NEStalgia Week Pt.4; Power Blade, Repetitive Bats and Two Great 2-Player Games

Surprisingly not pictured on cover: the Power Blade

After taking my beating at Castlevania III, I popped in Power Blade, determined to make a go of something.  Power Blade is probably a little overrated. It’s well regarded for the most part, but it’s very similar to Batman, and it’s controls aren’t quite as smooth, nor is it as diverse in it’s game play. On the whole though, it is definitely a solid title.  If movement isn’t easy, at least blowing stuff up is.  It mixes the fun of slinging 3 boomerangs at once and using the power blade suit (which is both less frequent and less exciting than you’d hope from the title of the game) with the frustration of platform jumps that feel like they’re happening in ankle-deep water to provide a reasonably enjoyable experience.

I was rolling right along, until in the 2nd level, where I ran into bats that looked surprisingly similar to the bats from the Castlevania games.  Similar to say the least. I looked a little further and found that Power Blade bats and Castlevania bats were the same exact sprites.

Everyone else sees the bats, right? I’m not going crazy?

They were slow moving and easy to dodge or kill, but my concentration was broken.  For one thing, my Castlevania III deaths were still fresh in my mind, and here was that game’s most boring and lazy monster suddenly staring me in the face again.  I mean seriously, what the fuck are Castlevania bats doing in Power Blade?  They’re just splashed in there for no good reason, in a game where every other enemy is a robot or a computer or some kind of energy beam.  If you’re going to stick in something as pointless as bats, why not a red slime?  That’s at least ambiguous enough to make some kind of sense in a game set in the semi-distant future.  I quickly lost my last 2 lives, distracted by my irritation at the omni-present bat, and decided not to play any more Power Blade for a bit. The Nintendo Gods had mocked me.

Maybe the problem has been that I’ve been trying to walk the road alone. Here I am, trying to jump right back in with a bunch of tough platformers, when all this time, I should’ve just invited a few people over for a little NES party. Everything’s easier with help, and some encouragement would probably go a long way towards building my Nintendo related self esteem back up. The NES has a whole slew of fantastic 2 player titles to choose from; Super Mario 3, Contra, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2, Super Dodge Ball, RBI 2, and so on. For me though, I know two multi-player games really stand out from the rest.

Cheerful and to the point. I like where you’re going, Bubble Bobble.

Bubble Bobble was one of the weirdest and most randomly enjoyable NES games. You could go it alone and slog it out, but it was really meant to be played 2-player.  So intended, in fact, that finishing the games’ 100+ stages of fun by yourself got you this screen:

Well, I’m turning the power off, so it’s a true ending for now.

It’s all for the best. With another person in the room, you have someone to pipe up after a few minutes and suggest muting the game and putting other music on, which is extremely helpful in Bubble Bobble’s case, because that catchy little loop just goes on and on.
It’s impossible not to have fun playing this game with a friend, and since there are only about 4 concepts to master (jump, blow bubbles, pop bubbles, collect fruit) and the controls are simple, you can play it with just about anyone, regardless of skill level. The first time you pop the last bubble on a level and the sky randomly rains green chile peppers, you’ll be hooked.

How could you ever start to describe it to someone who hadn’t played it? Once you got to the part about touching a plastic jug of orange juice and suddenly playing a mini-game where you tried to collect cookie looking things that probably were supposed to be coconuts or something, your friend would give you a blank look and tell you to eat some more pills. And speaking of pills…

Dr. Mario generally winds up somewhere in the 40’s or 50’s on most of the top 100 NES lists you see floating around on the internet. It was well liked, but people who only played it single player just saw a game that was similar to Tetris, and without much to offer once you could max out the level meter and keep going. But I say from experience, and I’m sure a few of my readers will know what I’m talking about: 2-Player Dr. Mario can get heated like no other NES game.

When you pull off a 2-part or more combination of pill popping (I’ll be reusing that phrase in my review for the upcoming Lindsey Lohan: Nightlife game for the PS3), random colored pieces of pills start to rain down on your opponent. The larger the combination, the more pieces fall, and the larger the chance that you spoil your friend’s almost completed combo of their own. You’ll utter few expletives louder than the ones after your sweet 5-part drop that you’re about to set off is bombed by 4 red pills from the sky, all while someone you once called a friend snickers quietly.

Words cannot express how much fun this is.

As intense as the action can get, the real key to the good Dr.’s party game status is that since the levels and speed can be set however you like, new players can play on a low level side by side against a seasoned pro on level 20. You can easily fine tune the difficulty to make for a competitive game between any two players. I can’t think of another NES game where you can play with a handicap in this way, but it means that anytime you fire it up, you’re in for a high-pressure scrap.  Friendships can be tested.  Controllers can be broken.

Plus, the Chill music from the game rates as one of the better jams of the 8-Bit era.  Again, speaking from experience, unlike Bubble Bobble, you can go ahead and let that one play for the long haul without fear of serious mental imprint.

NEStalgia Week Pt.3; An Erosion of Skills in Castlevania III

One of my core beliefs is that adults are better than children at pretty much everything that’s worth doing. We’re bigger, stronger, faster and smarter than these little people, and we rarely have to prove it because we literally own and control everything. The next time some baby fires me from a job or beats me to the good seat on the bus will be the first.  But as I’m finding out, one of the few areas in which Child H might have had the upper hand over Adult H is in video games.

The Nintendo catalog has been kicking my ass so far. I’ve mostly been shut out on runs at games I used to polish off without a sweat. Mega Man 2? Gave Wood Man the business, then didn’t even make it through Air Man’s stage for the boss fight. Marble Madness? Wasted too much time on the Silly stage, then totally ran aground on the first obstacle in the Ultimate race. Castlevania III? Hoo boy, let me tell you about that.

