the corridor. All he knows is that he desires to advance further. To be further away from the forbidden "behind" and closer to the unknown. He has heard others speak of princesses and castles. He does not know anything of this.

At times he dreams, long silent dreams of darkness. He has no sense of how long the dreams are. The sphere always waits for him. The shadows always flicker anew. But he dreams of a space in which there is motion, in which there is not void but aether, where he can move through this aether instead of watching as the shadows chase.

All he knows is that from time to time the corridor ends. Sometimes it ends with a moment of pain. Other times with victorious single combat over the occasional enemy worthy of his skills. Past that is always only blackness. Past the blackness, corridors.

He wants to run, to move through space, to feel the passage of time as something other than the flickering light of his perfectly still sphere. He does not know how he is aware of these things. But he is aware of them, just as he is aware that there

In the blackness, he wonders about the world. About what might lie beyond corridors. From time to time, when there are no fighting men or pits, he stops and looks around. To his left is a landscape, endlessly cordoned off and kept from him. Below him is floor. Above him is azure sky he can never reach. To his right

is another space behind his eyes. That he stares at the sphere, but in turn that his act of staring is endlessly watched. He spins the shadows around, always aware of this other person who

is a void, shapeless, formless, from which he knows there is purpose. He cannot bring himself to look at it for long. Its flickering shadows are too much for him. The space is distorted, as though projected on bent glass, and he does not understand. But he knows, somehow, that this is both why he must walk through the corridor and what waits for him at the end. Perhaps it is a princess. Perhaps not. He finds he does not care.

is driven, always moving forwards. This person whose irritation at the pests exceeds his own. He finds that he likes this person. He finds that this person's life of forward, deliberate motion suits him. He does not need to see the person. He never could, lurking as they do in some imagined space within the single radiant point at the center of his being. But he loves this person, whoever, whatever they are.

Whatever is in that space justifies him. Watching him projected on this screen, reaching for him. Perhaps he is nothing but flickering noise to them. Perhaps he is loved by them. He does not need to know. He need only move forward, secure in the knowledge that they are there.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Jeux Sans Frontieres (Fisher Price Firehouse Rescue, Fisher Price I Can Remember, Fisher Price Perfect Fit)

1990 was the last year before the end of the world. Armageddon, we had known for over forty years, would come for us huddled underneath school desks. We trained for it, if not in as many words, dress rehearsals for our incineration. Ours was a long, twilight apocalypse. We'd use the term armageddon, but it was misleading. This was not some biblical war of Christ and Anti-Christ with a victor and a loser. The assurance that either side would walk away from the battlefield had long since been abandoned, and with it the capacity to assume that there was still such a thing as good and evil. We elected patriots less out of an ideological commitment as because they were the only ones daft enough to keep the war running. Think for a moment about what sort of person is required to have their finger on the button in a war ensuring mutual annihilation and probably the extinction of the entire species. A senile cowboy actor is actually about the only person who would take that job in the first place.

1992, on the other hand, is the first year after the end of the world. To more or less everybody's surprise, the Cold War ends not with a bang but with palace intrigue as the USSR abruptly decides to try its hand at collapsing. The US begins a brief flirtation with liberalism again before an unexpected rise of Christian fundamentalism, flowing in to fill the space left by the collapse of the eschatology of nuclear war. But by and large, the world has the feel of an unexpected and not entirely advised sequel - as if the end of the film has been hastily reshot to leave the main characters alive and a sequel that nobody was actually calling for was rushed into production.

Like any bad sequel, it was mostly done for the toy tie-ins, especially after we saw how marvelous the Gulf War Trading Cards were. Which explains why, in 1991, Fisher Price revised their classic Little People line to be less prone to killing children who might accidentally try to swallow them. (This gives you an idea of how disorienting the sudden realization that we might not all be vaporized was. Even the toys stopped being fatal.)

Taken collectively, then, these three games span from the tail end of the Cold War to the dawn of a now two-decade long stretch of wandering around belligerently trying to find someone to have a proper war against. (To get the maximum effect, picture the US going to the UN using handkerchief flagging to try to attract a buxom young despotic regime to fight. "Oh, Saddam, you're wearing a blue hankie in your left pocket. How fabulous.")

