For Our Consideration

Double Dragon

Smacks And The City

The history of Double Dragon reflects a culture’s changing relationship with the urban landscape.

By Dan Whitehead • October 18, 2012

While a great many games still cling to the white hat/black hat model of heroes and villains, there are still times when the prevailing cultural mood has led players down some murky moral back alleys without realizing. Double Dragon debuted in arcades in 1987, and while its core appeal remains undimmed by age—most recently revived in the downloadable Double Dragon Neon—the things you’re asked to do in the name of victory say a lot about the conservatism of the era and the iconography of the Big Bad City in pop culture.

Like its closest peers—namely Renegade and Streets Of RageDouble Dragon represents the vigilante myth at its most naked and vicious. In brief: The hero is a square-jawed white guy, clad in a blue-collar uniform of wifebeater and sleeveless denim jacket. His girlfriend has been kidnapped and dragged into the depths of some urban hellhole by cackling thugs. His quest is to cross the city and beat the ever-loving shit out of everyone who gets in his way.

Double Dragon

It’s the Reagan-era fantasy in a nutshell—the “one good man” of frontier myth updated for a world of crack dens and moral sleaze, taking down feral street punks with a bone-crunching kick to the face rather than a six-shooter. Scratch away the veneer of heroism, however, and you reveal the pent-up, frustrated foreplay of Travis Bickle’s mirror monologue rendered as pixel entertainment. The man who would not take it any more.

These were reactionary games for bloodthirsty times. As the idealistic 1960s collapsed into the nihilistic disillusionment of the 1970s, which then curdled into the selfish paranoia of the 1980s, for much of the suburban and rural population, the city was seen as the terrifying black heart of all that was wrong with the world, Sodom and Gomorrah writ large in sleazy neon. Crime was rampant, morality was in decline and the streets of the great metropolises were the territory of those who would tear down America’s post-war wholesomeness.

Bernie Goetz was making headlines for gunning down muggers on the New York subway, while civilians in red berets patrolled the streets as part of the Guardian Angels volunteer force. On the big screen, Dirty Harry and Paul Kersey continued to blow melon-sized holes in jive-talking perps just as The Punisher was bringing gunpoint justice to the previously innocent, colorful costumed world of Marvel Comics. Even in the realm of comedies, the narrative was reinforced. Everything from Scorsese’s After Hours to Adventures In Babysitting portrayed the urban landscape as a gauntlet of outlandish threats, constant danger and prurient temptation.

This was the backdrop against which arcade cabinets like Renegade, and later Double Dragon and Streets Of Rage, set out their stall, and it’s easy to see why they resonated. The very real problems of America’s cities had been transformed into garish fantasy by the media, then fed back into the culture, distorted even further by Japanese arcade companies. To the majority outside the troubled (but far from apocalyptic) reality of city life, the sense of powerlessness at the tsunami of vice rushing through Times Square was mollified by the thrill of watching Eastwood and Bronson exact righteous revenge. Now, they could play along.

Double Dragon may not have been the first, but it is the most indicative of how arcade games seasoned this cultural stew, and WayForward’s tongue-in-cheek updating only serves to highlight and unpack the details that were previously lost in the chunky sprite art. Consider the heroes: Billy and Jimmy Lee, the twin brothers who pummel their way through the urban mire to save their (apparently shared) girlfriend. Originally named Hammer and Spike, they received a more homely makeover as the game spread through American arcades. In the 2012 version of the game, that transformation is complete. Clad in denim, mullets proudly displayed and indulging in enthusiastic air guitar at the end of each stage, they’re Bo and Luke Duke as reflected through a Walter Hill prism.

Ranged against them are a gallery of cartoonish grotesques—the faceless “’em” in the beat-’em-up. Black guys with giant afros. Weirdly effeminate men in tight vests, who attack using gymnastics and wear scarves tied around their ankles. And the dominatrix whore, of course, that whip wielding hussy who appears in every example of the urban beat-’em-up, goading you to punish or be punished. This is a genre where the enemy is quite literally the “other”—the weirdos, freaks and queers—and where women are neatly divided between the pure-hearted damsel in distress and leering harlots who must be punished.

Against the background of such subversive upheaval, the decision to cast Billy and Jimmy in the uniform of good old classic rock is almost too perfect. In its original form, Double Dragon is, if nothing else, a game in which Lynyrd Skynyrd fights to rescue America from The Ramones, The Village People, and Grandmaster Flash.

WayForward’s remake is merely updating what was already in place, but it’s revealing that in doing so, it has to make fun of these dated tropes. The first two levels play it reasonably straight, but after that, the story treats the over-the-top urban gloom as the joke it is and instead blasts off into space, where you discover the bad guy isn’t some backstreet Mr. Big but rather a Saturday morning cartoon villain called Skullmageddon. Part Skeletor, part Krang from the Ninja Turtles, he’s played for laughs and utterly undercuts the now-ridiculous alleyway brawls the series was built on.

And that’s because the city simply isn’t scary any more, or at least it’s not the outlandish boogeyman it once was. Teen movies no longer portray the big bad city as a rite of passage to be endured, a gateway to the adult world. Instead, the city has been infantilized to meet us halfway. Cheaper travel and the wider social circles made possible by the internet have pulled back the curtain and revealed that, actually, the odds of being raped and murdered by giggling maniacs the moment you step off the bus at the Port Authority terminal are fairly slim. The prospect of saving the day by high-kicking your way through day-glo punks has lost its power. That cartoon view of the city is now treated, quite rightly, as a cartoon.

Double Dragon Neon

The only recent attempt to try and bring back the classic urban beat-’em-up mentality in any serious way came from the risible Watchmen games, released digitally in 2009 to coincide with Zack Snyder’s movie. The game’s terrible design certainly doesn’t help, but it’s also impossible to take it seriously as crime-fighting partners Nite Owl and Rorschach bludgeon their way through wave after wave of disco pimps and streetwalking sluts. Rather than ironic kitsch, the game’s ostensibly realistic tone means that the sight of Rorschach savagely punching a woman in the face while snarling about “filthy whores” reveals all that is creepy and nasty about the genre’s subtext.

Once upon a time, the fantasy sold by arcade games was that you were the two-fisted defender of all that is good and decent, holding back the scum with flurries of punches and kicks. Today, there’s a good chance that if there’s an amoral green-mohican anarchist causing chaos on the streets, you’re more likely to be controlling them in a game like Saints Row The Third rather than ending their rampage with a well-timed roundhouse. The city has been so successfully tamed that the fun now comes from recreating the chaos we once sought to stop.

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  • Mercenary_Security_number_4

    “The only recent attempt to try and bring back the classic urban beat-’em-up mentality in any serious way came from the risible Watchmen games, released digitally in 2009 to coincide with Zack Snyder’s movie.”

    I was going to say “what about Rockstar’s ‘The Warriors’?”  but then I realized that game is already 7 years old, so probably doesn’t count as recent. 

    Anyway, good article.

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

      Unfortunately, Godhand is nearly as old and fits into the “ridiculous” critique http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o4JmHpcd18U . However, the spiritual successor to Technos’ series is a series I’ve mentioned often, Spike’s 8-game, urban/school Brawling Hoodlum/Kenka Bancho franchise, which is at least as serious as Bully.

    • Juan_Carlo

      There was the “Scott Pilgrim” video game too.

  • ItsTheShadsy

    I suppose their really hasn’t been a beat-em-up in some time that doesn’t play to the inherent ridiculousness of the genre.
    Trying to think of examples, my mind went to The Bouncer, an old and rightfully forgotten Squaresoft game from back in 2001. It’s pretty hard to judge in this context because it falls prey to the insanity of Square-written stories, but the “mean streets” storyline comes off as silly because it’s played completely straight.

