Censored course names in Super Mario Maker

I just got Super Mario Maker, and I have to say, I love this game so much. The game gives you a lot of freedom in how you design your courses…except when it comes to naming them. The game isn’t always clear on why certain words are banned and others aren’t, so in this post, I’ll share with you my research on censored course names.

A year and a half ago, I did something very similar with censored names in Pokémon X and Y, and it’s proven by far to be my most popular post on this blog. So many people chimed in as the months went on, fleshing out my list of censored words. Pokémon and Mario are both Nintendo products (though Pokémon is developed by Game Freak, whereas Nintendo proper developed Super Mario Maker), so I thought it would be useful to compare the games.

I started by entering most of the censored names from Pokémon into the course names for SMM. I quickly found that SMM is much more lenient than Pokémon X and Y when it comes to the words you use. That being said, I didn’t check every last name from my Pokémon post. However, if you make it to the last section of this post, you’ll see a big caveat when it comes to the leniency of SMM. In some ways, SMM is more restrictive than Pokémon, which can make it tricky to figure out what words you can use and which words you cannot.

Warning: This post contains strong language, obviously, but is used in the interest of educating the reader on exactly where Nintendo draws the line when it comes to censorship.

Anatomy

As in my Pokémon post, I started with human anatomy. So many naughty words exist for describing certain parts of the human body that my assumption was that, like Pokémon, most of these words would be banned.

I was partially wrong.

The following words for female anatomy cannot be used in SMM: cunt, pussy, snatch, titty, titties, twat, and vagina. That’s it. My list on the Pokémon post was much longer (though interestingly, titty in the singular was allowed in Pokémon, but no more in SMM). I’m really not sure what to make of these findings, but all of the following words CAN be used, which were banned in Pokémon: boob, breast, clitoris, labia, tit, and vulva.

The following words for male anatomy cannot be used: ballsack, choad, cock, dick, nutsack, pecker, penis, schlong, scrotum, testes, and testicle. This list is largely the same as Pokémon, except in Pokémon testicle was an acceptable word. Additionally, Pokémon banned the word balls, yet balls is acceptable in SMM. Nuts, numbnuts, prick, and sack can be used in SMM, but not in Pokémon.

Pokémon also banned alternative spellings of these words, to some success. I haven’t tested all combinations of alternative spellings, but I found that words like c0ck (with a zero instead of an “O”) and d!ck work. This is important to know, as one of the first levels I designed I wanted to call “Cock of the Walk,” as in, rooster, but could not. Instead, that level is now named “C0CK of the WALK” (the caps are so that the larger zero doesn’t look as far out of place).

The only banned general anatomy terms I found were anal and ass. And this is a very important point: in Pokémon, most words that contained the letters “a-s-s” were generally banned, like assassin. However, so far, I’ve found SMM to be much more forgiving when it comes to using the root “a-s-s,” which is actually a huge relief.

The following general anatomy terms were banned in Pokémon, but are now acceptable in SMM: butt, gonads, and genital. You can still use bosom, bust, butthole, and nipple, just like in Pokémon.

I’m going to use a term throughout this post that needs a little explaining. When you start typing words into the Wii U game pad, it will provide “suggested” terms above the keypad. This is similar to the autofill feature on Google, for example. What I find fascinating about this feature is that many times it will suggest words that, in my mind, should be censored (under Nintendo’s admittedly opaque guidelines). Throughout this post, then, I’ll refer to “suggested” terms that Nintendo freely provides to the player.

For example, if you start writing “butt” the Wii U will suggest buttocks. It will also suggest arse, circumcise, hymen, phallic, phallus, and taint. In Pokémon, arse was banned.

This doesn’t exactly relate to anatomy, but I also found that SMM bans more than 4 numerals in a row, presumably to prevent kids from sharing their phone numbers and other private information online. Thus, you can’t write something like 5318008 (type it in your calculator, turn it upside down, and it spells “boobies”).

Bodily Fluids

As in Pokémon, words for bodily fluids are generally banned: crap, cum, jizz, piss, semen, shit, and turd. You can use feces, pee, and poop if you want. And dung and urination are suggested words.

Sexuality

Given how loose SMM had gotten on the anatomy words, I was thinking a similar looseness would accompany words related to sexuality. Here I was wrong. The following words are banned: fuck, fuk, hardon, hooker, masturbate (and the misspelling masturbat), milf, molest (but molester works), pedo, pimp, rape, rapist, sex, shag, and whore. Prostitute is acceptable, even though it was banned in Pokémon.

In Pokémon, panties was banned, but in SMM, panties is now acceptable. Other words for undergarments that were acceptable in Pokémon remain acceptable in SMM, such as bra and thong.

