Artifacts From A Bygone Era – The Lost Beauty Of Video Game Instructional Manuals

This year, I turned thirty years old.  When I was a little over two years old, Nintendo introduced the Nintendo Entertainment System to America.  This meant little to me then… but when I was five, I played Super Mario Bros at a friend’s house and I was hooked.

I don’t recall exactly what year it was that I received my NES.  Based on the games I received as gifts over the years, I’d place it probably around 1990.  Games like The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Bros 3, and Shadowgate were the cornerstones to my young life.

I spent more than a year going through The Legend of Zelda, finding secret caverns, and exploring the huge 16×8 screen overworld.  And that didn’t even include the labyrinthine underworld, filled with deadly enemies and perilous traps! That game was as good as it got for me at seven years old.

Christmas morning was always exciting.  But by nine, I had learned to be cautious of the NES game-shaped present under the tree. I would be playing a new game after we went to my grandmother’s for dinner, sure.  But what would it be?  Chances were decent that it would end up being Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out or RBI Baseball.  But chances were, unfortunately, better that it would be Dick Tracy, or Top Gun 2: The Second Mission (I owned both games as a child… pity me, pity me).

But this was pre-Internet.  The only resource I had for video game reviews was Nintendo Power… and even that couldn’t be trusted.  Hell, they gave the soul-sucking horror that was Dick Tracy an average 3.0 rating and anyone who has played the game will tell you that a giving Dick Tracy a 3.0 is tantamount to giving a trash can full of turds a 30-point Zagat rating.  Sure, you can eat.  But it may kill you.

Another option would be to ask one of my friends, but most of them actually engaged in activities that didn’t include video games.  Some of them even played sports! How was I to trust their judgement of what made for a good video game?  Hell, one of my friends even claimed to have enjoyed Bill and Ted’s Excellent Video Game Adventure. Oh wait… that was me.

So no Internet… no trust-worthy friends…  What was a young boy to do, stranded at Grandma’s house for hours on end… no video games… No Game Boy… Nothing but football on the television…  Why, a boy would turn to the video game’s manual of course.

Ah yes, the manual.  In the NES days of video games, the manual was nearly an art form.  Not only did it give you the story of a game (in fact, it was often the only story for a lot of games), a manual would often give you data on the controls for the game, the baddies you’d be fighting, and it would often be filled with all kinds of helpful tips and tricks… mainly because NES games weren’t always the most intuitive or the easiest to conquer.

That leaves me with just one question: What the fuck happened to video game manuals?  In the halcyon days of yore, manuals were robust.  They were beautiful pocket-sized guides that helped a young adventurer save the world in Crystalis and The Legend of Zelda.  The manual for Maniac Mansion let me believe I would eventually conquer that crazy place (I didn’t).  Hell, the manuals for Friday the 13th and Home Alone 2 made the games seem like they were going to be great (they weren’t).

But manuals now-a-days?  Complete crap!  You get a page of controls, maybe a tiny bit of text explaining the story, and about six pages of credits and anti-piracy notices.  Some games even come with a booklet that shows the title on the front and instructs the gamer to visit a web-site to read the full manual.  Bullshit, I say!

To prove my point, check out these manuals from the NES days over at Digital Press! Specifically, check out the first-part Nintendo titles.  The Legend of Zelda, the Super Mario games… Full-color, lots of information regarding the enemies (plus, the SMB2 manual taught us that Birdo was male, but wanted to be female… so…), the worlds, and extensive descriptions of the controls… Just wonderful!

Nothing can really compare to the manuals of the era for me.  Bethesda does a really good job, as has From.Software with the Souls series… but these examples are few and far between in modern gaming.  The last time I remember being really impressed with a video game manual was Acclaim’s N64\PC game Shadowman, which even included a map! Crazy thought…

Anyone out there have favorite manuals from back in the day?

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The Age Old Battle: Plot V.S. Writing

Maybe it isn’t that old.  I don’t really know.  All I know is that I constantly find myself attracted more to a writer’s ability to craft a sentence rather than their ability to create a complex, engaging plot.

