I Don’t Believe In Curses, I Just Believe In Bad Baseball

September 29, 2012

Sometimes a metaphor for failure is misunderstood as being the reason for that failure.

In a few days, the curtain will come down on the 143rd season of Major League Baseball, and the 110th of the World Series era.  I was at the Giants/Diamondbacks game yesterday, and in the middle of the 4th inning, the scoreboard showed a woman who was celebrating her 104th birthday.  She seemed to be enjoying herself, wearing an SF cap and smiling, waving more or less in the direction of the camera.  As the fans gave her a round of applause, I couldn’t help but think- wow, that lady was 3 weeks old the last time the Cubs managed to win a championship.

Plenty of baseball fans can cite 1908 as being the last time the Cubs won it all, but less remembered (well, anybody that says they actually remember it is lying, so maybe it’s better said that not many people bother to look it up) is that 1908 was actually the Cubs’ 3rd straight World Series trip, and 2nd consecutive crown.  They were the premiere franchise of the first decade of the 20th century, but of course, they’ve never climbed to the top of the mountain since.

104 years of baseball adds up to A LOT of games.  While the team has certainly had it’s winning seasons, between 1909 and 2012, the Cubs piled up over 7,800 losses.  They won only a single playoff series, just one, the divisional round against Atlanta in 2003.  As frustrating as it must be to be a Detroit Lions fan with a title drought stretching back to 1957, at most, a football team can only lose 16 times in a given season.  Most years, the Cubs have 16 losses by the first week in May.  There is no other sport in which failure accumulates for losing teams the way it does in baseball, which might go some way toward explaining why baseball is also the only sport in which people are given to speculating that supernatural forces are the reason behind the heavy weight of all that loss.  And of course, no team is more associated with loss, failure, and the supernatural than the Chicago Cubs.

The Curse of the Billy Goat has become one of the most popular folk tales in American sports.  The story goes that in 1945, Chicago bar owner Billy Sianis was incensed when he and his pet goat were booted out of Wrigley Field during game 4 of the World Series for the most obvious offense possible given the circumstances: smelling like a goat.  Sianis’ response was to speak semi-strongly to the usher escorting him out of the stadium, saying  “Them Cubs, they ain’t gonna win no more.”  That’s it.  That’s the entirety of the curse.

There’s another slight variation on the story, in which Sianis sends a semi-strongly worded telegram to the owner with a similar but wordier quote, “You are going to lose this World Series and you are never going to win another World Series.  You are never going to win a World Series again because you insulted my goat.”  The Chicago Sun-Times recounted the telegram version of the story, but in theirs, the telegram simply read “Who smells now?”, and because it’s the only one of the 3 variants where Sianis’ comeback was actually snappy, it’s become the most popular version.  But in any case, one of those essentially non-threatening reactions by Sianis to his ejection is what has supposedly been plaguing Cubs baseball all these years.  What is supposed to have passed for a curse in 1945 wouldn’t even get you blocked by the producer on sports talk radio now, and people definitely weren’t any nicer to each other back then than they are now.

Sianis and his goat are documented as being there that day; they were allowed to parade on the field before the game with a sign that, in one of history’s clumsiest puns, read “Get Detroit’s Goat”.  The local beat reporters took notice of his ejection, and a few brief lines appeared, playing up Sianis’ outrage, and even including a couple quotes from him, but there was no mention of the curse until several years later, when a columnist who frequented Sianis’ bar, Mike Royko, suddenly started playing up the story.  Royko was a writer who usually wrote with tongue firmly in-cheek, and he also frequently wrote about other teams being cursed by having ex-Cub players.

This photo of Sianis and goat which often appears now in stories about the curse as being from 1945, was actually taken several years later, staged by a Chicago Sun-Times photographer when Royko started writing his columns.

The Curse of the Billy Goat story never would have gotten the legs that it did had the team itself not played it up several times over the years, as well as being bought into by alot of writers and broadcasters who really should know better.  But if commentators are just choosing a clumsy narrative, the team actually benefits from the presence of the legend.  It’s always there as a final excuse for any ineptitude on the organization’s part.  Before their series with the Dodgers in the 2008 playoffs, the Cubs had a priest bless the dugout to try and lift the curse.  It wasn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last.  But if the 2008 Cubs were cursed, it was only by the reckless spending and personnel decisions General Manager Jim Hendry had made over the previous couple years, which finally caught up to them when the Dodgers swept them out of the playoffs.  They are about to polish off a 3rd straight losing season, and barring a serious rally in the season’s closing days they will lose 100 games for the first time since 1966.

The legend is now ingrained in Chicago to the point that the story is treated as a sort of gospel truth, and you can be sure it will be the primary topic of conversation the next time the Cubs make the playoffs, which given the current state of affairs, could take awhile.  But anyone who is familiar with the sport should be able to separate bad baseball from mysticism.  When the story is told, it ends on the Cubs leading 2-1 in the series against Detroit when Sianis and his reeking sidekick were ejected, and then collapsing, never to return to the World Series.

