Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Mike Tyson's Punch Out is the Citizen Kane of Video Games. Part Two: THAT'S GOTTA BE KANE!!!

Film is an illusion. It is a trick of light, a carefully constructed facade to give the appearance of reality. It is a dream that is real in the moment, but unravels after it is over. Some films we dislike, some films we love, some films we forget, some films never leave us. The power of cinema has always been in the illusion of the moment, striking the chords of our emotions like a classically trained guitarist. We accept the illusion because we want to feel, we want to invest, we want the emotions to burst through us.

Citizen Kane may be one of the greatest facades ever crafted in American film's history. So convincing is its illusion, so sophisticated is its play with shadow and light, that we find ourselves convinced we watched something far deeper and meaningful than we actually did. Citizen Kane's intention is not art, it is entertainment and spectacle, but done with such skill and sophistication that it becomes art in its own unique way. Someone tells Charles Foster Kane that he wants love on his own terms. The character of Kane never achieves this, but the film has.

There has never been anything like Citizen Kane before it, there has never been anything like it since. It's a great movie to meticulously analyze, to pour over every detail in each frame. It's also a great movie to watch drunk, as it is wildly entertaining.

In 1939, Orson Welles was a superstar. By the time of Citizen Kane's released in 1941, he would be a pariah in the film industry. Welles' relationship with film would be a dysfunctional relationship. In movie making, Welles found the greatest magic kit he had ever gotten his hands on. Hollywood did not return the love. He would have to hustle and scam and battle to finance and release his other films such as 1958's Touch of Evil.

Orson Welles was a genius, yes. But there was something uniquely American about his genius. He was just as much of a huckster and carnival showman as well as auteur. His start was in theater, where his visions of Shakespeare were known for their spectacle and inventiveness. He then moved into radio, where he spellbound half of America with a broadcast so famous, that there are myths circulated about it today. That of course being, his world wide sensation, an adaption of H.G Wells' War of the Worlds.

What is Citizen Kane, and why was it considered the Ric Flair of movies for so many decades? Why does the old trope of  "Citizen Kane of video games" gets pulled out and yet, we never see the "Gone with the Wind of video games," or the "Passion of Joan of Arc of video games," or the "Commando of video games?" Doesn't the "Commando of video games" sound much more fun than the "Seventh Seal of video games?" You know what, I'd love a "Felllini's 8 1/2 of video games." The dream sequence with the wives and the bullwhip would cause Anita Sarkeesian to rip her own hair out and Jonathon McIntosh's fingers would bleed from all of the tweeting of bullshit he would have to do.

Toxic masculinity, women as sexual objects. Expect a Fellini vs Women video series from Feminist Frequency coming soon. Well, I say soon but more realistically it'll be one video every decade and a half or so. Of course the dream sequence is a hard look into the psychology and anxieties of the main character but we can't let little things like art get in the way of bullshit, can we?

It's a hell of a question that has a long answer that will eventually get around to Mike Tyson's Punch Out. But in order to get to that answer, we have to take a long look into Citizen Kane itself. When I first started this series, it was more humorous in intent but the more I think about it and look at Kane, there is something there that is defiantly worth exploring. As a matter of fact, this series will be more about Citizen Kane than about Mike Tyson's Punch Out. At least, that's the way it's looking right now.

The first thing we need to do is go into the film itself. Take a long look at the facade and see if it actually has anything to say, or if it's just all smoke and mirrors. We'll also have to dissect why Citizen Kane was the Ric Flair of movies before Vertigo stole its big gold belt. Then we have to look at why video game critics and journalists insist on a "Citizen Kane of video games" and just what they are expecting from such a statement. We'll have to look at if there is anything actually useful in comparing an apple to a grapefruit. Believe it or not, there is and why Kane is unique in that regard above the rest of film cannon.

Next up, grab a shovel because we're digging into the floor to get just the right angle for a look at the facade and genius of Citizen Kane.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Mike Tyson's Punch Out is the Citizen Kane of Video Games. Part One: Deal with it.

Actually, you don't have to deal with it. You can argue against it if you like. Hell, you can even call straight bullshit on it. I'm an asshole, but I'm not the kind of an asshole who will just type a headline, write the words "Deal with it" behind it and then expect everyone to accept my argument uncritically. That would be narcissistic and absurd. After all, who am I to make declarative judgments on cultural icons and then expect everyone else to uncritically agree with me? A person who would do such a thing would not be a serious critic or writer.

The phrase "the Citizen Kane of video games" is often thrown about by video game critics and journalists who have nothing interesting to write and also know next to nothing about the film Citizen Kane. I would venture that most of them have never seen it, only know it by reputation and that those who have seen it have completely missed the point. Basically, the kind of people who make these statements are this:

Video game journalists and indie hipsters. The kind of people who were laughed out of art school and film school, so they went into video games where their self-indulgent, pretentious bullshit was welcomed with open arms.  Video game journalists talk a lot about maturity and growing up while acting like spoiled children whenever their analysis or critique or journalistic standards are put under the slightest scrutiny.

It is all so comical.

They all look at film and film criticism and see it as serious, adult business and envy that. They covet the validation. Yet, none of them have even the slightest idea of how film came to be considered art. None of them even considered to have a serious look into rather or not being considered art had a serious effect on film and if it did, if it was positive or negative. They just assume that art means instant validation. It is art because we say it is art. Rather or not if it is good art or bad art is irrelevant, this medium needs to grow up.

