Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Monster Mash: Icons of Horror Cinema, Part 1

Happy Halloween folks! Or as I like to say, Happy Samhain! Either way, it's the "Night of the Dead", and strange things are afoot. This time of year, but most especially this night, the end of the harvest, and the beginning of the "Dark Half" of the year, has always been deeply connected to magick and mystery, demons and spirits, ghouls and monsters. From ancient times, when today was a deeply sacred holiday, and actually the equivalent of the "Celtic New Year", to modern times, when the day has been saturated in sugar and commandeered by commercialism. But despite all of that, or perhaps IN spite of it, the day still retains it's same aura of "specialness". And in honor of that feeling, I am here today to share with you my thoughts and to impart a little knowledge, surrounding what I call the "True Icons of Horror".

Now, when I say "Icons", I don't merely mean the monsters themselves. No, those are just ideas, images that have existed in the human mind for centuries. What I mean, is the people, the actors, who gave those characters life and burned them into our minds via the magick art of the cinema. Today, for "Part 1", I'm going to be focusing on the "Golden Age" of classic horror films, and more specifically, the primary horror actors of the time. Now, it's always best to start at the beginning, but when it comes to film history, that is sometimes a very tricky proposition. I've already discussed in the last article how early filmmakers and studios didn't often have the foresight to take measures to preserve the physical prints of their work, and thus many of the earliest films wound up now "lost" to us. Indeed, the very earliest horror films actually appeared with the beginning of cinema itself, all the way back in the 1890s. 1896, to be precise, with prominent French film innovator Georges Melies, much of whom's filmwork is in fact now sadly lost. But to my mind, the first true notable horror actor, is someone whom most have probably never heard of.

The earliest adaptation of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein".

Charles Stanton Ogle - What you see above is the very first "Frankenstein" film, in it's entirety. Indeed the entire cast was uncredited, as was likely common practice this far back in film history, but Charles Ogle was the man who first was made-up to embody Mary Shelley's iconic "Frankenstein Monster". Looking at this film now, to most it certainly wouldn't be very impressive, and indeed might even come off as a bit silly, but I assure you that back in 1910, this probably blew people's minds, not to mention scared them out of their wits. Motion picture was still quite new and fantastical, and most people by 1910 likely still hadn't even seen a "movie", so take that and add in a representation of chilling horror, and you can imagine how some might have reacted. Charles Ogle himself is not a well known actor today, and certainly doesn't stand out on likely anyone's list of "Top Horror Actors", but I felt he deserved a mention, simply for the fact that he was one of the first MAJOR "Movie Monsters" of all time. That in itself is a very prestigious and important distinction. He was a fairly prominent character actor of his time, appearing in over 300 films by the end of his career, including a turn as Captain "Long John" Silver in a 1920 adaptation of "Treasure Island", but I'm not certain that any of his other roles were in horror films, which did not become prolific until the sound era.

Notable Roles: Frankestein's Creation, in "Frankenstein" (1910)

Tell me that isn't still creepy as hell.

 Max Schreck Now there were major horror films in the 1910s and early '20s, such as adaptations of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", productions of "The Golem", etc. But the next one that immediately stands out, and another silent era actor who deserves mention purely based on one outstanding role. Just as Charles Ogle was the first actor to play Frankenstein's Monster, Max Schreck, a German character actor, was the first to (TECHNICALLY) play Count Dracula. Now, I say technically, because that was precisely the case. The German filmmakers (including famed impressionist director F.W. Murnau), wanted to make an adaptation of Bram Stoker's "Dracula" novel, but could not obtain the rights, and so legally, they couldn't use the name "Dracula". Thus, they went ahead and adapted the novel anyway, but instead called the movie "Nosferatu" (1922), and re-named the central character to "Count Orlok". But regardless of semantics, Mr. Schreck took that role and made it his own, leaving such an indelible image imprinted on the social consciousness, that even people today who've never seen this silent era classic, are probably still subconsciously familiar with the image of Schreck as Orlok. Why? Because the costume and make-up, not to mention his acting, were so damn good, not just by 1920s standards, but by any standards, that it still stands as one of the creepiest images and performances in cinema history.  But again, similar to Charles Ogle, while Max Schreck was himself a successful actor of his time, and unlike so many other silent film stars, actually survived into the sound era before his death in 1936, I don't know that he ever had any other prominent horror roles.

 Notable Roles: Count Orlok (Dracula), in "Nosferatu" (1922)

The Man of a Thousand Faces

Lon Chaney Sr. Now the first person to TRULY be known and considered as an "Icon of Horror", was none other than one Lon Chaney, or as he would later be known (because of his equally famous son), Lon Chaney Sr. Mr. Chaney spent a vast majority of his acting career doing serious films, dramas, even comedies, he was a jack of all trades, and despite his future reputation for embodying famous monsters, he was quite the handsome leading man. It wasn't until 1923's adaptation of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame", where he first took his first steps into Horror Immortality.

He's got his EYE on you. Okay...bad joke.

It's worth mentioning that unlike pretty much all later horror stars, Lon Chaney Sr. did his own make-up effects, which makes it all the more amazing, because, I mean just LOOK at those pictures! Also of note, is the fact that he grew up under the extraordinary circumstance of having not one, but TWO deaf parents, so he had to become very good not only sign language, but pantomime, at a young age. This lent itself perfectly to a silent film career, and made him better and more expressive than many of his contemporaries. In "Hunchback", he played the pitiful victim and anti-hero, Quasimodo, and while others have come and gone who have portrayed the character very well (especially Charles Laughton), none are more iconic or better remembered than Chaney's. He would go on to play other horror icons, such as "The Phantom of the Opera", the other role his is primarily remembered for. Sadly, Lon Chaney Sr. died right before the sound era really came into full effect, and as such, never got to act in a film where people could hear his voice. He truly died with his era.

Notable Roles: Quasimodo in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1923), Gustav Ziska in "The Monster" (1925), Erik, The Phantom in "The Phantom of the Opera" (1925), Mr Wu in "Mr Wu" (1927), Alonzo the Armless in "The Unknown" (1927), Inspector Edward C. Burke in "London After Midnight" (1927)


Mr. Atwill in "Son of Frankenstein" (1939)

 Lionel Atwill - Another actor who is perhaps lesser known today, but was very well known during the "Golden Age" of sound horror films, is one Lionel Atwill. Not the same brand of character actor as those I've mentioned so far, he was not known to dress up or play many iconic monsters. And yet, he did in fact star or appear in well over a dozen horror films. His first such turn came in 1932's "Doctor X", a horror/mystery film in which he plays the title character, Dr. Xavier, who is implicated in cannibalistic murders. He also played the primary villain and central character of the original "Mystery at the Wax Museum" (1933), where he played sculptor Ivan Igor. This is one role where he did get the full "monster make-up" treatment, as Igor is a sculptor whose wax museum is not making enough money, and one of his investment partners decides he wants to burn it down and collect the insurance, which Igor fights, leaving him knocked out and left for dead, winding up horribly burned. He resurfaces years later, re-opening his wax museum through sinister means, and setting about a plot of revenge. He even had a turn as the infamous Professor Moriarty in "Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon" (1943). But probably his most iconic and enduring role, at least in horror films, was that of Inspector Krogh, the only sensible man in town, in "Son of Frankenstein" (1939). He would go on to play various other characters in several following Frankenstein films, but this was his most iconic, even being parodied/homaged in Mel' Brooks' "Young Frankenstein" (1974).

