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Update and reminder!

March 26th, 2017 | Posted by Philip J Reed in Meta - (0 Comments)

This is your final official reminder to please, please, please (pretty please?) take the Noiseless Chatter Reader’s Survey. It’s only 10 questions, many of which are multiple choice. It shouldn’t take longer than a minute or two, and you can write as much or as little as you like.

The results I’ve gotten back so far are…exceptionally helpful, actually. So thank you to everyone who’s taken the survey already. If you haven’t taken it yet, consider setting aside a moment to do so. Your answers help me to make this site a better reading experience for everyone.

Please click here to take it.

As far as updates go, April is going to be a pretty great month, I think. I have the next two (nearly three) Fight, Megaman! pieces done and just about ready to post. They still need to be edited, but the bulk of the work is done, and I look forward to sharing them. That’ll take us halfway through the series, and I’ll get a chance to talk about the less-loved (and less-often-covered) games, which is really what I’m looking forward to. I hope you enjoy.

But mainly, there’s the return of Rule of Three. That’s my comedy-movie offshoot of Trilogy of Terror, and it begins April 1. On that day and for the two weeks that follow, I’ll be taking an in-depth look at three related comedy films. Last year I did three Muppet movies. This year…well, you’ll have to tune in and see. But I will say that it’s one of the first trilogies I thought about doing last year. Again, I really hope you enjoy it. They’ve been a blast to write.

Also, Better Call Saul returns in April, so you’ll have those reviews to look forward to. Possibly six years from now, if history is any example.

Otherwise, I’m sure we’ll have some other, smaller posts to look forward to, but I’m excited about April. Those are six longform posts more or less in a row, and I’m proud to be able to share them with you. I always enjoy writing the Trilogy series, and based on the feedback I’ve received so far, you guys look forward to it as well.

Any guesses as to what I’ll be covering? Any comedy or horror trilogies you hope will be covered in the future?

Let me know. Take the survey. And tune in Saturday, April 1, when we’ll kick off a “big” feature.

There. That was your only hint.

Let’s talk about a masterpiece.

Mega Man 2 is, simply, a game that cannot possibly be spoken of too highly. It’s one of the most important games of the NES era, and one of the absolute best games overall. It’s not perfect — whatever unhelpful definition of “perfect” we decide to endorse today — but it does much of what it sets out to do perfectly. It’s a finely honed, impressive, addictive, tight, magical experiment that pays dividends far beyond what anybody — gamers, critics, the developers themselves — ever imagined.

That’s certainly great. What makes it even better, though, is how little Mega Man 2 actually had to do differently from its predecessor. Almost everything here was already present in Mega Man. All Mega Man 2 had to do to become one of the best-regarded games of all time was tighten the bolts. It singlehandedly demonstrates the importance of polish.

In fact, Mega Man 2 feels a bit like a rewrite. Forgive me for going all literary on you, but that’s sort of what I do. Writers out there understand — even if they’d prefer not to — the value of rewriting. And rewriting. And rewriting. And rewriting. No matter how good we think our first drafts are, they’re not as good as they should be. I’ve spoken before about how I’ll often go through around 100 revisions of a post here before it ever goes live. And when it does I inevitably find something I wish I had written differently.

That’s not to say that my first drafts don’t have merit. They do, if only as foundations for the superior text that I’ll build on top of them. In fact, I’d argue that everyone’s first drafts have merit in that way; it’s up to us to make good on that merit, to respect it enough to cut what isn’t working, to give ourselves over to the material so that we’ll act in its best interests, to not cling to our mistakes and missteps. It’s a difficult process, and it’s not one writers often let anyone else be privy to. Your favorite novel — whatever your favorite novel is — sort of sucked at one point. It really did. It’s just that you never saw it until it sucked a lot less.

Mega Man is the first draft. Full of great ideas, heavy with potential, and just excited to get out into the world and show an audience what it has to offer. Mega Man 2 is the rewrite. Bigger, yet leaner. Just as daring, but smarter. Every bit as charming, but smoother in its delivery.

Mega Man 2 is a great game. It’s the one I’ve played through the most, it’s the one I know best, and it’s the one I love the deepest.

It’s also, unfortunately, the game that set a precedent that would ultimately cripple the series…but we’ll come to that later.

