Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Adventures of Gilligan's Island - A Three-Hour Chore
Because it was about time someone used a 1960s sitcom as the vehicle for an errand-boy simulator.

There are those times when I'll be looking through my old toy and game collections, reminiscing about what these items meant to me when they were most relevant to my life, and find myself holding an object whose inexplicable presence makes me shake my head and ask aloud, "What the hell was I thinking?" And had the younger me been similarly susceptible to the laws of logic and reason, such a question might have been at my mind's forefront any time I'd look upon that cardboard packaging for the newly purchased The Adventures of Gilligan's Island.

To understand why that never happened, you have to consider the circumstances: It was September of 1991, very late in the NES' life-cycle, and I was desperate to stumble upon any high-quality title that I could herald as proof that this console was still capable of providing us truly memorable 8-bit experiences. The problem was that I simply couldn't locate a single game that I felt could satisfy the criteria, and after coming up empty so many times, the only conclusion I could draw was that I'd already played all of the system's best games (a patently incorrect assumption); it was futile to continue my weekly strolls down the games aisle at Toys R Us in search of that one special candidate, since the wall's selection was destined to never again grow beyond the same aging black-box titles and a whole lot of other games I'd previously disregarded.

There was a cold reality beginning to set in, but I wasn't ready to face it; for my world to continue to make sense, I needed to keep my favorite console's spirit alive, and I was ready to compromise if necessary--to settle for any game whose 8''-by-6'' preview image could be observed to display as much as a recognizable name or even a popular license. In my ultimate moment of desperation, I indiscriminately gravitated toward the aisle's right side and plucked out one of the yellow tags as belonging to the most easily identifiable property--a game whose turquoise-tinted artwork depicted the familiar mugs of Gilligan and Skipper from the old sitcom Gilligan's Island.

My demeanor at the time might have suggested that I wasn't fully confident in the decision, because my father, who never cared about the matter of a game's quality, looked upon me suspiciously and asked me, "Are you sure you want to buy this?"

Oh, but I was sure. 

Well, kind of sure. Maybe.

Actually, as I thought more about it during the car ride home, I could find plenty of justification for my purchasing decision. For one, I was intimately familiar with the subject-matter, since I'd been watching syndicated episodes of Gilligan's Island since as far back as the early 80s! I was an odd duck in that sense: Where other kids were devoting all of their TV-watching energy to cartoons like He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Alvin and the Chipmunks, Transformers, G.I. Joe and Transformers, I spent much of the daytime hours watching "old people" shows like I Love Lucy, The Munsters, Bewitched, All in the Family, The Brady Bunch, and others whose air dates long preceded my birth year. 

Also, I had a strong affinity for comedy duos like Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton (from my all-time favorite sitcom The Honeymooners), Laurel and Hardy, and Abbot and Costello, whose clashing personalities and funny mannerisms combined to produce the absurd interactions I found so hilarious ("7 times 13 is 28!"). 

Why, the antics of the vacuous Gilligan and the hardheaded Skipper played right into that!

How any of this was going to make for a quality video game, though, I wasn't sure. 

Honestly, I didn't know what to expect from Gilligan's Island, since I couldn't recall seeing a single preview for the game in Nintendo Power or any of the competing magazines, none of which could even be bothered to include its name on their "Upcoming Games" lists. I could only guess that their editors scoffed at the notion of providing coverage for a game whose subject-matter was well out of the interest of kids--the industry's current target market. "That has to be the reason," I thought. "Right?!"

The game's manual wasn't particularly helpful, either, since it spoke rather vaguely about the game's mechanics and focused more on providing giant sketches of fish and other random sea life, as if Bandai's localization team was trying to distract me from something.

Clearly, I was going to have to actually play Gilligan's Island to find out what it was. 

Immediately, I observed that it was similar to games like Mickey Mousecapade and A Boy and His Blob in that you were tasked with controlling two characters simultaneously, with the CPU handling the partner's scripted actions. In Gilligan's case, this entailed automatically jumping over series of rocks like a jackrabbit and fleeing in terror at the sight of certain enemies. Unlike Minnie, though, Gilligan was designed to be a constant nuisance (to adapt his TV persona to video-game form, I guess), and it was required that I keep him within a certain distance or else he would refuse to follow me over to the next screen; also, I'd have to guide his every movement as to keep him from falling into pits, the result of which was his imprisonment in the cavernous depths below, where he'd remain until I'd reluctantly decide that it was in my best interest to drop down and rescue him (it'd become apparent that locating him quickly was paramount, since the game would suddenly impose a two-minute time-limit whenever the pair was split up, and it wouldn't allow for storyline advancement).

