Hey remember THE EIGHTIES?! Remember Nintendo? Remember 8-bit Mario?! Remember Ghostbusters?! Remember the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?! Well, do you remember? Do you, you consumer son of a bitch? REMEMBER?!
Seriously though, of course you remember all that. Everybody who lived through that decade remembers those things because they were immensely popular. And yet lately it seems that the entertainment industry has got the idea that things as mainstream as Star Wars and Ghostbusters are examples of “geek culture” that can be used to sell virtually anything. As you might have gathered, I’ve got a bone to pick with the industry.
This all came to a head around the time I heard several reviews for Ready Player One, which seems to be the perfect example of the weaponization of 80’s pop culture. In fact, if you think that film and the novel it’s based on represent a horrible one-off, you’d be wrong. Apparently the author, Ernest Cline wrote another novel, one that’s basically a ripoff of The Last Starfighter, but guess what- it has pop culture references! From the 80’s! I’ve spoken about this topic with friends a couple times in the past few months, but what finally triggered me to write on the subject was a trailer I saw recently for a sequel to the Creed film, part of the Rocky Cinematic Universe that’s apparently a thing now. It ends with a reveal of the antagonist and get this- it’s the son of Ivan Drago! Yes, that Drago, the one who killed Apollo Creed in the ring all those years ago. You remember that, right? REMEMBER, AND SEE OUR FILM!!!
Look, I don’t hate the 80’s- I love nostalgia as much as the next person. I also like a lot of the aesthetic that’s coming back into style. I like synth music. I like uzis. I also get that a lot of this is just plain marketing- my generation is the one with disposable income (or it’s supposed to be, at least). But I feel like this is going to wind up being a big missed opportunity to shine light on things from the 1980’s that aren’t universally recognized. That and I can’t stand this obvious pandering whereby makers of pop culture pretend that we’re in some super-exclusive “geek” club because we both remember Ghostbusters, an insanely popular franchise at the time.
We live in an era that gives people far more access to produce their own media and entertainment content. Hell I’m doing it right now. And while I cannot influence Hollywood, I can at least hope some content creators of my generation see this blog, and perhaps take my plea to heart. If you want to take the route of 80’s nostalgia, do it with passion. Don’t reference the things everybody remembers, reference the things you remember because they were special for you. Sure, many people won’t immediately get it, but the interested will head to Google and Wikipedia and actually learn something. Art is about making an emotional connection with your viewer or reader (at least I read this somewhere), and one way to do that is by sharing a part of your own personality or experience with them. The media that mattered to you personally, even if it faded into obscurity, can perform that function. And I’d argue that this would reach readers on a much deeper level than “Hey! Remember Back to the Future?!”
To set the example I’d like to share with the reader some things from my 80’s childhood that I’m nostalgic for- things which didn’t necessarily make it into our era or achieve widespread popularity. If I were going to make a film packed full of 80’s nostalgia or otherwise inspired by it, these are the things I’d reference or draw inspiration from, even if only as a joke.
“The president has been kidnapped by ninjas. Are you a bad enough dude to rescue the president?”
This is all the mission briefing you get after dropping a quarter and pressing start in the arcade game Bad Dudes, also known by it’s full title Bad Dudes vs. Dragon Ninja in case you’re one of those arcade consumers who wants to know exactly who’s fighting whom in any game you might play.
I used to play this game religiously in a bowling alley in Texas when I was about six years old. At that age, on a good day I could get to the boss of the third level. Might have beat him once or twice.
The concept is pretty simple- fight your way through an army of color-coded ninjas who have an extensive division of labor, and defeat a boss at the end of every level until you finally rescue the president, who incidentally is clearly based on Ronald Reagan. If you succeed, president “Ronnie” invites you and your bad best friend for a burger and I assume you get a couple post offices named after you or something.
Most of the time you’re punching and kicking, but you have a couple special moves such as a spinning jump kick and, if you hold down the attack button, your heroes arms burst into flames and you can release a powerful flaming punch because…80’s. Occasionally you can pick up nunchaku or a knife to ease the killing of color-coded ninjas. Whenever you beat a boss, your character raises his hands over his head and proclaims: “I’m bad!” Honestly I felt that was a bit pretentious. I mean being “bad” is something that other people should say about you; you can’t just claim the title for yourself unless you’re Michael Jackson.