The leap forward is evident from the opening moments of Mega Man 2. When you slipped the first game into your NES and turned the system on, you’d see a static and silent title screen. Press start and you’re tossed right to the stage select. I think it’s fair to say that there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but I think it’s just as fair to say that Mega Man 2‘s opening beats the pants off of it.

We get a little bit of exposition that explains not only the concept of this game, but of the previous one as well. After all, if you didn’t have the instruction manual — which you certainly didn’t if you rented it — you never would have known the story of Mega Man without finishing it and watching the end credits. Which you certainly didn’t, because you were 10 years old and terrible at video games.

Mega Man 2, funnily enough, knows that its audience likely wouldn’t be familiar with its predecessor’s plot even if they played it, and it lays out the story of both games up front. The year is 200X. Dr. Light built Mega Man. Dr. Wily flipped some robots’ switches to EVIL. Mega Man kicked their butts, and now Wily has built some robots of his own to strike back. The arms race is officially in full swing.

It doesn’t really seem like the most impressive video game story, but it starts to feel impressive as the camera pans upward…and upward…and upward…windows on a building gliding downward as the music picks up pace…as we sonically and visually climb…as we soar to the top of this impossibly tall building to find something…something important…something meaningful…

And it’s Mega Man. Himself. Alone.

He’s just staring into the distance. Perhaps down at the city. The night wind ruffles his hair. He’s waiting for you, but he’s in no rush. He’s content to wait forever.

When you press start, Mega Man responds to you. To you! And you’ve barely done anything yet! He puts his helmet on and teleports away, ready to fight. He’s at your command.

Before you’ve even started the game you’ve engaged with it, you’ve interacted with it, and you see exactly how far the series has already come. That silent, static title screen from the first game sure feels like a lifetime ago. Mega Man 2 represents a cosmic leap (teleport?) forward, even though it doesn’t have access to any tools that the first game wasn’t already using.

It’s just, already, using them better.

The fact that Mega Man 2 released only one year after its predecessor was both a remarkable achievement and a foreshadowing of the eventual series fatigue that would quickly set in, and which Mega Man has never been able to shake. Granted, Mega Man 2 did release later in North America, giving the first game a little more breathing room, but every single year between 1987 and 1998 would see a release of a new, main-series Mega Man game in either the East or the West. In fact, 1992 saw the release of both Mega Man 4 and Mega Man 5 in the US, and this is to say nothing of the myriad spinoffs and side series bearing the Mega Man name.

Even as kids we got sick of the games being pumped out so frequently, and ridiculed the series for it. To be frank, that’s probably also why we stopped playing. I can only speak for myself, but I didn’t feel like I’d be missing much if the company making the games treated them like they were disposable.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The point is that a gap of just one year separated Mega Man and its sequel, which was a remarkable achievement that all too quickly became a worrisome pattern.

We’ll deal with those games later, though. (Aside from Mega Man & Bass, which I may just treat as an aside in the Mega Man 8 review. I’m open to feedback on that.)

The concept of an incremental improvement to the sequel (as opposed to a more substantial reinvention) was obviously nothing new to video games, but the oft-mentioned triumvirate of “strange second entries” — Super Mario Bros. 2, Zelda 2, and Castlevania 2 — stand as a point of comparison that shows just how confident the Mega Man series was in its own formula.

Those other games followed up their huge initial success with brave experimentation, and so Mario did away with his patented stomp, Link began to accumulate experience points, and Simon Belmont taught a crash course in Engrish. The Blue Bomber, however, did the same thing he did last time around. The other three franchises moved their bets around the table, but Mega Man let his ride.

It was the smart bet. While those other three franchises view their second installments as black sheep today — interesting curios that are fascinating mainly for how quickly their ideas were discarded — Mega Man 2 is one of the NES’s crown jewels…and, for my money, the best of the series.

So, what’s different?

Well, there’s the obvious stuff. Eight Robot Masters instead of six. Twelve weapons and items to play around with rather than eight. A map screen for the Dr. Wily stages. A password system, for honest and dishonest use as we saw fit. A capsule room for the boss refights, rather than haphazardly (and unevenly) scattering them around the last few stages. E-tanks for an invaluable health refill.

Fine.

