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The Nintendo S-Box

I just read a question that I find strange. Someone wanted to know the best NES games, with the understanding that most of the big ones would be superseded by later, better remakes. It was pointless to play Metroid, for instance, though maybe the first Zelda did a few unique things. Were there any games that were still worth playing?

The reason I find this strange is that the approach seems so askew. The reason to go to NES games will be less in terms of what they have to offer mechanically from a contemporary perspective; the main appeal here will be their method. It’s in the look, the sound, the technical limitations that result in the problem-solving that forms the basis of most of the design.

The most interesting things that you’ll find here are informed by these ephemera of a context that doesn’t exist anywhere else. Metroid isn’t interesting on the NES because of the shape of its world or what the buttons do; it’s because the game is both glitchy as fuck and designed so that most of its genuine surprises come off like possible glitches. The experience of playing the game feeds from a sort of cognitive dissonance between what you’re seeing and what might be, that creates a sense of endless possibility.

The best NES games feed into that dissonance, to create an idea that anything could be out there.

I guess I mean to say that the experience of the NES is one of uncertainty. The system is like a Schrodinger’s Box. Nothing is clearly defined except in the moment of experience — a moment that for all you know may never be recaptured.

  • Why do the rocks in Zelda look like turtles?
  • Wait, there’s a second quest? Where the world has different rules?!
  • Could there be another world entirely, if you burn the right bush?
  • Can you get to the end of the minus world?
  • What exists outside the normal Metroid levels?
  • Can you hit Deborah’s Cliff with your head?
  • Super Mario Bros. a third time?
  • What happens if you climb off the screen?
  • Am I meant to be able to do the thing I’m doing?

It’s childhood myth and legend encoded in inconclusive living hieroglyphics. Whispers in the night. Nightmares in silicon, filtered through corroded contacts, coaxial cable, and the roughly traced path of an electron gun.

Back then it was very hard to pass judgment on what was a “good” or a “bad” game; it was more that some things were more opaque than others, and better at hiding their secrets.

And then you get to the chaos wrought by the Game Genie, which at first wasn’t exclusively a cheating device — it was a hacking device, allowing you to fundamentally alter the experience of playing. Make Mario walk backwards. Be Small Firey Mario at any time! Make the entire world black, so you have to feel your way around…

To that end, Simon’s Quest is one of the most definitive NES games. It is pure ambiguity, obfuscation, and interpretation from start to end. It even has three endings, to enhance the what-might-be.

I should make a list of the definitive NES experiences, in the sense of those games that most embody the uncertainty that we have so dearly lost over the years.



The Return of Samus, But Hold the Uterus

As with many recent posts, this isn’t going to go in deep; I’m retreading a Twitter rant/discussion, with a bit of framing information so that it makes sense as a block of prose.

So there’s this Metroid II remake project that just finished. I’ve seen progress before, and dismissed it on the basis that it seemed to miss the point of the original almost entirely. It looked like the idea behind the project was that Metroid II was the “bad” game in the series, or at least the one that didn’t match the others, and that for anyone to enjoy the game it ought to be brought up to the standard of Super Metroid or Zero Mission (a remake of the first Metroid, made to look and play more like Super Metroid).

This is… kind of an offensive way of thinking, no matter what subject we’re talking about; that the nail that sticks up has to be knocked down, that the strange voices have to conform, that everything needs to be of a sameness. That the game in question is actually one of my personal favorites, one of the most expressive and artistic games that Nintendo has ever published, makes the project all the more irritating.

What it looked like they were doing was stripping out all of the atmosphere, the tension, the thematic intensity that made the game worth playing in the first place, under the misapprehension that all of this was a flaw because it made the game strange and difficult to play. Every game should play like Super Metroid, especially another Metroid game — and the first game has already been “fixed” to match, so that just leaves the one everyone hates. Let’s try to change their minds by turning it into another bouncy chapter of the Samus Zappy Puzzle Room Adventure.

So — and here’s where the tweet storm starts, I relented and I played it. A little of it, anyway. It really is very well-made, as fundamentally misguided as it may be. That said, I tuned out when it started to insert random puzzles.

Because it absolutely has to have the fucking shinespark, I guess (a convoluted ability introduced in Super Metroid that fans have taken, er, a shine to), we now have a charge beam as the second pick-up — which totally changes the focus of the narrative. Originally, you got the bomb, and then the Spider-Ball, because this is of fundamental importance. It’s pretty much what the whole game is about.

Now, the Spider-Ball comes almost incidentally, in an afterthought chamber after the big reveal of the charge beam and lots of distracting puzzles that take away from the significance of the event.