Notable Roles: Dr. Jerry Xavier in "Doctor X" (1932), Ivan Igor in "Mystery of the Wax Museum" (1933), Inspector Neumann in "Mark of the Vampire (1935), Inspector Krogh in "Son of Frankenstein" (1939), Dr. James Mortimer in "Hound of the Baskervilles" (1939), Dr. Paul Rigas in "Man Made Monster" (1941), Dr. Theodore Bohmer in "The Ghost of Frankenstein" (1942), Professor Moriarty in "Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon" (1943), The Mayor in "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man" (1943), Inspector Arnz in "House of Frankenstein" (1944), Police Inspector Holtz in "House of Dracula" (1945)

Mr. Lugosi, in the role he is still synonymous with to this day.

 Bela Lugosi Now on to the meat and potatoes of this entry. Mr. Bela Lugosi, born October 20th, 1882 in his native country of Hungary, came to America in the in the early 20th century, around 1920, after fleeing his country due to the Hungarian Revolution of 1919. He moved around Europe a bit before coming to New Orleans as a seaman aboard a merchant ship. An experienced stage actor, also having appeared in many Hungarian and later German films, he eventually took up stage acting once more in America. He played the central role of a 1927 Broadway production of Bram Stoker's "Dracula", which is what ultimately landed him the same part in what would be THE first ever horror film of the sound era, 1931's "Dracula", directed by Tod Browning. Lugosi's role as Count Dracula, though technically he only ever played it in two films (also the 1948 comedy "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein"), wound up being so iconic, so memorable, that when people think of the character of Dracula now, most people likely don't automatically think of Max Schreck, or John Carradine, or Christopher Lee or Gary Oldman. No, they think of Bela Lugosi. He's so synonymous with that role, that most media depictions of the character even imitate his thick Hungarian accent, his look in the film, and his mannerisms. He would, of course, go on to play many other roles, in fact in the 1930s and '40s, he was one of the top billed stars of Hollywood. He even received top billing over starring actors in several films where he only had smaller or even cameo roles, because name sold tickets. Some would contend that Boris Karloff wound up the bigger star, but honestly, I would put them both as dead even, because both of them gave portrayals of classic characters which are to this day remembered and imitated.

Notable Roles: Count Dracula in "Dracula" (1931), 'Murder' Legendre in "White Zombie" (1932), Sayer of the Law in "Island of Lost Souls" (1932, first adaptation of  H.G. Wells' "The Island of Doctor Moreau), Dr. Vitus Werdegast in "The Black Cat" (1934), Chandu the Magician in "The Return of Chandu" serial (1934), Mr. Fu Wong in "The Mysterious Mr. Wong" (1935), Count Mora in "Mark of the Vampire" (1935), Richard Vollin in "The Raven" (1935), Dr. Felix Benet in "The Invisible Ray" (1936), Dr. Alex Zorka in "The Phantom Creeps" serial (1939), Ygor in "Son of Frankenstein" (1939), Bela the Gypsy in "The Wolf Man" (1941), Ygor in "The Ghost of Frankenstein" (1942), Frankenstein's Monster in "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man" (1943), Armand Tesla in "The Return of the Vampire" (1944), Count Dracula in "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" (1948). 

He's called "The Monster", NOT Frankenstein!!!

Boris Karloff - Mr. Karloff was born on November 23, 1887, in London, England. Like his contemporary Lugosi, he traveled across the Atlantic to continue his acting career, although in his case he started in Canada. He acted in many films in his career before he got famous in America, but sufficed to say, like Lugosi, he was a veteran actor before his own iconic role came around. That came after Lugosi's turn at "Dracula", in 1931. Universal Pictures wanted to adapt another famous horror novel, after the success they had with "Dracula", and actually originally wanted Lugosi to play the "Monster". There are conflicting rumors, that either Bela Lugosi didn't want to take the role because he felt like the make-up would hinder his acting, or that director James Whale preferred Karloff, but whatever went down, Fate saw to it that Boris Karloff got the role that made his career. As "Frankenstein's Monster", with the help of Jack Pierce's famous make-up, Karloff set the world ablaze to the same extent that Lugosi did as Count Dracula. Even in a role that had zero lines of dialogue beyond grunts and growls, he still owned the role, and used body language and facial expression to give the performance of a lifetime. In later sequel "Bride of Frankenstein" (1935), the Monster learned to speak, which allowed him to give the role more depth. Again, like Lugosi, he went on to act in many other horror roles, being one of the biggest stars of the 1930s and '40s, and even staying active throughout the 1960s. But, like Lugosi, his biggest and most remembered role, would remain The Monster from "Frankenstein.

Notable Roles: The Monster in "Frankenstein" (1931), Morgan the Butler in "The Old Dark House" (1932), Dr. Fu Manchu in "The Mask of Fu Manchu" (1932), Imhotep in "The Mummy" (1932), Professor Morlant in "The Ghoul" (1933), Hjalmar Poelzig in "The Black Cat" (1934), The Monster in "Bride of Frankenstein" (1935), Edmond Bateman in "The Raven" (1935), Dr. Janos Rukh in "The Invisible Ray" (1936), Dave Mallory in "Night Key" (1937), The Monster in "Son of Frankenstein" (1939), Mr. Wong in "The Mystery of Mr. Wong" (1939), Dr. John Garth in "Before I Hang" (1940), Dr. Gustav Neimann in "The House of Frankenstein" (1944), Dr. Henry Jekyll in "Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1953), Baron Victor von Frankenstein in "Frankenstein 1970" (1958), Dr. Sacrabus in "The Raven" (1963), Nahum Whitley in "Die, Monster Die!" (1965), The Grinch/Narrator in "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" (1966)

On a final note, it's worth pointing out that Lugosi and Karloff, while many perceived them as rivals, actually acted in many films together. By my count, at least half a dozen, if not a little more. They were great alone, and great together. Alright kiddies! That's it for Part 1 of the "Icons of Horror Cinema". Stayed tuned tomorrow for Part 2! I'll give you a's going to feature another set of horror actors who appeared in many films together, and were themselves iconic in their roles. Till careful out there.

Check out Part 2 and Part 3!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Inner Beast: A History of Classic Werewolf Films

Well, here we are. This blog is now officially two weeks old, and we're now kicking off the final three days in celebration of Halloween. Or rather, as it was originally known, Samhain. The ancient Celts used to celebrate what they called Samhain as their Night of the Dead (so to speak), the one night of the year that they believed the Veil separating the World of the Living and the Otherworld, the world of spirits, was at it's weakest, and the spirits could cross over. The very origin of dressing up and painting one's face, was actually originally done not to ward off evil spirits, as in the later Christianized "All Hallows Eve", but rather done deliberately so that spirits friendly to the clan, and the souls of deceased loved ones, might recognize them. It was basically an invitation to come party with them, because they would celebrate by having a huge feast and games and dancing, storytelling and music, all around huge bonfires, and this would last from sunset til dawn the next morning. Fun stuff, and honestly something I'd love to go back and be a part of. But I digress.

So what better way to celebrate such a "Dark and Mysterious" night, than to talk about one of the most "Dark and Mysterious" pieces of literary and folkloric subject matter of the last few centuries? That of the cursed beast: The Werewolf.

Or to be more specific: Early examples of Werewolves in film.

The second ever werewolf film, a silent French film from 1923.

Most people familiar with the concept of werewolves, are fairly familiar with the more modern films that feature them, such as the 80s films like "An American Werewolf in London", "Wolfen", "The Howling", "Silver Bullet", "Teen Wolf", and the 1994 Jack Nicholson film simply titled "Wolf". And certainly, even more familiar with the more recent bullshit like "Underworld" and "Twilight". So I'm not even going to bother covering anything that recent here. No I'm here to talk about older films, the first in fact, and many of those that followed, up into the 1960s even.