If I wanted to voluntarily explore a cavern, I'd have to lead Gilligan into a pit beforehand and then follow suit, which thanks to finicky character-movement was a challenge unto itself. A such, there was an equal chance that I would drop in first--accidentally, because the game interpreted that the Skipper's heel brushed up one pixel too close to the pit--and Gilligan would remain above ground; and if there was no ladder granting me immediate exit, it was likely that I'd have to circle around the entire island just to get back to the original drop-down point. I couldn't believe that this was some designer's idea of "fun"--a purposely rigid trailing system designed to stall the player's progress for no other reason than to artificially lengthen the game. 

Sure--I could use a rope item to magically transport Gilligan to my current location, but the default total was limited in number, and additional rope icons weren't even guaranteed to appear during the course of gameplay!

"And where the hell is Ginger?" I wondered as I stumbled and bumbled my way through that first episode. "How could they leave out an essential member of the cast?!" This kind of stuff was important to me, and the lack of Ginger put more of a damper on a game that was already having trouble meeting my low expectations. (Though, I might not have felt it to be such an egregious omission had I known about Tina Louise's kerfluffle with the show's producers and her unwillingness to participate in future Gilligan's Island projects.)

This was a side-scrolling action game, so the main hero, Skipper, was supplied the mandatory jumping and punching abilities; however, the developers forget to provide any in the way of interesting platforming challenges, and the enemies (at least the wildlife encountered early on, like the hyperactive monkeys, runaway boars, and slithering snakes) were completely immune to his strikes. The closest thing to an actual platforming sequence was a large expanse whose narrow bridge was under constant deluge from bouncing rocks--the kind that would appear from the screen's edge without warning and smack me in the face before I could even react; I couldn't move horizontally to avoid them, because I'd risk losing Gilligan to the surrounding gaps, so all I could do was charge forward, jump, and hope that the rocks would soon cease their near-endless spawning.

Otherwise, airplay was reserved mainly for jumping over rocks, most of which Gilligan and Skipper would trip over, anyway, and effectively drain my already-lacking heart meter; of course, health units could be replenished using food (banana pick-ups), but, like ropes, there was the possibility of them never appearing during play.

"What am I playing?"

My search for answers might have gone smoothly, still, had it not been for what Gilligan's Island considered "level design," which amounted to (a) the numerous mud pits (sometimes of the super-long variety) that I was forced to continue wading through at half-speed, (b) the equally abundant pools of quicksand through which I could trudge only by feverishly mashing the jump button, and (c) the quick-flowing currents that would inconveniently carry me to other parts of the island if I wasn't able to swiftly swim across their surfaces by mashing the button with the same tenacity. I could deal with the mud pits and the quicksand, but I'd come close to losing my mind whenever time was short and a current would transfer me all the way back an earlier part of the stage because my thumb locked up for, like, a millisecond. Part of dealing with these obstructions was learning how to use jumps to bypass sections of them, which was the only way to save time and reduce finger fatigue.

The game tried its best to distract me from the mundanity by dedicating a whole portion of the screen to the continuous chatter of Gilligan and the Skipper, but their dialogue held little substance, and they'd incessantly repeat the same three or four lines all throughout the episode. It was cute the first time Gilligan openly ruminated about the island's beautiful scenery, but the 40th utterance of such, likely repeated while I was on the verge of a conniption as I struggled mightily to slog through a mile-long pool of quicksand, could get a bit grating.

All right--so there was little to no action or adventure to be had. The enemies were seemingly invincible. My fingers were absolutely worn out from all of the button-mashing. And I was spending most of my time hunting down the frequently wayward Gilligan.

"So what were you supposed to be doing?" you ask.

Well, the gameplay boiled down to continuously moving about from one side of the island to the other (the world design akin to the labyrinthine structure of Friday the 13th or Rambo), Gilligan and the Skipper essentially running errands for the other castaways. The Howells, for instance, would ask me to retrieve their missing paraphernalia from a location west of their position while the Professor or Mary Ann might request that I deliver items or messages to the other characters. This idea was not only boring in principle--it was implemented to the point of absurdity. It wasn't simply a matter of talking to Mr. Howell and then delivering his message to the Mary Ann; it was sometimes required that I travel back and forth between these two parties somewhere around, oh, four or five times, each trip eating up several minutes and entailing a trek across the same torrid, aggravatingly plotted route. 

And that's all there was to it, Bandai's a successful effort in creating gaming's first and ultimate all-fetch-quest experience.

My problem was that I had trouble memorizing the correct routes in the proceeding episodes, each of which was growing exponentially both in size and complexity; it didn't help that there was limited background-variety (little more than the woodland's recurring shrubbery and caves' similar-looking wall textures) and certain areas were indistinguishable from others. I'd become hopelessly confused as time was draining away and none of the available paths would bring my any closer to the Professor, who I'd visited just minutes ago. The map wasn't much help in these instances, because it didn't make note of the exit points for the warp-like water and swamp currents. The lack of clear direction made it feel more like a maddening game of survival; only few games (most of them Commodore 64 titles) were capable of inflicting that type of stress upon me.