The charge beam is just one of many features from later Metroid games retrospectively crammed into here for no reason other than that people liked them. The idea being that game design is a constant march of progress, and this game was dated — so let’s incorporate all of our modern concessions. Let’s let the player grab ledges! Does it fit what the game is out to accomplish? Don’t understand the question; why wouldn’t we put it in?

Now. I haven’t played too far yet, but on the basis of what I’ve played… for all of this laboring the game with later concepts that it doesn’t need, I bet they missed a thing. I can’t verify if it’s in there, but it seems unimaginable to me to revisit Metroid II now and not reference the X parasite.

The X parasite was introduced in the fourth Metroid Game, Metroid Fusion. That game revealed that the player did a very bad thing back in Metroid II, by wiping out all the Metroids. As it turned out, over the course of that game Samus totally unbalanced the ecosystem, allowing a much worse threat to take hold. As that game began, Samus even paid for the mistake with… not her life, exactly, but her being. To save her from the X parasite, she had to be infused with Metroid DNA. Her old armor had to be physically cut away. Basically, she would never be the same again.

So if I were remaking Metroid II, you can bet I’d keep this development in mind. You couldn’t make a big deal about it, but for people who knew what they were looking at, some foreshadowing would be obvious. Considering that these guys are basically upgrading Metroid II to play like Fusion (by way of Zero Mission), you’d think they’d pay attention to the game’s greater narrative significance. And yet, something tells me the thematic development is going to be pretty low here. In messing with the flow leading up to the Spider-Ball, they’ve already diluted the first major beat.

The whole game is supposed to be womblike. The Spider-Ball and final Metroid egg (which the player first rolls past in ball form, emphasizing a similarity between Samus and the egg — and then which hatches in the game’s final moments, leaving one last Metroid alive and imprinted on Samus as its mother) just being obvious facets of that. This being the game where Samus finds her compassion and becomes a “mother” is not a coincidence. The womblike way you hold the game, the claustrophobic display, the dark, the atmospheric soundtrack.

I mean, the whole story is about the Metroid queen and her babies, about hatching. You spend most of the game in ball form. You can keep picking away; the metaphor extends as far as you want it to.

Here, they’ve basically stripped the progesterone out of the game and turned it into a dur-dur zappy puzzle adventure. So, no, I don’t think that thematic resonance is high on the list of concerns. But if you were to go the sensitive route, and do a remake that emphasized and further explored the game’s original themes, then having that retrospective concern about genocide and ecological destruction and unforeseen consequences would make the discussion even deeper. It’s not the immediate point of the adventure, and it can’t be, but seeding in the occasional overt hint would be nice.

Imagine a version of Metroid with the building suggestion that You Are Fucking This Up, that you shouldn’t be doing this, that this is wrong. That would be welcome. Shadow of the Colossus was 12 years ago now. You know what came out 13 years before Shadow of the Colossus? Metroid II. You know how long ago Zero Mission came out? Also twelve years ago. Some fucking selective education in this system here.

Game design isn’t an objective thing, and there is no such thing as progress except in our growing understanding of how design mechanics can be used to express ideas. Game design means nothing in and of itself, and its application as an intellectual exercise or a means to entertainment only makes the most facile use of the potential for material betterment available to us through forty years of study and (often ineffectual) experimentation.

Ultimately, though, this remake is just one take on an existing story. It won’t supplant the original. The mentality guiding the remake is troublesome, but it is on its way out. Other perspectives are available, and many enlightened ones have made themselves heard over the last decade or so.

Though there’s no real need to revisit Metroid II, I can see an advantage to calling back to its affect — on what the game actually does, artistically; what it serves to communicate. We have the tools now to convey this all more clearly. Any such emphasis would help to underline the greatness in the original work, to make it easier to appreciate. In the process, there’s also a bunch to learn for future work.

So, here’s an idea. What about a game jam? How about a bunch of voices get together to trade alternative readings of Metroid II. Give their own concerted personal interpretations, emphasizing their own themes. Draw on the contrast between experiences.

That’s probably the way forward. Despite what this remake would serve to insist, there’s no one truth to be had. There are no Platonic forms. Our experiences are what make us what we are, and in the end that’s all that we have to say for our lives. So, we might as well respect our individual experiences for what we are. That’s the only way we’ll ever grow, ever achieve something great as a people — by acknowledging the limits of our own two eyes in our own skulls. If we want to expand our views, we need to pool our resources. Every perspective we accept makes us richer, makes us better, makes us wiser, makes us more kind.

All of which videogames could use.



Anecdotal Evidence

Putting this thread here in case it’s needed in the future.