By all accounts, the very first film to feature a werewolf was, in fact, titled "The Werewolf", a 1913 silent film, which now, sadly like the semi-infamous "London After Midnight", is a lost film. For the uninitiated, a "lost film", is simply a case of no one back then bothering to take good care of the only prints of a movie, seeing as it was the early days of film and no one apparently saw the value in preserving these treasures for future generations to enjoy. This problem persisted even into 1960s, where the (cheap ass) BBC in England, didn't feel it necessary to properly copy or preserve many episodes from the first two versions of the famous "Doctor Who" series. A fact that really sticks in the craw of most classic Who fans to this day, trust me.

But back on point, there seems to have been a few early silent era werewolf based movies. There was "The Werewolf" (1913), the above pictured "Le Loup Garou" (1923), and "Wolf Blood" (1925, which you can find on Youtube). Moving into the "talkie" era, the first werewolf film with sound seems to be another movie titled "Le Loup Garou", also known as simply "Werewolf", a German film which also appears to be lost.

Great movie. Also a pretty catchy classic rock song by Zevon, albeit titled "Werewolves".

 After that, it gets to smoother sailing, as the first available and known werewolf "talkie", is a great little movie called "Werewolf of London". This movie is notable for a few reasons. The first being, again, that it's the first known surviving werewolf movie of the sound era. Second, it is the first werewolf movie to feature the now more famous notion of the creature, that of an anthropomorphic bipedal "Wolf Man", instead of merely a man who transforms into a real wolf. A 1935 film by the burgeoning Universal Pictures, this was part of their original early-to-mid 1930s cycle of horror/monster movies, following such early hits as "Dracula", "Frankenstein", "The Mummy", and "The Invisible Man". The story centers around a wealthy botanist who travels to Tibet in search of a rare plant, and while there he is attacked and bitten by a creature that later turns out to be, in fact, a werewolf. It turns out the rare plant provides a temporary antidote against transforming yourself, but having a limited supply turns out to be a rather obvious problem. Thematically, the film bears a strong resemblance to the great 1931 Paramount film "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", which featured a fantastic performance by Frederich March. While the werewolf make-up was done by the famous Jack Pierce, the man responsible for creating the most iconic of Hollywood's golden age monsters, and though it features a good story and strong acting, this film wound up being forgotten amidst it's more popular contemporaries, and most especially in the wake of what would come next.

To this day, still THE single most famous werewolf movie of all time. And rightly so.

What wound up coming next, makes it easy to see why such a good movie like "Werewolf of London" could be overshadowed and forgotten by so many. What wound up coming next not only catapulted the career of one Lon Chaney Jr., but it also transformed the image of the werewolf from quaint folklore into a cultural icon. What wound up coming next, as you can see on the poster above, was 1941's "The Wolf Man". Now, if one were to simply judge the film by the title alone, admittedly, it's not the strongest or most ominous title of a horror/monster film. However, to judge it simply on that basis, would be foolish indeed. For upon deeper inspection, what you get is quite frankly one of the all-around best movies ever put to film. It starred the son of the eponymous Lon Chaney Sr., an icon of the early silent Hollywood era, whose nickname was "The Man of a Thousand Faces" due to his bringing to life of such enduring classics of the time as "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and "The Phantom of the Opera". So Lon Chaney Jr. certainly had a massive shadow to try and move out from under, but by all accounts he did a great job, as to this day "The Wolf Man" is his most iconic movie, and role. It also starred Claude Rains, star of 1931's "The Invisible Man", as Sir John Talbot, father to Chaney's character Larry Talbot, as well as Bela Lugosi as a gypsy performer also conveniently named Bela. It is from Bela, upon a trip to visit the gypsy carnival, that Larry, who has just come home from many years spent away in America (to account, no doubt, for Chaney's American accent), eventually winds up getting bitten in the dark moonlight. It isn't long before Larry uncontrollably transforms by moonlight himself into the beastly "Wolf Man", and so the story goes.

Pardon you have any Grey Poupon?

Lon Chaney went on to play the role of the "Wolf Man" throughout it's entirety, in a total of five films. Which, by the way, makes him a real trooper, because the Jack Pierce make-up was a real bitch to sit and have put on, especially in later films where they used a "camera dissolve" effect that meant having to sit still for hours while bit by bit of additional hair and make-up was applied to give the illusion on screen of him transforming. That shit's hardcore, and what you had to do back in the days of real (not CGI) special effects. The other four films featuring the "Wolf Man" character, were "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man" (1943), "The House of Frankenstein" (1944), "The House of Dracula" (1945), and finally, one of the greatest comedies of all time, "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" (1948). This was part of Universal's second monster film cycle, and Lon Chaney Jr. was arguably the biggest star of that second wave, even next to the greats like Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man" was a great film, but ultimately, the first "Wolf Man" movie, in this case, remains the best.

Hey look it's Count.......Armand Tesla? Nah, that's fuckin' Dracula!

Now, during this same time period in the 1940s, several other studios put out werewolf films as well, no doubt in an attempt to cash in on the smashing success of "The Wolf Man". These included titles such as "The Mad Monster" (1942), "Cry of the Werewolf" (1944), and Universal's own "She-Wolf of London" (1946), which was actually a sequel (in spirit at least) to the original "Werewolf of London". There was even a rather good werewolf appearance in Columbia's 1944 film "The Return of the Vampire", a Bela Lugosi film which is actually the only other horror film where Mr. Lugosi plays a real vampire, in fact he basically plays Count Dracula in all but name, because only Universal had rights at the time to the "Dracula" name.

But for my money, out of all the non-Chaney '40s werewolf movies, the best one, hands down, is a little-known gem entitled "The Undying Monster". In this 1942 classic by 20th Century Fox, a mystery is afoot in a remote coastal English town, with unexplained deaths and sitings of a strange creature that hunts under veil of the fog at night. A wealthy British family has allegedly been cursed since the time of the Crusades, with family members dying or even committing suicide under mysterious circumstances. While not as iconic as Universal's films, I would still say that this film stands right up there with "Wolf Man" regardless, and actually brings many unique aspects to the table, as it combines elements of a murder mystery, the "Old Dark House" genre, as well as traditional horror.

A relatively unknown, but great little film.

After the 40s, things start getting a bit more sparse, and they also start slipping in quality. In the 50s, things more often took a science fiction turn, as was the craze with mad doctors and (well founded) fears of nuclear energy out of control. There was "The Werewolf" (1956), directed by Fred F. Sears, who also helmed "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers" and "The Giant Claw". There was "I Was a Teenage Werewolf" (1957), another, even hokier tale of science gone wrong. There were also several very cheeseball, low budget Mexican werewolf films made, some of which would go on to be released in the states under new titles, with footage spliced from several different films that together typically made no sense whatsoever. But really, the last quality, classic styled horror film to feature a werewolf, actually came in 1961, from Hammer Films. It was titled "Curse of the Werewolf", and had a "gothic horror" tone (something that Hammer became famous for). Set in 18th century Spain, "Curse" took a bit of a unique spin on the genre, as it dealt heavily with political and social intrigue, instead of merely just being a "monster movie". I wouldn't say the film has anything TRULY of note, though it does feature spectacular werewolf effects, but it is notable in my mind for being the last truly decent werewolf film of the "classic era".

The last great werewolf film? Well...I dunno. But just look at that promotional art.

