Thursday, May 8, 2014

Bruce Lee - Enter the Dragon
Syntax error. "The Dragon" not found.

The Commodore 64 was to me a platform surrounded by mystery. I remember walking into my brother's room, one day, only to see it resting on his corner desk whose surface had for years been unoccupied. "Where did this come from?" I wondered. "When and how did it get here?" Did I miss a birthday party where he received it as a gift? Did my father buy it for him? I didn't know. That was the continuing theme with my brother when it came to our electronic toys: Things just seemed to appear out of nowhere and without any explanation, whether it was a new batch of 2600 games suddenly materializing in the magic box or any of those NES games that sneaked into my collection without me ever noticing ("What the hell is 'Vindicators'?").

So he introduced me to his new Commodore 64, the first computer system with which I'd ever interacted, intent on proudly showing off its gaming capability. After switching on the machine, though, he just kind of stood there stoically, as if the C64's boot-up sequence, alone, was telling an interesting-enough story; in the seconds that followed, I stared forward and tried to process the system's now-iconic blue start-up screen, which was completely alien to me. "OK--now what?" I asked. "Where's the game?" It didn't work that way, as he then demonstrated; I spent the next few minutes learning how to type the famous command line, whose every variation would soon be burned into my memory:

Load "[value]",8, 1

The floppy disk previously inserted into the hard drive contained a number of games. A dollar-sign symbol substituted for the value, he showed me, loaded the complete list of games and their file names, while an asterisk simply loaded the list's first entry. Before leaving me to my own devices, he exhibited the intricacies of these floppy disks, which represented a storage format with which I was largely unfamiliar, and informed me that I could actually play the games using our 2600 controllers, which conveniently plugged into the back of the disk drive! I found this amazing--highly desirable yet somehow crazy, as if a crossing over of two entirely disparate worlds. I knew that I didn't want to play using the complicated-looking keyboard, which was foreign to me and seemed the equivalent of learning advanced piloting on the fly, so the option to use the familiar, more customary 2600 joystick helped ease me into the experience.

I spent the next few days sampling as many of these "weird-looking" games as I could. I was mesmerized by the Commodore 64, whose world felt endlessly bizarre and unrestrained compared to those that enveloped the 2600 and the consoles I had played at friends' houses. It was like being dropped into uncharted territory, lost in an unfathomably vast forest where nothing felt safe. It's not surprising in retrospect that I found the most immediate shelter in known properties like The Goonies, Ghosts 'n Goblins and Friday the 13th, and one of the most impactful first stops was at the door of Bruce Lee, whose title character was instantly recognizable to me.

I quickly became a fan of its title-screen theme, which was the only music track in the game but still another of those that demonstrated the C64's impressive, more-synthesized sound capabilities. More so, I was drawn in by the game's combination of arcade-style item-corralling and screen-to-screen action. It was simple enough to understand: I had to collect all of the easily identified hanging lanterns, sometimes necessarily moving between rooms, until a secret passage opened up and allowed me entry into the next area. In most rooms, after a few seconds had elapsed, a speedy, annoying ninja would appear onscreen, chase me down, and stifle my progress by repeatedly trying to slice me with his sword; a green-colored sumo (a true "Ginetta") would appear moments later and do the same, albeit more slowly and instead with flying jump kicks.

I didn't know where I was supposed to be or why, exactly, I was securing these lanterns, mostly because I didn't have a manual handy. In fact, there were no boxes or manuals for any of my brother's Commodore 64 games, but they weren't absent for the reason discussed in previous blog entries (and I'll explain why in a future piece). While the collector in me would later come to lament this fact, it wasn't a big deal at the time. No--it was just another chance for me to apply my imagination; I interpreted Bruce's mission to be one that carried him through a Japanese castle that was gated on one side by tall mountains and on the other by the open seas. The temples hidden away below the surface were first cold and dark, with the lower levels brighter and warmer (since they were embedded so deep underground); later "teleporter" rooms sent him to different parts of a pirate ship that was coasting along nearby the castle, their climbable masts my favorite visual.

It took me a while to get used to the controls, which required that I push up to jump (even using the keyboard, which you'd think would offer more options for input). A lot of the obstacles in Bruce Lee were constructed with long diagonal jumps in mind, and the 2600's somewhat-janky four-directional stick wasn't always willing to cooperate. I had more fun learning to manipulate the hapless enemies, who could be coaxed into striking each other and otherwise neutralizing their own threat; on any screen where there were mines, for instance, you could place yourself adjacent to one and watch as the ninja stop right beside you, stand directly over it, and explode before being able to execute his attack. Considering that these foes endlessly respawned after death, instigating friendly fire was almost a necessity; they could replicate any of Bruce's actions but usually not successfully, often trapping themselves or killing each other--brainlessly climbing head-first into long spikes or knocking each other into projectile-sieged gaps--which I found hilarious.

