Summer Madness; Or, XTREME Nostalgia

21 May

Note: “Summer Madness” by Kool & The Gang is both an inspiration for the above title and an excellent partner to the following essay. Please feel free to enjoy the song and the essay in concert, as they complement one another beautifully. If I do say so myself. Which I do.

Around this time last year, I wrote a video game review in which I mentioned the Pavlovian way my summer season usually starts. Permit me a short self-quotation:

“…And to me, it ain’t summer until several things happen: I pop on my shorts for the first time, I listen to N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton straight through, I crack the season’s first icy smooth Arizona Green Tea, and – a more recent addition to the ever-growing list – I slip Red Dead Redemption into my Xbox.”

Obviously, I need certain criteria to be met before I’m willing to acknowledge the change in seasons. But what I failed to mention last time were the ways that a sun-kissed breeze can flip it around on me, and trigger unexpected urges. I’m talking, of course, about the 1980s.

Stay with me here.

So many of my favourite things came out of the ’80s, myself included. And I don’t know how the connection was forged, but sunlight on my skin, the smell of fresh-cut grass, beads of sweat on my neck, warm air through the car window, ice cream and sandals and barbecue and beer – they all conspire to make me feel like I’ve been transported back to 1989. Maybe a lot of the ’80s movies I love take place in hot settings? The jungles of Predator, the neon sunsets of Scarface, the sun-and-surf shopping malls of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure…I don’t know what it is, but that unconscious bridge in my mind is rock-solid. And as I slurp on that sweet Arizona tallcan, summer apparently decides that it’s about time I watched The Terminator again.

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I recently finished “Neuromancer” by William Gibson, which did much to reinforce this self-inflicted zeitgeist. It’s a gritty, collars-up, Asian-infused sci-fi neo-noir, coining both the term “cyberspace” and the genre of cyberpunk in one fell swoop. Deeply atmospheric and intimately paranoid, it’s like breathing a plume of cigarette smoke through a shaft of holographic light. It imagines a future similar to many sci-fi dystopias, in which the miraculous advance of technology and medicine does little for the lowlifes who scratch out a living in the belly of an unfriendly metropolis. I’ve run with street samurai, vibrated to Zion dub in zero-G, philosophized with AIs, and stared at a sky the colour of static. It’s a tactile book; it evokes more than it narrates. A lot of show and not much tell. It can be frustrating when you’re unsure of what’s happening in the plot (even when you’re acutely aware of minute details in the setting), but as a purely sensory experience it is transportive and overwhelming. It’s like living in Blade Runner.

Which reminds me: Blade Runner! As The Matrix owes its existence to Neuromancer, so does Neuromancer owe itself to Ridley Scott’s broody masterpiece. All it takes is a blood-orange sunset in late May to trigger this one; I catch a glimpse of that gorgeous colour palette and my mind’s eye paints it onto the industrial Aztec steel of the Tyrell pyramid. My ears fill with angelic synth and I get a craving for street-made ramen. It’s a feast of ’80s texture, and it only makes me hungry for more.

So, naturally, I hunt for more. I’ll give Akira a spin and live in Neo-Tokyo for a night. I’ll clack open the NES and give StarTropics a go, bathing in the glorious 8-bit bleeps and bloops. I’ll bust out the GTA: Vice City soundtrack (which has proved to be a truly bountiful investment) and Run (So Far Away). The soundtrack to my life will suddenly bounce with Michael Jackson and Blondie, to the bafflement of those foolish enough to let me near the sound system.

All of this, inevitably, leads me to Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon.

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I am this game’s exact target audience. All it requires for maximum enjoyment is an intimate, encyclopedic, unhealthy knowledge of 1980s action movie and video game culture. Even if, for some goddamn reason, you’re not as well-equipped as me? You’ll still find it ridiculous enough to laugh at – and that’s exactly the point.

You play as Mark IV Cyber Commando Sgt. Rex “Power” Colt as he sweeps his special brand of gravelly-voiced justice over a retro-futuristic island of ’80s satire. He’s voiced by Michael Biehn, who was the star of many of the movies which are gleefully sent up in the game, from The Terminator to Aliens. It has cyborgs, futuristic weapons, one-liners, mutants, explosions, a soundtrack full of synth, and giant lizards that fire lasers out of their eyes. It’s stupid, frankly; but I absolutely love it. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything make fun of itself so violently. Even the loading screens are jokes, providing helpful hints like “Grenades explode” and “Enemies can knock you down. They’re dicks like that”. The tongue is so far in cheek that it’s punctured the flesh and flown clear across the room.

And if the clever, self-referential humour and blindingly neon ’80s aesthetic weren’t worth the price of admission, then the gameplay sure is. The island is essentially a collection of enemy strongholds to liberate with story missions strung in between, and you’re given a set of tools and abilities and set loose to wreak havoc. It’s seriously fun that you can approach the game any way you want: truck in guns-blazing and Rambo the place clean, or infiltrate with cyber-stealth and kill everyone before the last robot guard has finished taking a pee. With great controls, balance, sound, graphics, and collectibles, it’s as tight as Arnold’s tuchus (and just as addictive). It was a tad light on difficulty – I played through on Hard and found it to be a juicy challenge, but nowhere near as brutal as the Reagan-era veneer would suggest. Excuse me, Cyber-Reagan. Anyway, it was a very satisfying gaming experience, and it fed my nostalgia fix in an epic way.

I really can’t trace the genesis of this phenomenon. It’s unknowable, like the philosophical difference between an android and a human. Summer simply makes me feel like it’s the ’80s. And if all it takes to live in that decade again is a DVD player, an NES, and a trip down memory lane, then I’ll see you at the arcade, space cowboy.

Bring quarters.

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