The way the 1945 World Series actually unfolded turns out to be pretty instructive in terms of badly managed baseball once you look into what actually happened.  The Cubs lost game 5 by a score of 8-4, the key inning being the 6th when starter Hank Borowy was hit for 4 runs without getting an out.  They won game 6 in spite of having blown a 4 run 8th inning lead.  The game lasted 12 innings, and Borowy came out of the bullpen for four of them.  Manager Charlie Grimm, old school all the way because it was 67 years ago, then decided to have Borowy start game 7 on zero days rest with predictable results.  Detroit scored 5 runs in the 1st inning, Borowy failed to retire a batter before he was pulled, and the Cubs lost 9-3.

If this history was better known, the Fox broadcast team might have spun a different narrative in the 8th inning of Game 6 against Florida in the 2003 NLCS.  It’s known now simply as The Bartman Game.  The story is well known, and fits the cursed Cubs angle conveniently: the Cubs led the Marlins 3-0 with 1 out in the 8th inning, when a foul ball down the left field line was inadvertently knocked away from the glove of Moises Alou by the outstretched hands of Steve Bartman.  The Marlins capitalized on the missed out, and rushed 8 runs across the plate.  The shell-shocked Cubs lost that night, and the next.

The key play of the inning, in retrospect, clearly came a couple batters later, when Alex Gonzalez bobbled what would’ve been an inning ending double play.  If the memory of that faded fast, it’s probably because at the time it happened, Steve Lyons and Thom Brennaman were busy talking about how the Curse of the Billy Goat had struck again, while the production team relentlessly replayed the foul ball that got away and continued to zoom in to close ups of Bartman.  By choosing to focus on superstition, they were ignoring the real story as it unfolded in front of them.  Sure, the 8th inning of game 6 in 2003 had a couple big moments- the foul ball, the Gonzalez error.  But underlying the entire episode, just like in 1945, was abuse of the pitching staff.

Rather than making this the image of the night, the broadcast could have endlessly replayed the Gonzalez error, or shown continuous closeups of Dusty Baker sitting in the dugout.

The foul ball that Steve Bartman got his hand on was Mark Prior’s 113th pitch of the game.  After the foul ball, with the count 1 and 2, he threw two balls to Luis Castillo, and then a wild pitch, putting Castillo on 1st and letting Juan Pierre move to 3rd base.  Cubs manager Dusty Baker, who has had a long and proud history of overworking his pitchers (and in 2003 rode Kerry Wood and Mark Prior as hard as any two pitchers have been ridden in the pitch count era), kept right on sitting in the dugout, watching Prior, who at this point was clearly laboring with broken concentration.  Prior got up 0-2 on the next batter, Ivan Rodriguez, then left a pitch over the plate that Rodriguez knocked into left field to bring the score to 3-1.  Again, Baker kept sitting.

And then, the first pitch Prior threw to Miguel Cabrera was hit on the ground, to Alex Gonzalez.  It looked like an easy double play ball, and it should have ended the inning, but caught up in the mounting tension of the game, Gonzalez closed his glove too quickly and clanked the ball.  Still just one out, bases now loaded, with the dangerous Derek Lee coming to the plate.

After all that he had just witnessed, after seeing his pitcher lose his stamina, after seeing his defense lose it’s nerve, rather than change pitchers and try to settle his team down for a minute, Dusty Baker kept sitting there.  Derek Lee ripped the next pitch to left field for a double to tie the game.  Dusty finally jogged out to the mound, but the wheels had already come off.

In September and October of 2003, by himself, the 23 year old Mark Prior made more starts of 130+ pitches than every starting pitcher in baseball made in all of the 2012 regular season combined.  He threw 7 innings and 116 pitches in game 2 of the NLCS, still on the mound while the Cubs held an 11-0 lead.  Dusty Baker ran him right into the ground that fall, and left him on the mound in game 6 long past the point where  anything was left in the tank.  Of course you can’t say that the outcome would have necessarily been different if Dusty had brought in a reliever to start the inning, but it’s clear that every batter Prior faced after Pierre doubled was a mistake.  His previous 4 outs were all on sharply hit balls to the outfield, and Pierre finally put it where the defense wasn’t.

In 2003 and 1945, indefensible overuse of the pitching staff caught up to the Cubs in the postseason, and led the team straight to heartbreak.  This required no barnyard juju from a well dressed publicity seeking goat owner, but in sports as in politics, facts are rarely essential to crafting a narrative.  Believing in The Curse of the Billy Goat also requires you to believe that the team’s misfortunes suddenly began in 1945.  If Billy Sianis really DID tell the team that they’d be losing the World Series that year, it would hardly have been a bold prediction.  In the 37 years between winning the 1908 World Series and losing in 1945, they made it to the series six more times, and lost all six.  As 2003 has recently demonstrated to fans, far more painful than the year-to-year accumulation of losing are those moments when the team is actually successful, when they get close but still fail in the end.

