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