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Author Archives: Philip J Reed

On video games, consequence, and playing along

September 18th, 2017 | Posted by Philip J Reed in books | video games - (1 Comments)

Fallout is a game series I think about a lot. Even when I’m not playing it. Which, obviously, is most of the time.

There’s something about the series that keeps me enthralled. I love wandering the Wasteland, I love interacting with characters, I love deciding who to help and who to hinder. But I also love reading about the games. I love thinking about the games. I love watching others experience the games in ways I didn’t, not necessarily because their choices were different but because their perspectives were different.

When Fallout 4 came out, there was a bit of fan backlash. With the benefit of hindsight, I can largely agree with that backlash, even though I think the game did a lot of things very well. A friend of mine shared some of his frustration with the game pretty soon after release on Facebook. It was one of the first true criticisms of the game I saw.

Largely his complaint was with the way the game opened, which botched the necessary stage setting for the rest of the experience, he felt. Spoilers for this game (and Fallout 3) beyond this point. I’d consider them to be very minor, but you’ve been warned.

Anyway, very soon into Fallout 4, you witness the murder of your spouse and the kidnapping of your son. This sets the main story into motion, as you chase down the culprits through post-apocalyptic Boston.

My friend’s complaint was that as soon as he regained control of his character, he started gathering up loot, talking to new characters about unrelated things, building crazy weapons…in short, doing exactly what no human being could possibly do after witnessing the murder of his spouse and kidnapping of his child.

Fair enough, but I didn’t share that concern.

Yes, you can start collecting garbage and, as he put it, go adventuring with your new pals from the future…but you don’t have to, and the game doesn’t actively or immediately encourage you to do so. Someone brought up The Last of Us as a point of comparison, as that’s another game that opens with personal family trauma in the face of apocalypse, and handles it much better. And…well, yes, it does. That game is a masterpiece, with a deeply affecting opening sequence. Period.

…except that you can actually work against the intended emotional impact there, too, spinning in circles and acting like an idiot when your main character is supposed to be experiencing profound personal trauma.

That’s just an inherent gap of the medium. The character is meant to do or to feel something, but the player is not obligated to do or feel anything. Great games draw players in and encourage them to bridge that gap themselves, but the gap is always there at the start. You’re the one required to cross it, and you’re the one who can choose not to.

Fallout 4 makes it easier for a player to work against it than The Last of Us does; that much is absolutely true. There’s more to do in Fallout 4 for a start, meaning a player has more to experiment with and — therefore — more to distract him. And, frankly, the pre-war world we briefly occupy at the start of Fallout 4 is a bit cartoony and detached from reality compared to the deeply true-to-life single-parent home of The Last of Us, so we are at a relative emotional remove.

But, again, the fact is that any game that offers interactivity* allows the player to do things that aren’t in service of the game’s end. Mario is supposed to grab the flagpole, but he can walk endlessly into the side of a pipe if he wants. Link is supposed to collect the triforce pieces, but he can smash pots and play minigames until the player loses interest. And you’re supposed to mourn the collapse of your family in Fallout 4…but you can find a laser gun and play Buck Rogers if you prefer to do that instead.

I’m not shifting the blame away from any particular game. If the game fails to keep a player engaged, that’s on it. But the fact is that you can detach from the main goal at any point, whether or not there’s in-game incentive to do so.

My friend taught me something about myself as we had this conversation. He said that I probably have a greater willingness to “play along” than he does. And I’ve been stewing on that ever since. I don’t just suspend disbelief…I actively invest belief in whatever a game would like me to.

And why not? As with novels, films, television shows and even some music, the appeal to me is an opportunity to inhabit a world that an artist has created. I don’t have to give myself over emotionally to these things, but I find it both easy and rewarding to do so. I like playing along. Give me a hackneyed setup. Give me an idiotic twist. Give me a predictable arc. I’ll go along with anything if I expect it will pay off in some interesting or satisfying way.

Obviously, it doesn’t always. And if a game (or novel, or film…) loses me, I tend to stay lost. But I’m willing to give things the benefit of the doubt as long as I possibly can. Which is why I didn’t have an issue with Fallout 4‘s hamfisted emotional opening; I was absorbing it with the belief and understanding that it wasn’t an end in itself…it would lead to something else that would excuse whatever flaws it displayed up front.

Did it? Well, I won’t get into that, because it would distract from the point of this piece. The important thing is that I’m not only willing to engage with games on their own terms…I do so actively. And once my friend pointed this out about me, it felt important for me to know. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

I have another friend who will reload his Persona game over and over again until the conversations he has with other characters go exactly right. When I play, I let the conversations happen more or less naturally. Yes, that means I lose out on the chance to connect with certain characters before the game ends, but if my natural interaction with those characters isn’t something they enjoy, then why am I trying to connect with them at all?

The answer, of course, is that I can unlock gameplay perks by completing these connections (or, as the game calls them, Social Links). But it must be more important to me to be true — to “play along” within the fiction of the game — than it is to treat these interactions from the perspective of a player sitting on the couch who, really, has no reason to go through any of this except for the in-game perks. I treat the characters as people, and surround myself with the ones I would surround myself with in reality, rather than as digital means to an end. Even though, strictly speaking, that’s exactly what they are.

Heck, just today I was playing Wasteland 2 — my love of Fallout extends to related games easily — and I was low on supplies in a difficult area. I found a locked door and was able to force it open, revealing a small room. Inside were some containers, which were almost guaranteed to have the health and ammo I needed desperately, among some other nice treats. But one of my companions figured out my intentions. She said, “This is Kathy’s office. We shouldn’t be in here.”

…and I left the boxes unopened.

She was right. It was Kathy’s office. And they were Kathy’s things.

Why did that matter? It probably didn’t. My digital avatar could have used those digital goods…but I wanted to play along. My character wasn’t a thief, so he wasn’t about to thieve. My character makes friends and helps good people, so that’s how I’ll play…even if deviating from that self-imposed rule would make my experience easier.

And, yes, it would make the game easier, but would it make it more satisfying? Is playing games about getting to the end, or about the experience along the way? If you think it’s the former, you aren’t wrong, and you’re entitled to that belief. But I fall firmly into the latter camp.

I like opening myself up emotionally to art, when I can. Speaking only about video games, it would be difficult to get emotionally invested in Mega Man, for instance, as much as I love it. But as story and characterization become more important seemingly by the hour, I find myself rewarded for giving myself over to games like Limbo. Or The Last of Us. Or the single best example of unexpected consequence I’ve yet seen, Braid.

And, certainly, the Fallout games.

Opening myself up emotionally — playing along — isn’t just a way to feel what the developers want me to feel. It’s a way to feel what the character would actually feel. It’s a way to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes. In somebody else’s situation. In somebody else’s dilemma. And that’s valuable. Studies have shown that readers of literary fiction develop a stronger sense of empathy, while readers in general (those who read popular fiction or non-fiction) aren’t much different in that regard from non-readers.

Likewise, not all video games have the same empathetic value, and I think the difference is similar to the split between literary and popular fiction. Popular fiction pulls you along through an experience, but literary fiction encourages you to think about the consequences or implications of that experience. It’s another layer, and it’s the defining one. Video games haven’t been around long enough to earn equivalent labels, but I do think there’s a difference between playing Call of Duty and playing Fallout 3. They each hand you guns and tell you to shoot the bad guys, but only one of them will haunt you for years with the choices you made. Or failed to make.

I’ve written about post-apocalyptic ethics a few times (such as here and here), but I wanted to share another memory with you now. One in which my willingness to give myself over to the game actually resulted a deep ethical shock to my system.

For all of the settlements I failed to save, for all of the people I failed to help, for all of the tragic outcomes I failed to avoid, there was a situation in Fallout 3 in which simply exploring one area — and the consequence of exploring that area — felt more meaningful to me than almost anything I’d done in video games before, or have since. By playing along with the game, I expected to feel consequences. But I never expected to feel monstrous.

Why would I? I’m not monstrous. I’m flawed. I may not always make the right decisions. But I’m not the bad guy. I choose not to play as the bad guy. That’s my choice, and one this game — like many others — allows me to make. I’ve chosen not to be the villain.

And then, suddenly, I was.

My favorite parts of any Fallout game are the Vaults. Within the universe of the series, Vaults were designed as (largely) effective fallout shelters to protect humanity through nuclear war. Of course, they also functioned as contained social experiments, with different (and often cruel) variables inflicted upon the unprepared occupants to see how they would cope. By the time you as a player get to experience any of the Vaults, the experiments have almost uniformly come to an end, and you get to explore the wreckage, reading terminal entries and assembling the unseen Twilight Zone episode that was these occupants’ lives.

May favorite Vault experience was Fallout 3‘s Vault 106. I stumbled across it on my own. No character in the game had mentioned it, and I had no specific reason (apart from curiosity) to climb inside. It’s a game, after all. I might as well check out this new area and see what cool items I can dig up.

I had seen several Vaults in the game already (you begin the game in one, find an important character in another, and — in a truly brilliant sequence — tour a promotional model in a bombed-out museum), so the design was familiar, but it was immediately apparent, once I entered, that this was not going to be a safe experience. Tables and chairs were overturned, trash was everywhere, and the lights didn’t seem to be entirely functional. I was on guard for enemies at this point, but I couldn’t find any.

I explored the Vault deeper. There wasn’t much food or anything to scavenge. Before long I met an occupant…who ran at me, babbling incoherently, and brandishing a lead pipe.

I holstered my weapon, which is a cue in this game for not wanting to fight, but the occupant kept coming. I backed up, giving him time to reconsider, but before long he was attacking me, screaming, not letting me speak to him. I didn’t really have a choice, so I targeted him and shot him dead. The game named this attacker “Insane Survivor.”

Well, there was my answer. At least one occupant had gone insane, and that’s why Vault 106 was trashed. It’s also why I couldn’t reason with him in the same way that one can reason with many other individuals: he had no sense of reason. His mind was gone. He was insane.