We know all that. It’s worth remembering just how much of what we now know as the Mega Man formula this game establishes, sure, but those are just things. Things we can list. Things we can point at. Tangible things we can arrange into a nice list of bullets and never think about again.

What really matters is the difference in how the game feels, and that comes down to the changes made in less obvious areas: the controls and the design.

When I refer to the controls, I refer to pretty much exactly what you’d expect. Mega Man himself controls more tightly. The physics are tweaked so that both climbing and falling feel more natural, and he no longer suffers from that slight skid that plagued him in the first game. (I have a friend who swears that Mega Man still skids in Mega Man 2, and it wasn’t corrected until Mega Man 3. My friend is mentally ill.)

But I’m also referring to something you might not expect: the controls are actually more varied than they were in the first game. You can play Mega Man 2 just as simply as you played its predecessor, but you can also tap into a layer of additional complexity, which is where much of the fun comes from.

In Mega Man, all of the weapons worked the same way: you’d press B. That’s it. For your default Mega Buster that’s certainly fine, but you’d press B to toss a Rolling Cutter, B to throw a Hyper Bomb, B to trigger the Fire Storm…and, really, it doesn’t take long to see that all you’re doing is attacking with differently shaped projectiles.

That’s not to say that Mega Man‘s weapons are bad, but it is to say that they’re simple. They lack nuance. If you and I use the Ice Slasher we’re both using it in the same way, because there is only one way to use it.

Mega Man 2 retains the simple “press B to shoot” mantra of the first game, but it doesn’t stop there. Press the D-pad along with the B button to launch a Metal Blade in any of eight directions. Hold the B button to rapid fire Quick Boomerang after Quick Boomerang. Press the D-pad after pressing the B button to throw the Leaf Shield. Hold B to charge the Atomic Fire.

The weapons in Mega Man 2 encourage and reward experimentation, whereas the weapons in Mega Man did not. The weapons in Mega Man 2 expect you not just to play with them, but to learn how to best use them.

Of course, now we’re veering into design, and rightly so, because that’s where we can talk about the utilities.

In Mega Man, the Magnet Beam — the game’s single utility — was, I suspect, born as a graceless answer to the game’s own design flaws.

I have no way of confirming this for sure, but the Magnet Beam’s ability to place a number of straight, flat platforms directly ahead of Mega Man seems like a way of addressing a playtesting problem with the flying Footholder enemies in Ice Man’s stage. As I discussed last time, their AI is genuinely random, which means that they can — and often do — drift around without concern for ever actually getting you over the pits. They are your single mode of transportation across Ice Man’s chasms, but they have no particular interest in assisting you. This means that you could pretty easily end up in a situation in which they’ll never bring you across.

So, how do we address that?

We either improve their AI, which would be an unquestionable drain on the development staff’s resources and might still not provide a viable alternative…or we create another solution. And since Mega Man was already shaping up to be a game of alternate solutions, with special weapons that could be swapped out at will to best address any given situation, wouldn’t that be more in keeping with the game’s ethos anyway?

And, so, the Magnet Beam was possibly born. Mega Man can now create his own platforms, and he won’t have to rely on the game’s in-built bumbling, glitchy ones. Even the utility’s placement in the game feels like an afterthought. It needs to be somewhere, so it was put somewhere. The problem is the fact that the mandatory Magnet Beam is in Elec Man’s stage, yet it requires the Super Arm* to retrieve, which interferes with the any-order-you-please core of the Mega Man experience.

Already we’re able to see ways in which Mega Man 2 improves upon the first game. In Air Man’s stage we have our equivalents of the Footholders: the Thunder Chariots. These move in a fixed pattern, meaning you’ll never have to worry about whether or not they’ll let you make it over a chasm, and have an enemy on top that you’ll need to defeat before hopping on. This both retains the challenge of the originals and makes it far more fair.

Then, obviously, we have the utilities themselves. Item-1 is a small platform that slowly rises and can be placed three at a time. Item-2 is a rocket sled that rushes quickly forward in a straight line. Item-3 is a piece of hard candy that climbs up and down walls or some ridiculous thing there’s no point in using.

…except that there is, potentially, a point in using it. If it’s all you’ve got, you’ll experiment with it to fit your needs.

