Armagideon Time

I started this feature without having a coherent plan, just a nostalgia-tinted swirl of memories unearthed after flipping through some periodicals from the year in question. Now that the project is done, I’m still not sure what I was trying to accomplish, much less whether or not I succeeded in doing so.

1983 was the year when my cultural awareness experienced a major awakening. It was the year I hit the pre-teen “sweet spot” that has come to wield tremendous influence on geek culture in general — the wellspring of “ruined” childhoods and thinkpieces extolling everything from shitty toy cartoons to the Backstreet Boys to Rob Liefeld comics. My enduring affection for 1983 may be rooted in a quirk of developmental psychology and some fortuitous timing, but I’m things shook out the way they did. I shudder to think what would’ve happened if I’d been born a couple of years later, where my irrational enjoyment I have for Toto’s “Africa” could’ve fallen on a Howard Jones cut instead.

Synthpop, nuclear dread, videogames, a deep and abiding love of Roy Thomas’s All-Star Squadron — so much from 1983 has been incorporated into my being that the reasons why have become moot at this point.

1983 was the rare year when the “great times” tag was recognized in the now, not applied in a moment of after-the-fact reverie. While I’m instinctively leery about nostalgia’s deceptive snares, revisiting those moments has been a therapeutic experience. In trying to contextualize and articulate those memories, I’ve also had to confront certain truths — about my family, myself, and other things — in between the wistful moments of self-indulgent navel-gazing.

It was a helpful exercise in keeping things in perspective, a long-overdue bit of personal inventory taking. I’m not sure of its value outside my headspace, but I don’t regret undertaking it.

Even as my fifth-grade classmates rushed to put childish things behind them, 1983 saw me still enthralled by the plastic treasures of the toy aisle. It’s something I’d hold onto up until my final year of junior high, for a cluster of related reasons.

One, I was a shy and awkward nerd who wasn’t in any hurry to embrace the “grown-up” world.

Two, Lil Bro was four years younger than me and was a near constant companion and playmate.

Three, I used toys as a proxies and props for my creative imagination, staging scenarios and narratives that would end up as crude comics stories or derivative sci-fi epics. It’s no coincidence that my toy-buying dropped off almost entirely after I purchased a copy of the Dungeons & Dragons Basic set in 1985, as pen ‘n’ paper roleplaying games provided a more satisfying — and marginally more socially acceptable — canvas for those world-building impulses.

In 1983, however, it was all about the articulated plastic. Star Wars — rising high on the Return of the Jedi hype — was still the reigning king of the action figure realm. My most favored figure for most of the year was the Biker Scout, purchased during a trip with my grandparents.

I bought the figure before I’d even seen the movie. He just looked so damn cool, sporting a set of armor that seemed so uncharacteristically “Eighties” compared to his Imperial cannon fodder peers. And though I was reluctant about spending my meager pennies on vehicles or playsets, I did scrape enough cash together to pick up an push-button “explodable” speeder bike for the figure to tool around on during his adventures. He was joined by an also-very-Eighties Rebel Commando and a group of Ewoks who, contrary to the hate-in-hindsight crowd, were popular as hell among my childhood peers.

Yet while Star Wars loomed large, it was facing increasingly stiff competition from a couple of more contemporary-minded fronts backed by the power of media degregulation. There were the Masters of the Universe, backed by a comics crossover with Superman and a shitty Filmation advertoon. My brother and I had a few of the figures and playsets, but their larger scale relegated them to roles as monsters and supervillains in our playroom universe.

The three-and-three-quarter inch reinvention of GI Joe, on the other hand, was a different story. The first wave of Joe figures caught our attention mostly because of the televised ads for the Marvel tie-in funnybook. The figures themselves weren’t too impressive, appearing both flimsy and fugly compared to the solidly constructed and well-sculpted standards set by the Star Wars line.

That changed with the second wave of figures, as Hasbro ditched cost-conscious identikit aesthetics for a more individual approach to figure design. Even better, the new figures came with a bewildering array of accessories from scuba flippers to a pair of skis to a pet eagle. They also added “swivel arm” articulation to the line, which further added to the range of poses that put the Star Wars toys to shame. It wasn’t long before my poor Biker Scout was dethroned by the disturbingly frog-faced Tripwire…

…whose armored bodysuit and set of gear helped sell a generation on the indiscriminatory virtues of anti-personnel mines.

(I also sent away for the exclusive Duke figure, but was a bit horrified when I opened the long-awaiting package and was greeted by what appeared to be a paramilitary Liberace with a blonde crewcut.)

