Insomnia | Commentary

"Violent Knee Attack, bitch"

By Raphael Azcueta / September 29, 2005

Every few months, after I've finished the one or two games that interest me, I pull it out.

I pull out Double Dragon II and I think to myself: "This is what videogames are supposed to be."

This year I was forced to use an emulator because my friends with NESes are busy assholes. With the AV cords hooked up to the TV and the PS2 to USB converter plugged into my laptop, I boot up jNES. The music is quite familiar. I hit start on player 2.

"Violent Knee Attack, bitch."

A leap forward in video games, that's what the NES was. People claim, "it saved the industry." They were scared to buy new games and consoles because the Atari had crashed so hard. Then the NES came and Nintendo pretty much secured millions upon millions of fans. It did save the industry. But before the introduction of the NES the industry was a very different thing. It was a toy industry. The NES was different. It was the Nintendo Entertainment System, after all.

It had charms no other systems before it had, and not many systems after it seemed to really understand it. The NES turned representation into immersion. It wasn't just graphics, either. It was sound and control on top of looking, as funny as this may sound today, absolutely gorgeous. The Atari was absolutely hideous in comparison. It was also primitively underpowered.

Seriously, it could not even produce a proper rendition of Pac-Man. The NES, on the other hand, was equipped to do much more than Namco's classic. It told stories. Real stories. Its own stories. And they were amazing.

A good storyteller is also a good observer. He sees how you tense up when he approaches the climax. He'll slow down or he'll speed up. He'll do it to play with you. He listens to you ask questions and tells anecdotes -- but he'll always come back to his own story. He does it because he cares about his story. The NES could not only tell you a story with its two output cables and your glaring TV, but could also listen to you with its boxy little control pad.

In 19XX....

Violence ruled the streets of New York City after the Nuclear War. Even with the crime syndicates growing bigger every year, two young men were brave enough to challenge them. While their names were Billy and Jimmy Lee... ...people called them the Double Dragons!

And yet, the Dragons had one terrible enemy. To fight against him was the destiny and fate of the Double Dragons. One day Shadow Warriors attacked the city and Billy's girlfriend, Marian, was killed. The Double Dragons swore to avenge her death!

So the story itself is filler. But that's not the point. It's how the NES tells you the story. It's how it whispers into your ear.

How does it whisper?

"Violent Knee Attack, bitch."

It doesn't.

A great man once said, "The NES turned representation into immersion". Immediately after the introductory text, you are Billy Lee in front of your garage door and there are two gymnastically inclined street punks ready to round off a roundhouse to your face.

From here, you go forward to fight more punks. Some climb down ladders, some come out through doors. Some have chains or knives or sticks of dynamite. The NES has a lot of these stories. But how it poses them to you is interesting. It's balanced well. The pacing keeps you focused on yourself. You are Billy Lee. At the same time the game is telling you who Billy Lee is, you start telling it back who you are.

The more and more you fight, the more you learn how to play. And I don't mean play in the dick-around sense. I mean play like the jazz-on-a-trumpet sense. Some moves are easier to learn than others; some moves are stronger than others. Each one is useful at different points, but you will eventually get into your own style or groove. (That reminds me, I just played Dynasty Warriors on a PSP last night -- Koei is obviously unaware of its roots.)

"Back kick, back kick, grab, elbow, elbow, sky high knee to the face. Sweet!", you might say. But take too long and a green vested punk throws a bola at your feet.

"Not a smart move, man."

"I'm going to cyclone kick her off the ledge."

The NES doesn't even need a combo counter to whisper back, "nice move, punk".

So the whole time you're playing, the NES is saying, "And then you fight in this desolate city. Then there's this big fat masked man who dissolves into thin air. And then you jump from rooftop to rooftop. Then these two ninjas throw stars at you and jump eight feet in the air. And then you jump onto a helicopter. And then..." Each setting, each scenario, is fantastically interesting. Do you remember the helicopter fight? And as the game goes on, it gets slightly more surreal. There are stages in this game that I just will never, ever, forget. Even at its worst, it's still memorable. And isn't that why we adventure anyways?

Thirty minutes later I die. Jimmy has fallen into his last spike pit. Game Over. My faith in video games has been restored.

I'm tempted for a little more revenge.