Cub fans probably won’t have to worry about their team getting close again for a couple years at least, but when they do, they’ll be confronted with endless talk about the team being doomed by the supernatural forces that conspire against it.  The organization will do something silly that plays into the hype.  And if history has been any example, people will mostly buy into it.  But I’d like to think that, collectively, we can let go of this tired narrative, and just call organizational and team incompetence on the Cubs’ part what it is and always has been: Bad Baseball.  Your semi-strongly worded telegram to the owner is on me.


Failures in Extreme Marketing; The YoYo Ball vs. The Pogo Bal

September 24, 2012

For about a 10 year stretch from the mid 80’s to the mid 90’s, one of the most common trends in marketing was trying to make regular stuff look EXTREME.  For example, if you were Mountain Dew, you could either make a soda that doesn’t taste like it was brewed in a chemical toilet, or, you could convince people that drinking your product is going to make them feel like a badass.  A new ad campaign costs less than an entirely new formula, so that’s what they went with.  As it turned out, they were successful in that effort, and so the Dew lingers on, still aiming their ads at people who snowboard, or more to the point, wish that they could.

But very few companies were as successful as Mountain Dew in their efforts to make boring crap look hip. Mountain Dew is going to taste like whatever it tastes like regardless of what happens in the commercial, so it made and still makes sense for them to try to brand themselves as fresh and edgy. On the other hand, if your product is a lame toy that’s already been around for generations, all the edginess in the world isn’t going to save you once people actually get their hands on what you’re selling.

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You got me a Pokemon! Thank y…oh…wait…what the hell is this?

The yo-yo was invented in ancient Greece, and while you probably get a few less splinters using a modern plastic one than the original rough wooden ones, the design and concept really hasn’t changed much at all since then: a small axle with the string wrapped around it. A few years back, it was mistakenly reported that the yo-yo had once served as a weapon in the Philippines, but even this passingly interesting tidbit turned out to be false.  Everywhere it has ever existed, the yo-yo has been nothing more than a boring old regular-ass toy.

I wasn’t alive in the Bronze Age, so there may have been a time when the yo-yo was a thrilling form of entertainment, but here in the modern world of 3-D movies and 4-blade razors, watching even the most highly skilled user do tricks with a yo-yo is cool for only about 30 seconds. Thankfully, the good folks at Big Time Toys correctly recognized that if they made a commercial that only lasted half that time, kids wouldn’t realize how fucking pointless of a present they had asked their parents for until it was already unwrapped and in their greedy little hands.

It’s so much fun AND easy to do! The commercial plays it utterly straight until the last shot, where a kid is walking up the wall of his room, slinging a YoYo ball on each hand. This is where Big Time’s modern EXTREME take on the YoYo falls apart, because the kid looks like he should be wearing a seersucker suit with a straw hat and trying to guess somebody’s weight on Coney Island.  In 1930.  The fact that this ad was probably immediately followed by some badass Sega spot (the unquestioned champion of 90’s extreme marketing) only served to further bury the YoYo Ball’s attempt at looking awesome.

An even larger problem than the YoYo Ball’s failure to be extreme was it’s failure to live up to it’s one and only promise: returning to your hand with no effort. In 2003, after disappointing children worldwide for over a decade, the YoYo Ball was taken off the market once and for all when it was revealed that over 400 kids had been strangled by it’s stretchy cord that most certainly had NOT gone wherever it goes and come back to them. Frankly, I doubt these were accidents. If I was in my room alone playing with my YoYo Ball while I heard the neighbor kids shrieking with delight playing Sonic 2, I’m not sure that life would have seemed like it was worth living.

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Just try not to face plant when you get to 1984. It’s harder than it looks.

The pogo stick, unlike the yo-yo, has never been mistaken for a weapon, or for anything other than what it actually is: an awkward way to jump ever so slightly higher than you’d be able to normally. This slight increase in height comes at the cost of countless hours of training for the balance necessary to not break your face when trying to use one. If watching someone do Yo-Yo tricks is fun for only about 30 seconds, watching someone jump on a Pogo Stick is only fun until they inevitably injure themself.  Trying and failing to solve this problem was Hasbro.

Was the Pogo Bal the first product to try to seem fresh and edgy by having an intentionally misspelled name? The guy narrating this spot says “I got the ball, I’m a Pogo Bal master!” so many times it seems pretty obvious the person he’s really trying to convince is himself.  I can appreciate the pointlessness of the giant monster hand trying to snatch the children, but it’s clear to anyone with a functioning brain stem that it’d be easier to avoid the hand without a cumbersome toy clutched between their now useless feet.