Further into the Vault I encountered a few other enemies marked as Insane Survivors. At first I still tried to get them to drop their weapons. After all, my character lived in a Vault once, too. My friends lived in Vaults. I’m not here to cause trouble. But they were indeed insane, and I had no choice but to kill them if I wanted to survive. It really was me or them. And if they were truly crazed, beyond any kind of understanding, lost entirely to brainless, unending violence…isn’t ending their lives a kind of mercy?

Being attacked by humans was nothing new. Fallout 3 contains a lot of people in enclosed spaces who want you dead. Killing Vault dwellers indeed felt wrong, at first, but after enough of them swarm you with weapons, you make a decision. And each time it happens, you make that decision a little bit faster.

What really set this experience apart, though, was something that happened as I was walking through a corridor. I heard some bizarre mumbling ahead of me, and proceeded with caution. After a few steps the entire screen went blue, and the mumbling stopped. I thought it was a glitch in the game, especially when, a few steps later, the color was properly restored, and the babbling started up again. An Insane Survivor was up ahead. I chased him down and killed him.

These “blue-out” moments kept happening, though. I went from assuming it was a glitch to assuming that there was some kind of unreliable blue lighting in the vault (a night-time simulator?) that was kicking on spasmodically. I then assumed the Insane Survivors were trying to disorient me by flicking the lights on and off. It was creepy enough as it was, and it became even moreso once I realized, after several more times, that the vault looked a lot…cleaner when it was blue.

The tables were upright. The papers were stacked neatly. No more grime and greasy (bloody?) handprints. The computer monitors were not smashed. In fact, they were functional. And if I activated them, I could read notes that changed each time I called them up. They asked me to soak in the blue. It was safer here. It was nice…

Eventually I was able to piece together that these blue-outs were caused by gas leaking through the vents. It was causing hallucinations. It was causing colors to change, characters to vanish and reappear, items to rearrange, exits to relocate or disappear entirely. Someone, somewhere, according to a computer terminal, had decided to test a psychoactive chemical on the residents of Vault 106. It was still being pumped into the rooms when I entered, long after everybody was driven mad by these hallucinations. Was it intended to continue indefinitely? Or was it meant to be temporary, with those conducting the experiment either going mad themselves, or being killed by those who did, before they could discontinue it?

The blue-outs kept happening. Then going away. Then happening again. I was in two versions of Vault 106 at once. One safe and cool…one treacherous and full of murderers. At one point I was attacked before the hallucination (as that was now, clearly, what this was) kicked in, and the attacker turned into a character I hadn’t seen since the beginning of the game…one of my childhood tormentors. I tried not to fight, but I lashed out at last, just in case my hallucination was more powerful than reality. He disappeared when I struck him, became somebody else, eventually turned back into the real-life attacker in the properly-colored world.

It was disorienting, overwhelming, and frightening. It’s one thing to know the odds are against you. It’s another to not know where you are, how to get back out, or what’s waiting around the next corner.

Ultimately I made it as deep into the Vault as it was possible to go. There was a small room. A storage cupboard. I opened it and I found one last occupant there, sealed off from the rest of the Vault dwellers. When I opened the door, she attacked me, but something was different. The game didn’t mark her as an Insane Survivor. She was marked instead as Survivor. The absence of the modifier (the qualifier) gave her an entire history.

She had not been driven mad by the hallucinations. Instead, she saw what was happening to the others and, unable to interfere without getting herself killed, gathered up as many supplies as she could and isolated herself from the chaos. The occupants originally entered Vault 106 to escape the war on the surface, and she entered this storage cupboard to escape the war in Vault 106.

But I killed her. She fought me, and I killed her.

Because I couldn’t reason with her. Because I was on edge. Survival was not the issue. She didn’t have much of a weapon. (Did she even have a weapon?) She was not insane; she just knew she had no reason to trust me. Why would she approach me in peace? For all she knew, I would shoot her in the head, loot her supplies, and leave again. That’s what anyone else would do, including her fellow residents, lost to their madness.

I wouldn’t have done that, given the choice. I wouldn’t have killed a sane survivor. And yet that’s just what I did.

I’m not monstrous. I’m flawed. I may not always make the right decisions. But I’m not the bad guy. I choose not to play as the bad guy. That’s my choice, and one this game — like many others — allows me to make. I’ve chosen not to be the villain.

And then, suddenly, I was.

Vault 106 successfully messed with my mind enough that it culminated with me murdering an innocent woman. A woman who took steps to avoid the Insane Survivors all around her lost her life to a reasonable, pragmatic guy who had just gradually gotten used enough to gunning down Vault dwellers that he didn’t think twice. Was I any better than the Insane Survivors? Or did I just have better equipment?

All I know is that there was a sane woman locked safely away in a Vault somewhere. And sanity in the Wasteland is a precious resource. Now she’s dead, because I thought it would be fun to do a little exploring.

And that’s what demonstrates Fallout 4‘s biggest weakness to me. Ultimately I don’t share the same concern as my friend, but he helped me to understand what I felt was lacking. In that game, I made my biggest decision — to destroy the Institute — and never looked back. No, I don’t think it was a perfect solution to Boston’s problems, but before doing it I was convinced that I was making the right decision for me. Afterward…no additional information or ramifications made me reconsider that. The decision was large, but ultimately hollow. I decided to do something and did it, and had no more afterthought than I would after having flipped a light switch.

Fallout 3, however, haunts me years later…and all it had to do was give me a Vault to explore.

I never expected such a small thing to have such a big impact.

And, of course, small things don’t always.

But any time they do, I’m reminded of the importance of playing along.

—–
* The exception here might be visual novels, with the only true opportunity for deviation coming from withholding input. But, honestly, I’d think that counts. When the game is waiting for your response and you choose to provide none, ever, at any point, that is still a method of playing.

Misspeak, Memory

September 5th, 2017 | Posted by Philip J Reed in television - (2 Comments)

Have you ever had a memory that was later proven to be so far from reality that you begin to question the way your mind works?

I’m sure it’s happened to me other times, but the most recent example comes courtesy of Roseanne. I’ll get to that in a moment, but first let’s talk about the show as a whole.

The entire series is currently available for streaming through Amazon Prime, but sadly those are syndication cuts. It’s worth pointing out, though, that the complete series boxset is available for under $30 new, and I’ve heard those are the original broadcast edits.

Anyway, I’m working my way back through the series on Prime. I remember really liking the show when I was young. It debuted when I was seven, and revisiting the episodes for the first time in my adult life, I can definitely confirm that my family started watching from the very beginning. I even remembered a lot of lines and moments from the pilot. Maybe my mother or father was already a fan of Roseanne’s standup or something. For whatever reason, we were able to catch a truly great show from the start. I’m grateful for that.

Years ago, before I started reviewing ALF on this site and shaved eleven years off my life, someone suggested I review Roseanne. Watching the show again (I’m about two seasons deep), I’m glad I didn’t. It’s very good television. The characterization is sharp, with characters arriving fully formed and every actor perfectly cast. The stories are well chosen and well told. Comedy and drama are balanced perfectly, with the show nearly always leaning toward the former, but keeping the latter at a steady hum that reveals genuine sadness whenever you look past the jokes.

Which, really, would have left me with very little to say as a critic. I’m sure there are at least a few dud episodes scattered throughout the run (and from what I hear it concludes with a complete dud season), but, on the whole, my reviews would have struggled to find interesting ways to repeat “here’s why this works so well” over and over again. By contrast, I never struggled to repeatedly make fun of Max Wright’s crack-fueled hobo sex festivals at all!

It’s almost puzzling to me that I liked Roseanne when I was so young. Why did I not think it was boring? At that age I liked cartoons, and puppets, and things that screamed for my attention. Why was I interested in a show that did episodes about who would cook dinner? Or getting ready for a rummage sale? Or bickering over money?

Well, frankly…I think the credit goes to Darlene. Sara Gilbert’s character was…different. I’m sure I’d seen plenty of adult characters in the same vein, but never a child. Another child. One who was so clearly detached from the family and the town around her. One who struggled to make friends, or to find value in the things that others seemed to take pleasure in. One that thought so differently about the world she occupied that she couldn’t connect with others…not genuinely…and had to default to being an isolate.

That resonated with me. It resonates with me now. In many ways, it’s also why I felt drawn to Lisa Simpson as a character. Between Lisa and Darlene, I understood to some degree that I wasn’t alone. These characters were fictional, but they were reflecting real experiences for me. Behind them, there were writers. Writers who understood the things I felt. Writers who had words for what I couldn’t say. Writers who provided a quiet promise that you’ll grow up one day…and when you do, you can find the place that you fit.

Through Darlene and Lisa I was able to learn about art. About expression. About depression. About channeling my emotions. These were shows — and characters — that helped me not just to grow, but to become a healthier person who understood himself just a little bit better. A little was enough.

I’m not trying to say I wouldn’t have learned about those things eventually…but rather that I hadn’t before. And the friends I could eventually count on to guide me through difficult times…weren’t in my life yet. Television, films, movies, music, books…all of these things gave me a chance to understand myself that much earlier. And if I continue to take them all a bit too seriously now, it’s only because I know how seriously they helped me back then.

And so I look back on Roseanne and The Simpsons as two shows that were far smarter than anybody at the time was giving them credit for being. They spoke truths. I may not have understood most of them, but I recognized them as truths at least. The only real different between them was that I’d revisited The Simpsons many times throughout my life, and found a bit more in those incredible first eight seasons each time.

Roseanne, though, was just a memory. A positive one, for sure. When someone suggested I review Roseanne, it was listed among a bunch of other shows that were clearly (or very likely) crap. And I remember thinking, “Wait…wasn’t Roseanne good?” I’d forgotten so much about the show, but retained what my brain must have thought was the most important thing: it was quality television.

There were a few episodes that I remembered quite well, though. There was the one where they smoke pot in the bathroom. The one where Roseanne and her sister Jackie visit their childhood home and reflect on the abuse they suffered. The one where Darlene reads her “to whom it may concern” poem.

