Lev Manovich famously argues that it is a mistake to call what is broadly defined as "new media" interactive. His argument is that to read these objects as interactive is to mistake their structure for the structure of our own mind. Games play us back. I've spoken about this before.
Saturday, August 28, 2010
Lev Manovich famously argues that it is a mistake to call what is broadly defined as "new media" interactive. His argument is that to read these objects as interactive is to mistake their structure for the structure of our own mind. Games play us back. I've spoken about this before.
Friday, August 27, 2010
Red and Yellow Then Came To Be (Bucky O'Hare, Bugs Bunny's Birthday Blowout, Bugs Bunny's Crazy Castle)
1: Hello, and welcome to another edition of the Nintendo Project. You are probably here because you would like to read an engaging and mature discussion on video games. In this case, we have three games, Bucky O'Hare, Bugs Bunny's Birthday Blowout, and Bugs Bunny's Crazy Castle, all of which are about rabbits. So let's talk about math.
1: The Fibonacci sequence of numbers is a series of numbers that works like this. The first two numbers are 1. The third number is the sum of the first two. The fourth is the sum of the second and third. And so on, with each number being the sum of the two previous.
This series of numbers, first discovered in India around 200 BC, were, in a typical feat of Western imperialism, named after a 13th century Italian mathematician. He developed the numbers to model the mating habits of theoretically ideal immortal rabbits. This is the sort of thing that happens in mathematics.
2: Bugs Bunny, the closest actual thing to a theoretically ideal immortal rabbit, officially debuted in 1940, having really existed since about 1938. He features in two NES games - the more or less unremarkable Bugs Bunny's Birthday Blowout, and the actually quite good Bugs Bunny's Crazy Castle.
3: So let's take a deep breath here. Bugs Bunny's Crazy Castle is the US version of a Japanese game based on Disney's Who Framed Roger Rabbit franchise, to which Kemco owned the Japanese rights. Because there was already a US Roger Rabbit game, however, Kemco acquired the Warner Brothers rights in the US so that they could release the game, apparently viewing the rabbit as the key part of the franchise. After the NES release of the first game, the series settled into the Game Boy and released several more installments. Eventually Kemco abandoned rabbits, as it dawned on them that there were better things to do with the Disney rights in Japan than creating Roger Rabbit games. This produced a bizarre situation where games were released in Japan as Mickey Mouse games and in the US as Bugs Bunny games. Somewhat bizarrely, the European version of one of the games became a Garfield game, while the US version of another became a Ghostbusters game (or more properly The Real Ghostbusters, since that property itself is the subject of a bizarre copyright dispute between Filmation and Columbia Pictures). And then, to cap it off, Kemco lost the rights to all of these things and released a final game in the series with Woody Woodpecker.
The games have a certain homogeny. In this one, Bugs Bunny is navigated through room after room of doors. His mission: collect all the carrots while dodging his enemies. (Here the traditional set - Sylvester, Yosemetie, etc. This differs from his Birthday Blowout, where the entire Warner Brothers stable turns on him in jealousy at his birthday party, even Tweety Bird) Safes that can be dropped on his enemies and the occasional boxing glove litter the rooms to aid Bugs. What lies at the top of this Crazy Castle? A simple message, left for you to discover.
5: The bleeding of Mickey Mouse into Bugs Bunny in the context of what was originally a Roger Rabbit game makes some sense. Despite being a Disney property, a fundamental draw of the movie was the melding of multiple cartoon properties, in deals secured by Steven Spielberg. For the major characters, however, stipulations applied - among them that Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny would have the exact same amount of screen time and number of lines, thus establishing parity between the Disney and Warners mascots.
Any such parity is, of course, an illusion. Mickey Mouse was clearly around first by at least a decade, debuting in 1928. But more interestingly for our purposes today, Mickey mouse himself is a barely reskinned version of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, a cartoon character created by Walt Disney for Universal in 1927. So perhaps the truest expression of the theoretically ideal immortal rabbit is in fact Mickey Mouse.
(Later this year Disney will release the video game Epic Mickey, in which Mickey inadvertently endangers the entirety of the land of forgotten cartoons, headed by his forgotten half-brother Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Oswald is now owned by Disney, having been reacquired in a trade with Universal in which Disney gave them sportscaster Al Michaels, who boasted of the trade, "I'm going to be a trivia answer someday.")
8: In addition to describing the mating habits of Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny, and thus inadvertently presaging Rule 34 by over two millennia, the Fibonacci sequence turns out to describe and model a somewhat stunning arrangement of natural phenomena. Ferns, artichoke flowers, sunflowers all arrange themselves along the sequence.
Beyond this, the Fibonacci sequence is fundamentally connected to the idea of the golden ratio. The reasons for this involve numerous Greek characters. The golden ratio, viewed by those self-same Greeks as the perfect and harmonious visual ratio, consists of a rectangle where the ratio of the two sides is the same as the ratio between the sum of the sides and the longest sides.