Looking back, it’s the plot that sticks out to me most when it comes to this game. See when I was a little kid I dreamed of making video games (that dream really worked out well!). To be honest, most of “my” games were basically just mish-mashes of other games I liked at the time, only done in the way I thought they should be done. Now in those days, a lot of games had a simple plot device- someone’s kidnapped the hero’s girlfriend. Other times you’re trying to avenge some family member’s death, such as your father’s in Ninja Gaiden. Bad Dudes raised the stakes by having the president getting kidnapped, and that had an impact on my 6-7 year old mental game design. The way I reckoned at the time, a hero could get in serious legal trouble if they engaged in vigilante violence and destruction of public and private property just because their girlfriend got kidnapped. You’re expected to contact the police and file a missing persons report. But, little me reasoned, if the president is the one being kidnapped, then the authorities would probably let you slide for beating ninjas to death on top of a moving cargo truck with a pair of nunchaku. Extreme times demand extreme measures, after all. Based on this child-logic, I made sure that all my “game” plots that took place in our world involved a kidnapped president, so the hero wouldn’t be bogged down with criminal charges and legal fees should he complete his mission.
Looking back as an adult, imagining this plot playing out in real life is even funnier. I hate to bury the lede about the president being kidnapped by ninjas, but the emergency meeting on what to do about it would have to be pretty amazing. I’d imagine you’d have the National Security Council with the heads of all the intelligence agencies, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and everyone in the line of succession. The army’s recommending Delta Force. The Navy recommends SEAL Team 6. And then there’s this guy, a White House aide, perhaps, who meekly pipes up with his suggestion:
“Guys, I know this is going to sound a bit unconventional, but I know just the people who can handle this situation. They’re the best martial artists in the world. A couple of real bad dudes. I think we should give them a chance.”
And with that, a legend is born.
For people like me, Bad Dudes is a piece of nostalgia, but for younger people, I think it resonates differently. Whereas once it was considered a nightmare scenario, these days the idea of the president being kidnapped by ninjas is actually a message of hope, and I don’t think anyone, bad or otherwise, would bother to rescue him. If anything the ninjas would be trying to foist him back on us within a few days of holding him in captivity.
Ninja Gaiden had a reboot of sorts on the XBox around the mid-2000s, but from what I gather the modern game had little to do with its predecessors. I first became acquainted with Ninja Gaiden in the arcades, where it was a side-scrolling beat-em-up with one of the most notorious continue/game over screens in arcade history, such that it traumatized me any time I saw it.
Soon, through Nintendo Power magazine, I learned that this was also a game on the NES console (I didn’t own one at the time), and while that version is very different from the arcade version, it quickly became clear that it was the better game. In fact, in recent years I’ve seen virtually every incarnation of Ninja Gaiden game from that era and I can state with confidence that the original NES trilogy was in fact the best incarnation in every way.
Ninja Gaiden is an extremely tough game, but more or less fair. I was only able to beat it around 1992, when I finally had an NES console of my own and a friend lent me the game. Your protagonist is Ryu Hayabusa, a ninja who comes to America not to kidnap the president, mind you, but to avenge the death of his father, thus making all his activities in the United States extremely illegal.
Seriously though, what was great about Ninja Gaiden was its plot. For it’s time, this was a sophisticated game in terms of its music, graphics, gameplay, but the real novelty was in its story that was told via cinematic cutscenes (but you can skip them!). For a game of that era it had a pretty decent story that becomes far more fleshed out than just “kill the guy who killed your father.”
Basically your dad was an archaeologist, presumably after leaving the no-longer lucrative field of being a ninja, and he and his colleague Walter Smith uncovered these ruins in South America along with two statues of a grotesque horror (shades of Call of Cthulhu). After coming to America and killing tons of street thugs and their dogs you learn that the light and dark statues hold the spirit of a world-ending demon and they must never come together. You get where this is going now- an evil cult gets one of the statues and then Ryu is tapped by the CIA, yes, the CIA, to go to the same ruins his father found and get the statue back. And by the end of the game, you’d better believe those two statues come together and you get to fight Mr. Demon himself.
Since I didn’t have an NES at the time and because few of my friends that did had the game, I mostly became acquainted with the game via Nintendo Power magazine, which ran several feature stories about it which typically came with beautiful illustrations and random trivia about ninjas. In other words, crack for seven-year-old boys.
