Friday, February 12, 2010

Kickle Exegesicle

Just before Christmas I bought a pair of retro NES-style USB controllers for my computer, with the idea -- actually urged on me by my girlfriend, in a non-Dodge-Charger-approved inversion of stereotypical relationship roles -- that those, along with running the laptop's output through the TV, would give emulated Nintendo games the classic, hand-cramping experience. And they've worked great! We came home from the holidays, played some Dr. Mario, beat Super Mario Bros. 3 a couple of times, etc. After a couple of weeks I decided that Kyle had to have custody of the controllers so that they wouldn't present me with massive time sinkage opportunities. But I already had the NES bug in my head, so I just wound up downloading a few old games anyway and playing them a bunch with just my keyboard and laptop screen, like before. Somewhere in here there's a failure of human decision making.

Anyway, one of the games I played through a little bit was Kickle Cubicle, as far as I can tell an undistinguished Adventures of Lolo knockoff from 1990. It made my list because it turns out that my long-fossilized gaming tastes apparently aren't merely limited to my system of choice circa 1991 (actually, it might have been more of Mom and Dad's choice, when our couple of halfhearted "Can you get us a Super Nintendo?" requests came back negatory), but limited to games I actually played at some point as a child. And Kickle satisfies that humble criterion: It was something like the fifth-awesomest Nintendo game at our older cousins' house in Rochester, after Top Gun, Jackal, Tecmo Bowl, and probably Caveman Games.

Despite having played the game long enough to finish it on a couple of family visits, and its having caught my fancy enough to come up in occasional bouts of Nintendo-flavored mental weirdness in adulthood, I'm not sure I ever liked the game as such. When I revisited it, though, the game struck a couple of notes of odd ambivalence within my first few minutes of playing it. Said ambivalence was very quickly replaced with mere boredom and casual annoyance. But let's unpack that ambivalence anyway.

First: I don't know what Kickle Cubicle's target audience was, but it looks like a game trying to appeal to girls -- Bright colors, chirpy sound design, bubbly pink hearts, cloyingly cute (though still fatal) enemies. The password entry screen is made up like a diary, another emblem of girlhood. I might think that the game was going for a younger unisex set, but being a puzzle game I doubt it was intended for younger kids of any gender, and boys with the appropriate mental acuity and fine motor control probably would have already aquired a taste for spin-kicking roided-up street fighters out of helicopters and such, rather than rescuing anthropomorphic vegetables and cakes from a wicked snowman-wizard. So I assume the game was made with an eye towards girls -- But then it has a conventionally boy-centric plot! The player controls a little man who goes around rescuing princesses. Kind of sexed-up princesses, actually, based on the first two levels. (It's sort of amazing how easily computer programmers can make recognizable cleavage out of three little dots, until you think about how male they are and how much time they spend shut up in windowless rooms.) After that you might rescue a king and then a little girl princess; I'm not sure, and there's no way I'm throwing a few more hours down the Kickle hole just to verify how affronted my gender politics should be. The point is, Kickle should have been a girl! Throw a bone to those girls playing Nintendo in 1990, give them a female video game character who isn't stuck in the perpetual kidnap/rescue cycle. And the other point is, it's weird to realize you're having a negative political reaction to Kickle Cubicle.

Further in that vein, Second: Maybe it's just because Copenhagen was in the news not so long ago, and Kyle and I heard Al Gore give an agreeably Al Gore-ish talk in Portland late last year. But -- the gameplay involves running around a bunch of ice islands that get crushed up into the ocean when you clear a stage, and the first couple of times that happened, I had a palpable, unsettling, recognizably ridiculous feeling of, "Oh, we do not need to be unfreezing any more sea ice." Similarly, when you kill the boss at the end of a level, their iced-over castles thaw out into a sickeningly verdant shade of Nintendo green, and while the princess thanked the brave young lad onscreen for unfreezing the land I was there kind of thinking, "Well, as much as you love the warmer weather, I'd worry about the impact higher average temperatures will have on your kingdom's agriculture." Not literally thinking that; inchoate wise-ass impressions in that vein drifted through my mind. Underpinning them was a small but genuinely dark reminder about atmospheric carbon, methane frozen in threatened permafrost, humans' psychological inadequacy to taking rapid large-scale preventative measures of any kind, and so on. I don't think we need your help to melt everything down, little man!

In conclusion, I guess I've become some sort of joyless caricature of a liberal.

If the game still has one thing going for it, it's that bizarre name: "Kickle" seems bent on making the long-dead frequentative a productive form in the English language once more, while "Cubicle" darkly foreshadows the Dilbert-esque workplace drudgery that almost all of the game's original players will have aged into by now. If you were to reimagine the game based only on the title, it would probably be about an unintelligible 13th-century Brit running amok in corporate America, assaulting its beaten-down, white-collar denizens with his feet. And that's a game I might really want to play, even if it didn't exist when I was in fifth grade.


Blogger Jack said...

I'm beginning to doubt whether the usual theory is powerful enough to account for this kind of observation.

Well, Nate, it's good to know what you've been up to for the last six weeks.

2/12/2010 8:27 AM  
Blogger Pete said...

Holy shit, Nate.

How do we make this thing go viral?

The world needs to see this.

2/12/2010 4:33 PM  
Blogger nate said...

See, Pete thinks swears are funny.

2/12/2010 8:38 PM  

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