Monday, September 20, 2010

Pierre Menard, Author of the Nintendo Project (Chip 'n Dale's Rescue Rangers and Chip 'n Dale's Rescue Rangers 2)

To complete the Nintendo Project, it is necessary to come to some full understanding of the past. This is more than memory. Memory is but a fleeting early stage of this process. To have written the Nintendo Project, it is necessary to have gone beyond mere memory into something approximating time travel. It is necessary, then, to build some sort of nexus - a common point of reference that can be visited and revisited along different chains of memories until, having been visited enough, it takes on a life of its own.

This process sounds very metaphysical and complex, but it is simpler than it sounds. Think of it as equivalent to doing the research to write a historical novel - becoming so steeped in the history of a time that you can speak it like a foreign language, phrase stories and experiences in it, etc.

This, then, is the first in a series of four entries. The others are a ways off - the next will be Darkwing Duck, in about 15 entries, then Ducktales about 23 after that. After that it's a long, long way to part four, TaleSpin.

These four games are all based on Disney cartoons that aired during a two hour afternoon block called Disney Afternoon. The four games in fact represent the lineup of that block in the 1991-92 television season, corresponding to when I was in fourth grade. The lineup changed annually, with the show in the first timeslot being removed, the others moved back half an hour, and a new show debuting in the last timeslot. The 1991-92 vintage was by far the best.

I was in fourth grade for this vintage. In the course of the year my mother became pregnant with my sister, and the Super Nintendo came out. This, then, is the tail end of the NES and the Nintendo Project. I will endeavor to inhabit it - in effect, to, inasmuch as it is possible, create a time machine and go back to that period of my life. To wit, these four entries - a concrete attempt within the Nintendo Project to work magic.

First is Chip 'n Dale's Rescue Rangers, and its sequel. Its sequel poses a problem that has become familiar for the Nintendo Project - it came out in 1993, in the fading days of the NES, at least for me. As a result, I didn't know it existed until now. Playing it with nothing but fond memories of the first game, it is a disappointment - a tepid sequel that does not expand meaningfully on the original. The first game, on the other hand, held a special place in my heart because it is a real rarity among NES games - it is both good and easy.

Or so memory indicated. I expected to sit down and blaze through the game. In practice, the game proved oddly difficult at first. Thankfully the good held through even if the easy didn't, and I spent more than my allotted half hour, and got good at the game again. But it was a learning process in a way that not all NES games are.

Replaying Chip 'n Dale's Rescue Rangers, I was struck by the degree to which the game is designed for children in a non-patronizing way. It is not that the game is made easy for children, but rather that the game requires particularly childlike logic to complete. Specifically, the game requires that you think as though you are too small for the world you live in.

Chip and Dale are both chipmunks. Small rodents. In the game, they are, by default, essentially helpless. They have no inherent attack, and no ability to fight off enemies. It is only when they are able to pick up boxes or other items that they have the capacity to fight back against their enemies.

The result is a gameplay that is based on the motion of small rodents - scampering from box to box, advancing nervously much of the time, hiding, ducking, etc. It is not a stealth game as such - its genre is clearly the standard platformer. But its a platformer that plays slightly out of rhythm with other platformers - that denies the ability to authoritatively control the game based on mere experience with the genre. Rather, it requires a different sort of experience - the experience of being small.

Playing the game now is not learning as such, but remembering - accessing parts of my brain that have long since been abandoned in favor of newer approaches. In part out of the hazy memories of the game that I retain, in part out of learned video game skill, and in part because of footholds the game actually gives me, I reconstruct something playable of the game.

This is not playing the game in 1991. But what would need to be different for me to do that? The issue here is one of awareness - to play the game in 1991, I need to forget 1992 and beyond. In other words, to experience 1991, I need to remove the intervening context and make 1991 imminent again. But to do so defeats the purpose - it is a 2010 me that wishes to experience 1991. To experience 1991 without awareness of 2010 fails to fulfill my desire.

(This is an intractable problem in the nature of humanity. It's the basic nature of memory. Trying to solve it is like declaring that rain is too wet and that you're going to do something about that.)

How do we resolve this then? Let's climb back down off this ledge and attack the problem from another angle. What is it that we wish to do when we remember? What does the choice to conjure the past entail? The answer is clearly not transformation of consciousness. When I wax nostalgic about Chip 'n Dale's Rescue Rangers, it is not because I want to be a 4th grader. I do not want to abandon sexual awakening, a PhD's worth of knowledge, love of Doctor Who, or my sister. So what do I desire from 1991 that is neither memory nor experience?

