Sunday, September 20, 2015

This Is a Post About Undo Dog

Warning: This post is a fairly deep drill-down on a minor footnote in video game culture. If obscure Nintendo lore is not your thing, kindly move along and wait for a less niche post.

One of the most insignificant video game characters ever has recently returned to my life: Undo Dog. He’s technically a Mario character, though only in the loosest sense of the expanded Marioverse. He first appeared in 1992’s Mario Paint, a sort of Nintendo approximate of Photoshop that came packed with the Super NES Mouse and allowed players to draw and paint images and create crude animations that couldn’t be uploaded or transferred off the game pack in any way. Mario-branded but not really all that Mario-specific, the game came out when I was only ten, and I loved it. And one of the things I loved most about it was Undo Dog, the game’s equivalent of CTRL+Z.

Clicking him undoes whatever disastrous aesthetic decision you made, and he makes a crude bark noise when you click. If you let the mouse sit idle, he also dances about in the tool tray in the bottom of the screen, and if you opted to create your sixteen-bit masterpiece without background music, he’d occasionally sneeze. (He was allergic to silence, we gathered.)

Here, watch and listen.

Even at ten years old, I was a sucker for anything canine, and the fact that Nintendo chose to imbue one of the most functional aspects of Mario Paint with a dog personality is a great example of why I am a lifelong Nintendo loyalist. And the fact that the icon border around Undo Dog’s face was revealed in his “dancing in the tool tray” animations to be a weird, square collar? I was in love — with the character design but also with whatever clever person who implemented it.

I felt catered to — and that rarely happened when I was younger.

Given my history on this blog writing about various Super Mario games, it shouldn’t surprise you that even back then, I had an encyclopedic knowledge of them. I knew everything that a North American fan could know, and I was a strong supporter of the series’ also-rans. When Super Mario Kart came out in September 1992, the only thing that seemed more pressing than beating the game on every conceivable level was dreaming up ideas for the inevitable sequel, and I sank hours into this task. I drew maps for tracks based on levels from Subcon, the setting of Super Mario Bros. 2, and Sarasaland, the setting for Super Mario Land, and handpicked the characters that would join the roster of Mario Kart racers. No lie: I even drew new versions of the Super Mario Kart box art that featured then-unknown characters like Princess Daisy (the ruler of Sarasaland and a character most players wouldn’t have recognized back in the day), Birdo (Super Mario Bros. 2’s Yoshi prototype, essentially, and also the most gender-complicated bipedal dinosaur in the history of video games) and Wario (the minor Super Mario Land 2 villain that no one cared about once upon a time).

All of these characters eventually did become playable in later Mario Kart games, I should point out. However, my never-distributed, beyond-unofficial concept art also included characters like Pauline (the Donkey Kong damsel who has since been made to look like Sofia Vergara), Wart (the Super Mario Bros. 2 villain who has subsequently showed up as a Zelda character but never again as a Mario character) and an ultra-obscure Mario D-lister named Heavy Zed, who was in retrospect not a character in any way.

Heavy Zed was a big, dumb owl that Mario would hop onto in Super Mario Land 2 and prompt him into waking up and fluttering in a single direction until Mario encountered a second Heavy Zed, which he’d then hop onto. Essentially, he was a platform lift, like the dolphins in Super Mario World, but ten-year-old me didn’t care: He had a name and therefore deserved realization as a playable Mario character. Yeah, I had some big ideas.

Included on this wishlist was Undo Dog, just because he also had a name and I had seized on him as a thing worth paying attention to, and I drew him into my terrible mock Super Mario Kart 2 art, stockade collar and all. In retrospect, it seems silly and misguided in the way most fan fiction seems to anyone not at the heart of the subject matter’s core fandom. Time passed, and although I admit to being guilty of jotting out the occasional dream Mario Kart roster during my free moments — E. Gadd from Luigi’s Mansion! Dixie Kong! Captain Syrup! — I forgot about dumb ol’ Undo Dog.

And then Super Mario Maker came out. For those who don’t know, Super Mario Maker is essentially the game that Mario Paint should have been, and it allows players to create their own Mario levels and then upload them to be enjoyed by others. Presentation-wise, the game owes a great debt to Mario Paint, and this includes the implementation of Undo Dog as the CTRL+Z function, twenty-three years after the fact.

Here is a trailer to help you understand why Super Mario Maker is weird but great.

But there’s an additional reason I’m writing about Undo Dog today. One of the more fan service-y aspects to Super Mario Maker is that its Super Mario Bros. mode includes the ability to “costume” Mario as various characters from other Mario games — Bowser, Dr. Mario, Rosalina, etc. — as well as characters from other franchises — Zelda from Zelda, for example, or Kirby from Kirby or even the Wii Balance Board from Wii Fit.

This is remarkable is that it plays into the new Smash Bros. style Nintendo is applying to all its franchises, in which characters from games that have little in common get to interact. I mean, hell — Super Mario Maker allows you to sub in Ness from Earthbound, the squid-kid from Splatoon, Foreman Spike from Wrecking Crew and even Lottie the Otter, from and Animal Crossing game that hasn’t even been released yet. And mixed up into all this is Undo Dog.