The story of a character named Help Me

The Castlevania games were never ones to build up your self esteem. The first one was actually pretty nice in terms of it’s learning curve and difficulty, but required you to play with measured pace and an abundance of caution. The second one was opaque in it’s direction, and even with instruction on how to proceed turned out to be pretty tedious, as the Video Game Nerd once so eloquently pointed out. And then, there was Castlevania III. Dracula’s Curse. One of the Nintendo’s all time great games, and definitely a hard row to hoe. I owned it and beat it several times as a kid. Now, I’m finding the road is a little tougher.

Herky jerky quickness for a game where moving slowly and cautiously is the order of the day? Sounds awesome.

If you don’t recall, Castlevania 3 was the one that allowed you to play as a few alternate characters in addition to your standard-issue whip & dagger toting Belmont; Grant the Pirate, Syfa the Vampire Hunter, and Alucard the Vampire. It’s not terribly surprising given their full titles, but none of these guys got along with each other, so you could only tote along one at a time.

I didn’t play with Grant much as a kid. Yeah, the clock tower level was pretty sweet, but it was also long, and after beating it you still had to do the laborious half of the haunted forest anyways. The 1st half of the haunted forest was a point-collecting waltz, and then the 2nd half was a slow slog of attrition that you had to do in both cases, so why waste 20 minutes of game time to pick up a dude that was hard to use and was going to bail out as soon as you picked up a better partner?

The “job” he’s talking about was ditching 3 lives by falling off ledges into pits.

After the owls picked you half to pieces, and with or without your spry but fragile friend Grant depending on if you went up the tower first, you faced the game’s most crucial fork in the road. The top path led you to the game’s best alternate character, Syfa, and then the Ghost Ship level. Syfa looked hideous, like they never bothered to color in his sprite, but he was actually pretty interesting in terms of game play, and his spells could be devestating if used correctly. He was the slowest character, but again, proceeding cautiously is the order of the day in this game. Sadly though, I didn’t play with Syfa much as a kid either. I was smitten with the bottom path.

The bottom path took you through the arduous demon frog swamp and the mysterious mining caves, where you picked up the game’s other alt personality, Alucard. Big Al was always my choice of partner growing up, because when you’re a kid, having the ability to turn into a bat and fly around is going to trump any questions of strategy or subtle applications of skill. When I was young, I breezed through the swamps and caves, picked up Drac’s son, and went right on my merry way through the flooding level, no sweat. Now, every 3rd frog that hops out of the mud takes a bite out of me. I don’t have my timing down on the bats, and half of them go ahead and bonk me on the way by.

Fixin’ to take some damage.

Now, when I finally do get through the Caves and get Alucard on the bandwagon, whatever momentum I had grinds to a halt. Those lightning mummies that toss the bandages or snakes or whatever the fuck they are? Ugh, that’s like half my life bar. Big Al keeps getting hit and can’t kill anything with his weak little glow ball shot. All the enemies just shrug it off like it’s nothing. All he’s really good for is flying around. Further complicating things, he’s about a half block taller than everyone else, so he also gets bonked by more stuff than the rest of the characters.

Alucard, doing what he does best: Get hit by projectiles.

So after Bat Boy and Trevor’s quest met an end, I figured it was about time to go back and play through the Syfa route. That hasn’t been any picnic either.  Because I spent so much time playing the lower road as a kid, I neglected the supposedly easier high path. Now, there’s nothing easy about it, because even without Alucard or Grant throwing themselves into pits and burning off my extra lives, my memories of it are fuzzier, which leads to it’s own problems. “What am I supposed to do against the Cyclops again? Oh, that’s right, I stand over here and- oh, whoops, no. He clubbed me to death. Shit.”

The good news is I’m getting better, but I’m not sure Dracula needs to be sweating things just yet. Although Adult H might not to be any threat to Young H gaming wise, after my repetitive failure at Castlevania 3, I did get to crack open a beer, walk downstairs, smoke a cigarette and watch the city stroll by for a few minutes. I enjoyed the cool evening air at my leisure. If I wanted to, I could have gone to the gentleman’s club. You can do that kinda stuff when you’re a grown man. You can have Castlevania III superiority, young H.  I’m not threatened.

NEStalgia Week Pt.2; The Retro Duo

Does the Retro Duo kick open the door to enjoying your old NES carts?

Oh, man, it was rough. Once it flared up, that Nintendo itch would not die back down. I went to bed a couple nights with the music of Maniac Mansion dancing in my ears, and thinking of how awesome it would be to bust up Fat Cat’s criminal empire one more time. The lady of the house had to put up with (is still putting up with) my Nintendo addled brain.

H: *combing Amazon, 3 AM* Hey babe, did you know a copy of Ninja Gaiden 3 is worth like 30 bucks these days? Haha, and nobody gives a shit about Elway Football! 87 fucking cents! I know, it’s crazy, right?

AJ: *is sleeping*

Does it have anything to do with my impending 30th birthday? I’m crossing into the realm of being an official grown ass man here. It makes some kind of sense that a gentle nudge would push me over the edge into some lazy waltz down childhood memory lane. Except for the fact that Nintendo is specifically FOR grown ass men and women. So, guilt free, I ordered myself a RetroDuo console, and eagerly awaited it’s arrival.

The unit, unboxed. With 2 Controllers, AC adapter, S/AV Video out.

It’s a trim little piece of hardware, about the size of 3 DVD cases. It comes with two SNES knock-off controllers that are surprisingly sturdy, if a little lighter weight than the originals. (For NES games, only 2 buttons are active) The console is compatible with the original SNES controllers though, so if you still have yours, by all means, plug em’ in. 3rd party consoles can be spotty because they attempt to emulate the original hardware with varying degrees of success. I did some research before buying, and the RetroDuo was the best reviewed of the bunch.