It wasn't a lengthy game (only 19 screens in total), but it felt longer because lives were limited and the obstacles were sometimes brutal. The challenge was mostly about knowing how to climb the conveyor-like surfaces and timing jumps/drops, but it was easy to drain your entire stock at one rough spot. I mastered the timing for dropping down the projectile-sieged chasms and hopping the fast-scrolling floor traps, but it wasn't always a guarantee that the controls would respond in time in hurried situations, and I'd often be forced to repeat rooms until the 2600 controller agreed to recognize my diagonal movements or until I ran out of lives, whence I was forced to start the game over. Also, while the ninja and sumo were largely incompetent, they were still capable of occasionally cornering me and taking me out with a flurry of kicks and stabs.

The final boss, who you'd think would provide the greatest challenge, was instead a joke; after entering his screen, all I had to do was run straight across the room to push a switch that apparently electrified its perch and reduced it to ashes. Its projectiles had no chance of touching me unless I decided to stand still, just to see what would happen. Considering the game's limited mechanics, there probably wasn't much the programmer, Ronald J. Fortier, could do to create a compelling final boss, but for me this oddly worked to the game's favor; since my eyes were always focused on Bruce, I could never do more than simply glance at the boss, whose fleeting presence was akin to a movie monster appearing and disappearing in a flash. It lent the horned demon an air of mystique, as if my travails were only meant to earn me a brief glimpse of a sasquatch that knew it would be spotted and had to quickly vanish.

I never did understand what was going on in the ending, wherein Bruce jumps for joy in the most gaudily colored room in the history of video games. Where was I supposed to be, exactly? From what I could tell, I had either saved the world or set it on fire

While it's not my favorite Commodore 64 game, Bruce Lee was always one of those I'd load up anytime a day demanded a prolonged session of computer gaming, equivalent to the NES' Trojan and Renegade in that regard. It was fun to play alone, but it was even better when I could successfully rope any of my friends to join in. That is, while Bruce Lee has your standard alternating two-player mode, it also has the option for the second player to instead control the green sumo. It was probably intended for the players to constantly engage each other, but we took a different tact: We'd cooperate, with me controlling Bruce while a friend (mainly Dominick or Mike) would use the sumo to beat up and disrupt the poor ninja, eliminating at least one constant irritation as I more freely corralled the lanterns. It was really forward-thinking of the developers to allow a second player to take control a normally AI-controlled NPC, and we always had a good time working together, as sheriff and deputy, as we ran through a game we enjoyed.

The younger me labeled Bruce Lee "weird," as I was prone to do to many of the C64's games. I didn't use the adjective to imply any negative connotation--it's just that I wasn't yet cognizant of the word aesthetics, which always acted as the main differentiator between systems. Games have their own flavors, of course, but it was more so the aesthetics of the platform that defined the games and created the associated vibe and resonance; it took a long time before I could find the words to describe the sense. "Why do these games feel so different to me?" I pondered. Even as I grew to know the C64 and appreciate its unique qualities, I never lost the sensation that I was visitor to some mystical woodland whose many pathways led to strange, unexpected treasures. Bruce Lee, one of its hidden gems, always hits that nerve and reminds me of the first time I laid eyes on that Commodore 64, my early struggle to understand what it was, and those days I spent lost in its wilderness.

While I still have the specially designed case with all of the floppy disks, they're merely oars without a boat; my brother unfortunately sold his Commodore 64 back in the mid-90s for what I'd wager was little reward (no doubt a sum of money he spent on some short-lived venture). I'll always regret that I didn't become aware his plan to sell it, lest I would have tried to stop him. As a result, I had to turn to emulation to enjoy Bruce Lee and my other C64 favorites, a lot of which were obscure or overlooked. I was thrilled when Nintendo added a "Commodore 64" category to its Virtual Console, which I naively thought would give the platform a second life, but not much became of it; the selection of games was limited in scope, and the platform completely disappeared from the service in August of 2013 (most likely due to the usual licensing issues). It makes me sad that such a vast library of creative and oddly alluring titles might wind up lost or forgotten (well, more than they already are), and I'm disappointed in the game-creators who seemingly have little interest in keeping their work alive.

I've largely shied away from emulation, mostly out of guilt, so I've for years been separated from many of the games I used to love. I hold out hope that the Commodore 64 will one day reappear on the Virtual Console or that some other company whose employees are passionate about the industry's history will create a digitally based download service made to include the C64, as much of its library that can be mined, and certainly titles like Bruce Lee, which I'm waiting to rediscover.

They say, "File not found." I say, "Ready? Run."

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