    I guess it’s just a product of its time, and now we just have to add “fighting your way through a city of rogues” to the pile of outdated tropes that can only be played tongue-in-cheek anymore. I wonder if (or when) currently popular tropes like the city-in-total-chaos-because-of-terrorists situation will also stop being a relatable fear too.

    • The Guilty Party

      All the beat-em-ups these days seem to be set in historical settings, like ancient China or Japan or something. Which maybe makes more sense, because it solves that whole ‘Why don’t they just shoot the guy?’ issue.

      Still waiting for a caveman beat-em-up. It writes itself!

      • http://www.twitter.com/comedysavage Evel Kareebel

         You could write one about the London riots of 2011. Mostly because British police are (thankfully) unarmed, and it was illegal to use live rounds on protestors (something they quietly snuck in and changed at the riot’s heights)

        • http://profile.yahoo.com/7434UGH3EEMU2AUKTGMU3NLDZA JoshJ

          It’s because guns. In the 80s, everyone was afraid of guns. Now, one in three people on the street are packing legally. That’s why it’s ridiculous. There is literally no reason why you’d physically have to beat that meany people up.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kevin-Johnson/501651 Kevin Johnson

        Should we consider games like God of War, Dante’s Inferno, and Darksiders beat’em ups? I suppose that would fit into the historical setting idea, although it’s more fantasy based, would would go to explain how one figure could theoretically beat up every single monster ever conceived.

        • ItsTheShadsy

          I can’t believe you’re the only person who’s brought up God of War so far. Despite it frequently being functionally identical to games like Double Dragon, we don’t think of it as a “beat-em-up” as much as a “hack-n-slash.” The biggest distinction between them is the setting and weapons.

          I can’t even comprehend why that sort of genre pigeonholing happens. It’s like how Doom 3 is technically a first-person shooter, but it’s also “action-horror.” But you don’t really think of it as a “horror” game.

      • http://www.facebook.com/gregpkennedy Greg Kennedy

         Joe and Mac (1 and 2), or Chuck Rock.

    • yerfatma

      Wow, good call on The Bouncer. I think that was the game where I came to the conclusion one of my favorite video game genres was dead and unrevivable. Not even with a pocket full of quarters.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kevin-Johnson/501651 Kevin Johnson

        I vaguely remember Bouncer, and I remember being a mess of a game. Didn’t it try to be like an RPG-esque beat-em-up, based on timing over button mashing? How ridiculously ill-conceived.

  • caspiancomic

    Of course you’ll have a bad impression of the city if you only focus on the Pimps and CHUDs!

    This was a seriously terrific article, and I’m glad to see For Our Consideration has made its way to The Gameological Society (have I missed any others, or is this the first?). I’m a city boy at heart, so I love stories that really grapple with what city life does to people- the good and the bad. I also love a good “urban shithole” setting, and have a particular soft spot for films that depict 70′s New York as some kind of post-apocalyptic warzone (Taxi Driver and Sid & Nancy come to mind immediately, I’m sure there are better examples on hand). One of the various pipe dream games I’m working on now is a sort of meditation on city life, and focuses on taking the good with the bad. It’s a JRPG style game that takes place in one city, instead of on an entire planet- with neighbourhoods and high streets being equivalent to “towns” and slums/back alleys/malls/high schools/etc standing in for “dungeons”. One day, you guys might actually play it! Like, 10 years from now, I mean.

    Probably the best example of “city” games are GTA style sandbox games, but personally, I’m not really fond of those. To get my fix of urban culture in the gaming world, then, I’ve had to drift towards more offbeat titles. The World Ends With You is a terrific example, since Shibuya is hugely important to the game’s atmosphere, to the point that it would be pretty much impossible to set the same story anywhere else. Jet Set Radio is another fun example, again with a particular focus on the relationship between youth culture and the urban environment (this is a Decadent article waiting to happen, Gameological!). I’ve also sunk more hours than I care to admit into Crazy Taxi, which has nothing to say about the alleged violence of city life, but a mouthful to say about the “time is money” breakneck pace at which we city-slickers apparently live. In fairness, though, if a cab took more than 45 seconds to get me to Pizza Hut I would jump out of it while it was going 85 kh/h without paying as well.

    • The Guilty Party

      LEAVE THE BRONX!

    • WL14

      I like your idea of a “world” being a city. I’ve been consistently disappointed with representations of cities in games – I’ve always thought the cities in GTA felt more like countrysides, and cities in games like skyrim seem like mere villages. The series of games that seems to get it right based on reviews I’ve read is … Yakuza? Now I don’t even know. Someone help me out here.

      • Enkidum

        I haven’t played Dragon Age II, but isn’t that kind of the situation there? I’d like to see more of that as well. 

        Someone (I think it was here) said that they wished more AAA RPGs had more limited main quests. Not always “stop the evil that ravages the land and threatens the very foundations of civilization”, but maybe just “stop this corrupt mayor” or whatever. Or hell, rescue your kidnapped girlfriend from some nasties who have serious clout, or whatever. 

      • http://twitter.com/Evad_Dalrymp David Dalrymple

        I think what most video games get wrong with their urban settings is the crowds. There just aren’t enough people in the streets. Instead, you have a few NPCs wandering aimlessly, usually alone. Where are the couples walking hand in hand? Where are the buskers and panhandlers? 

        • caspiancomic

           Yeah, in another article somewhere on the site I’ve droned on in my usual fashion about what I think keeps videogame cities from feeling truly “real”, or at least as real as they’re capable of getting. Crowds were a big issue, maybe the biggest. Not just having more people, but a greater variety of people doing a greater variety of things. Have people be wildly different heights, and dress in profoundly different ways. Have some people obey and others ignore traffic lights. Have people interact with props and their environments and each other in meaningful ways. Give people a little bit of body language. Have a variety of walk cycles, instead of having everyone walk with ramrod stiffness and arms at their sides. Have people walk at different speeds. I could do this forever.

          The fact is, the diversity in cities is pretty tremendous, and truly representing it would be almost impossible. But by fudging it just a little bit, and allowing for a great deal of variation across multiple categories- height, weight, clothing, speed, walk style, destination, prop use, etc- you could randomly generate a huge number of very different looking and feeling individuals for a crowd, instead of getting dozens or hundreds of dead-eyed, stiff-legged ghosts walking in straight lines at uniform speed to nowhere in particular.

        • Aurora Boreanaz

          Fully agree with you and @caspiancomic:disqus .  To add to my description of Guild Wars 2 above, the scale of Divinity’s Reach is massive, but the crowds are still your typical MMO “variety” of one or two NPCs wandering a fixed path, and hundreds that just stand in place forever.

        • Pgoodso

          I’ve often seen this statement in reference to game cities, especially where the GTA games are concerned, and while I mostly agree with it, I do have one counterpoint: density of death.

          What do I mean by that? If in GTA 4, you were to represent the actual amount of people that are in Time Square at a given time, and put that many people in Star Junction, and then still give the player the freedom to do what they can do in GTA 4, (sidewalk driving as a seemingly benign example), you could cause the death of hundreds, maybe THOUSANDS of citizens in a few short seconds.

          The death of regular people in GTA is already quasi-meaningless, but if you were able to kill thousands in an accident or a whim, especially considering the physics of vehicles in the game, it would seem arcade like, with random nameless bodies flying everywhere. Murder would lose its visceral nature, and the city’s populace would seem more like Goombas than people.