Per the game’s instruction manual, which doubles as an art book:

I’m not saying this makes Undo Dog a shoe-in for the next Mario Kart, exactly, but my inner ten-year-old is gratified to see the most minor of video game characters resurrected in my adult life, in a new age where Nintendo has gone Crisis on Infinite Earths with every game. I don’t think my placement of Daisy, Wario and Birdo in the Mario Kart karts was prescient, necessarily, but I’m currently placing more money on Undo Dog than I am on Heavy Zed, were that a bet to be made in some dank corner of the nerdy internet. And that is a surprising thing for a longtime video game fan to say, twenty-three years later, just like it was surprising to get a new Kid Icarus game after so many years and finally see a Super Mario Bros. 2-themed track in a Mario Kart game.

Go Undo Dog, you sneezing marvel, you. May your video game career be long and unusual.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Ten Things I Can Tell You About Los Angeles

As of this week, I have been living in L.A. for five years. I have learned next to nothing about the city and therefore have no business offering opinions about it one way or the other. Go ask someone else for practical advice. However, while this more knowledgable person is thinking, read these ten bits of non-advice and non-entertainment that don’t matter toward anything or anything else.

One: If you see Reese Witherspoon in a coffee shop, don’t make eye contact with her. She will slap you to the ground without hesitation and then force you to give her the names and address of your parents, whereupon she will threaten to find them and slap them to the ground should you ever dare to make eye contact with her again. Yes, this really happened. No, I am not joking. Witherspoon’s iron talons control this city. We must rise up.

Two: Sally Field, meanwhile, is a tiny little bird who shops for produce in a methodical, precise manner that only makes sense to her. You will conclude this exact thing when you see her in the produce aisle — and yes, this will eventually happen to you because it happens to all L.A. residents. The Sally Field Bird is your aunt, you will suspect, against all reason. You will grasp her hand tenderly as she picks through a stack of bananas, and without speaking a single word you gaze into her eyes and know that you should take her home, toss an afghan on her and bring her a piping hot mug of Constant Comment, at which point she will regale you with stories from the set of Beyond the Poseidon Adventure. Yes, this also really happened. It happens every time I go grocery shopping. Grocery shopping here is weird.

Three: There exists a series of “secret stairways” that connect much of residential Los Angeles. A holdover from the city's bygone streetcar transportation system, these stairways today allow residents in the know the opportunity to see a homeless man take a dump and then act like you’re the rude one for intruding on his personal space.

Four: The air quality is, in general, poor, but it’s at its worst at a Los Feliz brunch, where it will be just dripping with asshole. You will sit there, desperate for food and too hungry to speak, and eventually the conversations of nearby tables will ring in your ears — one woman with pendulous chandelier-earrings telling a story that has no beginning or end. It’s just the middle of a story that will be interrupted by another middle of a story told by another chandelier-earring. “Can you believe it? It was Kelly, and she was wearing a yellow hat,” says one, in reference to nothing. But then says another: “And then the door opened and I was like ‘I’m not sure you’re even really Persian.’” Says a third: “Pineapple preserves. Spackle. Grackle. Hinge joint.” Your brunch never actually comes and you die on the spot.

Five: People ask where I live, and when I tell them, some respond with “Atwater? I’ve never even heard of that.” This is the best possible hint that this person and I will probably not have much to talk about.

Six: The quickest way to elicit sympathy from your fellow Angelenos is to say, “I actually walked here.” They will immediately assume some sort of financial or legal calamity has rendered you a pedestrian, and nothing you can say to the contrary will relieve them of this suspicion. They may ask if you need a place to crash. This sort of misunderstanding is how I imagine the majority of the city’s guesthouses and poolhouses have come to be occupied.

Seven: The west side is a myth — a foggy limbo where the once-living shuffle about aimlessly in the service of malevolent entities known as children. They say it’s great, but their accounts are unverifiable: No one who’s been sent to investigate has actually gone and returned, and come on — if they live there, can we actually trust them? Affirmations about the west side from someone who lives there is like an eight-year-old who only eats bologna sandwiches saying that bologna sandwiches are the best food. You shouldn’t be questioning the taste of the bologna kid. You should be asking yourself why the hell you’re discussing food with someone who only east bologna.

Eight: Wherever you end up in the city, you will have arrived too late. Before you got there, the neighborhood was better — had nicer restaurants or cooler bars or attracted a different sort of person or offered more for less or had houses that could be bought more cheaply or had this awesome house with this big front yard that the owner filled with these, I guess, totem pole-like wooden carvings that everyone loved, but a few months ago one of the carvings toppled over and hit a pregnant lady and now they’ve all been taken down and really, the neighborhood lost a piece of its soul when that happened. Yeah, the sculpture should have been secured or something, but there are a lot of theories about what the fuck that pregnant lady was doing there in the first place, and it’s still a loss for the community. I think you can see some photos of it on Google Street View, but it still wouldn’t be the same, you know?