Besides action figures, my 1983 included a modest share of Lego playsets. “Modest” because the local department store didn’t stock Lego stuff and the places that did tended to price all but the smallest sets beyond my reach.

What I did pick up were mostly space sets, and mostly for the minifigs alone. I do have some vague memories of a crazy quilt space hero I assembled from blue, white and gray astronaut minifig components. His name was “Colonel Ultra” and a wielded a raygun against a set of plastic orcs and demons given to me by an aunt for my birthday. I wish I remembered more, because I could probably spin a comic series out of it.

Of all the playthings that occupied me during 1983, the ones I truly wish I’d held onto were my set of boardgames based on popular arcade offerings. The concept reeked of panic-driven desperation on Milton Bradley’s part, but it wasn’t an entirely stupid idea. Videogames were expensive. Console ports of arcade games fell far short of the source material. Kids can be an easy mark for tactical branding.

There was a theoretical opportunity there. One that apparently failed to manifest, because I picked up the entire line from a Caldor’s clearance aisle for a buck a pop. The three in particular I remember were Turbo, Zaxxon, and Berserk. The games were pretty cursory affairs involving spinners and dice, choosing to rely on highly toyetic plastic game pieces as the main draw.

The human player piece in Berzerk featured a finger-flicking action where a pair of blaster-holding plastic arms would swing up and knock over any adjacent robot pieces. Turbo had a fleet of plastic race cars and a weird movement grid. Zaxxon, my favorite of the lot, had walls, turrets, ships, and all the other trappings of the original’s isometric playfield.

I don’t recall playing any of the games by the official rules, except maybe one or two sessions of Berserk. Lil Bro and I would take them down from my grandmother’s closet and improvise something on the fly, typically ending with us hitting and calling each other names.

Every so often, I’ll check the asking prices for the Zaxxon board game on eBay, but I’ve yet to pull the trigger. Lil Bro hits much harder now than he did when he was seven.

The above covers the most memorable articles of my 1983 toy experience, but there were plenty of faintly remembered playthings that also passed through my grubby eleven year old fingers around that time. I recall a Hot Wheels Shelby Cobra with genuine rubber tires and a vintage fire engine. I can also envision a number of remarkably fragile toy swords and guns, back when realism was a chased-after asset rather than the prelude to a police-related tragedy. I remember a variety of arts and crafts sets whose initial novelty faded into tubes of dried paint and unfulfilled ambitions.

There was a time when I would aggressively chase this shit down through antique stores or online vendors. It was partly driven by memories of my mom’s death and the notion that I could reconstruct some sense of wholeness from these fragments of childhood nostalgia. What I ended up with were hollow echoes, artifacts to wistfully turn over in my hands a couple of times before getting consigned to a storage crate in my attic.

Nobody’s Favorite: Cut rate

August 22nd, 2016

I’ve never cared much for Arcade, Marvel’s deathtrap-loving assassin who dresses like he just got off a shift as a greeter at Shakey’s Pizza.

He is the quintessential “Marvel Team-Up villain,” a mixture of high concept absurdity and on-the-nose disposability, possessing just enough adversarial substance and visual flair to float a done-in-one story.

Don’t get me wrong. I love seeing superheroes contend with giant killer pinball machines and exploding amusement park rides as much as any fan of dumb four-color fun does, but anything beyond twenty-two pages of the stuff, however, starts to raise doubts about the validity of the premise.

How does he manage the upkeep for Murderworld, his high-tech midway of death? How does he keep such huge facilities concealed? What about labor costs? Even with the high rates Arcade charges for his services, his expenses must drag deeply on his profit margin while reducing the ability to make up for that in volume.

Besides, if you kill a dude in a secret booby-trapped hall of mirrors and no one is around to witness it, what’s the point? You could just as easily off someone with a silenced pistol in a hidden bunker, claim that your Evil Robot Clowns did it, and still bill your unsuspecting client for the full amount. Sure, style matters, but style don’t pay for giant electrified pinball flippers.

None of this would’ve been an issue if Arcade had gone the way of the Basilisk or the Ringer — characters who fulfilled their immediate purpose before getting whisked off the stage (and then gakked by Scourge a decade later). Yet Arcade was a Chris Claremont creation, one the creator happened to take an inexplicable shine towards and thus felt compelled to shoehorn him into X-Men continuity and a prominence beyond the footnote status the character justly deserved.

“Wait, Andrew! A lot of folks really like Arcade as a villain! How can be a Nobody’s Favorite even by the arbitrary and loose standards you’ve set for this feature?”

The answer to that anticipated questions is “he isn’t.” That dubious honor goes to a luckless loser who occupies an even lower rung on the hierarchy of disposable Bronze Age bad guys…

''Blast! I still had twenty more pounds of accessories to add to my costume!''