And so far, it hasn’t disappointed. I’ve only had it for a few days, but I’ve cleaned up and tested about 1/3 of my games, and it has successfully fired up every NES game I’ve thrown at it without a single glitch or hiccup. The graphics and sound are great, or as great as they can be when you revisit the 8 bit era after a lengthy absence.

The graphical cutting edge, circa 1986.

The smoothness of the unit’s operation can be rather jarring to someone raised on a lifetime of blinking red lights and flashing grey screens. Watching AJ play Super Mario Bros 3 for several hours without a hitch and not having had to stoop to the indignity of performing oral sex on grey plastic to get there, I almost wept with joy.

The barrier to enjoying the classic NES games has always been the unreliability of the consoles themselves.  Not many party games are better than Dr. Mario, but not many things kill a party faster than dicking around with a Nintendo for 45 minutes trying to get it to work.

The original NES design was meant to be distinctive, to load like a VCR and separate itself from other consoles. Separate itself it did. The springs on the connector wore out quickly and were difficult to keep clean. The top-loading Nintendo solved the problems of the original, but it came late in the NES lifespan and relatively few of them are out there. The ones that are have been mostly snapped up by NES enthusiasts, so to get one, you pay a premium.

Reliable, and looks like it could grill a mean veggie burger.

By contrast, the Retro Duo will set you back about 50 bucks, after you include shipping, assuming you’re not hard up for the purple/grey SNES color scheme, which for some reason is $15 more expensive than the other color options. There is an adapter which allows you to play Sega Genesis games through it, which will also set you back 15-20 bucks, but it’s reputation for reliability is not as strong. The Retro Duo, though, has exceeded all my expectations, and is in the process of reintroducing me to all my favorite childhood games. The only disappointment so far was finding out that Pro Wrestling‘s graphics were actually meant to look like that.

NEStalgia Week Pt.1; The Bubble Bobble 2 That Got Away

It’s NEStalgia week on Htopia!  Several features to come, including; humiliating attempts at beating Castlevania 3, a list of the best multi-player titles for your retro gaming get together, the Badvertising of the Nintendo era, and much more!

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In the disposable and constantly recycled world of modern pop culture, our very natural and human feelings of nostalgia tend to lead us down one of two paths. The first leads to questionable remakes of movies and shows that didn’t call for a revamp, except for the fact that there was money to be made by scratching that nostalgic itch. Everyone complains about reboots, but people keep seeing them enough to make them profitable, and so Hollywood is going to keep right on making them, regardless of whether or not you asked for a gritty modern take on The Monster Squad.

On the other hand, if your nostalgia calls for an experience that stays truer to your memories, well, you can always just pay a premium for some plastic shit you already had once as a kid.  And I have always felt most kindly towards the Nintendo plastic shit of my youth.  But if you want to get back on board that train now, the ticket is starting to get awfully expensive.

My white whale.

Used copies of Bubble Bobble 2 start upwards of $200 for just the cartridge, not even including box or manual. I scoffed at $12 for one in a video game store a few years back, when NES games had next to no resale value and working Nintendos were few and far between. Now, because of it’s combination of rarity and uh, fun-ness, if you want a copy you have to shell out some serious style.  If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to dunk my own head in the toilet for a few minutes.

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I suppose a little context might be in order. I had about 25 games when I was a kid, and I hung onto them through the years, even after the old Nintendo stopped working. When I started going to thrift stores and flea markets, I found that a discerning eye and a little patience would over time net you a pretty good cross section of quality carts, all for dirt cheap. I slowly built a solid NES collection of about 90 games that way over a several year period, and I never paid more than a couple bucks for anything, even stuff like Final Fantasy, or Super Dodge Ball.  Actually, I couldn’t have afforded to, working Nintendos came and went, and any money spent on plastic rectangles that were just going to sit unused in the closet was wasted, in the young adult urban survival sense.

So yeah, even though the first Bubble Bobble is one of the great multiplayer games of the early console era, I passed on it’s sequel because at the time, anything north of $5 for a used Nintendo game without a box seemed fairly outrageous. Even as conservative as I was with it generally, it never once occurred to me that I should have been more liberal in my spending. It was always an idle nostalgic itch scratching, not an attempt to build a comprehensive collection for future returns.  Eventually, my last working Nintendo passed on, and the days when you could find another working one for under $20 bucks were passing by, so I stopped sniffing out NES games.

Then about 2 years ago, while my collection lay sleeping in the cabinet, the NES resale market unexpectedly began to take off, fueled primarily by the new wave of 3rd party consoles (like the Retro Duo, which I’ll be reviewing later in NEStalgia Week) that can play old NES and SNES games without invoking the traditional magics of rubbing alcohol or the NES blowjob.

Now suddenly given life again, quality rarer games like Bubble Bobble 2 or Little Samson can fetch $250-$350 for a working cart, and even shitty rarer games that nobody wanted in the first place, like Wayne’s World, can net you $50-$100. The more common stuff we all had ( think Excitebike, Super Mario 1, 2 & 3, or the Castlevania games) generally settles in the $2-$20 range, depending as always, on relative rarity and quality.

Awesome and Common = $6.

But you know, I’m not quite ready to sell, even if this might be the right time for it. When the news that the Nintendo Power was going out broke, the old NES itch flared up once more, and I picked up a Retro Duo and broke out some old games. So it turns out, I might just be buying again. Kid Icarus and Ninja Gaiden are still out there for just a few bucks, and I want to fill in the gaps in the collection. Sadly, Bob and Bub’s 2nd journey to the cave of monsters will have to be left to some other Nintendo enthusiast, because while in the last few days I’ve remembered that 250 rupees buys a Blue Ring in The Legend of Zelda, I have never once forgotten that 250 dollars buys a lot of god damn groceries in real life.

