The Genius of Pokémon

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If you were between the ages of 5 and 18 in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, you probably made an effort to catch ’em all. The trend of Pokémon took the world by storm, as children of all ages began obsessing over being the best there ever was.

What made Pokémon so popular, to the point that most elementary schools, including mine, outlawed Pokémon cards, usually citing anti-gambling rules to justify it? What about catching and battling little creatures was so appealing that parents would wait in hour-long lines for a few booster packs? I have a few theories.

1) Marketing – This seems to be most obvious reason Pokémon dominated the youth market. The marketing scheme of this entire franchise was just brilliant: to absolutely saturate the industry, hitting all major ancillary markets like TV, toys, cards, clothes, and video games. Simulation rarity of the cards made children everywhere willing to sell their souls for a Charizard. Everywhere we turned, we saw Ash and Pikachu.

2) Association with Nintendo – Pokémon became popular amidst a sort of video game Renaissance. While the N64 was changing the face of the gaming industry,Pokémon was at its forefront. With titles like “Pokémon Snap,” “Pokémon Stadium,” and the interactive “Hey, You! Pikachu!” children could not only watch the action, they could control the action. The ability to transfer data from a Game Boy Color copy of the quest game to “Pokémon Stadium” made it even more appealing to youth, as they could now customize their team’s lineup, utilizing moves acquired on the handheld.

3) Individuality Through Conformity – I know, it seems paradoxical. But think about it. Perhaps what really made Pokémon the business giant that it was was the quest for individuality. The target market, obviously, was children and young adults, an age group in which members are trying to find their own identities within the culture of their peers. The idea of conformity in Pokémon is a given: basically, if you didn’t collect cards, you were weird and probably no one talked to you. However, I believe that Pokémon also helped its audience establish a sense of individuality, as the game was fairly customizable. I was always a fan of Psychic and Fire types, but someone else might have been a collector primarily of Fighting and Electric types. Further, maybe I wanted only 1st Edition, holographics, or I sought the entire Jungle set. Maybe I actually played the game and had a lot of Energy and Trainer cards… wait, no one ever actually played the card game. Regardless, within the broader context of conformity, Pokéfans were able to mold a greater fad into something that suited them personally.

4) Quality – Obviously, any marketing ploy ever wants the same results as Pokémon. They strive to be on top of the market, toppling competitors left and right. But the reason some other potential fads and trends may have failed is because they lacked simple, plain quality. Pokémon is hokey, there’s no doubt about it. The show is laughable, some of the video games were downright awful, but it has that magical, epileptic seizure-inducing (look it up) quality that cannot be matched. It’s timeless. As a staple of my generation’s childhood, it will always be remembered and loved.

You know you still have your Ancient Mew in a case.

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E3: Excitement 2011

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One Twitter user wrote: “Only today would the words ‘Tanooki Suit’ be trending on Twitter.” It’s that time again, ladies and gentlemen, the yearly celebration of all video gaming goodness, the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3).

Halo fans rejoice! #4 is on its way. Check out the new trailer! Microsoft mentioned the upcoming usage of voice control technology for the XBox dashboard and cloud interfacing! Not bad. They also spoke about the future of the Kinect, including games such as “Kinect Sports: Season Two,” “Dance Central 2,” and “Star Wars Kinect.”

Nintendo confirmed that its next home console, tentatively titled “Wii-U,” will be released in 2012, despite rumors that it might be released in time for Christmas of thisyear. Very little has yet been disclosed about the specifics of the system itself, but it has been verified that the controller will include a 6.2 inch touch screen, usable as a secondary screen to supplement the television, or even as a primary screen, seemingly blurring the lines between consoles and handhelds. The company also discussed its upcoming software updates and game titles for the new 3DS, including “Mario Kart” and “Luigi’s Mansion 2,” since the first was such a smashing success (that was sarcasm).

Sony handled itself very well, despite the elephant in the room that is the recent hack of the PSN and theft of the information of some 90 million users. Jack Tretton, head of PlayStation America proudly announced the upcoming PlayStation Vita, the newest handheld system from Sony. Featuring a 5-inch screen and Wi-Fi/3G capability, the new handheld will feature touch technology and even cameras for interactive games.

