Plastic Memories and Eternal Battles

It’s a sunny January afternoon. The last football team I care about just backed into the playoffs, and a hangover continues to batter my innards. Inexplicably, I have an insatiable desire to play WWF No Mercy. I’ll forgive you for a lack of familiarity with a game that hasn’t seen store shelves in nearly two decades; its subject a pastime that lost my attention — and legions of others’ — around that same era for reasons that I’m very inclined to discuss another time. Nostalgia is a hell of a drug and, as it turns out, not a great hangover cure. Nevertheless, the pursuit of that comforting glow that evokes the cheer of days past is often worth the trouble to me, at least.

Unsealing the Tomb

The plastic Rubbermaid storage unit that lives under my desk is a squeaking, tape-bound relic. I remove the drawer in which the Nintendo 64 and its many accouterments hibernate and hug it to my chest to inspect the contents. While I inhale the dusty scent of aged plastic and printed circuit boards, I admire my cable management skills with a smug nod. The black twist ties (bonus points for color coordination) fray where they’ve been twisted one too many times. They’ll break soon, I note, and wonder which other items in my grasp share a similar fate.

As I slide the bundle onto the coffee table, it occurs to me that the last time I hooked it up to this particular television it looked atrocious; and, I don’t mean in an “it’s cool, retro should look a little messy” kind of way. The flat panel is just too advanced for my poor grey console.

Speed Dating for Toasters

I fear the day manufacturers forsake the trusty composite format. I suspect the long tail of the DVD vending machine racket is to thank for that, but with the dominance of broadband streaming services the sun will eventually set on the market and another roster of gaming articles will end up marooned by the march of progress like so many before them.

Determined, I express silent gratitude for the present circumstances by setting upon the task of marrying my beloved Mario machine to the futuristic rectangle before it. I’m the minister of vintage video game nuptials preparing my altar of blinking plastic. We begin the ancient and beautiful ceremony of slinging cables and wiggling connectors culminating with, optimistically, a 65-inch, 3:4 aspect ratio burst of pure 1990s technicolor brilliance.

At this point, the little box has to feel like an electronic Austin Powers: awakened decades later to a vaguely recognizable culture, forced to interface with technology beyond its wildest comprehension, and expected to persevere despite all the confusion. Somehow though, like the intrepid Powers, the 64-bit stalwart manages to get it mostly right. The plumbing, for now, is still the same.

Oh, behave

I can’t recall the last console controller I had to plug in and televisions of the last century didn’t require a math formula to calculate safe viewing distances (no matter how many times your mother warned you sitting too close would fry your retinas). After several rounds of entertainment center gymnastics, my coffee table is the off-kilter torso of a pitiful wire octopus. Like a shotgun wedding in Vegas, it smacks of haste and tackiness. It’s not a great look, dear, but ignore the naysayers. We can make it work.

I snap the cartridge into place with a satisfying “clung.” Reaching for my favorite controller, I flip the sticky (yes, sticky) power switch and draw a hopeful breath. We have liftoff.

The new-age set does its best to inflate the tiny signal pumped in by the N64 to fit its massive resolution. The result is a distressfully botched array of mismatched edges, curiously doubled pixels, and general visual unease. The Nintendo speaks in cave drawings while the Samsung is a telepath: they’re just not clicking yet. But, for better or worse, the honeymoon isn’t over.

I’m determined to break a [palm] sweat winning the championship belt in a low-poly virtual ladder match or we’ll all die trying. You won’t recognize the wrestlers, though (and not because nearly the entire roster is either deceased or retired). They’re the product of pre-adolescent imaginations afforded too much summer freedom and No Mercy’s incredibly detailed, some would argue ahead of its time, create-a-wrestler system. My scrappy British underdog Standish Manheart will take on the curiously powerful, multifaceted mystery-man they call Hardcore — the avatar of a life-long friend and gaming partner.

Making it Last

I consummate the ordeal by demanding the television make some concessions to its flagging peripheral. For one, the clarity of an upscaled digital picture is far too revealing of the charming, if persistent, flaws of an analog signal. You can do wonders to simulate the fuzzy sheen of the old cathode ray tube phosphors by dialing the sharpness setting back to a flat “0”. Here, the pixels and polygons blur into one another as the workhorse boxes of yesteryear showed us without knowing any better*. Don’t bother enabling the pushy, “realistic” high refresh rate features either — they render the visuals even more phony looking (Seriously, though, why are they always on by default when you set up a new input source? I digress). Some additional tweaks to the contrast (ultra high) and color settings (likewise, pretty high) bring things back into some semblance of natural order and it’s finally time to hit “start” and rumble.

Glass breaks. Bad hip hop ensues.

The crowd is enraptured by the thunderous onset of Manheart’s entrance anthem. As pyrotechnics scream across the entryway, my digital warrior casts a pompous gesture toward the ring and I find myself drawn into a cocoon of focus. The champion is treated to his own display of gloriously blurry, low bit excess. A simmering staredown ensues. The bell rings and the battle is on. Two headstrong brawlers lock horns mid-ring as the crowd roars. My fingers remember all of the moves and all of the counters. I’m a jūdan master of the No Mercy method. I grunt when a flurry of punches lands and bob enthusiastically as bodies carom off of turnbuckles and backs flatten against digital canvas.

Suddenly, I’m transported back to a fluorescent-lit basement amidst a pack of fifteen-year-olds splayed out on mismatched pieces of musty furniture. An empty bag of Doritos is flattened under a half-consumed fountain soda that’s threatening to be spilled by the agitated youth flailing and cursing next to it.

The match ends after a suspenseful exchange that leaves the challenger unable to pursue his assailant up the ladder to the swaying championship belt suspended from the rafters by an invisible cable. Manheart loses a hard-fought barnburner to his rival Hardcore. The defeated writhes in bloody agony clutching his knee as the incumbent tumbles to the canvas with his rightful prize, victorious.

As the bell rings and the belt is raised, my cat hops onto the coffee table obscuring my view of the screen. With a sigh, I glance out the window at a dark Queens skyline. My stomach turns a bit, reminding me I need to eat at some point lest my hangover consume me entirely. I’m by myself today, but I swear I can still hear someone call out, “I got winner!”

* Here’s a brief history lesson about how television standards affected game production in the past. Until the mid-aughts and the proliferation of flat panel screens, we watched all of our A Current Affair and traded rounds of Columns on screens that remained technologically unchanged for the better part of the 20th century. The resolution specified by the NTSC analog standard (in North America, the European counterpart is the PAL standard) provided a stable canvas onto which artists and designers could paint with the confidence that their creations would be displayed accurately and consistently regardless of screen size or manufacturer. A brilliant example is how they used scanlines and natural color bleeding, inherent nuances of the technology, to provide natural aliasing. Their effect was, perhaps counter-intuitively, to enhance the clarity of sprite work of the 8 and 16-bit generations by softening the rigid pixel patterns. Look at those same sprites without the forgiving filter of the cathode ray tube — say, using an emulator — and you’ll be shocked at how rudimentary and unrefined they appear.