The fact is, the video game industry has grown up. The video game industry has never been more cynical, petty or greedy. But it has also fostered an indie game movement where the likes of Journey and Gone Home can exist. Not only that, but these more artistic expressions have the chance of being successful. Maybe not as successful as the latest AAA blockbuster. But then, Ingmar Bergman films never made as much money as the latest big Hollywood spectacle. They never lost as much money either.

Video games is big business, it will be the dominate cultural medium of the 21st Century. In fact, indie games have a distinct advantage that independent film did not throughout its cultural domination of the 20th Century, democratized distribution.

With Steam and GOG Galaxy, distribution has never been cheaper or easier on a major platform. There is a large segment of the population that do take video games seriously as a cultural medium and art form. They expect better storytelling, better mechanics, better characters and more diversity in gameplay, stories and characters. People who would take a chance on an indie art game. Who will fund small developers through Patreon and Kickstarter. It's such a shame that all of those people were declared dead by Gamasutra, Kotaku and Polygon.

Video games and gamers have already grown up. Now it's time for video game journalists and video game critics to do the same.

In the next part, we'll take a analytic look at Citizen Kane and probably talk even more trash about video game criticism. Fun stuff. Promise.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Insane Theory: Castlevania - Simon Has a Broken Leg

Gameplay Footage Here.

Have you ever noticed how Simon Belmont walks funny in the original Castlevania(1986)? The back leg bends at the knee, but the front leg of the sprite always seems stiff and straight. It looks as if he is hobbling or limping. In fact, of all the original platformer stars of the NES era, Simon Belmont might be the least graceful. He doesn't leap and soar through the air like Mario. He doesn't have the jump height of Mega Man. He doesn't have the athletics and versatility of Samus Aran. Ryu Hayabusa could flip and crawl on walls. In contrast, Simon Belmont is a clumsy, brute force type of platformer hero.

The controls for Castlevania are stiff and clunky. Moving Simon Belmont is like moving a tank with one of the tracks falling off. Any jump is a seriously risky proposition and timing and placement is absolutely key in surviving Castlevania's many platform jumps. Even by the standards of the day, Castlevania's controls were slow, methodical and not very responsive.

Yet, somehow, it all worked. To this day, Castlevania still holds up as a gaming classic. While other titles of the NES era withered in age, Castlevania still remains vital. A lot of NES titles had clunky controls and frustrating jumps and as a result have found themselves dated as controls became more responsive and fluid. But Castlevania hasn't dated much. The clunky controls seem to be a key feature in why the gameplay in Castlevania holds up.

A lot of that has to do with great level design, that was designed more for blunt force action than acrobatics. Every jump was meant to be nerve racking. The lack of grace and control once Simon left his feet while Medusa heads flew around the screen was supposed to be heart stopping. The clunky controls didn't date because everything was working exactly as it was supposed to. Simon Belmont couldn't flip. He couldn't soar or roll or slide. He wasn't athletic. He was a man caught in a nightmare that he had to fight his way through with pure grit and determination.

This theme of grit, horror and struggle is present in every pixel of Castlevania. The game doesn't tell you a story, you experience that story with every lash of the whip, destroyed enemy and heart-stopping jump. The game has a plot, but the plot is merely a framework to allow the player to experience the story of Simon Belmont and his quest to destroy Dracula.

If we are to seriously analyzed video games, then we must analyze animation, control and game mechanics not only individually, but also as a cohesive whole. You put them together and see what kind of story that the developers wanted the player to experience in their game.

You put the strange, almost hobbled walking animation together with the clunky, clumsy controls and six relentless, brutal levels designed to be struggled through. What you get is a conclusion. That conclusion is that Simon Belmont goes through his entire ordeal with a broken leg.

Simon is the avatar of the player, we are tasked with controlling Simon to get him through this nightmare. The controls are difficult and unresponsive because we are controlling an already broken avatar. It's why all of Simon\'s jumps are stiff and clumsy. As the game goes on, he gets weaker while his enemies get stronger, causing him to take more damage. Simon Belmont is caught in a war that he can't possibly survive, but with the player\'s intervention, he very well could.

Video games are unique cultural phenomenon. They don't hold up to old analysis methods. Granted, they can be useful tools, but video games require something more as well. Their interactive nature requires a different type of critique and thought. Themes cannot be extracted just from characters and tone, but also must be extracted through mechanics, level design and controls. The genius of the NES classics, are the incredible focus on a particular idea and theme, one that was reflected in every aspect of the game. Games were more limited then, and required more focus. There wasn't room for wild deviation and tonal shifts. You picked something and stuck with it.

The theme of Castlevania is struggle and horror. Nervous frustration would naturally be apart of that. It\'s why we can be more forgiving for Castlevania's clumsy controls than other, more dated titles. It feels right, natural to the game we are playing. We watching the strange animation of a hobbling Simon Belmont, when we hit the jump button, and he sort of flings through the air with all of the grace and majesty of a catapulted tank, it clicks in our mind. This isn't how all of the other platformer stars jump, but this is how Simon Belmont jumps. We know he's not agile, we know he's not athletic. We accept this because it fits with the rest of the game.

If Castlevania was designed for acrobatic leaping and Simon Belmont jumped as he did, the game wouldn't be a classic but a dated failure. Luckily for us, Castlevania was designed for brutal struggle to grit your teeth and battle your way through. The player expected to feel frustration and exhaustion because it was always clear that is what Simon Belmont felt. The great stars of video games became icons because those games allowed the player and the character to be one. When the player feels what they expect the character to feel, they are in tune with the game. The player is in tune with Castlevania at all times, which is why it endures. Simon Belmont fights through hell, so we'll fight through hell with him. After all, he needs our help. The poor bastard has a broken leg.