And my favorite one…the one I remembered so well, so vividly, so strongly above anything else: the one where the door-to-door salesman dies in their kitchen.

At least…I thought I remembered it.

See, I remembered Roseanne being good. Sharp, insightful, daring. Well written. Flawlessly acted. Sadly relatable. Watching it again, I can say that I was right; I stand by all of those impressions. Probably even more strongly now. But the one episode I would have pointed to in order to illustrate my claim was the salesman one…and my memory of the episode couldn’t have been further away from what it actually was.

Here’s what I thought I remembered: an old man shows up at Roseanne’s door to sell her something. He starts to feel sick and asks for a glass of water, so she invites him inside. He passes away suddenly in her kitchen. They cover him with a sheet and wait for the coroner, with the family dealing — each in their own way — with death, now that it’s confronted them in their home. During all of this, people stop by the house to see the laundry set Roseanne is selling, which complicates things a bit further. There’s a physical comedy setpiece when the dead man’s hand slips off of the table and slaps Dan in the butt.

That’s a lot, right? And…well, all of it’s accurate. I really did remember it well. The episode stuck with me as a child, and I know it’s come up in conversation with friends before. I’d tell them about it…about how much it felt like nothing else I had ever seen in a sitcom. Those shows handled death — sometimes frivolously, sometimes seriously — but rarely did they seem intelligent in their handling. This episode of Roseanne, however, did. It felt like it said something larger…or at least explored a larger space.

In school I gravitated toward English and creative writing courses. In college I majored in English Literature. And ever since I was a child, I spent most of my leisure time reading and writing. This probably caused me to remember one thing about the episode more than any other: the way the individual characters confronted death, and how they processed it. That said a lot about who they were. It was true to what we already knew about them, and it revealed even more. It was good writing. And as I was becoming a writer, it was right for me to internalize what I’d learned from the episode.

Morbid Darlene responds with curiosity, sneaking into the kitchen to investigate the body after she’s told to keep away. Dan is creeped out by it and refuses to touch it, even when a police officer asks for help. Oldest daughter Becky insists that they give him a name, so that he isn’t just some anonymous, forgotten nobody. Little DJ doesn’t understand what’s happening, and makes his family a set of toe tags as a gift. Roseanne…well, I didn’t much remember how she reacted, but now I can report that she’s essentially a blank slate; she’s our audience surrogate in this situation, observing and absorbing rather than projecting.

Again, I remembered all of this with varying degrees of clarity.

The reaction I remembered most vividly, though, was that of Jackie. Rewatching the show, I see now just how incredible Laurie Metcalf is in that role overall. Jackie is a great character. Troubled, helpless, aimless, filling the void inside of her with booze and men. She keeps it together externally, but there’s always the sense of something much sadder within, and sometimes the mask even slips, allowing us to see it directly.

It’s really great stuff, and it’s no wonder Metcalf won three Emmys for the role. She’s fantastic.

It’s also her reaction to the salesman’s death that I remembered most.

She sees it as a blessing for him. If she feels any emotion, it’s jealousy.

An old man died in the home of a family he didn’t know…and Jackie would trade places with him in a heartbeat.

What a tremendously sad moment of characterization.

She even opens up to her sister about it. She makes clear in a calm, measured way that death is preferable to anything she has in life.

“He’s probably doing better than any of us,” she says. “That’s the cosmic joke, Roseanne.”

That phrase has stuck with me ever since. “The cosmic joke.” I’ve thought about it a lot. The cosmic joke that none of us are ever in a position to laugh at. The one at our perpetual expense. From other sitcoms, I might remember specific gags. From this one, I remembered a muttered, bitter sadness.

Jackie goes on:

“He’s the happiest man on the planet. His troubles are over. He’ll never again have to stand in a line. He’ll never again have to listen to the muzak version of ‘Muskrat Love.’ He’ll never again have to eat a hamburger and bite into one of those little hard things.”

She trails off. This litany of mundane inconveniences sounding…well, real. Not like the work of writers, but rather like the realistic despair of a depressive mind. Most writers would — understandably — fill a speech like this with larger, more impactful examples. “He won’t have to watch his loved ones die. He won’t have to suffer and waste away. He won’t ever again watch the latest horrors on the news and wonder how the world could get so bad.”

Those are things a writer might come up with. Instead, Jackie is human. She focuses on the small things that add up enough to weight you down. She reveals her life as so empty that even the bad things are hollow. She discussed personal and universal tragedy on the same level, because she’s trying desperately to use one to understand the other. You know…like humans do.

Maybe it’s just because she mentioned hamburgers, but I’m reminded of another formative, insightful moment in The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy after the planet Earth is destroyed. Lone survivor Arthur Dent doesn’t (can’t) quite understand the magnitude of such a loss. He can’t process the destruction of his home planet — of his entire species and its history — and, so, he doesn’t. It’s something that happened, but not something he can feel. Until it occurs to him that there’s no more McDonald’s…and then he breaks down.

Some things are just too large for us. Too big to be understood. But we can all boil them down to the small, bathetic little components of our lives, which is where we find room to identify.

And we move on from there. We learn. We grow. Not from grand lessons, but from small flickers of understanding that grow steadily into flame. We don’t decide to change. We are changed by things too small to see.

Pretty great episode, right?

Well, I rewatched it, and it turns out that I misremembered the entire thing. I had the details right…but not the episode’s actual approach.

It’s not played for drama. In fact, it’s the most deliberately silly episode Roseanne had yet done in its run. It’s full of corny jokes and big guffaws from the audience. It’s played as a comic event in the reality of the show, rather than a tragic one. The closest thing to actual sadness we find comes from Becky — whose insistence on naming the man is sincere — and, tellingly, the episode shuffles her away from nearly all of the action, so that it can concentrate on the laughs without cheapening her difficult feelings. They exist…they just exist off camera.

Even Jackie’s speech, which I typed above, feels to me like it should exist in a relatively dramatic episode, but the audience laughs through the entire thing. Every one of her sentences is funnier than the last. What I remembered as being an impressively profound moment for a primetime sitcom was…actually just another moment from a primetime sitcom. It was a series of jokes delivered by Jackie, building toward the bigger punchline from Roseanne: “How do you feel about electric shock therapy?”

And that’s…all it is.

I know that’s all it is, upon rewatching it, because I can gauge it against other episodes that prove Roseanne knows how to get the audience to take it seriously. Such as when Roseanne worries about Jackie’s safety when the latter decides to become a cop. Or when Darlene visits her cool aunt at home, to find her in a lonely, drunken stupor. Or when Dan ruins a night out by letting himself get drawn into a confrontation in a bar.

Roseanne does serious moments. And the moment I remembered as its most serious — the episode I remembered as its most serious — wasn’t serious at all. I remembered it as being Roseanne‘s version of “Death of a Salesman.” It was actually its version of “The Kipper and the Corpse.”

See, my site’s tagline isn’t really an exaggeration. I really have been reading too deeply into these things as long as I’ve been alive. And while I do think there’s value in viewing an episode like this through a more somber lens, if only to see which of its ideas holds true beyond their value as laughlines, the fact is that I remember this episode — “Death and Stuff,” season one, episode 21 — as essentially being of an entirely different genre.

It was interesting to me to watch it again, and see that I remembered just about every one of the trees, and yet somehow forgot the forest.

Have you had an experience like this? Has there ever been an episode or film or song or anything else that you remember being meaningful in some way, that you later discover was completely a projection from your own mind, and had little or nothing to do with what was actually presented?

I’d be curious to hear about more experiences like this.

And no, don’t anybody bring up the Berenstain / Berenstein Bears thing. Because that’s just fucking stupid.

Fight, Megaman! (Mega Man 7, 1995)

August 21st, 2017 | Posted by Philip J Reed in fight megaman - (3 Comments)

When Mega Man 6 was released on the NES, Mega Man X was already available on the SNES. Sure, it was only a difference of two months, but, as we discussed last time, the classic Mega Man series already felt quaint by comparison. If there was a compelling reason for it to continue alongside its new baby brother, Mega Man 6 didn’t seem to know what it was.

And so we had a gap. For the first time since the first sequel, more than one year passed without a new release in the classic Mega Man series. At the time, it probably felt like Mega Man was dead, with Mega Man X taking its place. It was probably a surprise, therefore, when Mega Man 7 another, unexpected classic series entry was released on the SNES, the home of its own successor.

I say “was probably a surprise” because I sure as heck didn’t know it existed. As much as I loved the series, and as much as I was still following video games, my attention was elsewhere. Mega Man 7 came and went without even making its presence known, much less piquing my interest.

If Mega Man 6 felt a bit late to the game because Mega Man X was already on shelves, Mega Man 7 must have felt downright ancient; by the time it came out the SNES already had Mega Man X2 and Mega Man X3. (If there was one tradition Capcom wanted to keep alive, it was series fatigue.) To ask us to take up arms against Dr. Wily again after three games in which we were fighting Sigma was to ask us to regress. To grow backward. To become, again, something we’ve already moved on from being.

It’s safe to say that Mega Man 7 failed in whatever halfhearted overture it might have been making to departed fans. I don’t doubt that people played it. I don’t doubt that some of them liked it. But I do doubt — conclusively so — that it made any kind of widespread impact the way earlier Mega Man games did, or the way Mega Man X games were making now. Mega Man 7 was orphaned before it was even born.

But I think that’s rather sad. Mega Man 7 is far from perfect, but I actually think it does a great job of evolving the classic formula for new hardware, it’s positively gorgeous to look at, and it’s one of the most fun games in the series. In fact, it’s one of my favorites.

There’s a charm to Mega Man 7 that doesn’t exist in many games. There’s the sense that, whatever it’s doing, it’s having fun…a sense that was entirely absent from the previous game. There’s the sense that it knows it’s a relic and that there’s nothing it can do to catch up, so it might as well enjoy itself.

Mega Man 7, I’m sure, was greenlit because it might as well have been. It was a relatively low investment of finances and resources to crank out a game with a proven formula. If it flopped, it wouldn’t flop terribly, and if it soared Capcom would be able to milk two series concurrently on the same system. The risk was low, and the bet was safe. I’m sure of that.