…the contemptible Cutthroat!

The up-and-coming assassin made his debut in Marvel Team-Up #89 (January 1980) as the man tasked with offing Spider-Man during a sell-out circus performance. Y’see, the Evil Circus Owner thought that exploding the Wall-Crawler’s skull over the center ring would be just the thing to boost ticket sales.

Granted the plot doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, in light of it being a non-repeatable event that would likely cause a prolonged shutdown and official investigation. Also, staging a public act of murder in a crowded venue seems like it would lead to all sorts of personal liability suits caused the audience’s assumed stampeded toward the exits, as well as the likelihood of inducing a heart attack or three.

Then again, this is the Marvel Universe, a place where an MBA in Evil Circus Management is offered by several respected colleges.

In any case, Cutthroat is given the gig after the Evil Circus Owner balks at Arcade’s asking price and decides to farm the job out to a less expensive murder-vendor. The dispute is overheard by Nightcrawler, the acrobatic X-Man who — in an utterly Claremontean turn of events — had been consigned to the Evil Circus Owner’s freak-show during his pre-superhero days.

Motivated by concern for Spider-Man’s well-being and that long-standing grudge, Nightcrawler decides use his superficial resemblance to the wall-crawler in order to draw the assassin out.

Cutthroat — proving that you get what you pay for — takes the bait but is foiled by the arrival of the real Spider-Man, who shoves Nightcrawler out of the way of the villain’s explosive sniper round. The two heroes then get up close and personal with the rather plaintive gun-for-hire, who opts to let the circus’s panicked menagerie fight his battles for him.

Although Cutthroat’s skills as an assassin may have been lacking, he did demonstrate a pretty strong grasp of the superheroic narrative’s meta game. His gambit may not have been particularly inspired, but it did acknowledge that “superheroes fighting oddly drawn animals” was a more compelling use of page space than “superheroes smack around an some schmoe who got his ensemble from the clearance rack at Mike Grell’s Fashion Warehouse.”

Still, all festivities must come to a close eventually. If you happen to be a dude whose big gimmick is a pistol-sized rocket launcher, there’s only one way a fight with Spider-Man is going to end…

…with the web-clogged sidearm exploding in its wielder’s hand, knocking him flat on his ass and out of the fight.

After that, it was a simple matter for Nightcrawler and Spidey to bring the Evil Circus Owner and his thugs to heel, with a told-not-shown assist from Arcade. Because “closure,” I guess.

Years later, it was revealed that Cutthroat was the brother of Diamondback, a semi-reformed supervillain with a mad crush on Captain America, and served as the Red Skull’s right-hand z-lister for a while. He schemed with Mother Night and eventually got his throat cut by Crossbones.

I read and loved those issues as they came out, yet had completely forgotten that Cutthroat was in them until I started doing research for this post. In fact, I am flipping through them right now and wondering how a character who had that prominent (okay, “prominent”) a role could’ve slipped through the cracks of my memory so thoroughly. If that’s not the stuff of Nobody’s Favorites, I don’t know what is.

We’re down to the last couple of bolts in this particular quiver, so let’s start wrapping things up with a look at the literature that shaped the most formative year of my childhood.

The top of that particular heap was Twilight Zone Magazine, purchased with scrounged pocket change at the convenience store across from Ferullo Field in North Woburn. I’ve written before about the profound impact that publication had on me, but an abbreviated recap is still in order.

In the beginning, my interest lay in the fantasy and horror short fiction pieces which ran in each issue, which tended to be scarier and less subdued than the creaky M.R. James riffs featured in official “horror” anthologies for the kiddie set. Over time, however, I began to dive into the magazine’s other features — historical essays on the evolution of genre fiction and film-making, author interviews, and critical reviews of books and movies (conducted by Gahan Wilson and Tom Disch, respectively).

Much of it went well above my blonde bowl-cut head, assuming familiarity with certain works, authors, or traditions that I’d never encountered, yet what did register reshaped the way I viewed genre material going forward. When a TZM reviewer savaged something, it wasn’t a blanket dismissal of a genre in general but of a specific work that failed to live up to its potential. The reviewers were invested in the scene, but did not allow their loyalties to become the basis for weak justifications of crap.

“Just because it has dragons or superheroes or aliens in it, doesn’t mean its worth your attention” is such an obvious message, but one that had eluded my pre-teen self the way it apparently continues to elude large segments of fandom. It didn’t trigger an overnight transformation of my tastes, but it did irrevocably alter my approach to fandom in the years to come.