The Fisher Price toys are a particularly good metaphor for all of this because they're bland and interchangeable caricatures of people who are made out of plastic. In current times the metaphorical cachet of plastic has faded slightly in favor of silicone, which has helpful lexical ties to silicon. Note, however, that this is not new - prior to the rise of the digital plastics served the same semiotic role of covering both bodily augmentation and consumer technology. But that coverage was considerably more direct, leading to the image of plastic people. (Eventually this parenthetical comment will explain the relevance of the Doctor Who stories The Tenth Planet, Spearhead from Space, Terror of the Autons, and Rose to this discussion, complete with links to TARDIS Eruditorum entries on all of them. Or I might forget to go back and add those links once I write those entries.)

But if plastic people mark the steady transition from being to object, the Little People defy this in favor of traffic running primarily in the opposite direction. That is, they are objects that children are encouraged to bestow personality to, thus setting up the eventual back-transition from subjectivity to objectivity. But, of course, these games, positioned in 1990 and 1992, also straddle the World Wide Web, making the later game, Firehouse Rescue, post-obsolecence for plastic, and the earlier games, I Can Remember and Perfect Fit, an odd prefiguring of the siliconation to come.

This split explains the split in the nature of the games as well. I Can Remember and Perfect Fit are both essentially formless games. The first is a basic Concentration implementation, the second is a painfully simple game of matching silhouettes to objects. They have no people in them, nor a clear and defined setting - they are pure games in the style of Tetris. These games thus tie in with the late-stage paranoias of the Cold War, and an essentially bodiless future.

Curiously, after the end of the Cold War and the beginning of siliconation, the Little People rose again. As I said, in this case history was largely chasing the toy tie-ins. As the future suddenly became concrete after the deferral of decades of anticipated vaporization, we returned to the concrete physicality of generic world-building. Neither dolls in the Barbie sense nor action figures, the Little People avoid the twin poles of sex and death in favor of simple socialization. The purpose of the Little People is to exist mundanely.

But in their new, chunkier form, the Little People do not exist mundanely in a vacuum. They are survivors of an apocalypse that never was, the ashes of unvaporized bodies. They are mundane people born of raw paranoia. This strange tension is exemplified in Firehouse Rescue, a game in which you intently drive a fire truck around to let people climb down the ladder from houses that do not appear to be burning. If they are burning, you certainly pay no particular attention to that - once everybody is out, you speed off, leaving the house to burn.

So the game revolves around rescuing people who do not need to be rescued from a non-dangerous situation. Oh, and solving mazes. But the mazes are just set-up for the rescues. In later levels, there are more people to rescue, but this in no way corresponds to actual tension - one does not race against the clock for the actual rescues. The people are simply a surplus of bodies, all rendered in Little People style.

This, then, was our position at the fall of the NES. The return of the physical not a the future, but as a relic that would demand rescue regardless of actual threat. The moment, in many ways, where the generation gap that underlies the bulk of contemporary politics tore open, and we the digital realized that we were on the opposite side of it from the forces of power. The game is not merely bad - although it is that. It is offensively bad, a game that actively sticks the player with tedious busywork seemingly unrelated to the actual business of accomplishing anything. The game refuses to be fun, instead threatening the player and medium with the unsettling prospect of being on the wrong side of an emerging cultural divide. One that has yet to settle.

The NES rose in the age of Thatcher's Britain and Reagan's America. It fell in the dawn of a far stranger and more troubling era. And that end of the legacy is, in the end, the weirder of the two.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Robert Frost Would Probably Dislike Video Games (Fire 'n Ice)

Here we come to my Nintendo. Perhaps we only ever could have gotten here this way - through a game I've never actually played before. Apparently it's a sequel to Solomon's Key, which I've also never played before, but I have heard of. Released in 1993, it formed part of the strange period of shovelware sequels cranked out in a last ditch attempt to squeeze money from a dying system. Having never played Solomon's Key, I can't vouch for its quality as a sequel. But as a game, it's remarkably solid.