          Keeping the population low is a way of maintaining the small illusion of consequence and meaning for murder and vehicular manslaughter, as scary as it is to say. Killing 1 out of 50 seems much more significant than killing 200 out of 10000, even though it’s the same percentage.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Peter-Kovalsky/1504237433 Peter Kovalsky

        I seem to mention this game all the time, but Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne played with this a lot by opening the game with the end of the world, then leaving everything set on the inside of a sphere comprised of chunks of Tokyo. It intersperses wastescapes between familiar landmarks and twisted remnants of civilization, etc. 

    • HobbesMkii

       Here’s where to go to check if you missed them (maybe you didn’t, but didn’t know they were a FOC):

      http://gameological.com/category/feature/for-our-consideration/

      • caspiancomic

         Oh man, how could I forget that Medal of Honour firestorm!?

    • Aurora Boreanaz

      I’d like to see more games set in cities with differing neighborhoods.  River City Ransom is still my all-time favorite beat-em-up game, because even though it’s really short, it does manage to feel like traveling through a city with suburbs, parks, industrial areas, etc.  I’d love to see a game like that again, with bigger scope that takes more than an hour or two to get through (or like 10 minutes if you run).

      The scope of cities is something that is often done poorly in games, either due to hardware and software limitations, or just plain bad design.  I still remember how excited I was before World of Warcraft came out, seeing screenshots of beautiful architecture in the capital cities.  Then once it was released, I realized each capital city was about the size of a single block.  And since they used forced perspective on the upper portions of buildings, they all felt like race-based theme parks with barely enough space for a couple hundred citizens.  (Hey, Ironforge…if you’re going to cover up the giant lava moat around your city with a safety grate, PUT THE GRATE AT THE TOP!)

      City scale was one of the things that interested me in Guild Wars 2, specifically the screenshots of Divinity’s Reach, the human capital.  With the streets full of houses and more buildings on top of the outer city wall, it really feels like a city large enough to contain tens of thousands of people.  The other capital cities feel similar, or at the very least reflect the nature of their races.  (Rata Sum isn’t as well designed…I’d have to look again, but it doesn’t seem like there’s much living space for the Asura.)

      • http://twitter.com/Evad_Dalrymp David Dalrymple

        Although WoW’s cities are definitely crowded, they don’t seem real, for the reasons you mentioned. Where do all these mercs sleep? Why is there only one child? (Speaking of which, fuck that kid and his/her balloons)

      • His_Space_Holiness

        Rata Sum seems more like some kind of postmodern office building than a city. Maybe all the Asura commute, having invented teleportation and all.

        • Aurora Boreanaz

          That totally makes sense.  If I recall, there actually might be another large cube floating nearby that could be housing for them.

  • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

    Well, good thoughts.

    Sadly, my atrocious French n-…ne m’a pas equipe……? to interpret the many interviews with Yoshihisa Kishimoto and his 2011 biographer.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y9_ULkaF1Z4  Anyone?  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gIlITqcewbc http://www.theverge.com/gaming/2012/9/4/3276130/the-man-who-created-double-dragon

    Anyway, is it possible to be both sincere and ironic?  It’s clear that it’s WAY more Fist Of The North Star than anything else http://doubledragon.kontek.net/ads/images/ddjapfront.gif (SPEAKING OF WHICH, LOOK WHAT’S COMING OUT IN NORTH AMERICA, URBAN BEAT-’EM-UP FANS http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Cga4gEV8V0 ), which was based on Mad Max, Bruce Lee, and, well, Buronson!  Those are Kishimoto’s influences as well, especially because the brilliant Kunio series is inspired by his own badass aspirations (see above).  As far as that goes, the city scum are, well, scum.  It is a straightforward transposition.  Good analysis there.

    But it’s clear that
    1. the guy didn’t take himself that seriously http://www.hardcoregaming101.net/kunio/kunio.htm (enjoy page 2 and beyond!),
    2, the enemies list in the games he directed later expands to be more inclusive (if that’s the right word for fist fodder), and
    3. your characters are not heroes.  They’re barely antiheroes.  If anything, this was the movie that inspired the protagonists.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fist_of_Fury

    Like in the yankii http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/ek20020705ks.html comics parodied so well in Cromartie High School and Justice High School/Rival Schools, the story is of riffraff fighting riffraff.  In this case, your characters are supposed to be loser white trash in a darwinian, ugly place, not supermen vigilantes.

    (And, frankly, I don’t think your concluding paragraphs are supported.  New York City changing a bit doesn’t mean that you couldn’t make the exact same game in numerous American/Japanese urban environments and play it “vigilante movie”-straight, at least.  ”River City” Ransom = Saint Louis.  THINK ABOUT IT.)

    • Enkidum

      I got to the bit in your first link where the translator’s translating the first question that isn’t just pleasantries (around 2:40), and he’s saying something about “ever since I was young”, and then the stupid thing stopped loading so that’s literally the entire content of what I got out of it.

      Glad to be of service! PM me a cheque.

      • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

        “Cheque.”

        This American now wants to see you get a spinning piledriver from a ponytailed mayor-wrestler.  U-S-A!

        • Enkidum

          Oh, and my Japanese is pretty crap these days (and never really was all that good to begin with), but the first thing he was talking about in that response was something about how he used to not like studying or working hard (I’m assuming that was attached to the “ever since I was young” part, but I’m getting one half of that from the translator and one half from Kishimoto, so who knows?

          FWIW, I’d say that Kishimoto finds the super-polite bowing and so forth at the start a little embarrassing – one gets the feeling that he’s a nerd’s nerd and isn’t very good at that sort of social rule stuff. But he’s obviously flattered as well, so it probably doesn’t hurt.

          This totally useless update is free of charge for all our preferred customers!

          Yours,

          En-de-coder-dum Translation Services

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

       Here is my mature critical response:

      Hey nerd! If you don’t want your Nihon hachimaki to get wet, I suggest you take it off, because you’re about to get the swirly of your life.

      [Then the rest of the thugs in my cool bully gang look at each quizzically, and ask each other how I know what the hell a Nihon hachimaki is. Then we both end up getting parallel swirlies in adjacent stalls.]

      • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

        NOOOOOO.

        I don’t want to get into theories of authorship, but I think that you do need to go back to the source especially when “mistranslation” can occur from arcade-to-console, from Japan-to-United States, and from 1987-to-2012.  This was uncomfortably close to ventriloquism for my taste.

  • The Guilty Party

    The premise of this article made me smile. Keep up the good work. I like reading about games and not feeling like I should be putting away the paste and the dull safety scissors afterwards. 

  • Kahoutek

    Two things immediately come to mind when I think of Double Dragon (the original arcade game):

    1)  The elbow move was the best move in the game.  You could elbow some guy halfway across the screen.

    2)  In high school, my buddies and I used to go to a Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour because they had a Double Dragon machine.  This was back in the day when you put multiple quarters on top of the machine, where the logo was, to signify that you would be there a while, or that you had “next” on a machine.  Apparently, some kid, who was maybe ten years-old, put his quarter next to my set of coins, and I didn’t see it.  So after waiting for maybe half an hour for my buddy and I to finish, and clearly sensing that we were not getting off the machine, he went and took his quarter off.  I went ballistic, thinking this kid was stealing my money, scaring the crap out of him.  My buddy had to calm me down, saying that this little kid was just getting his own quarter back.

    It’s one of the only times in my life that I could think of, where pretend video-game violence almost translated directly to real-world violence.  I’m normally a pretty calm, fight-avoiding kind of guy.  I came really close to  beating the crap out of a little kid, probably with my elbows.

