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Psychoanalyzing 2600 Characters
by Chris Federico

 It doesn't make much sense to analyze humans. The media's created a bunch of people who think they're dysfunctional and duly provide sports cars stretching to Infinites for those in the Psychiatry racket. What an industry of quacks. Any self-help book I'd write would only be a page long, because it would consist of a single sentence: "Do what makes you happy." But we live in the era of the mythical nobility of the psyche, a self-centered pretension that even gets into the heads of some who once complained about joysticks that didn't self-center. Makes you wonder how all those soldiers kept their heads in the World Wars without any "official" mental validation. Can you imagine sessions at Normandy?

Therapist: Now, we're all going to nurture each other by sharing our feelings. We'll start with you, young man. What's your name and what's troubling you today?

Soldier: My name is James Swanson and I have a German rifle shell in my chest.

Therapist: I understand. And how can we deal with this in a peaceful, rational way?

Soldier: By not wandering into the wrong medical tent and bleeding to death. If you'll excuse me.

Therapist: Of course. Now, who else wants to YEEEEAAAAAAAAARRRGHH!!!!

     The last exclamation is the result of a five-hundred-pound, celluloid-fused bomb falling on the tent from the belly of one of the Luftwaffe planes above. This just goes to show that academia doesn't mean a thing when you consider the parts of life that really matter.

     Video game characters, on the other hand, do not have cerebral cortexes or any of the other elements that enable humans to act of their own free will, seek personal versions of happiness or even get nervous before engaging in gunfights. No matter how much personality a silicon protagonist might have, he's built according to the mathematical logic of computer code and he's programmed to act in one particular way according to every circumstance possible in his game. So we can have a little fun figuring out the intrinsic motives of those most primitive creatures in the world of classic games: VCS characters.

     I'm not going into the 8-bitters here because I'd have to take into account a certain type of deceptively simplex character in the interest of not shunning any part of gaming history; I'm talking about the early text adventure parsers. Even among their bare bones, there's just too much to analyze, especially in the case of a Scott Adams parser. In a recent letter to Adam I remarked on the age-old horror of discovering that I'd inadvertently loaded an Adams game while, say, exploring a newly acquired disk of "archived" files.


}examine path


}yes, you told me that already. I wanted to look more closely. And how could I be IN a path, exactly?


}dig path




}crap crap crap crap crap


}go west




}when do all these paths stop?


     The multiple diagnoses would take us forever. So let's stick to the 2600.

     Pitfall Harry springs to mind immediately. He's interested in moving forward -- always forward, no matter what. This is a blind optimist. He just goes and goes. His strength of will is verified by his excellent posture. That back never bends, even when he throws himself against a brick wall. He even sinks into a mud bog with perfect posture. Legs burnt off in a campfire? The straight backbone doesn't so much as quiver. A man with his chin up 'till the end, that Harry. But no matter how unshaken his hope or fearless his progress, his explorations remind us humans of the suspicion, always present but kept at bay like an unpleasant sight in one's peripheral vision, that hanging somewhere above every place we go and everything we accomplish is a timer, counting down in anticipation of the unavoidable closing theme that'll play at the end of the long song of life.

     Speaking of that well-known danger tune, the notes playing at the end of Pitfall! begin the life of Mario. We go from horizontal exploits to vertical and instead of a civilized human visiting the jungle, a primate from the land of leaves is perched on a man-made construct alongside his captive, a girl with terrible posture but great hair. The 2600 rendition of Donkey Kong is a poor follow-up on its arcade counterpart -- it doesn't even carry over the simple intro song I mentioned -- because most of its memory is committed to the Mario graphic, the entity to which we'll now turn our attention.

     It's been obvious to me for years that the would-be Italian hero -- he wants to be a spicy sandwich, y'see (couldn't help it...he he hee) -- bears a major identity crisis. Let's look at his jobs first. He started out as a carpenter. Then he decided he'd be happier as a plumber. By the time he wound up on the Nintendo 64 he fancied himself an action hero, his explorations and rescue missions making Pitfall Harry look Pitiful. It demonstrates that it's the size of the nose that counts.

     But Mario's ever-changing vocation is just the tip of his submerged mental problems. Not only is he never satisfied with himself concerning work, which has nothing to do with happiness anyway (put that in your therapy tent and bomb it), but he won't stop changing himself as a person. An argument could be made for the ostensibly inspiring way in which he seeks to better himself in each game sequel; but to me, his inability to stick to anything seems like more of a reluctance to allow himself to be happy with who he is.

     In Donkey Kong he could only run, jump and climb. Sure, he could hammer anything to hell, but he was a carpenter; that came with the girder-lined territory. He was so self-critical and confused after failing to rescue the girl, he tried his hand at being evil for a while, caging the monkey and holding court at the top of the Donkey Kong, Jr. playfield -- once again turning the tables by visiting the eaves of the jungle. This didn't work for him, so he allowed himself to be lured by his brother Luigi to the plumbing trade and forced himself to learn how to bend matter. That's right! Jump up against the underside of any platform in Mario Bros. and you'll see our pudgy hero's new metaphysical breathrough in action.

     Still not able to rest his head, he trained himself to overcome the slow movement dictated by his weight and was, by the time he found himself in the Super Mario Bros. trilogy, able to run at incredible speeds. Now playing the part of the high-strung Italian, he'd studied up on cyberbiology and had taught himself how to grow in size on a strict diet of mushrooms. If he broke his normal eating routine and enjoyed a flower, he rendered himself capable of self-produced firepower. (Good thing he never had any gas problems.)

