To Boldly Explore Why We Love Spock and Data

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What can I say about Star Trek? It is easily one of the most celebrated TV shows in history. Boldly going where no shows had dared to go before, Star Trek tackled real-world issues like racism, death, friendship, loss, love, and just about everything else you can imagine, all under the umbrella of awesome, interstellar adventure. Memorable characters, quotes, and episodes still stick in our minds as significant explorations of what it means to be human, warts and all.

As I have been (re)watching “The Next Generation” on Netflix, I have been thinking about two characters in particular: Mr. Spock, from “The Original Series,” and Mr. Data, from “The Next Generation.” These are two of the most-loved characters from the entire Star Trek Universe. Everyone knows Spock’s customary Vulcan greeting, even if they don’t realize what it’s from.

I recently had an enlightening discussion with my good friend Dominic, perhaps the greatest Trekkie in existence, about the interesting duality of both of these characters. If you’re unfamiliar with their backgrounds, you’re probably on the wrong site, but read on.

Mr. Spock, the Enterprise’s Science Officer, is half human, half Vulcan, an advanced alien race which founds its civilization completely on logic, and is entirely without emotion or feeling (“That is illogical, Captain.”). Mr. Data is an android who serves as a Lieutenant aboard the Enterprise, always having difficulty understanding things like humor or sadness, as they are innately human emotions.

DATA(SS)

DATA(SS)

Both these characters face a similar struggle: they are sort of human, but sort of not at the same time. Mr. Spock is always torn between his human and Vulcan sides, one in touch with feelings, emotions, and, to an extent, sans rigid logic. Data tries constantly to learn about humor (even asking a stand-up comedian for help understanding in one episode), but he never seems to fully understand. At his core, he is a machine.

However, with both Spock and Data, we see an interesting shift in the characters throughout their respective shows. Data, for example, is introduced as extremely mechanical, quite literally, but as the show progresses, he develops a human side. He struggles to balance his nature as a machine with his desire to laugh, cry, feel. Spock, too, continually wrestles within himself, trying to rectify just what he is.

Both these characters present questions to the viewer about what exactly it means to be human. And, while Star Trek explores this topic, it never gives any answers. Data and Spock challenge us to look within and find out what makes us who we are. This, I would argue, is why there is such a love for them among fans. When Data grows a beard or dresses up as Sherlock Holmes, we feel for him; we understand what it is like to be searching for yourself, trying to find out who you really are. We as the audience want Data and Spock to be human. We root for them among the rest of the cast, because, in many ways, they are the most human of all. (Let’s be honest, Shatner’s acting is WAY more robotic than Nimoy’s. Let the flame war begin.) They represent a great metaphor for our own internal struggles as people.

Maybe it’s time for you to rewatch some old episodes. Until next time, live long and prosper.

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Atari’s E.T., and a Geek History Lesson

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If you’re reading this, you probably have some interest in geek culture. Or you just clicked the wrong link on Google. Either way, welcome. Recently, there has recently been a great resurgence of publicity surrounding the now-infamous “Atari Burial” of 1983. But before I begin, I should probably give a brief nerd history lesson.

A BRIEF NERD HISTORY LESSON: In the early 1980s, video games had officially become a thing, and they generally looked something like this:

"Berzerk" on Atari 2600

“Berzerk” on Atari 2600.

Atari was big business. Its giant library of games dominated the entertainment market, capturing the imaginations of young people everywhere. It seemed like the beginning of an exciting new age of gaming, and fierce competition between the Atari 2600, the Intellivision, and the ColecoVision made sure that companies continued producing great games. Then came the crash.

By 1983, many third-party companies had jumped on the video game bandwagon. Realizing there was money to made, they created their own consoles, often imitations of the big three with poorly-designed games, faulty hardware, etc. Consumers grew tired of buying sub-par merchandise, and the market became saturated. Retailers were struggling to sell video games, and it seemed the industry was on the way out.

In a last-ditch effort to save its struggling brand, Atari planned to cash in on the 1982 summer blockbuster, “E.T.,” by making a video game tie-in. In a rush to get the game into stores in time for the Christmas season, Atari gave programmers minimal time to create a quality product. And it suffered from massive suckage. Fans felt that playing the game was slightly worse than swallowing glass, and Atari was left with millions of unsold and returned copies.

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A typical reaction to Atari’s “E.T.”

Realizing that warehouse space was too valuable to let millions of these electronic turds sit and collect dust, Atari decided to let them literally sit and collect dust in the Alamogordo, New Mexico desert. Atari dumped most of its remaining stock in the desert landfill and covered it over with concrete. This was supposed to be the end of this tragic story. What Atari couldn’t possibly have anticipated was the internet.