And so I’m under no misapprehension that Mega Man 7 was a labor of love, or even a game the developers especially believed in.

It was another installment, making its begrudging transition to the next console generation.

It was a decision born entirely of commercial greed, and not at all of artistic integrity.

And yet, the result was still pretty great, and one deserving of more celebration than I’ve ever actually seen it get.

The story is nothing unique, aside from an unexpectedly tight bit of continuity at the beginning: the newspaper reporting Wily’s arrest at the end of Mega Man 6 is shown here in a 16-bit upgrade, and his next batch of slumbering Robot Masters busts him out of prison. I don’t know if it was the X series’ stronger focus on narrative that inspired the developers to suddenly care about anything that happened before, but it’s a pretty nice and unexpected touch to see a deliberate bridge between the events of these two games.

Beyond that, though: eight Robot Masters, new special weapons, fortress stages, refights, Wily. The story is everything we expected, and nothing more.

In fact, it could be argued that it’s a bit less. The absence of a pre-Wily fortress leaves no room for the false-villain feint we’ve now come to expect. There’s no attempt to convince us that Dr. Cossack, Proto Man, or Mr. X is behind this mess; it’s Wily from the start, for the first time since Mega Man 2.

Is that a step backward, or a welcome return to simplicity? It’s hard to say, but since only one of these false-villain twists was interesting or any good (hello, Mega Man 4) I’d say we’re not losing much by cutting out the fluff.

Okay, yes, I know, nobody plays Mega Man for the story, so what I should really be taking into account is less the fact that we’re spared a false villain and more the fact that we’re losing an entire fortress worth of stages.

And that’s fair.

But, here’s the thing: I’m a quality over quantity kind of guy every time. I’d rather have a shorter game that’s tightly designed and rewarding to play than one that pads itself meaninglessly. Ideally, yes, we’d have a longer game that’s just as good or better than the shorter one, but we all know that a) that’s not the rule and b) Mega Man specifically struggles with that.

The “extra” stages between the Robot Masters and Dr. Wily’s fortress were never really all that great. A grand total of once (again, hey, good job, Mega Man 4!) were they fun to play, and the rest of the time they ranged from forgettable (Mega Man 5) to atrociously designed (Mega Man 3). And I’m not a fan of the fortress stages anyway; the more of them you have, the more the game’s balance shifts away from what should be its main attraction: the new Robot Masters.

For those reasons, I’m not just okay with losing an unwelcome batch of fortress stages; I encourage it. In theory. Because what I’d really hope for in exchange is a better batch of the fortress stages we do get. Ones that can be a little better honed and designed and refined because we just took a good chunk of levels off the designers’ plates.

And Mega Man 7 does not have very good fortress stages. But we’ll come back to that.

What really won me over about Mega Man 7 is the way it looks. In fact, the SNES is my favorite console from a visual standpoint. It offered a richer palette than the NES, leading to greater vibrancy and detail, as well as more expressive animations, but it was also still technically limited. Photorealism was so far out of its grasp that relatively few games tried to look realistic at all…which, happily, meant that video game artists actually had to develop an artistic direction.

Nowadays there are still, of course, visually striking games, but there’s no denying the fact that many of them, particularly those with larger budgets, just try to make things look real and move on. And that’s not art. That’s not style. That’s not creativity. Realism has its place and it has its merit, but it’s not interesting. When an artist instead chooses to create an entire visual universe, it gives the game more personality. More of an identity. And more, in my eyes, appeal.

When I think about the SNES (or the Super Nintendo, as we always knew it), I think first about the sharp, bright colors that brought familiar worlds and characters to life in such a new and unforgettable way. I loved Mario, but never in my wildest dreams could I have expected the visual feast that was Super Mario World. I loved Link, but how on Earth do you go back to The Legend of Zelda after seeing Hyrule in A Link to the Past? I loved Punch-Out!!, but Super Punch-Out!! made the cartoon boxers feel alive.

Turtles in Time, Super Metroid, Super Castlevania IV…the list goes on, and I’m just naming series that found new life after moving on from the NES. Open it up to SNES originals and, of course, the list gets even longer.

SNES games were beautiful. Video games had never looked better, and, to this day, I think they’ve only rarely looked better. There’s little as appealing (or nostalgic) to me as the animated comic strips that were SNES games. And while I didn’t play Mega Man 7 at the peak of my love for the system, I sure appreciate it today.

Everything in this game just looks…beautiful. The sprites, the animations, the backgrounds…it feels very Saturday morning, and I mean that as the highest possible compliment. For a series that always took itself with passive seriousness, the fact that it leans into cartooniness for this outing feels both refreshing and overdue. This is the first Mega Man game that asked, “Isn’t this eight-evil-robots premise just a little bit silly?” And then it responded in exactly the right way: “Yes, it sure is. Let’s have fun with it.”

As a result, the game is full of wonderful, charming flourishes. There are obvious ones, like the opening gag with Mega Man putting on the wrong helmet (emphasized by the boss select tune, which audibly gives up). But there are so many smaller things that are easy to overlook, too. There’s the way the walking-eye enemies reach the end of a platform and extend a leg just beyond where you think they should stop, feeling for solid ground. There’s Treble, Bass’ dog, growling at you at the end of the intro stage. There’s the Game Boy you can have Rush dig up at the beginning of Junk Man’s lair.

There’s the way Freeze Man will stand still as long as necessary, taunting you to make the first move. There’s the way Shade Man bows to show his respect. There’s the way you can hit Spring Man with the Thunder Bolt to turn him into a powerful electromagnet.

There’s just so much love here. So many unnecessary little details and moments that lend the game an air of specific significance, and make it feel like more than the seventh entry in a series that’s overstayed its welcome.

The move to 16-bit hardware, though, was bound to bring with it a visual upgrade. So, yes, as much as I truly adore the way Mega Man 7 looks, I have to admit that that was kind of a given. What impresses me is that the series — admittedly dragging its feet through the past couple of games — didn’t allow the new coat of paint to be the primary selling point.

The visual refresh must have triggered a surge of developmental creativity as well, because Mega Man 7 is the most innovative game in the series since Mega Man 3 in terms of how much new it does. Whether or not you like the things Mega Man 7 brings to the table is down to personal preference, but there’s no denying that it did innovate, and that its innovations stuck around.

We listed most of this game’s innovations in the last installment (Bass, Auto, two sets of four Robot Masters, intro and midpoint stages, screws as currency, shop) but what’s really interesting is that a number of these stuck around right through the NES style rebirth games Mega Man 9 and Mega Man 10. Those, as you’ll remember, hit a deliberate reset to restore the series to its simple, accessible roots, most notably stripping Mega Man of his slide and chargeable Buster. And yet the screws, shop, Bass, and Auto all remained part of the formula as so much else was taken away.

In fact, in terms of game mechanics, the shop is Mega Man 7‘s most lasting impression on the series, and it’s an important one. I honestly don’t think many players would have beaten Mega Man 9 without it.

On the whole, Mega Man controls as tightly here as ever. It sometimes feels to me as though he’s moving more slowly, but that might be an illusion caused by the additional frames of animation, all of which are gorgeous and smooth, and the tradeoff for which — if, indeed, there’s any tradeoff at all — is very much worth it.

One common complaint I’ve heard is about Mega Man’s increased sprite size, but that’s something I’ve never been able to understand. People speak about this change as though the levels and enemy placements aren’t designed around his larger size, but they clearly are, as any given screenshot will illustrate.

Sure, he takes up more space than he did in his NES days, but that’s not inherently a bad thing. It’s only bad if the levels are packed as full of obstacles, baddies, and projectiles as they used to be. Which they clearly are not.

Instead, the enemy placement in Mega Man 7 feels more considered and deliberate. While previous games would throw waves of enemies at you — sometimes respawning ones — and attempt to catch you off guard with quick intrustions from off screen, Mega Man 7 usually gives you just one or two to deal with at a time. Rarely do they come in waves, and when they do, they’re part of a well-considered setpiece. (See the elevator rides in the Junk Man and Shade Man stages, or the flatbed miniboss in Turbo Man’s.) In short, as much as I love the earlier games, they sometimes tossed you into hectic situations for the sake of causing carelessness through panic.

That’s not a complaint; that’s part of their design. But, here, the philosophy is much different: a smaller number of enemies, used to a more considered effect. No longer does the game want to overwhelm you; it wants to outwit out. And Mega Man’s increased sprite size facilitates that. It makes the levels feel less empty than they actually are, because you see less of the screen at once. All you really need to be aware of is Mega Man himself and the most immediate hazard. The design of the game allows that, and I honestly believe that if you disagree, you’re not engaging with the game properly. If you really feel as though there’s too little room to accomplish what you need to accomplish, you’re trying to accomplish it the wrong way.

What’s more, the larger sprites make for, I feel, more compelling boss fights. We’ve spoken before about the central idea of the series being that of the duel…the one-on-one battle that takes place at the end of each main level, when you square off against a Robot Master and pit your reflexes and cunning against his. (Or, in one case, hers.)

The larger sprites enhance this experience, making it feel more like a genuine clash between powerhouses than two sets of pixels shooting at each other. The Robot Masters here aren’t the best in the series — which is a shame, because I really wish they were — but the fights with each of them feel significant in a way that they rarely did in the previous games.

There, they were bosses. Here, they are opponents, and I honestly feel that’s due to the increase in sprite size. It makes the boss rooms feel more tensely claustrophobic, and makes the bosses feel unique since they dwarf almost any of the enemies you had to fight on your way to them. (To choose an example at random, Wood Man was about the same size or smaller than most of the enemies in his stage. Even the wimpy Spring Man here, though, is bigger than anything that got in your way before.)

As a bigger sprite you are a bigger target, but that goes for your enemy as well, and no Robot Master in Mega Man 7 feels unfairly quick or difficult to avoid. The closest violation would be Slash Man, but even he isn’t anywhere near as unfair as Quick Man or Shadow Man from the previous games.

