Tuesday, May 25, 2010

NES Nightmare Fuel

Like so many people in my age cohort, I had the pleasure of having my childhood years coincide with the explosion of the video game industry. While my loving parents, Steven and Diane Thirty successfully kept video games out of our home until I got a Nintendo Game Boy in the third grade, I had been playing them for years prior to that, courtesy of my dear uncle Hulka and his stepsons Jimmy and Charlie Easterbreak. Hulka actually spent a few years working for a local video game story that was actually (unknown to him) a front for a media pirating racket. Hulka got tons of games through this position, and Jimmy, Charlie, and I reaped the benefits.

However, video games aren't all fun and... uhh... games. At least not when your age is in the single digits and fear is a still a difficult emotion to regulate. There are scary games today. They tend to try to be scary, sometimes to awesome effect (What up Resident Evil and Bioshock?). Old video games, if they were terrifying, were often terrifying without particularly trying to be so. Their anxiety was more one of a feeling of impending, inevitable death at the hands of some relatively cartoonish looking creature.

I would like to share with you today a rogues gallery from my young childhood, a veritable who's who of my most hated and feared 8-bit nemeses. Those of you of comparable ages to my own, be warned, this could trigger long-buried anxieties. Without further ado, here are the five NES-era video game baddies that taunted, tortured, and traumatized me more than any others.

#5 - Duck Hunt Dog

Alright, this guy would be higher on the list for the sheer amount of hate he caused me to spew, but I wasn't actually afraid of this dog from Duck Hunt. I hated him. I hate him still. This smug god damn dog would act like my friend, eager to help me shoot some ducks. But when I inevitably eventually missed one or two, he would laugh at me. He would laugh at my failure, giddy with contempt. A boy can only take so much of this before he turns his NES Zapper on his faithful four-legged companion. But wait. What's this? Oh dear god. Dear god in heaven. YOUR FIREARMS ARE USELESS AGAINST HIS DICKISHNESS! The only thing to be done was eventually to turn off the NES through tears of frustration. God damn you, dog. God damn you to hell.

#4 - Dodongo

Dodongo, a level boss and later mid-boss in the Legend of Zelda, wasn't really that terrifying. Look at his picture. He's just a little yellow triceratops. But beating Dodongo took careful timing. You had to place bombs directly into his mouth (or apparently you can stun these guys with bombs that explode NEAR them, then hit them with your sword. I did not know this as a child). Getting the timing on this right as an adult is tricky but not that bad. As a child, coupled with a genuine desire to not screw up at Zelda in front of my beloved uncle, getting that timing right was awful. 3/4 of the time, I wouldn't even fight Dodongo. I'd wander around the dungeon, putting it off, until finally giving the controller to Hulka and begging him to just beat this one part for me. This strategy was also useful for the #2 foe on the list.

#3 - Baron Von Blubba

When I was really young, I loved Bubble Bobble. In nursery school, we made an "All About Me" book that was a cross between a scrapbook and a yearbook, and my favorite song is listed as "The Bubble Bubble Song" because my nursery school teacher didn't know what a Bubble Bobble was. There was a restaurant in my town that had a Bubble Bobble arcade game. I loved that game so much. But there was one problem with Bubble Bobble. Taking too long to beat a stage caused the game to generate an invincible, deadly, and scary looking enemy: Baron Von Blubba, the ghost whale. Nothing can hurt him. Nothing can stop him. He will chase you until you finish the level or die at his ghastly white flippers. This was so much worse than just dying when a timer ends. Here you had the faintest glimmer of hope for escape and a grinning death's head cetacean ripping that glimmer out of your 5-year-old hands. If I knew who Captain Ahab was at age 5, I would've understood him. White whales are trouble like whoa.

#2 - Queen Medusa

I don't know why, but the Medusa boss in Castlevania earned the name Queen Medusa in the American manual for the game. Maybe because she was the queen of the lesser-but-still-unbelievably-frustrating Medusa enemies. Whatever. I don't know what it was about Queen Medusa's grinning, snake-haired head that filled my heart with ice and stopped my brain in its tracks, but she did just that every time I neared the end of level 2. I would literally stop advancing down the hallway to the battle against her for minutes at a time, trying desperately to think of a way to keep playing without having to face her. Maybe it was something about the way she moved in those sinuous arcs, maybe it was the perfectly cast sinister smile on her face, but Queen Medusa reduced me to the scared little child I was, leading to me begging Hulka to "please just beat her for me!" I would even leave the room when Hulka was playing while he fought her. Hulka put up with a lot. I owe you one, buddy.

