In What Are You Playing This Weekend? we discuss gaming and such with prominent figures in the pop-culture arena. We always start with the same question.
Ethan Rutherford is the author of the forthcoming debut short story collection from Ecco books called The Peripatetic Coffin. The book (which is terrific) concerns, among other things, Civil War-era submersibles, illegal whaling in the desert, extremely poor parenting, and legendary NFL washout Brian Bosworth. Rutherford talked to The Gameological Society about the many pleasures of old-school Contra and the downside of modern, “unbelievably beautiful” games.
The Gameological Society: What are you playing this weekend?
Ethan Rutherford: It will definitely be Contra. The original Contra.
Gameological: Definitely, eh?
Rutherford: A friend of mine, his parents were moving, and they moved all his stuff out. They were like, “Do you want this Nintendo?” Do I want this old Nintendo? Fuck yeah. And so they sent up the Nintendo with some old cartridges, and we hooked it up and just immediately remembered what it was like to play those old games. And Contra was just the one that he had that I used to play all the time when I was kid. It’s just sort of that 8-bit scroll screen, where you go and the levels are all the same, and the guys all come out in the exact same place. If you’re good in that game, you can move through it with a certainty that is sort of lacking in other games.
Like, in terms of role-playing games, there’s so much uncertainty in there, and that’s also what you do when you’re a writer, all the time. You’re just role playing. It’s just a big relief to find yourself in a world [in Contra] where you know the rules, you know the spots, you know where the guns are coming from. And it’s a great game to play with another person, using teamwork—good camaraderie. If you do the Konami code, you have a chance. You’re not going to get in a fight about someone stealing your lives after you’re dead.
Gameological: I forgot it siphons the lives.
Rutherford: Yeah, if you die and the other person has medals—the extra lives—you just have to hit “A” and that person can take your lives. So the person who is very careful, a sharpshooter and all of that stuff, it’s just like, “C’mon, you’re being reckless. And I’m getting punished for it?”
Gameological: What do you tell your wife when you’re going out to play Nintendo?
Rutherford: Well, his wife started calling it “Nofriendo Friday,” but the thing is, it’s not true. I’m there with a really good friend. We get pizza and bourbon and feel great about saving the world. You feel the sense of accomplishment. My wife is generally pretty supportive of it, because it just makes me so happy to go back into this nostalgia and a universe I can control things. When it started, we both had kids on the way. And so that night, it was just sort of, we’re not going to do anything we don’t want to do, we’re just going back to a world we know how to navigate. The wives, while they don’t understand it, or even see any value in it, they understand how happy it makes us to go back and play video games from when we were kids.
Gameological: I love that a regular game of Contra is your rock.
Rutherford: Oh yeah. Do you remember playing that game?
Gameological: Of course.
Rutherford: It’s one of the games that teaches you teamwork, because you can’t go forward without the other person sort of being on the same page. You can talk about it and develop very rudimentary schemes about how to do things. Like, you get [the] Spread [gun add-on], and I’ll Laser the things that are harder to hit. Contra is a rock. Super C is a little more foreign, but Contra is great. Like, you know, you plug in those old cartridges, and even that music takes you back to really happier, carefree times, when you’re in the basement and just have nothing else to do.
Gameological: No internet. No nothing.
Rutherford: No internet, no nothing. And you have a two-liter bottle of Coke and some chips, and you’re going to make yourself sick playing video games.
Gameological: I never really understood the physics of the Fireball gun.
Rutherford: Oh yeah! No, you avoid that. I’d rather have the pea shooter than the Fireball. It’s terrible.
Gameological: Do you think there’s something lost in the way multiplayer games are played now? You might never see the face of the person you’re playing with.
Rutherford: Well, for me, the pleasure is playing a video game, but also being in the room with your good friend, doing something together. You feel like you get to know someone a little better. And playing a game you already know, you end up having conversations about whatever. So we’re talking about parental anxiety while we’re furiously shooting at aliens. It frees you up to have those conversations. In some ways, the game is just an excuse. I think it would be lost if it was a game where you’re on the headset and trying to kill other people, rather than being on the same team. Personally, I don’t take any pleasure in these new games, because they’re so well-designed, and you have to make all these choices. There’s no clear direction, like beginning, middle, and end. It’s a lot more complicated these days.
Gameological: I’m sure your kid will understand them much better.
Rutherford: I know! I’m gonna have that horrible dad moment, “Oh, this is Contra.” Oh, Jesus.
Gameological: “Quit embarrassing me, Pop!”
Rutherford: The most I want to have is a “A” button and a “B” button and a direction button. And that’s kind of it. The more complicated stuff just doesn’t—it’s more stressful than relaxing. You remember the Power Glove and all that stuff? The Power Pad. All these contrivances of childhood, but they’re all incredibly meaningful to me now.
Gameological: Nintendo had a robot friend to play games with you.
Rutherford: Oh yeah. What was that game for it? There was one specific game.
Gameological: I’m not sure. I never had it.
Rutherford: Me neither. Your rich friends had that.
Gameological: Yep. And the G.I. Joe aircraft carrier.
Rutherford: And like all the Voltrons. And you’re just like, “Shit, I’m coming over here all the time.”
Gameological: Gobot Syndrome.
Rutherford: [Laughs] Off-market. Do you remember M.A.S.K.?
Gameological: Mobile Armored Strike Kommand? Don’t recall.
Rutherford: Yeah. I actually never knew what that stood for.
Gameological: I only know because my college roommate would get drunk and dance to the theme song.
Rutherford: But that’s the image you’ll have of that guy forever. I was thinking about—some of my happiest memories have been around the old Nintendo. Like, Blades Of Steel? And then you go to college and make a drinking game out of Blades Of Steel.
Gameological: These stupid things monopolized my childhood memories.
Rutherford: Oh, same here. The Legend Of Zelda—before Nintendo Power and Nintendo Hotline and all that stuff, I remember getting pieces of paper, ripping out pieces of paper from a dot matrix printer, and drawing the levels. Pushing pause and drawing the levels, and then putting them together and making your own gigantic map. And those old games, they lend themselves to your imagination. I’ve seen some of the newer games, and they’re stunning. They’re unbelievably beautiful. But in some ways, they’re more beautiful than anything you can imagine yourself.
And now, we put the question to you. Tell us what you’ve been playing lately, and which games—video or otherwise—are on your playlist for the weekend.