Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Fictional Games

When it comes to video games making cameos in movies and television there's really only two categories; either it's an actual game (such as Shadow of the Colossus in the film "Reign over Me"), or it's a game made from scratch to serve as a set prop.  Obviously the latter is preferable from a licensing standpoint.  However, there are some bizarre instances of these fake games turning into actual games people can play.  The text-parser adventure game seen in the Tom Hanks film "Big" (playable here), and "The Last Starfighter" arcade cabinet are two such examples.  The most outstanding purveyor of this phenomenon though has to be the long-running animated TV series - The Simpsons.

It's a funny thing to think about considering there are numerous licensed video games for the franchise (including a four-player-side-scrolling-beat'em-up arcade game).  While at the same time over a dozen made-up games have appeared on-screen.  Many have just been background decorations, but there are six in particular that are prominent enough to be worth mentioned here.

Kevin Costner's Waterworld (no relation to the actual Waterworld movie tie-in game for the SNES) made a brief appearance when Milhouse gives it a try at the local video arcade.  Apparently, the machine takes forty quarters (10 USD!) to play, and results in a "game over" screen for no reason after a few seconds of the player character walking left to right.  This opening segment is meant to be a one-off joke poking fun at the film's 175 million dollar budget (due to wasteful spending and difficulties associated with shooting a movie off the coast of Hawaii).  The humor didn't work for me, in this case, because I personally think "Waterworld" isn't really that bad, and while it was the most expensive film ever made at the time of its release, many summer blockbusters have exceeded the 200 million dollar mark since.

Escape from Grandma's House is another arcade title that honestly feels a lot like a 2D pixel-art version of Alien: Isolation.  The basic premise appears to be avoid the monster (in this case, Grandma) by hiding or using weapons found in the environment.  During the brief time we see the game in action, Bart uses a wall mounted shotgun on Grandma which, surprisingly, doesn't phase the old lady much.  On the plus side it does net him some points (displayed on a scoreboard in the upper right-hand side of the screen).  Aside from grandma, there appears to be other hazards including deadly mothballs hiding in the closet.

Hockey Dad is a one-vs-one fighting game in which the rivals are a pair of bad-tempered fathers.  While watching a junior league hockey match one parent makes the comment, "Your kid sucks!"  Thus, begins the brawl which inevitably ends in one of the two combatants down in a bloody heap on the ice while the winner is hauled off to jail.  It's mildly funny, although the main reason I like this segment is the indirect callback to early hockey-themed sports video games that featured embedded fighting mechanics.

Bonestorm is, as far as I can tell, a parody of Mortal Kombat.  Aside from the fact that it's a 2D fighting game, the biggest similarity is the combatants (they look like Goro clones except with six arms each instead of four).  We only see it in the form of a Christmas advertisement, but sequels to this fictional game pop-up in the background of later episodes, providing a sense of continuity which doesn't normally exist in The Simpsons.

The next title is an unnamed home console game we see Grandpa Simpson attempting to play with his grandson, Bart.  The game itself looks vaguely reminiscent of Asteroids, but the actual gameplay reminds me of Star Raiders.  The humor comes from Bart's frantic attempts to advise his grandfather on how to play the game, a task the elderly man is not up to given the amount of stuff happening on-screen.  That said, it looks like the kind of game I would have totally loved when I was eleven.

Unlike previous examples which are single-scene featurettes, this final entry is the subplot for an entire episode.  The name of the game is Super Slugfest, a homage to Punch-Out!! for the NES with one big difference; A two-player-mode.  The key plot point of the episode involves Homer going to the Noise Land video arcade so he can learn how to get better at the game under the tutelage of a child who has mastered it.  Typically Homer is depicted as being bonehead stupid, but here is a rare exception to that trend because upon returning home he proceeds to thrash his son, Bart, at the game when every time up until then it has been the other way around.  Unfortunately for Homer, the TV gets unplugged before he can deliver the coup de grĂ¢ce.  Subsequently, Bart announces his retirement (as the undefeated champion), denying his father the catharsis of just one victory.

These final two examples struck a chord with me in that I've always had the utmost respect for (grand)parents who go out of their way to enrich themselves in the hobbies of their children (despite not having any person interest).  The common theme of the son surpassing the father is something that exists in virtually every form of competition, but here it highlights a special generational gap.  Baby Boomers didn't have access to games growing up, but Generation Xers did.  Now, with the millennials starting to have children of their own, gaming has become nearly ubiquitous across multiple generations.  Overall, I'd say that's a good thing.  Even so, it's also nice to see a piece of media that chronicles the cultural history divide of video games in it's own quirky way.

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