I won’t lie; I’m terrible against Slash Man. But I’m also aware that most of the damage I take is down to my own poor (or slow) choices. He rains pods of adhesive down upon you, and if one connects, you’ll find your mobility compromised, giving him a clearer shot at you. But you can nearly always dodge these pods if you’re quick enough, which keeps you on a fairly even footing with him. The rest of the time, you can just jump, shoot, and react to him as you would any other boss. Quick Man and Shadow Man, by contrast, begin their assaults the moment you walk through the boss doors and don’t ever let up.

Slash Man is also one of the few Robot Masters here that isn’t absolutely crippled by his weakness. And, overall, that’s one of Mega Man 7‘s problems.

In previous games, weaknesses were handled pretty well. Fighting a boss with the Buster was some degree of difficult, and fighting them with their weakness reduced that degree*, but usually not by much. They’d still put up a fight, and you couldn’t afford to get totally careless. All the weakness would do is deal a bit more damage than usual.

Mega Man 7, though, pushes it too far. Instead of an option between a normal fight and a slightly easier one, you get the option between a normal fight and no fight at all. The Robot Masters are so overcome by their weaknesses that they become immobilized, trapped in an easily exploitable pattern, or both. In short, once you know a Robot Master’s weakness, you can afford to get totally careless.

At least, usually. There are two exceptions, which is a relief. One of them, again, is Slash Man, who is probably the best handling of a weakness in this game. Not only is he often out of range of the Freeze Cracker, but if you hit him with it he’ll slide around on the ground, and can cause contact damage that way. This is nice, because it adds a small element of alternate risk to the fight. Yes, you can use his weakness, but if you do you’ll have to deal with an additional obstacle.

The other exception is Freeze Man, who is necessarily risky to fight with his weakness as it’s a shield weapon.** Hitting him with the Junk Shield briefly locks him in place, but it also leaves you with very little room to avoid colliding with him. This is a blessing in disguise, though, as this encourages you to use the Buster against him, and Freeze Man is legitimately one of the most satisfying Robot Masters to fight that way.

At first, he seems to be a bit more frantic than fair, and his ability to freeze you to the spot and knock on you helplessly makes him feel like a frustrating bully. But if you spend a few rounds focusing not on attacking but on responding, you’ll learn how he moves. You’ll learn that his attacks come in a predictable cycle. You’ll learn that he jumps high enough when you fire at him that you can slide harmlessly underneath. You’ll learn, in other words, that this is a dance, and you have to let him lead.

Once you learn the proper way to deal with each of his actions, it’s an extraordinarily graceful fight, and one of the highlights of the entire series for me. It’s surprisingly beautiful in motion, and it’s clear that the programmers spent a lot of time honing the choreography of that fight into something complex and layered.

The developers also seem to have had their creative juices refreshed when it came to the stages. Granted, you had relatively standard air (Cloud Man) and ice (Freeze Man) stages, and we have an upgraded version of the junkyard we saw back in Mega Man 4 (Junk Man), but those each have their unique quirks and the remaining stages are like nothing we’ve seen before.

Turbo Man’s stage is a fire-tinged car factory. Burst Man’s stage imbues its color-coded water sections with two entirely different sets of physics. Then we get to the really good stuff.

Slash Man’s level is a stage-long tribute to Jurassic Park, a movie that was released two years before the game and loomed very large in the cultural consciousness of the time. It’s crawling with robot dinosaurs, which is cute in itself, and you journey from the electrified perimeter fence all the way to the hatchery and lab at the park’s (presumed) center. We haven’t gotten a dinosaur-themed or movie-themed level since, and that makes Slash Man’s stand out.

Then there’s Spring Man’s stage, my favorite in the game, with its incredibly bouncy and sprightly theme to underscore an incredibly bouncy and sprightly level. The stage is toy-themed, which is something else we hadn’t seen before. (Though Top Man may come close.) Much of the challenge here comes from keeping control of Mega Man, who is sent reeling by springs in the walls, ceilings, and floors, as well as teaching yourself the ins and outs of each new platform type. (Almost as though you’re getting to play with some new toys of your own, hm?) It also contains a surprisingly wide-open room at about its midpoint which scrolls in all directions and offers multiple paths from the entrance to the exit. It’s a nice bit of non-linearity in a series that has never quite embraced the concept, and it makes Spring Man’s stage feel all the more fun for it. It is, quite literally, a playground.

But my favorite stage concept goes to Shade Man, whose horror-themed level is such a perfect fit for the series that one has to wonder why we never got another one. (Skull Man himself may fit the bill, but his stage does not.)

Shade Man’s stage is full of horror cliche to the point that it’s impossible not to have fun there. There are implements of torture, the dead rising from the grave, humanoids transforming by moonlight into wolves, zombies crashing through windows as you blast them and try to keep from getting overwhelmed…it’s wonderful, and the fact that its roots even stretch into literature — the cackling raven tormenting you from above — is evidence of just how committed this level is to its gimmick. There is a secret button combination that lets you hear the graveyard theme from Capcom’s own Super Ghouls ‘N Ghosts as you play, which is nice…but Shade Man’s theme is also the best one in the game, so it’s a shame that this trick tempts players away from listening to it. (Though I’ll put my neck on the line and say that the soundtrack overall is pretty fantastic.)

On the whole the Robot Masters are…pretty lame, I admit. It’s a shame that the series only made the leap to the SNES at this point; a few games sooner and we might have had Robot Masters that really deserved the enhanced presence. The only ones that stand out to me in any substantial way are Cloud Man and Shade Man. The former due to his (at the time) unique legless design, which makes him legitimately look like a climate control robot as opposed to a climate-themed robot, and the latter due to his gentlemanly manner and interesting attack pattern. It’s nowhere near as complex or rewarding as Freeze Man’s, but reacting to Shade Man can be tricky, and his ability to suck life from your health bar into his own lends the fight a whole other kind of stakes.***

But where the Robot Masters fall down, the special weapons pick up. In fact, I’d venture to argue that this was the best batch of weapons in the series so far.

Of our new toys, only one really feels disappointing: the Scorch Wheel. It’s sluggish to fire, awkward to aim, and not especially powerful. It’s pretty lousy, and never worth using outside of the one area in Slash Man’s stage that lets you burn some foliage to find Beat. I think it says a lot that Dr. Wily’s final form is usually weak to the most cumbersome weapon in the game, but Mega Man 7 knew that asking you to hit him with the Scorch Wheel was unconscionable.

The Wild Coil is also pretty crap. It fires two springs at once — one before you and one behind you — and you can vary their bounce height. There’s not much to it and it’s not especially useful, but it works well enough against Shade Man, as you can just launch one as he swoops in to grab you. It’s a good defense that doubles as offense.

Then there a couple of pretty good weapons. The Freeze Cracker is a large projectile that splits into shards when it hits a surface. It can also be aimed slightly up or down, which sounds more useful than it actually is. It’s essentially a slower, larger version of the Shotgun Ice from Mega Man X, but it’s still a decent weapon here. It also freezes cloud platforms, freezes lava, and allows you to trigger a snowstorm in Cloud Man’s stage.

The Danger Wrap is an explosive encased in a bubble, which can absorb enemies and allow you to shove them into other enemies, which makes it pretty fun to play with. You can also encase otherwise invincible enemies and knock them harmlessly out of your way, and you can drop the explosive without a bubble by pressing Down as you launch it. It has a lot of use.

Then we get to the great stuff. The Noise Crush is a sonic weapon that bounces off of walls, allowing you to absorb it and fire it back even stronger. You can’t power the projectile up more than once, and the necessity of having a wall available means it’s not always the best option, but it’s a lot of fun to play with and a great weapon once you’re used to using it. You can also fire it and quickly slide into it to avoid having to rebound it back into yourself, but that’s more of a novelty than any real boon to its usefulness. Great weapon, though, and one of the most fun to experiment with.

Next there’s the Junk Shield, the single best shield weapon in the entire series. Of course, “best shield weapon” just means it’s extremely durable, so I’d be lying if I said it was exciting. But it is nice to finally get a shield worth pulling out.

The Thunder Bolt is a powerful electric attack that splits into two projectiles and travels up and down when it hits something. It’s another Mega Man X echo, being very similar to the Electric Spark from that game. Here it can also be used to energize machinery, trigger thunderstorms and lightning, and unintentionally power up two bosses. It’s a really great weapon, but it’s still not my favorite.

No. My favorite weapon is the Slash Claw. Now that is a close-quarters weapon worth using…a first for the series. (And if it weren’t for the Flame Sword, it would be the last as well.)

The Slash Claw is very satisfying to use, and it actually encourages you to play the game a bit differently. It’s extremely powerful, but it requires you to get within arm’s reach of dangerous enemies. Do you trade away distance for power and showmanship? Hell yes I do, and while it predates any substantial role for Wily’s masterpiece, playing Mega Man 7 with the Slash Claw reminds me of playing some of the Mega Man X games as Zero. Sure, you can pick off enemies from a distance…or you can get right up in their face and slash them to bits. There’s a reason Zero is such a popular character, and it’s the exact same reason the Slash Claw feels so good to keep equipped. Its only downside is that we can’t get it until we’re halfway through the game.

In addition to being perhaps the best overall batch of weapons, these are also the most versatile. Nearly all of them allow you to fine tune the attack in some way and serve as a utility. To refer to Mega Man 9 pressing the reset button again, it’s worth noting that the weapons were more in line with what we see in Mega Man 7 than with what we’ve seen in any previous game. Mega Man 9‘s weapons also pulled double duty, functioning as tools just as you see here. They don’t just make fighting easier; they make traversing levels easier.

Another welcome change is the fact that the boss weaknesses feel logical again. Perhaps this is helped along a bit by the additional frames of animation, which make it more clear why a Robot Master is reacting to your weapon the way he is. Additionally, though, you can reason them through fairly easily. Cloud Man is weak to the Danger Wrap because it floats up and encases him, bringing him crashing to the ground. Junk Man’s exposed wiring short circuits when he’s hit with the Thunder Bolt. Slash Man freezes solid when hit with the Freeze Cracker, like a Cro-Magnon man waiting to be thawed and studied. That resonates thematically with his stage, which is brilliant.