Of course, the best is an author who is adept at both a beautiful story and great prose.  Some of my favorite authors like John Fante, David Foster Wallace, and Neil Gaiman are able to craft a story and blow me away with their penchant for a perfect line, paragraph, or chapter.  In fact, I still get chills when I read the first chapters in Ask the Dust.

Then there’s authors who are terrible writers, but have spectacularly complex plotting… The finest example is Harry Stephen Keeler.  I can’t describe the madness with which he writes other than to give you a few titles: The Skull of the Waltzing Clown, The Man With Magic Eardrums, I Killed Lincoln At 10:13.  Yeah.  I’ve only read a couple, but they’re a lot of fun.  But they’re also pretty terrible.

On the flipside of that, there’s authors who are consistently great plotters, but average (or below-average) writers.  Oftentimes, these types of authors seem to crop up in fantasy.  Some of my favorite examples are J.K. Rowling (check this outline!), George R.R. Martin, and Raymond Feist.  Martin, for example, has an over-reliance on italics and clumsy internal monologues, but… he plots wonderfully.  I only hope it all comes together in the end…

Then, of course, there’s the authors who couldn’t write their way out of a wet paper bag and similarly couldn’t plot an episode of Sesame Street.  Authors like James Patterson and Dan Brown fit this profile.  NOBODY NEEDS THAT MANY CHAPTER BREAKS YOU SONS OF BITCHES!

I think what it basically comes down to, for me, is that good plots are entertaining and move the story right along.  A good writer, however, could be a lot more memorable over time.  I can quote passages from TS Eliot, John Fante, and Jeffrey Eugenides because their words have stuck in my head for years now.

Of course, I can tell you the plots of the books in the Harry Potter series, but outside of one or two passages, I couldn’t quote anything from the series… which doesn’t say a lot to me for more than three-thousand pages.  I don’t think this diminishes the quality of the series itself, given the depth of the plot (and the subtle interactions of the characters), but the writing itself does sometimes leave something to be desired.

So is a solidly-written chapter a greater accomplishment than a well-plotted novel… or series?  Naturally, the choice comes down to the individual reader.  Millions of people who read all six-hundred James Patterson novels a year obviously don’t care about either.

For me, I prefer a well-written novel over a well-plotted one.  I’ve read Ask the Dust and Post Office more times than I can count… but I can’t see myself returning to A Song of Ice and Fire as often.  Where do you sit on the plot\writing debate?

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The Detective And The Killer – Warren Ellis Goes Back To Basics In Gun Machine

Warren Ellis is not what many would consider a mainstream author.  Nor would anyone typically accuse him of being… well, typical.  His stories are often mad romps through strange futures, like Transmetropolitan or perverse, over-the-top detective tales like Crooked Little Vein.

That’s why Gun Machine comes as such a surprise.  It is, for the most part, a by-the-books thriller\crime drama\police procedural that takes the reader to the heart of New York City.  Does it work?  Read on, dear reader, to find out.

Gun Machine
Warren Ellis
320 Pages
Mulholland Books
January 1, 2013

Gun Machine CoverI often have trouble connecting comic book authors with the characters they help to breathe life into.  I’ve often wondered if Grant Morrison or Garth Ennis have some sort of magic mirror (or perhaps a kind of wormhole) that allows them to remotely view incredibly messed-up shit and then write about it.

I’ve also wondered about Warren Ellis, especially after I finished his weirdly excellent\excellently weird 2007 novel Crooked Little Vein, an odd mash-up of a hard-boiled detective story, insane conspiracy theory, and really disturbing sexual fetishes.

That said, I still enjoyed it.  But it was with some trepidation that I picked up Ellis’ latest novel, Gun Machine.  Still, it couldn’t be as off-the-wall and disconcerting as Crooked Little Vein, could it?

In a word… No.

But I don’t see this as a fault of the novel at all!  Quite the opposite, in fact.  Ellis manages to cage a lot of dense and interesting ideas into a plot that would feel right at home on a show like Law & Order… except Ellis’ story is much smarter.

So what’s this novel about?  Well, it starts out with a bang.  Detective John Tallow responds to a fairly routine call when his partner is shot and killed in front of him.  Tallow retaliates in kind, killing the shooter.  When he investigates the scene of the crime, John stumbles onto an apartment that is lined entirely in guns.

