The Greatest Game In the World, Ever (Today)

By Kieron Gillen on March 25th, 2008 at 4:08 pm.

Woo!
For my sins, I hadn’t been to the essential Play This Thing for a while. But something reminded me, and exactly at the right time as I got introduced to Rom Check Fail which manages to be exactly the right game as exactly the right time. It’s not only a brilliant piece of meta-gamery (I pass it around my IM list and the best description so far’s from Simon Parkin who describes it as “Wario Ware performed by the Reduced Shakespeare Company”). It takes an assortment of retro game characters, sound files, graphics and actions, then slams it all in together. Every few seconds everything changes. So you switch between playing as the Asteroids ship fighting Space Invaders in a Bubble Bobble level, or Zelda versus Arkanoid bricks, or – meta!!!! – Pacman being chased by the Gauntlet Ghosts. For God’s sake, play it already, but there will be lashings of gibberish beneath the cut for when you get back.

You see, this struck me at an unusual time. I found myself re-reading Leigh Alexander’s Aberrant Gamer piece on the nature of fanboyism and reviews. She’s wondering how much of the rapturous response to the Super Smash Bros. Brawl is down to that immediate warm recognition. Maybe without the heartwarming joy of seeing Mario bashing the living shit out of Pikachu, it’d be – say – a seven. Because these figures have been along with us so long, they’re more like friends – for anyone who is a gamer, there’s a Pavlovian response when you hear that Mario-gold-picking up sound effect, because that chime was the soundtrack to you falling in love with Videogames.

And I just go “Well, no”.

While Leigh’s core point is true, of course, she’s being a little provincial in her thinking. A lifelong Gamer doesn’t necessarily mean a formative Nintendo crush in Europe in the same way as it does in the US. In the Eighties, Nintendo ruled in the States. As all-too-typical, it didn’t turn its eyes towards Europe until much later. It was the late Nineties before the NES showed its face, and it didn’t seem to get traction until the days of the SNES – and even then, it was that first brilliant conversion of Street Fighter II which got the attention rather than the Mascot. From this slight outsider-from-the-consoles perspective, it wasn’t until Mario 64 when the plumber really became the icon he was in the States. By then, I was leaving University and had other things on my mind, like poverty and crying. Jim’s a little younger, and played a lot of SNES stuff, but he was primarily an Amiga guy – the home-computer roots as a semi-mainstream system run deep here. While there are British gamers which have that Nintendo-as-primary-experience thing, even at my age, it’s not nearly as necessarily true as it tends to be in the States.

Without that residual affection, Mario and Link are things I have to get past to enjoy Nintendo games. As the Escapist noted, Mario’s pretty much unmarketable. If you don’t love him already, there’s no reason to. Why on Earth would you want to enter his world? He’s a borderline-racist plumber in a land of mushrooms. The reason why I do so is because of my reason overruling my gut, as I know the games are at the pinnacle of the genre and I want to experience that. So I grimace my way through the cut-scenes and get on with it.

(The fact there’s so much fan-service is the reason why I haven’t played the new Smash Bros yet. I just can’t be bothered. And – y’know – I have two more Armageddon Empires cults to defeat.)

So, I’m thinking about my lost history of games, and the odd Spectrum/Amiga icons that would create the exact response Leigh described, were they unearthed. You know; Magic Knight, Head Over Heels, Wizkid, Jet Set Willy and so on…

At which point, ROM CHECK FAIL takes the top of my head off.

In its punk-mash-up deconstructivist way, it’s hitting exactly the same mental places as Smash Bros – when you initially play it, the main body of the thrill is one of recognition. Oh – that background’s from Dynablaster (OKAY! Bomberman), the sound-track is from New Zealand Story, that’s Spy-Hunter’s car and those are Gauntlet’s Ghosts. And they’re all fighting! Awesome. By setting its boundaries so wide – both in terms of what arcade games it takes from and its approach to the legalities of the system – you get a really democratic cross-section. So, yes, we have Mario and Zelda and Goombas, but they’re treated as things as the same import as Asteroid’s Rock’s or even Qix’s bouncing lines, as games people loved rather than icons to be paid fealty to.