For some 25 years, there was little discussion about the Atari Burial. Your average gamer didn’t even know it had ever happened. Then, with the advent of the internet, people began talking about it again, and interest in it was reborn, a la the Star Wars Holiday Special (look it up). Various gaming webseries reviewed it, and the Angry Video Game Nerd has made it the subject of his upcoming feature film (which, by the way, looks AMAZING). Now, a Canadian film company called Fuel Industries has just made an agreement with the city of Alamogordo to excavate the landfill to rediscover the treasures (and the trash) that lie within.

This begs the question: Why all the hype around what is often considered the worst game ever made? Why are so many people, after so many years, so very excited about the prospect of digging through a landfill in Middle of Nowhere, NM to find something that no one wanted in the first place? Why did this cult phenomenon suddenly achieve newfound fame concurrent with the coming of the internet? Why are filmmakers willing to spend mad money on the very real chance of finding absolutely nothing?

Use your imagination.

Use your imagination.

I would argue that this renewed interest in the ugly roots of video game history comes from an innate desire to understand where we have been, where we are, and where we are going as gamers. Video games are a large part of who we are as a global culture. In the same way that we can learn about a past culture by studying, say, their written manuscripts, we can learn about the history of a past pop culture by studying its “manuscripts.” I am a child of the 90s. Thus, I was not around during what might be called the Golden Age of video games. Having grown up on later consoles, I find it interesting to look back on how gaming got to be where it is today. (Not to mention, it’s fun to watch reviewers make fun of it.) Furthermore, there is a sense of pride in having loved and followed something for its whole existence. Whether it is a filmmaker, a band, a superhero, or the macro video game industry as a whole, nerds take pride in their long-standing passions.

I believe I speak for the majority of gamers in saying that we have a deep nostalgia for the history of electronic entertainment. Why is it that everyone knows the music from Mario 1? Why is it that people still, to this day, play and talk about games that came out over 20 years ago? Yes, I was not alive in 1983. You probably weren’t either. Still, learning about the history of something makes me appreciate it more. The train wreck that was Atari’s “E. T.” can be seen as an outward representation of an inner desire to connect with a foreign past.

Or it might just be that it’s funny to watch the Angry Video Game Nerd take a dump on it.

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The Case for Banjo-Tooie

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I may be a cult of one, but I love Banjo-Tooie. Perhaps this isn’t surprising, because the Nintendo 64 was by far my favorite system ever made, but even among N64 enthusiasts, Banjo-Tooie is one that often slips under people’s radars. I love asking people what their “Top 5” list of video games is. You hear many different answers depending on who you’re asking, and it can often lead to some great conversation.

My Top 5 favorite video games are:

1) The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (N64)
2) Super Mario Bros. 3 (NES)
3) Mario Kart 64 (N64)
4) Super Smash Bros. (N64)
5) Banjo-Tooie (N64)

***Yes, 4 out of 5 of those are N64 titles. Sorry I’m not sorry about it.***

I think most any gamer would have at least one or two of those in his or her Top 5 (I’m looking at you, Ocarina). When I tell people my Top 5, they often say, “Banjo-Tooie? What about Metroid? Mega Man? Castlevania? Mass Effect? Street Fighter 2?”

Yes, I know.

banjotooiecoverAll those are great games in their own right. Taking with a grain of salt that this list is completely objective and opinionated (but if you disagree that Ocarina is the greatest game ever made, you’re just wrong), what is so great about Banjo-Tooie that would make me rank it above all those classics? Where do I begin?

Banjo-Tooie was released in November 2000, the sequel to Banjo-Kazooie. It was published by Rareware, who truly dominated the N64 with memorable titles like Goldeneye, Donkey Kong, Perfect Dark, Conker’s Bad Fur Day, Jet Force Gemini, and Blast Corps.

The story follows the return of Banjo the bear and Kazooie, his backpack-ridden bird companion as they adventure through all kinds of colorful levels, ultimately leading up to the dramatic return of Gruntilda, the series’ main antagonist. Full of memorable music, silky-smooth controls, clever Easter eggs, and (sometimes not-so) subtle humor, the game is a great experience throughout.

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If only my grades looked like this…

Critical reception of its predecessor was very high, making Banjo-Tooie one of the more highly anticipated sequels on the N64. Rareware delivered. If you’ve played the first game, you know it’s top notch; excellent level designs and graphics that stretched the N64 to its limits. However, there was much left to be desired. What if you could play as Mumbo, Banjo/Kazooie’s skeletal shaman friend? What if you could play as only Kazooie or only Banjo? WHAT IF KAZOOIE BECAME A FIRE-BREATHING DRAGON?!

Enter Banjo-Tooie. This game did it all. It was everything players wanted in a sequel. Split-up abilities, playing as Mumbo (and electrocuting the hell out of baddies with his supercharged staff), plenty of unlockables and mini-games,  a whole slew of awesome moves for Banjo, Kazooie, and the two together… it was simply a fresh look at an already great game. And yes, Kazooie becomes (spoilers) a dragon.