The other major literary player of my 1983 was a cheap Vintage paperback collection of Ray Bradbury’s short stories, picked up at the Booksmith in the Woburn Mall. A another geeky classmate had lent me his copy to read during an indoor recess session, and those fifteen minutes with the book were enough to convince me to buy my own copy. My opinions about Bradbury’s work have varied over the years (and currently reside at “like the short fiction, hate the nostalgic and allegorical stuff”) but stories like “There Will Come Soft Rains” and “The October Game” hit the sweet spot where beautifully readable prose met lingering chills.

(“Fever Dream” particularly resonated with me, as I spent both the February and April vacation of 1983 laid up with severe bouts of the flu, and the notion of getting assimilated by a sentient virus did not seem so far fetched to my trembling, spasm-wracked self.)

On the school library front, my two favorite reads were the very Seventies, very dystopian YA sci-fi anthology The Other Side of Tomorrow and a hardcover retelling of The Iliad and The Odyssey with illustrations done in the style of ancient Grecian vase paintings. As much I as adored them, and was apparently the only person ever to check them out, I was too much of a goody two shoes to swipe them before I moved onto to junior high. I regretted my righteousness immensely when some idiot teens burned down the school building a couple of years later.

I did manage to score a cheap copy of the anthology on eBay about a decade ago. The mythology book is something of a highly sought rarity which commands more than I’m willing to spend on the secondary market.

Apart from these, there were other books that caught my fancy for an afternoon or occasionally a lifetime. There were Mad Magazine paperbacks full of dated references and amazing art. There was the Interplanetary Spy series, whose videogame-inspired aesthetic and puzzle book elements gave them a leg up over the more staid Choose Your Own Adventure line of interactive fiction. There were the Books of Lists and the People’s Almanac, jam-packed with fascinating factoids (and whose “naughty” chapters would be the closest thing I’d ever have to a sex-ed class). There was a cheapjack Scholastic horror collection that contained the first Lovecraft tale I ever read (“The Dunwich Horror”) and several “How to Beat Videogames” digests bought without having ever played most of the games featured.

I have fond memories of all of these, yet those still pale in comparison to a mortally injured Wolverine slashing his way through swarms of Brood warriors in X-Men #166. If I close my eyes, I can still visualize the Cheeto dust fingerprints in the gutters of my original copy of the issue.

This is not a review, but the impressions of a person who spent a good part of yesterday tooling around No Man Sky‘s expansive virtual universe.

Despite the “Triple A” marketing scheme and levels of hype, No Man’s Sky is still an indie studio game at its heart. There are no cinematic cut-scenes. Most of the dialogue and narrative infodumps are delivered through simple text boxes. There are no complex relationships to deal with or really anything in the way of melodramatic character development. Those omissions are not a bag thing, especially for someone who has grown weary of dozing through fifteen minutes of pseudo-movie at every major plot point.

What you get are a basic set of tools, the space-faring equivalent of a hand-me-down starter car, and an entire universe to explore at your own pace.

If you’re expecting something along the lines of Mass Effect or Destiny, you will be sorely disappointed by No Man’s Sky‘s minimalist yet overwhelming exploration and combat mechanics. There are space pirates to dogfight and robotic watchdogs to evade, but the combat is ancillary to the act of simply getting out there and seeing what the universe has to offer.

In that sense, it reminds me a lot of the old Starflight computer games, but given a gorgeous first-person facelift and married to the non-construction aspects of Minecraft. You gather resources to upgrade your gear to expand your reach and repeat the cycle with even better returns.

That rhythm takes a bit of getting used to. As is my custom for sandbox-type games, I deleted and restarted my game every couple of hours until it seemed like I had a handle on the basics. It was doubly necessary for No Man’s Sky, because there’s little in the way of tutorials or in-game tooltips to clarify how all its pieces work together.

No Man’s Sky is a game that appeals to the end-user’s obsessive-compulsive impulses, but can also frustrate folks who go all in on those tendencies. Unlike Dragon Age: Inquisition or Fallout 4, the game punishes those who carry around a dumpster-full of materials in anticipation of some future use. Inventory space in No Man’s Sky is at a premium, especially at the beginning of the game, and the need to keep one’s ship and personal gear charged-up with fuel elements adds additional pressure to the equation.

The urge to see everything and accumulate everything a given world has to offer is a fool’s errand in the expansive universe of No Man’s Sky. There will always be another check point to investigate or mineral deposit to exploit. I spent three hours rooting around on a frozen hellscape where the daylight temperatures hit a high of minus-60 Celsius and explorer-munching megafauna ran rampant.