Is it simply a matter of stepping in the same river twice? Is what I desire not old experiences but the opportunity to have them as new experiences? Just as I wish I could watch Fight Club or The Prestige for the first time, not going back to get extra clues on a second viewing, but actually being surprised? No - if it were, Chip 'n Dale's Rescue Rangers 2 would be satisfying. After all, it's essentially new levels of the same game. But it's not - the problem is not merely that the experience ran out. It is deeper and stranger.

Perhaps I will know it when I find it. Let's simply reminisce. Fourth grade, academically, was not what I would call one of the good years. Actually, it's decisively the worst year of elementary school. The issue was a teacher who was, and you'll have to forgive my profound lack of humility here, completely unsuited to having a smart kid in her class. I will freely acknowledge that I was a handful in school - with the exception of first grade (a story I'll have to formulate eventually) I was the smartest kid in my class every year. And I was challengingly smart - I was not merely a good, diligent student. In fact, I was not a good, diligent student - work that bored me would be half-assed. I was smart, not studious, and that resulted in my challenging teachers, students, and everything else. Regularly.

Some teachers I had rose to the challenge, testing me back, trying to see if they could find my limits. Others treated me as an inconvenient barrier to what I imagine they saw as their real job, educating people who were not already smart. Mrs. Aschauer, my fourth grade teacher, was in the latter category, a problem that culminated in the absurd moment in which she suggested to me that many of my problems could be solved if only I'd stop being so smart. This was not advice I took kindly to.

Mrs. Aschauer died just under a year ago, of cancer. I'd visited her occasionally since graduating, but not really since my sister stopped going to elementary school, which must have been round about seven years ago now. Maybe I saw her once between then and her death. After the fact, when both of us were engaging that year only in memory, she seemed to think me one of her best students. I never gave her any reason to think otherwise, and now I never will. I feel more or less peace on this issue. Whatever I seek from the past, I do not seek it from her or her ghost

A wider net then. My first exposure to sex happened in fourth grade. Initially a product of bullying from some classmates in which they tried to get me to look it up in the dictionary, by the end of the year I had it explained to me in the context of my soon-to-exist sister. My reaction, when where babies came from was explained to me, was, and I quote, "So you just take all your clothes off and bodyslam each other?"

Perhaps most significantly, in fourth grade the Super Nintendo came out, and I got one. I'm not entirely sure where in the process of fourth grade this happened - I could reminisce with my parents, but they have a bad case of "being in England" right now, so no dice there. The Super Nintendo, in my childhood, is a strange signifier - although many of my all-time favorite games came out for it, in hindsight I remember it primarily as the terminus of the NES era. This is true even though in practice the two were hopelessly intertwined for years - it was an NES game I was playing when I learned my mother was pregnant, even though the SNES was out.

Friends. I must have been friends with Magnus by now, because I remember watching the premier of Darkwing Duck at his house. Magnus was a geek friend - when I got into Doctor Who, his mother was all too happy to vouch that she liked it to. She gave me old copies of the Doctor Who Roleplaying game, which I failed to adequately make sense of. In hindsight, I recognize his mother better now than I did then. At that age, other people's parents were strange semi-authority figures, not people. Now, she is familiar to me as a particular flavor of geek. I can imagine her seamlessly at any number of cons.

This is closer to what I am looking for.

My other good friend at the time was the child of old family friends. We'd lived near each other for a few years pre-Kindergarten in Massachusetts, but by now were about 90 minutes apart, though we visited frequently. He was a video game buddy if ever there was one. But our other big area of mutual interest was pretending we were spies. Chris and I had a lively enough imaginary life to begin with, but spies were, if you will, our true passion. Sneaking around, trying to find out information, hiding things, these were key games we played.

No wonder Chip ‘n Dale’s Rescue Rangers was my favorite show of the Disney block, then – and I watched with growing apprehension as it scrolled towards the inevitable removal spot. It is essentially a detective/spy show, with broad comedy, and, perhaps most crucially, Gadget, the single best reason to become a furry in all of animation. Gadget was in many ways the perfect character for me in this pre-sexual phase. The clear social expectation that I’d eventually have to date and find a wife (a process that, in 4th grade, I treated as an upcoming errand, not entirely dissimilar to emptying the dishwasher) was made easier by the knowledge that there were people in the world like Gadget – hyper-intelligent female mice – that I could marry.

In hindsight, there were certain problems with this plan, not the least of which the fact that it treated women as a sort of sacred object – of use because one must marry, and so one might as well find a tolerable person to marry. The failure of this ideology to distill out of many people is disturbing. But as a characteristic of pre-sexual cross-gender relations in a heteronormative society, there are worse problems to find. The sexless idolization of seemingly perfect womanhood is far from the greatest sin one finds if one scratches long enough at this dig site.

Why spies? Spying, as I understood it then, was the gathering of forbidden knowledge. The spy was the radical and dangerous embodiment of the idea that all knowledge is worth pursuing and obtaining. But more to the point, the spy also necessarily believes that everything is knowable. The spy, then, would reject the premise of my current dilemma, denying the very idea that there is some knowledge that precludes other knowledge.