Sounds like the industry is taking some sweet steps! Modern Warfare 3, Ninja Gaiden 3, various new systems and technologies… What are your predictions for the future of gaming?

Keep yourself up to date at www.e3expo.com!!!

Cartridges vs. CDs

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I realized something today. I was sitting in my room playing “Double Dragon” on my NES, and I had an epiphany.

In recent years, I have developed a knack for repairing old, cartridge-based video game systems when they start to deteriorate, usually due to years in the garage (It’s amazing what rubbing alcohol and brass polish will do for you!).

One of my friends had recently informedme that his X-Box 360 had just gotten the dreaded “Red Ring of Death,” a symptom of a dying console. He asked me if I knew any solutions to this problem, but I told him that I have no experience fixing CD-based systems, and I wouldn’t want to worsen the system’s malfunction by trying to fix it.

And here I was, playing my NES, the primitive, grey box from 1985. I realized that I had never once had any serious trouble with my NES, despite playing it extensively and maybe not even taking the best care of it! Why, I wondered, was the old grey box lasting more than a quarter of a century, but the height of current game technology was already dying, only several years after its release?

I really don’t have an answer. I guess the question was rhetorical. Regardless, it seems to be quite the paradox. Maybe it’s because cartridges tend to keep well and are relatively difficult to damage, whereas CDs can be rendered useless by a scratch from a sibling who accidentally stepped on your copy of “Halo” that you left lying around. Maybe it’s due to the nature of the systems themselves: analog vs. digital. Maybe it’s because X-Box can’t handle the awesomeness of certain games, so its processor fries. Who knows?

I guess this is why I love my NES. One of my favorite parts about the system itself is how it never works the first time. Usually, it’s along these lines:

  1. Insert cartridge. Turn on console. Screen blinks red.
  2. Turn off console. Remove game. Blow on cartridge.
  3. Reinsert cartridge. Power system on. Screen blinks red.
  4. Power off. Remove game, blow in system itself.
  5. Insert a different game. Game works fine.
  6. Remove game. Reinsert first game. Screen blinks blue.
  7. Get baseball bat. Beat hell out of system.
  8. Game plays fine.

Wonderful, isn’t it? It’s funny, every time I think my NES has finally died, it boots up for another round of “Rad Racer II.” I swear, that grey box makes the “Little Engine That Could” look bad.

In the same way that vinyl records produce the best sound quality available, I think cartridge-based game systems produce the best games. They are reliable, trusty, and lovable in that weird, idiosyncratic way. They usually require some patience, but the end result is well worth the trouble.

(Just be sure you don’t touch the NES system while you’re playing, or else you’ll have to repeat steps 1-8!)

The Brilliance of the Wiimote (and other thoughts on game controllers)

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Video game controllers. Gotta love ’em. Where would we be without them? (Besides playing XBox Kinect?)

Back in 1985, Nintendo set the standard for the video game industry. Now, there were many game consoles that predated the Nintendo Entertainment System, some by almost a decade, but the gray box forever changed gaming.

For those who are unfamiliar with game controllers of the past, here is a visual for you.

As much as I love the whole idea of Kinect and controlling a game without a physical controller, there is something about holding a controller in your hand while you play a video game. Maybe it’s the tangibility, maybe it’s the finger aerobics, who knows. Whatever the case, I love holding controllers. I love pushing the buttons. Heck, I even love spinning the 64 joystick around until I get Bowser stigmata on my hands! My favorite game manufacturer is Nintendo, always has been, always will be. They are great, even down to controller design!

For those of you who live under a rock, this is the NES controller. Very simple and straightforward: A, B, Select, Start, and a D-Pad. With this layout, Nintendo cemented the standard of game controls: the left hand toggles the joystick or D-Pad, while the right hand does the button pushing. Pretty standard, but before this, gamers had systems like Atari (Element 8 on the Periodic Table), which, though simpler, was the reverse. It had a joystick to be controlled by the right hand and a single action button for the left.