Just staying alive in those conditions was a tedious struggle that came close to souring me on the game, but then I accidentally exited the planet’s atmosphere and decided to check out its solitary moon. It turned out to be a temperate pastoral paradise where fields of swaying fronds were spotted with shallow, monster-free lakes. It had no shortage of sites of explore and secrets to find, either.

No Man’s Sky not a Bioware-style game, where missing a blueprint or special drop during a story mission meant it was lost for that entire playthrough. The impetus here is to keep pushing forward, trusting that the required resources and coveted rewards will reveal themselves along the way. That requires putting aside one’s obsessive-compulsive tendencies, or at least re-calibrating them to focus upon what’s waiting over that next ridge, next planet, and next star system…

…then giving whatever it is you find an appropriately clever or goofy name, like the J’ffson-Ayre Strip on Haight-Ashbury XII (shown above).

Alternative take

August 8th, 2016

There was a time when I’d actively seek out stupid shit on the internet with the intent of skewering its wrongheadedness with self-aggrandizing glee. Those days have long passed me by, as life is too short and the rewards have grown too small to justify the aggravation. If I do it at all these days, it tends to be on a platform better suited for passive-aggressive rants fired on a hair-trigger. (Which is a florid way of saying “on Twitter.”)

The whole content farm model is so insatiable and shameless to start. It’s easier to simply ignore the nonsense and move on than it is to pick individual examples for a smug shellacking. In this corner, Some Debt-Indentured Millennial Cranking Out Content For Short Money on a Big Site! In the other corner, An Embittered Relic Sneering to An Audience of Dozens for Free! An epic tussle of flea bites and whiffed body blows!

That said, sometimes an especially egregious fragment of uncut idiocy slips past my middle-age apathy filters and begs to be called out for the bullshit it truly is.

The current example is an AV Club piece about the 1996 “death” of the post-Nevermind alt-rock renaissance. Truth to tell, it’s not too bad as far as these things go. There some wit and insight between the copious embedded videos; and while piece’s lede might be a bit overdramatic, the core thesis is relatively sound and supported by historical evidence.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said about the passage in particular that triggered my “For Fuck’s Sake” reflex with a burning vengeance.

“But for everyone living in the thick of it, watching alternative rock die fast and leave a bloated corpse came as a surprise”

This is, how you say, a completely and utterly bullshit attempt to drape a dramatic bang over the whimper of the historical narrative.

The only folks who were shocked by alt-rock’s flailing, saggy demise into Adult Alternative irrelevance were the acts who’d deluded themselves that the gravy train would last past a single charting hit and the teenyboppers still young enough to believe that popcult trends endure indefinitely. (Such as the way a junior high classmate of mine thought the Thompson Twins were the apex of pop music up through 1987.)

It certainly didn’t come as a shock to the record labels, as they’d been clutching at subgenre straws with increasing desperation since the scene’s initial grunge-driven burst to prominence began to fade. Nu-punk! Chick rawk! Britpop! Anything to keep the streak going! Pre-grunge alt-rock stalwarts grew more boring and overproduced with each subsequent release, while a raft of hungry and forgettable newcomers landed major label deals after playing two shows at a college town dive bar. Every new issue of Spin or Rolling Stone seemed to hail the arrival of the Next Big Thing while slagging off the previous contenders to the crown.

From the end-user perspective, it became pretty obvious as early as 1993 that the whole “alternative” tag was a bit of demographic targeting which went well beyond the associated musical acts. That was the paradox at the core of the alterna-splosion — how can you sustain a narrative of opposition when you constitute the mainstream? All the organic and DIY trappings of the scene — from ‘zines to mosh pits to leather jackets and Docs — were co-opted and turned into ubiquitous aspects of a branded lifestyle.

That may sound like the gatekeeping of an early (well, “earlier”) adopter, but the point I’m trying to get at is that it “alternative culture” was essentially a fad ultimately beholden to the same forces it cynically dismissed — “authenticity” as empty ad slogan. (And despite not caring for most of the contemporary music of those years, I did appreciate how “underground” books and albums that had previously been out-of-print or import-only saw wide domestic re-releases.)

It was wobbly from the very start. There was no rapid collapse, but a protracted period of bleeding out as the audience grew older and the industry tried to re-calibrate and channel the investments it made into something capable of appealing to the widest — or most currently profitable — possible audience. 1996 may have marked the complete alignment of MTV, VH1, and alt-rock radio playlists, but that the merely the culmination of a process that had been unfolding for years.

There was no sense of sudden shock, no profound lamentations, no surprises about what had happened to the alt-rock scene — just a lot of shrugs and some bewilderment that a Butthole Surfers song had made it into the Top 40 charts.