Nine: You will happen across houses and other buildings that you recognize from the movies you love. You will get excited about it. You will tell your friends about it. Even if they’re not half as impressed as you are, you never want that enthusiastically nerdy little kid inside you to go away, because how is it possible that you have come to live in the place that made all the stories that you loved so much?

Ten: You will happen across the Mulholland Drive house and face a moment of introspection over whether you've become a Betty or a Diane.

Full disclosure: Some of the stories described may not have played out precisely as I have written them here. However, each grew from a kernel of truth, and when those kernels generated corn plants, I took them and synthesized high-fructose corn syrup.

Here’s to another five years of ignorance and uselessness.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Bollywood Nightmare on Elm Street (Abbreviated)

When Wes Craven died, my first thoughts were of Scream and how much that movie had shaped my understanding of pop culture. However, the only piece I wrote about Craven this week focused on the outlier in his filmography: Music of the Heart, Craven’s single non-horror feature and the movie he made in the break between Scream 2 and Scream 3.

And now, along similar lines, another one of Craven’s most unusual legacies: 1993’s Mahakaal, also known as the Bollywood Nightmare on Elm Street.

I actually watched this a few nights ago. It’s something I’d only recommend for hardcore Bollywood fanatics and diehard Freddy Krueger fans. (These groups must share some overlap, and I’d guess that Mahakaal is a godsend for these people.) For me, the film was interesting when it chose to cleave especially close to the source material and when it chose to diverge drastically from it.

Mahakaal runs nearly two and a half hours long, and a lot of this time has the characters singing and dancing for no reason, even after they realized they’re being stalked by the monster. Bollywood movie rules trump slasher movie rules, I guess. As a result of the lengthy run time and the long, long spans when nothing particularly interesting happens, I did a quick and dirty recut of the film, in case you also are mildly curious what a Bollywood Nightmare on Elm Street might be like but don’t have two and a half hours to spend watching Indian youth sing about how great it is to be in love.

Here, then, is a eleven-minute version of the Bollywood Nightmare on Elm Street.

In making this, I tried to highlight the scenes that were most directly inspired by the original as well as the weirder additions — like the unsettling Michael Jackson impersonator, who may or may not be speaking English.

Some notes:
  • The weird mix of horror and whimsy make me think this movie’s DNA has about as much in common with Hausu as it does with A Nightmare on Elm Street.
  • It should be noted that the main character, Anita (but pronounced ah-nee-TAH rather than uh-NEE-tah) frequently dresses like Rosie Perez probably did around the time this movie was made.

  • The villain doesn’t speak — and that’s odd, considering that even in the first film Freddy Krueger gets a few great lines and this remake seems interested in stuffing in comedy as often as possible.
  • The only character whose name bears any similarity to its counterpart in the original is Seema, the main character’s best friend. In the original, Amanda Wyss plays the role and the character’s name is Tina. Seema lasts longer than Tina does, and instead of dying at a sleepover she dies at a hotel, where the group of young people is staying only because they get stranded. I wonder if there’s some cultural reason that the group was forced to spend the night together rather than just choosing to shack up.
  • For what it’s worth, the death of the Rod character — the main character’s best friend’s boyfriend — may actually be creepier in this version than it is in the original. I always thought that bedsheet snaking around the actor’s neck seemed hokey. Mahakaal literalizes the scene.
  • Notably, the main character’s parents aren’t divorced in this version, and both Anita’s cop dad and housewife mother help vanquish the bad guy in the end. Sure, Mom doesn’t do a whole lot, but she’s there in a way Ronee Blakley’s checked-out, alcoholic character isn’t in Nightmare.
  • Though there’s a scene with a waterbed in Mahakaal, the Johnny Depp analogue doesn’t die in it. He survives to the end of the film, in fact.
  • I wonder if the appearance of Anita’s dead sister is supposed to mimic the white-clothed “ghost girls” who sing the creepy jump rope rhyme in the original.
  • There is, tragically, no Mahakaal 2 that’s rife with homoeroticism. Are you listening, Bollywood? Because I would watch that movie.

I’ve done this public service before, in case you’re interested in the Cliff’s Notes versions of movies you’d otherwise not bother to watch. My first one was actually an early Wes Craven movie: 1984’s Invitation to Hell, which features Susan Lucci as the devil and Robert Urich as a dad who has to kick the shit out of Punk Brewster and Bastian from The NeverEnding Story. The second was The Visitor, which I kind of hated but which still has some moments of primo WTF-ness that are worth watching. And finally I made a nine-minute version of the most David Lynchy moments from the one bizarrely Twin Peaks-themed episode of Darkwing Duck.

And in case you have two and a half hours to spare, the whole of Mahakaal is currently posted on YouTube here — with subtitles.

In closing, please enjoy the full discotheque sequence, just one of the many musical scenes that had me asking “Why are you singing and dancing still? Did you forget that your friends just got butchered?"