19th century aesthetics viewed the human form as the zenith of the golden ratio. Quietly, in the background here, is an abiding belief in scientific racism - the white man's skull said to be more perfect, just as the white man is more perfect. Aesthetics always describes the ugly as much as the beautiful.
The whole world, then, is caught in a web described by these strange theoretically ideal immortal rabbits. All of human invention is guided, unseen, by lagomorphic forces. Do you remember a time without Bugs Bunny? Without Mickey Mouse? Nor do I.
The simple aesthetic rules generated by our unseen masters guide their creation, closing the circuit of causality. Cartooning is a simple art - quite literally. What differentiates a cartoon from realism is the breaking down of complex line work to as few lines as possible. The greatness of a cartoon character is defined by its silhouette. Mickey Mouse is the ultimate here - Disney would not be what it is were it not for the fact that its sigil is a remarkably simple nesting of circles.
13: This contrasts with the dominant style of American comic books, defined primarily by Neal Adams in the 1970s with his iconic Batman work. If Jack Kirby was the defining comics artist of the 1960s, Neal Adams defined the 1970s, abandoning Kirby's essentially cartoon-style blocky silhouettes and krackle in favor of a harsh, angular style. In his more recent work, his style has passed through to a veritable explosion of linework, drowning the iconic characters in their media.
Bucky O'Hare was developed by Larry Hama for Neal Adams's Continuity Studios. A tiny ripple across several media, there were comics, an animated series, and a game by Konami. Bucky O'Hare combines a Buck Rogers action sci-fi panache with what was, by the 1990s, a long and venerable tradition of American funny animal books. The central joke had already been done by Eastman and Laird with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which fused the harshness of the Adams-inflected style with turtles.
But the fucking lagomorphs reassert themselves. The turtles fade from harsh, violent realism (a misnomer at best) to pizza-scarfing cartoons. The lagomorphic logic of simplicity is essential to the graphics of an 8-Bit video game - collapse a character to a collection of colored squares. The methodology is on display again in Bucky O'Hare, with each of five characters having a distinct silhouette, both in the physical sense, but also in the larger sense of game design. Each character has a distinct attack pattern and special ability, handling differently as you work your way through the levels. It's not a bad game, but the concept was done better by Mega Man, and so it remains, much like Bucky O'Hare in general, a footnote to a footnote to an important concept.
Still, it is in these footnotes that the expansion of consciousness occurs. Here in the bowels of chronography, the forgotten strands of history spiral outward, expanding in perfect harmony with the music of the spheres, pulsing along the rhythmic beat of lagomorphic copulation.
21: It is 1928. Walt Disney lays his fictional frozen head to sleep, and dreams the uncertain dreams of rabbits. These dreams presage a media empire, built on the back of the growing film industry.
It is 2001, and a stray wisp of millennialism grabs hold of Richard Kelly. He tells a mad tale of rabbits with prophecies of doom. It sneaks out to market in the wake of 9/11, the final and catastrophic blowing off of millennialist steam that had been bottled beneath the Earth. Today, the smoldering wreckage of 9/11 is not so much the loss of life as an ideological warfare - the Ground Zero Mosque (almost as big a misnomer as realism). The damage of 9/11 is cartoon damage - the silhouette of New York City's skyline forever altered. Tool released Lateralus mere months earlier, its title track structured on the Fibonacci sequence, spiraling out. The recriminations of September 11th were simple - we should have known. Perhaps we should have, but it's so bloody hard to get signal out of all this noise. It is only in memory that the difference between footnote and body text is clear. Only in memory that the messy lines of reality collapse into the simple, comforting causality of cartoons. The mind's eye is good at this game, good at teasing information from nothing whatsoever - so good that it produces a litany of conspiracy theories, springing up like rabbits across the mental landscape. John F. Kennedy was murdered by Lee Harvey Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. They stack up, forming a deafening roar of noise that once again we are tasked with culling down.
It is 1989. The video game boom has garnered steam. We are good to go - the medium of the future, the new film. Kemco, an unheralded Japanese company, catches the scent of Walt Disney's remaindered dreams, grabs a castoff of a castoff, and creates a surprisingly good game in the footnotes of the 1980s. Ten years earlier, Larry Hama's rabbit dreams produced Bucky O'Hare. Three years later, the Internet slowly begins to awaken, pulsing with the millennialist steam. Rabbits again, and the Bucky O'Hare game is produced.