Guns from every era and of every type.  Pistol, rifle, semi-automatic, full-auto… just about any type of gun you can think of.  The firearms are arranged on the walls and ceilings in an odd shape that Tallow immediately recognizes as important… but what does it mean?

As the guns are analyzed, they all point to unsolved murders in New York… starting centuries previously. Even infamous weapons, such as the gun used by Son of Sam, are discovered in the apartment.

Every couple of chapters, Ellis writes from the perspective of the killer, referred to as The Hunter.  The chapters are creepy and disconcerting because he keeps jumping in and out of modern New York.  Sometimes, he sees the buildings and the cars, other times he perceives the world around him as full of trees and moose.

What really rounds the novel out, however, is the supporting characters.  The two CSI members, Bat and Scarly, are more in line with what readers have come to expect from Warren Ellis characters.  Tallow has his own streak of misanthropy, but Scarly is particularly sour and Bat is particularly odd, whiny, and hilarious.

All that said… the book isn’t perfect.  There’s a fairly lengthy series of coincidences that lead up to the end of the novel and the end itself is… well, not so spectacular.  But Ellis does such a good job with the characters and the message of the novel that I’m willing to overlook some of the other issues present.

The book works better overall than Crooked Little Vein and the two main characters are memorable enough to make a reader want to revisit them at a later date.  The complexity of the plot, outside of the more coincidental portions, is particularly well-thought-out, so…  check it out.

Warren Ellis is one of the smartest writers out there today (hell, he’s the only author worth reading in Ultimate Fantastic Four and The Authority) and it really shines through in this novel… just be warned that it isn’t as consistent as Transmetropolitan or Nextwave.

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Killer Russian Chimps, God Frogs, And Assorted Weirdness In Panels

I love comic books and graphic novels!  This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who regularly reads my blog.  I’ve had a brief love affair with sequential stories (going on seven years now), but I’ve made a heavy investment of time and money in the pursuit of the hobby.

My favorite creators aren’t typically writing superhero fare.  Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Brian K. Vaughan, G Willow Wilson… None of these are primarily known for their superhero comics (though Alan Moore is very well-known for his deconstruction of the superhero genre).  My favorite writers are also, generally, pretty straight forward.

But comics can be a weird place, especially as the comic creators who are publishing now are far enough in the shadow of influential tales like Watchmen and Sandman to have grown up reading them and being inspired by them.

This post is meant to celebrate the weird and the strange in comics.  Many writers and artists are popular in the mainstream (like Grant Morrison), but are still able to do work that is almost avant-garde in style.  Here are some of the strangest comics I’ve read in my short time enjoying comic books.

5. Walt Simonson’s Thor

Thor #337

Technically, Simonson’s work on Thor isn’t that strange, all things considered.  But for a superhero comic, it seems exceptionally weird to me.  All told, Simonson (working as both artist and writer for much of his run) brought odd new situations to the life of Marvel’s most famous Asgardian for nearly a decade.

In this nine-year span, he introduced a character named Beta-Ray Bill, Thor himself turned into a frog by Loki, and even a frog version of Thor (yes… a frog with Thor’s powers that is separate from Thor himself as a frog).

Beta-Ray Bill is an alien who, surprisingly, has the ability and worthiness to wield Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir.  The story, character’s name notwithstanding, is actually quite good.  The coloring of the books, like many comics from the pre-digital age, hurts the hell outta my eyes, but they’re well worth checking out just the same.

Also consider that Simonson took care of both scripting and art duties for much of his run… And delivered (near as I can tell) monthly.  Genius comic critic Chris Sims has a nice Top Ten List worth checking it out too.

4. Brother Power The Geek by Joe Simon and Al Bare

Brother Power Issue 1

There’s really not a lot to say about this oddity from the DC archives.  The series ran only two issues in 1968, but is a sort of weird genius comics.  Not quite a superhero comic, not at all any other kind of comic…  The two issues are downright bizarre.

In an attempt to channel the hippie culture of the time (and, according to Wikipedia allegedly the more philosophical side of Silver Surfer), Simon created Brother Power with a Frankenstein-esque origin wherein a mannequin is dressed up in bloody, sweaty hippie clothes and comes to life when struck by lightning.