The NES arguably saved the entire game industry from a complete market crash in 1984, so it’s no surprise that it was the most popular system of its day. In fact, up until very recently, Super Mario Bros. on the NES was the most sold game in history! (And it was dethroned by yet another Nintendo title, Wii Sports!) With such wide exposure, it makes sense that the efficient design of the NES controller set the standard for later consoles.

The basic layout of left hand directional control and right hand button pushing can be seen in just about any system to this day. The NES spawned the SNES in the early 90s, and its controller maintains the same basic formula, though a bit more sleek and comfortable. With the rise of the 64-bit era, however, the D-Pad was no longer good enough.

Enter the N64 controller in all its 3-pronged glory. Let’s be honest here, I can think of ONE GAME that used the D-Pad on the N64, and it was some crappy wrestling game I played at my friend’s house in 3rd grade. (Come to think of it, have you ever noticed that used entertainment stores always have like 500 copies of wrestling games?) As such, I think it’s safe to say that everything else used the center and right prongs for grip, as they would employ A, B, Z, maybe the C buttons or R, and the joystick. But, even with the update to full three-dimensionality, the controller layout remained the same. Even the cockeyed placement of the A and B buttons echo the SNES controller, which echoes the NES controller! It’s like a family tree!

I must admit, waaaaay back when the Wii was in production, and it was under codename “Nintendo Revolution,” I read that it would use a one-handed controller. I immediately thought of the benefits of having a free hand while gaming. I mean, not having to pause the game to get more pizza? Sweet. What I didn’t realize, though, was the sheer ingenuity of the Wiimote.

It is every controller in one. And boy, is it a thing of beauty.

In and of itself, the Wii was revolutionary. For the first time ever, we got to move with the game. We could go bowling in our living room! To this day, almost 5 years after its release (bet you feel old now, huh?), it remains quite innovative. But the controller. Wow. By turning it sideways (a la New Super Mario Bros. Wii), it becomes the NES controller, paying homage to the days of old. If you plug in the Nunchuck, it becomes the N64 controller. If you plug in a GameCube controller, it becomes Gam… wait. Scratch that last one. And, if you can’t decide which controller you want to play with, use the Classic Controller to get the best of everything!

Nintendo obviously thought the Wiimote through very thoroughly, and it shows. Below I have compiled a list of some of the innovations of each progressive handheld Nintendo controller.

NES: A, B, Select, Start, D-Pad

SNES: Addition of X, Y, and top triggers L and R

N64: Lost X and Y and Select, addition of back trigger Z and directional C Buttons

GameCube: Regained X and Y (make up your mind, Nintendo), Z moves to become a top trigger, and C becomes a secondary joystick

Wii (with Nunchuck): Addition of 1, 2, +, -, and Home, B becomes back trigger, C and Z become left triggers on Nunchuck, joystick on Nunchuck attachment

Wii Re-Releases

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Been a while since my last post. Midterms were taking over my life. But hey, I’m back, and it’s the middle of October! We are fast approaching the re-release of the ever-famous “GoldenEye,” originally for N64, on the Wii. And I’ve got a beef with it.

Let me start by saying that I appreciate what Nintendo is trying to do here. In case you aren’t aware, the Wii has a channel on which users can buy out-of-print games directly from the console itself. This “Virtual Console” sports a laundry list of old games from a plethora of different systems, available for purchase and play on the Wii. As a retrogamer myself, I think it’s great that they are re-releasing some of the greatest games ever, marketing them to a wider demographic of gamers, new and old. Some of the available releases include Pokémon Snap and the original Mario trilogy (a complete list can be found on the Virtual Console website).

You’d think that, as a lover of old games, this would be cause for celebration. However, I worry that these updated editions of games will lose some of what made them so great in the first place. This is certainly not the first time old games have been re-released on new systems. Take, for example, the original, 1985 Mario game’s much later release on Game Boy Color. The same concept as the Virtual Console in the re-releasing of classics, the difference lies in that little to no changes were made to Mario 1 itself, it was merely reformatted to fit a small screen and given a slightly altered name. No big.