  • STOP_RIGHT_THERE_CRIMINAL_SCUM

    Listen, you fuckers, you screwheads. Here is a man who would not take it anymore. A man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit, the giant muscular bald men with mustaches, the thong wearing dominatrixes. Here is a man who stood up. 

    • http://www.twitter.com/comedysavage Evel Kareebel

       I never played Double dragon, but I did play Streets of Rage, and I was always confused by the dominatrixes, or Whipper-women as we called them. Mostly as to why they were out of an evening not wearing much. Wouldn’t they get cold?

      • ChumJoely

        Liked for “of an evening”.

  • Moonside_Malcontent

    Great article.  One thing that’s interesting about video games is how for a form of expression that has really been put through the wringer by America’s puritanical element (and Lordy what a big element it is, we’re talking Rutherfordium or something, here), many games reflect rather than subvert a very closed-minded cultural mainstream.  The beat ‘em up genre for sure, but also all the major combat simulation FPS games of the past decade and a half.  One still hears the protests over 13-year olds playing Call of Duty: Modern Mission of Warfare Ops Honor IX, but imagine the outcry if a major studio released a game where you play as the FZLN? There have always been games that subvert a black-and-white, good-and-evil dynamic, but I think it’s only in the past 6 years or so that games with nuanced storytelling and assertive, non-traditional roles for historically marginalized groups have been bestsellers.  (There’s a whole tangential rant to this about false, artificial moral nuance in video games, I’m looking at you when I say that, Bioshock, but that’s for another time.)

    • Spacemonkey Mafia

      In retrospect, what really tickles me about the eighties Anglo-Saxon fantasies of the lone vigilante, is that a protagonist is deemed so pure in his all-American righteousness, he is deemed worthy to learn the martial secrets of one racial minority in order to beat up all the other racial minorities. 

      • Enkidum

        Oh, you’re being ridiculous. He also beats up the racial minority that he learned the martial secrets from (just usually not the old guy who taught it to him).

    • Bad Horse

      When we talk about moral guardian types, we’re not talking about people who really work hard to unpack themes and develop understanding. We’re talking about people whose first instinct is to lash out at newness and change, and video games were definitely that, especially in the 80s.

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

       It’s reminiscent of, say, slasher/horror movies, which had culture-warriors clutching their pearls, but which also typically carried tacit messages that if you were sexually active or did drugs a masked lunatic would probably chop your head off.

      • Enkidum

        Well, they have a point. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been snorting blow off a hooker’s boobs and someone has decapitated me.

        • ChumJoely

          Well of course you can’t count them, your ‘ead’s off, innit?!

  • The_Misanthrope

    It’s funny that this article should pop up on this site close to the same time the NCC article on The People Under The Stairs appeared on AVC.  Reagan:  bad for America, good for genre pictures

  • http://twitter.com/tapirman Kyle O’Reilly

    Anybody here ever read the book “Lucky Wander Boy?” It’s about early games a la Donkey Kong, Space Invaders and such, and it points to Double Dragon as the fall of the classic era of gaming into an attempted realism. It faults the game for portraying a decaying world as oppossed to the brightly lit ones seen in games like Pac-Man or Galaga.

    It’s definitely worth a read. Also, Streets of Rage > Double Dragon. One has Freddie Mercury as a playable character. What else do you need to know?

    • http://twitter.com/roundthewheel RT-Double-Boo

      I give Lucky Wander Boy some credit for being one of the earliest works (published in 2003 iirc) to try to get something really deep out of video games. The problem was, it was focused on all that old mind-numbing Atari stuff. Pre-NES, with the possible exception of the Colecovision, video games weren’t much more than dinky toys. My parents played arcade games like Asteroids, Tempest and Centipede when they were in high school, but it was never the beginning of an obsession—it was a diversion, something to pass the time before cruising down the main thoroughfare with friends. I always wondered why they were so concerned with my own deep fascinations with games like Secret of Mana and Star Trek: Judgment Rites, and it was only later that I realized that they didn’t see video games as capable of those sorts of things, because of the run-and-gun no-endings play-till-you-die types they were familiar with. So it kind of chafes me when people try to find deeper meaning in that era, as opposed to later on, sometimes 8-bit but mostly 16- and onward, where developers were actually, you know, trying for that sort of thing.
      As a result the whole thing just reads to me like so much eye-rolling navel-gazing freshman philosophy. I seem to recall a passage where the protagonist masturbated to Adventure; it’s never good when the most memorable passage of a book is the low point.

      • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

         Yeah, I remember reading it when it came out, and being kind of excited about the premise. I was in art school at the time, and Cory Arcangel and Paper Rad and stuff meant that the aesthetic re-examination of lo-fi pop and early video game culture was looming large at the time.

        I remember very little of it – some images of the secret level, and that shamanistic masturbation scene, but not the significance of either. I remember thinking it was an interesting experiment, but not ‘great literature’ or whatever – it didn’t radically change my thinking about anything.

        That said, I am totally 100% on-board with people analyzing and pulling themes out of earlier games, and don’t think it matters at all whether “developers were actually, you know, trying for that sort of thing.” Death of the author and all that.

        I mentioned elsewhere on these boards that one of the things that was so captivating about early games was their low resolution – both visually and narratively – which required a greater investment on the part of the player to resolve what was going on. This sort of abstraction invited – hell, necessitated – people pulling more out than the creators put in, and I think that’s a really powerful thing for a piece of art to do. As games achieved higher narrative resolution, we were more subject to the – often cliched and stupid – narrative whims of the developers and the -often banal or ugly – art direction of the developers.

        Of course these developments allowed for a greater variety of games, and for games of greater visual, narrative, and technical execution – and some truly great games capitalized on these developments. But I wouldn’t say that they are objectively more worthy of analysis.

        • http://twitter.com/tapirman Kyle O’Reilly

          It’s true, the actual story is pretty lackluster but I have all the video game encyclopedia entries tagged in my copy because they are truly fascinating interpretations of those old games.

          I agree with your narrative resolution comment. The more graphic fidelity we gain the less imagination we have to flex to fill in the details. Which is why I’m glad there are indie devs like Terry Cavenaugh out there releasing lo-fi classics like VVVVV and don’t look back.

      • http://twitter.com/tapirman Kyle O’Reilly

        I think that’s a rather unfair summary of pre-NES games. Those games can have just as fevered a devotion as any other game (for proof, see the dedicated men of Twin Galaxies http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twin_Galaxies)

        Also, I can’t imagine how someone finding deeper meaning in anything would chafe you. I’m not a fan of My Little Pony but ‘bronies’ who philosophize about it’s deeper meanings don’t bother me.  It’s also rather presumptuous to make vast assumptions about what developers were trying to say.

        In closing, don’t discount Atari-age classics for they are the bedrock on which all games are built.

    • duwease

       I remember thinking “Video game fiction?  I’m in.”  I remember buying it.  I remember reading it.  I remember.. something about a super secret hidden level rumor?  I remember being disappointed.

      • signsofrain

        The thing I liked best about Lucky Wander Boy was the magical realism of it, how the special items in the game (the red dress, the shovel, etc) were all objects of significance in the main character’s life. It was interesting, though it didn’t make the ‘best books of all time’ shelf. 

        Another book that might be interesting to people that enjoyed Lucky Wander Boy is ‘The Bug’ by Ellen Ullman. It’s a tragic story of software development, infidelity, and obsession.