After that, it really does slide right downhill rather quickly. Meaning, it slides sharply from "classic" to "shit" in no time flat. Let's see, you've got gems like "Werewolf in a Girl's Dormitory" (1962), "Werewolves on Wheels" (1971, I shit you not a movie about werewolf bikers), and a television film entitled "The Werewolf of Woodstock" (1975). Great stuff, eh? They obviously made a comeback in the 80s, in fact there were four werewolf films released in 1981 alone. And there have been many since. Some of which, I'm sure, fans of more modern styled horror films just might adore.

But to me, the greatest ones were the old black and white classics. And looking at what the mythical creature has been reduced to in garbage like "Underworld" and "Twilight", it's just rather sad that you've got a whole new generation of kids growing up thinking that THAT is what a werewolf is or is supposed to be. I tell ya....we gotta learn them kids right! You want to do your good deed for the week? Sit a kid down and make them watch one of the old classics. My personal recommendations for "must see" werewolf films of that era, would have to be:

  1. "Werewolf of London" (1935) - Creepy, and good fun.
  2. "The Wolf Man" (1941) - Lon Chaney Jr., the best known, the best period.
  3. "The Undying Monster (1942) - The darkest of the three, but also an underrated gem.

If you're going for FUN points, throw in "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man", and ANY kid should be required to see "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein".

And that's all for now. I'll be back tomorrow with a special "Halloween Treat". Until then, happy haunting!

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Dreams in Darkness: Visions of a Phenom

Growing up, my grandmother, my primary childhood caretaker in my formative years, was an odd sort. At a very young age, she had no problem letting me watch such great cartoons as He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, or Thundercats, or Silverhawks. Yet she didn't want me watching things like pro wrestling, because she "didn't like fighting", and didn't want me watching it either. So I didn't actually become a wrestling fan until at least into my teens. About 14 years old or so to be more precise. Like various other things that I wasn't allowed to partake in as a kid, I just told myself growing up that "oh well it's probably stupid anyway", and thus didn't care much that I wasn't watching, say, the WWF in the early 90s. A time that, looking back, I probably would have loved it, because unlike some folks, I think that early-to-mid-90s period was actually considerably better, at least for actual quality matches, than the later "Attitude Era". The reason I finally got into wrestling at all, was that I had moved to a new town, closer to some of my friends, and a new friend I had made at the time, Brandon, was a huge WWF nut. His guy was Bret "The Hitman" Hart, which I can't blame him because Mr. Hart was awesome. But while when I initially sat and watched wrestling with Brandon, I still carried that "this is stupid" prejudice with me, the thing that cracked me, and turned me instantly into a fan, was one man: The Undertaker.

The Phenom's original "Old West" Undertaker look.

Now, considering that I didn't finally get into wrestling until at least late 1995, perhaps even early 1996, it's fair to also say that, unfortunately for yours truly, I missed out on the first several years of his career, not to mention almost the entirety of his original look. But even that wasn't the beginning of his story. The Undertaker, known in real life as Mark Calloway, debuted into professional wrestling (after originally looking to get into a pro basketball career straight out of college), in his home state of Texas in 1984. It was for WCCW, World Class Championship Wrestling (a territory most famous for it's native sons, the Von Erich family), under the name "Texas Red". After wrestling for most of the 80s for WCCW and other southern promotions under such names as "The Punisher Dice Morgan" and "The Master of Pain", in 1989, he finally made "the big time", wrestling for one of the (by that time) top two wrestling promotions, in this case being World Championship Wrestling. In WCW, he debuted as "Mean" Mark Callous, and quickly joined the monstrous tag-team known as "The Skyscrapers", teaming with "Dangerous" Dan Spivey as a replacement for the injured "Psycho" Sid Viscous. His time in WCW, however, was relatively uneventful, and his career didn't truly take off until he was hired by the World Wrestling Federation in late 1990, and the character who would shape his career was born.

The Undertaker, and his manager Paul Bearer.

The Undertaker officially debuted at the 1990 Survivor Series PPV event, as the surprise member of "The Million Dollar Man" Ted Dibiase's Million Dollar Team. His first appearance, as with the rest of his career, was one of theatricality and awe (at least in the wrestling fan's eyes). Before Undertaker, there hadn't really been too many legitimately "dark" wrestling characters, especially coming out of the bright and happy 1980s, and even in 1990, his black trench coat and hat, and eerie fog and "Funeral Dirge" entrance music were singularly unique in a landscape of colorfully neon attired combatants. After his initial debut, where he was managed by the annoying character of "Brother Love", he quickly gained a new manager, someone else that would become synonymous with his iconic image, that of "Paul Bearer", a real-life former funeral director. The "gimmick" between these two became that The Undertaker was, essentially, an "undead" specter, and as such was impervious to most pain, but also that he gained supernatural strength from the golden urn that Paul Bearer carried at ringside. Whenever 'Taker would get beat down by an opponent, Bearer would raise the urn high in the air, and Undertaker would sit bolt upright (a move borrowed from Michael Meyers of Halloween fame), rise up, and typically defeat his opponents with new-found power. As pictured above, The Undertaker would have success early in his WWF career, as just a year in, at Survivor Series '91 (with a little shady help from "The Nature Boy" Ric Flair), he defeated the unbeatable Hulk Hogan for the WWF Championship. After losing that illustrious title back to Hogan merely a week later, he would not taste gold again for nearly six years.

The infamous "Undertaker vs. Undertaker" match at Summerslam '94. Real Taker on the left.

 The Undertaker would go on for several years to become a "dragonslayer" in the WWF, being challenged repeatedly by various manner of fiends, monsters and giants, which he would typically defeat one after the other. He first changed from being a "heel" (bad guy), to being a macabre hero, when turning on his ally Jake "The Snake" Roberts in 1992. He would remain a good guy for much of the 90s. He faced off against many threats, few more fearsome than (at the time) WWF Champion Yokozuna, an enormous man of over 500 pounds, but who still possessed uncanny mobility and wrestling ability for a man his size. He faced Yokozuna in his own trademark "Casket Match", a match in which the first man to put his opponent in an open casket by the ring and slam the lid shut won, in 1994. Yokozuna, unable to defeat the "Phenom" (as he was nicknamed) on his own, enlisted the aid of some 10 or so other shady characters to assist in beating the Undertaker down, and stuffing him in his own casket, presumably ridding the WWF of his presence forever. However, upon losing, what appeared to be the Undertaker's "spirit" spoke in a thunderous voice, warning of his impending return, claiming he would not "Rest In Peace" (a play on his own trademark threat to other wrestlers). This led to him eventually returning to face off against (as pictured above), a "fake" Undertaker that had appeared in the WWF courtesy of Ted Dibiase, in an infamous "Undertaker vs. Undertaker" match.

Undertaker's grand entrance at Wrestlemania 14, where he would face his "brother" Kane.

Now about the time that I started watching with my friend Brandon, and was mesmerized by "The Dead Man's" dark charm, it was probably into 1996. The first match I really remember seeing of his, was against "Diesel" (later wrestling under his real name Kevin Nash in WCW), at Wrestlemania 12. That match, to a 14 year old me, was amazing, because no matter how much Diesel beat 'Taker down, he kept sitting back up, and he finally got the victory. It was just stuff like that that sold me on the character. I was a sucker for the dark, supernatural image of "The Grim Reaper" (another of his many nicknames), and I bought all-in on nature of his "powers", and how hardly anyone could really hurt him, he was supernaturally strong, etc. It was just cool to suspend disbelief and believe that that shit was real. It was certainly much cooler being a wrestling fan as a young teen, just getting caught up in the show, instead of being an older fan who now knows too much about the inner workings of the way the wrestling business actually works. But back then, I was a naive and innocent fan, and when someone would smack Undertaker across the back with a steel chair, and he'd shrug it off and turn right around to attack them, I gladly and willingly bought the "fact" that "Goddamn, nobody can hurt this guy". I'm not sure that I even would have become a wrestling fan at all if I hadn't become smitten with the character of the Undertaker. I certainly have had many other favorites over the years: Bret Hart, Mankind, Edge & Christian, The Legion of Doom, The Hurricane, Ultimo Dragon, even more recently CM Punk. But 'Taker is the one who first drew me into their weird world.