The weapons also lend themselves to minor environmental puzzles, none of which are mandatory and few of which, admittedly, are satisfying to figure out. But it encourages experimentation in a way that previous games in the series did not; there, you’d just try to figure out which weapon worked best against which enemy. Here it’s up to you to determine which objects and obstacles can be interacted with, as well as the tool that will allow you to do it.

Of course, the game isn’t perfect. And I can identify more true flaws in it than I can in most games that I love. For instance, there’s the Robot Museum mid-stage, which was clearly abandoned at some early point in its development. The evidence there comes from its lovely music, which mashes up songs from previous Mega Man games and doesn’t nearly get the chance to play fully before you make it to the boss. It’s a song composed for a decent stretch of level, but what we actually get is just a few empty rooms.

The concept of revisiting past Mega Man experiences in museum environment is a solid and interesting one, but evidently the team didn’t have time to make good on it here. The concept would be revisited to far greater effect in Mega Man & Bass.

Oh, and, hey, speaking of Bass…Bass is introduced in this game! He’s a genuinely great character, and one I’m glad has remained with the series since. However, he’s symptomatic, I think, of another problem.

After all, he’s a recurring foil for Mega Man, popping up a handful of times to fight him and hold him back from Dr. Wily. He’s an ethically murky character with allegiance that seems to shift throughout his appearances. He serves as a test of what you’ve learned, and a gate you’ll have to pass several times in order to complete your mission.

Do you have it yet?

That’s right; Bass has taken on the Proto Man role.

Which is a shame, because Proto Man was a rich and intriguing character. After Mega Man 3, however, the series didn’t know what to do with him. In Mega Man 4 and Mega Man 5 he was almost entirely off camera and the player never interacted with him. In Mega Man 6 and some of the Game Boy games he was relegated to Eddie’s role, dropping off an item and beaming out into irrelevance. In this game he’ll drop in to give you some hints.

It’s strange, and while there is an optional Proto Man fight in this game, I’m sad that they had to introduce an entirely different character to fulfill what was largely the role he originally occupied. In other words, I like Bass but I sure wish we didn’t need him.

Another odd choice is the dialogue section that follows each Robot Master fight. Mega Man and Dr. Light chitchat for a bit about whatever weapon you just got, and that’s nice. I prefer weapon demonstrations to weapon narrations, but since the demonstrations in Mega Man 6 were utterly worthless, I can’t blame them for trying something different.

The problem is that the conversations omit fairly important information. For instance, they doesn’t mention that the Freeze Cracker can be aimed, that the Danger Wrap can be fired without its bubble, or that the Junk Shield can be launched at will. That may have been purposeful, leaving a bit of room for experimentation and discovery on the part of the player, but in that case I think it would have been better to go with no explanation at all.

When we do get explanation, we assume that’s it; if Dr. Light says that the Freeze Cracker shatters when it hits a wall, we assume that that’s all it does. Why wouldn’t we? He would have said more if it did more, so we don’t experiment with pressing Up and Down while we fire it. On the other hand, had Dr. Light said nothing at all and left us to figure it out, we may well have. I think the solution Mega Man 7 came up with actually hinders rather than encourages that experimentation.

Also, I’ve heard that the Japanese version has dialogue between Auto and Roll, during which they make jokes about the weapons. I’m a bit surprised that was excised from the Western release, as it would have fit quite well with the cartoony approach of the game and the elevated presence both of those characters have here. It’s a shame we missed out on that.

I’m also not a fan of splitting the Robot Masters into two sets of four. In addition to forcing me to cobble together a decent stage select image for the start of this article (look forward to that tradition vanishing next time…), it makes guessing weaknesses so much easier.

In, say, Mega Man 2, you’d defeat one Robot Master and get a new weapon. Your odds of blindly choosing the Robot Master who is weak to that weapon is 1:7. In Mega Man 7, you’re more than twice as likely; the odds are 1:3. That’s a huge difference, and it’s even more stark when you have two weapons. Mega Man 2 could keep you guessing for hours. Mega Man 7 reduces the fun of correctly identifying your next target, and I’m not sure that the four-and-four arrangement offers any benefits of its own to negate that.

Of course, it could offer a benefit of its own: the fact that the developers can design levels in the second set that hinge on items the player will have acquired in the first set. That would have been a nice twist but, alas, they don’t do it here. That’s one of very few areas in which Mega Man 8 actually improves upon its predecessor, as the stages of Sword Man and Search Man are designed exactly that way.

And then there are the fortress stages, which feel like an enormous step down from the Robot Master stages in terms of fun.

I know I don’t speak much about fortress stages and Dr. Wily fights in these reviews, but that’s because there’s usually very little to say. They’re gauntlets, the bosses are enormous, and Wily is a cheap punk. Here they’re even less fun than usual, especially since Dr. Wily’s final form is extremely powerful and very difficult to avoid. It’s a rare Mega Man fight that’s truly designed terribly, and the only way a reasonable player will complete it is by draining E-Tank after E-Tank. You’ll eventually succeed, sure, but you’ll never feel like you’ve earned it.

Still, though, for all the bad I can say about it, I love Mega Man 7. Anything negative you’ll read above is the result of nitpicking. On the whole, it’s one of the best of the series, and one of the best games in the incredible SNES library. It gets strangely overlooked, and I’m not sure why. It’s clearly of a piece with the rest of the classic series, and yet its visual novelty alone helps it stand apart. It’s an experience worth having in its own right, in all of its colorful, bouncy, addictive glory.

Mega Man 7 doesn’t quite offer a compelling argument for this series and Mega Man X to exist in parallel. In fact, if anything, it reminds us which series is less inventive, which series is more at home in the past than the future, which series the fans have already moved on from.

But I’m still glad it exists. And I’m glad I took the time to engage with it.

And I really, really wish we had two games in this style, rather than two in the style of Mega Man 8.

Speaking of which…well, tune in next time.

Best Robot Master: Shade Man
Best Stage: Spring Man
Best Weapon: Slash Claw
Best Theme: Shade Man
Overall Ranking: 2 > 7 > 5 > 4 > 3 > 1 > 6

(All screenshots courtesy of the excellent Mega Man Network.)

—–
* At least, in theory. I actually think many Robot Masters are easier to fight with the Buster than with their weaknesses. From the games we’ve covered so far alone: Cut Man, Guts Man, Fire Man, Metal Man, Crash Man, Heat Man, Top Man, Toad Man, Ring Man, Dive Man, Wave Man, Stone Man, Tomahawk Man, and Freeze Man.

** Granted, you can fire the Junk Shield, but only at angles that are difficult to predict. I don’t know that I’ve ever successfully hit him that way.

*** Ahem.

My Top 10 Angry Video Game Nerd Episodes

August 6th, 2017 | Posted by Philip J Reed in internet | listomania | video games - (1 Comments)

This past Friday, James Rolfe — best known as the Angry Video Game Nerd — published a video featuring his personal top 10 episodes of that series. By this point, I’ve seen every episode…multiple times, in the cases of the ones I liked. Yes, I’d argue that the quality has gone downhill in recent years, but his top 10 video, I think, explains why: the episodes James names as his favorites are actually the ones that I’d probably name as my least favorites.

His desires aren’t in line with mine. He likes story lines and special effects and external zaniness. I like reviews. Sometimes they dovetail well, sometimes they don’t. He seems to like it when they don’t.

Which made me wonder about my top 10 Angry Video Game Nerd episodes. And as I’m moving this week, I figured this might be a fun post to leave you with, in case I lose internet access for a while.

For the purposes of this list, I did consider multi-part episodes (in which a game or series is covered in more than one sequential video) to be one review, but treated sequel episodes as their own entities. Otherwise, this should be pretty straightforward. Oh, and, there’s no Mike Matei to be found in the entire list. Funny how that worked out.

So, here you go. My personal top 10 episodes of a video game review show that’s shockingly been running almost as long as I’ve been online. I hope you enjoy.

10) Indiana Jones Trilogy

Episode 48: Like James, I’m starting my list with what I’d consider to be a “standard” episode. And I’m not really sure why this one keeps coming to mind, so if you’d like to, feel free to sub it out for The Simpsons, Dracula, Spider-Man or something. But the Indiana Jones Trilogy episode does a great job of providing exactly what I want to see when I tune in. The games are reviewed comprehensively, the observations are well made, the jokes are funny, and James has a clear and obvious love for the source material. (Well, the films at least. The odds of him having much love for these particular games are pretty slim.) What’s more, he reviews three related games, which I always love. Videos featuring multiple games will make up a lot of this list. While one-game reviews are often very good, I think I enjoy the variety of hopping around within a singular theme. Also, I enjoy videos about these middle-of-the-road bad games. The ones that aren’t worth playing for laughs on your own, but still provide plenty of fodder for comedy from a distance.

9) Action 52 / Cheetahmen

Episodes 90 and 91: Fruit doesn’t hang any lower than Action 52, but the sheer volume of crap crammed into a single cartridge really does make it worth revisiting over and over. Many game critics got to this one long before James did, but there’s still a lot of entertainment on display here. In fact, his skits and jokes don’t make this one at all; rather, the game humiliates itself by failing to load, throwing up glitch after glitch, and even preventing itself from progressing. Action 52 is an easy target, but a fruitful one. It’s a funny game to watch anyone play, and it’s only right that angry reviewing’s elder statesman got to take his jabs as well. The second part completes the review but it also looks at the Genesis version and Cheetahmen II, so it’s absolutely necessary to see them as halves of a complete whole. For what it’s worth, I actually did play Action 52 as a kid. A friend of mine owned it, and part of the appeal of James’ video, I think, is the marathon plow through game after game that reflects my exact experience of it at my friend’s house. Surely one of these games will have to be good…

8) Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties

Episode 74: Easily one of the out-and-out funniest episodes. Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties is more of a terrible amateur film than it is a game, but that just means James has a wealth of different things to criticize it for. Due to the nature of the game, this feels more like a truncated Let’s Play than a proper review, but it’s absolutely hilarious. This one has been a favorite of mine since it was first uploaded. It doesn’t advance the AVGN formula or do anything especially unique, but it’s one of James’ most successful comic outings in my opinion, and for that reason alone it deserves a place on this list.

