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.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. 

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.