It is 1896. The 20th century is looming. Such moments imminentize the eschaton. The US is wracked in political controversy between gold and silver. Or is that between the Appolonian and the Dianic? (Those who know the truth know there is no question what side the rabbits were on) In Chicago, William Jennings Bryant delivers the Cross of Gold speech. 72 years later, Aquarian hippies and nuclear paranoia would face off at another Democratic National Convention. Two ideologies enter, one ideology leaves. Dialectically speaking, Nixon's the one. A scant few years later, Millennium Park opens, long after the millennial steam has dissipated. It is dedicated by Mayor Daley, son of the Mayor Daley who turned out the dead to hold the tide of Nixon off for eight years before the rabbits at last have their way. All of these points lie along time's arrow, bent, as always, into a spiral.
34: The Golden Ratio is the relation between two lengths. Form with it now a cross, upon which mankind can and shall be crucified, this crown of thorns pressed down upon our head, sacrificed to the sinister rabbit gods guiding human creation. Thrashing on the cross, we find that it is not, as we thought, a mere set of wooden beams, but a directional input. Our death spasms guide Bugs Bunny, up a flight of stairs, dodging the sinister cat Sylvester, grabbing the carrot, guiding human history, unseen in his crazy castle.
Wednesday, August 25, 2010
Bubble Bobble is one of the most acclaimed games ever for the NES. Bubble Bath Babes is an unlicensed pornographic Tetris clone. Today, in the space between those games, we search for my sexual awakening.
What follows is not the story of my sexual awakening. It's the story of the summer of 1994. I had friends at this particular moment in time. I usually had friends, but this was different somehow. The leader of my social circle was named Chris. Chris had the wild and creative passion of a mild sociopath with poor impulse control. To a well-raised and mostly innocent sixth grader, that translated neatly to a handsome attractiveness. Did I know Chris was a "bad kid?" Of course I did, on some level. But his badness was so innocuous. He was anarchically creative - like the wisecracking heroes I was coming to love in my fiction. He was smart. That was the real thing. He was the first brilliant bad boy I'd ever met. He was the alternate path of my life.
I was 11.
There was a sleepover. Me, Chris, and two others - Keith and Mark. Mark brought two issues of Playboy. It was the first time I'd seen female genitalia and breasts. I remember my surprise at the presence of hair. I'd no real idea what they would look like, I suppose, but a mound of hair wasn't it. The pictures were at once alluring and disturbing, though I cannot say if the allure was a budding sex drive or merely their taboo nature.
The evening devolved to strip poker. This was a bridge too far, though merely the sort that ruined my evening and gave me a lousy time. I excused myself from the tent, and sat in the other tent reading a Doctor Who novel. (My scattershot approach to sexuality becomes clear here. the Doctor Who novels were Virgin's New Adventures series, which awkwardly matured the series with a healthy addiction of sex and graphic violence.) Someone told me that the game was finished, and I could return. I re-entered the tent, and was promptly flashed by the more or less wholly naked assembled players.
If the playing of strip poker was a bridge too far, this was a sort of fundamental breaking point. I fled to the house, likely in tears. Chris's mother was roused, and I demanded to be sent home. She declined, and instead we were brought inside to sleep on the living room floor. I shuffled home the next morning, quite unsure of what I'd learned.
I have never told this story to anyone.
I had no idea Bubble Bath Babes had existed. Not that I can imagine it easing the navigation of this strangeness. It is strange, really, to think of the idea that it could have been any other way. That exposure to sexuality is some sort of universal experience. The idea that some less than family friendly video store might have had Bubble Bath Babes sitting in the back, waiting to expose me to these concepts years earlier. I'd have been good at Bubble Bath Babes. It was just a Tetris clone, after all. There were a million ways to lose that part of my innocence. It didn't have to be utterly bound up in the loss of my friendship with Chris.
That's the other theme. Friendship. Like that of Bub and Bob, heroes of Bubble Bobble. Bubble Bobble is famous for its bad ending.
The bad ending is an unusually sadistic trope of video games. It works like this. First, you beat the game. Then the game tells you that you didn't beat it well enough, and you have to do it again. Perhaps you need to acquire the hidden doodad on level 7. Perhaps you need to beat it without killing the whatzits. Perhaps you just need to beat it again with harder enemies. Or, as is the case in Bubble Bobble, perhaps you need to beat it in two-player mode. With a friend.
I never beat Bubble Bobble. Even with a cheat to get me to the ending boss, I never beat it. Little yet with a friend.
Friendship is a strange requirement for a video game. Almost as strange as sexual awakening is for a sixth grade friendship. Which is to say, one that should have been suspected from the start. Of course the two-player arcade-style co-op game requires two players. Of course the friendship based on fawning admiration for transgressiveness requires the fiction of maturity.
Is it a surprise that there was a sexually explicit video game floating around in the background of my childhood? Of course not. The secret perversions of childhood are no secret. Is it a surprise that sex, inevitably encountered first in awkward solitude, is more fundamentally based on some sort of emotional connection?