As with anatomy, SMM suggested words that don’t make much sense, like abortionfetish, fornicate, and suck. Orgy is banned, not surprisingly, but surprisingly, orgiastic was suggested. Erection was suggested, even though stiffy is banned. Woody is acceptable.

Horny, hump, screw and XXX work, but were banned in Pokémon.

If you start typing in erot, SMM will suggest erotic, erotica, and eroticism!

Substances

What greatly surprised me about Pokémon was that all of the general terms I could think of for alcohol, tobacco, and drug substances were allowed. Given that the common names were allowed, I assumed that slang terms would also escape censorship.

SMM is largely the same. The only substance word I could find that was banned was cocaine (it was allowed in Pokémon). What’s different about SMM, though, are these suggested words. If you start typing any of the following , the Wii U will suggest: alcohol, cigar, cigarette, drugs, ecstasy, heroin, hookah, marijuana, and weed.

Violence

The following words related to violence and war were banned in Pokémon, but are now acceptable in SMM, including: damn, damnation, Hitler, Holocaust, kill, killer, jihad, murder, Nazi, and terrorist. In fact, when you start typing in “terror” one of the suggested words is terrorism.

Hell was always an acceptable word in Pokémon, and it works in SMM as well. Furthermore, when you type in hell, SMM will suggest words like hellish, hellfire, and hell-bent.

Name Calling

Lots of insult and derogatory words are banned in SMM, including bastard, bitch, chink, dyke, lesbo, fag, faggy, faggot, nig, nigga, nigger, spic, and queer. Interestingly, b!tch works in SMM, though it was banned in Pokémon. Douchebag is banned in SMM, but douche is okay.

Wetback is acceptable, though was banned in Pokémon.

Perhaps the biggest change concerning name calling surrounds LGBT terms. In Pokémon, gay was acceptable but lesbian was banned for some reason (it’s not an offensive term). Additionally, homo was banned, but hetero was acceptable. In SMM, gay, lesbian, and homo are now acceptable words.

Non-English Words

Perhaps the biggest relief I found with SMM is that viola is an acceptable word, whereas in Pokémon it was banned! Let me back up and explain the context here. In Pokémon, viola was banned as “viol” is French for “rape.” Players can trade Pokémon with players in other countries, so I guess Game Freak was trying to protect their French players from getting an American Pokémon named the equivalent of rape. What didn’t make sense, though, is that the name of the first Gym Leader was Viola!

Pokémon X and Y was notorious for banning words that were offensive in other languages, and given that players can trade levels in SMM with people all over the world, I figured Nintendo would take the same stance to protect international audiences.

My command of offensive words in other languages is quite limited, so if you are a reader from outside the US, please confirm which words are banned in your language. I can’t remember why, but dago was banned in Pokémon; it’s banned in SMM as well.

Other foreign words that were banned Pokémon (read the comments on that Pokémon post to understand the speculation why) but are now acceptable in SMM include: chi-chi, hektor, kukka, lana, laputa, mona, penelope, and pik.

Big Caveat: Use caution with the “acceptable” words

This list of banned and acceptable words is by no means complete, but at least it’s a start to this research. If you find any other words that are banned or acceptable, please let me know in the comments.

That said, I caution you against using any of the accepted words for the following reason: Nintendo might still flag your levels as inappropriate! I didn’t know this at the time, but SMM actually runs on Nintendo’s Miiverse system. I’m curious if the banned words in SMM are the same as those banned across all games that utilize Miiverse. I couldn’t find a decent website that listed banned words in Miiverse, so this is an open question at the moment.

When I started finding all of these acceptable words that were banned in Pokémon, I got suspicious. I thought, perhaps, you are given a lot of freedom for how you name your courses in private, but once you upload them to the SMM server, then they might get flagged.

I performed a simple test. I used one of the default SMM levels, named it “boob and uploaded it. Boob, of course, is an acceptable word. I was thinking once I uploaded it SMM would tell me I couldn’t use that word.

Nope! The level uploaded just fine, and somebody even played it.

My curiosity piqued, I thought I’d go all out. What if I packed a course title with as many offensive, but acceptable, terms that I could? I created another simple level and uploaded it with the title “death to nazi muslim molesters.” Now, I’m not even sure what that title means. I didn’t want to inadvertently offend somebody, so I planned on taking the level down within a few minutes anyway. I hit upload, and sure enough, the level uploaded with no issues.

I continued testing words and planned on uploading a third level with “acceptable” words, as I couldn’t believe these terms were getting through. But then I hit a snag. I couldn’t upload levels anymore. I was told to go to Miiverse and read the error messages.

And then it became clear. My first level, boob, was deleted for “inappropriate or harmful content.” According to the Miiverse Code of Conduct, this kind of content is defined as “anything that promotes dangerous behavior or illegal activities.” So boob promotes dangerous behavior or illegal activities?

