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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A Geek’s Guide to Collecting

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Everybody should collect something. Collecting is fun, exciting, and rewarding. A friend of mine recently suggested I make a guide to collecting, for use as a reference to new collectors and a refresher to veteran collectors. The following is that guide, a simple set of rules and suggestions to consider when beginning or continuing to collect.

1) Know Why.

First and foremost, why are you collecting this specific item? Are you collecting rare books because you are an avid reader, or because they may have high market value in the future? Either of these reasons are valid. Do you collect Beatles’ memorabilia because you’re a rock ‘n’ roll enthusiast, or because you met John Lennon once? Again, either reason is valid. It’s just important to understand why you’re interested in something, so as to give yourself a baseline. In my case, I have loved Spider-Man for years. His comics have always been my favorite, and the 90s TV show is, to this day, my favorite animated series. With that in mind…

2) Narrow is Often Better.

I like Spider-Man. Specifically him, specifically his comics and toys from the 90s and beyond. It is much easier to collect in this narrow realm, than to collect, say, Marvel Comics in general. That would encompass Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Hulk, Iron Man, etc., and would include some 50+ years of comics history. This is a tall order, needless to say. Moreover, if you’re collecting Marvel, are you including toys? Original artwork? Animation cells from their TV shows? Fast food promotional items? Try to find a smallish niche to collect, at least when you’re first starting. You can always expand beyond this, but quality is better than quantity in most cases, especially on a budget.

3) Know Your Market.

I can’t stress this enough. I truly believe that every collection has someone, somewhere, who would be willing to pony up some cash for items, despite how obscure they may seem. I watch a lot of Antiques Roadshow, and I remember one episode where the appraisers went to this guy’s estate, because his collection was too big to bring to them. What did he collect? Tractor seats. I couldn’t believe someone collected tractor seats, but I was even more surprised to learn that many people did, and there was actually a market for them. A similar feature on the Roadshow had someone who had collected corn things their entire life. Corn Flakes, corn toys (they exist), corn this, corn that. I must say, the collection was phenomenal. The fact that the collection was appraised for a large sum of money suggests that some (insert adjective here) person would drop some cash on this corny bonanza of a collection. Just about any item you could want to collect has a market. You just may not know it yet.

4) Keep Up With Current Prices.

I’ll get this out of the way right now: collecting costs money. The good news, though, is that you can collect at any level of intensity that you want. A collection of 4 or 5 shot glasses picked up from a road trip in 1987 is just as valid as a 10,000 piece stamp collection, valued at a million bucks. What’s right for you is right for you. That being said, it is a good idea to go on sites like eBay, Amazon, and even craigslist, just to get a sense of what certain items are selling for. So-called “market value” is determined by nothing more than what someone is willing to pay for an item. Baseball cards (*sigh,*  yes, I collect those, too) are nothing more than pieces of color-printed cardstock. Why, then, does a Honus Wagner T-206 sell for seven digits? Because it has a market value that is off the proverbial chain. Yes, it has to do with condition, scarcity and availability, age, and a hundred other factors, but, at the end of the day, if no one wants to buy something, it’s market value is $0. Keeping up-to-date with market values will also help you not over-pay for a collectible when you see it for sale, and, by extension, help you know when you’re getting a good deal. On that note…

5) Know When to Hold ’em, Know When to Fold ’em.

A huge part of collecting is knowing when to buy, when to not buy, when to sell, and when to not sell. Some of this comes down to luck, but most of it goes along with #4. In my home state of Arizona, there is a chain of entertainment exchange stores called Bookmans, that is essentially the buy-sell-trade Disneyland of nerdy impulse purchasing. It’s wonderful. Every so often, I strike gold at Bookmans, but I need to be careful! For every one time I strike gold, there are a dozen times I leave with nothing, either because nothing caught my eye, or everything was too pricy. As a collector, I know well the thrill of walking into Goodwill and seeing that (fill in the blank item) that has eluded you for all these years, priced at a mere $5. This is a time when you need to drop some cash, knowing that you may not be this lucky twice. But be wary! Stores also knows how to grossly over-charge for products. Bookmans currently has a used copy of the popular board game “7 Wonders,” which I have seen sell new for about $35, including shipping, priced at $40. Good luck, Bookmans. Someone would have to be a sucker to buy that. Don’t let the thrill of seeing that one missing piece of your collection cause you to over-pay. Sleep on it, do your research, ask if the vendor can put it on hold for a day or two, and think before you buy.

6) Create a Network.

A lot of my friends collect a lot of things. I have a rough idea of what they want, and they know that anything with Spider-Man’s face on it is a good guess for me. This way, you can have extra sets of eyes looking out for collection pieces for you. I was at a secondhand store not too long ago, and I saw a huge case of Warhammer 40K (a nerdy tabletop game, for you n00bs) for a very decent price. I personally don’t play Warhammer, but my friend John is an avid fan. When I saw it, I called him up to let him know about the find, and ask if he wanted me to pick it up for him. I can think of many times someone else has found something of interest to me, and done the same. A system like this creates a great “I-scratch-your-back-you-scratch-my-back” relationship, beneficial for all involved. Get to know store employees, too. My local comic shop knows I’m “the Spider-Man guy.” When they get something in that they think I might want, they often contact me before putting it on the shelves, as a “thank you” for being a loyal customer.

7) Bank on People’s Stupidity.

Collecting only has to be as expensive as you make it. Perhaps you found a sweet deal on a brand new, poorly-labelled “ipdo touch” on eBay. The $16.43 you spent on it might go a long way. You might turn around and sell it, properly spelled, for $100. Nicely done. Go buy yourself that Magic: The Gathering card you’ve been lusting after.

8) Enjoy What You’re Collecting.

More than anything else, this rule is the most important. If you really have fun with and enjoy what you’re collecting, it’s all worth it. The whole idea of “buy low, sell high” isn’t as important as your own enjoyment, unless you’re in it strictly for the money. I love organizing boxes of comic books into numerical order, and admiring my finished work. I love seeing a specific action figure and remember how and where I got it. I love finding old video games at Savers that I haven’t played in years, and popping them in my console for a nostalgia-fueled blast from the past. Some might see collecting as a waste of time and money. I see it as a recreational, conversation-starting, lifelong hobby.

If you don’t already collect something (or 10 somethings), start now. Think critically about what you want to collect, and why you want to collect it. Then, get out there and do it!

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.