Thursday, September 30, 2010

Ouroborous (Cliffhanger and Clu Clu Land)

Clu Clu Land and Cliffhanger, taken together, span essentially the entire history of the Nintendo. Clu Clu Land was one of the original 1985 games, along with (of what we've played so far), 10-Yard Fight and Baseball. Cliffhanger, on the other hand, was an extremely late game - November of 1993, only thirteen games were definitively released afterwards. (I should insert here a thanks to a sister project, Nintendo Relaunch, who are playing through the entirety of NES games in the order they were released, beginning in 18 days, and whose "order of release" page has proven helpful on several occasions while generating facts like the above)

This presents the opportunity for another historicist post, in which we talk about secret histories, the true nature of the past, and all that good stuff. And to be fair, our analysis of history has stuck largely to 1988, with an occasional outbreak of 1990. 1985, with its Cold War paranoia, rung itself in with the Soviet Union on its third General Secretary in three years, casting around chaotically in the wake of Leonid Brezhnev. The doomsday clock spent the year set to 11:57, its second closest approach to armageddon, and its worst since the glorious atomic paranoias of the 1950s. Musically, it was the good old days - The Smiths released "Meat is Murder," while The Cure, Sisters of Mercy, and New Order all put out seminal albums, which was almost, but not quite, enough to remove the stink of We Are the World. "Shout" and "Take on Me" were two of the five biggest hit singles of the year, along with We Are the World and a Foreigner song, leaving Madonna's "Into the Groove" with the bizarre and titanic task of resolving the dialectic. In film, Back to the Future reigned supreme, but #2 and #3 both went to Sylvester Stallone, who was up to Rambo II and Rocky IV, indicating that both series were on the wane.

Fast forward to 1993, and the Soviet Union has collapsed in the chaos of 1991, and we were well into the decade of Boris Yeltsin. Where 1995 was best illustrated in middle-period Reagan, 1993 was early Clinton, an outbreak of hope wholly unsuited to the times. The 1990s were, as we were rapidly coming to learn, a dead decade, full of stagnating failure that could only be looked at nostalgically from the uncompromising hell of millennial dawn. Indeed, in most regards, we were beginning a dry rehearsal for the millenium, complete with proto-9/11 in the World Trade Center. (A digression here could be inserted about the style of historical recollection that indulges in such narrative leveling, reducing the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the deaths of six people, a group that consisted of one salesman, three maintenance guys, a secretary, and a receiving agent, to a mere historical footnote. This despite the fact that the 1993 bombing culminated in a 2006 legal decision that declared, with startling and counterintuitive precision, that the terrorists were exactly 32% responsible for the bombing, while the Port Authoirty was 68%. Such a footnote would serve as a reminder that any given path through history is determined less by the actual content of the past and more by the present-day vicissitudes of what objects and moments we opt to orient the story around. The families of Monica Smith, Bob Kirkpatrick, Bill Macko, Stephen Knapp, John DiGiovanni, and Wilfredo Mercado have a vividly different 1993. Such a digression would reposition the entry to be about the sheer narcissism of memory, however, which is not my intention, and so I will not engage in it.) Musically, 1993 was on the surface a mirror of 1985. Depeche Mode hit #1 on the US charts, marking the point where Goth/New Wave peaked in the US. The 80s appear, at a glance, to be alive and well - New Order, Pat Benetar, and The Cure all released albums. But on closer inspection, the ground was changing in that irritating way that history does, where chunks of the past survive fully functional long after heir successors have arrived to make them extinct. Alternative music was well under way - Nirvana released In Utero on the same day that The Cure released their live album, and Kurt Cobain spent most of 1993 with less than a year to live. Radiohead and Smashing Pumpkins released their seminal pre-magnum opus albums. And then in film, the top ten included such luminaries as Schindler's List, Sleepless in Seattle, Philadelphia, Jurassic Park, Indecent Proposal, and Cliffhanger, the last starring Sylvester Stallone.

We've now measured a circle of 1985 to 1993. So, in the manner that defines our project, we will begin with Clu Clu Land. Clu Clu Land is a fairly straightforward 2-D maze-run - not quite a Pac-Man clone, but certainly a Pac-Man cousin. The dots are invisible and have to be found, the maze is considerably more open, and turning is reduced to "turn left or right." This last point is rare in video games, due largely to the design of the joystick or D-pad. Reducing gameplay to contextual turning destroys the unity of the D-pad, turning it to four buttons where we normally treat it as two. Accordingly, it's usually not done - the major recent exception is Resident Evil. (1996. Deep Blue defeats Kasparov, while in music, the alternative wave that began in England and transmuted itself in Seattle has clearly crested, receded, and married off its dying embers to Gwen Stefani) In the case of Clu Clu Land, the reasoning is somewhat stranger - one moves by sticking out a claw that catches the posts forming the bulk of the maze and spins your avatar around them, thus one can simply commence turning clockwise or counterclockwise, as opposed to selecting a direction as such.