  • AngryRaisins

    I know I spent the 80s in constant fear of the president being kidnapped by ninjas.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=16831741 Eric J. Baker

    What’s really interesting/scary is that the resurgence of beat-’em-ups, as a subset of a larger resurgence of 1980s nostalgia that is particularly strong in the indie video game scene (almost every major indie game features some combination of retro gameplay and graphics, hitting its peak with Retro City Rampage), but is also quite strong in the other major forms of pop culture like music (tell me Gotye doesn’t sound like Phill Collins if he joined The Police), movies (Red Dawn remake, Wall Street sequel, etc), and sports (LeBron James is being marketed exactly like Michael Jordan) is it’s representative of a major return to 1980s era conservatism.

    There’s a very good book by David Sirota called Back to Our Future which is about how modern pop culture has made a major swing back the 1980s, partially as a factor of nostalgia due to children of the 80s now being fully functioning adults, old enough to GET nostalgic about things, but also as a reflection of a major push back in social attitudes. I suspect Dan Whitehead has already read this book, he makes a lot of similar points and fits them well to gaming.

    Probably the most important (or most disconcerting) aspect of this, which Dan already touched on a little bit, is how the 1980s itself was a resurgence of post-war/1950s era conservatism. But it was twisted through that lens of the social change of the 1960s and the ensuing collapse of that optimism that occurred in the1970s. This is really well showcased in popular sitcoms: All in the Family of the 1970s (the early 70s, which was really the late 60s- confusing, I know) was about a bigoted, socially conservative product of the 40s/50s clashing with the progressive hippy son-in-law product of the 60s. Then in the 1980s you had Family Ties, where the “social progressive” parents are painted as aging hippies clinging to a dying philosophy while their neo-conservative Reagan youth son was the model of modern thinking. The 50s that the 80s idealized wasn’t real, it was Hollywood’s 1950s, Leave it to Beaver and Ozzie and Harriet, not the racial violence and segregation, widespread misogyny, or oppressive backlash to anything remotely socialist. 

    And now we’re idealizing the 1980s, which itself was just an idealization of the 1950s. The 2000s/2010s are dangerously worshiping a “good ol’ time” that no longer has any relation to reality. It’s scary. I know Double Dragon Neon is tongue-in-cheek, mocking those tenets of the 1980s, but the fact that now was the time to remake it is indicative of how most people aren’t playing it to laugh at the silly social regression of the 1980s, it’s to relive it.

    • Dictatortot

      That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  To take an extreme example, the Renaissance was based on misplaced nostalgia for a Graeco-Roman Classical era that wasn’t much like the 15th-century Florentines pictured it.  But the correspondence of their ideal to earlier realities didn’t compromise the Renaissance’s achievements: quite the contrary.  If anything, it’s BETTER that nostalgia be slightly rose-colored–why labor to revive the bad elements of an earlier time along with the good?  (And for all one knows, your idea of what was bad about the ’80s might charitably be described as a “boutique” opinion, to boot.)

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=16831741 Eric J. Baker

        Well, you might have to talk to anyone who wasn’t a middle-class or higher white male if our return to 1950s nostalgia is such a good thing. Pining over a time that never existed in the first place, at least not at all the way it’s remembered, is far more damaging, especially when it’s done at the expense of all the current era has to offer. If you don’t truly understand the era that you’re trying to reinstate, you’re going to end up reinstating EVERYTHING, good and bad. And I’d like to think we’ve done a lot to erase the bad from that era, so I’m not looking to reinstate any of that. And I bet you just about anyone alive today who is not a middle-class or higher white male is not looking to reinstate that, either.Your comparison to the Renaissance is intriguing, but it doesn’t really fit. The Renaissance was trying to revive philosophies and art well over a thousand years old, so no one was alive when those ideas were new, when they were current. Not only were they not alive, they didn’t even have widespread records of that time. They could easily pick and choose what to restore from the Classical Greek age. (Plus, we’re “remembering” the Renaissance centuries later mainly through secondary sources ourselves…) The 1980s era of 1950s nostalgic idealism was brought on by people who were actually alive in the 1950s, or at least not so far removed they couldn’t rely on the wealth of recorded information from the decade. But they were filtering all of that through their incredibly limited personal experiences. When they talk about “simpler times” before it got all “chaotic and violent,” they (probably unknowingly) mean “minorities knowing their place” before they “started demanding rights.”

        So yes, we have to remember the bad with the good, or else we’re going to repeat it. Call that a boutique opinion if you want, but I think we can all objectively agree that society is at least a little more equal than it was in the 1950s.

        • Dictatortot

          It’s a step further, though, to say that the bad is inseparable from the good in practice. Virtually everyone across the political spectrum is (knowingly or not) a nostalgist of some stripe; no matter where one stands, one can scarcely avoid fighting some past war … or some slightly mutated form of it.  That would mean we’re ALL doomed to keep reintroducing one evil or another from decades past, which at first blush kind of undermines the whole value of political action–left, right, or otherwise.

    • George_Liquor
    • PhonyPope

      There’s a pretty big difference between nostalgia and idealization.  You’re not showing your work.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=16831741 Eric J. Baker

        Fair enough, but I think the line that separates them is fuzzy. When your nostalgia is so intense you try to ressurect that which you’re nostalgic for, it becomes kind of an obsession. And when it starts informing how you live your life, it’s a problem.

        So yeah, I used nostalgia and idealization interchangeably more than I should have, but the former kind of feeds into the latter if you’re not careful.

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

          I would note that the line crossed was when you put vigilante movies with animation-obsessed Australian musicians and generic conservatism (MAYBE strict anti-illegal immigration folks represent the late 1980s/early 1990s anti-crime mayors). 

          If Messi were a coked out Maradona clone, the resurgence would be more worrying.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kevin-Johnson/501651 Kevin Johnson

      I can’t like this enough. I want to make a tumblr or Twitter called “Emmett Till Wishes it was the 50s Again” and have it respond to anyone who wishes it was the 80s/50s again.

      Like, I love the Dirty Harry movies, but that first one gets harder and harder to watch, seeing black and gay people as egregious figures worthy to be shot or killed.

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

       Thing one: If you haven’t seen the awesome Adam Curtis doc “The Century of the Self,” I think you’d really enjoy it. It’s free on line all over the place. It’s a really detailed, trenchant look at the way commerce and (pop-)psychology evolved in the States to create the contemporary American combination of extreme capitalism and libertarian self-mythologizing. His careful unpacking of how all those lefty hippie radicals from the 60s grew up to vote for Ronald Reagan in such high numbers makes something seemingly counter-intuitive make so much sense.

      Thing two: There does seem to be a 20-ish-year shelf-life on this kind of cultural nostalgia. We’re coming out of the 00s-80s-50/60s nostalgia sine curve and are likely shifting into the 10s-90s-70s nostalgia sine curve. All of the 20-something college kids that nostalgia peddlers market to were born in the 90s now, so the Tee-Fury t-shirts will probably trade in their Ghost Busters for, uh, Nirvana or something.

      And while it’s too early in the 10s to tell, politics seems to me moving somewhat more to the Clinton-left-ish-ness (though I imagine politics will remain more economically conservative than the 90s), and groups like Occupy/Anonymous might be presaging an era of more vocal discontent than the generally sated 00s and 80s, possibly resulting from economic crash in the late 00s. Obviously, I’m painting in super-broad strokes, but I think we all kind of are in a discussion of this nature.

      Thing three: I’m personally looking forward to the movie “re-imagining” of That 70s Show, where we get to see a 10s simulacrum of a 90s simulacrum of the 70s! Emma Stone IS Laura Prepon IS Donna! Taylor Lautner IS Wilmar Valderama IS Fez!