The big difference with the utilities in Mega Man 2 is that they don’t address fundamental design problems the way the Magnet Beam did. They’re given to you along with special weapons at the end of three main stages, and the game lets you treat them as new toys. Any one of them can help you make it to new places, but not all of them will. Or, at least, not easily.

If you need to reach a platform a little higher than you can jump, Item-1 is the obvious choice. But if you only have Item-3, you need to learn its quirks and figure out how to get up there using that instead. Or you need to place Item-2 and use it as a platform, jumping off quickly before it rockets you away from your goal. If you need to cross a long gap, Item-2 is the obvious choice…but you could also place a series of Item-1s, replacing each one as it disappears, hoping you have time to make it far enough horizontally before they lift you too far vertically.

Mega Man 2 is very much a game that rewards players for having the right tool for the job, but it doesn’t punish them significantly for having the wrong one; it just makes them work a little harder to get the result they want. Mega Man offered alternate solutions; Mega Man 2 offers alternate solutions to those alternate solutions.

All of which is to say that the game is perfectly designed, and there’s no room for complaint at any point.

ha ha you forgot what site you’re reading

Longtime reader Samuel Caribou had this to say in the comments to my Mega Man article:

The people who were making this game had so many crazy ideas that they were so excited to show off. Even if the Yellow Devil fight is admittedly cheap, you can tell the game designers were absolutely over the moon about it. This was 1987, and they were making a massive boss that would make enemies like Bowser look like a shrimp. […] These were ideas that needed quite a bit more time to cook, but the absolute tenacity that the team at Capcom had is something I’m awed by.

I think he’s right, and that’s also why it’s so hard to stay mad at the first two Mega Man games in spite of their faults. (Don’t worry. We’ll get and stay mad soon enough.) These games were bursting with so many new, unique, and exciting ideas that it’s difficult to begrudge them for having less-than-stellar execution.

The Yellow Devil fight was indeed cheap — and overlong, and annoying — but wasn’t it also thrilling? Ditto Mega Man 2‘s equivalent showstopper, the Mecha Dragon. Funnily enough, both bosses occupy the same space: the end of the first Wily stage.

The Yellow Devil fight was frustrating mainly because it’s almost impossible to understand what’s happening until it’s already killed you. You enter a pitch black room, and you stand there. Alone. Some worrying, anxious music plays. And then, all of a sudden, little chunks of…something zip inexplicably across the screen, with you standing in the way. Yes, they come in a pattern. Yes, the pattern is easy to learn. But no, there’s not really time to learn it before the chunks of Yellow Devil — which you see gradually assembling itself audience right — kill you. The collision damage is significant, and there’s no way to heal. You’re dead before you can even open fire.

But, again…thrilling. Looking back it’s easy to nitpick that fight, but it’s also still pretty easy to see why we overlooked its flaws and focused instead on its spectacle.

The Mecha Dragon pulls a similar trick. You enter a dark area. There’s nothing ahead of you aside from some narrow blocks. You start hopping along them. The screen scrolls automatically for the first time in either game. And then, just as you’re learning the rhythm of leaps and pauses, an enormous robotic dragon comes crashing through the platforms to chase you the rest of the way.

We all remember the spectacle…

…but, damn, this sequence is flawed. And cheap.

For starters, it’s a bit too much at once. The disorientation of the autoscroll is one kind of obstacle, but combined with the too-narrow platforms it becomes borderline unfair. The sequence doesn’t allow time to think; if you’re wondering what to do next, you’ve already fallen to your death.

Then there’s the Mecha Dragon himself, who can kill you by crashing up through the platform you’re standing on. Which means you’re supposed to stay as far to the right as possible. Which is both counter-intuitive (you already have limited reaction time…why would you stay to the right and reduce it further?) and impossible to guess (there’s no indication that anything will come crashing up from the bottom, let alone where it will happen).

Oh, and touching the Mecha Dragon is a one-hit death at this point…but at the end of the sequence, he’ll just do a chunk of contact damage. That means the developers deliberately made it less fair during the chase.