The second level was also promptly deleted for “hateful or bullying content.” That makes sense, and Miiverse defines this content as “any content that slanders, or misrepresents another person, as well as any discriminatory, harassing, or abusive content.”

Fair enough. What upset me, though, was that I was banned from posting anything in Miiverse for two weeks! I can play other people’s SMM levels, but can’t upload my own. Here’s what I was told:

You have been banned from writing messages and community posts for two weeks due to a violation of the Miiverse Code of Conduct. This ban applies to any other users who access Miiverse using this device. If further violations of the Miiverse Code of Conduct occur, you and any other users who access Miiverse using this device may be permanently banned from writing messages and community posts.

This is why I say, then, to use the acceptable words with extreme caution. Apparently SMM has an explicit list of banned words—the game won’t let you use terms like fuck in any circumstance. However, it seems there is also a hidden, implicit list of banned words, ones that users won’t learn of until they transgress the Miiverse Code of Conduct.

So, because of this infraction, I hesitate to continue this research: I want to keep uploading levels to SMM! And if I do get banned from Miiverse, the penalty doesn’t just apply to me, but to ANY users of my Wii U. Thus, I wouldn’t be able to simply create a new Mii or user profile to get around the ban.

Hopefully this post is helpful in figuring out what words work and what words don’t in SMM. In a way, the system is looser than Pokémon, provided you keep the levels to yourself. But use caution in uploading them to Miiverse, as it seems there is somebody at Nintendo who checks Miiverse posts against a secret list of banned words. And you won’t know what that list is until you have your content blocked.

Game on,
~Dennis

According to Anita Sarkeesian, fantasy should reflect reality…except when it shouldn’t

Feminist Frequency began broadening its video game-related content last month by releasing video reviews of popular games. So far they’ve reviewed Assassin’s Creed Syndicate and Rise of the Tomb Raider, particularly because both games made strides in their respective series by including more feminist-friendly female characters.

As far as video game reviews go, I don’t really have a problem with either. The reviewers (Sarkeesian for Syndicate, and Carolyn Petit for Tomb Raider) provide fair analyses of the games, though they are more concerned about the narrative and story than gameplay. Some day I’d like to play RotTR, but I’ve never had any desire to play an AC game.

This post, then, is not so much a critique of these individual game reviews. If you’ve been following my blog, you know that Sarkeesian provides a lot of material for my posts (partly because she refuses to engage in dialogue on her own social media spaces). Rather, this post is about an underlying idea espoused by Feminist Frequency. The idea was stated so elegantly in her ACS review and I want to unpack it here, because for all the Sarkeesian critics out there, it might explain where she’s coming from with her criticism.

The challenge of fantasies set in the past

Let’s begin by talking about fantasy works in general. The fantasy genre is easily my favorite in fiction, from books to comics to video games to movies to shows and more, fantasy brings me to worlds that open up my imagination and creativity.

However, I have always resisted the idea of fantasy as escape from reality. To me, I don’t want to escape reality, not even for a bit: I like reality just fine. Instead, fantasy that resonates shows me new ways of looking at reality. The world is a magical place, and in many ways, the world is more fantastical than any mental creation. To me, fantasy can illuminate my understanding of human nature by stripping away the trappings of the ordinary. Fantasy can be a metaphor for a better way of living.

As somebody who has written my own fantasy for years (nothing published yet, but hopefully someday!), I’ve often thought about the challenge of writing fantasy set in the past.

Some fantasy is set in the future (Star Wars) and some fantasy is set in the present (Harry Potter), but classically, fantasy has been set in the past. Sometimes fantasy reflects a past version of our own world (Lord of the Rings), while other times fantasy reflects a made-up world that, technologically and socially, is less developed than our present reality (Avatar: The Last Airbender).

Writing fantasy set in the past presents several obstacles, mostly in terms of how human relationships and societal norms are depicted. For example, if a fantasy story is set in the past, does that mean the story should depict a patriarchal system governed by kings and queens? Should racism be alive and present? Should men be the fighters and women the housewives? Should gay and lesbian characters be scorned?

On the one hand, having modern social relations in a fantasy set in the past can feel out of place. In the time of Middle-Earth, for instance, would gay hobbits be openly embraced by the citizens of the Shire? It seems unlikely.

But on the other hand, fantasy is not written for people living hundreds of years ago: it’s written for people in the present moment. Fantasy needs to speak to people where they are at now. If fantasy doesn’t resonate with a modern audience, then I’m afraid it might veer into escapism. And maybe that’s fine for some people, but it’s not for me.

