There was a time in the mid ’80s when arcade games where everywhere. Gas stations, restaurants, grocery stores. One grocery store my mom used to go to had a little arcade nook with some rather interesting games in it. Among them were M.A.C.H. 3, Time Pilot, Sega’s Star Trek, and a mostly forgotten little game called Roc’n Rope.
Roc’n Rope is a platform game in which you play as a nameless archaeologist in a prehistoric world. Your goal is to climb from the bottom of the stage to the top where you’ll find (contrary to the game’s title) a phoenix bird. Along the way, you’ll encounter reptilian creatures and cavemen who will hinder your progress. You can also collect golden feathers for extra points, and eggs for invincibility.
The game takes its cues from Donkey Kong, but it puts a unique twist on the formula. Predating Bionic Commando by four years, Roc’n Rope replaces jumping with a grappling hook. You’ll use it to climb up the stage, but it also creates some added challenge. Enemies can also make use of your rope, and if they shake it while you’re moving on it, you’ll fall off. However, if you detach the rope while they’re on it, they’ll be defeated. You’re also equipped with a flashlight that can stun enemies on the ground or defeat them on the rope. There are four stages, each becoming progressively more challenging, and then the game repeats with increased difficulty.
That’s pretty much all there is to it, but it’s a very fun and challenging game that I really enjoy, and I have fond memories of playing it in that grocery store as a kid. It’s a little obscure, and I’m not sure if I ever saw it anywhere else in the wild. It’s a shame that it’s not better known.
The game was ported to the Atari 2600 and ColecoVision in 1984, and the arcade version was included in Konami Classics Series: Arcade Hits for the Nintendo DS in 2007. Konami also used a similar theme and grappling hook mechanic in a Japan-only Famicom Disk System game called Arumana no Kiseki in 1987. But if you ever get the opportunity to play the original Roc’n Rope, definitely give it a shot.
In my previous Favorite Characters article, I discussed Link from the Legend of Zelda series and how the character was defined by the games he was in, even though he doesn’t really have much of a personality on his own. Sonic the Hedgehog, on the other hand, is pretty much the opposite. Sonic is nearly all personality, and it transcends his games. That might explain why the character has endured, despite the inconsistent quality of the games he’s in.
For me, that personality was instrumental in defining the 16-bit generation. Sega initially sold the power of the Genesis based on its ability to handle arcade ports, but Sonic took it to the next level (so to speak). He was one of the most expressive video game characters on home consoles of the time, with graphics that were able to portray his facial expressions (mainly through his large eyes) and body language. He was also rendered in a very three-dimensional way, spinning and rotating him 360 degrees, creating a sense of geometry for the character rather than simply being a flat sprite on the screen. The power of the Genesis brought Sonic to life like no game character before, making him the perfect ambassador for the next generation.
Sonic’s actual design seems heavily influenced by classic cartoon characters from the early 20th century. His highly stylized anthropomorphic appearance is not unlike the earliest designs of Mickey Mouse or Felix the Cat. Even his color scheme, consisting largely of blue contrasted with white and light tan, seems like a throwback to monochromatic black and white. That minimalism helps to emphasize his expressive nature, letting his personality shine through rather than diluting it with superficial elements. Staying true to such classical influences makes Sonic feel timeless.
There were a lot of copycat characters throughout the ’90s, virtually none of which have survived. Sonic outlasted all of them not just because he was original, but because he was a fully realized character. Yeah, he’s got “attitude,” being cocky and occasionally leaping before he looks, but I think that’s balanced out by his heroic personality, and ultimately, Sonic has good intentions. I also like that he’s somewhat laid back, and takes things is stride. He’s like a guy who would be fun to hang out with in real life.
When I first decided to write a series of articles about my favorite game characters, I made a short list of the characters that I wanted to cover, and I decided that Link and Sonic would be the first two. Coincidentally, this was before Sega revealed the new Sonic Boom sub-franchise in which Sonic and company received a fairly substantial makeover. As with Link’s many incarnations, I really enjoy seeing this new interpretation of the character. It’s not the first time Sonic has gotten a makeover, but it demonstrates that he maintains a core appeal, even if his outer appearance is altered.
When I think about it, it’s a little hard to pin down exactly what I like about Sonic. He just has that intangible charisma that I can’t help but love, and it can’t be replicated with a simple formula. Whatever your opinions are of the games he’s in, or if you believe in silly things like the “Sonic cycle,” it’s worth noting that it often starts off with high hopes. To me, that indicates that most people genuinely like Sonic as a character, and we want to see him succeed. That’s gotta count for something.
Nintendo and Ganbarion’s Pandora’s Tower might have gone completely unnoticed if it hadn’t been part of the infamous “Rainfall trilogy,” and even then, it’s still often overlooked. Nonetheless, it’s a very interesting and ambitious game in its own right. The combination of traditional dungeon crawling with aspects of dating simulations and incredibly rich and detailed lore make for a very unique gameplay experience.
At its heart is the relationship between the two main characters. You play as Aeron, a soldier of Athos who falls in love with a singer named Elena. Elena becomes cursed after being attacked by a monster at the Harvest Festival, and she slowly begins transforming into a monster, herself. The only way to break the curse is for Elena to eat the flesh of the masters of the Thirteen Towers, and it’s up to Aeron to retrieve it.
Between excursions to the Thirteen Towers, you spend time at the Observatory building up your relationship with Elena. This involves not just feeding her flesh to break the curse (and preferably doing so before the transformation kicks in), but also talking to her and giving her gifts. This was a very effective aspect of the game for me, as the state of your relationship is not only represented as a meter on the side of the screen, but also reflected in Elena’s mood. As your bond grows stronger, she becomes happier and more optimistic.