Let history divide

August 5th, 2016

Sit back, kids, and let me tell you about a not-so-distant era.

An era when Blade Runner, John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, and Repo Man were all critically panned.

An era when the original Night of the Living Dead was tagged with a one-star review in weekly TV schedules and capsule review books.

An era when the New York Dolls and the Runaways were considered unlistenable trash, when the first Clash album couldn’t get a North American release because it sounded “too sloppy.”

An era when the 1966 Batman TV show was considered to be an unmentionably embarrassing albatross around funnybook fandom’s collective neck, and you couldn’t give Jack Kirby’s post-1970 output away.

An era when Bill Sienkiewicz’s New Mutants was “too weird” and Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg was “too dirty” for a significant segment of the comics-buying public.

I remember this era, because it overlapped with a substantial portion of my childhood years. I witnessed all the above in casual conversations, periodicals, TV clips, and books. While contrarian outliers certainly existed, these assessments effectively represented a consensus which propagated itself as received wisdom.

That’s obviously no longer the case, which is a point I’d like to stress in the current epidemic undercarriage-bunching about disparities between critical assessment and audience approval.

It’s not about favoring one camp over the other. It’s about recognizing that making authoritative pronouncements during the peak of a hype cycle is almost always a fool’s errand.

I haven’t seen Suicide Squad. I have no intention of ever seeing it. I couldn’t give a plague rat’s ass whether it’s the BEST THING EVAR or WORSE THAN HERPES. Quite frankly, I doubt anyone else will within a week’s time, either.

This tendency to evoke tribalism as a means of critic-proofing is what really makes geek shit so attractive to the corporate media combines. It’s not about pitching product, but pandering to delusions of stake-holding among the marks. Fandom’s collective persecution complex is common knowledge, so why not monetize it as an astro-turfed opposition culture?

That door swings both ways, with controversy and confirmation bias employed as tactical tools to boost profile and pagehits in an overcrowded and fairly homogeneous realm of content mills. It’s a steaming load of sound and fury that doesn’t change anyone’s opinion but does provide promotional opportunities with a lashing of anonymous death threats (which can then be translated into another wave of content in and of themselves, and rarely to the person receiving them).

It doesn’t matter what shape the “final” consensus assumes, because there inevitably will be a contrarian reassessment — sincere, ironic, or stone cold cynical — to set the gears to grinding again within a few years.

The notion that I’m an asocial recluse has been a recurring gag since Armagideon Time’s inception, and it’s certainly based in reality to a fair degree. I don’t like to travel, for various reasons I’d rather not get into or feel capable of articulating at this time.

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy visiting Gettysburg or Montreal or Charlotte these past few years, but that I enjoyed getting back to familiar environs that much more. From 1992 up until Maura needed a ride to roller derby recruitment event in Nashua in 2009, I didn’t set so much as a foot outside the borders of my fairly small state. It wasn’t anything intentional, just how things happened to shake out.

1983 was a significant year of my life because it included not one, but several voyages outside the boundaries of Boston’s northwest suburbs.

The first of these was a spring excursion to Mount Cardigan in New Hampshire. It was the event that soured me on the whole Boy Scout experience, which had been losing luster since the Cub-level days of making lanyards with other neighborhood kids around the den mother’s kitchen. I don’t know why I didn’t fall away from the organization when most of my friends did, apart from my parents’ strategy of forcing me to stick with things long after my initial wave of interest had guttered out.

Their idea, I suppose, was to instill a stronger sense of self-discipline but it only exacerbated the traits that were trying to shake out of me. All it did was foster an even greater aversion to committing myself to things, lest I get trapped in something that takes a turn for the shitty down the road.

Mount Cardigan was where things turned shitty on the scouting front. This was not a campfire jamboree at some fenced-off patch of exurban wilderness. This was an actual mountain climb which I was physically and materially unprepared to undertake.

It started off promisingly enough — with a bunch of rowdy boys swapping dirty jokes and listening to Top 40 radio in the back of a Scout Dad’s custom van conversion. It ended with me pretending to throw an ankle in order to get the fuck out of there and back to my stack of comics, Atari 2600, and warm bed by any means necessary.

I felt guilty about it at the time, but now I just feel pride in my younger self’s attempt at self-preservation through transparent deception.

That summer vacation saw me embark of two extended trips away from home. The first was a road trip with my maternal grandparents down the length of the Appalachians from western Massachusetts to Asheville, North Carolina.