The other major lapse in design comes with the Boobeam Trap in Dr. Wily’s fourth stage. Here you have a set of turrets that can only be destroyed with the Crash Bomber…many of which are hidden behind walls that can only be destroyed with the Crash Bomber. The Crash Bomber itself is a very inefficient weapon, and you don’t actually have enough weapon energy, even with a full charge, to defeat the turrets and take out more than a small number of walls. And that’s assuming that you enter the boss fight with a full Crash Bomber charge, which you likely will not unless you know you’ll need it ahead of time.

As such it’s a bit of a puzzle boss, which can be frustrating in itself, but it’s made worse by the fact that if you die — which you unquestionably will your first several times fighting it — you are dropped into a corridor with enemies from whom it is very difficult to farm weapon energy. On top of that, you’ll need to use your utilities during the fight in order to climb up and around a the barriers, meaning that even if you do manage your weapon energy well enough, you’d better hope your managed your utilities just as well.

What’s more, the Boobeam’s projectiles are incredibly fast and well-aimed…not to mention the fact that they come from all directions until you take out some of the turrets, making it just about impossible to avoid taking significant damage.

In theory, I like the Boobeam Trap. It’s a wise decision to incorporate utilities into a boss fight after providing so many opportunities to play with them in less-dangerous situations. And yet I can’t imagine a worse implementation than what we got here. To quote Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, “They were so excited about the things they could do that they ended up making stuff that kind of sucked a little bit.”

But, if you’ll notice, these design issues all come from the Dr. Wily stages, which I’ve already said are nearly always a bit of a letdown. The main stages in Mega Man 2 are incredibly fun, and even the worst of them is better designed than any of the stages in this game’s predecessor. They’re more varied, more clever, more full of secrets, and backed by what has got to be one of the all-time greatest gaming soundtracks.

Sure, Heat Man’s tune is bit weak by comparison (perfectly fitting of its environment, though, I concede), but when it came time to choose a best track for this article, I was conflicted. At least half of the main stages have songs that deserve the title, and another three are…well, pretty darned close.

There’s the soaring majesty of Air Man’s theme. The prancing tease of Quick Man’s laser drop. The slippery disco of Flash Man’s maze. The meditative haze of Bubble Man’s song. The music here is just incredible, and I don’t think it’s possible to sing its praises enough.

The music, though, would mean little if it wasn’t underscoring some truly great stage design. Bubble Man’s stage is probably the highlight, if only for the brilliant progression of its background and gimmicks. Mega Man starts outside of what seems like a dam, learning to manage his jumping and firing across narrow platforms with enemies of different sizes. Advancing a little further brings him to platforms that drop…a more urgent indication that careful attention to jumping will be necessary. Then there’s a long plunge down into a body of water, where more enemies of varying sizes invite him to manage jumping and firing again…only this time with water physics. The shrimp enemies move gracefully through the level, at angles that benefit them more than they benefit you. They’re a reminder that you’re on somebody else’s turf now…

Here is where you learn the ropes of Mega Man’s buoyancy, which at first is just a question of lining up his shots, but which will soon become a matter of life and death as the ceiling becomes lined with spikes at varying heights. After fighting your way through more enemies and navigating tight, deadly passages, you pretty much have a handle on the water physics. In fact, instead of the graceful shrimp enemies you end up fighting the clumsy, mindless frogs from the beginning of the level, only now there’s no pits and you’ve learned to manage the water. You feel like you’re more capable. More experienced. And you’re right. You’ve made progress.

Then, just as you start feeling comfortable, you’re outside again. It’s platforms with the waterfall in the background, and little robot crabs dropping out of the sky to knock you to your death. I hope all that stuff underwater didn’t cause you to forget the “careful jumping” lesson from the beginning of the stage! Finally you drop into a second, smaller reservoir, where Bubble Man waits…and you’re forced to remember the lessons of buoyancy again.

It’s a great level and a decent fight, especially if you’re attempting to clear it with no damage. And I admit that it holds some sentimental value as well: Bubble Man was the first Robot Master I ever defeated. Maybe that’s just because his stage was fun enough that I kept coming back to it. Whatever the reason, he gave me my first special weapon to play with…and inspired me to keep going. Almost 30 years later, I still am.

I won’t go through each of the levels, because then I’d never get to talk about any of the other games, but there’s a tangible love behind each one that I can’t help but feel every time I play. Crash Man’s incredible tower climb into the night sky. Flash Man’s pulsing, driving, twisting level that always feels more interesting and impressive than it really is. Metal Man’s accurately dangerous robot factory, swarming with traps and OSHA violations. Everything is just so…good.

