Pat Article
by Pitchfork

So now it's 2007. The 00's are just about 2/3 finished, and I couldn't be happier. This first decade of the 21st century has been a thoroughly rotten one. Bush, Cheney, 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iraq, Iraq. Global Warming verus American stubbornness/apathy. American Idol and The Apprentice. Britney Speares and Paris Hilton. The domination of popular music by vapid, scientifically engineered pop/psuedo-hip-hop chart-toppers and the boring, dry "indie" music that spun-off from the Emo scene of the late 90's. Hollywood has all but officially switched its focus from "films" to "franchises." YouTube and Myspace have transformed the Information Superhighway into A Vast Wasteland version 2.0.

But there's something else the Clusterfuck Years (as I am sure they will be referred to by the history textbooks of tomorrow) are going to be remembered for: the Nostalgia Bomb. I can't pinpoint precisely where it went off, but I have a feeling future pop culture analysts will link it to 9/11 and DA WAR ON TERROR.

Theory #1: Everything about this decade sucked so much that people began thinking back to the 1980's and 1990's and said to themselves, "man...remember how cool stuff was back then?" Followed by, "hey, why don't we go up to the attic and find the NES, our old Madonna records, and all those Power Rangers we taped?"

Theory #2: People finally got sick of soulless, mass-produced pop culture -- which itself is a side-effect of this decade's overall lousiness; electroencephalogram-flatlining drivel designed to draw the public consciousness away from jihads, Darfur, drowning polar bears, the Patriot Act, the widespread cognitive dissonance resulting from the dawning realization that Al Gore and Ralph Nader were pretty much right about everything all along, etc. -- and did an about face towards the pop culture of the previous two decades (which may have been equally soulless and mass-produced, we were too young to notice then or remember now).

Theory #3: Nintendo, Thundercats, and our Boomer parents fucked us all up more than we previously gave them credit for.

Whatever the cause or reason, we've come to a point where nostalgia culture has stopped being fun and has become totally ridiculous. It's one thing to appropriate the imagery and pop-culture of a previous time period to create something new and relevant: musicians like John B, television shows like The Venture Brothers, and films like Sin City and Grindhouse have utilized retro to some incredible ends. But the VH1 and Internet approach to retro is something else entirely. Flip on VH1 at any given moment and you're more than likely to see something like this:


Clip from Episode: MacGuyver: Quick! Hand me that coconut!
Nameless Hot Woman: What are you going to do?
MacGuyver: [Pulling out swiss army knife] Just watch!

50 Cent: [imitating MacGuyver, pulling out imaginary swiss army knife] Just watch!

Nicole Richie: That episode where he like, built something out of a coconut was like, the only episode I remember, but it's totally awesome!

[two-second clip of MacGuyver assembling something out of a coconut]

Conor Oberst: MacGuyver building something out of a coconut was the single most inspirational and validating moment in television history.

Henry Rollins: MacGuyver was the man. I mean, that haircut of his....

[Freeze-frame shot of Macguyver's hair, zooming in while a sample of "I've Got an Ape Drape" by the Vandals plays]

Lindsey Lohan: Hur hur hur MULLET lol



The Guys from OK Go: Oh man that was a totally awesome episode where MacGuyver built a pacemaker out of a coat hanger and a live raccoon!

Most culprits don't even make the effort to analyze, contextualize or otherwise examine whichever pop-culture phenomenon they're dusting the cobwebs from that day. It's gotten to the point where all you have to do is point to something from the '80's or '90's and say HAY REMEMBER THIS? WASN'T THIS RAD? Y'KNOW, BACK IN THE DAY? to seize people's attention and lasting interest.

Given my recently-developed disdain for retro, you would think it hypocritical of me to write something for NES week, right?

Wrong. At least in this case, anyway.

The first part of this article is about NES games I've only ever played on emulators. I have never owned any of these games, and my first time playing any of them was well into the 128-bit era. Nostalgia hasn't the slightest bearing on my opinions or experiences with these ten titles. The purpose? To prove that the NES's appeal has nothing to do with the the world's obsession with retro. When the hipster finally goes the way of the hippie, the punk, and the raver, and when people start focusing on contemporary pop-culture again, the NES will once again be viewed as it was in the 16 and 32 bit years: quaint, campy and obsolete. It's inevitable; there's no doubting that. This is to say the hell with hipsters and the hell with the nostalgia craze: when the NES goes back out of vogue, I'll still be playing.

