Retrogamer: Bullet Time, 2016
Michael B. Tager
I was primed to love it. Everyone I’d spoken to since its debut praised it. It was referenced in television and music and in countless Halloween parties. I’d been aware of it since I was old enough to be aware of anything. I wanted to love it.
For those who haven’t seen it, Footloose is a film about a town in the Midwest where dancing is outlawed. It came out in 1984 and starred Kevin Bacon as a kid with a move and an irrepressible desire to bust it. It’s supposed to be awesome and, since I was a kid, I’ve always wanted to see it.
But when I turned on Footloose for the first time ever, I was crushingly disappointed. Not only was it stupid and improbable, it was poorly acted, poorly scripted, and, worst of all, boring. Two tractors playing chicken? Kevin Bacon’s nonsensically choreographed climactic dance sequence in the abandoned factory? Even the supporting turns by a young Sarah Jessica Parker and Chris Penn were weirdly flat and overt. The only aspect of the movie I liked was one that few ever discussed: John Lithgow’s convincing turn as a well-meaning pastor, who, grief-stricken by his son’s death, pushed forward the anti-dancing ordinance. Fascinating stuff.
After the credits, my then-girlfriend (now-wife) Leigh turned to me and said, “So what did you think?” She had this look on her face that was half-expectant, half-mocking and I didn’t know what to say. She was one of the many who had touted its praises.
Puzzled and disappointed, all I said was, “It’s my turn. Why don’t we watch The Goonies?”
18 years after Footloose debuted, Skies of Arcadia came out for the Nintendo GameCube. I remember watching my friend play it for a few minuteswhile waiting to go out for some happy hour beers.
“You should rock this when I’m done,” he said, his ginger hair obscured by a haze of smoke, a blunt held loosely between his ring and pinky fingers while he held the GameCube controller. We were in his apartment, me on his white couch, holding his white cat that resembled Mr. Bigglesworth, the furry animal in Austin Powers.
“I don’t have a GameCube,” I said, itching to leave. I wasn’t so into video games, preferring to instead be out and about, either working or partying. When I did play video games, I mostly replayed Ogre Battle, Brigandine and Romance of the Three Kingdoms, tactics-based games that only deep nerds even cared about. I didn’t much play new games at the time and hadn’t owned a Nintendo system since the deep disappointment of the N64.
He didn’t respond, instead silently turning back to playing, which mostly consisted of flying his ship around and getting into random battles. It was a beautiful game, with bright colors and superbly drawn characters and world. As a younger brother, I’d learned to enjoy watching video games played in my presence. I didn’t even mind watching when the game was pretty and the story well-done. Skies of Arcadia seemed to fit that mold well.
When he finished his blunt, he saved and turned the system off. Shrugging on his jacket, he said, “I’ll lend you the system sometime if you want, since you don’t have it.”
I didn’t think much of the offer, but a month later, he stopped by my house with a plastic bag. Inside was the GameCube, a controller and Skies of Arcadia. “Tell me what you think,” he said, excited. I assured him that I would, put the bag in a closet and promptly forgot about it for two years, when he called me up and asked for it back.
“Yo, what’d you think,” he asked when he came by to pick it a few days later. We were standing outside on my parents’ porch. I didn’t live there anymore, but I knew exactly where I left it.
“Oh yeah, dude,” I said, “It was amazing.”
“That’s awesome,” he replied, grinning. It was raining a few feet beyond him, great sheets of water slashing through the trees of my parents’ front yard. “What’d you think of the airship battles?”
“Right, yeah, the airship battles. Those were probably my favorite part.” At this point, I barely remembered the time spent watching him play, but I dredged up a memory of him cycling through a menu of cannons and said, “The cannon system was tight.”
“And the graphics? They only get better, don’t they?”
I agreed and soon after, he departed into the rain. I felt bad and promised myself that eventually, I would indeed play it. I was sure that nothing I said would be a lie. If a game is great once, it’s great always, right?
Leigh and I were recently talking about action movies and how much we both love them. I think the conversation started with Die Hard and how it never gets old and how important craft and story are. We watch it every Christmas.