How many groceries is your collection worth? This price guide averages sale price across ebay, amazon, and half.com. 

You’re No Longer Playing With Power

Last week, a quiet press release that largely went unnoticed outside of a few sentimental blog posts announced the end of an era that most people didn’t even realize was still underway, namely, the era of Nintendo Power.  Yes, if you missed it, the venerable source for everything both Nintendo game related and credibility stretching positivity related is finally drawing to a close after 24 years of publishing, and the only surprising thing about it is that they were still printing the magazine at all. If you’d asked me to put a guess on when they’d stopped, I definitely would’ve tossed out a date that started with a 19.

For me, and I suspect most others as well, Nintendo Power can only ever be associated with games in rectangular grey plastic form. In the era of the internet and photo-realistic graphics, it must have looked like a dinosaur. Frankly, even in it’s heyday, it wasn’t exactly pushing the boundaries of gaming journalism. It was a stroke of genius that they included helpful maps and walk-thrus for some really good games, because otherwise it traded exclusively in hokey jokes and relentless boosterism for questionable products.  Pointless and dull comics about some kid named Nester (yes, we all saw what you did there, Nintendo Power) weren’t helping things.

With the benefit of hindsight you should go ahead and miss Mission Impossible and Kickle Cubicle.

But those walk-thrus and maps! Only the early onset hipsters denied using them. “I don’t even OWN a Nintendo Power, bruh. I beat Super Mario 3 before Fred Savage’s weird little brother made it cool.”

Without the tips, maps and screenshots Nintendo Power provided, most of us would wander endlessly through a game like Maniac Mansion, just picking up every piece of junk or food you found that wasn’t glued to the wall and sacrificing the lives of your closest friends so you could rifle through Aunt Edna’s drawers or fuck with Weird Ed’s Hamster.  For sure, it was a hell of a lot fun to fire up the space-capable Edsel and watch it annihilate the garage, but it didn’t get you any closer to finishing the game.

Score one for pointless destruction.

But armed with Volume 16 of Nintendo Power? Suddenly you became a manuscript-writing, meteor-arresting dynamo! If you stole pointless stuff from the house, it was because you wanted to be a jerk, not because you didn’t have anything better to do. You cleaned out the fridge for fun, not because you were absolutely sure a can of whipped cream might somehow come in useful later on in the game.

We fucking stole it, man.

My memories of Nintendo Power end in the SNES era, when they updated their tagline to “Now You’re Playing with SUPER Power.” The magazine really hadn’t changed by then, it was still doling out the same chipper optimism for games both great and terrible alongside the much appreciated walkthrough for Final Fantasy 3.  The only difference between then and when they started was the number after Final Fantasy, and the different date on the spine of the magazine.

Although I didn’t read it or even know it still existed for the last 15 years, I would imagine it carried on pretty much as it always had.  I’ll always look back kindly on those early years, and hearing the news of the end certainly stirred up my nostalgia for the first issues and the games they helped so many of us enjoy, but I can’t say it was surprising beyond the fact that it hadn’t happened sooner.  Although I suppose this does mean that I definitely waited too long to submit those Solar Jetman high scores.

Irrational Fear: Harry and the Hendersons vs. the SyFy Channel

So much of the way we experience life comes from the choices we make.  These choices are not just our day to day actions, like whether to get the open-faced tuna melt masquerading as a sandwich, or the Po’Boy for lunch.  We also make less conscious choices in the way we percieve and relate to the world around us. It’s not always as simple as just deciding to see things differently, but you can choose to view the glass as being half full as opposed to half empty, to use the most well worn example.  It’s a matter of forcing yourself to count the positives and focus on those instead of the negatives. The angle from which you choose to observe life will determine most of the way you feel about it, and the same is true for our fears- we can face them confidently and positively or we can shrink away from them in terror.

As it is true with everything else, so it also goes with Bigfoot.

Yeti, Sasquatch, Skunk Ape, Abominable Snowman (thank the British press for that one). The creature has as many names as there are languages on the planet.  It’s presence in the human psyche has never been adequately explained by psychologists, but the fact is that every society past and present has had myths and legends dealing with large creatures who are slightly less than human but also some product of the natural world.  It might be a superstition with roots all the way back to when Neanderthals and early humans were still competitors, but no one really knows for sure.  Suffice to say, fear of the unknown is a powerful enough pull on the human mind that the belief persists well into this supposed age of science and reason.

Irrational fear, patiently waiting to use the phone.

Could Bigfoot actually be out there?  To be diplomatic, it’s extremely, extremely unlikely, but it’s not a complete impossibility . It’s also utterly irrelevant to the question of why people see it or believe in it’s existence.  Sure, there are those who perpetrate hoaxes for attention or for money.  There will always be hucksters and con artists in any field, so why would cryptozoology or psychology be any different? I only mention it because hoaxes are always the first tool of evidence used against those who believe in cryptids, but examples of fraud are not necessary to disbelieve in their existence, nor do they invalidate the beliefs of those who sincerely think they’ve seen a creature they do not understand or recognize.

I remember that as a kid, the rumor that there was Something In The Woods was always present.  It was passed down from generation to generation on the playground the way all the enduring games, songs and legends of childhood are, and it held up for me, like everyone else I knew, from the time I first wandered out to play with other kids all the way up until the reality of girls and junior high washed away any time for the lingering superstitions of youth.

