Friday, February 11, 2011

Attempts to Colonize Inaccessible Island (Dynowarz: The Destruction of Spondylus and Earthbound Zero)

Japan, you have to understand, doesn't exist. Which is probably news to about 127 million people. Also probably to my sister's best friend, who's going to college there. Actually, my sister, who's studying Japanese politics and culture, is probably a bit surprised by it too.

But it doesn't. Japan is an amorphous entity. It is not even true that video games come from it. Rather, video games come from it once they are translated through a capricious filter that may do any number of things to them on the way. Including, occasionally, eating them whole, as a litany of games that were slow to make their way across the Pacific, if they ever do at all, will attest. Super Mario Bros. 2, Dracula X and, of course, Mother.

Katherine Hayles wrote a very clever book called My Mother Was a Computer. Hayles is known best for a philosophy of post-humanism, making her title, on the surface, seemingly a claim about her identity as a post-digital being. In fact, however, she's talking about her literal mother, who, in World War II, was one of the many women who did calculations for various aspects of the war effort and who were known as computers until, eventually, the electronic devices built to automate these processes - previously known as "electronic computers" - assumed the word.

There are those of whom it can be definitively said that their Mother was a video game. The game has no clear US title. Its sequel, Mother 2, for the SNES, was released in the US as Earthbound, leaving the original Mother an orphaned title that is known, by popular acclamation alone, as Earthbound Zero. By either title, it is one of the three legendary JRPGs, along with its neighbors on either side of the alphabet, Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy.

What is most interesting about Earthbound Zero is that, in 1989, it is one of the first video games to actively portray its audience within the game. The main character, traditionally known as Ninten, is a young American boy who would thus be immediately recognizable to the mainstream playing audience as being themselves. The game hinges on the intense normality of its setting - hence its brilliant initial set piece in which Ninten is attacked by a table lamp.

Despite this, the region where its setting is the most normal - the US - is the region it never came out for. It was ready to come out - fully translated and designed - and then the plug was pulled at the last minute, and, bafflingly, has yet to be put back in. This despite the fact that Nintendo could drop the translated version they already have on the Virtual Console tomorrow if they wanted.

This is possibly the largest secret history in place, then. The game could be the Rosetta Stone that connects Japan and the US as a single, coherent aesthetic instead of the bizarre split currently in place. Which is, perhaps, why the game was never released in the US, at least in a more cosmological sense. Because it would render Japan existent, instead of having major portions of our entertainment come from an inscrutable Other.

I should stress here that when I speak of Japan in the context of the NES era, I mean the grapheme to refer to very little that has much to do with the actual nation of 127 million in Asia. These days, Japan is accessible, to a large extent even for a non-Japanese speaker. But much of that comes from communications technology that simply did not exist in 1989, especially for a child. Short of checking out the obligatory two books on Japan at the school library, there was simply no way to understand Japan, and the books did relatively little to explain video games, especially since most of us were lucky if they'd been updated since about 1960. Sufficient communication existed for cultural cross-polination - the NES alone is proof of that, as is the fact that almost every Saturday morning cartoon was actually animated in Asia. But the ability to know about the larger world was restricted to those who regularly went out in the larger world.

But this lack of knowledge of Japan does not translate to an absence as such. Japan was ever present, but in a strange ghostly state. Like the trails of an electron in the cloud chamber, we knew Japan not from what it did, but from its echoes and effects. Japan was the logical conclusion of the data, a sort of cultural Higgs-Boson, clearly supported by the theory and never quite manifesting in practice. Japan is the absent father, the inscrutable signifier.

So of course Mother never saw US translation. It is not that it could not be released in the US, but rather that it had to not be released in the US, that the father's offering of Mother had to be denied.

This denial has consequences, some of them quite good. For instance, we have Dynowarz: The Destruction of Spondylus. Dynowarz makes exactly the sort of sense that video games featuring robotic dinosaurs should make, which is basically none. Apparently, and I'm going on Wikipedia here, an evil mad scientist with an army of Robosaurs has wrecked the life support computers in the Spondylus solar system, and Professor Proteus must use his new model Robosaur, Cyborasaurus (which Wikipedia, in a rare moment of brilliance, describes as "truly devastating") to fight them.

This does not actually have to be a good game. It can get by just fine on being a playable game, and it does narrowly clear that bar. But what it relies on is the inherent inscrutability of its concept. The game makes sense only because robotic dinosaurs offer their own teleology. Once you introduce them to a situation, the situation is immediately clarified. This is perhaps the most truly devastating thing about them - that there is no ambiguity whatsoever to a Robosaur. And once you introduce it, nothing else needs to make sense so long as it can be explained in terms of the Robosaur.

How does a robotic dinosaur obtain such teleology? Part of it is a matter of component parts. Dinosaurs certainly have their own teleology, as Dinosaur Comics illustrates. The comic works in part because it is specifically dinosaurs in the unchanging panels. Robots also have their own teleology, as evidenced by the fact that there is nothing on the planet that is not more awesome if the prefix "robo" is added to it. (Test: Parrot. Coffee table. Papaya. See? It works.)

But this just begs the question. Why are giant lizards and robots their own teleology? Of the myriad of extinct life forms on the planet, including many giant species, why are the dinosaurs the ones that are iconic?

Because they are monsters. The word "monster" comes from a Latin root meaning to show or display.  The strange nature of the robosaur extends straightforwardly from this - monsters are that which must be shown, that must be seen. Classically, the term refers to circus freaks. Monsters were literally objects of spectacle, put on display to be gawked at. For all the terror it engenders, this remains the main point of a monster. Monsters are there to be seen - which is why their absence and the withholding of the monster is often so much scarier than an actual monster.

But what is interesting is that monsters, by and large, only have mothers. Like the NES, the father is absent. Consider the classics - Grendel or Caliban. Both have known and monstrous mothers, but ambiguous fathers (hence the whole point of the CGI Beowulf film). This lack of a clear creator gives them an inherent teleological force - the force that allows Dynowarz to exist. And, more importantly, the force that allows the NES to exist.

The NES, at the end of the day, is a glorious monster. And like any great monster, it is the last of its kind. No more islands remain in the world for a great beast to hail from. We have mapped the world. With this task done, we may only look within for a monster.

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