With its simple control scheme and level design, Clu Clu Land fits firmly in the tradition of arcade games that the NES marks the end of. It is part of an aesthetic movement that its creation is an inherent part of the death of. Much as (we continue our circle) Rambo II and Rocky IV are iconic steps in the decline of themselves. Indeed, Sylvester Stallone's career is defined by this phenomenon. Stallone broke out as an all-purpose auteur, writing and starring in Rocky before going the full monty and writing, directing, and starring in Rocky II. Having defined his career as an auteur, he proceeded to impotently put out unambitious action flicks such as Cliffhanger, which he script doctored to its well-regarded and classic form.

Cliffhanger was adapted into an utterly awful video game - a clumsy side-scroller that was thrown off as an unconsidered NES port of a game designed for higher end consoles. Cliffhanger is thus the half-assed second version of a half-assed licensed game. It is mediocre because of the decline of the NES - because it exists as part of the decline and collapse of something. But this was true of Clu Clu Land. The NES was a product defined by the failure of the Atari 2600 and the so-called video game bust. It was designed to be the antidote to a failed moment of video games - to bring about the end of an era.

The NES was busy dying from the day it was born, like all of us. On February 20, 1967, Kurt Cobain had less than 28 years to live. Death is a condition afflicting us from day one. Life is invariably terminal. Death is defined by two characteristics. It is always approaching, and spends the overwhelming, massive bulk of its time not happening. You will eventually die, and it is extraordinarily unlikely to happen today.

The bulk of points along a line - an infinite number of them, in fact - are not endpoints. Birth and death are two instants in a set of infinity. But these two points mark where we measure from. We insert milestones - birthdeaths along the way. Getting a NES. Selling it because I don't play it anymore. But in the end, this line is measured from two points - two horizons of experience.

How can we circle this line? How can we free ourselves and start anywhere? How can we convert life into metaphor, into semantic play that loops joyously and infinitely around us? The answer, let's be clear, is madness. Quite literally. We can unhinge our minds, experience the world as metaphor and myth. The result makes it difficult, perhaps impossible, to live anything visible as a normal life. It's the decision of excessive dreamers, of the mad and burnt out. Borges describes the phenomenon in The Zahir. The story concerns a fictionalized Borges growing endlessly more obsessed with a coin that happens to be the mythic Zahir, the object that replaces all experienced reality with an obsession around it. As Borges succumbs to this obsession, he asks the central question - is this OK? He reasons that it is, because he'll never know.

But an earlier moment in the story, perhaps, captures the heart of it more. The Zahir, Borges notes, symbolizes free will - a coin can be changed into anything. It is the ultimate mutability, the ultimate alchemy, the ultimate act of magic. A universal symbol. A simple, circular coin.

In Clu Clu Land, you swim around obtaining gold bars that, in classic Nintendo fashion, share the same basic graphical template that would later be used for Rupees in the Legend of Zelda, itself a bare variation of the coin from Super Mario Bros. The only difference is that the coin is slightly rounder - more circular. More looped.

Clu Clu Land's name is a romanization of the Japanese Kuru Kuru, an onomatopoeia meaning to go around and around.

It's an optical illusion. A trick of the light. Birth and death appear to be endpoints. Only when we balance ourselves precariously on the rim of the circle, stand just so, looking straight down the edge, does it look like a line. Move but an inch in any direction and you'll see the truth. You can measure a circle starting anywhere. Birth and death are nothing more than where you happened to start.


  1. Hey there,

    WHat a great retro style blog! I dig video games and miss the simplicity of the Nintendo gaming system. Sega anyone? Great looking blog. Seriously, keep up the good work and you are sure to get more accolades than just blog of note! I bow to you and commend you on your accomplishment.

    Brian Bedell

  2. I agree.This is a great blog.I remember having the first Nintendo that came out,and playing Donkey Kong.

  3. cliffhanger was so terriable lol

  4. I miss my Nitendo but after reading your Blog I'm hoping I can find one because I still have some of my old Nitendo Games including Donkey Kong. Checkout you can get ringtones, games, and tickets it's pretty awesome.

  5. I love my old nintendo! I could play it all day!

  6. Thank you! I have been remember this game, but could never think of the name, and it's CLU CLU LAND!! Brilliant. THANKS!

  7. Interesting post. Clu Clu Land and Cliffhanger as the birth and death of NES. Birth and death in the context of signposts of history.
    Clu Clu Land is an especially apt choice. As you swam around uncovering gold bricks, the bricks would reveal themselves to be arranged in a pattern. Only towards the end would the shape become apparent. A life could be described much the same way. An event that shaped you would only be relevant as part of a sequence that would only be obvious upon completion of that sequence. As we reflect on events past, we consider them in the context of our own personal narrative: what came before, and what happened since; the structure becoming important only when we see that indeed, there is a structure.

  8. awsome read! wish my english was as good! And my writing...

  9. I would have guessed you'd save the metaphors for slowly encroaching death until you reached Gauntlet, but I'm suprisingly happy with what you've done here.

    Regarding Borges, is there a good starting point or should I just hop right in?