Chris's retaliation went miles beyond an eye for an eye. The ceaseless bullying of seventh grade isn't even what I actually remember. Though they must have taken their toll on me. Before seventh grade I was the textbook definition of good kid. In seventh grade I started to lie my way out of situations. To hide homework I didn't feel like doing. To exploit the gap between what was necessary and what was sufficient. (Albeit poorly, as a 12 year old liar is wont to do)
After seventh grade, Chris was sent away for a year to a school that supposedly could curb his poor behavior. Somewhere in the road from 7th to 8th grade, I discovered girls in a way that didn't involve fold-out glossy inserts. My first girlfriend was in 8th grade. It lasted all of a week. She dumped me via a note in my locker. It wasn't classy.
In 9th grade, Chris came back, I believe thrown out of his reform school. I had assumed a year of separation would cool tempers. I was very much wrong. Internet harassment. Social harassment. Chris's transgressive genius was, for some reason, utterly fixed on hurting me, and he was good at it. Masterful at dancing in the spaces between what would affect me and what was against the rules.
In the end, the same poor impulse control I'd idolized years before saved me. He wasn't clever enough not to carve a death threat into a desk. The school, which had by then started looking for an excuse, cracked down.
Life went on. First serious relationship in 10th grade. Things progressed from there. Sexual awakening is not like an alarm clock, for the most part. And Chris kept his distance, got suspended a few times, and then I have no idea. GED? Probably.
I don't feel guilty. Not only because I don't think I did the wrong thing at the sleepover. Not only because it is clear in hindsight that Chris was not a safe friend. There's no thing I regret in any of this. It worked out fine.
It's not guilt. Not even regret. It's the secret, fervent hope that transgression serves a purpose. The hope that something about Chris in sixth grade was as good as I imagined. That there was ever a friendship to build there.
I didn't know there was a Bubble Bobble 2. Actually, that's not quite true. I knew about a game called Rainbow Islands, which was a sequel to Bubble Bobble that's almost but not entirely unlike Bubble Bobble. But in 1993, apparently, a straight sequel to Bubble Bobble came out, with the same mechanics. I didn't know. I was too busy selling off my Nintendo games for... I actually have no idea. It was the start of my own video game crash, where I abandoned the consoles for the PC for several years. It was sixth grade, and I was starting to befriend a strange but intriguing kid named Chris. I had no time for a sequel to a childhood parable about friendship.
Everything I don't know, I didn't learn from video games.
Sunday, August 22, 2010
Coppola made his name by writing the script to Pataphor, a biopic of Alfred Jarry (Bram Stoker's Dracula, Break Time, Breakthru)
Bram Stoker's Dracula, in truth, refers to Francis Ford Coppola's 1991 film of Dracula, which was titled Bram Stoker's Dracula. I will therefore indulge in a moment of elision. This is a rhetorical technique, in which two things, because they possess a connection, are interchangeable. Used poorly, elision generates homeopathy and water memory. Used well, it generates art. Elision is fundamental to the notion of the Nintendo Project. It is only because of elision that it is conceivably possible to encompass the entirety of my being and existence in a discussion of a finite set of video games.
Given, then, that Bram Stoker and Francis Ford Coppola are the same person, we can imagine Coppola, drinking the wine of his vanity, and dying of syphilis. His great late career work, Peggy Sue Got Married, is wrongly misunderstood as being incomprehensible due to the onset of his disease. In fact, it is an excessively brutal editing job that cut about half of the end that rendered it impossible to follow.
The proper cut of the film is notable for the fact that it was accompanied by illustrations by Pamela Coleman Smith, better known as the artist who worked with Arthur Edward Waite to produce what is often (and inappropriately) called the Rider-Waite Tarot. The Rider-Waite Tarot is, for the most part, the definitive Tarot deck, though this is in many ways arbitrary - the deck's trump cards borrow most primarily from the Marseilles Tarot. Waite and Smith's primary invention is switching to including symbolism in the minor arcana, but if Waite's definitive book on the Tarot, The Pictoral Key to the Tarot, is to be believed, he assigns minimal mystical significance to these cards - their fuller development was left to Aleister Crowley and Frieda Harris, with their Thoth Tarot, generally referred to as Crowley's Thoth Tarot, because a woman's place is off the title of things.
The Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot's Sun card forms the logo for the production company The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. This company is best known for the AMC's drama series Mad Men, a historical drama about Bram Stoker dying of syphilis in the 1960s. The television series does not focus on Stoker's best-known years, in which he writes the novelization for Konami's groundbreaking Castlevania series of video games. The novelization, in this case, takes on a life of its own, in no small part because Stoker had apparently never played Castlevania, and so replaced the game's character Simon Belmont with his own far more interesting Van Helsing. His introduction of a strong female character in Mina Harkness also significantly improved the story, such that Konami shelved Castlevania for decades and sold the rights to the novel to the Rider corporation, by then called Sony, which contacted Coppola, by then syphilis-ridden, to help make a film adaptation.