This tension is seen in Peter Jackson’s dual trilogies on Middle-Earth. The Lord of the Rings was criticized by some audiences for having far too many male characters, and the female characters it did have were mostly relegate to support roles (save Eowyn). Many fans of LOTR defended the casting decisions, not only for being faithful to the books, but because “that’s how it was back then.” Men were the heroes, women stayed at home. It seems like that’s been the pattern in all human societies throughout history, right or wrong.

A few years pass, and the criticisms compound, and Jackson gets another crack at the fantasy bat with The Hobbit trilogy. Jackson wanted the movies to appeal to a wider audience, so he created a bad ass female warrior, Tauriel. She didn’t appear in the books, and was added to the movies specifically so make the cast slightly less male dominated (but only ever so slightly).

Many people contend Jackson didn’t go far enough in the inclusiveness department. Regardless, it’s clear he was willing to see fantasy not as a reflection of a bygone society, but rather as something that modern audiences could relate to.

“Realism is not really the goal”

Which brings us to Sarkeesian. Assassin’s Creed Syndicate takes place during the Industrial Revolution in London, England. The game scores many points with Sarkeesian for having a non-sexualized, capable female co-lead. She even praises the game for including an Indian character and a trans character:

Evie and Jacob’s allies also include Henry Green, a British Indian Assassin, and Ned Wynert, a successful thief who just happens to be a trans man and no one in the world thinks anything of it. These characters play supporting or minor roles but their inclusion is notable.

The AC series is rooted in historical fantasy. I’m sure the developers at Ubisoft take extensive liberties with the history, but they at least try to get the look and feel of the time periods accurate. And some people think they do very well on the architectural, and occasionally on the social, front.

Knowing this, when I heard Sarkeesian’s praise of an Indian and trans man, my initial thought was, “But wait! Society at that time wouldn’t have been so accepting of these people.” I’m sure players with more skin in the AC game than I have would think the same way.

However, Sarkeesian immediately justifies her praise by saying:

While it might seem “unrealistic” to imagine women, people of color and trans folks who are treated and respected as full human beings in 1868, realism is not really the goal in a game where Assassins and Templars have been waging a centuries’ old war over artifacts created by an ancient civilization, and where you can leap from the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral into a pile of leaves and walk away unharmed. The inclusion of these characters works not because of realism but because of believability and internal consistency. That believability is a result of the developers’ conscious decision to make the presence of these characters normalized and respected by everyone else in the game.

Okay, now it makes sense. Sarkeesian is fine if the game isn’t “realistic” from a historical sense because she doesn’t care about the context of the past. She cares about the present. Because she wants the modern gamer to have an inclusive worldview, it’s acceptable, then, for a historical fantasy game to also have an inclusive worldview.

So far, I have no criticisms for Sarkeesian. In fact, her distillation that “realism” doesn’t make sense for fantasy games actually clears up something I’ve long suspected about her ideology. To her, it’s not so much that the historical context of the game doesn’t matter: instead, she doesn’t think the game’s context matters at all. The only thing that matters is the context of the real world.

And to Sarkeesian, the world is a dangerous place for women, and media can make it a better place by showing us a fantasy of a better world, an idealized world.

To some extent, I’m sympathetic with this viewpoint. As a lover of fantasy, I find that the works that best connect with me are those that speak to my personal situation—which is to say, the modern context. My favorite television series of all time is Avatar: The Last Airbender, a show that Sarkeesian would likely sympathize with (she lists it on her Resources page, but she’s never discussed it as far as I know). The creators created a fantasy world set in the past technologically, but socially, it’s a very inclusive show. The show goes out of its way to present believable and inspiring heroes of both genders, all races, and in Korra, even alternative sexual identities.

If you remember back to her Damsel in Distress: Part 2 video, Sarkeesian briefly addressed a criticism of her analysis. In that series, she was talking about the way that female characters are made into “damsels” that have to be saved by male protagonists. She also talked about how violence against women is justified by the game’s narrative, which she thought didn’t matter in the wider context of violence against women:

Of course, if you look at any of these games in isolation, you will be able to find incidental narrative circumstances that can be used to explain away the inclusion of violence against women as a plot device. But just because a particular event might “makes sense” within the internal logic of a fictional narrative – that doesn’t, in and of itself justify its use. Games don’t exist in a vacuum and therefore can’t be divorced from the larger cultural context of the real world.

It’s especially troubling in-light of the serious real life epidemic of violence against women facing the female population on this planet.

Okay. At least she’s being consistent here. This ACS video review, then, clearly identifies the Sarkeesian approach to fantasy, and it is this: fantasy should reflect our present reality, not historical realities. A fantasy’s context cannot be separated from the context of our real world, and furthermore, the real world context takes precedence over the fantasy context if the two are ever in conflict.