The two issues are almost inconsequential outside of the origin and the supposed final appearance of Brother Power, as he’s shot into orbit on the orders of Governor Ronald Reagan.  The title was quietly cancelled by DC’s editing and publishing staff and forgotten.

Well almost forgotten.  Neil Gaiman retained the knowledge of the character and brought Brother Power back in Swamp Thing Annual #5 (which was supposed to be Gaiman’s inaugural issue on the series, but wasn’t because of another DC editorial fuck-up regarding Rick Veitch’s plans for Swamp Thing to meet Jesus).  There are scans to the original series online, so check ’em out if you’re bored.

3. Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson

Spider Jerusalem

When I was just starting out reading comics about seven short years ago, one of the first titles recommended to me was Transmetropolitan. A co-worker had seen me reading both comic books and Hunter S. Thompson and told me, “Read Transmetropolitan.  It basically is Hunter S Thompson living in a Phillip K. Dick world.”

And this is such an apt description that I’ve used it often to recommend the series to people hunting for a new comic to read.  The series stars Spider Jerusalem (best name ever, right?) in his battle to bring justice to the fucked up 23rd Century United States… through journalism!

Big guns, drugs and plastic surgery on-demand, unfrozen cryo-refugees wandering deep in culture shock by the brave new world they’ve been thrust back into… oh and I swear there’s a talking dog who is also a cop.  That sounds like it probably came from this series.

Ah dystopia.  Who doesn’t love a good dystopic future?  Check out the first trade.  You get a nice, full story there (well, pretty much) so that if you don’t enjoy it, you won’t be out much.  Ellis fills the series with a nice mixture of humor, social commentary, and the amount of messed-up shit I’ve come to love from him.

2. Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. by Warren Ellis and Stuart Immonen

The Nextwave Team

Oh man… When I first read Nextwave, I was but a wee lad, in Marvel Comic terms.  I think I had read Civil War and Old Man Logan.  That was about it.  Maybe by then I had read Brian K Vaughan’s Runaways.  I can’t be certain.  But this comic is like a crash-course in the odder side of the main Marvel 616 universe.

Nextwave is a rogue superhero team who defected from H.A.T.E. (because everything in Marvel is an acronym… from S.H.I.E.L.D. to S.W.O.R.D., H.A.T.E. stands for Highest Anti-Terrorism Effort) when it was discovered that H.A.T.E. was secretly funded by the evil Beyond Corporation.

But… that’s not that important.  All that matters is that they’re fighting Dirk Anger (an even-more-ridiculous Nick Fury) and his massive collection of U.W.M.D.s (Unusual Weapons of Mass Destruction, naturally), which includes Fin Fang Foom, Elvis MODOKs, and a giant red tyrannasaurus named Devil Dinosaur.

Reading the series is a weird distillation of just about everything that makes comic books wonderful… and also what makes Warren Ellis one of the craziest bastards in comic writing.  It doesn’t make sense… but it is funny as hell.

1. The Filth – By Grant Morrison, Chris Weston, and Gary Erskine

The Filth

And on the other side of the publishing fence, we have Grant Morrison’s mad, perverse, disconcerting Vertigo-published series The Filth.

The series begins with a man named Greg Feely buying immaculately dirty porn from a convenience store.  This is pretty much the last normal thing that happens in the book.

Greg Feely is simply a cover for a man named Slade (presumably no relation to Deathstroke, given that Slade in The Filth has both eyes and is outfitted in gaudy, colorful outfits that would even make Jack Kirby think twice).  This man, Edward Slade comes in from the cold to rejoin a secret group known as The Hand.

The Hand, comprised of sub-groups like The Horns, The Finger, and The Fist, is best described by the character Nil, “We’re garbagemen Ned. We stop the world’s backyard from stinking.”  Ned, Nil, and other members of the Hand (including a chimp with a penchant for assassinations) go on all kinds of adventures to maintain the Status Q and… I’m really confused.  The whole thing is a bizarre conglomeration of surreal, abstract ideas and over-the-top perversity.  I’m not sure if it works, but… it does have people being attacked by gigantic sperm, so… there’s that!

