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.

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