Tuesday, July 20, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And if not, does anyone truly understand 1988?


  1. Holy crap, you played Spinjas too!

  2. The whole 'secret histories' thing is something I've always given a lot of thought to, and now I'll be using that name for it.

    Absolutely fascinating. I love your blog so much.

  3. Oh my god. I never knew about exploding Hitler. No one I know had ever beaten the game. I never even beat it on an emulator it was so hard.

  4. I am i VERY avid fisher who goes fishing at least once every one or two weeks.

    I LOVE half life and half life 2.

    I DON'T like your huge blanket statement that trys to label me because you somehow think that you know every single person who plays half life or halo.