Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Dares and Other Nonstandard Measurements (Double Dare)

Nickelodeon is one of those things that a project like this can be written about. Like Doctor Who, and, of course, the NES, there is enough there to sustain psychochronography. The difference is that I'm not writing a psychochronography of Nickelodeon. Well. Not much of one.

Originating in 1977 under the name Pinwheel, I remember Nickelodeon in the mid-80s. My Nickelodeon was one that showed Inspector Gadget, and went off the air at 7pm every night to be replaced by A&E. This phenomenon was a holdover from a deal that expired in 1985 whereby the channel actually shared itself with A&E on a corporate level. By my time, the A&E block had spun off to its own channel and been replaced with Nick at Nite, which showed classic TV reruns including, most tantalizingly, Get Smart, but my parents' cable provider still used one channel for the two of them. 

Nickelodeon marked a significant change in the nature of childhood for one very basic reason - for the first time, there was always something on television aimed at me. Sometimes it sucked - in no small part because of the deeply dull Nick Jr. programming bloc in the middle of the day, although in hindsight my respect for things like the Noozles (one of the many Japanese things to get a less good US title - its Japanese title of The Wonderous Koala Blinky) has increased. David the Gnome, however, I have to confess, was and is boring.

But other times... oh, other times. Hey Dude and Salute Your Shorts. Early Doug and Rugrats. Clarissa Explains It All. Pete and Pete! I mean, Pete and Pete! How did Pete and Pete even get made? I mean, holy crap, I want to live in a world where people actually give money to other people while saying "Right, that Pete and Pete idea, go make some episodes of that." It gives me hope that there's financial security for bloggers like me.

And then there's Double Dare. Featuring an early-career Marc Summers, before they inexplicably reanimated him to provide a running chronicle of the history of processed food on the Food Network and in the process remembered his breathtaking gift at being charismatically smarmy, the show displayed a previously unimagined brilliance at converting the format of a TV Game Show to children's' entertainment. The trick, basically, is to have the game show be less a definable competition and more an arbitrary series of stunts, preferably employing large quantities of gross stuff.

The problem is that this translates poorly into video games. As a video game, Double Dare falls into the awful category of minigame collections. The genre was perfected, if the word applies, many years later with the Mario Party games. But as a genre, there are huge problems. This is mostly because coming up with one good game mechanism is, as the history of video games repeatedly demonstrates, hard enough. Coming up with a huge collection of them is generally impossible. As a result, few minigame collections are actually fun with any consistency. Double Dare is no exception.

The purpose of a minigame collection is, in fact, the social experience. The game is, in many ways, incidental - a pretext for social interaction. This is why Mario Party has its oft-mocked sense of arbitrariness. Because it makes the resulting social interactions better, even without actually improving the game. But much like Bomberman 2, in two-player mode on the NES, the game does not quite work - it is a game from the wrong time.

But unlike with Bomberman 2, the sense of vertigo instilled by this timelessness is far stranger. On the one hand, Double Dare can be approached as the piece of nostalgia it basically is - one element of the massive event that was Nickelodeon, and thus massively, fundamentally tied to 1990. On the other hand, Double Dare is a game that is strangely out of time, responding to trends in video games that hadn't quite sorted themselves out yet. In this regard, the game is oddly out of time - coming out at the wrong moment. Double Dare is uncanny, anomalous, albeit not, strictly speaking, alluring.

But it does have lots of slimy stuff. So that's something.

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