Pogo Bal somehow managed to eliminate the one and only benefit of a regular pogo stick- jumping a little higher than you normally could with just your boring old legs- and keep in place all the gawkiness and awkwardness of using one. It was brightly colored and different enough to sell for a little bit in the mid 80’s, but your memory is better than mine if you remember anyone actually playing with one. I’m pretty sure if you bought a Pogo Bal, Hasbro delivered it already half-deflated and dusty, and found a quiet corner of your garage to stick it in for you.

Instead of being led to either extreme action or pogo-stick inspired good wholesome family fun, when children failed to get “Higher and Higher!” as the commercial had promised them, they turned to getting their highs from hard drugs, which of course are already extreme, and have never needed any particular type of marketing to sell themselves.  It may be possible that the entire 1980’s cocaine epidemic was fueled by the unreconciled disappointment of kids who asked for and received the Pogo Bal.

I think the lesson here is that when something is only fun to do because of the effort and patience it takes to become good at it, you really shouldn’t try to make a product that takes that effort out of the equation.  While their commercials may have tried to convince us otherwise, nobody who does yo-yo or pogo stick tricks do so because they look like a badass- they do it because they’ve taught themselves a skill, which may or may not be interesting for others to watch.  On the other hand, both of these products sold well for a little while in spite of their obvious limitations, and so as always, the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves for thinking that owning any toy could actually make us look like a badass.  Well, except for a Sega Genesis, of course.


The Pedestrian Lessons of Paperboy

September 22, 2012

When I moved to San Francisco a few years ago, one of the first things I noticed about the city was how bad most people were at walking around in it. I wasn’t sure why at first, but I kept zooming by slow rolling groups of tourists without breaking stride, dodging darting crackheads, and steering clear of the random Muni bus that tries to run down the unwary soul. It took me a little while to figure out exactly where these foot-traffic avoiding skills had come from.  I finally stumbled across the answer recently, as I’ve been diving back into the NES.  Paperboy had somehow laid the childhood groundwork for the adult H’s pedestrian lifestyle.

If Paperboy was set in the city instead of the burbs, the Grim Reaper would smell like feet and onions and ask you for 50 cents.

Paperboy was everything you ever wanted in an NES game; ridiculous concept, nearly impossible difficulty, a brief and pointless ending. I can’t speak to that last one personally, because I’ve never beaten it. If I made it to Thursday alive, I was already doing pretty well, and I can’t say I made it that far into the week too often.  If I didn’t get run over by a van or attacked by Death or hit by a tire or tackled by the bulldog or blasted by the tornado, then I ended up I losing all my subscribers, because it doesn’t take long at all to learn that throwing several papers through every single window on a house is more fun than throwing a single paper cleanly into the mailbox. Plus, the neighborhood really brings out the worst in you with it’s relentless efforts to kill or maim you. If you’re not in a window smashing mood by the 3rd house on the route, you’re a better man than I.

The optimism of the title screen soon gives way to harsh reality.

Paperboy pulls the rare trick of having a higher difficulty than real life. I’m grateful the real city doesn’t *usually* throw as many obstacles in my way as the game does, although the more I think about it the real difference might be play control. In real life, if some slow walking tourist suddenly steps into your path, you can just step around them and carry on.  Also, when this happens to you in real life, it’s usually an accident.  In Paperboy, your bike not only changes direction with all the ease and grace of an oil tanker at sea, but an entire neighborhood is just waiting for the right moment to lurch into your path.

Aside from the fact that the dude on the bike is quick and agile instead of sluggish and plodding, that commercial was very literal in terms of what the game play actually consists of.  As we’ve seen, most Nintendo related ads of the era wanted you to think you were going to be an instant badass who could just punch the air until you beat the game, or at least transported mentally into some far off land of fantasy by playing Crystalis or eating your vaguely Mario-shaped cereal.  Paperboy made it very clear at every step of the way: you’ll be playing a game about a boy who delivers papers while a bunch of shit tries to knock you off your bike.  No cryptic title referring to some kind of document-stealing spy thriller game here.

There’s one thing that nobody ever mentions when they talk about Paperboy that I’d like to address at this point. The game presumably takes place at approximately 6 AM, or so you’d expect if they’re really trying to give you a semi-realistic paper delivering experience. So why in the hell is a suburban residential neighborhood buzzing like this?

There’s a guy running a jackhammer. Unattended children are running wild on tricycles. A man dressed like a jockey appears to be practicing his bull-whip skills. Some dude is break dancing in the grass, and by break dancing I mean laying on his back and thrashing his legs in the air. A lawnmower is running in circles, which means somebody had already been at their yard work long enough to get bored and abandon the project without even bothering to clean up or stop the mower- the kind of mental fatigue that comes after hours of labor.

Some might try to point to the skateboarder and say no hesher would have been up that early, but I think it’s feasible he could have been heading back home from the previous night’s activities, so I can’t in good conscience ding the game any points for accuracy there. Same thing for the guys riding the choppers, because ‘the party’ is a fierce and fickle mistress who doesn’t chain herself to any specific time of the day.  Or I don’t know, maybe everybody just got riled up and went outside after that tornado ripped down their street at dawn.