This absolutely grounds it all. It’s kind of the videogame equivalent of the bit in LCD Soundsystem’s Losing My Edge where James Murphy rattles off a seemingly endless list of feted bands (It’s 2:50 into that Youtube link if you haven’t heard it). We simultaneously reduce the game to mere cultural objects to be discarded in five seconds when the game mixes up the rules again, while still showing our affection for them – because, after all, if we didn’t have any affection for them, why are we recognising them in the first place?

Stepping away from the conceptual thrill of it all, it’s still interesting in terms of its basic mechanisms. Finding yourself playing as Zelda (so being able to trudge in all directions and lash out with your sword nearby) fighting against Goombas (Who immediately submit to gravity and fall to the floor, before moving left and right), before they warp into Pang Balls (So bouncing around and splitting when shot) and you into a Space Invader (So you can only move on the X axis you started on) is just unique. We know all these skill-sets that are provided intimately – for older gamers, they’re the first verbs in gaming language we learned – and having them remixed into novel combinations every five seconds manages to be at once an agreeable sensory overload and oddly familiar.

The randomness makes it a little unfair at times, with you switching to something that will inevitably get you killed at some points, but the skill is trying to mitigate against unfortunate switches by anticipating when you’re about to mutate and moving into a “safe” position. It’s eminently forgivable, and not because it’s a quick giggle. You wonder how far this could be pushed, with more and more games worked into this illicit cocktail, endless antagonists and protagonists confronting one another. Robotron’s Last Hope Of Mankind versus Sid Meier’s Pirate! Fleets? The Planescape Torment’s Nameless One head to head against the corrupted Darwinians? How would Halo’s Covenant fare against Crash Bandicoot? Lara Croft versus Dig Dug’s Pookas? Pac-man versus Spore’s protozoa? Elite’s Captain Jameson versus Eve’s Goon alliance?

When I look at Rom Check Fail I suspect one day we may know all the answers.

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42 Comments »

  1. Flint says:

    My brain hurts.

  2. Not-a-bot says:

    Space Invader ship against Goombas is a particularly unfair combo :(

    Awesomely confusing mix of classic games though

  3. elias says:

    But when you talk about Nintendo not having as much of a foothold in Europe as in the US, you are just reinforcing Leigh Alexander’s point. If a significant part of the appeal of Smash Bros. is due to the enjoyment of the familiar characters, one would expect a person on whom those characters have had less of an impact to be correspondingly less motivated to play Smash Bros.

  4. roBurky says:

    That’s fantastic.

    It took me a while before it presented me with things I was familiar with, and I understood what the game was. I spent my first game jumping into the coloured blocks as Mario thinking they were pickups, for example.

  5. Kieron Gillen says:

    Elias: I probably should have stressed I actually agree with her point – when I said that I thought it was arguable, I meant that you could argue it strongly. It’s the detail – specifically Nintendo=Year Zero – where she stumbles.

    In fact, I’ll tweak it to make that clearer.

    KG

  6. Leigh says:

    I was maybe a little specific in my example, and I wrote way too many words, too — few grafs past the Nintendo assertion, I noted that even for those who weren’t swaddled by the Eastern Giant, there is some kind of niche allegiance dating back from childhood that will tend to predispose us in favor of certain games today.

    And it is interesting to hear from someone who was never Mario-indoctrinated to begin with — I should have just asked you about your interpretation first. As an American writer, I’m still a “traitor” for even daring to criticize it and am now “that bitch who hates Smash Bros” — when I just merely like it, instead of adore it.

  7. Alec Meer says:

    The best thing about being a PC-only site? We didn’t have to write a single post about bloody Smash Brothers, even though the rest of the internet wouldn’t shut up about it.

  8. weegosan says:

    call me a fool if you will, but I had the previous smash brothers title and thought it was dogshit on toast. clearly my tastes must be rather vulgar.