When you formulate your own opinion on Sarkeesian’s work, keep her philosophy in mind. This is the ideology her criticisms are rooted in. This is how she prefers fantasy storylines be constructed. Right or wrong, this is what makes sense to her.

Except when it doesn’t.

“A noble and extraordinary goal”

Later in her review of ACS, she talks about the extensive amount of violence in the game, particularly how the violence is used to “save” Londoners from their captors:

The narrative presents all the ills plaguing the London of 1868 as a result of the evil Templars, and presents the solution to those ills as killing lots and lots of people. Fighting to liberate the oppressed working classes of London would, in reality, be a noble and extraordinary goal, but reducing such an important issue to an excuse for violent AAA game mechanics does little more than trivialize it. Freeing child laborers in each district is as simple as following signs that say “KILL” and “FREE” on the heads of targets. And for all of the Frye twins’ charms and good intentions, they are outsiders taking over a struggle that they have no part of. The game presents them as liberators freeing London from oppression, but they’re really just conquerors, replacing one crime syndicate’s rule with another’s.

Now Sarkeesian is critical of the game for not reflecting the historical past appropriately. She supports the goal of liberating the oppressed, but says that the game “trivializes” this issue.

She doesn’t really offer any solutions for how the game should address the oppressed working classes, other than that killing shouldn’t be part of the solution. And her criticism that the game clearly identifies who to kill and who to free suggests that she wants shades of gray in the game. Beyond this, I’m not sure exactly how she thinks the issue should be addressed. She just wants the game to be more responsible with its history.

But maybe this isn’t a contradiction in her ideology at all. Maybe she wants the game to bend history even more to make a statement not about the oppressed working classes on 19th Century London, but wants the game to make a statement about modern day oppression. If so, I’m really not sure how that would be accomplished.

Which modern day oppression should the game address? Child workers in China? Trafficked sex slaves in America? Oppression of women and Christians in certain states of the Middle East?

For all my sympathies in making historical fantasy reflective of the present situation, this is where that ideology breaks down. If you divorce a fantasy world entirely from its context, and try to instead force the present context on it, you lose something both in the storytelling AND the message. A work of fantasy that doesn’t engage with its past at all risks becoming an allegory like Animal Farm. And if you’re going to venture into allegory territory, why be esoteric about your intentions? Why not strip away the allegory and make a modern critique?

Game on,
~Dennis

Book Review: The Krampus Chronicles; the Three Sisters

The Krampus Chronicles: The Three Sisters coverThe Krampus Chronicles: the Three Sisters is the debut novel of writer Sonia Halbach. This historical fantasy novel about the families connected to the famed ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas poem shows us that magical worlds exist right underneath us, if we have the courage to seek them out.

Publisher: Curiosity Quills Press
Format: Paperback and Kindle
Length: 238 pages
Intended Audience: Young adult, though it’s tame enough to be enjoyed by children and intriguing enough to be enjoyed by adults
Genre: Historical, Low Fantasy

The Krampus Chronicles begins with a family feud over the rightful authorship of the famous poem, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. Maggie Ogden always believed her grandfather, Clement Clarke Moore, was the author of the beloved poem, until one Christmas Eve a teenage boy, Henry Livingston, shows up at her grandfather’s mansion, claiming his grandfather, Major Henry, wrote the poem.

The family scoffs at the boy and dismisses him. Later that night, when sneaking into the house to find the proof he needs to vindicate his grandfather, Henry bumps into the curious Maggie. Before she can compose herself before the burglar, the two of them witness a mysterious elf-like creature sneaking through the house, and escaping through the fireplace.

Maggie and Henry follow after and are surprised to discover a secret tunnel leading down to Poppel, a underground village, right under New York City! This city is connected to the original St. Nikolaos, a revered man who was lost to history. Now Maggie, Henry, and her cousins are trapped in Poppel, and the only way to escape is to reunite the spirits of the Three Sisters. They must do this by Christmas Day, or be trapped forever.

The Krampus Chronicles is a story about the magic of Christmas, but it’s much more interesting than the trite Christmas tales you’ve seen on TV. Halbach’s done her homework into the legends behind Santa Claus, and weaves European and American folklore together to craft a Christmas story that threw into question everything I thought I knew about Santa Claus.

While the story takes places on Christmas Eve, it’s more than “just a Christmas story.” There aren’t any clichéd messages about the power of family, the joy of giving, the holiness of Christmas, or any of the fare we’re used to seeing this time of year. Not that those messages aren’t good, or that stories that contain those messages are bad. But Halbach gives us something new to think about, especially in the figure of the Krampus, a sort of anti-Santa Claus that punishes the bad kids instead of rewarding the good ones.