The illustrations are particularly noteworthy because in the days of 8-bit graphics, you really had to use your imagination. Illustrations in gaming magazines or instruction manuals helped give you an idea of what things were supposed to look like. As it just so happens I managed to track down some of those old magazines shortly before I moved to Russia in 2006, and a friend of mine kept them safe all this time. Here are a few photos to give you an idea of what it was like in that era:
The sequel, Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos, came out in 1990 but for all intents and purposes is still an 80’s game. It is arguably the best of the original trilogy and in terms of art the people at Nintendo outdid themselves with a special strategy guide I had when I was about nine. In it, nearly all the game’s cut scenes are beautifully drawn in comic book form throughout the guide. While I did find a copy on eBay, I was not able to locate it among my old library when I was in Phoenix. However, I did some googling and managed to find a blog post someone made about the guide, complete with some shots of the illustrations to give you an idea of what I’m talking about.
In case you haven’t noticed, we liked ninja shit in the 80’s. Shinobi was a game series started by the then-rising star Sega company and usually encountered in arcades.
The game was ridiculously hard but introduced some really novel concepts. For starters, your character was a ninja, but they did not wear a mask and you could use a gun sometimes. Also, while you would die in one hit, the game had a somewhat more realistic system. Typically you die only if you get hit by an enemy’s weapon. If you just touch the enemy you get knocked back but are otherwise unharmed.
In 1989 a sequel came out which was only released on the debut Sega Genesis (Mega Drive in Europe) home console. Revenge of the Shinobi, as it was titled, changed the formula by giving players a health bar but also limiting the supply of shurikens, the game’s main weapon. Although it deviated wildly from the format of the original, it was a major hit and is remembered not only for its gameplay and graphics but also its music and copyright infringement, as earlier versions often used popular film and comic book characters as bosses in the game.
To give you an idea how good the soundtrack was, many of its songs have been remixed by people today.
One could argue that the third game, Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master, is the best game in the series, but that came out a little too far into the 90’s for this survey of 80’s culture.
It’s worth noting that there was an arcade sequel called Shadow Dancer which I did not encounter until later, in the early 90’s, at Circus-Circus in Las Vegas. This was more in line with the gameplay of the first arcade game and while a version of it was ported to the Sega Genesis, it was essentially a different game. While the arcade version initially looks better, the Genesis version has a much better soundtrack and is ultimately a better game (though arguably not as good as Revenge of the Shinobi). For comparison:
The explosion of home gaming took place concurrently with the explosion of home video. As anyone familiar with Red Letter Media’s Wheel of the Worst series knows, anything that could possibly be put onto VHS was recorded and shoveled out the door. Anything.
Home gaming was accompanied by strategy guides, typically in the form of magazines like Nintendo Power, shown above. But it didn’t take long for someone to figure out an even better way to show someone how to not suck at video games- game tapes. Now technically I never owned any of these until the early 90’s, but I was aware of them in the 80’s. There was a series from a group called Game Players, and I had the one that featured games by Ultra (actually a division of Konami) such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (the ridiculously hard one) and Metal Gear. It also features intro music that may rupture your ear drums (or compel you to do the job yourself with a pencil). On the positive side, it got me interested in playing Metal Gear, but then again that just set me up for disappointment in 2001.
These tapes were pretty lame, but also the only way you could see significant gameplay from a game neither you nor any of your friends had (unless you lived by one of those Nintendo stores).
Another tape I found at a flea market (again, early 90’s so doesn’t quite count) boasted that it featured the “World Video Game Champion” Skip Rogers (so I guess he’s like Captain America if Captain America sucked). The writer Sean Baby already did a hilarious and thorough review of Skip’s work some time ago, but I’ll post part of the video here to give you an idea.
The main difference between the tapes, from what I could see, is that whoever was playing on the Game Players tapes was far more competent than the World Video Game Champion. I’m sorry, Skip, but someone had to say it.
This section is going to be a bit shorter but for a very good reason. In keeping with the theme of this article, I’m naming things that had significance for me personally, and most of the 80’s movies I liked were the big popular films that everyone remembers. Of course some of them I wouldn’t appreciate until later. For example, I first saw part of Aliens on cable when I was maybe five, and naturally it scared the shit out of me. Imagine you’re five and you think you’ve found some kind of futuristic war film, like live-action G.I. Joe. Then you suddenly come face-to-face with H.R. Giger’s living nightmare (it was the scene where the alien kills the dropship pilot- you never forget something like that). So while Aliens is easily one of my favorite all-time films, I can’t pretend like I get nostalgic for it, nor did I ever watch the whole thing in the 1980’s.
