Saturday, December 15, 2012

The 1988 Taito Arcade Game Version of Superman


Coming soon to a dive Italian take-out pizza and subs joint near you!

Isn't it enraging that the only good Superman game ever made was never, ever released for home consoles?

Not only that, it's the only Superman game ever made that used the trademark John Williams music from the movies. Just listen to it. There's even a hilariously "action-y" up-tempo version of the dopey love scene music on one stage.

Though it doesn't use any known Superman bad guys, it nonetheless feels like a Superman story: a fiendish green warlord leads a global alien invasion, one that apparently is only interested in attacking America's most scenic locations like the Las Vegas strip and San Francisco's Chinatown.

 The aliens include a giant loincloth wearing Harryhausen cyclops,

 Jumping bunny women;

 Spider-monsters that trap you in a web;

 Apparently the one thing the aliens all have in common is, when defeated they break up into the into the Outer Limits horizontal lines that Unicron used to create Galvatron.

 So far, so good: you have a science fiction themed global alien menace, an element of travel. Everything you need for a good Superman game.

 This looks like a job…for Superman! And red Superman!

Wait! Who the heck is this guy? Is this possibly a reference to Superman-Red and Superman-Blue, the Imaginary Story from 1967?

If so, kudos. But I doubt it, since it's traditional for beat 'em up games to have a co-op mode, with a second player created by a palette swap (see also: Double Dragon, Altered Beast). The presence of a Red Superman may just be an especially chutzpah filled example of video game adaptations' greatest motto: "to hell with it, nobody will notice." 

This reminds me of how, when you were a kid, you'd play Superman on the playground and everybody wanted to be Superman. If Superman comics were like our playground games, there would be approximately 500 Supermans flying around out there arguing who hit who.

 But it gets more interesting, because have a look:

 Unused sprites left in the game show a second playable female character. Possibly Supergirl? There might have been an idea to make Player 2 Supergirl, but palette swaps were easier. And besides, in an era of zero female game characters, some chauvinistic boys might not have liked playing a girl - even Supergirl.

 (FYI, or those unaware, it's actually easier to leave in unused or unfinished content in a game rather than eliminate it totally, because if you yank something out it might create problems with programming it's "attached" to. So it's usually easier to just block something out. But those who get their hands on the game code can sift through it line by line like bread crumbs and find all kinds of surprises. There are many interesting examples, like an unused, incomplete level in Sonic 3, or like the fact Legend of Zelda: the Ocarina of Time, a fantasy game, has a futuristic tiny starfighter Arwing from "Starfox" that was added in to test the flight physics.)

 The game doesn't stiff you when it comes to Superman's powers, and doesn't cheaply dole them out in ways like putting them on limited uses, or linking them to power ups. It's possible to lift and throw cars, and the game is even built around the element of flight, with it going vertical instead of the weird 3-D perspective seen in brawler games like Double Dragon, which means your punches end up hitting only air because of an error in depth perception.

 There are levels that become flying stages where you soar upwards, which is a downright revolutionary use of space in a genre defined by The Eternal Quest to Go Right. There are even some Gradius or Lifeforce style 2-D "schmup" stages where you blast enemies with laser vision.

 The game is a lot like the movies in ways other than the music, especially in the sense that Superman, instead of having his traditional powers, is basically like a genie, given additional bizarre powers for budget reasons. In the movies he could appear in several places simultaneously, use telekinesis, throw his S-shield as a cellophane trap…not to mention "Great Wall of China Vision" from Superman IV.


 In the tradition of the movies, Superman can apparently also either throw his fists (like Voltron?) or his fists can create charged up fireballs in the shape of a fist. Not entirely sure what's going on there.

In general, the game is worth trying if you can find a cabinet, even if it doesn't have any of the Superman enemies, supporting cast, or even Kryptonite, though the last one is annoyingly overused. The fact it is unavailable is a crime, and a sign of how totally possible it is to "lose" video game culture. Like movies in the silent era, they just weren't seen as important enough to preserve or keep in circulation.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Explaining Fan Behavior: Why some things get devotion

Here's a question: why do some fictional worlds and properties attract incredibly devoted fans? I mean, some do, and others don't.

There are many, many reasons a fandom becomes big or assumes the form it ultimately does, including a combination of luck and visibility...although that's not quite what I asked. What is it about the properties themselves? What do they all have in common?

According to the unofficial history of Star Trek by Bob Justman, the first Star Trek convention was far from a spontaneous gathering. It was run by Gene Roddenberry himself and he rustled people in from all over. In other words, part of the reason Trek fans are so big and organized is (partially) because of talented huckster Gene Roddenberry's talent for self-promotion.

Lord of the Rings was a low seller in a niche genre that didn't even have a name yet for an entire decade, released at the same time as now-forgotten Thomas Burnett Swann's Minotaur books or Mervyn Peake... until LotR was rediscovered by the 1960s counterculture. The hippies found the story's themes of hostility to modernism, love of nature, and longing for an imaginary past were all right up their style.

Star Wars had the good luck to be a big studio distributed movie, so millions of butts were going to be in chairs to watch it no matter what. But it success is not just because of that. Part of the reason it was a big hit, a phenom we're still talking about now, was it was the right story at the right time. The Western was now passé, previously the #1 action genre and the single greatest American source of stories about ourselves and our self-concept as a country, as well as our battles of good versus evil. The entire 1970s were filled with grim, adult, director driven movies. Star Wars was a battle of good versus evil not seen since Errol Flynn stopped swashbuckling, with fairytale characters like a wizard and pirate. It was, in short, the right kind of story at the right moment.