Gilligan's Island was theoretically a short game, measuring in at only four episodes, but its convoluted level design and the considerable effort required to commit its routes to memory made it seem incalculably larger. Though, the objective of each episode was same: Run a bunch of errands, acquire a club, and then find the boss and beat it over the head.

The boss battles represented another major issue I had with the game: I could never tell if I was registering any damage on the bosses, who would react to my clubbing blows as if they were soaking up damage--snapping back violently each time--when they actually weren't. I couldn't figure out why they'd sometimes yield immediately and other times endure for minutes, so I'd just hammer away and hope to trigger the more abbreviated scenario. I didn't know until years later that you had to club them during a very specific frame of animation if you wanted to properly inflict damage, but by then it was long past the point when I had the inclination to even load up the game and put it to the test.

Though, I will say that Gilligan's Island had one thing going for it: Its setting. Oh, I loved it when my games provided me wonderfully drawn tropical environments and isolated jungle backdrops, and Gilligan's Island was if anything rich with such ambiance. I liked visiting the little pockets of the island where there were lush foliage and scattered groves overlaying a mysterious black background; other times I'd stumble open a screen where a thicket of wild bushes quietly rested beneath a nourishing, sparsely clouded sky. I imagined these remote locations to be amazingly peaceful--what I would call the perfect hiding spots if I could magically transport myself into the game and spend some time there, away from civilization. These days, I associate the game more with images of these interesting spaces than any of its other aspects.

The music was surprisingly good, too. I mean, it started out goofy-sounding and playfully quaint but grew effectively intense as wistful as the scenario called for it. Its soundtrack was similar to Bad Dudes' in the sense that it deserved to appear in a better game, where it would have been more appreciated.

On my best day, I could make it all the way to the final episode's boss, the bone-wielding skeleton, but it was likely that I'd fall well short of defeating him. I was always so low on time and energy by that point that I didn't stand a chance; that the skeleton could dispose of me so quickly weighed heavily on my mind in successive play-throughs, which I knew were entirely pointless. Maybe I continued playing it because we were in a personal down period, when the NES' release-schedule was vacant and I'd already replayed the SNES masterpiece Super Mario World to death. Or maybe it was because I was completely insane

Whatever the case, I was very prideful and always tried to finish my games, no matter how insanely difficult or disastrous in design. To let a game get the best of me was to live with an enduring failure on my résumé. But I was more than ready to concede defeat after putting far too much time into Gilligan's Island, which was the kind of game I knew was capable of breaking me emotionally if I let it. I sensed I was reaching that point when I was no longer able to clear Episode 3 with any regularity, and I decided then that it was best to leave Gilligan's Island behind; I shelved it for good sometime in 1992 and wouldn't see it in action again for 20-plus years, in the age of Internet video.

I didn't see the game's ending until the Youtbue era began. The long and short of it was that the duo's exploits earned the castaways a wish, which they would naturally use to escape the island, but Gilligan of course blew it by blabbering about his sudden desire for ice cream. "Would that have been worth it?" I asked myself. The answer: Probably not.

I can't adequately explain to you why this is, but I have no regrets about purchasing Gilligan's Island even considering all of the pain and suffering it inflicted upon me. My memories of it are strongly rooted in that specific time in my life, when the winds of change were beginning to push me in new directions but I was desperately clinging to the old ways. The hell I'd experienced in Gilligan's Island might have been the most glaring of signals that it was time to let go.

Still, that Gilligan's Island exists at all is endlessly fascinating and valuable to be by that measure. It's certainly a bad video game--its satanically conceived level design having left numerous scars on my psyche--but it's worth remembering for those moments like when Gilligan would climb a tree like a coked-up monkey boy; randomly hop around like a jackass for no reason; or, as that Seanbaby article famously mocked, obliviously commentate on his surroundings while his buddy, the Skipper, was being torn to pieces by vicious jungle beasts. I would never think to ever again subject myself to its brand of sadism, but I'll still find the time to reminisce about its absurd moments, its pleasant aesthetics, and the emotional trauma I've experienced as a result of its very being.

Call it silly sentimentality or misplaced nostalgia, but that's how I feel about it.

So that was the tale of my island stay. I was there for a long, long time.
I had to make the best of things, and it was an uphill climb.
The first mate and his Skipper, too, did their very best to make me most uncomfortable in that tropic-island nest.
No joy, no fun, no merriment--not a hint that I could see. Like a Paul Blart: Mall Cop sequel, it was torturous as can be.
So join me here next week, my friends--you're sure to get a smile, 'cause surely there'll be no more talk of The Adventures of Gilligan's Iiiiiiiiiiisle


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