They’re not all fantastic, though, I admit.

Heat Man’s stage is…okay. It’s not bad, but the disappearing block section is frustrating at worst and tedious at best. The block pattern is actually not difficult to learn, but it goes on far too long and, as with the Yellow Devil fight from the first game, there’s no way of knowing what the pattern is — fair or not — before it kills you a good number of times. It’s an irritating stretch in an otherwise incredible game, and as much as I love Mega Man 2 I’m content to pull out Item-2 and skip it every time.

Then there’s the Quick Man lasers, which…okay, they’re kind of bullshit. One-hit kills that you can’t quite predict. Of course, the Mega Man series freezes the action during screen transitions, which does help players to orient themselves during this section, and does give a brief insight into where the lasers might come from…but this is another stretch that simply can’t be completed the first time through. Fair stage design implies that a skilled player should reasonably be able to figure out how to progress without having to make any life-ending mistakes. Here, though, it’s just a mad dash through instant death traps, and the fact that I can do it easily today in no way excuses the laziness of those traps.

So, no, Mega Man 2 isn’t perfectly designed. But…I might say that it’s a perfect experience. The Mecha Dragon still thrills me more than it concerns me. The Boobeam Trap is simple enough, now that I know to expect it. The Heat Man blocks are easy to avoid. The Quick Man lasers, if anything, remind me of how tirelessly I worked as a kid to figure them out…and how I never gave up until I did.

The fact that I did give up on many other games when I didn’t give up here speaks to the incredibly high quality of Mega Man 2. I had no patience for crap like that as a child…but I kept going. Because, on some level, I knew that Mega Man 2 was worth it.

I haven’t second-guessed that thought since.

Ultimately, Mega Man 2 is the game we all thought we were playing when we played the first Mega Man. It still has its wrinkles, but what game doesn’t? It’s a refined version of the addictive template we experienced in the original, one so well constructed that it illuminates flaws that we never consciously realized Mega Man had.

Many years after I finished college, I got a job for the state government. I had a little Mega Man action figure on my desk. My boss used to love those games, too, and we’d talk about them. He was older than me, and yet his memories of the series were just as vivid and fond as mine were. We bonded over that.

One day he pointed to the action figure and said, “You know, that toy makes him look like a little kid.”

But Mega Man always looked like a little kid.

It’s just that we saw something so much bigger when we looked at the screen.

Best Robot Master: Crash Man
Best Stage: Bubble Man
Best Weapon: Metal Blade
Best Theme: Air Man
Overall Ranking: 2 > 1

(All screenshots courtesy of the excellent Mega Man Network.)
—–
* You could also play through Elec Man’s stage twice, as the Thunder Beam can remove the obstacles that fence off the Magnet Beam, but that’s clearly not the intended method of retrieving it and is in no way any better a solution to the problem.

It’s that time again! Please take a moment to complete the Noiseless Chatter Reader’s Survey.

It’s quick. I promise. Only 10 questions, many of which are multiple choice. It shouldn’t take longer than a minute or two, but if you’d like to write more, hey, write more!

I always take the results of these surveys seriously, so this is your chance to speak up about what you like, what you don’t like, what you want to see, and what you hope this site never becomes. The survey is completely anonymous, so say whatever you want, and don’t worry about anyone’s feelings.

Be open, be brutal, but above all be honest.

This particular survey is especially useful to me, as the site…has kind of a blank slate right now, really. Sure, I know the kinds of things I’d like to write about, and I’ll likely do that no matter what, but I no longer have the weekly ALF commitment ruining my life, so knowing what you like and don’t like will be a big help to me when it comes to prioritizing projects and ideas.

In short, know that this survey is important. To me, to this site, and, ultimately, to you as readers.

So please, take the Noiseless Chatter Reader’s Survey.

I’ll be collecting results through March 31.

Thank you in advance for participating.

Now get surveyin’.

As two or three of you know, I used to review ALF. It made me the most famous person on the internet. Anyway, some dope decided to review Perfect Strangers, and he’s halfway through the run, meaning he’ll get his life back sometime in the mid-2030s.