10.) Pipe Dream (1990)
So there's this 10 x 8 grid with an immovable "Start" pipe placed on a random square. Your job is to use the pipe pieces that queue up in the upper left corner to construct a path for the "flooz" to flow through once the timer on the right side runs out and it comes flooding out of the Start pipe. And that's...really pretty much it. ("Flooz?")

Vintage charm: Had the guts to stand up against the falling block-centrism that continues to dominate the world of puzzle games even today .
Signs of age: I've, uh, never figured out exactly how you're supposed to win.
What today's games can learn from it: FIGHT THE POWER! Resist using blocks (falling or otherwise) in puzzle games! (This does not apply, however, if you are Lumines.)
I suck at this game: It's true. But I still think it's really neat.

9.) Shadowgate (1989)
The evil wizard of Castle Shadowgate is trying to summon the Behemoth to detroy the world, and it's your job to go prancing into his 44-room deathtrap of a fortress to stop him before it's too late. Shadowgate plays a lot like a text-based adventure game or "choose your own adventure" novel. A standard scenario plays out like this:


Nevertheless, Shadowgate is definitely worth playing if you're looking for a genuinely challenging and fun text-based or point-and-click adventure and don't mind dying 425,629,291 times before figuring out how to solve it.

Vintage charm: No anime or Hollywood inspired glitz whatsoever. Shadowgate feels like it came straight from the brain of a computer nerd who spent all his free time from 1975 to 1985 holding Dungeons & Dragons games in his parents' basement.
Signs of age: I like a challenge as much as any NES geek, but there are times when Shadowgate doesn't even give you a clue -- just expects you to run around, wasting your torches, exhausting every possible course of action until you stumble upon the correct one.
What today's games can learn from it: Adventure games should naturally include a great deal of exploration. And exploration means not having your goddamn hand held all the time.
Real Life Nerdiness: Straight from the e-pages of my blog (re: LiveJournal): The woods get very dark at night. I don't own a flashlight (for some reason) and Dave didn't bring one. We were forced to pull out our cell phones, open them up, and use the meager patches of bluish light to light up the ground directly in front of us so we could stay on the path.

"Hey Dave," I called behind me. "Remember that game Shadowgate?"

"You mean for the Nintendo? I think I might have," he answered.

"Well, remember how you always had to be holding at least one lit torch? And if your torch went out, you'd die instantly?"

"Wow. That's kinda crazy," he said.

Then my phone screen shut itself off. During the
one second of darkness between the light going out and my reactivating it, I misstepped and fell into a ditch.

8.) Darkwing Duck (1992)
Knowing SMPS's audience, this probably doesn't even need to be said: Capcom's NES games were pure gold, and their Disney licensed games were exemplary of what an 8-bit action title should be. Darkwing Duck is certainly no exception, either. The premise is exactly what you've already guessed: all the villains in DW's rogues gallery are running amok, and he's gotta stop them. Oh, and don't go into it expecting a cakewalk just because it's based on a Disney cartoon. Of all Capcom's Disney games, this one's easily the most difficult. Nu blir vi farliga, as the Swedes say.

Vintage charm: Instead of using a distorted and blunted audio sample of Darkwing Duck's signature phrase, he simply strikes a pose as a word bubble appears over his head. Guess Capcom played Bart Vs. The Space Mutants and said no fucking way.
Signs of age: Aside from being an NES game? None, really. It was released when the SNES was already out, so you can bet it's sophisticated.
What today's games can learn from it: See above. KEEP MAKING PS2 GAMES.
Pat's favorite DWD villain: Megavolt.

7.) Nightshade: Part One -- Claws of the Sutekh (1991)
Oh, okay. Here's an interesting -- and terribly obscure -- one. Its premise is like a cross between film noir and The Tick, and it plays like a cross between Maniac Mansion and Deja Vu (Shadowgate sequel). Metro City's man caped vigilante has been killed, and a crime boss wearing an Egyptian mask and calling himself Sutekh has taken over the underworld. Nightshade, an up-and-coming detective and crime fighter is determined to bring Sutekh to justice and prove himself as a superhero. Come for the puzzles, stay for the cheesy jokes.