Topsham police officer pulled over my wife today for going 28 in a 25 zone — except she wasn’t; she was going 20, because she’s black and she doesn’t want to get pulled over in today’s climate.

After pulling her over, he took eight minutes of doing something in his car before he went up to talk to her. When he did, he stood weirdly to the side so she couldn’t see his badge.

He didn’t take her license to key it into the system, but repeated our home address several times as if memorizing it.

He interrogated my four-year-old daughter, for some reason, as to where they were going, sending her into tears.

The entire process took 15-20 minutes. After he let my family go with “a warning” he followed the car the entire way to their destination, with his flashing lights on.

My wife asked me not to call up the department to complain, because understandably she doesn’t want to put a bull’s eye on our family. But I want to stress the sequence of events, just in case. In the unlikely event that something happens down the line, you all will have some evidence.



A case against reverence

[Reformatted from a Twitter conversation with John Thyer]

Over the years I’ve developed this reflex response: if the followers of a thing tend to agree on a point, then the opposite must be true. Example: I enjoy classic Doctor Who, but in a way that seems perpendicular to fan consensus. If there is a point of intersection, it is incidental and has little to do with the usual rationale.

Now. What this should suggest is little to no overlap between that consensus and my own view. Yet, my tendency is to use the consensus as a negative indicator: if the fans heartily approve of a thing, then my first impulse is to avoid it. If they hate it, I seek it out with interest. The stronger the consensus, the more strongly I skew against it. The problem is, this reflex imposes a linearity to the relationship that doesn’t necessarily map to reality.

I don’t know how much of my own perspective is real critical thought, and how much is contrarian push-back. My presumption in these cases doesn’t really come from a place of good faith; all other things being equal, I expect that people will strongly react to surface elements based on set expectations. Set that low bar, and you will be rewarded. For any set of responses, usually the loudest voices — those that set the apparent tone — will be the most reactionary: “I’m here to have my pleasure center scratched by something familiar, and this isn’t doing it. How dare the world.

You can see the meta-muddle in this approach. If you sit and wait for facile responses, you’re going to find them in spades. Because, people. Mine is sort of a low-hanging set of expectations that ensures that I’m never disappointed in being disappointed. And skulking around, grousing that everyone just thinks wrong, is… basically the same kind of response that I’m grousing about.

So, for me at least it’s a tough road to get to an magnanimous place of critical assessment without basic judgment. Yet, there is something to be said about the failings of fandom and the merit of a critical response.

What good criticism can do is help to steer a response away from the sort of linear judgment behind my own dismissal, and provide an argument for another approach. This is the important part of criticism, I think: being able to deliver a considered rationale for a perspective. Criticism is a kind of meta-art, in that way: a well-argued perspective in regard to a typically more ambiguous perspective. It brings in relevant yet not necessarily obvious context for the reading of a work, that can, when given due consideration, broaden the ways that one may approach the work in question.

To get back to Doctor Who, at first The Power of the Daleks (the debut story of the show’s second Doctor, Patrick Troughton) bored the life out of me. I just read it as a typical, over-long base under siege. Then something clicked, and I didn’t just know but better understood that it was written by the show’s original script editor, David Whitaker. What had been an incidental fact became key to my understanding of the script and its probable meaning. As a Whitaker script, knowing everything that Whitaker tends to deal with in his writing, its decisions carry different weight.

Viewing the story through the lens of its creator, I now think it’s easily one of the best serials of its era. Viewing it without that context, with just the context of surrounding works, it feels tedious and unambitious. And yet, I know from many discussions over the years that its reputation is based largely on the latter context; that it’s considered one of the best-ever serials not because of its value as a text but because of how well it exemplifies a highly typical form.

This critical framework (or lack thereof) explains in part why it took so long for me to get around to framing the story in the context of its author — because prior to the writing of Philip Sandifer, this is something that I literally had never seen. We’re talking decades of essays on the topic. Which, considering that Power is invariably heralded as one of the highest points of the series, is kind of odd. The story is one of the touchstones of fandom, and it took nearly 50 years for someone to talk who wrote it?

The whole framework for the story’s adulation is out of reverence for craft, in correctly delivering a particular form. The idea that it might have something to say, based in the tendencies of its author, is totally beyond. This is the distinction between a critical framework and a framework of reverence, an architecture for which I have little patience.

After all these words, I think that’s really the disjunct that I have with fandoms and movements in general. I don’t easily get with reverence. I dole it out on an individual basis, depending on the perspectives in play. Any system of reverence (which includes negative reverence) gives me pause. Because this is an anti-critical view. Or, well — that’s my bias again. It’s not anti-critical. It’s acritical. Which almost can be harder to deal with. I view that kind of a response as an unpleasant noise, and I go running to avoid getting overwhelmed by it.