Goodbye to BigFoots/Hello to Big Butts, if you will.

Now as a rational adult, I no longer believe there’s anything mythical or unknowable in the woods, but I recognize that there are certainly people out there who do, and that their beliefs are genuinely held, even if most of them can probably be explained by some unconfronted or deep-seated fear in the mind of the believer.  In other cases, Moonshine seems to be the most likely culprit.

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Fear of the Other is something different from Fear of the Unknown but both are present at some level in everyone, and they are often exploited by politicians, religions, nations, and virtually every other group that ever gets together to wave flags.  They are also there for film makers, although much less consequentially.  It’s obvious that any movie that deals with Bigfoot is going to have to confront both of those fears in one way or another.  And so if you’re making a movie, you have a choice: You can make one that rationally and positively deals with these very human fears, or you can make one that’s panicky and irrational towards them.

Yes, SyFy Channel, I’m talking about you.

If you’re the type of person who wants to see a darkness, The SyFy Channel’s got you covered with Devil On the Mountain. (Actually, SyFy has you covered many, many times over, most recently with the simply titled “Bigfoot“, starring Danny Bonaduce and Barry Williams as a DJ and a Conservationist who team up to fight a killer Yeti. It sounds wonderfully schlocky when you distill it down to a sentence, but the SyFy Channel of course features nothing but the most joyless camp since Crystal Lake. This is all a roundabout way of saying I haven’t seen it and am not going out of my way to catch it anytime soon.)

Devil On the Montain was originally titled Sasquatch Mountain, until someone at the network decided that if the movie itself didn’t have a single ounce of mystique or intrigue, then by God, neither should the title. It’s exactly as awful and ridiculous as every other SyFy movie you’ve ever seen, maybe even more so. Where a movie like Harry and the Hendersons, which we’ll get to in a minute, tells us not to fear the unknown other, Devil On the Mountain is so utterly terrified of it that it’s narrative takes kidnappers, their victims and the police trying to catch them and unites all 3 against the ‘real’ danger. To call the dialogue wooden would be to insult the trees that were chopped down and pulped up to serve as the paper it’s compost pile of a script was written on, and to call it a waste of money is a slap in the face to every rich asshole that ever lit a cigar with a hundred dollar bill.  It tells it’s ridiculous tale without a single sympathetic or relatable character, and it is one of the longest and most arduous 90 minutes I’ve ever spent.

Not pictured: Me weeping for my lost 90 minutes of life.

For the rational thinking viewer who wants to catch a glimpse of Bigfoot, you really don’t have many choices aside from the 80’s staple Harry and the Hendersons.  John Lithgow and his family hit a Bigfoot with their totally rad station wagon, think he’s dead, strap him to the roof and bring him home, where they quickly find out- whoa, holy crap, no he’s not dead!  It’s at this point the movie could just put Harry and the family in a jar and shake it to see if they’ll fight like a couple of spiders, but they succeed in facing their fears and empathizing with the Bigfoot, who soon becomes almost another member of the family.  They also succeeed in not letting Bigfoot get shot by a snotty French hunter, and also in hooking him up with a little bro time with the ever charming Don Ameche before it’s all said and done.

French Hunter and Don Ameche- fears faced, conflicts resolved.

Look, it’s no Citizen Kane, but it’s a warm-hearted, decent drama with some laughs sprinkled in that treats all of it’s subjects maturely, and at the very least succeeds in warning us of the danger and pointlessness of irrational fear of the unknown.  I suppose it also warns us unintentionally of the dangers of people who wear fingerless gloves, but the 80’s were a more adventurous time for hand fashion, and that’s probably a story for another time anyways.

Unfortunately Harry and the Hendersons is in the clear minority, as most Sasquatch related movies, even those few that aren’t produced with the SyFy Channel’s special blend of television and feces, aren’t quite ready to handle the subject in any kind of even handed manner.

So, as always, the choice is ours. Will we deal rationally with things we don’t know or understand? If we face life’s experiences with an open mind and willingness to look for the positives, then we’ll probably turn out richer and wiser for it, like John Lithgow and Don Ameche, or even the fingerless glove clad French Hunter. On the other hand, if we choose to succumb to our fears of others and the unknown, we’re probably going to wind up like Lance Henriksen- participating in some stupid pointless bullshit that we hate and going through the motions just for this week’s paycheck, because nothing we’re doing makes any god damn kind of sense.

Seven Stories and The Hero: Ernest the Everyman

There is an old truism that there are only a very few basic plots for stories which are spun again and again in slightly different ways.  The exact number and form of these basic plots has been debated and hypothesized many times, but the underlying idea is that all stories are just simple metaphors for the trials that all human beings must face in life.  The best known of these theories, outlined in it’s most recent form by British essayist and evolution/climate change skeptic Christopher Booker, identifies seven: Overcoming the Monster, The Quest, Journey & Return, The Comedy, The Tragedy, The Rebirth, and Rags to Riches.

Side note: The Quest is not to be confused with The Quest, starring Jean-Claude Van Damme.  The Quest is actually much closer to The (unintended) Comedy.

Unfortunately not one of the 7 Stories.

Now, if you’re like me, the first thought that popped into your head when you read that list was, “Hey, science hater, it should be 8 stories.  You forgot Ernest movies, you pompous bastard.”

But as I sat down at the keyboard ready to fire off a letter telling Mr. Booker where he could cram this and the rest of his theories, it suddenly struck me that for once he hadn’t missed the mark completely.  I believe there is probably only one story, the Ernest P. Worrell story, but that story does indeed manifest itself in the 7 ways that Big Papa Booker outlined.

