Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

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Tuesday, Sep 13, 2011
by Sean Brady
Very few games can withstand not just the test of time but an ever-widening scope of expectations.

Back in late August when the Great D.C. Earthquake struck and shook some places up, reports came in that the Washington Monument had suffered cracks and was to be closed indefinitely.  A feminist writer I read every so often personally wished for the whole thing to crumble. Not for reasons of what some might view as purely political relevance, she wanted it to fall because she saw it as nothing more than a “giant erection.”


Arguments over sexual imagery in the modern world aside, the problem with this statement is that it’s completely and utterly void of any historical context or understanding, instead employing modern standards and philosophy exclusively to this reading of the monument’s meaning.  Such statements are particularly damaging to rational thinking, for they presume that any particular event is a spontaneous point in time without causation, a logical fallacy.  As such, it is useful to have some historical understanding when discussing anything made in or events that occur in the past.


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Monday, Apr 11, 2011
Jeff Goldblum and Isabella Rossellini collaborated with Steven Spielberg on a Goosebumps video game and somehow it never became an Internet meme.

A recent visit to Jeff Goldblum’s Wikipedia entry unearthed what initially appeared to be vandalization of his page’s filmography: a dubious and conspicuously silly credit as the voice of Dracula in a 1996 video game titled Goosebumps: Escape From HorrorLand. I thought for sure that it was someone’s idea of a laugh and a successful one at that. Yes, in the 1990s, R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series spawned a commercial empire that branded every conceivable item that a child might demand from a parent, so a video game was certainly plausible. But with Jeff Goldblum? I smelled a Rickroll. Logic said that this Wikipedia claim couldn’t exist because if it did exist, there would be a wildly popular viral video in existence, making Count Goldblum synonymous with the word “slumming.” There was no way that something like this could escape the notice of the all-seeing, all-hearing, all-remembering Internet. 


Thus, videographic evidence was sought, and YouTube was consulted. If Jeff Goldblum had ever vanted to zuck yer blood, some enterprising audio/video packrat would have a sample of the game. A quick search of the terms “Goosebumps Goldblum” returned promising results. Scroll ahead to 6:05 in the clip below to see Goldblum do a whole lot more than just voice acting.


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Thursday, Jul 29, 2010
Like life, Blizzard's classic RPG is often a harsh teacher, giving the test first and the lesson afterwards. But its cruelty is also among its greatest strengths.

I’d been playing the long game. While steadily making my way through the early acts of Diablo II, I’d carefully hoarded gems and runes in my private stash, sorting them meticulously by type, combining and upgrading them when opportunities arose. On approaching the end of Act IV, knowing that a confrontation with Diablo himself was close at hand, I carefully selected the ingredients that I’d need to create a weapon imbued with the powerful properties of a runeword. Checking and checking everything again, I finally took the plunge and inserted the runes into the appropriate sockets. Excitedly, I hovered the cursor over the newly runed weapon but instead of the impressive stats that I had expected, I saw a mediocre blade, crippled by my foolishly having inserted the runes into a sword classified as “rare” and invalidating the recipe. Damn it.


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Wednesday, Oct 29, 2008
Arun Subramanian looks at the purest bit of nostalgia yet released for the modern consoles.

It’s not difficult to imagine who the target audience for Mega Man 9 is.  A good number of gamers came of age during the heyday of the NES, when both challenge and level design encouraged multiple playthroughs of titles.  These qualities were particularly important considering both how much more $50 was then than it is now, and how many fewer people were playing video games to begin with, indicating a much more hardcore fanbase.  It doesn’t seem likely that newcomers to Mega Man will have any interest in Mega Man 9.  However, gamers who spent a good deal of time with Mega Man 1 and 2 in their formative years will very likely find the prospect of purchasing a new 8-bit Mega Man for $9.99 irresistible.


That said, it’s somewhat interesting to try and determine who will actually complete the game, given its level of difficulty.  From top to bottom, Mega Man 9 is a throwback to an another time in gaming.  The audiovisual presentation aims to match that of the earliest 8-bit titles to a fault.  Between that and the challenge presented, Mega Man 9 is strikingly content to present itself as though the last 20 years of gaming never happened.


As with the classic titles in the series, memorization, trial and error, and pure platforming ability are crucial to success in Mega Man 9.  Experimentation is also required in order to determine the most efficient order in which to defeat the bosses.  Again, Mega Man 9 is reminiscent of a time when beating the game was only the beginning of actually getting good at it, and punishing difficulty was welcomed, because level design and predictable enemy patterns meant that after the initial learning curve, dying was the player’s fault.


Normally, it might be difficult to argue that the “lost game”, retro feel that Mega Man 9 achieves was especially necessary in order to evoke nostalgia.  Indeed, games like Bionic Commando: Rearmed have demonstrated that the reboot of a long dormant franchise itself is likely to ensure decent enough sales among those that remember the original.  What makes Mega Man 9 unique is how active the franchise, or at least the protagonist, has been for many years regardless of the quality of individual titles.  Revisiting the early days of Mega Man when the series was at its strongest, then, is what makes the design of Mega Man 9 particularly notable. 