I’m fairly certain there’s more weird comics out there.  A good deal of them are probably written by Grant Morrison.  His runs on Animal Man and Doom Patrol (or anyone’s Doom Patrol, really) are some of the best, weirdest comics of the 80s.  Then there’s Alan Moore’s Promethea which is an odd combination of superhero comics and Kabbalah…  But not weird enough to be included here.

What’s everyone reading out there?  I’m midway through A Storm of Swords and I’ve been bouncing between comics, YA fiction, and odd medical history books in the last couple weeks…  I’ll be back soon with more!

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Worth The Cost – Joe Hill’s NOS4A2

Joe Hill has a lot of good press going for him.  For one thing, his father is Stephen King. But that’s a cheap way to lead in here.  Outside of their similar interests in horror and the macabre, they’re not terribly similar writers.  For one thing, I find Joe Hill to be almost immeasurably more interesting and enjoyable.

Horns was great and the comic series Locke & Key is also creepy, thought-provoking, and wonderful… and just about the only good thing IDW puts out (unless you’re really into Transformers or Star Trek comics… which I am not).

So how about NOS4A2?  Is it a hit? A miss?  Something in-between?  Read on to find out!

NOS4A2
Joe Hill

William Morrow and Company
704 Pages
April 30, 2013

Note: Minor spoilers to follow!

NOS4A2 is Joe Hill’s first novel since 2010’s Horns and the time and effort he put into the book shows.  The characters are fully realized, the settings, even ones that are briefly visited, are memorable, and the plot moves very quickly for such a meaty, thick book.

Our protagonist is Victoria McQueen.  She rides a Raleigh Tuff Burner bicycle around Haverhill,  MA, being an average 9-year-old girl.  But average 9-year-old girls don’t generally have the ability to travel over a covered bridge in order to discover lost things.

Now if that were the only premise of the novel, it could have been interesting just on that.  In fact, the first 30-odd pages are some of my favorite in the novel.  Hill makes sure you get a feel for Vic from the start and the connection is almost instant.  I could have read an entire novel of Vic careening over The Shorter Way Bridge, always finding lost things and returning the to their owners.

But that’s not all this book is about.  Because, naturally, we have a villain.  Well, two villains, but the main one is Charles Manx.  Manx drives a 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith (with the vanity license plate NOS4A2, of course) and uses it to kidnap children to take them away to Christmasland.  If you were ever freaked out by horror films like Black Christmas… you know what to expect.

Hill does a masterful job of raising the stakes, especially when Manx and Vic have their first major standoff about 200 pages in… and there’s still another 500 to go.  Like any good killer, Manx returns to continue his reign of terror on Vic and her family.

That’s all well and good. Like I said, I enjoyed the plot, the book moves quickly along, and Vic is a sympathetic, ass-kickin’ heroine that Hill writes in a way that makes the reader want to cheer her from the first chapter.

But Manx as a villain (and to a lesser extent, his partner in crime Bing Partridge) is almost comical.  And not in a good way.  Many of Manx’s scenes are melodramatic, almost vaudevillian. Perhaps this is the point, as he almost always has a smile on his face… except when Bing fucks up and requires discipline… or when he’s on the losing side.

Sometimes he seems frightening, but in other places Manx seems to border on ridiculous. For instance, when Manx comes back to life in a hospital morgue and proceeds to knock out and stick his finger up the ass of Ernest Hicks, the security guard, because apparently that was one of Hicks’s biggest fears?  Ugh…

I’m not going to lie.  I really want to not like the book, mainly for the overly hammy portrayal of the villains… and the whole Christmas theme just doesn’t strike me as particularly scary.

But the other characters really make the novel. A lot of surprisingly emotional moments come out of the interactions between Vic and her family. On top of that, the novel flows very quickly, especially for one that tops out at 700 pages.  If you’ve a taste for Christmas-themed horror and good protagonists… give NOS4A2 a try!

I feel I should let it be known that I received an Advance Reader Edition of this novel.  It was provided by the publisher with no expectation of a review… positive or otherwise.  Thanks bookstore, for always providing!

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