  9. Kieron Gillen says:

    Leigh: I think everything said around your column kind of shows how true the core idea of the post is. They really couldn’t see past the example to the abstract idea.

    I was more riffing off the common-US press assumption that US=World. Saying “gamers” when they mean “US gamers” grates online, especially in the more serious sites.

    Er… that sounded meaner than I mean. I am bad.

    (And as I said on your blog, don’t stress it. A friend of mine gave Super Smash Bros 93% and is being insulted by ninty fanboys for undermarking it. You can’t win.)

    KG

  10. Leigh says:

    No, it’s not mean; you’re right, I was being myopic. It’s funny, I always knew that some U.S. trends don’t have as big a hold in Europe as here, but I guess I just assumed that it couldn’t be that big a difference. I need to travel more :(

  11. Andrew Armstrong says:

    The best thing about being a PC-only site? We didn’t have to write a single post about bloody Smash Brothers, even though the rest of the internet wouldn’t shut up about it.

    Awesome. You must be the envy of all the other blogs, honestly, I stay away from them and I’ve seen enough tosh on Smash this and Brothers that :)

    You’re right Kerion about the Nintendo influence – it was late, and even today they utterly sucker punch any release dates (same goes with most of the consoles honestly. Sega was as bad in the day…). Definitely, US Gamers != Gamers, especially with region-locked consoles, poor release schedules and no fanclubs ;)

  12. Kieron Gillen says:

    Leigh: I’m hoping Iain Simmons’ forthcoming book may do something to shine a light on this area. It’s a book that desperately needs to be written.

    KG

  13. Jon says:

    I’d like the game more if it stayed as one “game” for a little longer. I’d love it if you weren’t presented with games you can’t win, which are basically any where you are the ship from Space Invaders.

  14. Okami says:

    Great game.. thanks for pointing this out… art… culturally relevant.. post modern.. yadayadayda..

    Anyway: Is there some way to play this game in full screen mode? Or at least Not-Eye-Strain-O-Vision mode?

  15. Kieron Gillen says:

    Entirely off topic, One Life Left is broadcasting live. Do listen!
    http://ice2.eurogamer.net:8002/OLL.mp3.m3u

    KG

  16. DJH says:

    It’s a fairly stunning intellectual achievement to decry regional myopia in one sentence and then assert it in the following.

    Even when you’re explicitly observing the narrative trap in game journalism, you’re unable to resist succumbing to it. That’s a mental failure of monumental scope.

    As penance, try articulating the thesis of this article in a single paragraph. For extra credit, see whether you like that version better than the original.

  17. Kieron Gillen says:

    I’m all about the stunning intellectual achievements, me.

    KG

  18. DigitalSignalX says:

    I like to believe that there’s nothing to fear, that there will always be a large segment of US gamers and developers who got their start plugging quarters into tall brightly painted boxes in shopping malls and grocery store foyers. Who went home and then enjoyed the pale shadow of those games on their crappy Amigas, Commodores and PC’s but soon enough found their home machine’s potential being lived up to. Leaving generations of consoles and their proprietary single use life only as a curiosity for debate.

  19. Monkfish says:

    Okami: Full screen = Alt + Enter.

  20. Kieron Gillen says:

    I just completed it. Blimey!

    KG

  21. Frosty840 says:

    “Qix”, surely?

    Also, this is a truly inspired game.

  22. Kieron Gillen says:

    You know, I actually looked that up and I still spelt it wrong.

    KG

  23. Okami says:

    @Monkfish: Thanks. I figured it out on my own but by then it was too late to edit my post. Now I’ll just go and hide my head in shame somewhere…

  24. Acosta says:

    Played the game, neat but not very coherent (Wario Ware would always offer a valid solution while this one can be quite unfair).

    However I´m glad Kieron linked to Leigh’s column which lead me to her personal blog that now I have the pleasure to add to my list of “sites I must read to become a better videogame writer” myself.