In my eyes, much of what makes GoldenEye so good is its simplicity. Oversized, polygonal heads awkwardly nestled atop pixelated, amorphous figures… Awesome. One of the best parts of the game, and I think many would agree, is its multiplayer capability. I mean, what’s more fun than planting proximity on all the places where your opponent can respawn? (Come on, you know you do it, too.) There is something wonderful about how, when 4 players meet up in one location and have a shootout, the N64 slows down. There is so much activity happening that the console can’t handle it all! How nostalgically fantastic! Isn’t this part of what makes the game so memorable? When I think of the NES, I think of blowing in the bottom of my games and beating the hell out of the gray box just to play Rad Racer II. This is part of what made the system so beautifully memorable for me, it’s simplicity, and, even its flaws.

Yes, the RCP-90 will still pwn. Yes, there will still be those annoying, screen-peeking opponents in multiplayer. Yes, the Klobb will still sound like a fart. Yes, we will probably still get angry when we press A one too many times and miss the weapon we meant to wield. But I fear that the update of this game may become (and this will sound like an oxymoron) too good. The Russian guards will actually look like humans! 4 person shootouts will be no trouble at all for the Wii! This may not be all bad, I just hope that by releasing second editions of GoldenEye and other classics, Nintendo does not take away simplistic perfection.

Some people may view these updates as a good thing, but I have my reservations about it. An improved update of GoldenEye would be like watching “Psycho” in color when it was meant to be seen in black and white. It would be like digitally remastering Frank Sinatra, whose music was meant to be heard in early 1900’s recording quality.

I don’t want to be too pessimistic about this. I will certainly give the second releases of these games a fighting chance. I also want to make it clear again that I don’t mean to bash Nintendo. Quite the contrary, in fact. I think that these re-releases of games are great. Some of them are really tough to find these days in their original formats, so it is good that they are making an effort to not let the classics simply fade away into the past.  We just need to know our roots.

I <3 the D-Pad

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It seems preposterous to think that video games are not more widely accepted as an emerging art form. I myself identify with the subculture of retrogamers, those players so deeply in love with the classics that everything new-age just doesn’t compare. I love my N64 and my NES, in my opinion two of the best consoles of all time. Yet, there are so very few of us left who play platforms such as NES or Genesis, or, reaching even further back, systems like Atari, ColecoVision, and Vectrex (most of the younger readers probably don’t even know those last two).

We all know the Overworld music from Super Mario Bros. for NES, without a doubt, the most widely-recognized game music in history. Talk about classic. Not only classic, but so hugely influential that this one game literally saved the quickly dying industry of video games during the famous Video Game Crash of 1983. After Mario was released for home platforms, the entire culture of gaming, from economic and social standpoints, was revolutionized. Super Mario Bros. was, is, an will forever remain the standard by which all games are measured.

Throughout the history of the video game, many titles have been released that have become instant hits. Zelda, Mario, Donkey Kong, Tetris, Metal Gear, Sonic, Mega Man, Mortal Kombat, etc. These are all recognized as some of the most classic, timeless masterworks of gaming ever. So why are they brushed aside in 2010, not to be considered art?

A large majority of my friends from college have at least one member of the reigning trifecta of game consoles: the Wii, PS3, or XBox 360, and play them substantially more frequently than any other systems, especially older ones. (As I am not terribly well-versed in these newer systems, I can’t speak with much authority on the subject of Call of Duty, Halo, or other hot new games. I can say without a doubt that the graphics and gameplay are truly superb, but for now I’m going to stick to retrogaming, because it’s what I know and love.)

Let’s think for a moment of what a movie is. Basically, if broken down to the bare bones, a movie is a cinematic representation of a story, right? Roger Ebert obviously considers movies an art form (at least I hope so, because if not, he’s out of a job), and yet, in his eyes, video games cannot be art. What is a video game exactly? Is it not a similar concept? The visual, moving picture representation of an epic story, the only difference being a dose of interaction on part of the audience. Be it the adventure of an Italian plumber traversing colorful worlds to rescue that damn Princess who is always getting kidnapped or the mindless slaying of a massive zombie hoard, is it not essentially the same thing?