But more to the point, it is oddly familiar. It feels, in a fundamental sense, like the sorts of games I played. It's a game of light action logic puzzles - in the same vein as Adventures of Lolo, say. It's actually a subgenre of games that has survived remarkably well. World of Goo and Braid - two of the best games in recent memory (Braid, in fact, is the best game of the last decade) owe much to that genre, as, really, do games like Cut the Rope or even Angry Birds, which, while more action-based than Lolo or Fire 'n Ice, still are clearly from the same cloth.

I can readily construct a memory of this game. Never mind that, having come out in 1993, I was living in Newtown and in the fifth or sixth grade. No. This game belongs years earlier, in New Milford. There, the Nintendo was hooked up to the family television. This was a unique feature of life in New Milford as opposed to Newtown. In Newtown, the old family television, which was knob-operated, with a little volume knob that also pulled out to be the power switch, and could get any channel from 0 to 13, was given to me for the basement, and I had a proper Nintendo Area - a blue-carpeted bit of basement where I could (and did) play video games for most of most days. 

But I moved to Newtown for the third grade, and got a SNES in fourth, so most of my memories of the basement are on the SNES and later. The NES is much more associated with the living room, where I did not have sole rights to the television and my playing time was much more limited. This was the golden era of scribbling down passwords in a series of hopelessly disorganized notebooks, applying my non-existent artistic talents to hopelessly doomed maps, and poring over stacks of Nintendo Power for clues and hints. This was where I should have played Fire 'n Ice, in the sunken living room on Richconn Drive.

New Milford is one of the sort of classic Connecticut towns - old pre-colonial numbers that exist out of age rather than purpose. There is little in New Milford that is geographically ripe for settling. It's on the Housatonic, which was what Connecticut essentially formed around, but is not land that had a pressing need for settlement. This sort of steady expansion along bodies of water is, in many ways, the most English part of New England, resulting in the rise small towns with historic districts despite a marked lack of major history.

I only distantly remember the main town square of New Milford - a strip of green flanked by Main St on each side. We lived a good three and a half miles away, and New Milford's nature, having been settled early, was to be a sprawling town - the largest, geographically, in Connecticut.

From the town square my memories become more hazy. I remember the annual New Milford Fair, which, being a New England fair in the crafts tradition, was always spectacularly less interesting than it seemed like it should have been. I remember, of all things, a pizza place with a cigarette vending machine that I found strangely fascinating in its forbiddenness.

Why does this barely remembered place exert such gravity on the NES? By any measure, I know the canon of NES games better than I know New Milford. And yet a whole swath of games are inexorably associated with New Milford. The only NES game I can firmly associate with Newtown is Mega Man 4, because I was exactly halfway through the Robot Masters when my parents called me upstairs to tell me I was acquiring a sister

Part of it is no doubt time - as I said, I spent the bulk of my time in Newtown on other consoles. But more than that, it is that the NES, more than perhaps any other system, is a system that lends itself to the living room, for reasons we'll postpone until somewhere around Gyromite. And so the NES is, more than any other video gaming device I've ever owned, one that is fundamentally about the common family space.

Fire 'n Ice fits particularly well into this paradigm because its nature as a puzzle game evokes my mother in the same way that adventure games do. The NES was never a system that lent itself well to something like Super Mario Bros. 3 because the odds of my having an uninterrupted stretch of time to play that game were slim to none. Thus a game like Fire 'n Ice, where knocking off one level was an accomplishment that warranted a password, which, at least in theory, would allow one to pick it up and knock off a few more at a later date.

At least, in theory. Because the password is the great and irritating legacy of video games. Take, for instance, Fire 'n Ice, where the "magic word" granted looks something like this: 4CQB5PD. 99WL!M28 ZZ1XT6T4. These chains of glyphs were utterly unmemorable. Other games used words, though the odds of remembering exactly which ones fell steadily as the game went on, and this approach had the major flaw of being hackable. (I remember a Simpsons game for the SNES where brute-forcing Simpsons characters names would yield all the passwords.) Then there was Bubble Bobble, The Adventures of Lolo and The Adventures of Lolo 2, where the passwords were barely more complex than incremented versions of one another such that if you knew one password, guessing the next was possible in only a few tries. (And then there is Mega Man 3, which had what is easily the most hackable password system ever - not a problem in terms of the Robot Masters, but the fact that it was trivial to give yourself a couple of E-Tanks was, perhaps, a mistake.)