All in all, I suppose it’s clear this game is not meant to be 100% realistic, but I think that ultimately just adds to the educational value. It’s so much more crazy and unforgiving than actually walking around (as long as you keep your damn head up and don’t get hit by a bus), that when you actually do get out and about on your feet or your bike you can’t help but react so much more quickly and accurately than Paperboy lets you. It would be like if you learned to drive on one of those drunk driving simulators.  Once you got behind the wheel of an actual car you’d be amazed by how responsive it was and that you didn’t indiscriminately crash into everything no matter how hard you tried to avoid it.

As frustrating as most of my experiences playing Paperboy were, in the end, it was all worth it.  All those times I died at the hands of a careless motorist, or an angry homeowner, or a jazzed up guard dog, or even Death himself, were simply so that I might be able to live on my feet in the city of San Francisco.


NEStalgia Week Pt.9; Congratulation! A Winner is You!

September 17, 2012

The nice thing about being a full grown man with a healthy dash of nostalgia is that you can pursue whatever collecting and hobbies your time and wallet will allow. The rotten thing about that is paying the rent and working a more than full time job means there’s never enough money or hours in the day to scratch that itch fully.

Maybe it’s a good thing. Almost everything is better in moderation, they say, and after a half dozen margaritas I’m inclined to agree. If I had infinite free time to play the games, and infinite money to collect them, I don’t think I’d be having nearly as much fun with my Nintendo return.

Happiness doesn’t come from having every idle wish instantly fulfilled, it comes from facing life’s challenges and difficulties and forcing yourself to carry through. It comes from having goals to work towards, things that require struggle, sacrfice and effort to achieve. And so, even though I could strap a Game Genie onto Metroid and blow through it, or just look up the all items code, it was more rewarding to pick my way deep into the game, and eventually die in the bowels of Ridley’s lair at 4 AM. Even if I’d gotten through, it wouldn’t have been fast enough for the good ending, but that was a moot point.

For the most part, my return to NES gaming had been a mixture of fun nostalgia and a realization that old grey H, he ain’t what he used to be. It’s a shame to say it at 30 years old, but I just don’t have the hand-eye coordination I did when I was playing most of these games for the first time. A game like Castlevania III, that I played a ton of and was able to finish as a kid, now confounds me after a point. But there had to be a tradeoff somewhere.

I just don’t think 8 year old H had the patience to backtrack and puzzle solve in the way that Metroid asks you to. A linear platformer built on timing? Oh yeah, youth is all over that. An open world that requires patience, memory and multi level thinking? A grown ass man has the advantage. Sometimes you just have to run across something at the right time in life. When I played Metroid for the first time, it was too soon, I didn’t get it. I was a little older when Super Metroid came out, and I loved it, even if I leaned heavily on Nintendo Power to get through it. But I never really revisited the first until last night.

Not as chipper as Bubble Bobble, but just as to the point.

Now, most of the original feels fresh to me, even though it’s a nearly 30 year old game that I’ve played before. I think that really gets down to the heart of the appeal of retro-gaming, that what is old is constantly new again. For most people who are into the hobby, the thrill of the chase is of course a big part of it. But the days when you could walk into any thrift store and expect at least some type of dirt cheap find from the early console era seem to be fading, as more people get into the hobby.

The flipside is that the retro gaming resale market is thriving online, where if you hunt hard enough, you can still find a lot of quality games for cheap. Well, sometimes cheap. I’d love to give Sword Master another shot, but if it’s $60 bucks to take the trip, I’ll probably pass. I did pony up 7 bucks for a copy of Crystalis, which I’m looking forward to diving into. And ultimately, I don’t want to limit myself to just the NES. I have a smaller SNES collection, and a few stray Genesis cartridges plus a working console. I sold or gave everything else away through the years, so until I come across any stray cheap other consoles, I’ll be focusing on those 3. The last couple weeks, I’ve been ducking in and out of thrift stores, hoping to find some random retro console goodies. I haven’t found them, but it hasn’t stopped me looking.

On the other hand, I have found a wealth of NES era advertising.  After awhile, you start to wonder how they sold any of these things.  Thank god most of the products were better than the commercials.

NEStalgia week turned into 2 weeks, and over the course of it I worked a ton, turned 30, and discovered the fun that’s still waiting to be found in games that are almost as old as I am. If you’ve been enjoying the NES related content here, well, you’re in luck, because there’ll be more retro gaming articles to come, mixed in with the regular random nostalgia and esoterica I usually indulge in.  There’s still pedestrian lessons to be learned from Paperboy.  Maybe Scrooge McDuck can teach me a thing or two about how to manage my finances.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this first trip down Nintendo memory lane, and I hope you’ll join me on the adventures ahead. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go rip off various housewares from a blue skinned family.

It’s cool. Here’s your flashlight and your cheese and all the other shit we stole from you guys.