It was my grandfather’s idea and entirely by his many eccentricities. Everything I saw, I witnessed either through the rear passenger window of his oversized Chevy, the vantage point of a rest stop parking lot, or from a motel window. Most of the trip was spent avoiding his wrath as he white-knuckled the steering wheel and accused other drivers of being “pinko traitors.” The only non-essential stop we made was at a roadside fireworks stand in eastern Tennessee, where I stared in horror at a taxidermied rattlesnake exhibit as my grandpa dropped a hundred bucks on recreational pyrotechnics. After spending a night at a HoJo’s in Asheville, my grandpa turned the car around and headed back along the exact route in which we came.

The experience was beyond weird, but it was memorable and mostly enjoyable. I found a Biker Scout action figure in a dingy department store by our hotel in Wilkes-Barre and the conclusion of so many of the previous year’s big comic events in polybagged three packs at a Dutch Country Stuckey’s.

Even from a car window, the sights were awe-inspiring, from banks of fog winding through the Blue Ridge Mountains to the massive auto graveyard in Scranton to the strip-mine scarred landscapes of West Virginia. It stuck deeply enough that when the Three Weiss Men retraced the first half of the route on our 2011 trip to Gettysburg, I kept getting hit with recurring bouts of decades-delayed deja vu.

My brother and I only had a couple of weeks to recharge from that trip before we were hauled off to spend a week at my great-gran’s cottage on Cape Cod. It was well away from the ocean but across an unpaved lane from a freshwater water pond where my mother attempted to teach me to swim by holding my face under the water for extended periods of time. (I still don’t know how to swim and also abhor having my face covered or submerged in any manner, so good work, Mom!)

Most of our time was spent in the garden while my mother worked on an oil painting and I tried to come up with excuses why I should be allowed to go down to my cot in the finished basement and read Bowdlerized retellings of Greek myths and dated articles about prehistoric life in the volume of the 1959 Book of Knowledge I brought with me. I can also remember getting slapped because I yelled too loud after getting stung by a bee, my uncle and father arguing over the Woburn’s toxic waste contamination, and a lone copy of the “Rock the Casbah” 7-inch sitting the window of a Hyannis department store.

Mostly what I remember was the food, my great-gran’s combination of mid-century American and Gilded Age Scandinavian cuisines with a heavy emphasis on vegetable-laced gelatin concoctions — minced beets and raspberry jello drowned in lakes of ranch dressing in the vain hope of making them even marginally edible. That shit still haunts my dreams.

My final excursion of the year took place in the autumn of 1983, when we piled the entire family — mother, father, two sons, teenage aunt, disabled grandma — into my dad’s Cordoba and drove down to Washington, DC for a long weekend.

We spent a couple of days visiting the various branches of the Smithsonian (The Hope Diamond! The Spirit of St. Louis! Archie Bunker’s chair!). My dad got to see a fallen squadmate’s name on the then-new-and-somewhat-controversial Vietnam Memorial. My brother and I had our picture taken in front of the Lincoln Memorial. I got a splinter in my ass cheek after sitting on a bench near the Jefferson Memorial.

Our last night in the Washington happened to be the night The Day After aired on ABC. My brother and I were sharing a motel room with my aunt, who insisted on watching it. Fearing the nightmares I knew it would cause, I begged my parents to let me sleep in their room. They agreed, but I could tell they were disappointed by my squeamish anxiety.

I never got around to seeing the film until a decade later, during a retro-armageddon VHS rental binge. I was amazed to discover it was made-for-TV cheese on par with a lesser Iwrin Allen joint, but that was a product of age and hindsight. It would’ve traumatized the hell out of me if I had watched it when I was eleven…though the same can be said of the X-Men’s “Brood War” arc, which quite definitely did.

2600 RPM

August 2nd, 2016

There are those who choose to surf the zeitgeist, and there are those who grab hold of it with both hands in hopes of forcing it to submit to their will.

I’ll leave it for you to decide which of those camps Alexis Atari fell into.

He and his label were confident enough to spring for a cover ad placement in the April 8. 1983 issue of Billboard, coyly appropriating the slogan of the artist’s corporate namesake.

The product they were pitching was Atari’s sole release — a single featuring a synthesized re-do of the big band “In The Mood” backed by an equally modulated remake of the Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin’.”

They also managed to shoot a concept video…

…that reinforced the obvious initial impression that this was a domestic take on the “synthpop covers of pop standards” phenomenon which gave us Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love,” Naked Eyes’ “Always Something There to Remind Me” and Taco’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” The latter looms largest here, both in terms of period source material and the excessive use of soft focus filters and pore-obliterating pancake makeup.