All of these, of course, had to be written down, leading to the now-abandoned institution of the password book. A sane person would probably find organizing a password book essentially trivial, but for me (and I suspect for most 8 year olds) it was not. I could lose a password like nobody's business. In part, I think, because they were so utterly meaningless. There is no equation between 4CQB5PD. 99WL!M28 ZZ1XT6T4 and beating the first level of World 9 of Fire 'n Ice. It does not even signify that I have beaten World 9-1. Anyone who beats that level gets the exact same password. And so the password ultimately removes our accomplishment from the game. 4CQB5PD. 99WL!M28 ZZ1XT6T4 has nothing to do with me, and so is intensely disposable. 

But the flip side is that the password ensures that our play is preserved independently of any object. 4CQB5PD. 99WL!M28 ZZ1XT6T4 may have nothing to do with me, but it does mean that my accomplishments can be restored on any copy of Fire 'n Ice. Indeed, because the game can be emulated, there no longer even needs to be a copy. If I boot up Fire 'n Ice on an emulator on my computer, no clear and definitive version of the game exists. The game is nothing but a wisp of RAM. And yet my accomplishment - any accomplishment made since 1993 - is there, latent in the game. The player may become depersonalized here, but so does the game. Unlike the storage-media-based save systems of every console from the Playstation on, a password does not reflect a change on "my" game but on "the" game, as a definite article.

Which is perhaps why Fire 'n Ice can be a game so obviously associated with a place it was never played. Because an NES game exists outside of time, as an absolute thing that we merely access rather than possess. This is why they are the objects of wonder that they are. They are at once eternal and obsolete.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Volvos (Ferrari Grand Prix Challenge and Final Fantasy)

 Wondering what happened to Fester's Quest? If so, you're a nerd. I grouped it with the other Addams Family games way back in 2009, when men were men and entries were actually a reasonable length. You can find it here.

Somewhere between 10-Yard-Fight and here, the terrain has become, if not exhaustively mapped, familiar. So that when we come upon a game as unremarkably conceived as Ferrari Grand Prix Challenge, the first and frankly hardest task is finding something I haven't said about racing games before. The oddness of their situatedness in a lost historical moment? Did that. NASCAR as inaccessible and arbitrarily differentiated secret history? Check. Tedium of the genre? Yep. Twice. That last one even does the "treat the game as a constructed metaphor absent its actual historical context" trick. Again, twice.

So this is now the sixth entry on a generic racing game, and we're in the Fs. I'd be lying if I didn't admit that at this point I'm playing this game more in the context of "Oh crap, there's another one coming along in six entries" than as a game. Because holy crap, what the hell else is there to say about 80s racing games? It is not a topic on which there are books to be written. When the first entry you write on the subject amounts to "These are really hilariously dated and uninteresting" you're not exactly setting yourself up to improve with age, you know?

I mean, not to uncover too many of the tricks of writing the Nintendo Project (since we already did that), but there's actually a fairly limited toolbox here. You play the game. You find something weird about it. That's easy, because the games are mostly patched together shovelware that has aged mediocrely at best, so you're basically guaranteed something weird. Then you decide that the weird thing has to be reconciled with the rest of the game. Then you write a blog entry that repeatedly reconciles the weird thing while actively admitting to the sheer ludicrousness of the attempt. Stir in some historical research and personal narrative, and poof, you have Nintendo Project. If you're lucky, the result is a kind of intoxicatingly weird melange that constitutes an interesting metaphor about video games and the 1980s. (It happens.) If you're unlucky, well, the thing scrolls off to the archives soon enough. (It also happens.)