It’s really hard to think of a film from the 80’s that I liked but wasn’t insanely popular, and the films that weren’t so popular I either didn’t like or didn’t see until I was much older. But there is one film that is very relevant to this blog. In fact, you might say it altered my entire destiny (still not sure for better or worse). That film is Russkies, from 1987.
To understand it’s influence on me let me provide some context. I was maybe still six or seven and I started to get interested in Russian stuff. See the Cold War was going on and Russians were always appearing, obviously as bad guys, nearly all the time. Of course kids don’t understand politics and at that age, things like ushankas and greatcoats just looked cool. I also liked how everything the Red Army had was like an exotic version of our own military equipment. We had the sleek, modern-looking M16 and they had the unusually-looking, wood-and-metal Kalashnikov that still got the job done. We had the Abrams tank with its angular lines and they had T-72s and T-80s with rounded shapes. Obviously I couldn’t make this comparison at the time, but it seemed like two sides in one of those old real-time strategy games where the difference between the two playable factions is mostly just cosmetic.
Now as you might imagine, being into Russia while living in Cold War-era Texas doesn’t make you the most popular kid, but it’s not like I engaged people in political discussions. I just really loved those ushankas. So one day I’m in this convenience store that has video rentals and I see on the shelves this film, Russkies, with a Soviet submarine on it. It’s basically a family movie so my mom rented it and I proceeded to watch it roughly two dozen times or so until we had to return it.
To understand what kind of film it was, I would call it the anti-Red Dawn. In fact, that other film, which came out three years earlier, is referenced in Russkies by one character. But overall the film is mocking that kind of Cold War paranoia. It features a Russian submariner who falls overboard and washes ashore on Key West. He’s discovered by some local kids, some of whom initially believe he’s a spy and try to catch him. The rest of it is wacky fish-out-of-water hyjinks, standard fare for the time. I think Russkies can be categorized in that genre of Perestroika-era Hollywood films that promote cooperation and understanding between the East and West. This was a time when, for example, G.I. Joe teamed up with the Soviet special forces team October Guard. Unfortunately it also transformed into a genre that could be called “Let’s put aside our differences and gang up on the Arabs,” but that’s another article.
As I write this, I have never seen the film since I watched it back when I was little. I had trouble locating a suitable version online for years. Now it appears the whole thing is on Youtube (always the mark of a great film!), so I plan to watch it again. If it is totally lame, keep in mind I was six or seven the last time I saw it. Whatever the case, this film kindled my interest in Russia, one which would wax and wane until the point where I had to take a foreign language course in high school and Russian was available. That led to my first trip to Russia, which in turn led to me moving there after that. Yes, it has been rough at times, but it’s better that little me was obsessed with something like Russkies and not something like the Death Wish series, which glorifies murdering random people on the street, or Rambo III, which might have led me to idolize waging jihad in Afghanistan.
This section is a total fraud, because I’m just using it as an excuse to post a video of “Africa” by Toto.
But if you’re looking for something a bit more obscure and rooted firmly in that era, I recommend the work of Ian Hammer for the TV show Miami Vice.
Also, while I can in no way claim this has any nostalgic value for me, I present to you what may be the synthiest song of the whole decade, from the soundtrack of the TV movie Manhunter (this was based on the Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon and is the first appearance of Hannibal Lecter).
So there you have it- a slice of my own personal 80’s nostalgia. To be fair, my childhood was split rather evenly into both the 80’s and 90’s, so this is only a fraction of a fraction. I also acknowledge that a film like Russkies is probably too obscure to use as a reference in any other work of art (I’ve literally never encountered anyone who’d heard of the film or saw it), but if I were going to make some kind of art that references the 80’s in some way, those video games are examples of things I would reference. If you get it, great, it’s a bonus for you. If not, no big deal. That was what made things like the original Simpsons great- it appealed to everyone but the references were a bonus for people who were more knowledgeable or who did their homework. Now references have replaced jokes and good writing entirely, and apparently you’re supposed to be entertained simply because you recognize something.
If you’re a creator reading this, break the mold. By all means embrace this 80’s nostalgia trend, but make it your own. Don’t let Hollywood shape your memories. If you remember anything I’ve mentioned in this post fondly, or have some of your own examples to share, by all means tell me in the comments.
Also here’s “Africa” by Toto again in case you missed it.