Soon enough the conversation turned to The Matrix. I held the position that it was a seminal movie in the action/sci-fi genre and that it would be watched decades from now because of how innovative it was, how wonderfully written it is, blah blah blah. Leigh listened to me chatter and then shrugged. “I’ve never seen it.” Initially aghast, it quickly became apparent that when Keanu Reeves first learned kung fu, Leigh was not quite sixteen, didn’t care for boy movies and wasn’t even allowed to see R-rated movies. Of course she didn’t see it (for the opposite reasons that I missed The Lion King until last year—what 15-year-old boy is going to go out of his way to see that one?).
Fifteen minutes later found us loading our VCR (yes we still have one) with my copy, one of the few VHS we haven’t replaced with newer media. “You’re in for a treat,” I said.
I was wrong and two hours later, I knew it. The Matrix has not aged well. The majority of the conversation is exposition, the story is cliché with any knowledge of science fiction, the action choreography is middling and the once-vaunted special effects were now, as a result of being ripped off a thousand times since, mundane. Bullet-time, in 2016, is kind of lame.
When I ejected my tape, I thought about simply setting it on fire. I didn’t, though, but instead put it in a box intended for my family’s vacation home, the graveyard for everything I used to love. There, I’ve left dozens of video tapes and books that I hope someone else will enjoy.
Shortly after I started writing Retrogamer, I decided to fulfill my promise to play Skies of Arcadia. After all, it was a well-received game on an underappreciated system and everyone spoke highly of it. The Cartridge Lit editor, Joel Hans, was excited when I told him I was playing it. Even eBay auctions, implicitly, said this game was fantastic. The cheapest I found was $45, which I paid.
I fired it up in excitement on my Wii. Over a decade later, my lie was going to become truth. Only, there was one problem. My first game session last about five hours. The second, a couple days later, lasted three. A week later, I played another couple hours. And the last time I touched it was about four months ago. Since then, it’s sat on my video game shelf, dust slowly gathering. I know I won’t bother touching it again. I played up to the first ship-to-ship battle, supposedly the high point of the game, and was unimpressed. Worse, I was vaguely bored.
See, Skies of Arcadia is not a bad game, it’s just damned by its age and its adherence to a long-outmoded style. Its graphics are polygon-based, and countless cinematics are spent to remind the player of how cutting-edge it is. At the time, I’m sure it was impressive. But now, in an era where the uncanny valley is getting closer and closer, it just comes off as sad. The first real exploration of scene is in the very beginning, when the air pirates come home after the initial mission and the cast cavern where they make their home is panned out. The scope is nice, but it seems amateurish.
It reminded me—negatively—of a similar scene in The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy first enters the Technicolor dream world. The difference is that Dorothy’s entrance is into a world bursting with bright colors, from a world of drab greys. Even though the color is 70 years old, it compares well with freaking Kansas. Vyse, the protagonist (who oddly affects an eye patch when he clearly has two perfectly good eyes) however, enters from a world of polygons into a world of slightly-better polygons. There’s no magic in that.
In other words, Skies is painstakingly laid out in a style that is awfully similar to running into that that hottie from high school who’s spent the last 15 years drinking heavily, tanning daily and chain-smoking. It looks older than it has any right to be. It has the same problem as going back to play Star Fox on the Super Nintendo or Final Fantasy VII on the PlayStation. It fails to hold up like the CGI-heavy Star Wars prequels, which look silly and fake only ten years later. The biggest reason to play it—the graphics—are no longer a draw and, much like those films, the other reasons to get involved don’t compel.
But let’s be honest. Not many visuals hold up ten years after the fact. Technological improvements being the way they are tend to make graphics an ephemeral attainment, similar to fashion and hairstyles or even musical trends. It’s sort of like when Metallica was recording St Anger in 2003, and toyed with the idea of omitting guitar solos to update their sound. Guitarist Kirk Hammett resisted the omission because the idea of a metal/hard rock band not having guitar solos was very clearly a passing fad and would consequently date the album very specifically. He wasn’t wrong: listen to any David Bowie or Madonna album. It’s remarkably easy to estimate the era it was recorded in, even sans a priori knowledge.