Ironically, this film adaptation was eventually released as a video game, well after Konami had dusted off the Castlevania games and released them. The video game was, functionally, a poor imitation of the Castlevania games, creating a strange sequence of debts and homages.
Stoker, then, was always steeped in a certain level of mysticism - indeed, it is possible he was one of the primary backers of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. What, then, do we make of his use of orange symbolism in his Godfather trilogy. In these films, based on the occult novels by Shigeru Miyamoto under the pseudonym Mario Mario Puozo, the appearance of oranges as a fruit signifies imminent death.
Given that we know Coppola was a devout occultist, we should look to the Kabbalistic significance of this aesthetic choice. Although the orange as a fruit does not appear in Crowley's definitive table of correspondences, 777, although the clever student can use the gematrial technique to discern that the fruit corresponds most directly to the Tarot Card for the Lovers, more normally associated with orchids. (This truth is reaffirmed by column XV of Crowley's tome, although an alternative reading would suggest an equivalence to Tiphireth, which has its own connotations in relation to death)
More normally, however, orange is associated with the sephira of Hod. How, then, does Stoker, a savvy occultist, turn it into an omen of death? The answer requires a conclusion not normally treated as orthodox in the Hermetic tradition - the fact that Hod, being the primarily intellectual realm, is well associated with air, represented in the Tarot by the sword. The evolution of the suit of swords points towards this, with the Ten of Swords, which is, as Crowley puts it, “reason run mad, ramshackle riot of soulless mechanism.”
(A gap here - as can be expected, the game of pool contains considerable occult significance, particularly given the creation of a pyramid to rack up, and its considerable color symbolism. I have largely opted to ignore this line of thought, in no small part because my copy of the game Break Time is defective and could not be loaded.)
Fred Saberhagen, who wrote the novelization of Sony's video game adaptation of Coppola's film adaptation of his own novelization of Konami's Castlevania series, is well-known for his lengthy epic fantasy series about swords, thus confirming the logic of this connection. His last name, of course, is a portmanteau of a type of sword and Hagen, Robert Duvall's character in The Godfather. Duvall also appeared in THX 1138, 1138 both containing the number 13 and summing to 13, the Tarot card for Death. Duvall further appeared in Network, written by Paddy Chayefsky, who also wrote the script for Altered States, directed by Ken Russell, who penned the novelization of Peggy Sue Got Married. (Russell took Altered States in a considerably more symbolist and occult direction than Chayefsky's bland satire, introducing the famed White Worm sequence to the proceedings)
Swords, then, suggest the hidden meaning of war. (Geburah, the Martian realm, is associated with the number 6, further cementing the connection to oranges) A film about war made by an American in 1992 (Such as Aleister Crowley's Dracula) could only be about the Persian Gulf War, just as Oscar Wilde, writing in 1892, could only have written Lady Windermere's Fan about the Falklands War (with Lady Windermere being an obvious stand-in for Margaret Thatcher). The great Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges, whose description of the Falklands War as two blind men fighting over a comb (a description made in an interview with the Artful Dodge, a magazine I briefly worked upon) was almost Wildean in its wit, returned the favor, writing his short story The Aleph about Wilde, a fact obscured from most accounts of the story, although it is absolutely crucial to any understanding of the topic of this present entry.
Breakthru, released by Data East in 1897, is thus necessarily about the Persian Gulf War, given that it also came out in the same year as Dracula. In it you navigate an armed vehicle through scads of enemy lines to recapture a stolen airplane. (Air, the element of swords) The game is pleasantly finite - infinite lives capture the spirit of war well, and allow infinite copies of the vehicle to be thrown at the lines of defense until one makes it through to the plane.
(This mode of attack has a biological precedent - a vast number of sperm are ejaculated with the full expectation that at best one will survive to reach the objective. The rest fall at various lines of defense, or discover that their princess is in another fallopian tube. This interplay of wand and cup produces, as Crowley observes, the lesser creation of air)
For my part, I remember with tragic vividness the buildup to the Gulf War. I had never experienced a war in my lifetime, and perversely rooted for one, understanding war merely as a major historical event ending in American triumph as opposed to a brutal slaughter of thousands of young men like I would someday be. My mistake was one of interpretation, falsely thinking that Break Thru was about the vehicle that reached the plane, and not the multitude of sperm that merely existed to die. (How could I be so naive? Hadn't I eagerly collected my Gulf War Trading Cards, including the valued Card #1 of President Bush, learning all I could about the war? What error could I have possibly made?) I had, of course, never played the game until the year 0012, bringing my handheld system with me as my legion stormed the Atraxian Empire while they were distracted recapturing Prisoner Zero (The Fools).