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=16831741 Eric J. Baker

        Not too long ago Damon Lindelof wrote a love letter to Raiders of the Lost Ark, talking about how movies had gotten away from that kind of pure adventure and joy of the Indiana Jones movies, and by extension Star Wars and Spielberg’s other 70s films like ET and Close Encounters. But the odd thing reading that (and I think Lindelof even mentioned it in his letter) is Indiana Jones itself is a love letter to the adventure serials of the 1930s, and was Spielberg and Lucas complaining that the movie industry had gotten away from THAT era of pure adventure and joy. We are now nostalgic for nostalgia.

        It’s only a matter of times before we get your That 70s Show movie. And I can’t wait, haha.

      • caspiancomic

         I’ll be interested to see what rises out of the impending 70s/90s nostalgia wave we have on the horizon and coming in fast for this decade, since the 90s were really my formative years. The trends in gaming were pretty clear, with the decade marked largely by the platformers and RPGs that form the foundation of my personal gaming habits, so if we’re due for a renaissance in those genres, I’m pretty excited. You could probably argue that it’s already begun, with the return of Rayman and Sonic finding his feet again in Generation being early harbingers of a return to platforming, and the impending Ni No Kuni marking a return to the dyed in the wool JRPG. Whether they’re the earliest signs of an impending trend has yet to be seen, of course.

        I’m also excited to see what kind of films this’ll net us. The AV Club’s Top 50 Films of the 90s had some real corkers on it. As I’ve mentioned upthread, I love a good tale of urban filth, and the 1970′s “Manhattan is worse than Baghdad” and its corresponding 1990′s “Seattle is a wart on Satan’s penis” attitudes could potentially lend themselves to some crackerjack urban hellhole films.

      • http://twitter.com/Evad_Dalrymp David Dalrymple

        As I’ve noted many times before, decade nostalgia typically moves in five-year increments:

        1985: 50s nostalgia (e.g. Back to the Future)
        1990: 60s nostalgia (e.g. tie-dye shirts)
        1995: 70s nostalgia (e.g. N-Trance’s “Stayin Alive”)
        2000: 80s nostalgia (see below)
        2005: 90s nostalgia (e.g. VH1′s “I Love the 90s”)

        80s nostalgia is kind of the odd one out. “Grosse Pointe Blank” and “Wedding Singer” kicked off 80s nostalgia with a bang in 1997, 1998. It was in full swing by 2002, when “Vice City” came out. And it hasn’t really let up: The Transformers movies, “Don’t Stop Believing”, pixel art… TV shows aren’t doing episodes in the style of an N64 game (although they should).

        There’s a very simple reason (that somewhat contradicts my not-so-simple explanation above) for the resilience of 80s nostalgia, and it’s the simple fact that consumer culture exploded. Reagan’s deregulation allowed toy cartoons, home video allowed for greater consumption of movies, video games went from toy to lifestyle, and the music somehow got away with being cheesy.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=16831741 Eric J. Baker

           I think you’re spot on about consumer culture. The 80s as a decade (David Sirota in his book refers to it as The 80s [TM]) contains a lot more marketable consumer products than do the other decades, if only because commercial distribution markets weren’t as sophisticated in the 50s/60s/70s. What’s scary is when that commodification starts to encourage revisiting OTHER aspects of the decade, namely the distorted 50s worship. Not that it happens so simply, but when you start thinking about how much you love Back to the Future, you can also start to buy into its underlying premise, that the 1980s were a dingy cesspool because of the 1970s and the 1950s were a much more wholesome time. Our memories of the 1980s are colored through those movies, especially for someone like me who was only alive for a few years in the 80s. And hell, I’m as much a 1980s pop culture junkie as anyone.

          Extra point, there was a good reason Michael J. Fox ended up with the part in Back to the Future, and it was because of his established Reagan youth character on Family Ties. Moviegoers seeing Back to the Future in 1985 were already in the bash-the-60s/70s-revere-the-50s mindset before the movie literally went to the 1950s.

    • Moonside_Malcontent

       I know I’m throwing myself to the wolves by posting this on a site spun off from the AV Club, but I don’t think pop culture is as indicative of political culture as is sometimes presumed.  I’d point out that the “me generation” of the 80′s could hardly find itself rising reborn from the ashes of the Great Recession.  I think that if the resurgence of 80′s nostalgia (which I frankly admit exists, as you point out well) reflects anything it reflects the conservatism of a few particularly influential media figures rather than some aspect of the broader, young American zeitgeist.  Where were these neo-reactionaries when Atlas Shrugged went off the rails (ha-ha) at the box office?  Where the legions of young “Morning in America Redux” volunteers at the Romney campaigns?  My generation (and granted, I was born at the end of the 1987 so perhaps I’m not exactly who you’re talking about here) are not the Children of the Vigilante Flick.  We’re the Recession’s Stepchildren, first cousins to Retrenchment.  We’re the babies of 9/11 and the front lines of America’s long, slow decline from global hegemony.  You’d just never know it from Hollywood and TBS.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=16831741 Eric J. Baker

         You make some good points, but keep in mind that pop culture resurgences don’t just happen on their own, they happen because there is a market for it. Sure, the Atlas Shrugged movie adaptation was a monumental disaster, and we’ve had a Democrat in the White House for 4 years and odds are he’ll be there another 4, so the comparisons aren’t 1:1. However, right wing politics have only gotten more extreme, and it calls back a lot more to Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority than anything (or, you could say the Moral Majority never really died). But socially speaking, children of the Cold War have a lot of parallels to draw. Replace “communism” with “terrorism” and the ever pervasive fear is the same. That’s not to say that the two situations are in actuality the same, but when you grow up in the Cold War climate (which really informs, in a major way, American culture since 1945), and it suddenly comes crashing down in the early 90s, it’s easier to replace it a reasonable analogue instead of adapting to a new situation. So in effect, the Cold War generations have turned terrorism into a new Cold War because they expected it to BE a new Cold War. And pop culture reflects that.

        • Moonside_Malcontent

          For sure, and I’d definitely agree that we’ve replaced “communism” with “terrorism” in our political lexicon to fulfill the same role.  But I’d point out that the people making that linguistic switch are all the same old Cold Warriors from before.  There’s a lack of new blood taking up that torch, with some notable exceptions (Paul Ryan), of course.  Most people in Washington talking about the global war on terror are old, rich white dudes who can remember volunteering for Richard Nixon.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=16831741 Eric J. Baker

          @Moonside_Malcontent:disqus Well yeah, that’s my point. The Cold War generation, not knowing what to do after the collapse of the USSR, has forced terrorism as the new Cold War threat. The post-Cold War generation doesn’t really think of it that like that, but, like you pointed out, they’re not the ones in charge. The old guard has created a new Cold War out of the belief that this IS the new Cold War. Kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy. And that’s all that really matters, unfortunately.

        • http://www.facebook.com/paul.wilmot.shuster Paul Shuster

          The other thing is that the music videos I remember from the 80′s were extremely critical of the Right (when they were intentionally political at all), whether 99 Luftballoons, Land of Confusion or When Two Tribes Go to War.  Same with comic books.  So, it’s kind of a mixed bag from the political culture standpoint.

          Also, political parties are orthogonal to actual politics.  We live in an age of rampant, unrestrained capitalism and that’s a bipartisan consensus in Washington.  No public good can be allowed unless some wealthy person gets a little more wealth from it.  

          There Is No Alternative… and our two political parties have colluded in order to see to that.