The Lord of Darkness

Now, around mid-to-late 1998, after a long and arduous feud with his "brother" Kane, the Undertaker character gradually became more dark and sinister. He ceased to be the more fan-friendly hero of the past several years, and instead became (in the world of wrestling), more violent and, in a word, "evil". This eventually lead to what you see above, as he would "crucify" Stone Cold Steve Austin on his own "Taker" symbol, in the midst of their own feud over the WWF Championship. And by January 1999, this evolved to a full-blown transformation for the Undertaker, as he started calling himself "The Lord of Darkness", and quickly inducted several other wrestlers into his new "Ministry of Darkness", faction. At this time, he was a full-blown "heel" again, and as such, was trying to get under the skin of fans as much as possible, and his path to doing so was to depict himself and his group as being as "Satanic" as possible, "sacrificing" victims and bringing them back, transformed into his minions in the Ministry. By now 16 years old, I still thought all of this was pretty cool, though admittedly, not as cool as his '96-98 "Phenom" era, which I still to this day feel was the height of his career. Eventually, the whole "Ministry of Darkness" thing got diluted and ridiculous, merging with Vince McMahon's (the TOP "heel" of the era) "Corporation" faction, to become the so-called "Corporate Ministry", at which point Undertaker and his minions essentially all just became minions of Mr. McMahon, which honestly stunk. The only good to come out of that mess, was a rather short-lived third WWF Championship reign (his second was in the summer of '97).

The Corporate Ministry. "Chyna" being a part of it tells you all you need to know.....

Eventually, by late '99, 'Taker had to leave wrestling for several months to nurse various injuries he'd been dealing with over time. When he returned in late spring 2000, at the appropriately named "Judgement Day" PPV, he debuted as an entirely new incarnation of himself, that of a more human biker character, complete with riding down to the ring on one of his own personal collection of motorcycles. Now mind you, I stayed a fan of his no matter what, throughout all the years of him being "The American Bad Ass", as he was now called, though I never liked the biker gimmick as much as I had the "Dead Man". In 2002, he even cut his trademark long red hair, which I liked even less. But in 2004, after months of hinting and mysterious videos, at Wrestlemania 20 in Madison Square Garden, I'm happy to report that even at the ripe age of 22 years old, I "marked out" (wrestling term for being genuinely excited) upon seeing him return to once again face his "brother" Kane, this time as a newer version of his original "Dead Man" persona. He remained in some form of that character for the rest of his wrestling days (which as far as I can tell, lasted up to Wrestlemania 28 of this year).  And about that, I couldn't have been much happier.

The new "Dead Man" look.

 By now, he is an uncanny 20-0, undefeated at the marquee wrestling event, and has been a seven time World Champion, seven time tag-team Champion, a Royal Rumble winner, etc. In short, he's done pretty much all there is to do in wrestling, certainly in the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment, as it's now called). I'm not into wrestling as much as I once was, due in large part to the fact that while I still have "my guys" that I like, the product itself (meaning namely WWE), for me at least, has changed too much and really gone downhill in my opinion. But regardless of all that, I'll always be an Undertaker fan, and I'll always have my memories of his brooding, mysterious character that made me a fan to begin with. As of right now, at age 47, Mark Calloway is, I would imagine (and actually hope, considering the wear and tear on his body), effectively retired from wrestling full-time. I imagine he'll likely make an appearance now and then over the next few years, but his career is pretty much done. And considering he's one of the most famous and most successful pro wrestlers of all time, I'd say he should have absolutely no regrets about retiring, because he's literally done it all, including main-eventing three Wrestlemanias (something most wrestlers never get to do even once). I chose to write about him now, because the visage of "The Phenom" certainly fits the mood of the Halloween season. But also, just because, as with monsters, as with classic movies, as with the Nintendo, he was also a big part of my "growing up". An iconic figure indeed, and certainly one that will endure over time. So with that, I'll bid you adieu, till next time, and allow this article to Rest.....In......Peace.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Childhood Memories: Monster in my Pocket

In the early 1990s, THIS was the very face of awesomeness.

In 1990, when I must have been about 9 years old, a new line of toy collectibles hit the store shelves. Produced by the "Morrison Entertainment Group" and distributed by Matchbox (makers of the famous Hot Wheels car collectibles), they came out with a new concept in the realm of toydom. They would release non-action-figure type toys, and instead of having them be based on an existing media property (like the pink M.U.S.C.L.E. figures from the 80s, which were based on Japanese manga/anime), they were based on monsters and other figures from mythology, folklore, and popular literature. These pint-sized doses of pure awesome were known as "Monster in my Pocket" collectively, and needless to say, they were something my young self absolutely had to have. Mind you, growing up fairly poor as I did, I was certainly not the kid to get something just because I begged for it. But I think these toys were a special case, because from a very young age I was an absolute monster nut. It started with dinosaurs, and eventually evolved into a fascination with any kind of extraordinary or monsterous creature. My favorite, as already documented, was Godzilla. But I was a sucker for anything "monsters", and with that came a massive fascination with ancient mythology and other monster-related material. So in a way, I think perhaps my grandmother supported my Monster habit, because she A) knew I was absolutely nuts about it, but in her mind probably more important, B) also knew that I was into something that was at least somewhat educational and informative.

The Beast, from the classic "Beauty and the Beast" tale.

As you can see from the picture above, these little soft-plastic figures were rather impeccably detailed for toys, and while they were certainly meant to be played with, unlike action figures these were meant more to be collected than to be thrown around the schoolyard. Some, like The Beast here, were from popular fiction or classical fairy tales. Others of this sort would include The Monster from Mary Shelly's "Frankenstein", a Mad Scientist straight out of Robert Louis Stevenson's "Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", and the titular character from H.G. Wells' "The Invisible Man". Other characters were taken out of various cultural folklore, such as the British "Spring Heeled Jack", the Russian "Baba Yaga", or even the American "Bigfoot". Yet others were straight out of classical mythology, such as Greek monsters like the Harpy, Hydra, and Chimera. Or the Persian Manticore, the Scandinavian Jotun Troll, or Egyptian Mummy. And there were a few that were even straight out of more contemporary religion, such as the Hindu "Kali", as well as the "Behemoth" and the "Great Beast" from biblical passages. Naturally, there were a few more generic entries, simply called a Vampire, or Werewolf, or Witch, or Zombie, or Skeleton. But all in all, it was an awesome theme, and as a kid I absolutely ate it up. As soon as these things debuted and I got my hands on some, they more or less instantly became my favorite toys, and pretty much remained so until I got into my teen years, where (as most kids get dumb and do), I "grew up" and didn't play with toys much.