Vintage charm: Early example of genre splicing. Nightshade is part point and click adventure, part action game. It actually reminds me of the Who Framed Roger Rabbit NES game, only it doesn't rupture my organs.
Signs of age: The action elements are, well, kind of excruciating. Even Urban Champion had better one-on-one fights.
What today's games can learn: There are no continues or lives in Nightshade, but they have a cool system in place. Whenever you run out of health, Sutekh throws Nightshade into a deathtrap and then, in typical evil villain fashion, steps outside and leaves Nightshade unsupervised. The first four traps have a way out, and you can continue the game if you manage to escape. The fifth trap, however, is an automatic game over. I like this idea.
Part 1?: No, there is no second episode.

6.) Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti (1989)
When the ultraviolent Splatterhouse began garnering attention at arcades, Namco knew a couple of home ports were in order. The TG16 got a more or less direct port, but who the hell owned a TG16? The NES was still where it was at, and there was no way in hell it could handle Splatterhouse. So Namco could take one of two options: make a laughably inferior arcade port of an already lousy game, or take the chibified self-parody route. They went with the latter, and the result is everything Monster Party wishes it could be. It's packed with horror film references, self-parodic, and a hell of a lot better than the actual Splatterhouse games in virtually every way.

Vintage charm: This particular brand of wackiness went out of vogue with 2D games, which is very unfortunate.
Signs of age: A mite too short, but whatever.
What today's games can learn from it: Stop taking yourselves so goddamn seriously.

5.) Crystalis (1990)
Surprise, surprise! I've never played Crystalis on an actual NES. Not even once. But anyway, it's almost shocking how much more sophisticated Crystalis is compared to to virtually every other mainstream 8-bit aventure game in terms of...well, just about everything. I'm honestly surprised that every existing Hydlide cartridge on the planet didn't melt into puddles of bubbling, evil-smelling goo the day Crystalis was released.

Vintage charm: Does just about everything 16 and 64-bit adventure games do, but in only eight glorious bits.
Signs of age: 1997, October 1...THE END DAY
What today's games can learn from it: Nothing. Adventure game designers got the message back then.
Where's the love, SNK?: NES Athena gets to be in SvC and NGBC, and Simea continues rot in their IP vault? What the hell?

4.) Final Fantasy III (1990)
Hey guy.

Vintage charm: I wish there was a way of going back in time and giving this game to my eight or nine year old, Nintendo-obsessed self the day after he beat the original Final Fantasy. He'd have probably soiled himself.
Signs of age: No save points. Attempting to run from a battle is more likely to get you killed.
What today's games can learn from it: If you're gonna emulate Final Fantasy, emulate old Final Fantasy instead of new. Onion Knights kick Squall's ass.
Does it have Sephiroth?: Fuck off.

3.) Solstice (1989)
Solstice is what the hero of Shadowgate has nightmares about. It's another sort of adventure-puzzle game, but is action-oriented instead having a text-heavy, point-and-click interface. Your task is to find six fragments of a magical staff, which have been scattered throughout the castle of the evil wizard Morbius. The castle is big. I don't know how many screens Solstice has. I don't even know how I'd begin counting them. Moreover, the castle is full of monsters, spike pits, conveyor belts, and floating platforms, and one misstep kills you. You have a limited number of lives. Your only weapons are a limited supply of four potions: blue makes you invincible (to everything but posion spikes), purple erases all objects and enemies from the room, yellow freezes all moving objects, and green makes invisible blocks visible. Oh, and you have to actually find Continue tokens hidden throughout the castle. If you already find this description intimidating, then Solstice isn't for you. I'd recommend something a bit friendlier instead.

Vintage charm: Minimalism. The fanciest thing about Solstice is the unravelling map in the status screen. There is no dialogue between the introduction and the ending. There are no weapons, merchants, towns, NPC's, or points. Just Shadax, his potions, six staff pieces, and the biggest, most treacherous castle this side of the 8-bit watermark.
Signs of age: Shadax doesn't have a shadow, so you never have any idea what's beneath him when he's jumping. Guess how soon that gets annoying.
What today's games can learn from it: I wish more games today could be as difficult to finish as Solstice. (I've certainly never pulled it off.) I think it's cool when you need to complete master a game to cross its finish line instead of just being able to reload from the last save point once a day and just inching towards that (disappointingly easy) final boss and climactic FMV finale.
Will melatonin help?: Might as well skip right to chloroform. A full-blown Solstice binge will ensure that your weekday mornings are nothing short of hellish.