    But the most attractive topic of this discussion to me is the old “US=world” issue because I find it really interesting. Are we really aware of our own national reality and past for us not USA citizens? how different is videogame culture in other countries like Germany, France, Italy or Spain? how is their perception of videogame history so far?

    Me, being Spanish and having worked in a fair ammount of (now defunct) Spanish magazines, wonder if I know the answer to that question for my own country. I barely read anything in Spanish that is not mine, I’m subscribed to three British magazines and I only read British/American webs and blogs. My own influences as a gamer are mostly composed o a mix of British/Japanese/American games.

    While I know how videogames industry developed in USA and, in some degree, Japan, my personal knowledge of what is Spanish perception of videogames and their story is near to zero. Thanks to Retro Gamer I am starting to understand how things developed in England (and maybe that book of Iain Simons will help to get a better picture), but that´s it. My personal knowdlege about other realities toward videogames is not there at all.

    Do you think there is a limited vision on how videogames are perceived in a global scale?

  25. Kieron Gillen says:

    I think there is. I’d be very interested in reading a book about the whole 1980s German scene or whatever.

    KG

  26. ste says:

    smash brothers is so bad.

  27. Sucram says:

    Tim E wrote a scathing review of SSBM for a site I was worked with for a while.

    Man! the forums were not happy.

  28. Rook says:

    Whilst I usually enjoy Leigh’s blog, this particular one kinda strikes me in the same way that a lot of off kilter documentaries are currently written:

    First you make a statement about some sort of scientific fact (the softer the science, the better), you then make a series of shorter statements that you begin to tangentally relate to your conclusion. So you kinda get this A is true, and A implies B which implies C which implies D and D is my conclusion so it must be true as well. Except, it just doesn’t work like that.

    I just can’t help but feel that games like Mario and Sonic at the Olympics, Mario Party, Mario Strikers etc all show that people are very capable of saying games with lots of mascots just aren’t that good. Unless you’re arguing that there’s some sort of critical mass of mascots needed to blind everyone to the truth which is an interesting concept (Halo guy, Metroid dude, Gordon Freeman, Marcus Fenix, Soap McTavish and the Marked One all in an FPS? Well it must be awesome!)

    The other point of reviews I think is really going to shift in the other direction. They’re going to become less and less important as time goes on. I don’t read reviews of the music, it’d just seems silly to me. I might be interested in a few technical details but I can usually get that from the hellspawn that is amazon comments. The thought of someone typing up 6 pages worth of why I’m stupid for not understanding how awesome it is that they use the dollar as the ultimate symbol of capitalism just frightens me.

  29. James says:

    I think the largest and most important question posed by this article is easy for me to answer: Crash Bandicoot would kick the Covenant’s arse.

  30. Sarin says:

    Great game. Took a few goes to finish it but that endings montage was worth it

  31. Okami says:

    I think I can say a few things about growing up on computer games in germany (or at least in a german speaking country):

    Home computers were allways way bigger than consoles in germany. I think console game sales only surpassed pc game sales in recent years in germany.

    This is best illustrated by taking a look at the german print mag scene:

    Late 80s and early 90s there were basically two german gaming magazines (that mattered):

    PowerPlay and ASM (Aktueller Software Markt). Both were multi format mags, which focused on computers, there was a console section, but that was at the back of the mag and I think that PowerPlay only added it after it had been around or some time (not too sure about that).

    Of course there were system specific mags like Amiga Joker, Atari Joker, PC Joker and a bunch of otheres. As well as Disc Mags.. You know those: You just buy a disc in a shrink wrap and all the articles and demos and whatnot were on the disc.

    PowerPlay, which surpassed the ASM as best selling magazine at some point in the early 90s, started it’s existence as the gaming section of Happy Computer, a general purpose computer mag from the 80ss which was famous for it’s listenings.

    It wasn’t until the early 90s that the first major console only magazine appeared in germany (it was called Maniac and started it’s life as a special edition of PowerPlay I think..).