The most readily available and most well known set of monsters were the original set, known as "Series 1", where there were 48 in all. There were also more rare "Series 2" and "Series 3" monster sets, though these were not really available in stores, but instead as part of co-promotions with SpaghettiOs, or select cereal brands, or snack cracker brands. As a kid, I managed to get most, but sadly not all, of the original 48 "Series 1" set, and did manage to get my hands on around maybe half of the "Series 2" monsters through the SpaghettiOs thing, but I don't think I was even aware back then that there was a "Series 3" to get. I do remember being rather mad when they didn't put more new monsters out on store shelves, and I honestly think they dropped the ball on that, though as it would turn out years later, I discovered there was some reasoning behind the decline in the original themed monsters. But I'll get into that a bit later. One of the most distinctive features of this toy-line, was that every figure had a small circle somewhere on it (usually the back), that had a given number which that particular monster was attributed with. The Monsters were graded in "power level" from 5-25, with later very rare monsters even being 30 as I understand it. The idea behind this was, there was some kind of "battle board" or something (I never personally saw one), that you could use to play a kind of Pokemon-esque battle game with the monsters. I'm not sure it ever really caught on, but it was still a cool feature, and ahead of it's time (ahead of Pokemon by several years).

Behold, a licensed game that was actually GOOD!!!

Monster in my Pocket, at least for a time, was such a sensation in the early 90s, that it spawned all sorts of media tie-ins. For starters, it seems there was both a board game and a trading card game, neither of which I knew existed as a kid. There was also apparently a 4-issue comic book miniseries by Harvey Comics, which I would have loved to have known existed back then. There was also a (as it turned out) one episode tie-in cartoon, largely based on the storyline of the comics which involved the pint-sized monsters coming to America and the "good" ones joining forces with some kids to defeat the "evil" ones. Apparently, it was supposed to be a full series show, but only one episode ever aired, as a "special", and as I understand it, it wasn't even the original pilot, but the second episode they aired. Both odd, and very sad if you ask me, as I think it would have been a great show, and my young self certainly would have loved the shit out of it.

However, there was a saving grace, and something I didn't miss out on, and that was the Konami produced Monster in my Pocket video game for the NES. Now, back in the heyday of the 8-bit NES, Japanese companies like Konami and Capcom were well known for producing a rarity in the world of licensed-property games, in that most of them were actually GOOD. Both companies did some amazing things with the likes of Tiny Toons, Duck Tales, Chip n Dale's Rescue Rangers, Bucky O'Hare, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Well thankfully, Monster in my Pocket the game was no different. Now, oddly enough for the time, as the Game Boy and Super Nintendo had long since come out, as well as the Sega Genesis and Game Gear, this game only released for the original Nintendo Entertainment System. Which was just fine by me at the time, because in 1992, that's all I had. And let me tell you something, when we walked into the store and I saw that box, complete with that little plastic window that contained a special, game-exclusive monster with it, I pleaded my case like a Hollywood lawyer, and wouldn't you know it, the game (and figure) were mine.

Damn I wish I could read this whole mini-series....

Now, the original series and it's two limited-edition descendents were monochrome, originally coming in only red, yellow, green (olive), and purple, and later coming in neon shades of pink, blue, green and orange. Somewhere along the way, however, there was a "Series 4" which I don't believe came out in America, at least I don't remember ever seeing it or hearing about it, and these monsters, while still mostly one color, had bits of detail in other colors. To me, personally, I liked the monochrome look of the originals, it's classic, and they don't need to be fully painted or anything like that. Eventually, it would seem there was some outcry in the UK from Hindu residents, among others, who did not like to see their religious deities depicted as "monsters", regardless of the fact that while CALLED "monsters", the theme of the toys spanned all kinds of mythology and other literary ground. Mainly due to this, the creators discontinued the original "monsters" line, and instead apparently came out with other "Series" of toys based on a random variety of things, from dinosaurs, to insects, to aliens, ninjas, and even "Monster Wrestlers". Ultimately, within the last decade, it seems they finally brought back the original idea, releasing a new "Series" of Monster in my Pocket figures that are largely rehashes of the first and most famous 48. These new toys have more detail, and I'm not even sure that they're "soft plastic" anymore, but instead look to me like typical harder plastic figures, and are fully painted and colored. On the one hand, it's cool that they have these, but on the other, like many nostaligic things, they're just not as cool (to me personally) as the originals were. But it hardly matters, for as far as I can tell from the official website, they're basically a "UK Only" thing now, as the original creators were from Britain.

You can find the official website to at least check it out here:

The new 2006 series.

So there you have it. I could go on for days about these things, because I loved them dearly, and I still know much of the history or mythology behind many of the characters. Sufficed to say, this was one of the best toys of the 90s, and to my mind, one of the greatest toy lines ever created. Such a great and unique idea. I decided to share this blog topic now, in honor of the Halloween season, and I think it fits it perfectly well.

So with that, I'll leave you folks with one parting gift: some footage of the great NES game. Cheers!

                                          P.S. This game has some absolutely FANTASTIC music! Just saying.                                         

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Happy Birthday: A Celebration of the NES

THE video game console of the 1980s.

On October 18th 1985, what many would refer to as arguably the greatest video game console of all time, was released in North America. Most "gamers" of the more dedicated variety are familiar with the tale. It was 1983, and the home video game console market in North America had tanked, thanks in part to two major factors. The first being, the market was at this point rather flooded with systems that weren't all that dissimilar to one another. You had the most famous of the bunch, the Atari 2600, but you also had it's contemporaries, such as the Bally Astrocade, the Coleco-Vision, the Intellivision, the Magnavox Odyssey 2, the Vectrex, and even Atari's own "advanced" 5200 console. These were all systems that were in existence in the marketplace in the early 80s. The other, and perhaps even larger contributing factor, was the fact that for all of these consoles, but most especially for the Atari and "Vision" systems, there was no real controlling factor over who got to make games for them. Thus the store shelves became flooded with games from virtually any developer, of virtually any varying quality, and the real kicker being, that gamers and parents had no way of knowing whether or not a game was even worth playing until they had purchased it and brought it home. This massive flooding of the marketplace of what many in the gaming community these days refer to as "shovel-ware", along with the growing availability of early arcade and and home computer gaming, ultimately led to a vast majority of the game-buying public to abandon these consoles around 1983.

The original Japanese Famicom system.

This is where Nintendo came into the picture. Nintendo, a company founded in 1889, already had a long-standing tradition of making playing cards and toys. They had even stepped into the video game market in the 1970s, mainly in their home country of Japan, with several arcade games, as well as their own original foray into the home market, the "Color TV Game", which was basically a home Pong type system inspired by the original Magnavox Odyssey. By 1983, Nintendo had already entered the American market with such popular products as the super-popular Donkey Kong arcade game and it's sequels, as well as the "Game & Watch", an early example of portable gaming, similar to Tiger's hand-held electronic games. On July 15th, 1983, Nintendo first released what they called the "Family Computer", or Famicom, in Japan. The Japanese home market was unaffected by the American crisis of the time, and the Famicom eventually became very popular. Given the success of Donkey Kong and Mario Bros. (the predecessor to the soon-to-be-insanely-popular Super Mario Bros.) as licensed software on other consoles in the early 80s, such as the Atari 2600, Nintendo decided to take a gamble and try releasing the Famicom in North America. But by 1985, the problem they faced, however, was that no American retail stores would put anything called "video games" on their shelves, as they believed they would no longer sell. So instead, they decided to try a rebranding for the West, christening their console the "Nintendo Entertainment System", or NES for short, and marketed it, along with the now-infamous R.O.B. (Robotic Operating Buddy) peripheral, as a TOY, instead of a "video game".

R.O.B., so cool.....yet so useless.