          Whereas back in the Post-New Deal Era even Republicans like George Romney believed in using the government as a force for what we would consider Left wing social progress. (Where race relations were concerned, when he was at HUD.)

      • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

         Also, most of the stuff you’re mentioning is relatively recent, and while we’re retaining a lot of the 80s worship, the most intense “I love the 80s” period was during the 00s, when there was a definite turn toward conservatism which resulted in two terms of an extremely socially conservative president, a marked rise in the rhetorical power of the Christian far right (which resulted in some actual change in some public schools’ science curricula), and anti-gay-marriage bills were voted in in every state they were on the ballot.

        Obviously 9/11 was a bigger cultural factor than Thundercats t-shirts in terms of things like the hawkish patriotism of the 00s, but I think it actually fits into the overall pattern. In a decade where the world had become a violent, unfriendly place for Americans, the grungy ‘authenticity’ of the 90s fell out of favor and comforting fantasies – whether they were nostalgic retreats into Saturday morning cartoons and video games, escapes into the high-fantasy movies we hadn’t seen the likes of since Ridley Scott’s Legend and the Jim Henson films in the 80s, or embracing the comforting, rigid fictions entailed in religious fundamentalism – were in in a big way.

        • Moonside_Malcontent

           I hear what you’re saying.  Maybe the issue for me in coming to grips with this argument is that since I never really experienced the 80s I never saw it as something to look back to for comfort.  The 90s, as you say, were much more of a decade gripped by the soft-focus ennui of being on top of the world while our society seemed to be spinning its wheels.  So I guess what I’m trying to say here is a lot of us, what are we now, Millenials?  Gen Y?  Whatever, a lot of us between the ages of 20 and 25 perhaps don’t see the 80s nostalgia because we aren’t picking up on the code.  When your first really relevant political memory is 9/11 it probably shapes your worldview more than if it was the Fall of the Wall. (I say relevant memory because no one wanted to explain who Monica Lewinsky was to me when I was in grade school.  I had to wait for us to get Internet.)

        • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

           It’s tricky, too, as the cultural ‘decades’ don’t really line up with the numerical decades. Being born in 83, I have some early strong memories of stuff like Moonwalker and Atari at older relatives’ houses, but my major pop-culture touchstones from youth are really more early-90s, when I was going through elementary school: the NES, Ninja Turtles, etc.

          However, though most of that stuff happened in the ’90s’ (or I encountered it in the 90s), culturally, it tends to belong to the ‘Eighties,’ whereas the ‘Nineties’ seem to actually run from about 94, and are characterized by grunge, etc.

          I find Joshua Glenn’s scheme for determining generations and cultural/numerical decades to be fairly accurate, and very useful, for talk like this.

      • http://www.facebook.com/paul.wilmot.shuster Paul Shuster

        Here’s the thing a really bad right-wing movie like “Atlas Shrugged”  is still a really bad movie.  You need to look at something right-wing and well made (TVs “24,” maybe?  I never watched much of it to get a sense of it.) to get a sense of political culture.

    • http://twitter.com/Evad_Dalrymp David Dalrymple

      Nostalgia typically advances. Consumers feel nostalgic for their childhood. 50s, 60s, 70s and even 90s nostalgia have come and gone over the last 25 years. It alarms and surprises me that 80s nostalgia has been as persistent as it has been. It began in the late 90s and has only gotten stronger in the last 15 years.  

      For video games, it makes sense, as they were the formative years of the genre. But, like you said, the 80s nostalgia penetrates every facet of pop culture right now. Even for people born in the 90s, “Don’t Stop Believing” is an anthem.

      And I don’t think it’s a resurgence of Reagan-era politics, by any means. We’re idealizing certain cultural elements, while recognizing that the 80s were pretty fucked up. Things were dark, grimy, and shitty, but we still found things to be happy and excited about. We didn’t have much hope for the future, but we found ways to make the most of the here and now.

      It’s that latter attitude that best reflects the spirit of the present day. The economic prospectus is bleak, especially for youth*. We don’t have any hope left for the future; all we have is today.

       

      *Growing up in the 80s and 90s, we learned to believe that there was a “straight” path. If you worked hard, and stayed in school, you’d get a decent job that would lead to a contented life. If you were really ambitious and gifted, you could have the world in your hands. It seemed like our biggest dilemma would be whether or not to sell out. Now, the option of selling out isn’t on the table; nobody’s buying. In the 90s, we were concerned about the number of overqualified people in “McJobs”. Now, even “McJobs” have become competitive. The ”straightest” path is no longer the easiest path, necessarily.   

  • http://twitter.com/BrandoWarner Brandon Warner

    DD was developed in Japan, I’m not sure it’s accurate to say it’s influence is Reagan’s 80′s-era conservatism and paranoia that was sweeping America at the time. Interesting take, but not sure it holds water.

    • Bad Horse

      It’s not that the Japanese developers were directly paying attention to America’s social climate. They come at it secondhand, through the culture that it produces – the movies, the TV, the books. Then by exploiting it in their game design (or “paying homage” if you’re feeling charitable), they wind up sending a message, intentionally or otherwise. Awareness of the American zeitgeist is not required to produce a pastiche that reflects it.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=16831741 Eric J. Baker

        I couldn’t agree with this more. In many ways, having a game like Double Dragon come out of a Japanese studio highlights more effectively all of the subconscious beliefs and values held by 1980s America, because they were just sending back to us everything they saw in our movies, music, television, books, games, etc.

      • http://twitter.com/Evad_Dalrymp David Dalrymple

        It’s like watching a British western. The genre tropes are treated with absurd reverence.

    • George_Liquor

      I agree. I doubt the developers had Bernie Goetz or the Guardian Angels in mind when they developed it. Double Dragon can certainly be viewed as a commentary on 80s urban wastelands, but I think it’s still essentially a Dirty Harry or Death Wish movie viewed through the lens of 80s Japanese culture.

      • http://gameological.com/author/johnteti/ John Teti

        But the essay doesn’t try to maintain that the creators had Bernie Goetz or the Guardian Angels on their mind when they made Double Dragon. It’s about looking at a cultural milieu and how the games fit into it. @Bad_Horse:disqus really nailed it.

        • George_Liquor

          I can’t speak for Neon since I haven’t played it, but only a small portion of the original game actually takes place in a cityscape. If anything, Double Dragon is an extremely abstract reflection of 80s paranoia about gang culture, and the latent desire to kickpunch the crap out of said culture. For me, a scrawny suburban white kid with typical irrational fears about scary gangs, playing Double Dragon was very empowering.

  • Spacemonkey Mafia

    Alright!  Let’s categorize Population centers by the most common negative connotations utilized for easy narrative purposes:

    City- Dangerous, post-apocalypse labyrinth populated solely by violent sexual transgression, Recreational white slavers, and minority gang members.  In inverse ratio to reality, porn stores outnumber Starbucks 10:1.

    Suburbs- A too perfect-seeming ,egg shell-thin veneer of productivity and conformity.  Seemingly placid surface masking a deep undercurrent of racism, resentment, envy, small-mindedness and sexual transgression.  Also, occasionally murder cults, murderous ghosts and murderous aliens.

    Rural- Either a loose herd of gormless Luddites so simple and naive it’s a wonderment they haven’t all blinded themselves from staring into the sun.  Or a menacing cabal of backwoods druids filling the solitude with racism, inbreeding, murder cults and sexual transgression.

