The Pedestrian Lessons of Paperboy

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.

6 thoughts on “The Pedestrian Lessons of Paperboy”

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