Which is fine, but let's face it, there's a moment of gripping "Shit, what am I going to write about this time" anxiety every time. I mean, look, I've got Final Fantasy in this entry. There's not even an excuse for this. Brian Clevinger wrote a comic about the length of a Vertigo series like Preacher or Transmetropolitan on that game alone. To be stretched for things to say about it is bloody ridiculous. Except it's really, at the end of the day, just a particularly good entry in the genre of the J-RPG. Which is a genre we've hit as hard as racing cars. We've already done sense of Other as cool, narratology of the J-RPG, and Japan and transgenderism. We've even declared that Japan doesn't exist. Twice. So really, what is there to say about the J-RPG the sixth bloody time it comes up?

And it's harsh to be saying this about Final Fantasy. Because I know it's a major game. I knew it in 1990 when it came out. How? Well, there's the problem. Because I know via Nintendo Power. Which I can talk about, but it blows yet another major trick I have up my sleeve, and trust me, I'm running a bit short on them. Much more of this and the blog is going to have no ideas left beyond becoming a video game version of the Red Shoe Diaries. (Wait, we did that one too.)

Sod it. Here's the deal. There was a brief period where Nintendo Power was transitioning from being a bi-monthly magazine to a monthly, which it initially did by publishing strategy guides on the off-months. It did this for about half a year, thus flagging three games as major releases. The first of these - Super Mario Bros 3 - everybody knew, as we'll see when we get there and can finally start talking about these games as proper cultural events. The second - Ninja Gaiden II - made sense. Ninja Gaiden was, after all, the first non-sequel to get a Nintendo Power cover. So of course its sequel was a big deal. But the third was Final Fantasy. And that was out of nowhere. If it had been featured on the cover of a regular issue, that would have been one thing. By then Nintendo Power had already sold us on Ninja Gaiden, Tetris, and Maniac Mansion as major games via the cover, despite their not being sequels or licensed properties. (The Tetris launch is particularly significant, and we'll get to it in a mere 200 entries or so.)  But this was different. This was an entire issue of Nintendo Power devoted to a game that we had never heard of. It was completely mental.

And there were people for whom this was the rabbit hole. People who went and saved Coneria and never came back, and went and became strange weirdos. I mean, hell, there's Clevinger. Who, I should note, studied under Don Ault. (Which, again, we did.) And went on to do a totally mental and weird webcomic. Except the totally mental and weird (and brilliant) webcomic that went on to get him a series of criminally low-profile gigs at Marvel (seriously, guys, just give him the keys to Fantastic Four. If all you're going to do is recycle the "We killed a Fantastic Four member" plot of the 90s and the "Spider-Man on the Fantastic Four" plot of every goddamn decade of Marvel Comics ever, give it to Clevinger. Please. I beg you.) completely misses me. Well, not completely. Even I get that swordchucks are funny. (Ooh, we haven't done that. There's an entry someday. The aesthetics of excessive violence.)  But this was not my rabbit hole.

So here's the question. Is every game a rabbit hole? Do I need to treat the Ferrari Grand Prix Challenge as if some kid who loved his Hot Wheels Ferrari fell in love with the game and went down a rabbit hole of video game fandom focusing on racing games? I mean, it is a pretty good racing game. I confess to enjoying my half hour somewhat. So yeah. Somewhere there's the doppelganger me who loved this game and grew up to play Gran Turismo. Let's assume that. But what does that even mean? Is that a rabbit hole?

I mean, the thing we have to eventually face up to is that somewhere along the line all sense of geekery drained out of this pursuit. I was going to do an analogy here in which I said that the people who are going to be lining up outside Gamestop to buy X in a few weeks are not recognizably my tribe. Except as I looked at the upcoming list of games, I realized I don't even know which of these are event games anymore. Is Homefront a major release? I don't know. These things just are not a part of my life anymore.

So when did I drop off? I mean, when did my rabbit hole permanently fork off from everybody else's? Is it that I didn't go down the Final Fantasy route because repetitive random encounters bored me? Is it because I didn't go down the Ferrari Grand Prix Challenge rabbit hole because I just never liked cars that much? I have no idea. But somewhere between obsessive geek with a Nintendo Power collection and obsessive geek with a blog, I fell out of the world.