NEStalgia Week Pt.8; We’re Off to See The Wizard

September 15, 2012

The wonderful wizard of pause? Ugh, forget I typed that.

As NEStalgia week got rolling, I knew that at some point I was going to watch The Wizard.  It’s the only movie that’s really about Nintendo games, as opposed to being based off of one.  It is unapologetic in being a commercial for the NES, for instance, some of it’s titles abroad include; Joy Stick Heroes in Germany, Game Over in Finland, and the straight-forward Video Game Genius, Videokid and Gameboy in Brazil, France and Sweeden, respectively.  Only Japan joins the US in playing it non-literal with the title Sweet Road, which is bitterly ironic considering all the torture the kids in the movie go through on their journey.

Few things have ever served the dual purpose of epitomizing a moment in time and advertising a product as well as The Wizard, and no walk down NES memory lane would be complete without a viewing.  My memories of it are fond, but I didn’t expect it to be a great movie.  Well, I suppose all things considered, it’s not, but I did thoroughly enjoy watching it again, and unexpectedly, it reminded me that as much as life moves forward, everything always comes full circle.

First things first, if you haven’t seen The Wizard, it’s available in it’s entirety on youtube.  To sum up, Fred Savage plays Corey, half brother to a younger kid named Jimmy who was traumatized a couple years earlier by the drowning of his twin sister.  Jimmy lives with his mom now, while Fred Savage and Christian Slater live with their dad (Beau Bridges), the family having fallen apart after the drowning.  Jimmy doesn’t say much, except for the word “California”, but he does keep trying to walk there.  His mom and step father decide to “put him in a home” to use the only phrase the movie ever employs in describing Jimmy’s treatment.  Fred Savage is outraged by this but unsuccessful in convincing Beau and Christian to take action, so he decides to break Jimmy out on his own and run away together and take a trip.  When he gets to “the home” and suggests this to Jimmy, his little brother’s only response is “California?”.  And so they have a destination.

One time and one time only did The Wizard miss such a ripe opportunity for product placement.

Along the way, Fred Savage notices Jimmy has mad Double Dragon skills.  They also meet the plucky young Haley (Jenny Lewis!!), who, after being hustled by Fred Savage and Jimmy, suggests they go to Video Armageddon in California and try to win the $50,000 prize.  She promises to help get them there for half the money.  So they all set off together.  Along the way, they find Jimmy a rival- the infamous Power Glove toting Lucas Barton.  They also manage to get robbed a couple times, and to get Fred Savage beaten up by some kids he and Jimmy hustled.

Meanwhile, in the finest NES racing game fashion, they are pursued by two players; PLAYER1 is the two headed monster of Beau Bridges and Christian Slater, a father and son duo who were doing some serious fighting at the beginning of the movie.  Beau is initially determined to go after the boys alone in spite of Christian Slater’s insistence, until they are comfronted by PLAYER2, the excessively sleazy Putnam, a bounty hunter who goes after children, and who promises to bring back Jimmy and only Jimmy, and insinuates consequences if anyone gets in the way of his bounty.  Next to Lucas Barton’s presidential nuclear football style case for his Power Glove, the idea that anyone would allow Putnam to have anything to do with their children is the least believable thing about this movie.

Well, hardships aside, the rest pretty much writes itself.  Beau Bridges and Christian Slater learn to love each other AND Nintendo games during their trip together in pursuit of the runaway boys.  Sleazeball Putnam almost nabs Jimmy a couple times, but is thwarted by the plucky young Haley and some of her trucker friends.  In contrast to his being hired to safely return a child standing as the movie’s least believable plot point, his being arrested and drug out of a casino accused of molesting one stands as the movie’s most believeable scene.

Fred Savage and Haley develop a pseudo-romance.  And Jimmy beats Lucas Barton and wins Video Armageddon!  He then finally finds “California”, which turns out to be the Cabazon Dinosaurs, where the family had once road tripped together when his sister was still alive.  He sets down his lunch pail of memories of her, and Jimmy leaves with Beau, Christian, Fred and Jenny Lewis.  Now, they have enough money to do what they had planned all along.  Oh, wait, they never said what they were going to do with the money.  I really think this is the only movie I’ve ever seen where the main story arc was going to win a big lump of money and that money wasn’t even intended for any purpose.

Video Armageddon is not a means to an end in The Wizard, it IS the end.  The main message of the film is that Nintendo games are awesome, and in this message, it is successful beyond belief.  Super Mario Bros. 3 is one of the best selling games ever in North America, and it exploded onto the scene fueled by the hype and anticipation kids had after watching Jimmy play it in the film’s climactic sequence.  Every major character in this movie who is not a slimeball loves and plays Nintendo by the end of it.  It was unanimously panned by critics at the time of it’s release- Roger Ebert amongst others dismissed it as being a thinly veiled commercial for Nintendo products.  I didn’t have a problem with it as a kid because NINTENDO IS AWESOME was the level of my thinking then.  I don’t have a problem with it now because not only is Nintendo still awesome, well, the veil just doesn’t seem that thin.  There is nothing about this movie that doesn’t claim to be anything but an ode to the NES and it’s games and peripherals.