Sufficed to say, the strategy paid off, as the original October 1985 test market limited-release in New York City proved to be a run-away success, and not long after, the NES was a hot-selling item all over the country, and soon all over the developed world. The system originally launched alongside eighteen titles chosen by Nintendo of America (a tiny operation at the time). Some of them were instant classics, such as the light-gun game Duck Hunt, and Excitebike, a motocross style racing game that allowed players to create their own tracks. There were also a few that weren't so hot, such as the (only two) R.O.B. based games Stack Up and Gyromite, along with the now infamous Donkey Kong Jr. Math (which itself mirrored the launch release of other, similar crappy math education software that came with other home consoles before it). These original launch titles all had a uniform look, now commonly referred to as the "black box" look, which featured a black box with simple pixel artwork inspired by the in-game graphics themselves. This in itself was unique in the marketplace, giving gamers a direct idea of what the game actually looked like and was about, instead of leaving them to find out when they got it home. But, without a shadow of doubt, if you could pinpoint THE one single game that stood out in that launch lineup, THE game that dragged the NES into the limelight and kept it there for the remainder of the '80s and beyond, it was this title: Super Mario Bros.

THE hot selling video game of the 1980s, along with Pac-Man of course.

There was just "something" about Super Mario Bros. that made it special, that set it apart from other video games. There had certainly been other, similar action/adventure games in the past, such as Activision's Pitfall, or Nintendo's own Donkey Kong and Mario Bros, both of which displayed early "platforming" (running and jumping) gameplay elements. But Super Mario Bros. is considered to be the first true "side scrolling" video game of it's kind. Before this, most games were limited to one screen of gameplay. Some games allowed you to go to different, separate screens, but there was no real transition. Super Mario Bros. provided the player with what at the time seemed like massive, ongoing levels, that just kept going and going as you ran and jumped your way from left to right on the screen. But Super Mario Bros. did so much more than that. It also pioneered the idea of "power ups", items that made you permanently (or in the case of the Star, temporarily) stronger, allowing the player to upgrade their character, so long as they didn't get hit. It also presented the concept of separate "worlds" in a video game, and separate "levels" within these worlds, as well as each "world" having it's own end boss enemy that you would have to fight (or get past and drop into hot lava). Beyond that, Super Mario Bros. also dazzled in it's form and presentation, as it's graphics and music (by now famed composer Koji Kondo), for the time, were considered mind-blowing for a home game, and unlike previous attempts at free-form "run and jump" gameplay, this game also possessed very tight and accurate controls, giving the player a feeling of true, total control over their destiny within the game-world. All of these elements combined to give the game an insane level of "replayability", making players come back repeatedly, to master the game, to top their own high-scores, or to play with friends in two-player mode. And it was all of this, that made Super Mario Bros., and thus the Nintendo Entertainment System, THE new "must-have" item for just about every kid in the mid-to-late 1980s.

 It was so popular in fact, that this game alone spawned countless toys, lunch boxes, bath towels, underwear, t-shirts, backpacks, you name it. It even inspired another late-80s treat (which will receive it's own entry later on), the cartoon "The Super Mario Bros. Super Show", which mixed segments of live action (starring famed wrestler/manager "Captain" Lou Albano, and actor Danny Wells as brother plumbers Mario and Luigi), and cartoon adventures featuring the brothers (still voiced by Albano and Wells) along with (the usually kidnapped) Princess Toadstool and her loyal retainer Toad. Hell, there was even Super Mario Bros/Legend of Zelda breakfast cereal. You KNOW you're an 80s icon when you've got your very own cereal.


Now one thing the NES introduced, was the now industry-wide practice of game publishers having to be "officially licensed" by Nintendo themselves, to be able to (legally) put games out for the console. While some companies got around this (or just flat-out ignored it), most complied, and it was due to this, in part, that "the Nintendo" (as it was also called) succeeded where earlier consoles had failed. Remember, that the biggest contributing factor to the American game market's 1983 crash, had been zero regulation in who could put out games for it, flooding the market with a lot of crap and eventually turning gamers off to the whole deal. Now that isn't to say that the NES didn't have shitty games. Let me tell you right now, it most certainly did. I know, because I've played quite a lot of them in my day, even paying money to RENT some real crappers back in my childhood. Granted, back then I didn't care as much if a game had low production quality, so long as I could play it and get somewhere in it. But there were some that tested even my childhood limits, the one sticking out the most in my mind, was the now (thankfully) obscure "Defenders of Dynatron City". No matter how hard I tried to play through that "game", it was ultimately a heap of steaming garbage (much like the single pilot episode cartoon of the same name), and I quit playing it in disgust. But while every video game console in the history of the industry (typically the market leaders of any given console "generation"), have their fair share of absolute crap games released for them, the NES also had, as another industry first, an abnormally long list of truly excellent games released for it as well. And not merely games made by Nintendo themselves, though many of those (Mario, Zelda, Metroid, etc.), were the top sellers, but there were also quite a lot of hits by "third party" (game makers who don't own their own console platform) companies as well.

NES Hall of Fame

In many ways, the NES library was a "Who's Who" of video game history. It had a lot of ports of popular arcade games of the 80s, such as Pac-Man, Galaga, Elevator Action, Rampage, Bad Dudes, Galaxian, Xevious, 1942, R-Type, Gauntlet, Paperboy, Ring King, Ikari Warriors, Ghosts n Goblins, Burger Time, Joe & Mac, Arkanoid, Double Dragon, Gradius, Bubble Bobble, and some of Nintendo's own, such as Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., and Mario Bros. It even had an early 90s release late in it's lifespan, of the popular arcade game Final Fight, in this case re-imagined for the NES as "Mighty Final Fight". But more than just arcade hits, the NES was home to, perhaps more than any other console in video game history, the birth of a great number of game franchises, some of which that carry on even to this day. Just some of these include:

  • Super Mario Bros.
  • The Legend of Zelda
  • Metroid
  • Castlevania
  • Mega Man
  • Final Fantasy
  • Dragon Quest (called Dragon Warrior in the states back then)
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
  • Contra (port of a lesser known arcade game)
  • Punch Out (same story)
  • Bionic Commando
  • Adventure Island
  • Battletoads
  • The Adventures of Lolo
  • Kid Icarus
  • Excitebike
  • Ninja Gaiden
  • Blaster Master
  • Star Tropics
  • Batman (not the FIRST, but the first GOOD Batman games)
  • Bomberman (originally a Japanese PC game, became famous on Famicom/NES)
  • Fire Emblem (Japan only, same with Earthbound/Mother 1)
  • R.C. Pro Am
  • Wizards & Warriors
  • Tetris (not the first, but Nintendo made it the most famous)
There were also many other great games that weren't necessarily part of long running franchises, such as the Duck Tales and Chip n Dale games, Tiny Toon Adventures, Bonk's Adventure, as well as famous games that weren't the first in a series, such as Kirby's Adventure or Gargoyle's Quest II. And of course, more obscure titles, such as Totally Rad, Monster Party, Kid Niki, Kickmaster, Little Samson, Power Blade, V.I.C.E. Project Doom, Super Spy Hunter, River City Ransom, Shadow of the Ninja, and many others. All told, the NES has a library that spans nearly 800 games. Not all classics, but many some of the most recognizable classics of all time.

Legends of Gaming

My own personal memories of the NES are some of the fondest of my childhood. Growing up in a poor family, raised by my grandmother, it pretty much goes without saying that I did not get an NES when it first came out. In fact, around the same time the NES was first releasing, my first video game console I ever got at about age four, was a hand-me-down Atari 2600 from one of my cousins. I certainly loved that thing, though we only had about three games for it that I remember: Combat, Astroblast, and Space Invaders. Other than that, my earliest video game memories consist of Pac-Man and Dig-Dug at the local Roundtable arcade, and the craptacular Radio Shack Tandy 1000 (which consisted of basically educational software that, no shit, played from a cassette tape deck). It's safe to say I have always loved video games, for as far back as I can remember into that early toddler-hood. But it's also safe to say that I didn't fall in love with video games until I first experienced the NES at a friend's house. I didn't get my own until the late 80s, and in that respect, as a gamer growing up, I was pretty much behind the curve in getting all of my gaming consoles. But let me tell you something, when I did get that beautiful dull gray box, it was the absolute pride of my life at the time.