1. Overcoming the Monster: Ernest Goes to Camp

2. The Quest: Ernest Goes to Africa

3. Journey & Return: Ernest Goes to Jail

4. Comedy: Ernest Saves Christmas

5. Tragedy: Ernest Scared Stupid

6. Rebirth: Ernest Rides Again

7. Rags to Riches: Slam Dunk Ernest

Now of course, some Ernest tales ring closer to the heart and universal truths than others.  If you’ve ever seen Ernest Goes to Africa, you probably reject the idea that going on The Quest is a worthwhile adventure.  Sometimes you’re better off just staying home because what happens on the journey is going to be pretty boring and not make a bit of god damn sense.

On the other hand, if you ever need to Overcome The Monster (and of course we all do at some point), well holy shit, you could never find better inspiration than Ernest Goes to Camp.  In the course of a mere 92 minutes of run time, Ernest goes from being a bumbling and clueless maintenance man who’s terrified to get a simple shot from a nurse and who breaks more stuff than he fixes, to training a group of deviant orphan children into a well drilled domestic terrorist unit who bring utter devastation to the men and machinery of a billion dollar mining corporation, all using improvised weapons and ancient Indian magic, which renders Ernest himself impervious to bullets.

According to people who do not hate science, it would take 1000 George Lucases on 1000 typewriters forever to come up with a single story as sound as Ernest Goes to Camp.  Because Ernest is the everyman, what Joseph Campbell would call the Hero with A Thousand Faces, and his simple journey to Overcome his Monster belongs to all of humanity.

George Lucas #s 1-17, shown hard at work on Star Wars Episode II.

When he takes his beating and sings softly in the rain of his shame, it is a beating we all take with him.  When the turtle bites him on the nose, it is the big green weight dragging all our faces down.  When he blows up and then punches the crap out of human giant Lyle Alzado, he is striking a symbolic blow for all of us against the mining company foremen we all face in our own private lives.  And when he stands down Mr. Krader’s hunting rifle with a sneer and a chuckle, he is showing us that there is no fear too great, no monster in the world that cannot be overcome, if we look to the courage and inspiration within, and the recruitable groups of violence-ready children without.

Ready to take the Hero’s Journey?  Here’s Ernest Goes to Camp in it’s entirety.

Distance on Wikipedia: The Philosophical Orbits of Hulk Hogan and Alf

At some point, it’s happened to pretty much all of us: You go to Wikipedia trying to settle an argument and find out what level of Thetanhood Tom Cruise is on these days, and 3 hours later you’re scrolling down the list of Cryptids and thinking “Hmmm, Montauk Monster. Sounds interesting.” It’s this incredible system of interlinking that can make Wikipedia so addictive, and it’s so easy to take trains of thought down utterly random tracks that I was a little surprised to learn that there’s a very consistent pattern in the chaos. If you follow that pattern, the Montauk Monster, and almost every other page for that matter, leads you sooner or later, to Philosophy.

The Montauk Monster, in all it’s philosophical glory.

The method is simple.  You go to any Wikipedia page and click the first non-italicized, non-parenthetical link, then repeat on the next page, and in most cases you’ll wind up at Philosophy in between 1 and 30 steps. Lists and extremely specific articles can take longer- the longest known chain to Philosophy is 1845 steps from a List of state leaders in 2011. Occasionally, a list will lead to a loop or a blank page that never brings you to philosophy, but the method works for 95% of all Wiki pages it’s been tested on. The pattern was first revealed in 2008, when someone posted a page about it on Wikipedia itself. Last year, creativeandcritical.net built a script for quickly testing links and storing statistics. And then today, somebody on one of Wired’s twitter feeds mentioned the phenomenon, and after a little investigation and experimentation with the script, I was hooked.

And, since every investigation needs a starting point, I chose to start with the high water mark of the 1980’s, and maybe when it’s all said and done, American Culture as a whole.  I myself wouldn’t say that for sure yet, but if you believe, as an awful lot of people seem to, that the country’s heading in the wrong direction, well, then this is what you’re fighting to preserve:

Did you know Andre the Giant is only 18 short steps away from Philosophy? The trail starts at French People, leads through Power and Authority, and then finally winds up where they almost all do, at Philosophy.  Well, it seems like 18 short steps until you learn that Hulk Hogan is only 16 steps away, but he is a REAL AMERICAN afterall, and it seems fitting that he would walk a slightly shorter path to glory than the man he once hoisted upon his shoulders and then threw down to usher in the era of Gordon Gekko (11 steps), Ibuprofen (10 steps) and Alf (16 steps). It also seems fitting in some way that the Hulkster, “Terry” Hogan, rests in the same distant orbit of Philosophy as Alf.  And this doesn’t even address Jesse “The Body” Ventura, who’s path from announcing that clip to Minnesota Governor (13 years), is ever so slightly shorter than his Wikipedia path to Philosophy (14 steps).

Sometimes there’s an appropriateness to the paths themselves.  On Alf’s own personal journey to the ways of philosophy, he passes through the pages of both Art and Human Behavior, which seems like an ironic statement on 80’s pop culture if ever there was one.  Last time I saw Mariah Carey she was, sure enough, both Singing and an Organism.  Those are also two Facts you can Experience at one of her shows.  But not everyone’s path to philosophical stardom runs as smoothly as Mimi’s 14 steps, though of course she hasn’t cured as many fevers as Ibuprofen or slept with Catherine Zeta-Jones as many times as the man who played Gordon Gekko has.

Sometimes the path detours in unexpected ways- if you wanted to riff on failure and loss with Steve Bartman, Alex S. Gozalez and the Chicago Cubs, think again, all three follow the same path where you wind up bouncing from Baseball to Grass and Flowering Plants before you finally loop around to the Philosophy finish line.  That finish line for all three is 20 links later, which in the unkindest cut of all, is the same number of steps away as the World Series.  Hmmm.  Maybe the system DOES work every time.