What makes it work, however, is the empathy the game builds for Elena. I felt bad watching her gag as she forced herself to eat the dripping, slimy meat, or if the transformation went so far that she had to hide herself in the shadows of the basement. Conversely, it was very rewarding to see her laugh and smile when I gave her gifts and made idle conversation with her, or returned from the Towers to find her singing in the garden. And I was always happy to hear, “Good to see you again, Aeron!” when walking into the Observatory. Elena comes across as having real emotions.
Most importantly is that Elena isn’t content to be helpless. She doesn’t merely sit around all day waiting for you to do all the work, and makes it clear that she doesn’t want to be a burden. She spends her time tidying up the Observatory, cooking meals for when you return, and translating old texts you find in the Towers, among other things. Stereotypes aside, it felt like she was trying to pull her own weight in whatever way she could. Indeed, I felt like she was the one with the real burden (the curse), and I was supporting her in helping to overcome it.
There are many themes running through the game, one of the most prominent being chains. Your main tool/weapon is the Oraclos Chain, which you use to fight enemies, navigate the Towers, and rip flesh out of the monsters. The Towers, themselves, contain large chains that must be broken to open the boss rooms. Aeron must even traverse a giant chain simply to get from the Observatory to the Towers and back. Chains represent the strength of links and the connections between them. Symbolically, the link between Aeron and Elena must be strengthened for them to survive.
Pandora’s tower is a good action-adventure game, but it’s also a touching love story, and it’s impressive how it balances those two aspects and ties them together through gameplay. Rather than having violence strictly for the sake of action, adding love as a driving factor gives it more substance and creates an atmosphere of romance.
After all, this is true love. You think this happens every day?
There was a certain magic about being an NES fan in the late ’80s. It was a time when home video games were experiencing a renaissance, and Nintendo was a doorway into a new world. It was its own culture; its own community. Hanging out with friends, playing the latest games and spreading the latest wild rumors stirred the imagination in a way that today’s internet-driven world has all but forgotten about. There was a freshness and excitement that was a far cry from the vile cynicism, apathy and elitism of the modern gaming community. It was carefree innocence revolving around the simple joy of playing a video game.
In the middle of that came an unexpected film: Todd Holland’s The Wizard, starring Fred Savage, Luke Edwards, Jenny Lewis, Beau Bridges and Christian Slater. Released in the U.S. in December 1989, it was a cheesy little road movie about a kid who had a gift for playing video games, and apparently NES games in particular. Today, it’s often pegged as a 100-minute Nintendo commercial, but it owed as much inspiration to the previous year’s Oscar-winning film Rain Man as well as to The Who’s classic rock opera Tommy. It got hammered by critics and didn’t do particularly well in theaters, and yet, almost 25 years later, it resonates as an object of nostalgia. In the midst of the innocence of the NES generation, The Wizard could never have been made at any other time.
And it resonated with me in particular. Not just because of the video games, but also because of the road trip. My family tended to travel somewhat frequently when I was young, and in the late ’80s and early ’90s, it happened to be across some of the very same Nevada and California roads seen in The Wizard. (Believe me, it’s not as interesting as it looks in the movie. There’s a reason it’s known as The Loneliest Road in America.) More than that, the film really captured the exuberance and excitement I felt as a Nintendo fan. It’s like the movie was made especially for me.
The first time I heard about it was from its TV spot. The first thing that caught my attention was the orchestral version of the Super Mario Bros theme playing in the background. Those kinds of remixes are a dime a dozen now, but back then, I had never heard the blips and bloops of video game music played with actual instruments score before, and it was amazing. The second thing I noticed was Fred Savage, who was an extremely popular child actor at the time due to his starring role on the TV series The Wonder Years, as well as in films like The Princess Bride. And finally, there was Super Mario Bros 3. It was my very first glimpse at what was, at that point, the most anticipated sequel of all-time.
I saw it in the theater twice, rented it on home video a few times, and recorded it on VHS when it was shown on TV just a year after its theatrical run. The film was as much a part of my childhood as any actual video game.
You could call it a “bad” movie (or even a “good bad” movie), but in my opinion, there’s quite a bit to like about it. It moves along at a brisk pace and never drags. It has a lot of genuinely funny scenes, and there’s a ton of quotable dialog (some of which is still repeated even today). It also has memorable characters, a pretty good soundtrack, and some beautiful scenery. Flaws aside, it’s a pretty entertaining film.
And then there are the games. A lot of people like to point out the numerous inaccuracies, and yeah, most kids noticed them even when the movie came out. But to me, that flippant portrayal of video games is part of the movie’s charm. It goes back to what I said earlier about how the movie couldn’t have been made at any other time, and it reflects the carefree feeling of gaming in that era.
There have been several film adaptations of video games since then, and I’m not sure it’s ever been gotten quite right. The Wizard, however, was unique in that it wasn’t based directly on a video game, but rather used them as a backdrop or McGuffin. In a way, it was a precursor to future “video game culture movies,” such as Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and Wreck-It Ralph.
Today, The Wizard stands as a doorway back to that innocent time. Some of that old NES magic rubbed off on it back then, and every time I watch it, a little ray of it shines out. For me, and perhaps many other kids of the NES generation, it’s a little reminder of what made gaming so enjoyable in the first place. Games needn’t always be taken so seriously. Having fun is far simpler than that.
Ain’t It Cool News – Monki talks with Todd Holland, director of The Wizard!
A lengthy and insightful interview from 2008.
NintendoLife – The Making of The Wizard
A look behind-the-scenes.