I knew even in the fourth grade this couldn't be true. Why else would I be reluctant to look up sex in the dictionary. Because I knew there must be some meaning other than "male and female," and if they wanted me to look at that meaning, it must be a meaning I was not supposed to know. A meaning that it would be harmful for me to know. I did not spy. I declined to look it up, reasoning that the nagging to look it up was going to be preferable to whatever unknown hell would result in knowing.

There is a game that I have omitted here. In an attempt at clever obscurity, I’ll decline to state its name, although those with sufficient reserves of video game knowledge and sufficient mastery of the alphabet will see what game must go between Chessmaster and Chip ‘n Dale. It is an unlicensed game, and thus outside the necessary purview of this project. Its notability comes entirely from its violent content – the sheer and ludicrous sadism involved in it. It is not a good game, but a fascinating one – there is no way that anybody would ever want to play it. But all the same, its allure is there – a secret ritual (I did not partake of it until college) that calls to us. Why? I posit this – we desire forbidden knowledge so that we can know why it was forbidden. The sole content of the Tree of Life is the knowledge of why God forbid us to eat its fruit.

This desire echoes up from creation to the present. It is the desire to remember - the desire to have it both ways. The desire to see the forbidden knowledge that laid scattered around without affecting the experience. It is the desire to spy in complete safety, in a country where nobody will arrest you or imprison you for seeking answers.

Even still, the past rebuffs us. Revisiting 1991 via Chip 'n Dale's Rescue Rangers, there is a new forbidden knowledge - that which I understood then and cannot see now. I can perhaps translate - learn to play the game again, even beat it again. But it will never again be an easy game.

This line of enquiry has dried up. We ought fall back, and seek another path through this morass.


  1. While this was a fantastic entry, I have to point out that you have seriously undervalued Gargoyles, therefore you are wrong.

  2. Gargoyles - I almost included a line about it, actually. I view it as a late classic - clearly the most ambitious show in the lineup (though I'm not sure it's better than Ducktales or Chip 'n Dale, all told - mostly it's hard to compare them). But there's absolutely no way that the three years it were in the lineup were the best - the lone good show it was ever accompanied by was Darkwing Duck (a solid show, to be fair, but clearly the fourth best show ever on Disney Afternoon). The rest of the time it had awful compatriots - Goof Troop, Aladdin, Bonkers, and Quack Pack were all terrible. So while Gargoyles deserves mention, I can't call the years it was on the golden years of its programming block. A lineup of Goof Troop, Aladdin, Bonkers, and Gargoyles is, simply put, not better on the whole than the Duck Tales-Chip 'n Dale-Talespin-Darkwing Duck lineup.

  3. I played that other game in the arcade, with an actual arcade gun (I don't know if it was properly a light gun or a secret joystick like I think Operation: Wolf was), when I was far too young to play such a thing. It even had moderate nudity. It's amazing they even attempted an NES port. I wonder if they tried to get it licensed or knew it was a lost cause.

  4. Congratulations on the Blog of note! While I did play these games when I was a kid, your attempt here at this blog is quite noteworthy ;)

  5. Well that's just dandy, I'm going to have the cartoon theme playing in my head all day now.

  6. I totally love NES when I was younger! Congrats on the Noteworthy blog... You took me back to a happy place in a childhood! I just wished you had of mentioned Zelda!

  7. I still love NES :P
    I have some nintendo songs :P

  8. Found you by Blog of Note.

    A delightful blog, making NES the launchpad of your lunatic ravings is an unexpected twist.
    I like it, in this dumbed down world, the fact that you've made is somewhat accessible to the
    masses is great.

  9. How does one discuss the NES without discussing the Sega Master System? It is like discussing Apollo in the absence of Dionysus!

    While I applaud your efforts here, something inside me cries out at the injustice done to Wonder Boy, Zillion, and Phantasy Star...

  10. Times Three - indeed. And a myriad of other options - how does one discuss the NES without discussing Saturday Morning Cartoons, action figures, the Cold War, the Atari. Much of the point of this blog is the wealth of things the NES intersects, and the idea that, through a relatively constrained event like the NES, an entire history and life can be excavated.

    And I have talked about other systems - not the Sega Master System (yet), but this entry should at least partially address your concerns.

  11. ah, this is a very fun blog, totally takes me back to the good ol' days of 16 bits!

  12. Mike fox said : "totally takes me back to the good ol' days of 16 bits!"


  13. oh wow... so much nostalgia... i used to rent this game as a child!

    great blog, it is legitimately interesting! I'll be reading it intently!

  14. I LOVE CHIP n DALE so much ^^ hahaXD