If you want to play around with the script yourself, the link is http://creativeandcritical.net/xkcdwiki/

A Week In Groin Related Violence

Juan Carlos Navarro’s Testicles present: The Ascension

If scientists had the time, by now they would have concluded that somewhere on Earth, somebody gets punched in the dick every 11 and a half seconds. I’m no mathematician, but that equals a pretty staggering amount of crotch violence on a weekly basis. But this week was a good one for blows to the genital area, and two in particular stood out from the crowd. Were they the most important dick hits that happened this week? Who knows? As anyone who’s been hit there can tell you, the crotch shot that matters the most is always the one that just happened to you.

Sometimes a punch to the dick is just a punch to the dick- immediate and painful, but ultimately meaningless beyond the moment. And sometimes there is a larger, more metaphorical meaning that lurks beyond, where a broken heart hides in the shadow of swollen balls.

The first type happened to Spain’s Juan Carlos Navarro in the waning seconds of his team’s win over France in the quarterfinals of the Olympic basketball tournament. Nick Batum ran in at full speed, fist balled, and used all of his momentum and leverage to deliver an overhand haymaker to Navarro’s groin that caused the largest shockwave since the Krakatoa explosion of 1884. When asked about it after the game, Batum was still angry, and very candid: “I wanted to give him a reason to flop.”

It should be noted that basketball is the easiest sport in which it’s possible to hit an opponent in the crotch with disguised intent, as Rajon Rondo once demonstrated on Anderson Varejao.

A casual glance would tell you that Rondo was just trying to save the ball and the groin shot was unintentional, but keep in mind this is a guy who routinely hits teammates in stride from 25 feet with behind the back passes at full speed- he knew damn well where that ball was going when he threw it.

Batum’s punch was so deliberate and intentional it immediately went viral in the traditional way, by actual word of mouth, which is now usually reserved for those moments which unnerve or offend our sensibilities so much that we can’t bear to have our feelings about them bared on Facebook. Plenty of people made jokes about Ron Poppo getting his face gnawed off, and plenty of people felt very sympathetic and earnestly bad for him, but not too many from either camp were willing to have their comments on the subject left out there for posterity.

This is all to say that the shot was so pointless and savage that there was something shocking about it, but not in any sort of lasting sense. For better or worse, it’s a simple fact that alot of people carry a taboo about discussing their own or other people’s sex organs in public forums, regardless of the reason. Not only that, but unlike Ron Poppo and his face, Juan Carlos Navarro still has his dick and balls, and when they re-descend from his body it won’t be long at all before he’s back to working his Spanish fly on the groupies that I can only assume must flock around a reasonably good looking European former NBA player.

The other telling crotch shot of the week was actually a double-dick punch, by two young siblings at Friday’s Cubs/Reds game. The camera rests on them for just a few seconds while they playfully fight in the bleachers, but that’s enough time for them to trade crotch shots in between grappling. Deadspin was there with the obvious angle, that being a Cubs fan goes hand in hand with getting punched in the balls. And sure, two kids playing in the stands and punching each other in the groin seems like a funny demonstration of that, plus the Rockwell-esque timelessness of the image of sibling rivalry makes it instantly identifiable. But isn’t the point of having a brother supposed to be that there’s someone else there to watch out for you- someone who shares your blood and background, someone who never, under any circumstances, should deliver an intentional shot to your sensitivities?

The real wrinkle, the subtlety that’s being missed here, is that something about the Cubs seems to breed in the psyche a willingness to punch people you love and supposedly trust in the groin. What’s worse is that there is usually a laugh and a wink involved, and an assumption that you or your victim stick around to be a willing recipient for the next shot.

The impact of the blow Navarro recieved will ultimately be brief, and nobody assumes that Nick Batum is going to be a serial dick puncher from here on out. His overhand right flew on the wings of a moment of frustration and anger, and when it landed, it elicited a collective gasp, but it’s nothing that’s going to keep anyone up at night.  But for those two young Cubs fans, and for the millions of others out there, those few seconds are a window into the lifetimes of both giving and recieving shots to the groin that await them.

“I Fell In It, The Pit, We All Fell In It, The Pit”

The box promises 150% of "Something Alive" in The Pit. It should've prayed to God that the movie inside didn't try it's hardest to singlehandedly set back autism awareness by 20 years.

The back of the box of 1981’s The Pit sums things up pretty well.

“Jamie Benjamin, a twelve year-old autistic boy, is sick and tired of the cruel people in his midwestern town.  The children humiliate him, the grown-ups ignore him and the mature females excite him.  Jamie gets his chance for revenge on all of them when he accidentally discovers a huge hole in the forest, at the bottom of which are strange and deadly prehistoric creatures he calls Tra-la-logs.  The Trogs become Jamie’s best friends, and it isn’t long before some of Jamie’s worst enemies begin disappearing…”

In other words, fear the autistic.  You may have already suspected something is amiss from the use of the phrase “the mature females excite him”, but it becomes pretty clear about ten seconds into the movie that Ian A. Stuart, who is credited as the screenwriter, evidently just thought “autistic” is a PC euphemism for “pervert”.  The story starts unexpectedly at Halloween, with a ghost-costumed child luring a pirate and his irritating girlfriend next to…The Pit.  As he’s about to shove the pirate into the Pit, the title screen flashes up with a bolt of lightning, illuminating a sinister looking teddy bear, behind “The Pit” in big red letters.  The opening sequence reappears about an hour later, the first time ever that I’m aware of a movie’s teaser simply being an unedited scene from later on in the movie.