I remember staring at the sky as green streaks of light rained down on a city in the cradle of civilization. I had no idea this satisfying light show was not a victory, but a peal of lightning decimating the Tower of Babel, scattering the unity of thought into messy, signifying language. Suddenly gaps opened in words, Enki, the great phallic water god of language, taking hold. In these gaps was all sorts of unspeakable, incommunicable meaning, never said, only slid over as word linked to word. Meaning came to be not figure but ground, the words merely eliding over the space where once the sacred had been.
But at the age of nine, of course, I had no words for this.
Friday, August 20, 2010
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?
Tuesday, August 17, 2010
I'm Not Paranoid, There Really is a Robot Laying Bombs Trying to Kill Me (Bomberman and Bomberman 2)
My history, taken as a whole, led me to believe that Bomberman was a good game. This turns out, upon further examination, to be false. But what is interesting is that, playing Bomberman, I am not entirely certain that it was not once true that Bomberman was good. This fact interests me, and so I shall blog about it.
Monday, August 16, 2010
I am writing this from a hotel room in Gainesville, Florida, although blog posting does not work great from the iPad (the only computer I have with me), and so it's going to post several days later. I have little use for being here. I am here for my graduation, an event that, although it matters, is fundamentally a strange anticlimax in the face of the real work of a PhD. I am also here to finalize my divorce, which is simply put not an experience it is possible to look forward to. (Perhaps my ex-wife does, but the less said about her the better, at least in this entry.)
I have little use for any of the three games to be discussed today either - The Blue Marlin, Blues Brothers, and Bo Jackson's Baseball. The Blue Marlin poses perhaps the biggest challenge, as I am reasonably confident that I have in fact said absolutely everything about fishing games that I have in me. I suppose this should worry me, as it suggests some hard limit to the act of video game criticism that I could theoretically meet in general in the future. In practice, however, it just kind of irritates me, which, come to think of it, makes it resemble my divorce, my ex-wife, the logistics of my graduation, and The Blue Marlin. Which at least completes the bare minimum requirement of tying it into some sort of overall narrative theme, which is all I really require of a given entry.
Bo Jackson has a strong level of iconicness among my generation - I can ask virtually anyone of my peer group about Jackson, and they know Bo. And they know that Bo knows things. Among the things that Bo knows is baseball. Bo also knows football - a matter that will be discussed in full, at current rate of writing, about nine years when I get to Tecmo Bowl. But for now, it is sufficient to note that the stresses of playing a double season with minimal break led to Jackson suffering a career ending football injury that, while it did not end his baseball career, ended the period of his substantial fame. Bo knew, in essence, for only a few years. But in that period, Bo Jackson's Baseball was produced.
Bo Jackson's Baseball is no better or worse than other baseball games. I found fielding more pleasant than usual. It does have a cheat code that allows you to field an entire team of Bo Jacksons, a move that both seems to dramatically ignore the notion of positions in baseball and seems to represent a sort of supreme narcissism of celebrity. In one sense, this is the entire point of the game - in a celebrity endorsed game, what is the point of playing as anyone other than the celebrity.
But of course, this cheat code is of a sort of ephemeral use at best. After Bo Jackson's career has come to a crashing halt, and he has recessed to nostalgic memory, what use is playing as an entire team of Bo Jacksons?
Speaking of celebrity, we have Blues Brothers, a mediocre sidescroller. Inasmuch as every video game is marked by death (as virtually nobody completes a game without dying at least once in the process of owning it), Blues Brothers is interesting for being the most stunningly macabre game I have yet encountered, in that it defaults to having the player play as Jake, and thus encourages the player to endlessly and ritualistically re-enact the death of John Belushi. Which is, let's face it, kind of fucked up. The game itself is a fairly standard side-scroller, in which, so far as I can tell, the player is functionally defenseless against a mall full of sharks, gunmen, and spiked balls. The jump controls are twitchy and awkward, and the game design encourages players to miss jumps in ways that force the player to basically start the level over again. If it sounds like I think the game sucks, I do, though to be fair, it does not suck with any particular egregiousness worthy of comment. It is the sort of dull average-quality pablum that is normal for the NES. Were it not a licensed property that fetishized one of the iconic deaths of the 1980s there would be virtually nothing to say about it.
But perhaps we can extend this. After all, the flip side of death in a video game is resurrection. Video games offer endless death, yes. But they just as much offer endless revival. The fundamental fantasy of Blues Brothers is the prospect of John Belushi not being dead - of being able to have a Blues Brothers story in 1990 despite the loss of Belushi. But this fantasy is cut short in two ways. First, it is very difficult to capture the essence of comedy in a video game. Video games, as I have said before, are poor vehicles for narrative because most stories do not involve frequent and extended stops for killing monsters and jumping among platforms. Not even Michael Bay films stop for action with sufficient frequency to adapt directly to a video game. Comedy, which is based on a certain velocity of jokes, is a particularly awkward mix with a medium defined by stops for action.