And this is easy to resent. Young whippersnappers who play video games with their friends. Goddammit. Video games are for people who don't have friends! And in some ways this is the great cultural divide. Either you remember pouring over Nintendo Power and trying to understand this culture that was swallowing you, or you have no corollary experience in your life to that. Either you're the sort of video game player who played Final Fantasy - and I am, even if I didn't actually bother with the playing of it more than an hour or two - or you're the sort of video game player that... I don't know. I don't understand it.

And for those of us who are on the first side of the divide, this sort of thing matters. Crap shovelware titles that probably barely got mentioned in Nintendo Power are just bizarre to us. They're the sort of thing aunts and uncles got us for Christmas because they didn't know any better. (No offense to my aunts and uncles, and to be fair, I don't remember what any of you got me when I was eight.) We knew better. Ferrari Grand Prix Challenge? As if we were ever going to drive a Ferrari. Ferraris were for boys who were ever going to have a girlfriend. We were going to drive Volvos. And we knew it.

For us, the only time we were popular was the day we decided to sell off old video games in a pre-Funcoland bit of profiteering. And so even when I disagree with a reader about the precise mechanics of JRPGs and social development, I get it. I do. I was there. I was pouring over Nintendo Power and learning my way around this landscape not to talk to girls, or boys, or anyone else, but because it was there. Because we had nothing else we could do. Or wanted to do. Or thought of doing.

And in the end, there are many NESes, and many secret histories. But at the end of the day, this is the one I know how to write. The story of a bunch of ten year old geeks with nothing to aspire towards but a Volvo. It's not a sad story. It's not a happy story. Its just... our story. And for my part, at the end of the day, I love it as much as I ever did.

There's no Volvo Grand Prix Challenge. There never will be. And to we few, we geeky few, who understand that, I say this.

Nintendo Power has sucked since Howard and Nester ended.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

On Rictus Grins, Cats, and Norse Mythology (Faxanadu and Felix the Cat)

How is it that a good game can be less of a classic than a mediocre one?

The first thing that we have to ask is this - is there anybody on the planet who has strong feelings in favor of Felix the Cat?

It seem to me a reasonable hypothesis that the answer to that question is no. It seems to me almost certain that there are actually more people who prefer having sex with each other while dressed as squirrels than there are people who have strong opinions about Felix the Cat. Felix the Cat is actually probably less popular than furries. He is also, to be fair, less unpopular than furries, but this seems to me beside the point. It is, generally speaking, bizarre for an iconic and recognizable character to be less popular than deviant sex acts involving fursuits. It is not as though most people would not recognize the iconic image of Felix the Cat, though it is perhaps odd that the iconic image of him is probably a wall clock. But despite being iconic, nobody cares. In fact, in a stunning failure of Internet, apparently nobody has ever bothered to compile a list of TV shows featuring the Felix clock (also known as the Kit Kat Clock), making it one of the most popular pieces of merchandising ever to have nobody give a damn about it.

Felix the Cat's complete lack of significant interest to anybody is particularly interesting given that he himself is a flagrant rip-off of Krazy Kat, who matters, quite rightly, to a fair number of people, and was himself ripped off for Fritz the Cat, who, again, matters meaningfully to a decent number of people.

All of which is to say that if you'd asked the video game playing population of 1992 to name properties they want video games to be made out of, nobody would have named Felix the Cat. It is, in fact, more or less impossible to picture a situation where someone would pick Felix the Cat out of a lineup of video games as the one they want to buy.

All of this is actually a bit of a pity, since as a game, Felix the Cat is a reasonably charming side-scroller. But this fact is more or less completely obscured by the yawning void of hollowed out cultural signifiers. In many regards, Felix the Cat serves as the antithesis of psychochronography. Psychochronography is based on the assumption that culture is primarily a material phenomenon, and thus thorough explanations of material cultural space and human interaction with the objects can provide an understanding of the larger culture.