It’s not bad, but it doesn’t flip the same switches in my retro-cortex that the aforementioned tracks do. Some of that might because it doesn’t have the same well of nostalgic sentiment to draw upon, but it also leans a bit too heavy on Italio-exuberance instead of the Teutonic chilliness or Brit sleaziness that marks my favorite entries in that microgenre.

I clearly remember the last time I was truly blown away by a video game.

I can even tell you the exact date: October 23, 2001 — the day my copy of Grand Theft Auto III arrived on the doorstep.

Like a lot of folks in my insular little corner of internet videogame fandom, I had doubts about the whether the game would deliver on its promise of detailed, open-world gameplay. The previous entries in the series were top-down, two-dimensional affairs known mostly for their toilet humor and iffy gameplay. The franchise was something of a punchline in game publications, synonymous — alongside Blood, Re-Loaded, and Postal — as knuckle-dragging nonsense aimed at the feral male middle-schooler demographic.

As the release date got closer and copies started getting into the hands of reviewers, the tone of the gaming press changed. This game was something different, delivering on the broken promises of free-roam mayhem gamers had been given so many times before.

I ordered a copy from EB Games, which arrived the following afternoon and was loaded immediately into my Playstation 2. That moment where the intro cutscene ends? The one where you’re given the wheel and set loose in a night-shrouded cityscape? Where you could pick your own path and even your choice of radio stations? That was the moment my mind was blown.

My old save file could tell you the exact number of hours I roamed around Liberty City, but I couldn’t even begin to guess. I do know that a large percentage of that time was spent simply roaming around and sightseeing, and there was plenty to see. I’d park on the docks and watch the sun rise over the ocean. I’d clamber over the rocks on the beach below the Mafia don’s cliffside manor. I explored semi-hidden underpasses and trotted over elevated train tracks.

I loved every minute of it, up until I’d experienced enough of the game to feel out the boundaries of Grand Theft Auto‘s virtual world and game mechanics. The novelty dims and the invisible walls and repetitious grind become harder to miss. You start off thinking that you will never get enough and end up speeding through the last few story missions just to finish the damn thing and move on.

That transition between magic and mundanity has been a constant of my open-world gaming experiences ever since. Mercenaries, Bully, Red Dead Redemption, Fallout 3, Crackdown, Saints Row 3, Far Cry 2, Destiny — all have followed the same arc from all-consuming passion to modest distraction at best. It doesn’t detract from my enjoyment of those games and the genre as a whole, but rather an accepted part of the overall experience. Eventually I’ll discover the most efficient progression path or some balance-breaking bit of gear, and end up either sleepwalking towards the main story’s conclusion or lose interest entirely.

I’m already anticipating that will be the case with No Man’s Sky, the long awaited space exploration title coming out from Hello Games next week. Despite the uncountable permutations of alien planets and creatures the game may offer, there will come a point where the grind loses its urge-to-upgrade appeal.

That will happen down the road, however. For now, I’m eager to blast off towards the uncharted reaches of virtual space in the type of game that I’ve longed to play since I first booted up Starmaster on the Atari 2600. It’s not about the eventual destination, man, it’s all about the journey — an expansive virtual universe to explore and decipher.

That’s why I don’t understand the gamers who’ve been losing their shit over footage and forum posts from a dude who dropped a ludicrous amount of money to obtain a pre-street date copy of No Man’s Sky. Worries about bugs and balancing issues are reasonable enough, but the notion that the game will be “too short” or fail to deliver on some unannounced-yet-anticipated feature are absurd.

The developer has been been very clear all along about what No Man’s Sky will and won’t be from the start — an essentially single-player galactic free roam with only most rudimentary plot elements. It’s intended to be a sandbox game in the purest sense, free of the shoehorned narratives which too often contradict that “have at it” ethos in other sandbox titles. I’m completely fine with that, and it’s what caught my notice in the first place.

Should it fail to deliver on that, it will do so within those expectations, not on some entitled delusions of expected value added. “But you can cheese the game and rush right to the center of the universe!” Yes, you can speedrun nearly any game, and reduce a potentially complex experience into a blur punctuated by “subscribe to my YouTube channel” and inane comments by some of the worst people on the planet — but you don’t have to.

Some of this can be laid at the feet of lengthening development cycles, where the need to keep the hype-fires stoked can lead to them blazing out of control. Mentioned features may turn out to be unworkable or cost-prohibitive, forcing their exclusion from the final build — but not from the selective memories of gamers. Mostly, though, it’s the regrettable segment of gamer crowd whose default response to anything perceived as “unfair” is to behave like a petulant five year old: “BUT YOU PROMISED!”

Me? I’m just looking forward to visiting alien planets and dicking around until I get bored and move onto something else.

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