7) Street Fighter 2010

Episode 85: There’s a lot to love about this one. It covers multiple games, provides an interesting history of the Street Fighter franchise, and it gives a relatively unknown game (by Capcom NES standards) a spotlight it surprisingly ends up deserving. But I think what I really love about it and what makes it stand out in my mind is that it serves as a perfect illustration of what kept us playing these extremely difficult, often unfair, relentlessly punishing video games. James starts off predictably enough, complaining about the controls, the difficulty, and the absurdly tenuous connection to the Street Fighter name. But then something clicks. Sure, the game in many ways sort of sucks…but it’s overall compelling enough to keep him coming back. He pushes through, gradually. He engages with the game on its own terms, even as he lambastes those terms. He doesn’t just learn how to complete a level, but how to complete it quickly, without taking damage, and while collecting all of the powerups. Why? Because you have to, otherwise you can’t finish the game. Obviously James has (rightly) given up on many games in the past. He reaches a roadblock or finds some reason to call it quits, and you can’t blame him. So for Street Fighter 2010, which certainly seems like one of the most difficult games he’s ever played, it says an awful lot that he actually takes the time to finish it. In doing so, he reminds us of what we’ve all gone through. It likely wasn’t Street Fighter 2010 for most of us. It may have been Mega Man. Or Battletoads. But we all had those moments, when we cursed at a game, hated a game, raged against a game’s refusal to play fair…and yet fell in love anyway. A truly great episode.

6) Back to the Future ReRevisited

Episode 94: The earliest AVGN episodes (or Angry Nintendo Nerd episodes, I should say) were great for what they were. I remember watching them with my friend Mike, who couldn’t believe what he had found. I couldn’t believe it, either. Almost nothing James was saying about those old games was new or even especially insightful, but for the first time it felt like the frustrating experiences we had as kids were actually universal, and somewhere out there, some guy in a white buttondown was profanely articulating them on our behalf. It was a riot, especially because there was nothing else like it at the time. It felt genuinely novel. But, of course, James’ style progressed, and watching those old episodes, it’s easy to see their rough edges and puzzling omissions. James saw it, too, and used this episode to re-review those games, paving over the holes and fleshing out criticisms he’d barely scraped before. The centerpiece is Back to the Future on the NES, which somehow provides even more material than he wrung from it the first time around…and we get proper looks at other Back to the Future games as well. What I really love, though, is the ending. As often as James tries to cram actual narrative into these episodes — and as often as I’d argue it fails — sometimes a real-world twist like what we get here achieves more than careful scripting ever could.

5) Virtual Boy

Episode 42: My absolute favorite kind of AVGN episode. This one looks at something that’s not obscure, exactly, but which relatively few viewers will be personally familiar with. James provides a history lesson, places the product in its proper context, and reviews every single one of the games released for it. (Initially he left out Jack Bros., but I’m linking to a later version of the video that includes it.) The Virtual Boy was a high-profile failure, and probably the first true stumble for Nintendo…a company that in so many young eyes — mine included — could do no wrong. I sensed something was off as a kid, and the Virtual Boy was probably the first thing Nintendo ever made that I didn’t want at all. Watching this video, I see that I didn’t miss out on much. Surprisingly, most of the games turn out to be either fun or inoffensive, leaving the hardware itself to shoulder the blame for the system’s failure. Many of the best AVGN episodes teach me something beyond “the controls in this game are bad.” This one provided a great overview of a gaming curiosity I only ever experienced in the periphery. Eventually I did get to play a Virtual Boy at a convention, and I was actually impressed with how well it handled the 3D effect. But as this episode demonstrates, the gimmick failed to justify the machine’s existence. James’ video provides a perfect eulogy.

4) Godzilla

Episode 77: A friend of mine isn’t a huge fan of the AVGN, but he does enjoy James’ other big series: Monster Madness. He says this is because James has a real knowledge of and passion for cinema…and I’d say the same thing about my friend, so I’m willing to believe it. Monster Madness used to be a yearly series that would run every October. It’s been discontinued, but every so often James’ clear love of film bleeds into an AVGN episode. This may be the prime example, as he’s able to identify obscure characters from these Godzilla video games and trace their cinematic histories…including characters who didn’t even originate with that series. The whole “licensed games are garbage” thing is well worn by this point, but I think an episode on garbage Godzilla games is deserved. After all, why wouldn’t Godzilla games be awesome? He’s a giant monster who smashes things. How hard could it be to make a fun game based on that? You’d have to actively try to make them lousy by stripping away the very essence of who Godzilla is and what Godzilla does. Sure enough, every game the AVGN covers here does exactly that in its own way. And James’ frustration and disappointment in that fact feels far more natural here than it does in so many other episodes, as he clearly cares about the franchise…and just wanted one game he could enjoy along with the films.

3) Ghostbusters

Episodes 21, 22, and 23: I remember thinking the very first AVGN episodes were nothing if not exhaustive. Then we got a three part episode about Ghostbusters on the NES and I realized I hadn’t seen anything yet. Ghostbusters, like Godzilla, seems like a can’t-miss video game premise. You have popular and recognizable heroes, awesome gear that every little boy wanted desperately to get his hands on, and an opportunity to create fun and inventive ghosts for players to shoot at. And, like Godzilla, Ghostbusters went out of its way to miss. It’s an extremely strong concept for a game that is botched spectacularly. The three-part nature of this episode may sound like overkill, but it makes sense to me. It implies a “can’t look away” sort of reaction to the game, which mirrors the one I had as a kid. Yes, Ghostbusters was terrible…but I kept renting it. Kept playing it. Kept hating it. All the while, I guess I couldn’t believe my eyes. I returned over and over again to the game, hoping for it to finally click. Hoping it would reveal itself as the great game I knew it should have been. Hoping I’d realize that I was just playing it incorrectly, or looking for the wrong things. With this series of videos, the AVGN lets go of that hope with a comprehensive review, suggestions for improvement, a look at the game’s many ports, and reviews of other Ghostbusters games to cleanse the palate.

2) Bible Games

Episode 17: The AVGN’s first masterpiece, for sure. The videos prior to this were often funny and were absolutely novel for their time, but this is the video that, in my estimation, made it clear that the concept had staying power. Laying into a good portion of the Wisdom Tree catalog, James spotlights exactly what’s wrong with these offensively lazy Christian cash-ins, approaching them almost entirely from a game-design standpoint and leaving the viewer to decide how true or genuine the didactic intentions of the developers were. Did they truly feel they were saving souls? Or were they just counting on parents to throw money their way without knowing better? The answer’s pretty clear to me, but James does a great job of highlighting his own sampling of absurdities, leaving it to you to pick up on the rest. This one is still and will always be an easy favorite. James dipped back into the Bible games well a few times since, but in my estimation, none of the sequel episodes rise quite to the highs of the original. (Bible Games 2 came pretty close, though.) Taken as a relic of a time when “the NES had Bible games” was a genuine and hilarious revelation, this video is great. Familiarity has dulled its edge a bit, but there’s still a great deal of fun to be had from watching. This is one of those “often imitated, never duplicated” situations, and Bible Games is exactly what every angry reviewer to follow (including yours truly) strove to measure up to.

1) Castlevania

Episodes 79, 80, 81, and 82: The very first AVGN episode was about Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, kicking off this surprisingly long-running series with a look back at the archetypal game James wished he could love. 78 episodes later, he returned to that series with a four-part retrospective that isn’t just my favorite AVGN material, but which is easily some of the best stuff I’ve ever seen on YouTube. I end up rewatching this miniseries around Halloween every year, and I enjoy it a little more each time. The jokes and observations are good, of course, but what really pushes it over the top and makes it worth revisiting is James’ profound love for the series, and for classic horror films in general. He makes the most of his shtick, of course, but this is probably the closest we get to hearing from the “real” person beneath the persona, with his memories of the first five Castlevania games, his later experience of the games on other consoles, and a well-earned paean to the series that closes the entire thing off perfectly. I understand that James and I appreciate different things about his output, but the fact that this didn’t make his top 10 is astounding. I don’t know how the AVGN will eventually end his series, but I’m confident he couldn’t possibly go out on a higher note than this.

What are your favorites? Anything you’d especially disagree with above? I’d be curious to know. Enjoy, and I’ll be back soon!

Vintage Sesame Place swag and memories

July 31st, 2017 | Posted by Philip J Reed in books | personal | television - (5 Comments)

This is a story I meant to share a while back, but I didn’t have the time to actually write it up. Now, with the big kerfuffle between Steve Whitmire and seemingly everyone else Steve Whitmire has ever met, it seems like a good time to actually post it. Hopefully this reminds folks that while the people operating the Muppets may be flawed and sometimes shitty human beings, what the characters teach us still makes a difference.

A few weekends ago, I spent some time at Denver Comic Con. I enjoy conventions for one major reason: vendors.

I’ve had conversations about this. About the fact that I’m paying admission just to go buy things…and about the fact that anything I’ll find there will be available — in some way — online anyway. And, really, I can’t argue with that. But I keep going, every year. Sometimes I’ll hit other conventions as well. I think part of the appeal for me is the feeling that comes with being part of an event, but there’s also the more logistical appeal: seeing the vendors in person, with their inventories spread out before them, allows me to browse.

Sure, whatever books or DVDs or figurines I pick up at Comic Con are exactly what I could find online later. But would I find them online? As much as I love Amazon (and I do love Amazon), I still like spending hour after hour in physical book stores. That’s because Amazon is a great service when I know what book I want, but bookstores are great for browsing…for when I have some approximate concept of what I’ll enjoy, but am otherwise open to new titles, new authors, new experiences I can’t even imagine yet.