This, however, assumes that there is some actual content to the objects. That they are not the sort of cultural abscess of, well, Felix the Cat. Psychochronography cannot function in the face of a cultural object that signifies nothing so much as its own irrelevance. Felix the Cat is, in effect, a symbol of death. No. That's not quite right - not because it overstates the case, but because it terrifyingly understates it. Death implies, at the end of the day, some remainder or corpse. Felix the Cat does not even provide that. Inasmuch as it leaves a corpse, the corpse demarcates not a remainder of cultural signifier but rather the complete collapse of culture into meaningless kitsch relic until, at long last, the clock on the wall no longer marks the passage of time, but rather the amount of time that has passed since the implosion of all things.

Compare, then, to Faxanadu. Faxanadu is not a great game. It's not particularly a classic either, although I'd wager it's more fondly remembered than the technically superior Felix the Cat. It's an action RPG, more or less in the vein of Zelda II. The controls are a bit ropey, and the graphics offer a muddy blur of unremarkable visual tropes, but neither of these facts are hugely distracting. Like Zelda II itself, it's tough to articulate anything that's specifically wrong with the game, but this manifestly fails to translate into actual quality.

What is remarkable about the game is its intense Engrishness. Which, given that Japan doesn't exist, makes sense. In an objective history, Faxanadu is a portmanteau of Famicom and Xanadu. The former, of course, is the Japanese equivalent of the NES. The latter is, in this context, a reference to Dragon Slayer II: Xanadu, which, as you might guess, is the second game in the Dragon Slayer franchise. So Faxanadu is sort of Dragon Slayer 2.5 - the Famicom counterpart to Xanadu.

Except that, in the US, this title is meaningless, not just because the Fa prefix doesn't signify Nintendo at all, but because Xanadu, and, in fact, the Dragon Slayer series as a whole just doesn't exist here. It was a series mostly on the MSX platform, which never really gained any ground in the US market. This is much of why I suggest that Japan does not exist - because the games we got from Japan are not Japanese in any meaningful sense. They are rather from Japan - games that emanate out from an inscrutable Other.

This is the manifestation of the Engrish. In a purely practical sense, this occurs because of the extreme differences between Japanese and English grammar and the fact that the low resolution of 80s television screens meant that text had to be comparatively massive to be read, meaning that verbosity was impossible. And so translations of Japanese games had to translate between two deeply incompatible languages and cultural reference systems without the luxury of using many words to do so. Ergo Engrish.

But from our perspective, the phenomenon was far more inscrutable. There was no reason why the games were translated as badly as they were because, for us, there was no Japan except as an explanation for the phenomenon of Engrish. Ultimately, the games were clearly translated to English, but not clearly translated from anything. Japan is nothing more than the name of the ghostly cultural formation that logically must exist to explain Engrish.

The result is... odd. In the case of Faxanadu, it means that there are clear trappings of Norse mythology -discussions of the root of the World Tree, elves, dwarves, and, most tellingly, a recurring imagery of wells. An expert in Norse mythology, which I, to be clear, am not, but unfortunately, the one I know wrote the last blog post, so I couldn't very well farm it out to her again, would readily recognize this.

Less clear is why Alfheim is now called Eolis, is at the root of the World Tree, why an apparently non-elven main character treats it as his hometown, or why the Dwarves arriving in town is basically the worst thing ever. (Actually, given the nomadic nature of Norse dwarves and the comments about how the Dwarves are stealing their resources, it's tough not to have that entire plot thread feel just a bit xenophobic with a slight hint of anti-semitism for flavor) Which is to say, these elements have somehow survived a double translation - into "Japanese" and then into Engrish - even if their actual signification has not.

Buried gods and secret histories, then. Comforting territory, albeit in the context of Faxanadu eerily post-apocalyptic. The world of Faxanadu, in fact, is one of the creepiest post-apocalyptic settings I've ever seen - pseudo-medieval fantasy that sailed past its apocalypse into crumbling disuse without anyone particularly noticing. The apocalypse that occurred in the crumbling and abandoned Eolis was a collapse of thing into ruin.

In other words, Eolis was eaten by Felix the Cat.

But this goes a long way towards explaining why Faxanadu is more fondly remembered. Because as mad as I may be (and I make no effort to pretend that I am remotely sane), at the end of the day, the ruins of buried gods and secret histories are far more appealing than the rictus grin of an abscessed signifier.