#1 - Phanto

I do not have a good track record with floating heads that smile evilly. Medusa may have been the queen of my video game nightmares, but Phanto was king. Phanto appeared in several levels of Super Mario Bros. 2. His gimmick was to appear as a simple wall hanging until you picked up a key, necessary to proceed through the stage. Once you picked up the key, Phanto would fly around, his gleefully sadistic expression unchanging, until you either narrowly made it to the door, or he murdered you in cold blood, grinning all the while. The fact that you could get him to back off by putting down the key seemed like mercy, but in fact it just made lifting the key again all the more panic-inducing. Touch the key and Phanto will get you. Phanto was the monster under the bed, the boogeyman, the man in the van with free candy. Everything you fear when the lights go out, that was Phanto. The grin of pure evil.

Some of you may be wondering why the Angry Sun from Super Mario Bros. 3 isn't on the list. Honestly, I didn't like him either, but he didn't fill me with terror like these other guys did. By all rights, a big face moving in an arc pattern fits the description of my hit list, but maybe his fiery grimace scared me less than an ice-cold smirk.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Tales From The Lebowskis - Great Jaja Adventures, Vol. 5

After a long hiatus, I thought it prudent to do another installment of Tales From The Lebowskis. For those of you just joining us, you may want to navigate older posts and acquaint yourselves with the individuals featured in these tales. This installment is the fifth Great Jaja Adventure, entitled "Lunar Fenderbender"

In the early 1970's, an enjoyable pastime for the Lebowski crew was to play the board game Password. The whole family could get involved with this: Mary Lebowski (later to be known as "Nonnie"), David Lebowski Sr. (eventually "Jaja"), Diane Lebowski (my mother), Susan Lebowski, David Lebowski Jr. (later "Blaze" and/or "Daven"), Patty Lebowski (later "Pappy") and the youngest Lebowski, Stephen (later "Lebo" and "Hulka"). On some occasions, they were joined by the clan patriarch, John Lebowski, then Jaja, eventually Great Jaja, and now living in our hearts and memories.

It was April, 1972. I am sure of this for a reason that will eventually become clear. The entire Lebowski clan was playing a heated game of Password. It was Great Jaja's turn. Password, for those unfamiliar, consists of a player attempting to get the other players to guess a secret word within a time limit. Great Jaja had the perfect clue for his secret word. The timer began. "Astronaut" he said smugly. Reasonable guesses such as "rocketship", "space", and "planet" were thrown out. Shocked and angry his perfect clue fell to such simpletons, he repeated it again, angrily. "Astronaut!" More guesses. "God damn it, astronaut!" More guesses. "God damn you people, astronaut! Astronaut!" But alas, the younger generations of Lebowski were unable to come up with the secret word, even as more and more obscenities framed the perfect clue.

Time eventually ran out, as time is wont to do. The time came for the big reveal. What was the secret word, Great Jaja?


You may be thinking, "what in god's holy name does the word astronaut have to do with the word fender?" This, and other variants thereon, was the exact question every Lebowski in the room asked Great Jaja.

"Don't you people watch the goddamn news?"

You see, in April 1972, the Apollo 16 mission was taking place. Apollo 16 was one of the moon missions that made use of a Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) or "Lunar Rover". The LRV used in Apollo 16 experienced issues with its rear fender extension during the mission. Essentially, it broke off, the astronauts attempted to reattach it with tape, but the lunar dust caused the tape's adhesive to fail, and the part was lost. They eventually constructed a makeshift fender out of, amongst other things, duct tape and moon maps.

But you no doubt already knew this. Everyone knows this, god damn it. What kind of damn fool could even hear the word "astronaut" and not immediately think "fender"? Certainly not the Lebowskis, not anymore. In fact, to this day, if you approach any of the Lebowskis present that evening (and several who were not) and prompt them with "astronaut" the response will ring clear and true.


If you know who these people are, try it for yourself some time.