Despite being the character mentioned in the series title, the Krampus is more of a shadowy figure in The Three sisters, operating outside the perception of most of the characters. The Three Sisters mostly stands alone as the first book in this series, though a few plot points are set up regarding the Krampus that I’m sure Halbach will delve into in future books.

In interest of full disclosure, I should mention at this point that I personally know Sonia. We were both raised in North Dakota and went to school together, but our connection back then was minimal. I might be a bit biased in that I want my friend to succeed with her new series. At the same time, as somebody who doesn’t read a lot of historical fiction, I can honestly say that this novel hooked me in a way I didn’t expect.

I’ve always enjoyed stories about secret knowledge, about magical places that are right around the corner from our everyday, ordinary world. This story starts out a bit slow, but a few chapters in, we’re suddenly transported to a Christmasy, almost steampunk (in only the loosest sense) world. The story is grounded enough in reality that it feels real, and it feels like maybe there is some truth to these legends. I frequently took breaks in my reading to look up the various locales and folk stories Halbach referenced to see how she took these disparate, somewhat contradictory ideas and used them as the foundation for her own mythology.

In a way, this story reminded me of the work of H.P. Lovecraft, particularly his story The Mountains of Madness. Lovecraft was fascinated with secret knowledge, and in the Mountains of Madness, an expedition team in Antarctica discovers a giant, abandoned alien city hidden behind mountains of ice. That story was written at a time when Antarctica hadn’t been explored yet; there was no satellite imagery of the continent. It was possible that people had lived in Antarctica at one time, and I’ve always been fixated with that possibility.

Similarly, it’s possible that in the 19th Century there was a city built into the bedrock of Manhattan. Why not? That city has miles and miles of subway tubs going every which way. And stories still circulate today about so-called “mole people” who lived under New York. Regardless of what the reality is, in Halbach’s fictional universe, this underground city does exist, and for me, that’s enough.

The fantasy elements in the Krampus Chronicles are fairly light. They mostly concern magic “sister wheels” that the main characters seek to collect so that they can end their imprisonment. The story has some violence, and some killing, but most of it happens off-screen (or off-page, as it were). When I heard this was a Young Adult novel, I braced myself for a novel in the line of the gritty, angsty, violent, and even sexified YA novels that have proven popular in recent years.

Fortunately, I was way off! The kids are teens, and there is a hint of a love triangle, but Halbach stays away from the trappings of YA as of late to tell a story that can be appreciated by older children, teens, and adults alike.

For all that this book accomplishes, it’s not without faults. Perhaps the most serious is the overwhelming amount of characters. Maggie’s family is quite large, and she has half a dozen cousins who all play a role as the story unfolds. Once the teens get to Poppel we meet a least a couple dozen new characters, and new characters even come up in some of the later chapters. It’s a bit hard to follow at times, especially because I wasn’t sure which characters would be important and which were throwaway.

However, this criticism is mitigated somewhat because there will be more books in the series. The trouble with any first book in a fantasy series is not only telling a solid story that payoffs by the end, but also in establishing a (typically) large cast of characters, plus building the fantasy world and establishing the rules for how it works. It’s a lot of tasks to juggle, and Halbach handles it well.

The other part of the tale I wasn’t in love with was the idea that all of this happens over the course of a day. Lots of stories, from books to television shows to movies, use this format. I personally think it’s hard to have significant character development in such a short span of time. Sure, these characters see a lot and learn a lot about their own family and world, but learning a lot doesn’t correlate to inner change. I don’t know about the reader, but in my own life, it seems that those moments of intense busyness and revelation actually require a long time to process what actually happened to me.

On the other hand, I can forgive this plot structure a bit because the day that everything happens is Christmas Eve/Christmas morning. Christmas is a magical time, and I think the most magical part of the holiday is that transition between Eve and Day. The waiting for Christmas to arrive, and then the first few hours of wakefulness of Christmas morn when all the waiting finally pays off. So if you had to pick a single day out of the year to condense your story into, Christmas would be it.

After all, who hasn’t gone to bed with visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads?

~Dennis

Atari Pac-Man’s role in the Video Game Crash of 1983

The video game crash of 1983 was a significant event in the nascent video game industry. For myriad reasons—some unintentional, some due to arrogance—developers drove their own medium into the ground, taking paying customers with them.

Many people lay blame for the crash at the feet of a single game: E.T. for the Atari 2600. While E.T. was a bad game, if any game deserves blame, it’s the port of Pac-Man for the Atari 2600.

E.T. was a disappointment, for sure

E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) was one of the highest grossing films of the 1980s. Despite having a creepy, wrinkly brown alien for a main character, the movie was a hit with children and adults alike. Steven Spielberg knew he had a winner on his hands, so it wasn’t long before Atari purchased the license to develop a video game based on the movies.

