Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Eight Bits

If you told me something I cherished as a child had somehow been encapsulated into a handily viewable and transportable version, I’d imagine I’d be happy.

This, however, disturbs me on some level.

The game depicted in the above video is one of my favorite childhood memories, Super Mario Bros. 2, only somehow it has been flattened into a mechanical display of speed and expert timing by someone with a jones for the eight-bit era and entirely too much time on their hands. Sure, it’s impressive, I guess, in the way that the lady with the longest fingernails in the world is impressive. I could do that — beat Super Mario Bros. 2 in under ten minutes or grow my fingernails to the point where they hang around my knees, curly and lash-like — but I have better things to do. Aside from that, these people aren’t using these things correctly — the video game guy the video game, the fingernail lady her fingernails. These things are not meant to do this, and I can’t help but think these people are doing it all for attention.

One of the magical parts of playing these now primitive video games was the weirdness of them all. This game, even in the already surreal line of Super Mario Bros. games, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. You have flying carpets and Arabian vases with snakes jumping out of them and vegetables — vegetables! — as the primary mode of combat. Seriously, for those whose childhood was spent playing outside, allow me to explain: the main way to fight enemies in Super Mario Bros. 2 is to pluck vegetables from the ground — turnips, pumpkins, carrots, or Japanese onions, depending on the level — and chuck them. Pluck and chuck. Pluck and chuck. Contact with vegetal matter, of course, instantly kills foes. Of course!

In a way, video games are like dreams, perhaps more so than any other human construction. People have been writing fantastical book and making surreal movies nearly since either art form was invented, sure. And you can read them or watch them and put your place in that of the protagonist and experience something that verges on otherworldly. But with video games — especially Japanese ones — the player gets forced into bizarre situations, like this strange Middle Eastern fairytale written by Franz Kafka and scored with chirpy organ grinder music. The player, taking on a new identity, suddenly finds himself or herself accomplishing surreal tasks — and if the instruction manual has been lost, as they often are, doing them without any real understanding of what the urgency is. Catch the eggs the dragon spits and throw them back in her mouth in order to make the big bird face open and take you somewhere else. Why? Because you will die if you don’t. Oh look! A floating cherry.

Perhaps what has always stuck out most in my memory of Super Mario Bros. 2 is the ending, which you can see here at the end of the video. After killing the frog king by force-feeding him vegetables — including tomatoes, which appear in the final room and nowhere else in the game, for whatever reason — your little man jumps into a final room and yanks a plug out of a jar. Out spring eight fairies — little sprites that, in retrospect, I recognize as looking distinctly Japanese and probably some myth that works like Johnny Appleseed back in the Land of the Rising Sun. They cheer. They throw away the corpse of the frog king. Who the fuck are these little guys? No clue. The ending doesn’t say. The game doesn’t say. The manual doesn’t say, but that’s okay because you lost it ages ago anyway.

I’ve said it before on this very blog, but one thing that really appealed to me about these old games is the ambiguity of the graphics. On such a limited system, only so much can be expressed. Thus, a lot of images didn’t really look like the artwork the instruction manual provided. In this game, the Shy Guys are the generic grunts in the army of (apparently) evil you fight. The Shy Guys stupidly walk in one direction until they die. My seven-year-old eyes thought they looked like walking loaves of bread, and only when video game graphics advanced enough to make what’s in the game look like how the developers wanted did I finally understand that the Shy Guys are actually curious little fellows in robs with white masks. Why? Again, I have no idea.

But the graphical discrepancies in these games set my little mind on fire. I thought that surely there had to be a reason things were the way they were, and I’d ponder them until I devised my own answer. Toad, for example, was known to my brother and me as “the Muffin Man” until we realized the bizarre headdress he wears is a mushroom cap. Who knew? It looked to us like a blueberry muffin. That might seem silly now, but at the time it made about as much sense as feeding vegetables to a regal amphibian.

Again, it’s not unlike a dream in which you are presented with a situation that, upon waking, you view as ludicrous. At the time, however, that you need to blow on the baby’s face to turn him into a brick of cheese and then catch the next flight to Dallas. Seriously, why wouldn’t you? Somebody clearly has to.

The above video — which will probably be done by the time any intrepid reader actually reaches the end of this post-verging-on-essay — documents what I should admit is a feat. I can’t do that. In my best years, the whole of Super Mario Bros. 2 would have taken me twice as long, if only because I decided that every vegetable had to be plucked and every walking loaf of bread in sight had to be beaten senseless. But something about speeding through this game that I love leaves me a little cold.

This strange little world it provides — strange and pixilated and rendered in primary colors — allows for little freedoms that the one we live in doesn’t. Maybe it’s nostalgia. Maybe it’s the biased opinion of a pseudo-adult who never outgrew his love for video games. But if I had the opportunity to bound across those eerily rectangular and perfectly striped hills one more time, I don’t think I’d hurry.


  1. Anonymous6:48 PM

    thing is, guy didn't actually master it. the way the video pauses like that? it means he's playing on the type of emulator where you can pause and save at any time -- giving him ample chances beat the hard guys.

  2. The game that always gave me that sense of freedom was Pilotwings 64. I think it was deliberately designed to feel like a flying dream. Or maybe I was just young when I first found it. My heart still yearns for a Pilotwings Wii, though.