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.

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

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

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

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

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

Oh…ok. So what do I…oh, never mind.

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

Looks like a nice spot to settle down in.

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

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

Get away from my window, pervert!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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