     You'd think this would be enough. But challenged by the apparent ease with which some hedgehog ran even faster, Mario easily crossed the line from self-improvement to neurosis in Super Mario Bros. 3, in which he flew among the clouds, pretending to be able to soar with the birds and remaining in denial about the fact that he always fell slowly back to the ground. He even pretended to be other animals by wearing silly costumes. In subsequent games he raced souped-up go-carts, swam so deep he ran out of breath and finally -- I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt and chalking this up to his newfound peaceful resign -- took up Golf.

     But something tells me we haven't seen the last of the little guy. Mark my words, folks. Mario has issues. And I'm not talking about old copies of Nintendo Power.

     Since it's the 2600 I'm supposed to be focusing on, let's leave Mario with the assurance that at least he has superficial reasons for feeling inadequate. Short, fat and probably bald (you never see him without a hat), he faces challenges foreign to Superman, the strongest guy in comics, the most aeronautically flexible non-mechanized Atari character and the superhero who refuses most stubbornly to die. The D.C. guys hit "reset" too many times -- I mean, I think that once a comic character's dead, he should stay dead and not render moot the drama of the unexpected plot-twist -- but the Man of Steel as he appears on the VCS retains the coder-given right to perpetual reincarnation, downplaying that issue anyway because he also refuses to adhere to the customary laws of physics.

     When one of us earthlings flies into the ground, we don't wind up in the sky over a different part of the city. In fact, we usually get hurt, depending on how far up we've thrown ourselves from. And if we non-Atari non-superheroes were to board airplanes and fly up towards the sun, assuming for the moment the luxury of unlimited fuel, we'd just keep going. Eventually we'd reach outer space and the plane would fall apart or we'd suffocate. But when Clark Kent's more color-coordinated alter-ego belly-flops into the street (that's the largest amount of hyphenated phrases I've ever used in a row), he appears with a noisy gust of wind in a different area, usually hovering over a structure that looks like the impossible entity: a government building erected on a low budget. Likewise, if our hero hurls himself into the sky, he comes up out of the ground elsewhere. Superman's refusal to acknowledge the most basic principles behind the physical properties of living beings places him in the "major denial" category, which would be worth discussing further if it didn't seem to work so well for him. This doctor's reminded of the old joke about the lady who admits that her husband thinks he's a chicken. When her friend responds with "That's terrible," the first woman replies, "It's okay; we need the eggs."

     In preparing to speculate on the adversaries in the 2600 universe, we have to make clear the distinction between "mad" and "evil." The Mad Bomber in Kaboom!, for instance, doesn't necessarily think that what he's doing is right. Obviously an escaped prison convict, M.B. has become defeatist; since he's likely to be nabbed again and thrown back into the slammer, he's intent on causing the most destruction possible while he's free. A moody character, M.B.'s facial expression gives away his jumpy mindset concerning his violent spree. He's either very angry, very happy or wholly surprised at the performance of your buckets. Since the buckets seem to be moving without any human help, one wonders if he's not stupid as well; the look of shock should appear right at the beginning. His ignorance of the fact that the shallow buckets aren't overflowing with bombs after the first few seconds seems to solidify the imbecile theory. Therefore, one shouldn't get too angry when the buckets miss a bomb and they all go off. The Bomber's a confused, frightened soul and doesn't really wish any harm on anyone, or he wouldn't be dropping the bombs in such orderly, predictable rows.

     Evil Otto's another matter altogether. This leader of the mechanical Berzerk team of antagonists always has a big smile on his face. He knows that what he's doing is bad, but he's satisfied and feels no remorse. He exists to jump on stick-men and pulverize them. There's no internal conflict whatsoever. He's so happy about being evil that he bounces around merrily. Evil's what he gets up for in the morning. Evil's what he sings about; evil's what he sees when he looks up at the moon. Evil's carried on his ocean waves and evil's in the chirping of the birds outside his electrified window. Evil gets him to sleep and evil's what he dreams about.

Therapist: Now, how can we find new ways of releasing our pent-up emotions?

Mad Bomber: Well, for one thing, I'd have to change my name.

Therapist: Yeah, that pretty much says it all about you, doesn't it!

Otto: There's no other way. I have no pent-up emotions anyway. I'm just evil. Simple as that. I wish more people would accept me for who I am. I lie on this couch and look up at the ceiling and all I can think about is evil.

Therapist: Have you tried asking yourself where this evil comes from?

Otto: No. I don't have the patience for that.

Mad Bomber: Just get yourself a bunch of bombs. It makes you feel so much better.

Otto: Shut up! All I need is for that damn humanoid to show up in one of my mazes with a bucket of water. That'd probably screw up my robots as well.

Mad Bomber: Jeez! Sorr-ry! (sob)

Otto: Look, don't cry. I've just been feeling especially irritable lately.

Therapist: Have you tried asking yourself (zzzzzap) YEEEAAAAAARRRGHH!!!!

Mad Bomber: Thanks.

Otto: No sweat. She was getting on my nerves. Wench.

Parser: UNKNOWN WORD:   Wench.

Otto and Mad Bomber: Shut up!!!!

     The Mad Bomber's eventually chased by an actual human in Keystone Kapers; he's working under an alias, sure, but this is because he's turned to theft. These ex-cons never learn. He's pursued by a speedy cop who proves much more effective than the magical floating buckets. Winky, the hero in Venture, is Evil Otto's twin brother. Whereas Otto recognized from early childhood that evil was, all things considered, his essence, Winky was always a dumb and extremely naive geek. The grin on his face is indicative of his failure to take into account the dangers of the dungeons he explores in search of what he's been overheard calling "pretty, shiny, neat stuff."

     Of course, that's what keeps many of us going. Wipe that silly grin off your face and stop giving your money to industries that offer you nothing valuable in return -- especially the shrink community. It's perfectly easy to get rid of any stress you're feeling: Play a video game. Oh, yeah -- have a sense of humor. That's the most important part, no matter what you're talking about.


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