I love my NES. There is a certain beauty in it’s simplicity. Simple graphics, catchy 8-bit synth music, and the need to beat the gray box with a baseball bat while it cycles through a whole rainbow of screens just to make it play? Beautiful. It is art at it’s finest. Some of the most incredible art is interactive. Look at any piece of public art! Viewers are not only welcome but encouraged to touch and interact with it, so how are video games any different? Interactive movies? Anyone who has ever played Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty knows that it is a movie with a side of game. With literally hours of cinematic interlude between stages of play, there is certainly a movie aspect to this and other games! So why, Ebert? Why, closed-minded critics? Why is gaming not an art? Tell me, please.

Perhaps we are looking at gaming the wrong way. If an 18 year-old in 2010 has only been exposed to PS3, then the idea of a Magnavox Odyssey is so radically different, it is almost incomparable. In the eyes of someone who just bought Halo: Reach (which, by the way, is sweet), this and other so-called “blinking dot” games are about as interesting as the label on a tube of toothpaste. This young person would be much more likely to play Resident Evil 4 than Duck Hunt. Why? Because they are looking at the classics through PS3-colored glasses. At present, technology is at its finest (that seems to be the case most of the time). Wireless, motion sensitive, portable, touch screen, 3D–these seem to be the direction gaming is headed. What if that 18 year-old could time travel to 1985? Duck Hunt would be the most incredible thing they had ever seen. I have heard stories from adults about endless hours of the fascinated enchantment of Pong. I’m sure that to the average gaming-age viewer back then, Pong was truly amazing, and yet, to play Pong today for more than about 15 minutes may lead gamers to the brink of insanity.

The NES alone was WAY ahead of its time. Some of the accessories that were available for the system were extremely advanced (though most of them had their certain quirks about them). Just to name a few, a robot (actually, it was more than likely just an electronic companion to make up for the friends that gamers of the time didn’t have), a light gun, a piano (yes, a piano, look it up), a voice-activated headset that was advertised to respond to the vocal command “FIRE!” (although it really responded to just about any profanity you could throw at it), even a DDR-style floor mat compatible for Konami workout games! These are just a select few of the plethora of accessories that were extremely innovative. Keep in mind, also, that I have only included one single system here. There are plenty more, believe me.

Some of the most widely recognized artistic movements began because someone was not okay with the norm. Claude Monet decided that he wanted to evoke an emotional response from viewers through use of soft, blended brushstrokes, calming colors, and the idea of capturing a singular moment in time. Enter, Impressionism. Parmigianino decided that the Renaissance art of his time was becoming a thing of the past, so he innovated. Hence Mannerism. Pablo Picasso thought the world looked too normal and he wanted to depict the world in a new way. So began Cubism. People began to notice that the movie industry was well developed, and becoming (I say with caution) stale. Someone saw a market for interactive, living room, controlled movies. Thus was born the video game.

Even within the subgenre of gaming as an art, there have been numerous breakthroughs, countless innovations, and in a mere 30-40 years, debatably, we have witnessed a number of “movements.” Gaming has progressed from a blinking blob of pixels on a tube TV to high-definition action so real it can take a while before a spectator realizes it’s just a game. Continuing the argument comparing games to movies, movies never change. I can watch Transformers all day, but the plot line will never change. What about Marvel Ultimate Alliance? Do you save Jean Grey or Nightcrawler? Okay, bad example, that’s way too obvious. But let’s take the sequel, for instance. Do you side with Iron Man or Captain America? The plot changes depending upon your choice. This makes the replay value very high, seemingly higher than the rewatch value of a movie. While it’s always fun to watch Troll 2 again, I already know what happens. At least, I think I do. I’m still trying to figure out the corn scene…

Anyway, this is starting to become more of an essay than a blog, so I’m going to cut it off now. But, as Arnold would say “I’ll be back.”

Let’s hear what you think!

What is Art?