But perhaps more important, video games are non-infinite in duration. Eventually the game is turned off, never to be turned on again. Eventually, John Belushi dies forevermore, and Bo Jackson suffers his last career ending injury. Even in the Blue Marlin, characterized as it is by the naive dream that removing a fish from the ocean has no effect on the total number of fish in the ocean, eventually the fish supply, and indeed the ocean itself runs dry.
That video games are not useful is, on one level, supremely obvious. But the nature of their lack of utility runs deeper than we often give it credit for. The truth is this - video games are supremely mortal - moreso than other media because they can only take a meaningful form when their binary code is transmuted by the act of being played into a coherent experience. Eventually entropy takes hold, and the game collapses into a meaningless form.
Video games are, in the end, no different from the arbitrary pageantry turned into significant meaning of graduation. Certainly no different from the arbitrary confines of a hotel room - a place without definition that is nonetheless anything but a blank slate. Or of a divorce, where the defined relationship between two people gives way to the oversignification of negation. My wife and I will forever be ex. Just as John Belushi will forever be better known for death than for the life that gave that death significance. Just as any known video game is, in the end, known in memoriae, an experience never to be had again.
Bo Jackson, defined eternally by what he knows, stares out at a baseball diamond full of himself. Does Bo know Bo? Can Bo know what it is to know baseball, to know football? Does Bo know what it means to revert from signal to noise? It is one thing to ask if Bo Jackson, staring out at this field of celebrity likenesses, knows his own reality. Do the various Jacksons, playing out of position, infinitely copied, know that they are momentary social configurations of a subject lost to himself? Does John Belushi turn to drugs because he cannot live up to the myriad of copies of himself out in the culture? Or does he turn to them because he realizes that he himself is a useless copy, playing out a pageantry of social ritual, waiting for the off switch to assert its fearful teleology?
Death only occurs because we search for meaning in the first place. Given that, perhaps there is no comfort greater than that of a lousy, pointless video game.
Tuesday, August 3, 2010
For what is I believe the first time, today we have two games that are actually quite good and well-regarded: Konami's Blades of Steel, and Sunsoft's Blaster Master. Both hail from the 1988 Christmas season, and, perhaps more interestingly, both are completely bizarre and perverse experiences. Having discussed the question of what 1988 is last entry, today, I suppose, I shall focus on perversity.
Blades of Steel is a classic hockey game. Although the image might suggest that the reason it is perverse is that the teams are comprised entirely of frost giants, that is not the issue. What is the issue is that Blades of Steel is the most disturbing celebration of wonton violence I have ever played.
Blades of Steel perfectly captures the way in which video games distill. I have no doubt that hockey is in fact a fairly complex game. I base this mostly on the fact that my friend Matt really likes it, and I like to think that Matt has good taste. I personally have next to no understanding of the sport, besides the fact that it is very popular in Canada. But what is interesting about Blades of Steel, for me, is the degree to which it breaks these elements down dramatically into a game that is, in essence, a pure and unencumbered meditation on speed.
Blades of Steel is very possibly the single most kinetic game that I have ever played. The main play dynamic is, in essence, a high speed game of bumper cars punctuated by occasional shots on goal and, perhaps more intriguingly, fights. Fights are interesting for two reasons. First, they are fights. They involve punching people. This is, if you are American, interesting. (If you are Canadian, on the other hand, the fact that this game is ostensibly hockey should do it.)
But more interesting, or at least amusing, is the bizarre gladiatorial world in which Blades of Steel takes place. I do not, as I admitted, know much about hockey. However I am reasonably certain that there is not a penalty enforced for failure to win a fight. In this regard, hockey differs from Blades of Steel, where the loser of a fight is put in the penalty box. Adding to the perversity is the astonishingly brilliant graphic of the referee dragging the still prone player off the ice and into the penalty box after a fight ends.
Though comical, this fact seems to me to in some sense underscore the basic design goals and appeal of Blades of Steel - it is a game about the ruthlessness of speed and the chaotic appropriation of space for the purposes of moving accurately through it. Thus far, none of this is particularly violent. Where that all goes terribly wrong is two-player mode.
Two-player mode involves a fundamental shift to the nature of the game. As a single player game, Blades of Steel ultimately features no distinction between opponents and rink. That is, the opposing players occupying your space and the space itself are part and parcel of the same challenge, and kinetic mastery of that space does not necessarily distinguish between the two. This is the challenge of the golf course - the matching of individual dexterity and skill against a terrain that is itself a challenge. But in a two-player game, the opposing players suddenly bristle with life. Because they are controlled separately and are not mere extensions of the game, they render the game something stranger - a competition. Here the space is not a challenge as such, but rather a scarce resource that one must assert dominion over. Where in a one-player game one strives towards cyborg-like fusion with the machine, Blades of Steel, in two-player mode, takes on the far more perverse form of the old joke about not having to outrun you, just having to outrun the lion.