    I think one of the reasons computer gaming was allways bigger than console gaming is the germans’ enigneer attitude. You can use a computer, it’s a tool, not just a toy. So parents were far more likely to buy their kids something that could be used for work rather than just for playing. I know I convinced my mom to get me a C64 so I could work with it.

    And then there’s eastern germany of course. People in the GDR had access to computers, if you were really lucky and well connected, you might even get a western computer like the C64 or an Atari.

    But mostly east germans made do with the Robotron, which was built in the GDR (yup, commies built home computers), and was a really nifty piece of equipment from what I’ve heard about it.

    There even was an east german game development scene (which mainly consisted of ripping off western arcade games), however small.

    Oh and my favorite bit of germany related computer trivia from the eighties:

    We all (well at least us real men, who grew up with home computers with tape drives!!) know, that you can save computer data as sound. We also know, that you can broadcast sound via radiowaves. There was a radio show in the GDR in which whole programs were broadcasted over the air. You just turned on your radio before the show started, put a tape in the radio’s tapedeck and pressed record once the “show” started. One hour of recording later you had “downloaded” yourself a new program.

    Pure genius!

    I hope this shed a little light on computer and video gaming in germany during the golden years. I wrote all of this from memory and I’m sure I made a few mistakes here and there or ommited something. But I think I’ve covered most of the main issues here. If anybody feels like correcting me or adding something: Go ahead!

  32. Alex says:

    Home computers were allways way bigger than consoles in germany. I think console game sales only surpassed pc game sales in recent years in germany.

    I think that’s a general theme for a big part of Europe.

  33. Kieron Gillen says:

    Okami: The radio stuff is amazing.

    KG

  34. J says:

    GIL! SCOTT! HERON!

    (Sorry.)

  35. Kieron Gillen says:

    (I almost quoted that bit in the post)

    KG

  36. Okami says:

    I did a little googling on east german games an Lo And Behold! there’s a website where you can play games from east germany’s socialist past (insert lame “in soviet germany computer games play you” joke here).

    http://www.polyplay.de/?m1=play

  37. Dorian Cornelius Jasper says:

    Rook: Metroid… dude? I find this phrase amusing, for reasons entirely irrelevant to the discussion at hand.

  38. terry says:

    After playing this I began to think how hardcore it would be for entire platform romsets or styles mixed and mashed to be released. A lot of the time (Golden Axe vs Warriors of Fate vs That Cowboy One with the Guy With The Purple Outfit and Silly Hat) the games would be similar enough to work.

    However I can picture the spasmodic fits generated in Nintendo’s legal department from this game alone, but I can always dream, right? :O

  39. Farbs says:

    I’m right there dreaming with ya Terry baby.

  40. Lizardbreath says:

    I’m not sure I agree with the assertion that Rom Check Fail treats its characters as “games people love” as opposed to “icons to pay fealty to.” In fact, I would say the opposite is true. By saying the use of these characters is merely a nod to “games people loved” is to say that the game would have the same appeal if the developer had used generic sprites with no historical significance. But I don’t think the power of nostalgia can be overlooked. Classic game icons were used solely because they were icons, because they would provoke a greater emotional response. The fact that they’re remixed after a short time only makes you more acutely aware how arbitrary these icons are…The player has no permanent in-game identity or enemy; he or she must simply follow the universal formula of “defeat stuff to win.”

    I suppose you could argue that the appearance of the classic characters are merely a shorthand for what abilities you could use at any given moment. But the fact that these abilities are quickly recognizable just loops back to the point that they have icon status.

  41. CN says:

    The Rom Check Fail link at the top of the article goes to a dead page. It needs to be http://playthisthing.com/rom-check-fail

    You have an extra ‘s.’

  42. battery says:

    [...]PowerPlay, which surpassed the ASM as best selling magazine at some point in the early 90s, started it’s existence as the gaming section of Happy Computer, a general purpose computer mag from the 80ss which was famous for it’s listenings.[...]