Although it makes perfect sense for Mega Man 9 to be distributed digitally (regardless of the brilliant limited edition physical packaging), it does seem somewhat at odds with the rest of the game’s aesthetics for there to be downloadable content and achievements for the Xbox 360 version.  But beyond that, Mega Man 9 does an admirable job of revisiting a classic gaming franchise, leaving the original presentation untouched, while offering brand new content.  For fans of the series, it offers a large amount of replay value for its relatively low price, though its retro brand of difficulty may prove too much for some.


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Thursday, Jul 10, 2008
The appeal of the secondhand / vintage shop is spreading to the arena of video games.

If you’ve looked at the PopMatters front page recently, there’s a good chance you’ve seen the recent (and ongoing) set of features dealing with the world of secondhand books.  If you haven’t seen them, go look at them, because each and every one of them thus far is an interesting, absorbing look into either an individual store or the culture of the used bookstore in general.


Squeee!  Pitfall!  Perhaps my first video game love.

Squeee!  Pitfall!  Perhaps my first
video game love.


Perhaps because of the increasing age of the average gamer, or perhaps simply because there are enough different games out there to support it, we are starting to see a similar sort of phenomenon in video games—that is, more and more of the so-called “mom ‘n pop” stores that deal in games are bringing in lots of business dealing in vintage.


Being based in Buffalo, I didn’t really see this happening until recently—not until the last couple of weeks did I even realize that a shop dealing in vintage games even existed in this city, given that most of the web hotspots for locating such things (the Cheap Ass Gamer forums, the AtariAge forums, and so on) seem to leave a gaping hole where Buffalo should be in terms of shops in which to buy my old Nintendo / Dreamcast / Genesis / etc. games.  As such, any travel to another town is an immediate excuse to look up the possible vintage gaming destinations.  A trip to Columbus this past month revealed a number of potential hotspots, most notably a place called “BuyBacks”.


Now, BuyBacks isn’t your typical mom ‘n pop shop; at least one of their locations looks more like a competitor to Best Buy from the outside than anything else, though the Ohio State location was at least commingling with the rest of the shops in town.  Even so…wow, is it a rush to have an alternative to the GameStop / GameCrazy block that I’m used to. 


This makes me happy in unquantifiable sorts of ways.

This makes me happy in unquantifiable sorts of ways.


I popped in to a few other shops in Columbus, and came back with a treasure trove of stuff…Metal Gear Solid for the PS1, Qix Neo for the PS1, Sneak King for the Xbox (hey, it was $1.99 and I didn’t even have to give my money to Burger King), Faxanadu for the NES…it felt like everything I’d been missing in Buffalo.  There’s something beautifully tactile about walking into a vintage games shop and being able to see what’s there; there’s a certain smell in the air when there’s that much beat-up plastic in the room.  Sure, I could get pretty much everything on eBay or Craigslist or even used on Amazon, but online browsing tends to be so search-based that who’s to say I wouldn’t miss out on some little secret treasure?  Did I even know that Qix Neo existed?  Goodness no.  Would I ever have remembered the joy of Faxanadu if I didn’t see it on a shelf between Ice Hockey and Gotcha!?  Not likely.


Vintage shops are where we can indulge in a minor case of arrested development and recapture the joy of walking into the toy store and seeing, say, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link up there on the shelf in all its golden glory.  Even better, Zelda II won’t even cost you $69.99 (+ tax!) anymore.


Vintage gaming also invites us to remember a time whenbox art had something in common with Harlequin novels.

Vintage gaming also invites us to
remember a time when box art had something
in common with Harlequin romance novels.


Vintage game shops will likely never approach the notoriety or the popularity of the best secondhand book stores, if only because unlike a book, the appeal of a vintage game is limited to a shrinking few who might have a console that can still play the game.  There just aren’t all that many people floating around who have working Intellivision systems anymore, meaning that a store that chooses to stock Intellivision games is severely limiting the number of people who might have any interest in buying something off that section of not-all-that-cheap shelf space.  The only time you see a similar issue with books is through language disparities; the truth is, most people who frequent a bookstore will at least be able to read almost anything on that bookstore’s shelves.  The same can’t be said for the game shop.


Still, more and more aging gamers (such as myself) are finding joy in playing, in the most pure way possible, the games of their youth, and discovering games that they may have missed all those years ago.


Retrogaming fans might want to check out the excellent newsletters at Retrogaming Times Monthly for some good reading that’ll bring you back.  Or, you could join The Brainy Gamer’s newly established (and highly informal) Vintage Game Club, if you actually want to participate in the discussion.  Me, I’m off to scratch the itch at a Buffalo-based shop that copious Googling eventually uncovered.  Hopefully, it’s worth the search.


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