Style and trappings dates any piece of media or art, that’s a given. So, how does one get past that obvious hindrance? By quality of execution and delivery of product. Put Super Mario Bros into the hands of a teenager and see their reaction when the ridiculously responsive controls and immaculate level design becomes apparent. Despite the crudity of the graphics, Super Mario Bros is painted with such care and simple elegance that the graphical meekness falls away and imagination fills in any blanks.
There’s usually a very good reason for maintained success even when dated by costume or theme. Take American Graffiti, a film by George Lucas released in 1973. It’s a simple movie about a single night in a (theoretically) simpler time: the end of the sock-hop ‘50s and the beginning of the complex 1960s. Even though the styles and mores of the period are virtually unrecognizable today, the entire point of the movie is that time is transitory and that growing up and older is inevitable. Childhood ends for everyone. It (and its soul sister in Saturday Night Fever), despite being utterly dated in style and place, are simply about more than what appears on screen. Someday they’ll lose their relevance, sure, but it probably won’t be tomorrow. And in the case of American Graffiti, it’s already been updated a couple times. Watch Dazed and Confused. It’s the same movie, different time and place.
Sometimes, the piece is just too weird to be forgotten or moved past. Earthbound is a suburban video game with yo-yos as weapons, time travel infanticide and dirty hippies as random encounters. Road House is a movie about a world famous bouncer and throat-ripping. Everything written by Philip K. Dick is one step away from incomprehensibility, held together by skill, glue and pluck; try explaining Ubik to anyone who hasn’t read it, you’ll get as far as “telepath who’s sustaining his wife’s half-dead body, accepts mission to Mars and falls into a techno-organic nightmare” before the person’s eyes glaze over and you forget how words operate.
What similar to all of these, and lacking on media that swiftly becomes dates, the key thread is unpredictability. The brain craves new sensation and is drawn to it. Despite being—respectively—a dated video game, an insanely poorly plotted movie, and a book released 50 years ago, these works still appear as fresh as they ever did, because nothing that came before or after even resembles them. They’re unique.
There’s little about Skies of Arcadia that is unique. It’s a story of plucky pirates fighting against an empire. Ho-hum. I’ve played that game before. It isn’t particularly well told, or odd enough, or easy and simple to play. There’s too many random battles that weigh it down; load times are somewhat fierce; regular enemy fights are too long and drawn out. So many little problems compound to detract just a little too much from the overall experience.
It’s not just the style. It’s execution. It’s delivery. It’s sheer enjoyment. I got far enough in Skies of Arcadia to determine that none of those was particularly well done. It’s much like the new family on the block who spent all their money on the most expensive, most modern-looking house, only to have nothing left over to furnish the living room. And then ten years later, styles change. What’s left?
The battle system of Skies of Arcadia was dull and rote. The story had been told a hundred times before, and better. The tactical aspects were out of place and much better done in any actual tactics game. There’s not much left is there? Without the benefit of nostalgia—which seems to be why it still lurks in many best-of lists—there’s no reason for me to play.
So I’m not.
Back to me and Leigh and The Goonies. After the thirty-minute mark, I look over at her and she’s looking at her iPhone, scrolling through Instagram. I turn back to Mikey and the gang and try to see it through her unbiased eyes. I try to see how its pace is languid enough to be dull, how its 80s-style casual racism toward Asians and attitudes toward the obese are easily offensive. I can see how her insistence that it’s a children’s movie and that she’d just plain missed it is valid. I don’t agree with it, because I’m not watching it with unbiased eyes but with the eyes of a grown-up kid who experienced it at just the right time.
After we shut off The Goonies, Leigh asked me what I thought of Footloose. I thought about its hackneyed plot and absurdly dated clothing, the terrible modern dancing and ridiculous hairstyles, how it was such a part of the fabric of the ‘80s and impossible to view objectively after the ‘80s was over. It was devoid of irony in an age where irony is a necessary part of culture consumptions.
I said, “I think I might have missed the boat.”