After being penalized 5 yards for a false start, the story moves quickly to fulfill the promises of the back of the box.  Either that, or whoever wrote the blurb could only sit through 5 minutes of the movie.  That’s all the time it takes for Jamie to; get punched in the face for saying hello to a kid (who turns out later on to be the pirate that Jamie shoves into…The Pit), have a little girl on a bike tease him relentlessly, get shoved out of the way by an old lady in a wheelchair, send a dirty letter to his teacher, and in one of cinema’s all time under appreciated moments, look up his new nanny’s skirt during dinner, after pulling the lamest “Oops, I dropped my napkin” move you’ve ever seen.  His father’s reaction- “None of  THAT, young man!” is priceless.  (Also priceless is the unanswered question of why the father is dressed like a litigator when everyone else is dressed like the movie’s wardrobe consisted of somebody just grabbing 3 random armfuls off the 25-cent rack at Goodwill.)

After another uncomfortable exchange with the nanny in the kitchen, Jamie goes to “Talk to Teddy”.  Don’t get excited stoners, it’s not that type of Teddy.  This Teddy turns out to be just his Teddy bear, who speaks back to Jamie.  Like Jamie, the teddy bear is kind of a pervert, and he and Jamie make some sleazy innuendo about the nanny.  Since Jamie is also the voice actor for Teddy, you think that he’s just Jamie’s perverted alter-ego.

"Dude, that was a wicked sick move you pulled with the napkin! Too bad your old man had to ruin it!"

Jarringly, later on, the Bear is revealed to be independently evil when it turns its head to creepily stare at the nanny while Jamie is away at school.  Unfortunately, the exact nature of of the bear’s relationship with Jamie, or its plots, or frankly, anything else at all about the bear are never revealed.  Like everything else in this movie, it’s just jumbled into the plot haphazardly, like the immortal Ian A. Stuart couldn’t find his finished script, so they just worked from the 15 or so original brainstorming note cards he had laying around, which said things like

“Work in Evil Teddy Bear somehow, I love that idea”, “Kid is a pervert, but what’s another name for perverts?”, and “I want this movie to be different.  What name could we use for Trolls that’s different?  Trollies?  Trollogs?  Tra-la-logs!”

I’ve seen this movie several times now.  I am still struggling to understand where the hell the budget went in this movie.  It certainly didn’t go to the directing, cinematography, wardrobe, casting, sound, and maybe most importantly, it didn’t go to editing.

When  Jamie first jogs out into the woods to visit…The Pit, the movie sees fit to join him for almost his whole jog.  Jamie even has to stop a couple times along the way to catch his breath.  Listen, I’m grateful the fine folks at Amulet Pictures decided to make this movie, but they shouldn’t have felt the need to break the 90 minute barrier for MY benefit.  80 minutes definitely would’ve been a major improvement over 96, given the material.

After the thrilling rush of the first 20 minutes, the next act is given over to Jamie trying to stalk out the nanny, figure out a way to feed the tra-la-logs, and also to convince the nanny that they really exist.  He’s fully successful in creeping out the nanny, but runs out of money to feed his monsters in a hurry, and gets nowhere when he tries to tell her about them.  (How they fed themselves prior to the appearance of a creepy, slow-witted child is a plot hole left mercifully gaping)  Now, a .333 batting average will satisfy almost anybody, but our little Jamie reveals himself to be an overachiever, and is determined to do something, anything to feed the trolls.  He tries to drag a cow to…The Pit, and also tries to chase down a chicken, but whiffs on both efforts.

So, he decides that it’ll be easier to just trick people into either falling or being pushed into…The Pit.  What’s surprising is that it actually IS.  I, for one, would never have believed pushing a shrieking, struggling old lady in a wheelchair all the way across town, then up a hill, through a field and the woods to…The Pit would be easier than grabbing hold of a chicken, but that’s the way this movie works.  It makes a believer out of you.

Jamie has a good old time settling all his grudges, but when he gets the nanny’s boyfriend to fall into…The Pit, she starts asking questions. Eventually, she finally agrees to go see…The Pit, and is amazed to find the monsters are real.  You can probably guess what happens next- she falls in.  Jamie is consumed with guilt, and in short order is haunted by the nanny’s ghost.  He does the only thing he can think of to alleviate his guilt, and lowers a rope into the pit so the tra-la-logs can climb out and feed themselves.  As the saying goes, ‘give a man a fish and you’ve fed him for a meal…”, except that saying is about giving, and the movie is mostly just about confusion.  In any case, the monsters go on a rampage of both killing people and being obviously little people in baboon costumes.  Most of the last 20 minutes of the movie, actually, are just the tra-la-logs getting real raw and changing arrangements on people’s faces.  But alas, the hand of man is cruel, and eventually, the monsters get chased back to…The Pit, and shot dead, by what seems to be a remarkably well-drilled impromptu firing squad.

The finest choreography you're likely to see outside of a George Thoroughgood concert means it's time to wrap things up.

The movie closes with Jamie going to stay with a relative out in the country, who has a daughter.  She takes Jamie into the woods where…wait for it…she has her own Pit!  Complete with tra-la-logs!  Jamie gets shoved in.  End credits.

Now, lets be honest.  It’s hard to be an exceptionally awful horror movie.  It’s the genre most readily given to churning out shlock.  Acting, production value, plot- these have never been staples of the horror film.  So believe me when I say that this is a true classic of awful.  And you WILL feel 96 minutes older when it is over.  Older, but unfortunately, not wiser.  This movie is a tangled ball of cords you will never unravel.  The only thing you’re left with in the end is a feeling of your own mortality, and 150% of the level of mistrust of autistic children you had just an hour and a half earlier.