Matt Groening has a great quote about the effect of pop culture on youth: “If you don’t want your kids to act like Bart Simpson, then stop acting like Homer Simpson.” What he means by that is that pop culture shapes a young mind only as much as that mind’s parents let it. Homer is a half-assed parent, more than content to let Marge and the TV do the dirty work of shaping Bart’s young psyche. As such, Bart has no real-life male role model, and instead turns to McBain, Radioactive Man, and Krusty the Klown. It’s no wonder he’s messed up; you would be too.
My dad wasn’t anything like Homer Simpson, but there were a number of influences that competed with him for my attention. His own generation had been shaped by TV and film: Roy Rogers, the Lone Ranger, Eliot Ness, and George Reeves’s Superman were their first inklings of grown-up life outside the comfortable suburban world their parents had constructed for them. My generation, those bewildered and overstimulated children of the 1980s, had our own Devil’s Device to corrupt and rot our impressionable young minds: the home video game system.
When I was a callow lad of seven, there were two kinds of kids: those who had a Nintendo Entertainment System, and those who didn’t. No one wanted to be in the second group. The GI Joe Carrier may have made a kid the coolest of the cool, but you weren’t even chilly if you hadn’t found the warp zones in Mario, collected all the Triforce in Zelda’s first quest, and tried to blow that damned dog’s brains out in Duck Hunt. As the years went on, and the 16-bit revolution gave way to both SNES and Sega Genesis, camps formed around each system, but both the Nintendoids and the Segamaniacs pitied those unfortunate enough to have neither. Video games were the context of the youth culture; POGs came and went, Magic cards came and went, video games endured. And, for many a latchkey kid, video games taught us certain things about the adult world that we took for granted.
Video games told us how to be men. Is it any wonder we’re fucked up?
I learned many a lesson from video games; some I took to heart, some I did not. Here are a few that remain with me even today, for better or for worse:
Bad Dudes: “The President has been kidnapped by ninjas. Are you a bad enough dude to rescue the President?” For my brother and I, the answer was a resounding “Yes.” Dudes was one of an interminable number of simple beat-em-up side-scrollers in the manner of Double Dragon and River City Ransom. It was an embarrassingly simple game; with the aid of a seven lives cheat code, we could easily get our badly rendered Jean-Claude Van Damme look-alikes through all seven stages and rescue the President (and then go out for burgers with him). We memorized exactly the order of enemies, locations of powerups and weapons, and movements of bosses. And, as we did, the game became less fun. We spent more time on games like Ninja Gaiden or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (sensing a pattern here?), which were hard to beat, and gave us a sense of accomplishment. We got past the damn third stage on Turtles maybe once, and died not too far into stage four, but dammit, the pride we felt. Lesson learned: Repeating an easy task over and over is no substitute for doing something hard once.
Double Dragon II: This was only ever a rental, and usually a short one at that. The reason was simple: DDII had two different two-player modes. The first, Mode A, was cooperative; players would help each other take on the enemies in the game. The second, Mode B, was competitive; you still went through the game side by side, but your punches could hurt your partner as well. Not only that, but if you killed your partner, you got the life he lost. You can imagine what this led to. The bad guys didn’t even need to try to stop us; we simply stood there beating the hell out of each other. Lesson learned: It’s more fun to screw over your allies than to work with them.
Shadowgate: This was possibly the lowest-level interface you could get on the NES. The game was essentially an illustrated text-based RPG; you were in a castle, and went from room to room exploring, picking up items and solving riddles, until you finally had the items you needed to kill the evil wizard. There was just one problem: to keep going through the castle, you needed to collect torches, because if the lights ever went out, you died. No matches, no kindling, you simply die, and in a gruesome manner. Lesson learned: there are good reasons for even adults to be afraid of the dark.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past: A true classic, and my entry into the Zelda mythos. It followed the basic Zelda formula: travel around the fully explorable world of Hyrule, visit all the temples, kill the monsters within, and get the items they were guarding, all so you could visit the final temple, kill Ganon, and make time with Zelda. Along the way, though, Zelda communicated with you telepathically, directing you to each place, and explaining the backstory of exactly why you needed to do all this stuff. Lesson learned: A woman will make you run all over the place, get all sorts of crap for her, and face great amounts of physical pain, to prove yourself worthy.
Illusion of Gaia: This was a fun, little-known adventure game that got lost in the shuffle of Final Fantasies and Breath of Fires that dominated the 16-bit landscape. You played Will, a young boy traveling the world and visiting various ancient ruins in order to save his generic fantasy world from an approaching comet. Will acquired several traveling companions, most of whom were utterly useless when it came time to fight monsters. Among these loads was Princess Kara, a student of the Veruca Salt Finishing School For Young Insufferable Brats. If she wasn’t bitching about her shoes or the food, she was going off and getting herself trapped in a magic painting or something, causing Will to have to take valuable time out of his quest to save all life on the planet to pull her ass out of the fire. The most egregious moment comes when her stupidity very nearly gets the entire group eaten by cannibals, until her pet pig Hamlet (who has done a far better job of pulling his weight up to this point) sacrifices his tasty body in your place. Lesson learned: Rich girls aren’t worth the hassle.
Earthbound: The greatest game ever, period. A wonderfully offbeat RPG set in Japan’s idea of what America must be like, Earthbound is the story of Ness and his three friends Paula, Jeff, and Poo, who join forces to fight the evil Giygas and his legions of robots, piles of barf, and dirty hippies. I’m not making any of this up. Anyway, at the end of the game, the gang discovers that Giygas’s home base is millions of years in the past. The good news is, Jeff’s dad and Mr. Saturn (words cannot describe Mr. Saturn; you must discover him for yourself) have invented a time machine. The bad news is, it can’t transport living matter. (Isn’t it always the way with technology? It does everything except what you really need it for.) So, in order to use the machine to go back in time and beat Giygas, Ness and his friends must have their brain patterns transferred into robots, a process which for some reason involves the use of a cordless power drill. Once the process is completed, the party all look indistinguishable, save for Ness, who is still wearing his trademark red baseball cap. Lesson learned: A man will make any number of sacrifices for what they feel is right, but the line gets drawn at messing with his look.
There are more lessons, including what the Final Fantasy series taught me about romance, but these are the ones that stand out for me. What that says about me, I leave up to you.
The usual Wednesday entry will go up on schedule.