Some of the products it advertised were more successful than others, of course.

It is exactly what you would expect overall, very much a cheesy 80’s movie that at this point can be enjoyed both nostalgically, and also for it’s unintentional humor.  But for me, the journey was ever so slightly more personal, and watching it again, I realized a couple things.  My life has moved forward in a linear sense- I’m older, a working man, in a 5 year relationship, and like both Jed Clampett’s kinfolk and little Jimmy, we said “California is the place you ought to be” and loaded up the truck and all that.  But 23 years later, I’m pretty fond of Jenny Lewis, I’m all into my Nintendo again, and still jazzed about playing Super Mario 3.  Even if The Wizard is the longest and most well directed commercial ever, I’m glad it reminded me that as much as things change, they always stay the same.


NEStalgia Week Pt.7; The Spiritual Successor to The Legend of Zelda

September 11, 2012

Look, if I wanted to read, I wouldn’t be playing my Nintendo, let’s just do this.

There’s a reason that 99% of the old Nintendo games you find don’t have a manual- because almost nobody read them, you just dived right into the game and either sank or swam.  If you did need a hint, you were going to ask somebody or look in a Nintendo Power, so the manuals got quickly tossed aside and forgotten.  Most modern games have built in tutorials, where they walk you through the first level or two, ensuring you have the mechanics and direction to not wander around lost or subject yourself to repetitive deaths. But the majority of games in the NES day lent themselves to self explanation- they had 2 buttons and a directional pad, how hard was it going to be to figure out Mega Man without the manual? But even at the time, The Legend of Zelda was something different.

The commercial was not.  It was exactly as bad, if not worse, than most other Nintendo commercials of the day.

The Legend of Zelda appears in the top 2 of any self-respecting Best of the NES list, at this point remembered more for impact and influence than the actual game, which is unfortunate. It’s sequel, in terms of gameplay, was the SNES’ A Link to the Past, which is much more highly regarded these days than the original. This makes sense, A Link to the Past is very much a modern game, with in-game tutorial and direction to help guide players of all skill levels and motivation. The original, on the other hand, just drops you into the middle of a wide new world, says “IT’S DANGEROUS TO GO ALONE! TAKE THIS.” and hands you a sword. The rest you have to figure out on your own, because the game isn’t going to give you any clues more transparent than “DIDONGO DISLIKES SMOKE” or “MASTER USING IT AND YOU CAN HAVE THIS”.

Oh…ok. So what do I…oh, never mind.

The Legend of Zelda was one of my favorites as a kid, and for a lot of others as well, because it didn’t feel like any other game. It wasn’t like you just had to figure out the timing of jumping from platform to platform and how to use your blaster, you were given a fresh world to explore, and you had to make a go of it, with the only limits to how far from home you could go being your own courage and whether or not you could survive. Since then, the series has become one of the most popular in video game history. A whole host of Zelda games have followed, but none ever captured the feel of the first in terms of making it’s world seem strange, new and hostile. In this regard, the true successor to The Legend of Zelda is a love/hate indie game that most people are at least passingly familar with at this point: Minecraft.

Looks like a nice spot to settle down in.

Minecraft does no hand holding. No tutorials, no instruction, no nothin’. Just a fresh world to explore, and to build and craft whatever you can out of it. If you’ve never played it or aren’t familiar, the gameplay runs like this: The entire world, which expands nearly infinitely (it can theoretically create a world the size of Venus, though the limits of computing and the necessary human time to explore a world this large make the playing area much smaller), is made up of blocks(your player is about 2 blocks high, for scale) which represent dirt, sand, trees, water, coal, and so on. You start the game in the morning in a totally fresh and undeveloped world, with wild animals distributed throughout.  The geography is realistic, with rivers, hills, mountains, valleys, ravines and caves.

You can wind up starting in any biome with it’s own mix of animals and resources; Desert, Forest, Jungle, Tundra, Plains, and so on. You collect blocks, and use them to create other things- your first move will be chopping down a tree by hand to build yourself some crude tools so you can start mining stone and dirt to build a shelter, which you will need for reasons that quickly become apparent at dusk. At night, monsters come out and try to kill you. Zombies, skeletons, giant spiders and Minecraft’s unofficial mascot, The Creeper.

Get away from my window, pervert!

The first time I played Minecraft, I immediately thought of the first Legend of Zelda. It’s an overwhelming similarity of feeling, the world is strange, new and hostile, and ultimately yours to decide what to do with. If you weren’t even determined to finish Legend of Zelda, you could still spend an incredible amount of time poking around in it’s nooks and crannies, blowing up rocks and burning bushes to see if there’s a hidden cave underneath. What you find may or may not bring you closer to finishing the game, but a lot of stuff is going to try to kill you along the way. The stronger you get, and the more items you accumulate, the wider and longer you can safely survive out in the world. If that doesn’t sound like Minecraft, I don’t know what does.