To celebrate / pity this milestone, he’s hosting a live stream of six episodes, various surprise goodies, and the requisite profane chatroom. It will be fun, and I’ll be there for sure. There’s also Larryoke, in which Casey, myself, and a few other familiar names get together to sing Perfect Strangers parody lyrics over the backing tracks of popular songs. It’s a great idea because I had it.

It all goes down at 8 p.m. EST on Friday, April 14. As ever, you can sign up to the Facebook event to let it do the timezone calculating. It will also remind you to join us for a terrible 80s sitcom we all still kinda love anyway.

Definitely tune in. Even I’m looking forward to it, and I hate everything.

Around this time last year, my girlfriend introduced me to the music of Carman. I’ve been…fascinated ever since. And, to be frank, I’m shocked that he hasn’t been pounced upon by the relentless mockery of the wider internet.

Let me be clear at the start: I’m not, by any means, suggesting that Carman Licciardello — who performs under the mononym Carman, the spelling of which makes him sound like a Mega Man villain — should be mocked. I’m certainly not calling upon people to gang up on him or anything along those lines. Period. But I am sort of surprised it hasn’t happened naturally.

Carman is a Christian musician. Not a musician who is Christian, but rather a Christian who preaches primarily through music. I’d be tempted to call him a Christian rocker or something, but the guy raps, funks, boogies, honky-tonks, and discos across so many genres that I feel I’d be doing the sheer variety of his output a disservice by calling it anything specific at all.

He’s also terrible.

Like…just…just bad.

No. I take that back. He’s not just bad. We’ve all heard bad musicians before. But Carman takes it further, because he doesn’t just record music; he records short films to go along with his music.

Here’s one in which he moseys into a wild west saloon and guns down Satan.

So…that happened. And this isn’t just some weird oddity of a music video from a strange point in his career. This is who Carman is. This is how he operates. Spiritual or not, you have to admit, this is terrible stuff. And yet…it’s kind of incredible.

I’m genuinely intrigued by Carman, and shocked that I’d never heard of him before. He’s exactly the blend of sincerity and absurdity that you’d think would have landed him on my radar at some point. Christ, this is exactly the sort of thing I look for every year when I curate material for the Xmas Bash!!!!!.

In fact, speaking of the Xmas Bash!!!!!, I was very tempted to include one of his specific videos this last time around. In the end I decided not to. Yeah, anything Jesus-y would fit, but if it’s not about the birth of Christ or Christmas in general, I tend to feel like it’s too much of a reach. So there was no Carman last year.

Fear not: for, behold, I bring you the video I would have shown, in which Carman parades around in lockstep and whacks on an incredibly sexy Satan with a big candy cane.

These are real. These are not supposed to be funny. And yet, when I watch them, I have to wonder if I’ve ever seen anything funnier in my life. In fact, they’re so funny that I try not to laugh, for fear of missing something even more incredible.

He’s creating these works of astounding comic genius without even realizing it. He’s the Jan Terri of Christian fundamentalism.

And while it’s tempting to assume he’s in on the joke, or at least being a bit tongue in cheek, he’s not. He’s deadly serious. He truly believes he’s saving souls, and that’s important to him. His website and any bit of promotional material I’ve seen ascribes specific figures to the number of souls he’s saved. (No clue how you’d tabulate that, personally…) The marketing materials all speak of his intensity. His passion. The great work he’s doing for God.

Not one of them ever mentions the guy’s sense of humor. Here’s why, I’m sure: he doesn’t have one.

This is just who Carman is.

Even when he accidentally channels the scene in which Homer brings Bart to a gay steel mill:

This is real life. I need you to remember that. This is real life. (Though I’ll give him credit for the groove in that one; it’s by far his best, and it deserves a much better song sitting on top of it.)

Carman’s first album was released in 1980. Since then, he’s released twenty-two more. The guy can’t stop.

And we watch.

And we shake our heads.

And we laugh.

But that’s not the extent of my fascination. Sure, some guy writes awful songs and films vanity music videos, and that’s a hoot.

That isn’t all, though. Because my girlfriend was there. And remembers this music from when it was released.

She wasn’t laughing. She was terrified.