Fun thing: given that our entire knowledge of the world is based in a subjective means of input — our senses — we have no primary knowledge of an objective reality. Any assertion that we make is supposition based on our evidence — our evidence, of course, being our subjective foundation, which is the only objective reality that we can know. Any consensus that we can build, based on comparing our perspective with others, is still built on our subjectivity.

So although it helps in one’s journey to broaden one’s ability to read one’s world, all truth is subjective. To declare some objective, perfectly balanced statement of truth is to miss or deny the limitations of your perspective.

One of the more hilarious things to think about is how goddamned subjective science is, by nature and necessity. “This is what we’ve seen,” it says, “and the best explanation we can come up with it for now. It may not map to reality.” The problem comes when people use science in a prescriptive, declarative way. “This Is Objective Reality!” they say. Science says! Well, no. On the basis of what we’ve seen and can derive from that, science tells us that this is what we can probably expect.

Reality is about probability. Is anything possible? Hard to say. Probably. Is anything probable? Probably not. The more certain you get, the more you try to nail down what is objective, the less objective you become. It’s like Schrodinger’s Cat. There is a reason why higher physics is all about uncertainty.

The words we use, the ways that we use them, are unfortunate. It is with a great leap of arrogance that natural philosophy came to be called Science — Absolute Knowledge! The natural philosophers died out in favor of a new breed of Scientists — Those Who Know! They Know, and they speak of natural laws, suggesting that these things Have to Be! Which creates many problems. Yes, the scientific definition of a law is different from the common one, but the choice of words is meaningful. And the perceptual problems that it causes, both within and without the scientific community, plague us today.

It is abundantly clear from the workings of science, from the scientific method, just how little is nailed down. It has to be, because science is descriptive. We’re just using what we see to figure out what we may see later. Sometimes it’s predictive, according to the same notions. It’s not about some kind of Holy Writ. Yet in all its cloakings, science appears to be positioned as an objective Order of the Universe. So when the cracks appear, and it becomes clear that current science can’t account for everything, those in search for an objective reality tend to lunge.

“Ha ha!” they scoff. “You uppity jerks who think you know everything, you don’t know everything! Therefore you don’t know anything!” The positioning of science as this absolute set of answers allows in this kind of binary thought. Either it is or it isn’t — and it isn’t!

Yet, the world isn’t as simple as that. The universe doesn’t hand out yes or no answers, to pretty much anything. Which doesn’t mean you can’t make a solid effort at understanding it, within a useful probability, for many things — so long as you’re not obsessed with being right all the time, and maintain a certain curiosity and humility. Which is something that I think we all will struggle with to some extent, to our dying days.

I once encountered a young man with an absolutist view of morality. This was in a course on Gandhi. He was in over his head. Why bother being a vegetarian, he asked, if other people aren’t? Why try to conserve energy, when you’re already wasting so much? Why bother donating to charity, if you use the rest of your money selfishly? If you can’t be absolutely good, if you can’t be right all the time, then what’s the point of trying?

This is the logical end to reverence. This is the kind of sickness that we get from these religious notions of purity and original sin. This is what brings us abstinence-only education. Going by what I’ve read, AA reinforces with its notion of what an alcoholic is. One sip and you might as well just die, really. All of your work is over, and the best you can hope for is to start from scratch if you survive your fall.

This is the mainstream model of morality that our culture aspires to. This is what it means to be good: to absolutely good, or nothing at all.

This is what it means to succeed: to be the best, or to be a failure. And if you fail… well, you might as well take down the rest of the world with you. Or, depending on how entitled you feel to that success, maybe just punish those who are dragging you down.

Anyway. The search for truth is absolutely something that people should undertake, but with an understanding. With an understanding that there is no one absolute correct truth, but that you can always get closer to one.

No matter how much of the truth you command, your perspective will always be incomplete. Not wrong; just small. So, there will always be things that you won’t be able to see on your own, that you can use to see more clearly. This is the role of criticism: to dissolve the reader’s adherence to a single view on a topic.

So the Earth isn’t the center of the universe, and neither is the Sun. That doesn’t mean that either model is wholly wrong, or dumb. They’re both reasonable. If you state, “the earth seems to be the center of the universe” — well, yes. Yes, it does! If you say, “actually, if you consider this, the sun seems to be,” then, whoa. You know, yeah. It does seem to! These both are perfectly valid, indeed constructive, observations to make. The problem comes when you try to assert objectivity. Because then you will be wrong. The world isn’t objective.

