Friday, August 20, 2010

The Glow of the Fire Blinds Those Who Have Been Liberated (Bonk's Adventure and Boulder Dash)

The Nintendo Entertainment System is not, I should stress, the only video game system ever, nor even the only video game system from my childhood. It was supported actively from 1985 to 1994. Interestingly, these dates essentially encompass the entire period for which the TurboGrafx-16 was actively supported - 1989 to 1994. These two periods are themselves essentially encompassed by the entire period for which the Commodore 64 was actively supported - 1982 to 1994. In theory, this blog could be either of those blogs, particularly if I wanted to sacrifice the meager readership I have in a quest for increased obscurantism. (Coming soon: Sexual awakenings and Bubble Bobble.)

Today's games are interesting in light of this observation, because both are games more easily associated with other systems. Bonk's Adventure was the flagship product for the TurboGrafx-16, and only later saw a port to the NES. Boulder Dash, on the other hand, only saw release for the NES in 1990, a full six years after it had come out. Those who enjoy subtraction have already seen that this means Boulder Dash predated the NES. Indeed, its original release was for a variety of home computers. The dominant home computer in that era, however, was the Commodore 64, which is indeed the version of Boulder Dash that saw rerelease on the Virtual Console a quarter decade after its release.

(There are those in my academic field who embrace the buzzword "remediation" to describe this phenomenon - the encoding of one medium in another.)

Let's contextualize. The Commodore 64 was released in 1982. Its list price, $595, was roughly 20% of the list price of the other game-changing 80s computer debut, the Apple Macintosh. The Commodore 64 was a triumph not of engineering (that would be the Macintosh) but of commercial design. It was vertically integrated and relied on forward-looking assumptions about the market - most notably the thoroughly ballsy decision to design a computer that had $100 of RAM on the (correct) assumption that prices would fall by the time production ramped up, and the desired manufacturing cost/price ratio would be preserved.

Many credit the Commodore 64 with speeding the video game crash that buried Atari and split the history of video gaming in two. In practice, there was never a video game crash as such. Games continued to be a major part of the computer scene throughout the bust that lasted, roughly, from 1983 to 1984. Calling 1984 a lost year in video gaming is thus a misnomer - for one thing, Boulder Dash, a minor but deserving classic - came out that year. What there was in 1984 (and really, from late 1983 to 1987 if you want to be technical about it) was a gap in which console gaming had little hold. A gap that was filled primarily by the Commodore 64.

My personal connection here is that the Commodore 64 is present in my earliest memory. My mother got me one at Toys R' Us in 1984. I was at most two. I do not remember a time without the Commdore 64, which means that I do not remember a time without video games. This is why it is possible, in theory, to encompass the entirety of my being in a discussion of video games. But my being leaks out from the NES, and indeed from video games in general. I played before the NES. A story of my video game self starts with the Commodore 64, even though the Commodore 64 starts before me.

The TurboGrafx-16, on the other hand, was a basically moribund competitor to the NES. It was not the NES's first competitor - that title belongs to the Sega Master System. But it was the first competitor to seriously attack Nintendo on the grounds of technological superiority. Simply put, TurboGrafx-16 games looked better than NES games. The problem came in the execution - the TurboGrafx-16 came out in 1989 in the US, but it had already been out for two years in Japan. Just before the TurboGrafx-16 came out in the US, however, the technologically superior Sega Genesis also launched. The Genesis had only been out in Japan for a year. And so two years of technological development were, for US audiences, condensed into two weeks, and done in the wrong order - by the time the TurboGrafx-16 made it out into the US market place, it was already obsolete.

For a system whose primary marketing appeal was technological superiority, being technologically outdone by a competitor was basically a death knell. The market split entirely between Nintendo and Sega, with Nintendo ignoring the challenge of the TurboGrafx-16 and taking on the Genesis, releasing the Super Nintendo in 1991, and ensuring itself market domination until it finally fell to the Playstation in a hail of terrible business decisions.