2.) Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)
Gremlins 2 was developed by the same Sunsoft team responsible for the NES Batman games, so it's no wonder it turned out so well. It's every bit as atmospheric as the aforementioned Batman games, thanks to an impressive soundtrack that captures the second Gremlins movie's manic sense humor and oh god, everything's going to hell vibe. Gremlins 2 is fast-paced, chaotic, and extremely challenging without being cheap. Plus, it has Gizmo. What more can you ask for in a video game?

Vintage charm: Nine stages, four boss fights. Gremlins 2 is a short game. It's probably possible to play through in about an hour, but believe won't. You will die over and and over and over again, and you will keep coming back for more. This is called "replay value."
Signs of age: I challenge you to find a game based on a PG-rated movie from the 32-bit era that's anywhere near as merciless as Gremlins 2.
What today's games can learn from it: This proves that it's possible to make a movie-based game that doesn't totally suck ass. I'm looking at you, THQ and EA. No excuses!
Faith to the source material on 1 to 10 scale: 4. Well, maybe 3.5. But who gives a rot if the movie didn't have giant bouncing death tomatoes or if nobody remembers Gizmo paper-clipping the Electric Gremlin to death? This game is almost as much fun as chain-smoking and probably better for you to boot.

1.) Adventures of Lolo (1989) Just look at him. Petitioning you with that desperate, dinnerplate-eyed what the fuck am I supposed to do now, genius? stare. Lolo is the best and single most challenging, sleep-depriving, vein-rupturing, binge-inducing puzzle game I've ever had the pleasure of illegally downloading and playing on an emulator. It has a pair of sequels as well, but they're just more of the same -- which means they're just as worth playing (perhaps even more, since they expand upon a few elements). Once a year or so I go on a massive Lolo bender, which is never a pretty sight. I get paler than usual, the circles under my eyes grow three sizes wider, and on the rare occasions I manage to sleep, I dream about pushing green blocks around a big room. Just looking at this screenshot makes my temples throb. (Though a sense of masochism probably does help you appreciate Adventures of Lolo all the more, you certainly don't need it to get hooked.) Lolo, you little blue bastard.

Vintage charm: Games just aren't this difficult anymore. If I'm wrong about this, please tell me. This isn't something I want to be right about.
Signs of age: You get five lives. When they run out -- well, nothing happens. You start in the same room as you left off with another five lives. Hmm.
What today's games can learn from it: I seem to keep repeating it over and over again. Most of the greatest NES games of all time are defined by two characteristics: simplicity and challenge. Every room in Adventure of Lolo is an 11 x 11 grid. Lolo himself is only capable of four things (not counting Option Five): walking, pushing boxes and eggs, sometimes shooting projectiles, and occasionally using items. This is all Adventure of Lolo needs to give you chronic insomnia and repeated aneurysms.
What do you WANT from me, Lolo?: Stop looking at me like that. I'm thinking, I'm thinking.

Slate Magazine recently published a slide-show article on video game cliches. It was interesting -- most everything on Slate is -- even if it told me very little information I didn't already know. But then it arrives at the topic of cutscenes, and asks:

What does it say about video games as a medium, though, when the cinematic interludes are the payoff?

The article doesn't dwell on the question or answer it nearly as well as I would have liked, but perhaps I can do it for them. It means one -- or both -- of two things:

1.) Video games, as a medium, are suffering from an identity crisis and developers need to focus a lot more on figuring out what exactly they want their products to be and what they want them to accomplish.

2.) Video games have jumped the shark.

I said it last year, and I'll say it again. The NES is video games at arguably their purest state. Its library is the least commercialized and (in many ways) the most experimental; it strikes a nearly perfect balance between simplicity and sophistication. Would Legend of Zelda be improved by sparsing it with twenty-minute cutscenes? Would multiple endings have made Super Mario Bros. all that much more amazing? Would it be preferrable to replace Megaman 2's soundtrack with Naz, Disturbed, Limp Bizkit, and Nickelback singles? What if they made Ninja Gaiden easier, so it would appeal to a broader audience? I could keep going, but I think I've made my point.

My appreciation for the NES isn't about nostalgia. It's about video games and how they're just better in 8 bits than they've been in 128. Let the industry do whatever it wants -- I find myself caring less and less each time E3 rolls around. The NES library is large enough to keep me occupied long after the video game industry finally caves in on itself from stagnation and oversaturation. It happened once; it will happen again. (The silver lining is this: what came after the first video game crash...?)

The NES is dead. Long live the etc., etc. Get off my lawn.

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