    • caspiancomic

      Recreational drug of choice:

      City- Cocaine, heroin, whiskey
      Suburbs- Ecstasy, beer
      Rural- Ketamine, vodka

      Films representative of typical experience:

      City- Midnight Cowboy, Taxi Driver, Akira, Seven
      Suburbs- Blue Velvet, The Stepford Wives
      Rural- Deliverance, Withnail & I, The Wicker Man

      • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

         I thought rural was meth and moonshine. You know, the kind of stuff as likely to blow you up as fuck you up.

  • ricin_beans

    What about the original N.A.R.C., where the solution to the drug problem was to massacre crowds of junkies with grenades and automatic weapons.

  • doyourealize

    Reading this article made me realize that I still hold some of the same city prejudice as I did during the 80s, probably because I grew up playing Double Dragon, Streets of Rage and Final Fight, and watching The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Short Circuit 2 (whose Los Lobos will kick your ass, face, and balls into OWW-TERR SPAAACE!!) Not to mention parents and PSAs that would constantly warn me of strangers.

    It’s a ridiculous prejudice, I know, and one I face often, but whenever I find myself in a city, especially at night, there’s a small part of me that thinks someone’s waiting around the corner with a knife.

    I goes both ways, though. I grew up, basically, in the woods. I couldn’t see any houses from my house, and daily activities included jaunts to the “Lost Lake”. Friends of mine who grew up in the city express the same unnatural fear of the woods. It’s crickets vs. sirens. If our fear of the city comes from 80s paranoia, where’s our fear of the forest come from? Is it natural?

    • Bad Horse

      They’re the same fear. In both cases, you’re expecting something around the corner, either with a knife or razor-sharp teeth. As you gain more familiarity with those environments, as you go into them more frequently and don’t get shanked/eaten, the fear diminishes.

      • doyourealize

        I’m talking about whether it’s learned or inherent. I mean, humans have probably been afraid of things with fangs for thousands of years, but the idea of urban areas being wretched hives of scum and villainy is relatively recent. How much does 80s culture have to do with this?

        • Bad Horse

          It’s certainly a much older idea than the 80s. It’s as old as Sodom and Gomorrah, or Jericho. Personally I haven’t studied this but I would guess it goes back to the dirty, overcrowded, deadly urbanization of the Industrial Revolution.

        • Dictatortot

          Several mayorships from the mid-’60s onward were pretty seminal to national perceptions.  During that time, there were a few well-publicized administrations (John Lindsay in NYC, Coleman Young in Detroit, etc.) whose crime policies rendered their cities distinctly more dangerous than they found them … enough to make their problems proverbial by the late ’70s and ’80s.  Like anything that gets transmuted into mass-media entertainment, these concerns got oversold in the 1980s–occasionally, comically so.  But the widespread decreases in urban livability weren’t figments of anyone’s imagination.

    • Enkidum

      Hmmm… I grew up in a town of ~1500 people, and I was on the outskirts – there were probably less than 10 houses within a kilometre of me, in any direction. We just ran through the woods and fields like wild beasts. And then moved to the city when I was 16, and have spent most of my life since then in various large cities. 

      I’ve sometimes felt fear in both settings, but rarely. I think @Bad_Horse:disqus has it, it’s a matter of familiarity. If you’re acclimatized to it, you generally don’t fear it (unless you’re like my aunt, who spends her entire life in terror of the evil people who lurk round every corner, even in broad daylight).

  • Skywarp79

    I also don’t know if this take holds water. It seems more like AV Club’s propensity to read into themes where they don’t exist.

    If Double Dragon’s message was “our urban environments are violent hellholes full of scum,” you’d be fighting in the city for longer than just Mission 1, a quarter of the game. Sure, an industrial plant (Mission 2) could also be part of the urban landscape. But then you fight through a wooded countryside, scale a mountain at the cusp of a mountain rage, and infiltrate the gang’s lair, i.e.: The epicenter and origin of this evil gang is far outside the city limits.

    Also, I see the female aggressors of the original title’s outfits as more  “biker chick” than “dominatrix,” whip-weilding aside. Marian wasn’t a good ‘ol values girl either, her dress is so short that the slightest bend forward to kiss Spike or Hammer reveals most of her ass. Of course, you can say that Reagan-era rape culture means she was asking to be a victim in the first place.

    Maybe the designers were telling us that the true bad guys were bearded white guys in the hills exercising their rights to tote assault rifles? OR maybe that’s just reading too far into entertainment to find themes that didn’t exist?

    • The_Juggernaut_Bitch

       Been years since I’ve played it, but isn’t the girlfriend in a poodle skirt?

      • Skywarp79

        I’m pretty sure it’s just a tight, red dress with the hemline right at her butt.

    • RaidenDaigo

      You go through the different environs because its a clone of Fist of the Northstar. DD & FOTNS both take place in a post apocalyptic world.

  • http://www.facebook.com/james.slone James Slone

    The culture still engages in these ideas, they just export the action to other countries or dress it in fantasy. Games like Sleeping Dogs, Arkham City, the Warriors, etc. sill traffic in the gang-infested big city beat-em-up concept, and films like Taken, Man on Fire and Batman still push the pro-vigilante line. It is true that this was much more pervasive in the 1980s action era, but a lot of people still see big cities as dangerous (even though they’re often less dangerous than the suburbs, thanks to gentrification) and games/movies still exploit it. The GTA series is one giant parody of it.

    • Bad Horse

      Arkham City is a subversion of this trope, if you ask me. For most of the game, the real threat isn’t the gangs and supervillains, it’s the powers that be.

    • Enkidum

      Well I think the parodic aspects have really come to the fore now, though. I mean, if you took GTA at face value, its message wouldn’t be any different from Death Wish XIV. But in that case, it’s pretty clear that Rockstar thinks anyone who actually believes that this represents the real city is a moron (hence all the very overt references to paranoia and fear, especially as stoked by the media). I haven’t played most of the other games you’ve mentioned, but I’m pretty sure several of them take that line too, don’t they? (Saints Row I also haven’t played, but it’s a perfect example of the inherent silliness of the genre.)

      • http://profile.yahoo.com/7434UGH3EEMU2AUKTGMU3NLDZA JoshJ

         SR3 has a… mayor or senator or whatever who wants to crack down on gang crime (the player) so bad that she declares martial law and hires private military. So… kinda?

  • http://profiles.google.com/joshsteich Josh Steichmann

    Man, I’d love a flash quasi-inversion of the DD tropes, a queering where the villians are thickneck jocks, klansmen, nazis and crazed militiamen determined to wipe out all the pinko afro rainbow people. Kind of a post-millenial Billy Jack. Still solving problems with violence, sure, but a legit underdog to cheer for.

  • RaidenDaigo

    The heroes of Double Dragon are of Chinese decent, that’s why it’s called Double Dragon. Also the world they inhabit is a post-apocalyptic world not a modern urban environment.
    I lived in Southern California so the arcades here had more varieties of beat-em ups like the Sengoku, Dungeon&Dragons and various other redesigns Capcomade available in the late 80/90′s. So I never got the vibe of “the City is crazy” vibe this article is trying to focus upon.
    This article is well written but lacks research. Most of the Urban beat-ups were about Japanse city life more then American urban stereotypes. Japanese threw in some “cool” American tropes but for the most part the gangs were a reflection on age and class clashes in Japan.

  • http://www.facebook.com/paul.wilmot.shuster Paul Shuster

    Important fact about the Streets of Rage series, the cops are also the bad guys in those games.  Everyone works for the corrupt Mr. X, except the protagonists, including most of “the law.”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hikFCwduCIQ

    To me this makes the game more LA Confidential than Dirty Harry.  And, to extend further, more a Lefty Noir story than a Right Wing Poliziotteschi (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poliziotteschi).