Being up late last night, Alec and I were filled with the urge to post a screenshot from Plants Versus Zombies – or even better, an animated Gif – and just leave it there overnight. In a rare moment of leaning towards good taste, we decided against it. Waking up in the morning, we find that a mass of the mainstream games press have pulled together articles about his many appearances in videogames.
Googling around isn’t good enough, sez I. Someone should play the game.
Which is me. Somewhat unfortunately.
The PC version is on the resurgent Underdogs – and I do raise the eyebrow of a Michael Jackson game being on a site originally about underdogs. But maybe he is. I mean, no-one took Moonwalker seriously – in the game world, he was an underdog. And from Billy Jean onwards, Jackson always had a knack at turning sympathy towards the powerful rich hyperstar rather than the actual underdogs. I saw the film for free as a kid, as part of some keep-the-urchins-busy Summer-thing. I think it was the first film I actually walked out of. Physical acts remain the best critciism.
Now, in the period the game came out, even great films didn’t have a chance of having a great tie-in game. Playing the PC Moonwalker game, I can’t believe its developers even cared slightly about Jackson. Alternatively, they had about a half-day to do it. Or maybe they really did care about Jackson, but they spent all their time making paper-mache statues with their own man-glue rather than learning to design games. Or – even worse – perhaps game design really was that poor back then.
It’s a four-level multigame thing. As the Underdogs review explains, the first two sections are so impressively tedious, you probably won’t get to the better second half. The Underdogs reviewer is correct. I managed to get to the second level, then burned away the remainder of my life, and the idea of starting again – we’re in pre-check-point and level select times, my friends – well, I’d rather listen to Earth Song a half dozen times in a row.
(I’m interested in reading a mass of writer’s response to Jackson’s passing, and Tom Ewing’s noting that the paranoid, delusional, wracked 90s-material seemed to be more in tune with the moment now made me go and listen to Earth Song. I gave it a shot and… well, the second I finish this piece, I’m going to go out to Tom’s club with Alec and biff him right on the kisser. No.)
Anyway – the first and second levels basically involve you running away. They’re large-scale Pac-man games with you as Jacko. trying to first collect the keys for your bike, then your stage equipment, then a rabbit costume to disguise you. Now, if I was Jacko I’d have got the disguise first, because the area is full of deformed grotesqueries of fans – some mounted on horseback – all of whom if they spot you will try and chase you down and take one of your lives. You can run to outspeed most of the baddies, but eventually you get tired out. The enemies don’t. There’s no reliable way of dodging them, so if your run is depleted they get you and presumably tear you from limb like the end of Suskind’s Perfume (SPOILERS! – Literary Ed). If a horse is on the screen, you’re probably dead already. There’s a time limit too – the one time I managed to survive and get a lot of the equipment in one go, it ran down to zero. The only good thing is that you can grind out the level, getting one item at a time.
Because you have 20 lives. The old-skool game criticism rule of thumb of the number of lives being inversely proportional to a game’s quality holds true.
Okay, it’s terrible. It’s not even amusingly terrible. It’s a long, slow grind. But just by playing it, hearing the DOS-Era PC sound version of Smooth Criminal, watching the Jackson iconography fired through a CGA filter works as a focus for my thinking on the man. In some ways, Moonwalker PC is a better reflection of Jackson than many other things connected to his myth.
I mean, a record like Scream spoke of a relationship with the press and an uncomfortableness in the eye… but I’ll still dance to it. It’s called scream, but it’s not a scream. That wasn’t Jackson’s style. It took a group of hack-coders to get to a core fact about him, something which the fantastical nonsense of the film which it’s based upon failed to do.
It’s a game which says one thing and says it clearly. Being Michael Jackson? Being set impossible, meaningless tasks by an unseen yet inescapable and undeniable father figure/torturer? Being chased and hounded every second of your life? Never being able to run fast enough to get away?
It’s not fun. It’s no fun at all.