She even got dragged to a live Carman concert. (And if you’ve ever wondered if there could be a Hell, please refer to the fact that I was able to string together the words “live Carman concert.”) It was horrifying. The imagery wasn’t silly or campy to a girl that age; it was frightening.

Looking back on it, she sees that it’s all a bit ropey. But at the time, it was scary stuff. She was young and impressionable. Carman had her ear. And he didn’t use it to speak of Christ’s love or God’s plan or eternal redemption.

No. He used it to speak of Satanists, evil, demons, witchcraft, torture, torment. As he does here, in what I can assure you is the least infectious song ever written:

Is that scary? Probably not. But to a child or young adult who has been primed to fear for the safety of his or her soul, Carman’s defiant adventure in the Satanist’s dayroom feels like it has real stakes. Listeners are made to feel like they’ll need to fight every day of their lives. It suggests that conversations with people who think or believe differently than you should be confrontations.

Carman knew, and knows, that. He embraces that. You and I can watch these and laugh, but he’s not making them for us. We’re lost, as far as he’s concerned, and good riddance to us. He makes these songs, these videos, these harrowing concert experiences for those who are already scared. He taps into those insecurities, and tells his listeners that they’re right to feel insecure. Carman ministers terror. He’s inept enough that you and I think he’s a harmless clown. But to those who don’t know better, he’s a source of spiritual anguish and actual nightmares.

That’s interesting to me. Carman is far from the only person to preach a gospel of fear, but he is the only one whose methods resemble a fantasy episode of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. See, for instance, this video, the CGI in which makes Rapsittie Street Kids look like Finding Nemo:

Legitimate kudos for the literal reading of “God is my co-pilot,” though.

Part of me wonders how spiritual Carman actually feels. Certainly Christianity is important to him, at the very least because it gave him a career and a platform for his awful, awful talents.

But then you learn that he sold his house to self-finance a film that he wrote, in which he plays a retired boxer who ministers to children.

I’m not kidding:

That’s all lovely. Then you actually watch the film, and see that there’s almost no ministry or even spirituality in it at all; it’s just Carman showing off his muscles, seducing a much younger Latina, and at one point blowing up a truck full of would-be assassins. It’s Carman the action hero, when he promised his audience Carman the man of God.

Of course, that’s just ancillary material. My girlfriend and I did watch that film — it’s called The Champion, if you hate yourself — and had a good laugh at just how accidentally immoral (and often non-sensical) it turned out to be. But Carman isn’t a filmmaker; he’s a musician. If you’re going to understand the contents of his heart, his music is what you’ll need to focus on.

And, even there, something about Carman just rings false. No, I don’t enjoy his tunes, but at the same time they don’t feel…genuine.

I think I’ve figured out why. There’s something missing: there’s no humility.

When you think of godly people or godly characters or even the godly humans you encounter in the Bible, you see humility. You see other things, of course, but humility is a pretty big aspect. It’s a bit of a running theme. Hell, it’s an example.

But Carman isn’t humble. And I don’t know if you’ve noticed this in the songs embedded above, but God and Jesus get some basic lip-service now and then. It’s Satan who really interests him. It’s Satan who keeps making cameos. It’s Satan who seems to inspire Carman more than God does. God gets a “yeah, thanks” every so often; Satan gets six verses and a chorus.

In fact, there’s a lot of Christian virtue that just isn’t…there. Like, all of it. Yes, we’ve seen that you’re willing to bitchslap Satan six ways from Sunday, Carman, but where are you helping the needy? Being there for someone in need? Standing up for the oppressed? Loving the neighbor who wronged you? Donating your time and money and energy to fight for the rights of your fellow man?

Why isn’t that stuff in these Christian songs? Why wouldn’t that stuff be in Christian songs?

I find this all to be both amusing and unnerving. Carman’s method of spreading the word of God is done in a way that honestly seems better suited to delivering the message of Satan. It’s prideful, defiant, unwilling to listen or engage, self-concerned, brutal. It’s all swagger and bravado and bluster. It’s full of spite and anger. It’s self-righteous. It’s mean.

I don’t know. I’ve never met the guy. I have nothing against him, and I find his output deeply funny. I hope you do, too.

But I also think of him a pretty amazing character. One I’d be proud of having written. Mainly because I think he’d make for a perfect protagonist in a cautionary tale.

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