Of course, I’m all for activist theater. If you feel like asserting something to make a point about mass presumption, then by all means. Present people with conflicting truths, to show the lie to their objectivity. Stating the objective truth of an unpopular reality can be a necessary means to demonstrate its validity.

Which is, again, where criticism can be very useful. And where reverence can be a great barrier to progress.



Corrosion and Sparks

(The following is based on my portion of a Twitter conversation with John Thyer, Amandeep Jutla, and Thom Moyles.)

Weirdly, I think The King of Fighters is another half-decent example of this sort of design. There is a huge, multifaceted story underneath each game, going back years; dozens of perspectives. Most of that comes out through the way the characters animate, how they respond to each other, and little bits of action and dialogue scattered through the series, with only scant exposition.

As with Phantasy Star II or Riven, your part is to take what you’re shown and work out all the implications; figure out how we got here from there, and what that may mean for the future. Thinking about the logistics of who is paired with whom; who has stayed out this year, and why… It’s this really complicated, dramatic scenario that actually is in there, yet just barely narrated.

All of it is told by your looking a character in the eyes and saying, “Whoa, what happened to you?” And then you look for the evidence, and you find it. And it’s this whole, intense thing that feeds back into how you read the game, and how you look at the next character, and the next. Which may in part why I find The King of Fighters ’99 — which clears the decks and introduces a new story, new hero, at the expense of the old, now-resolved plotline — so rewarding, and… why it may have irritated others. Because the answer to how we got here is so intense, takes so long to work through successfully.

This may also be part of why a game like its follow-up KoF 2000, though very well-made, fails to satisfy me as much. The answer to how we got here is… well, a few more (very cool) characters have joined, and things are moving along. Its intricate web of endings provides a deep well of speculation for the future. But the past? It’s basically, “Okay, you’ve played ’99? Well, good. You’re up-to-speed. Here’s another game.” Which may in turn partially explain why other people tend to like 2000 so much more than ’99 or 2001. It’s giving them what the average person who plays fighting games, even SNK games, is looking for: stability.

I am a weirdo in this regard, I guess. There are many things that I like about (the third and final game in that arc) KoF 2001 in particular. One of them is where it brings all of this. You read into (the old protagonist) Kyo’s psychological state in that game — what his moves are, how they parallel with (his rival) Iori. Knowing what he’s been put through the last few years, it’s kind of chilling to see. Nothing talks about it overtly, but you see him coming apart, turning into something dangerous. There is a sort of dramatic culmination in so many aspects of the game. It’s chilling in how logical, yet messy, it all is.

I just want to soak in the world of 2001, and what it means. Right off the bat, there’s so much coded meaning. One of the first things you see is (current hero) K’ putting his red glove on. This is really important. Later on, you see (new rival) K9999 coming out of his cloning chamber. His first action? Show us his glove. The game makes an immediate parallel and contrast here, showing their relationship; the glove is his identifier, whereas K’ has to make the conscious decision to put his back on in order to meet this new danger.

In 2000 it was a mark of victory for K’ that he ripped it off, no matter the pain he felt. What he’s faced with now is that important, that he’s choosing to wear it again on his own terms. Whereas before, he decided that he’d prefer to burn uncontrollably than to be defined by the thing and all it represented.

Granted, future games don’t really follow through on the stuff in 2001. But that’s nothing new. Likewise 2001 doesn’t follow up on all of the interesting implications of 2000‘s web of endings. But in it own right, taken as an independent thing, 2001 is just so heavy with significance.

Even the game system in 2001 follows this. It’s a brutal, simple logical conclusion to the disjointed scraps introduced in ’99 and refined without question in 2000. It’s not balanced well, but, what do I care? I’m not playing it competitively. I’m just appreciating it. The systems are violently elegant in their conception, which, considering, every other aspect of 2001, is so appropriate. The way it looks, the way it sounds, the way it plays — it’s all part of the narrative.

The crude, jagged-sounding, obsessively repetitious music — it’s overtly ugly, and that enhances the message. It sounds angry, dangerous, a bit deranged. It makes you uncomfortable to hear. Whereas ’99 is all chrome and gel lighting and blippy electronica, 2001 is corrosion and sparks. It’s like… we’ve come to this, now. Flesh is decaying. Metal is decaying. Minds are decaying.

And look at this; we now have a NESTS team, led by K9999. And Kyo and Iori are back for real now? And can you even tell the difference between them anymore? Everyone is falling. All is going wrong. With all of this happening, of course all of the character portraits are going to be grotesque. How could they not be?

But… I suppose most people don’t approach a versus fighting game the way that I approach Riven. If people who actually like Myst are so upset by Riven, I suppose I can see how SNK fans view 2001.