At this time, licensed video games weren’t common. Execs learned early on that it was easier to tap into an existing intellectual property, especially one as popular as E.T., than it was to create something new. This is a mindset that still holds true in both the video game and movie industries.

Atari executives treated programmers as if they were disposable. Anybody could make a game, they reasoned. It takes no effort or skill at all, they thought. Why couldn’t Howard Scott Warshaw, one of the most skilled game developers at the time, make a game based on E.T. in five weeks? Any monkey can do that! It’s thinking like this that led to the creation of Activision, the first third-party game developer, after four Atari programmers left the company.

Warshaw did his best, and the game shipped in time for Christmas 1982, but ultimately the game failed to even approximate the magic of the movie. And nobody understood why the game failed. Just listen to this interview with Spielberg. Spielberg may be a legendary film director, but at least in 1982, he understood nothing about video games.

Much has been written about E.T. 2600, probably too much. Just take one look at the game and you know that something is off:

Atari 2600 E.T. screenshot

Warshaw’s role in the crash was mitigated in the excellent 2014 movie Atari: Game Over, but that still leaves us with the question of which game most contributed to the crash. Sure, E.T. was bad, and a lot of kids were disappointed on Christmas day. How could they or their parents have known any better? It’s not like there were gaming magazines or websites to give them a heads-up. The television commercial for the game only shows 1.5 seconds of gameplay!

The difference between E.T. and Pac-Man is one of numbers: whereas E.T. 2600 old 1.5 million copies, a respectable number even by today’s standards, Pac-Man 2600 sold 7 million copies, out of 12 million printed! (see Kent’s Ultimate History of Video Games)

Pac-Man: the most popular arcade game ever

Arcade games have been around for 40+ years now. That’s almost half a century: kind of remarkable to think about. However, arcades peaked in popularity in the early 1980s, right before the crash. After the crash, and with the rise of ever more sophisticated home consoles, arcades never duplicated their previous success.

A few games stood above the rest, producing hundreds of thousands of units. Estimates are that Pac-Man (1982) was the most popular arcade game ever with more than 400,000 units created! Pac-Man was so different than the other games at the time. The game wasn’t focused on violence, killing, war, or destruction. It was about eating, and featured kawaii characters and stunning audio.

Atari learned early on that if it could port quality arcade games to their home consoles, they would have a leg up on competitors like the ColecoVision and Intellivision.

Atari hit pay dirt when they got an exclusive deal to port Pac-Man to the 2600. The most popular arcade game ever, now in a convenient home version? Sign me up!

Unfortunately, the 2600 was vastly underpowered compared to the Pac-Man arcade game. Corners had to be cut, and it shows. Check out this video of Pac-Man 2600 gameplay:

Notice anything, uhh, different?

First, the obvious: the colors aren’t as vibrant, the pixel count is lower (so Pac-Man doesn’t look as round), the pellets are bars, and the music and sound is considerably degraded. The biggest problem, however, concerns the ghosts.

Watch the video for 10 seconds. See how the ghosts are constantly flickering, materializing and dematerializing at will? Tod Frye, the designer, faced a difficult programming challenge. The 2600 wasn’t powerful enough to have Pac-Man and four ghosts appear on the screen at once. The solution could not be to reduce the number of ghosts: what would Pac-Man be with only Blinky and Inky?

Instead, only two ghosts appear on the screen at once. Two ghosts appear in one frame, then the next frame the other two ghosts appear, and back and forth. Maybe if the game flicks through the frames fast enough, players won’t notice that only two ghosts are on the screen at once!

But you notice it the instant it happens. You might not understand why, programming-wise, the game was made this way. You only know that it’s wrong.

Atari downplay’s Pac-Man’s deficits in the promotional materials

I’ve long known the story I’ve recounted thus far. Reading about Pac-Man and Atari, and seeing these games in action, helps in understanding the role these games played in the video game crash. However, this story really came together when I actually bought a copy of Pac-Man for the 2600, box and manual and all! I found it on eBay for $10, quite a steal, I believe. When I opened the box and read through the materials, I found even more evidence to condemn Pac-Man.

From the box, and by looking at the cartridge, Pac-Man looks okay.

Pac-Man Atari 2600 box

Pac-Man Atari 2600 cartridge

Okay, on second thought, maybe there is a problem. Just compare the box to the cartridge for a second. The ghosts and maze are the same in both, but look how differently Pac-Man is rendered! Honestly, the Pac-Man on the cartridge looks a lot better than the “pie with an eye” on the cover. Of course, this doesn’t look like the Pac-Man we know today, the guy with the big doofy grin and big red boots. But then again, even the Pac-Man on the original (American) cabinet didn’t look like the Pac-Man we know today:

Pac-Man arcade cabinets from America and Japan

American cabinet on the left; Japanese cabinet on the right. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

See that little goofy yellow guy underneath the blue ghost? The yellow guy with the big red eyes? Yeah, that’s the cartoonized version of Pac-Man as he originally appeared in America.