I never had a TurboGrafx-16. I played one once, at a friend's house, and remember a strong sense of disappointment - the games were clearly not up to the quality I had come to expect from Nintendo Games - an unnerving claim in hindsight. Here the seed of something is planted - the quality of a game is judged by something other than graphical complexity. Given time, this seed will develop in countless ways.

Here, though, in the midpoint of the NES, we have something altogether stranger. It is impossible to discuss the TurboGrafx-16 without discussing the NES. It is certainly possible to discuss the Commodore 64, but all the same its legacy dovetails into the NES in fundamental ways. The NES has something neither of the other systems have or can possibly have - something approaching transcendence. I do not mean to use the word lightly. There is something religious about the NES, however. Hardly anyone in America of my generation lived a life that did not culturally intersect with the NES somewhere. There is no singular narrative of the NES, because the NES grew too big for a singular narrative.

And here we see this, with two games that are not Nintendo games for the NES. Both are resolutely pretty good - Bonk's Adventure is not one of the A-List side-scrollers of history, but it's got a solid claim to the B-List. Boulder Dash is not one of the great classics either, being eclipsed even in its subterranean digging genre by Dig-Dug (though I would argue readily that Dig-Dug is a vastly inferior game). But both are games I can enjoy for an extended period of time. Boulder Dash acquires a sort of nasty sadism quickly, but again, it's squarely from the paranoid period of video games, so this is not a fault. Bonk's Adventure is slightly awkward, though that may well be an artifact of the port. But playing both of them here, for me, is a broader and stranger experience.

I have clear memories of Boulder Dash - clearer than almost any other Commodore 64 game. And the game on the NES is not my game. It is not my memories, but rather a recreation of my memories. A recreation of my memories from the same cultural period of my memories. There is a faint horror here. A horror that is at the heart of digital existence. At long last the distinction between copy and original is lost forever. Benjamin's aura flickers and goes black. Now at last we can see what things were mere shadows on the cave wall, and what things were real.

Do not ask if this is knowledge that you wanted. Knowledge is desired only in hindsight. A lust for learning is not a lust for what is learned, because what is learned is unknown at that moment of desire. Rather it is a lust for non-things. A lust to touch that which cannot be touched, even though the act of touching it will render it no longer what was desired. To embrace the shadows on the wall is to reveal that they are shadows, and yet this does not dim our desire to turn off the lantern and step out into the sun.

In practical terms, to step out of the cave and into the sun is to produce the caveman. Thus it is natural to look to Bonk's Adventure, a game starring a headbutting caveman child, to resolve this fundamental mystery of existence. I forget if I played Bonk's Adventure. I doubt I did, because when it released on the Virtual Console I eagerly downloaded it, not out of a nostalgic desire to rekindle my memories, but out of a far stranger and perhaps more nihilistic desire to depersonalize my memories into a broader history of the time period.

What I play here on the NES is a strange beast. A secret history, yes. But a copy of one. This is not Bonk's Adventure. Ported, ripped, emulated, downloaded, uploaded, copied, and distributed, this thing on my screen has a strained but essential relationship to a video game I never owned and never played. A video game that was nevertheless a part of my history because I knew the Turbografx-16 as what I was not. The game was not even the lump of plastic some people did own. Bonk's Adventure does not exist. It is a signifier of a cultural milestone that never happened.

But played here on the NES, the cultural milestone that subsumed its moment, twenty years after its non-moment, there is something else. Not memory, nor history, nor even nostalgia, that delectable conflation of the two. Something else. Truth, perhaps?

1 comment:

  1. I loved Boulder Dash on my Commodore 64.

    I enjoy your writing (I don't love it yet, because a gentleman advances slowly), as it expresses things I've forgotten how to express.

    If I recall correctly, Turbografx-16 also had a somewhat awkward advertising campaign. I seem to recall it feeling sort of like those ads for Caveman Games, where the ads themselves seemed like cheap knock-offs of real ads.

    As it is, I've developed a fondness for Caveman Games over the past few years, but I've never played -- or even seen -- Bonk's Adventure. You are right: it is a signifier of a cultural milestone that never happened.