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Possibly the most loaded question of all time: What is art? Does anyone really have the answer to this age-old question? In the various Art History classes I have taken in college, my professors often begin the semester by asking this question. I have yet to find an answer, or anything even remotely close.

Perhaps the best way to begin is to attempt narrow this question down a bit. I believe that when the average person hears the term “art,” they think of the Mona Lisa or some other stuffy, gaudy painting hanging on a museum wall, something that rich, snobby wine-tasters like to discuss while eating gouda and smoking a corn pipe. Others say it’s “something that I can’t do.” Still others classify art as overpriced, high-brow filling for an empty wall.

Visual art–Does this define what art is? A painting on a wall? Classical music buffs would likely be inclined to say no, that art is more than that. “Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, these are artists,” they would say. Further still, what about philosophers? Actors? Is it even fair to classify art as being something outwardly experienced? I’m hesitant to say so. Could thinking be an art? Arguably, yes. Could athletics be considered art? Probably. Thus, it even becomes difficult to identify an overarching, general definition of what art is. Marcel Duchamp, the great Dada artist of the early 1900’s stirred up quite a ruckus with his piece “The Fountain,” a readymade piece employing an inverted men’s urinal placed on a pedestal in a museum.

How dare he defame art? How could Duchamp justify this crime of aesthetics? Simple. He was arguing then what I am arguing now: art cannot be defined. Does it have to be pretty? Duchamp’s “Fountain” seems to suggest that it doesn’t. Many people look at a piece by Jackson Pollock, the famous splatter painter (or, for that matter, seemingly any Abstract Expressionist piece), and scoff. “My 3 year-old could do that.” Well then, mom, your 3 year-old is an artist! Encourage him to express himself!

What is art? You tell me. I don’t know, nor do I believe anyone does. Art is a supernatural experience. Perhaps that is the best way to define it: an experience. Is it outward? Maybe. Is it visual? Perhaps. Is it pretty? Could be. Is it tangible? Possibly. If you think you know what art is, please, tell me, because even after the many classes, tests, textbooks, and papers, I’m still unsure.

Okay, I know that this blog is about the relationship of Art and Nerd Culture, but I had to get that out of the way. Obviously, the above is by no means an in-depth analysis, nor do I claim it to be infallible fact; remember, this is an opinion blog. If you want to argue about what art is and what art is not, visit any number of other websites. I’m sure there will be plenty of people there who would love to debate for hours.

Anyway, upon asking the question of the relationship to art and all things nerdy, as mentioned in the last post, there are many differing views on the subject. Can comic books be considered art? I myself am an avid Spider-Man fan, probably one of the nerdiest people around when it comes to the topic of the Web-Slinging Wonder, but in various conversations with friends and classmates, I have heard yay’s and nay’s in reference to comic books’ as an art form. When someone says comic books are merely child’s play, or the kind of thing that creepy, single, 40 year-old men read, I’m hesitant to agree. Maybe it’s because I read them and I don’t wish to be classified as childlike or old and creepy? I don’t know, but whatever the reason, I would argue that there is truly artistic merit to be found in comic books.

Visual artists of the Pop Art movement produced countless works that seem to support my hypothesis. Mel Ramos and Roy Lichtenstein had huge influence on the popularizing of comic book art, just to name a few. Ramos painted portrait-like images of recognizable comic book characters like the famous Batman.  Lichtenstein can be considered the father of modern comic book art, with his extensive use of dot-matrix coloring, and cartoonesque quality of his figures, often employing words or sound effects not dissimilar from those found in comic books then and now. If these Pop masters can produce museum-quality images of “child’s play,” can it not still be considered art if it similar imagery is mass-produced and put into the hands of comic enthusiasts? Think of 18th Century French Rococo art. The many breathtaking works of Antoine Watteau and a plethora of others were mass produced and sold in print shops for very little, making art collecting a common practice, something available to even the bourgeoisie class.

What is art? I don’t know. The best definition that I can muster is that it is an experience. This is just a bit of what this blog will explore. I hope to delve deeply into the culture of the nerdy, exploring how comic books, gaming of all sorts, and other such of geeky, under-the-table pastimes are truly art.

Whatever that is.