The creator of Minecraft generally credits 2 or 3 games as being his inspiration, and none of them are the Legend of Zelda, but spiritually speaking, it is Minecraft’s true ancestor. The original NES Zelda was so stark and daring that even it’s sequel, The Adventure of Link, didn’t attempt to emulate it, and the games that eventually did added in an awful lot of hints and instructions. It took an independently designed and published computer game 25 years later to capture the same feeling of limitlessness, and to trust it’s players’ intelligence enough to simply plop them down somewhere totally foreign and let them go wander off and figure things out for themselves.  Although, it might be nice if every once in awhile in Minecraft, you dug through the wall of a new cave system and an old man was waiting to tell you this:

Some of you may have noticed NEStalgia Week is in overtime.  The response has been great, and I’ve been enjoying it, so rather than be constrained by the calendar, I’ll be finishing it up and posting the final 3 articles over the next couple days.  And look for more retro-gaming content regularly on Htopia going forward!


NEStalgia Week Pt.6; Three Failed Nintendo Products and The Commercials That Introduced Them

September 9, 2012

The late 80’s were the golden age of badly planned Nintendo products.

When most children of the 80’s hear the words ‘Nintendo’ and ‘Commercial’ used in the same sentance, they immediately enter a trance-like state where their eyes roll back in their heads as they drop to their knees while beginning to foam at the mouth, and from somewhere deep within them, a pitched voice that is not their own is heard to shout “IT’S A CEREAL, WOW!”

I had to chuckle as I watched this for the first time in what was certainly over 20 years. I thought I remembered that the only lines in the ad were the droning “NIN-TEN-DO” and “It’s a cereal, wow!”, and even though they weren’t, they might as well be. ‘Zelda too!” sounds great until they show the purple starfish shaped blob that’s supposed to be Link. I can only imagine how disappointed the Nintendo execs who came up with the idea of launching a cereal were when Ralston-Purina sent them up the sample of what it was going to look like. Seriously, if you can call whatever the shapes in the Fruity half of the bag are ‘Mario’, you could call them anything. They could have come out with a Jurrasic Park cereal a few years later and just reused the Mario shapes without anyone noticing.

Also, I’m not sure I buy the idea that eating the cereal is going to be a magical ticket where you suddenly feel like you’re inside the game. You know what else might do that? I dunno, maybe playing the damn game in the first place? You could argue that the feeling is obviously metaphorical, but the ad writers felt it necessary to not just show the children dancing inside the games, but also with cardboard TV sets around their head, so at the very least it was a metaphor they wanted to beat you to death with.

What if this commercial had been successful? A generation of kids might have been convinced that eating their allegedly nutritious breakfast was more exciting than playing Nintendo. It could have been a financial disaster for the company. Thank god Nintendo cereal flopped as fast as it did, otherwise we might never have had Super Metroid.

It probably doesn’t come as a surprise to learn that in the late 80’s, Nintendo didn’t just introduce ill-advised food products. They also introduced ill-advised gaming accessories.

Between the Power Glove’s debut commercial and it’s appearance in The Wizard, it’s clear that Nintendo wanted you to know that this was a device specifically made for BAD MOTHERFUCKERS. Which is ironic, because the Power Glove is not compatible with either Bad Dudes or Dudes With Attitude. You can play it with Double Dragon though, where a chopping motion equals a punch, a punching motion equals walking, and God help you and any living thing within a 6′ radius if you need to climb a ladder.

Only slightly more successful than the Power Glove, the Power Pad failed for reasons more related to the awkwardness represented in it’s commercial than anything else. Everyone looked like leather jacket guy using the Power Glove, even if you might as well have jammed a library book into your NES for all the luck you were going to have playing a game with it. The Power Pad, on the other hand, made everyone look as uncoordinated as yellow sock kid. Most people who are into sports games probably aren’t going to be up for using an accessory that makes them look like they just learned to walk that afternoon, regardless of how well it works with Track and Field.

I think the lesson is that marketing goes a long way in making up for a terrible product, but it only goes so far.  While Nintendo Cereal System and the Power Pad were successful in being edible and accepting user input respectively, they were both unimaginative products with awful and awkward advertising campaigns accompanying them which helped seal their fate.  The Power Glove was essentially unusable, but it’s marketing aimed squarely at yellow sock type kids who desperately wanted to be BAD MOTHERFUCKERS.  They did manage to sell some, but in the end the unrelenting uselessness of the glove won out, and hundreds of thousands of children who were already once disappointed by the lackluster Power Pad were driven away from gaming-related excercise forever.   At least if they wanted a chance to escape reality for a little while, they could turn to the imagination stoking powers of the Nintendo Cereal System, and feel like they were really in the game.


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