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.


  1. you know. A volvo grand prix might be interesting. "and the bio-diesel conversion takes the I smell frenchfries"

  2. man. i hate useless "good work" comments, but, yeah, that. i'm not sure i always follow the paths of your posts, but i read and enjoy them they way i enjoy a glass of red wine sometimes (I'm not a wine snob or anything, it just takes good sometimes.)

    also, please don't stop. don't know if it's the tone, or that i don't see many comments, or just paranoia (i'm also worried george rr martin is going to die before finishing "a song of ice and fire"), but it kinda feels like you might not make it to the end. i can't wait for zelda (i hope you do it in the z's and not the l's) but i'm also looking forward to the trip there. i know you don't have to write these posts, but in case it matters to you, there is at least one person following the trip and enjoying it very much.

    ps. i suck at words (infinite loop here) and it's cool to read someone who doesn't, and is easy to read, and doesn't sound snobby. it's no excuse, but i think it's why i like programming.

    pps. been here since "dragons reconsidered," via "dinosaur comics"

  3. I am echoing the above poster. Your thinking process is so unique, your insights sharp, and the way you bring it all together in a tour of Nintendo is nothing short of brilliant. Please do keep it up.

  4. Awesome. Simply awesome.

    Tricks are nice, as they make things easier. Honestly, though, you're able enough to snare us without them.