One of my favorite aspects of the game is the interconnected nature of the worlds. Every world connects to another world. I can’t think of a game that did this before Banjo-Tooie, at least, not on the scale that Banjo-Tooie did it. It’s fun to revisit an earlier world with newly-acquired abilities and get a different experience. It certainly keeps the game interesting and adds to its replayability. And Witchyworld is one of my favorite levels in any game ever, so there’s that.

And then there’s the music. There are a few video game soundtracks that EVERYONE knows (again, looking at you Ocarina). This should be one of them. Composed by Grant Kirkhope (Goldeneye, Donkey Kong, Banjo-Kazooie), the music from Tooie is some of the catchiest, best orchestrated game music ever.

Here are two of my favorites:

Aren’t those great? The actual level Hailfire Peaks has two sides, lava and ice, and when you enter the other side, the music changes to reflect your new surroundings. Rareware did this in many of their games, and it’s little things like this that make them so memorable. When you’re underwater or in a cave, the instrumentation shifts to echo the mood and more fully immerse you in the game.

What about the mini-games? Long story short, they rock. Whether you’re driving bumper cars, flying around as Kazooie popping balloons, playing kickball, minecart-racing a giant canary (who, by the way, is impossible to beat the second time), or flying a carnival spaceship, there is an abundance of mini-games, and they are all awesome. Which brings me to my next point…

You wouldn’t expect the Banjo-Kazooie series to have much to offer in the way of multiplayer options, but Tooie has some of the best multiplayer on the N64. All the minigames are playable on their own, but the ones that really stand out are the Shootout games. As I mentioned before, Rareware developed Goldeneye on N64, arguably the best FPS game ever made. To this day, people still talk about the multiplayer and how many hours (and friendships) they lost because of it. Goldeneye came out in 1997, so Rareware made the ingenious decision to include a re-themed, family-friendly, Goldeneye-style shooter in Banjo-Tooie. Instead of spraying polygon-headed Russian stereotypes with the KF7 Soviet, you’re firing eggs from Kazooie’s mouth. Using the same gameplay engine as Goldeneye, the weapons are comparable (grenade eggs, proximity mine eggs, etc.), and it feels just like Goldeneye.

The voice acting is memorable, although no real words are ever spoken. Banjo and his crew speak a sort of stylized gibberish, which is translated onscreen. It sounds weird, but it works. Check out the opening cutscene:

I feel that Banjo-Tooie really captures the essence of the Nintendo 64. It represents a simpler time in gaming history, one where having a futuristic gun and mowing down zombie Nazis wasn’t necessary for a good game, one where there were more games rated “E” than “M.” Banjo-Tooie really is a gem among the N64 library. Neither it nor its predecessor get enough credit. They are too often overshadowed by their contemporaries like Ocarina, Mario 64, and Goldeneye. I truly believe that Banjo-Tooie stands on its own two paws, and, if you haven’t played it in a while (or ever), it’s well past time to dust off that N64 that’s sitting in your garage and give it a run. You won’t be disappointed. And if you are, well, you’re just wrong.

Afterword: Rareware employees, if you’re reading this, Gruntilda did mention “Banjo-Threeie” in one of her lines of dialogue… Just saying…

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Troll 2: The Best, Worst Movie!

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If you haven’t heard of this movie, I don’t know whether to pity you or envy you. Often hailed as one of, if not the worst movie ever made, this 1990 cinematic (I use that term loosely) train wreck has a certain wonder to it.

Oddly enough, this strange MGM film (Yes, MGM as in Metro Goldwyn Mayer. I’m sure many people got fired over this.) has had a resurgence of popularity in the past few years. Well, not a “resurgence,” because that implies it was popular before, but you know what I mean.

My friend Catheryn introduced me to “Troll 2” about two years ago.  I had never heard of it before, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Looking back, that was a good thing, because, had I had any expectations whatsoever, they would not have been met.

Where do I begin? The plot, about a family tormented by vegetarian goblins in the town of Nilbog (get it?), has more holes than a cheese grater, the acting (again, I use that term loosely) is bad at best, the characters are terrible, there is not a single troll in the movie (not kidding, the villains are goblins), and the film itself is painfully long. These are a very, VERY few of the blaring faults with this film. Ever heard of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses? That’s all I’m saying…

(If you’re a glutton for punishment and want to find out more, visit the Wikipedia link above.)

If you have never had the “privilege” to watch this travesty of film, take a look at some of these clips or watch the whole thing on streaming Netflix. I dare you.
If you still have both eyes after, I salute you.

So why has this 21 year old turd become suddenly popular? To be honest, I have no idea. You know how people say something is “so bad it’s good?” That doesn’t even begin to cover it. The film has had such an explosion in popularity that a documentary was even made by the child star of “Troll 2,” Michael Paul Stephenson, now grown up and married, entitled “Best Worst Movie!” (Side note, it is a superb documentary. Watch it if you get the chance.)

