A Secret History of the NES

 Scott-Pilgrim

The first, and sometimes only thing that is said about Scott Pilgrim is that it is “an epic for the Nintendo Generation”. To say I disagree with this reading would be a euphemism. There are genuinely interesting moments along the story, but I do not share the belief that jumping coins, health bars or unlockables alone can engender so much explosive enthusiasm that living without considering life itself a videogame becomes an inconceivable proposition – something that the eponymous character, without ever explaining why, feels along the “epic of epic epicness“. It goes without saying that videogames influenced Bryan Lee O’Malley and his work, but the bevy of references, waiting to be collected like Pokémon, exist in a vacuum. Almost all of the winks and nods could be made toward movies or songs and the why of their importance would still be undisclosed, still remain out of reach.

However, it is not in my interest to largely criticize the six volumes penned by O’Malley, but instead to comment on what is considered the “Nintendo Generation”. A commendable approach would begin with inquiring, and then explaining what said generation was.

Obviously, that’s not what I am going to do.

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Castlevania Legends (Game Boy)

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Mobilized by “entertainment”, the financial and creative thresholds of videogames have reached their limit, pushing forward an intensive unearthing of the past. Technology now provides an alibi for it, with high definition scaled to fit nostalgia, not the reverse. Everything is always in reach of a reboot or revision, haunting and haunted by our fascination with the familiar, the forever “cool” in the echo chambers of our culture. The “retro look” remains the most venomous example of this: Terminal Velocity and Chrono Trigger were both released in the same year, yet only the latter’s visuals are held as a signifier of “gaming glories”, the “good old days”. But when technology cannot be impersonated, thematic exploitation follows – and is followed, to be sure.

This enduring search for a not-quite misplaced yesteryear, however, need not run too deep or far; studios often mine newly minted cosmologies, or simply their most bankable stars. And so we arrive at Castlevania Legends, an Exhibit A of sorts.

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Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge (Game Boy)

cgb2-aDecades are comfortably stored for us – if not couched in our memory, then summarized in wikis, retrospectives, “best of” lists. To conceive the output of every videogame studio, let alone the influences of that labor, can be overwhelming for anyone. We remember culturally, knowing what was trendy in the 1990s (the naive yet perverse promotional aspect of games during the 16-bit wars) or popular in the 2000s (Halo’s reworking of multiplayer first-person shooters for a new console audience) comes easy enough. But we are quick to appraise in the same way, insular impulses that drive us toward communal approval rather than the sense of wonder we found in gaming’s (and our) early years.

But what, save transient pride or safety in waging on the best known or most loved games and systems, is a player accountable of? Castlevania II for the Game Boy may provide an answer.

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Castlevania: The Adventure (Game Boy)

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The historic determinism surrounding videogames, wherein the past is often seen as only marginally better than Pac-Man, facilitates a cultural memory that is, at best, unkind to mobile games. When Electronic Arts founder Trip Hawkins warned Sony and Nintendo of the iPhone’s success, many were quick to dismiss the claim – iOS games were merely “time wasters”, technical underdogs not meant to last. Yet, decades before the App Store showed otherwise, the Gameboy proved it could be a best-seller and a fascinating storehouse of entertainment for years, its monochromatic 8-bit nature more enduring than the colored Game Gear and Lynx – and what better way to “waste time” than exploring SR388, the Mushroom Kingdom or Koholint Island? Hagiographies of Sega’s and Atari’s handhelds have yet to be written.

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Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse (NES)

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While many games have pursued a horror aesthetic, few have committed themselves, intentionally or otherwise, to the strangeness of it becoming a ritualized phenomenon. As videogames go, the former is not particularly new. There’s Silent Hill, for instance, and how its creatures have gone from psychic manifestations of characters drawn to the American town to cameos conforming to audience expectations (the disfigured, broken nurses and Pyramid Head being a primary example of this). The latter possibility, even in a medium which thrives on mythologizing its iconography, may be harder to pinpoint.

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Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest (NES)

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By the late 1980’s, Japan didn’t exist. Other than watching some Saturday morning cartoons or listening to The Vapors’ “Turning Japanese” in radio stations convinced the decade would last forever, there was little a child could do to understand Japan, other than accept it as a ghostly presence, an echo of a lost limb. The NES was a link to that alien place, even when filtered through a western audience’s needs (read: translations) or sensibilities (read: censorship). Exhuming that feeling, identifying a presence through its absence, is not always easy; we’ve come to accept, through history and retrospective, that things like untranslated kanji or foreign developer names in a game’s end credits were just the tip of the iceberg. Other things, like artistic direction, influences and design were much stronger, but latent.

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Castlevania (NES)

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Castlevania’s aesthetic of horror owes a lot of its appeal to the 8-bit hardware of the NES. While the fragmented visuals do their best to mimic tropes of horror fiction, they’re very much indebted to the NES’s glitchy nature, with its low-resolution castle walls, brickwork and assorted monstrosities on screen almost melting into each other, the pixels confusing and assaulting players with their flickering and drastic palette changes. NES games were prone to throw up ones and zeroes and corrupt the entire play field – why not crank up anxiety and have the player fight against legions of undead? But as elegiac as Simon Belmont’s fist brandishing of the whip might be of old horror movies, Konami antagonizes them as well. There’s the interplay of light and shadow confiscated from the silent era cinema, yes, but the diseased space of the castle is actually bright. There are the classical monsters, sure, but the creatures are fully exposed, more reminiscent of Hammer Films’ body of work than German Expressionism. It’s this different visual continuity and clashing of themes that lends Castlevania a thematic relationship to horror different from titles like, say, Ghosts’n Goblins.

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