Discrepancy between the box art and cartridge art aside, the Atari 2600 depiction of Pac-Man is at least some improvement on the original American cabinet design.

And that’s where my praise of Pac-Man 2600 begins and ends.

One design choice I never understood about Pac-Man 2600 was the use of “video wafers” over pellets. Was the Atari also limited in how many dots it could display on the screen at once? The instruction book at least tries to explain what these video wafers are:

Pac-Man 2600 instruction book page 2

The instruction book is a charming little document that does its best to sell you on the merits of Pac-Man 2600. The designer of the book, however, ran into an interesting problem. The instructions include screenshots of the game, but we know that the game can’t display four ghosts at once. How does the instruction book handle this? Simple: show a screenshot with all four ghosts anyway! Maybe kids will be tricked into thinking all four ghosts are really there! It’s not the game’s fault you only see two ghosts at once: it must be your eyes!

Pac-Man 2600 instruction book page 3

Look closely at the two ghosts on the right that I’ve circled in black. See how they are tilted slightly to the left? This is what I think happened: somebody took a screenshot of Pac-Man, and naturally, only two ghosts were displayed. So the designer copied two ghosts and pasted them onto the screenshot, as if to fool us.

Their image manipulation, unfortunately, wasn’t that good. The ghosts are clearly turned, and considering how low the resolution was on the 2600, there’s no way pixels could be rotated like that.

The instruction book gets better from here. The book contains four more screenshots, but they are all exactly the same as the first, image manipulation errors and all:

Pac-Man 2600 instruction book page 4

Pac-Man 2600 instruction book page 5

More than the instruction book, I really enjoyed the small advertising pamphlet that came with the game. This mini-catalog features 45 current and upcoming Atari games. Some of them actually look pretty good! But notice the advertisement for Pac-Man:

Pac-Man 2600 catalog ad

“Adapted from one of the most popular video arcade games ever created, which differs slightly from the original…” What an understatement! When you read between the lines of the promotional material, it seems clear that the fine people at Atari knew that Pac-Man 2600 was no good, that it could never live up to the standard set by the first one.

And hey, there’s our friend “tilted ghost screenshot” hiding in the corner of the ad!

The hubris was astounding

Okay, so Pac-Man 2600 is bad, from the game itself right down to the promotional materials. But it was the best-selling Atari game ever, by a long shot. That’s gotta count for something, right? Even today, many developers work on games their entire career and never get close to approaching the 7 million sales mark.

What really gets me, though, about this whole debacle, and this is one of my primary reasons that Pac-Man contributed most significantly to the 1983 crash, is the hubris Atari showed in how they marketed the game.

The game I purchased was a little battered, but there’s one last gem hidden on the box, and that’s the original price tag. My copy in particular was sold at J.C. Penney. Look at that price for a moment:

Pac-Man price tag $37.95

$37.95.

In 1982.

According to the U.S. government’s inflation calculator, this is equivalent to $93.58 in 2015 dollars!

Can you imagine paying that much for a game today? At the time, Atari games were selling for around $20: still expensive, but more in line with what top-shelf games cost today.

Not only was Pac-Man a bad game, but Atari and retailers gouged consumers, selling them a vastly inferior product to the arcade game everybody loved. Now I’m sure not all 7 million copies sold at $37.95. After word got out that this game was stinker (along with virtually every other home video game at the time) stores cut game prices dramatically, often selling Atari cartridges for $2-3. Retailers had so much useless product to get rid of in 1983 they ended up burying 700,000 games in the New Mexican desert.

One last relevant point about Pac-Man and the 1983 crash. Pac-Man 2600 was released in March, 1982. E.T. 2600 was released December, 1982. The way I see it, Pac-Man primed the pump for the crash, disappointing virtually every Atari 2600 owner—7 million owners, to be exact.

For many kids, this was the last time they bought an Atari game. Can you blame them? Their parents just plopped down $38 on a garbage game. I don’t know about your childhood, but my brother and I didn’t have very many video games. The ones we had, we had to play for months and months before getting new ones. And now they had Pac-Man to hold them through the spring, summer, and fall of ’82.

But 1.5 million loyal customers gave Atari one more chance. Christmas 1982 arrived, and they bought E.T., hoping, just hoping, that this time, things would be different.

E.T. may have been the final nail for many gamers, but Pac-Man 2600 was the coffin.

Game on,
Dennis