Yet, despite all the glaring issues with the film like, I don’t know, THE FACT THAT THERE’S NOT A SINGLE TROLL IN THE MOVIE, the film is just plain fun. Imagine getting a professional massage while lying on a bed of nails; it’s painful, but wonderful. It’s almost as if the film was made to be mocked.

But let’s be honest, any film bad enough to literally receive a 0% rating on rottentomatoes.com’s TomatoMeter has got to be worth a watch.

Bored Games?

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As I said before, I love good video games. N64 is wonderful. I could sit in my room for hours playing “Ocarina of Time” and be completely and utterly fine. But what about tabletop games?

My friend Andrew and I are in the process of starting a tabletop gamers club at the University of Arizona which will primarily focus on board, dice, and card games; Magic: The Gathering, D&D, Settlers of Catan, Fluxx, Dominion, Puerto Rico… for lack of a better term, geek games.

I have noticed that there seems to have been a resurgence of popularity in geek gaming over the past decade or two. While video gaming remains, as it has for over 30 years, big business, board gaming is booming once again. Why is this? Why choose Ticket to Ride over Call of Duty? Why pick Pandemic over BioShock? Allow me to try to break this down for you.

It used to be that D&D players would run campaigns in the back rooms of dimly-lit comic book stores (no offense if this is you), and games of Magic would be planned on the DL for an underground group of geeks. Why is it, then, that nowadays, it has suddenly become more socially acceptable to play Magic publicly in the light of day? Why has Settlers of Catan become such a worldwide phenomenon? Why is Monopoly seemingly on the way out?

I can think of a few answers to these questions.

First, what has changed since the beginnings of geek gaming? Well, Dungeons and Dragons, for example, is one of the oldest RPGs still played today. While it may still be a bit of a taboo subject to speak of, D&D players are “coming out” more now than ever. How can it be that such an unspoken game has maintained such international popularity for so long? Imagination. It’s as simple as that. It takes very little imagination to play Left 4 Dead, let’s be honest. While it may be fun to rage on a zombie hoard, it involves little thought (not to mention little blinking). In D&D, player are forced to make the game, rather than having it simply presented to them. If the only necessary supplies to play D&D are some books and a dice set, the rest of the adventure must lie within the imaginations of the players. Do you choose to face the Cyclops? Do you run away from the oncoming hoard of Half-Elves? Do you stand your ground against a high-stat fighter Dwarf? Whatever you do, it is rarely shown to you. Thus, players are forced to mentally create the scenario. This makes room for endless possibilities. As Barney always told us, if you use your imagination, anything can happen. Thanks, purple dinosaur.

When playing Super Smash Bros., while you may be “interacting” with your fellow players, it’s a completely different type of interaction, one that probably looks more like a button-mashing, Falcon-punching, smack-talking, PK-thundering, hammer fest.

Jerry Seinfeld said it best: “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” While I stand by my argument that there is a plethora of artistic merit to be found in beating the snot out of one another with beam swords, tabletop gaming is equally, if not even more artful. Let’s take, for example, pretty much the most basic, foundational geek game there is: Mayfair Games’ The Settlers of Catan. If you are unfamiliar with this game, it is sort of like Civilization or Age of Empires in board game form. (If you don’t know what any of these games are, stop reading, go eat a gallon of ice cream, and play Scrabble.) I have seen some great games of Catan in my life. The game in and of itself is quite simple: settle and inhabit a resource-rich island. The simple gameplay mixed with limitless room for strategy is awesome. Even within the simple box art of the game, the 4th Edition of the game features superb art that is not unlike Millet’s famous genre painting “The Gleaners.” (My apologies, the Art Historian in me is coming out.) The strategy of Monopoly mixed with the concept of Risk, combined with the opponent-screwing joy of Sorry makes for one heck of a game.

But perhaps the best thing about tabletop games, something that video games may never match, is community. Sorry, XBox Live. When playing a board game, one usually plays with friends or loved ones. Good conversation, laughs, Bagel Bites and Red Bull, dramatic comebacks from almost certain loss, these are what makes board games wonderful. I mean, come on, that redneck breathing loudly into the microphone on Halo is just not as enjoyable to be with as your best friends. Maybe it’s the strategy, maybe it’s the fellowship, maybe it’s the face-to-face conversation, maybe it’s the pure joy of placing the Robber on your best friend’s 8, 3-city brick space just before he would get Longest Road, maybe it’s simply the fun of unleashing the imagination and letting it run wild, but whatever it is, tabletop games, both geeky and non-geeky, can truly be magical.

Just be sure you don’t have more than 7 cards in your hand.

P.S. I am thinking of doing a post about game box art. Any thoughts on that?

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.