And on a lighter note, part of the reason furry fandom is so oddly sex crazed and gay friendly, is because the first furry conventions in the early 1980s were put together by a flamboyantly gay swinger/S&M lover who actually invited just released prisoners from jail to show up! This jailhouse gay and S&M attracted others into the same scene, repulsed others that didn't care for it, and in general set the tone for years later.

Okay, okay, back to my original question: why do some fictional worlds inspire so much devotion and others don't? What do they all have in common that get people to still think about them?  After all, the hippies came and went, but Lord of the Rings is still around, and there are still kids in high schools today writing notes in Dwarf runes.

If you look at the really BIG fan groups out there, like Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, and the Marvel and DC Universes, you find that people are so obsessive about them because these worlds have built up enough detail that it's possible they're engrossing and "full" enough to capture the attention.

The more real a story feels, the more engaged you are. Just like significant descriptive details in a book bring a scene to life, the richer and more developed a world is, the more minutiae fans can collect like stamps, the more devoted your fans will be.

Here's a secret: hardcore fans like their world and devote so much time to it because they think it's real. 

…Okay, that's obviously not literally true, except for a tiny handful of seriously mentally ill people.

But really involving worlds and stories are set in places that make you FEEL like they're real, have verisimilitude, that the stories don't end the instant the book is closed or the movie ends. There's plenty going on to make you think about it later on, or talk about it with friends aneven have fights over nitpick details, and curiosity over some of its unexplained mysteries. This is why fictional worlds can be such an engrossing diversion. This is why people get very curious and so very passionate.

We fans do this not because we think the story is literally real, but because we like suspension of disbelief. Because when people tell us a story, we want to believe it. That's the difference between a liar and a storyteller: people are by default suspicious of liars, but want to believe a story.

This is also why adaptations can sometimes be frustrating for fans. Because we believe there is a reality behind these characters and worlds that do not vary or change. A reality that is independent of the free market, cultural, and business forces that take place in our own world.

Even disagreements and fights between fans are based on the idea characters are independent of us readers/viewers, solid and concrete. People have disagreements about whether Spider-Man would or wouldn't behave a certain way. This disagreement is only possible at all because everyone agrees there is a "correct" way for Spider-Man to act.

Okay, now, here, we've reached the first of definition of continuity:

Continuity (or canon) is just another word for verisimilitude, a consistency that makes the world feel more real, by making the world feel as if it continues beyond the boundary of the specific narrow focus of any one single story.

An individual story, by definition, have a laser pinprick focus and economy. Stories can't be "about" everything. Look at a map of Middle Earth and see how much of the place our heroes actually DIDN'T go, even in a story as sprawling as Lord of the Rings.

The purpose of continuity and consistent canon is to dispel the artifice of stories, that a world is not just a series of empty plywood "Potemkin villages" that live when tourists pass by and are yanked down just behind us when we leave.

This is why Sherlock Holmes fans are so fascinated by the tantalizing hints Sir Conan Doyle dropped about cases only mentioned in passing we never got to actually read about. Because it implies Sherlock Holmes and Watson are alive, are doing things when we're not looking. They have a reality independent of what they're doing when the "camera" is on them.

"It's just a story"

Contrary to popular belief, being a fan, even a detail oriented one, is a good thing for the same reason any hobby not pursued to the exclusion of responsibilities is a good thing: because you get out what you put in. Cool detachment eliminates the entire point of a whole story, where you want to be passionate and care about what's going on.

That's why I've always thought there's something oddly inhuman, so defeating to the entire purpose of fiction of any kind, with people who respond to certain kinds of criticisms with, "who cares, it's just a story. Consistency doesn't matter because it's all fictional in the end." It shows a kind of brutal cynicism I don't like, that whoever said it doesn't feel the world is real. It's all a put up job. If it isn't real, why get engrossed or involved?

Why care?

I don't get that argument. If you don't care, why read a story at all? Why read a series long term?

This is also why fans find continuity glitches so galling. They tatter and undermine the suspension of disbelief fiction needs and imply something doesn't have verisimilitude. They create a "trust" issue.

This is also why fans are fascinated by cross-overs. The fact that Spider-Man can swing on the rooftops of Marvel Manhattan and cross paths with Daredevil going the other way makes the Marvel Universe feel more real.

Why Do Fans Like the Obscure?

This is also why fans get tickled pink when obscure characters and minutiae show up, why Star Trek fans smile a bit when a Next Generation episode mentions the Tholians in passing, or when people are delighted to see a minor character like Stingray or D-Man in the background of an Avengers mission.

Those of us that aren't children know, but only at an intellectual level, that stories aren't real, and are artifices with a very narrow focus, that the Tholians were just created to be bad guys for one episode way back when in the old show, and Stingray was an Avenger only used in one story that needed an underwater guy, and that a good portion of super-villains, especially unpopular ones, will never be seen much again after their first story.

Mentioning obscuros again dispels that artifice we're intellectually aware is there ("this is just a story"), and reminds us, to our joy, that the world is real, that these characters are still around and doing something even when we're not looking. The Tholians are out there, somewhere, up to mischief. Stingray can be called up at any time by the Avengers when needed.

In short, the world goes from something we like to something we believe. 

And that's the difference between just liking something, and being a fan.