I clearly remember, I was supposed to get my NES for my 9th birthday, but my grandmother decided to give it to me a couple months early, as a ploy to con me into getting my homework done faster. Let's just say, mission accomplished, because I wanted to fire that fucker up and be transported to a world of 8-bit glory. When I first got it, naturally, the only game I had for it was my pack-in Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt cartridge. Mind you, that's all I needed, as I loved me some SMB to perhaps a slightly ridiculous level. In fact I'm proud to report that while being late to the NES-owning race, I was the first one of my friends to actually MASTER Super Mario Bros., and got the distinct pleasure of showing THEM the tricks I had learned. It wasn't long before I gradually started accumulating other games for my collection, such as the light-gun shooter To the Earth, Zelda-esque classic Arkista's Ring, and others. And, naturally, I became very well acquainted with the NES section at the local video store.

My first True Love? Nah...okay maybe.

Some of my fondest childhood memories involved my NES, and some of the fondest of THOSE involved a couple of holiday incidents. One of which, was, as I recall, the Christmas directly following that first year I got my NES. My grandmother had started a tradition with me growing up, where instead of waiting until Christmas morning to get up and open our presents, we would instead wake up around midnight, open our gifts, play with them a bit, and then go back to sleep happy. And in that tradition, on this particular Christmas "morning" (I have always maintained that it isn't morning until the sun rises the next day), I had one hell of a package awaiting me. It was a big, generic, brown box, plainly marked, nothing special about it at all on the outside. But I just knew that such a box simply HAD to hold something special inside, right? Right. So I took to tearing that bitch open as fast as I could, and wouldn't you know it, BLAM, not one but three new games awaited me: Bugs Bunny's Birthday Blowout (a game I had already rented and liked), Dr. Mario (a game that was "my" gift, but my grandmother suspiciously wound up playing it far more than I did), and the third one, the one that wound up being the very "Holy Grail" of my childhood gaming existence, Super Mario Bros. 3. Now sure, I got my NES way after a lot of other kids did, but as fate would have it, I got SMB3 right after it had first released. And my God, what a glorious experience. I will most certainly give that game it's own personal blog someday, but let me for now just tell you that while I loved just about all the games I owned back then, THAT game was the ever-living shit to me. And it remains, to this day, my number one favorite game of all time. That's how good it was, hell, that's how good it still is.

Nobody has ever heard of these things, but they were exceptionally awesome, take my word for it.

On a side note, that brown package also contained two (out of nowhere) Hudson Soft brand "Joycard Sansui SSS" controllers. I'm not even sure why she got me these, but I was glad she did. They were rounded, so they were more comfortable to hold, they had rapid-fire switches for the A and B buttons, and in some ways the coolest feature, they had a headphone jack and a volume control switch built in, so that you could enjoy those sweet 8-bit tunes without annoying your parents. Not a truly important thing to note, but it was a badass bonus in an already "God Damn!" worthy Christmas package, and I'd have to say of all the cool childhood Christmas memories I have, that will always remain my favorite. The feeling of opening that box and finding all that awesome shit is just.....yeah. Good times.

So on my NES gaming went, and I should point out that, because of the aforementioned general family poorness, I actually didn't wind up getting my own Super Nintendo (the next Nintendo console to come along) until Christmas of 1995, several months after my grandmother had passed away. I did get a Game Boy, I do believe, for Christmas 1993, I want to say. And that was, believe me, also especially awesome. But sufficed to say, I got a lot more play out of my NES system than perhaps most kids did, as I stuck with that bad boy until they finally stopped making games for it, all the way at the tail end of 1994. And looking back on that now, it's honestly a good thing that Nintendo and other third parties at least somewhat kept supporting the system long after it's more powerful little brother, the SNES, came out in 1991. Because that allowed a kid like me to still have new games to look forward to in those early 90s years, such as Kirby's Adventure (another "love at first site" kind of game), Yoshi, Mighty Final Fight, the later games in the Mega Man series, Monster in my Pocket, Battletoads and it's sequel Battletoads & Double Dragon, and Star Tropics 2: Zoda's Revenge. On the one hand I was, naturally, envious of my friends who had a 16-bit SNES, but on the other hand, I still loved the shit out of my old clunky NES, and got the most mileage I could out of it.

The NES Model 101....kind of like the Terminator, but better.

In October of 1993, a full ten years after the original Famicom had first come out in Japan, Nintendo, trying to spur sales to the (at the time) still fairly popular and selling NES, released what would become dubbed the "NES 2.0", a newer, smaller, sleeker model of the system. It featured a top-loading game slot, similar to the Famicom and the new Super Nintendo, which was more conducive to your games playing better. Anyone who ever owned an original model NES like I did, knows all about the aging of the system, and how later on in it's life, cartridges would get dusty, as would the game slot itself, and you'd have to try various semi-retarded methods to get the game to work properly, the most infamous of which being blowing on it (which, as it turns out, is NOT good for your games, the prescribed method being to use a q-tip...duh). The new model also featured the "dogbone" controller design, which was very similar in style to the SNES controller, and I honestly thought was quite awesome. All of this, for a whopping $49.99 USD, which even for an "outdated" system, was a steal for such a cool remodel of such a great system. And to accompany this, Nintendo also had a brief "Save the NES" promotion in late 1993-mid 1994, which featured the releases of games like Star Tropics 2, as well as the Nintendo-published Mega Man 6 (a game it's developer, Capcom, apparently didn't feel like bringing to the states, so Nintendo did just so American gamers would have a new NES game to play).

I guess Wario got the last laugh after all.....

The last official NES release in North America, was Wario's Woods, a puzzle game starring Mario's new Game Boy nemesis, which came out on December 10th, 1994. Nintendo officially discontinued the NES in 1995. By all standards, a pretty damn good run, ten years in the states, which is far longer than most gaming consoles last. The Nintendo Entertainment System provided a lot of gamers with their first great gaming memories (like yours truly), and even today, younger generations are able to experience some of the true classics through things like Nintendo's "Virtual Console" service, which allows you to download these games to play on your Wii, as well as other venues (*cough*emulation*cough*). And that's a great thing, because if you ask me, any gamer, regardless of their age, if they truly love and appreciate the medium, need to know and respect where it all comes from. Playing the classics is as essential, in my mind, to a gamer, as would be having classic Beetles or Black Sabbath or Queen be required listening for modern rock music fans.

Mind you, I'm well aware of the fact that everyone has the strongest nostalgic feelings for, typically, whatever their "first" of anything was, especially game consoles. Which is why there are kids today that, as much as it trips me out on a personal level, are nostalgic about the Playstation or Playstation 2, or even the Xbox. But regardless of nostalgia, I firmly believe that the NES and the best among it's library of games, stand proud even today, as some of the very best games ever made, and quite frankly, to me anyway, the single greatest gaming console ever made. There are plenty of arguments to the contrary, and that's fair. But no matter what you feel is "the best", if you haven't yet, you owe it to yourself to get your hands on some classic NES goodness and experience what the "8-bit Revolution" was all about. The NES certainly wasn't the even the most technically powerful of it's generation (many argue that was Sega's "Master System"). But there's a reason it is without question the most well remembered: The Games.

So on this, the Nintendo Entertainment System's 27th birthday, I just want to say: NES, I salute you!

And with that, I'll just leave you with one last little gem to celebrate the occasion......

                                         The first ever NES commercial in the United States. HELLA 80s.