There is, in short, not enough space for two players to move through. The kinetics of space must be dominated by one player. Equilibrium is impossible. Symbiosis is impossible. The complete elimination of the subjectivity of the Other is the only viable option, lest you yourself be eliminated.
This is perversity on a level far beyond the mere triflings of a game like Grand Theft Auto. The fact of the matter is, the circumstances in which the existential state involved in murdering a prostitute to get your money back arise are relatively far and few between. Grand Theft Auto instills at worst a sense of ruthlessness in the face of danger, and a sense of chaotic glee. Neither are universally viewed as good things, but on the other hand neither are unequivocally bad.
But Blades of Steel is a far more troubling experience, because the violence it encourages does not get to mask itself in the mimesis of fantasy. Blades of Steel does not advocate violence as a solution to a specific set of problems. Rather, Blades of Steel creates a situation where the acceptance of the need to remove another subjectivity from the world so that yours may have dominion over it is a necessary part of life. This is only reinforced by the perverse fight dynamics.
A clever reader may at this point suggest, not entirely without reason, that I am, as the idiom goes, taking the piss here, and deliberately reading the game in a logical but implausible way to score cheap rhetorical and dramatic points in my role as an entertainer. I am not. It is my contention that the fight mechanics of Blades of Steel are fully consistent with a reading of the game that interprets it as a brutally violent game with an ethical value that puts Grand Theft Auto to shame and would make Jack Thompson, if he weren't a complete idiot, go insane with fear.
Consider - fighting is an integral part of hockey. But once you opt to add a fight mechanic to a hockey game, you're hamstrung - in fact, to this day fight mechanics in hockey games are hotly debated. In the most recent edition of EA's NHL series, they've tried to make fighting work by mapping it to intimidation - the actual social reason that fights occur.
But in 1988, the social dynamics in which violence occurs were nowhere near codeable. So to add fights, you had to alter the dynamic. It stands as obvious that there has to be an advantage to winning a fight. And so the mechanic of removing players from the game for losing fights is, inauthentic as it is to the actual rules of hockey, a completely logical move within the context of the game design - it's about the only serviceable choice open in 1988.
But what that means is that the simple ethic where victory is rewarded and defeat is penalized gets reiterated throughout the game. Blades of Steel requires its overly aggressive fighting mechanic because it is very much the game I described - a game that, in its two-player mode, is ruthlessly zero-sum.
Blaster Master is thus a nice respite from Blades of Steel, inasmuch as it is purely a one-player game. It also reverts to the paranoid discourse of classic era video games, where the world is actively seeking to harm you, you have no viable chance of overcoming it, and so you may as well just lay down and die now. (See also Bionic Commando)
This is itself a perverse discourse, and at some point we ought discuss the transition of video games from a paranoid discourse to a neurotic discourse, but it is not actually the most perverse part of Blaster Master. No, what is perverse about Blaster Master is actually its plot.
This is one of those moments where my readers who are not deeply steeped in 80s and early 90s video gaming are going to have to trust me when I say I am not making this up.
So you're a guy. With a pet frog. Your pet frog escapes, and gets to the barrel of radioactive waste that is, for reasons unknown, sitting in your back yard. This waste mutates him into a giant frog, and he leaps down a hole that is also sitting in your back yard. You leap down after him, and while you do not find him, you do find a tank and a suit that you can use to fight through legions of monsters to try to find your missing giant radioactive frog.
What is, shockingly enough, even weirder than this is that when Blaster Master was originally released in Japan, it did not have this completely insane plot. It had a perfectly serviceable generic plot about space empires that was wholly interchangeable with any other plot about space empires or Scientologist holy text. This comprehensible plot was actively removed from Blaster Master so that it could be replaced with the missing giant radioactive frog.
There are two things that need to be made very clear here. First, this was done for America. That is to say, this is not, like most truly bizarre things in video games, able to be written off as "That's Japan for you." No, no. Second, it was done deliberately. That means that there was a meeting, somewhere, where a group of people got together and all agreed that this space empire plot has to go, and it should be replaced with a missing giant radioactive frog.
The utter insanity of this is no doubt a large part of why the game is so popular, along with its inclusion in the Worlds of Power series of novels, which are themselves one of the most utterly weird cultural artifacts ever to exist. But the game is also actually pretty good, putting me in the odd position now of having written about three pretty good games in a row - a streak I am almost happy is going to get brought to a crashing end with The Blue Marlin next time.
Sure, the game has flaws - excessive difficulty, a lack of sufficient lives and continues to overcome said difficulty, no passwords, and the cardinal sin of being an exploration based game with no automap. But if you are not (as we all tragically are now) horribly overloaded for entertainment options, Blaster Master is the sort of game that could fill many an afternoon, which, in 1988, was as close a synonym to classic as existed.