Comic Con, to me, offers a vast array of great experiences I might never find it I didn’t have the chance to browse. And every year I come home with a bag of stuff I didn’t know existed. Rarely am I disappointed with my haul; not everything I find there will change my life, of course, but I always feel at least a little more enriched for having read, seen, or listened to whatever it is I discovered.

This year I did my normal thing of walking around the various booths, seeing what was on offer before I spent any money. You can count on seeing largely the same kinds of products from year to year, but sometimes there’s a surprise. And fairly quickly I found my first and favorite surprise of the year.

What caught my eye was a big banner with the Sesame Place logo on it. One guy sat behind the table, and there were stacks of books in front of him. Just seeing that banner brought back a lot of memories I don’t often think about. They’re from my childhood, so they get excluded along with much of what I actively try to forget.

For those of you who don’t know, Sesame Place is a Sesame Street theme park in Langhorne, Pennsylvania. I’ll always remember the name of that town, because I grew up in Southern New Jersey and remember seeing the commercials constantly. Here’s one I remember quite well. It was my first experience of the song “Short People,” by the way, and if you watch this video maybe you’ll understand just a bit of my shock the first time I heard the actual song on the radio.

Langhorne, Pennsylvania seemed like a special place. Had Sesame Place existed in Pittsburgh or Philadelphia, the town name wouldn’t have registered the same way. We knew those cities already. They were just places on a map that contained things. But Langhorne wasn’t a name I ever heard in any other context. Langhorne was Sesame Place. And that was magical.

At some point, I got to go. I’d guess I was around 10 years old. I could have been 8. It was me, my brother, and my mother. We were joined by our neighbor and her two kids, Jennifer and Brian. According to Google Maps, Langhorne was a drive of an hour and a half from where I grew up. As kids it felt like much longer, or maybe that was the anticipation magnifying everything. I remember playing a game in the car that I don’t think I played at any other point in my life. We’d take turns using our fingertips to “draw” on somebody else’s back, and they’d have to guess what we drew. These were definitely the days before I had a Game Boy.

By this time, I’d been to Disney World, which is unquestionably the larger and more significant family theme park. But…I didn’t love Disney. I had nothing against it, and of course I could recognize Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck easily enough, but I wasn’t actually a fan of any of their films. To be honest, I’m still not. It wasn’t until the Disney Afternoon introduced me to Duck Tales and Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers that I became an active fan of anything Disney. The Muppets, on the other hand…I loved those guys. And I was excited about the trip.

So, of course, I went over to the table and talked to the man selling books. He introduced himself as Guy Hutchinson, one of the authors of Images of Modern America: Sesame Place.

If you’ve traveled around America, you’ve probably seen books with this identical cover design everywhere. I don’t think I’ve ever picked one up prior to this, let alone purchased one, but they’re out there. Visit a decent-sized town or city and there will be some equivalent of this book with photos of old railroad bridges, buildings that are no longer there, significant construction projects…you get the picture.

I always figured they were more souvenir than anything. You’d pick one up as a memento, the same way you would a refrigerator magnet. I didn’t really care. Then again, I didn’t really care about railroad bridges or construction projects in general. The Muppets, on the other hand…

Guy — who shares his name with a Sesame Street Muppet — started to tell me about Sesame Place. Not specific facts or trivia about the park, but rather a very basic introduction to the fact that it exists. He likely wasn’t expecting many people in Denver to know about it. He’d have to start with Sesame Steet‘s familiarity and move on from there.

But I told him that I knew about it, and that I’d been there. He was clearly enthusiastic, and I wasn’t trying to deflate him as much as I was trying to let him know that he could skip the introduction and get right to the really exciting stuff.

And he showed me his book. Which was, I admit, really exciting.

Again, I haven’t picked up other books in this series, but this seems to support my assumptions about them. There’s very little straight writing…in keeping with the Images of Modern America theme, they’re almost entirely visual, with very informative cutlines.

To be frank, I think I could have read and loved a 500 page book about the history of Sesame Place whether or not it contained photos at all…but I understand that I’m mentally ill and other people might prefer pictures of the rides.

I immediately knew I’d buy the book, but we talked for a while longer. He talked about how cooperative everybody was at the park, how they provided photos and information for him, how they described attractions that were planned but never made it to the public.

This book might be a souvenir, but it was also a fascinating one…and just talking about it transported me back to that trip I took as a child…one of which no photos exist. But the book — broken down into eras in the park’s history — provides the next best thing to me.

One of the things the park provided to Guy was master artwork of Buford T. Higgenbottom, a Muppet who was created specifically to serve as the park’s mascot. Guy used this to have stickers made — among other things — and he very kindly gave me one.

That might not sound too interesting on its own, but while Buford has a page on the Muppet Wiki, there’s no image of him there. And a Google image search turns up completely dry as well. The park was really his only hope for getting that art, as it doesn’t seem to exist in any quality anywhere on the internet.

Of course, now Noiseless Chatter will show up in a search for it, which WAS MY PLAN ALL ALONG.

I told him about my few memories of the park. About a clear little rubber ball with Big Bird and the Sesame Place logo inside that I had for many years and finally lost. And mainly about one particular attraction, which I’ve always wondered about.

Remember, I was a kid, so my memory is not reliable. But I recall some kind of attraction in which you had to cross a long, narrow platform, suspended a terrifying height in the air. I remember there was water below, and I think more was falling down like a fountain. I remember the platforms being yellow and, for some reason, I remember it being themed after Count Von Count. In my mind, it was a very dangerous activity and I was afraid I’d fall and die. That’s not the work of excited imagination, mind you…that’s the work of actual fear. I was scared while navigating that attraction and still retain an image of what it looks like in my memory.

He wasn’t sure what attraction I was remembering, but he did tell me about a Count-themed Halloween show that evidently was scary enough to earn the park some complaints.

I told him I’d buy a copy of the book, and he smiled and said, “I’ve got some swag to share with you, too.”

One bit of that swag was another, more general, Sesame Place sticker:

Then he gave me some really cool things.

Evidently when the park launched, there was — for lack of a better term — an arcade. There may still be one, I don’t know, but it was less of a traditional arcade than it was a computing area, where kids could learn and work at computer stations. Something like that would be much less of a novelty today than it was in the late 80s, but it was apparently pretty cutting edge at the time.

Guy gave me four tokens from that computing area. While doing his research, the park revealed that they had buckets of them collecting dust. That was a lucky find for him, and then again for me.

Those are really great. They’re all the same design; I just flipped two of them over to show off both sides. But even better were these season pass badges:

These are two different designs: Big Bird and Super Grover. They are slightly different sizes and colors in addition to the different character, so I don’t know if one entitled the wearer to more perks than the other, or if you just got to choose which one you liked best when you bought a season pass. I don’t know if Sesame Place even has season passes anymore, but if they do I’m sure they’re just little cards you keep in your wallet.

But…man. These things are incredible. They’re beautiful. I love these.

When he gave me these, I laughed. Grover was my favorite character as a kid, and I loved his Super Grover persona. In fact, when I was little I had a Grover doll that was almost as big as I was. Here’s a photo of that and proof that I used to have hair:

Guy told me that Grover was the one everybody liked, and nobody involved with the park or the show seemed to realize it. I’d believe him. He said that the park wanted the badges to feature Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, as they were assumed to be the two most popular characters. But somebody had the idea to actually ask people which character they liked best…and we ended up with Grover.

I didn’t want to eat up Guy’s entire morning, but I thanked him for his kindness, and for some really incredible vintage goodies I never would have expected to have in my entire life. It was like getting a chance to visit the park again in 1986 or whenever I went and having the foresight to keep all these little things you never would have thought would matter to you. It actually meant a lot to me, and I told him he made my day.

He signed my book before I left, and drew Cookie Monster. Why Cookie Monster? Because, according to Guy, he’s the only character you can draw without worrying about his pupils. If you draw Big Bird or Bert or Elmo or somebody and their pupils are slightly off, they look wrong. But with Cookie Monster, who has crazed eyes that wander constantly and asynchronously whenever the puppeteer moves, you can put the pupils anywhere and they’ll look right.

I felt really lucky to meet Guy that day. Not only was he a friendly and interesting person, but he clearly loved the work he had done. And he relished the chance to share it with someone who could appreciate it. I hope he met a lot of those someones over the course of the weekend.

What I do know is that he reminded me of a positive childhood memory, and gave me vintage trinkets that, miraculously, survived the decades that passed since the park was founded.

I hope he enjoyed speaking with me as well…if only because I could then feel like I repaid the favor somewhat.

I have a friend who is pretty busted up about the whole Steve Whitmire thing. About the negativity that’s been passed around among people he admires. About the ugly underside to what are supposed to be comforting and reassuring productions. About the fact that it’s impossible to know who’s in the wrong…Steve Whitmire, or everybody else who’s ever lived?

But meeting Guy…interacting with him…listening to him talk and watching him get excited about an amusement park…this is what the Muppets are all about. Someone who grew up loving them so much he wrote a book about them, and someone else who grew up loving them buying that book. The two of them meeting and sharing memories. Two strangers who may have nothing else in common in the entire world sharing a moment over something that’s given them both so much joy. That’s offered such valuable escape. That’s guided them through difficult times and helped shape them into who they are today.

The Muppets have allowed me to connect with and bond with more people than I can probably count. (Ah, ah, ah!) Those of us who grew up with them remember them not as characters on some shows we used to watch, but as early friends who helped us understand that however different we are, whatever our strengths or weaknesses, however small we might feel at times, we each had something unique to bring to the world.

Guy reminded me of that.

He could have sold me his book and moved on. I wouldn’t have blamed him. That’s what vendors do.

Instead he showed me great kindness long before I expressed interest in buying anything.

That’s more valuable than the book could have been to me or the money could have been to him. In scary, uncertain times, it’s important to remember that there are still little rafts of sunlight out there to find. I credit the Muppets. And no amount of behind-the-scenes idiocy will change that.


The book is available for purchase from Amazon here, if you’re interested.

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