Man vs. Snake: The Long and Twisted Tale of Nibbler


The battle for arcade video game billions is an animated one.

The battle for arcade video game billions is an animated one.

(2015) Documentary (Playland) Tim McVey, Dwayne Richard, Tom Asaki, Walter Day, Enrico Zanetti, Joshua Berman, Rick Fothergill, Mark Hoff, Joshua Berman, Mary Richard, Glen Thomas, Gene Lewin, Rick Carter, John Jaugilas, Patrick O’Malley, Todd Whitsel, Brendan Becker, Mike Currence, Billy Mitchell, Richie Knucklez, Tina McVey, Sylvia Zanetti Eryn Rea, Tiana Whitley. Directed by Tim Kinzy and Andrew Seklir

Florida Film Festival 2016

There are those who through luck, determination or what have you manage to accomplish something impressive early on in their lives. That is truly awesome – but then what is left for the rest of your life?

Tim McVey was just an ordinary Iowa teen in Ottumwa back in 1983. Ottumwa’s claim to fame was at the time the Twin Galaxies arcade, one of the most prestigious in the world. In the vast number of arcade games that Twin Galaxies had to offer was an obscure game called Nibbler. Based roughly on the early computer game Snake, Nibbler basically was about navigating a snake through a maze, consuming jewels as you go along. With each jewel the snake consumes, it gets bigger. The trick is to consume all the jewels in the maze without running the snake into itself.

Nibbler’s claim to fame was that it was the first arcade game to flip over at a billion points, allowing gamers to score hitherto unachievable scores. However, getting to a billion was no joke; it would take roughly two days of continuous game play to do it. Part of the strategy is to build up enough extra lives to allow bathroom breaks and refreshment breaks, but the longer the gamer goes without sleep the slower the reflexes become, the foggier the mind becomes and the harder it is overall to maintain the pace that got them close to the mark.

No other gamer in no other game had achieved a billion points – but Tim McVey did it in 1983 at the age of 17. Even competitive gamers, a sport which was just in its embryonic stage at the time, hadn’t done it, largely because Nibbler wasn’t all that popular a game. So when an unassuming Iowa kid did what no other gamer in history had done, it was a big deal. McVey got the key to the city, a Tim McVey day in Ottumwa and a Nibbler arcade game to bring home of his very own.

Years went by. McVey moved on and got married, getting a job as a machinist for a farm machinery manufacturer. It seemed very much like his biggest claim to fame was behind him. Then came the news that Enrico Zanetti, an Italian gamer, claimed to have broken McVey’s all time high score eight months after McVey had established it. While the feat hadn’t been confirmed, to McVey’s mind his single biggest accomplishment in life had been challenged. He had to go back to Nibbler and take it on again, and not just break the billion but set a new high score that would stand for all time.

As it turned out, McVey wasn’t the only one after that high mark. Dwayne Richard, a Canadian gamer, had the same intention. Richard, something of a bad boy, became McVey’s friendly competition. While the two had mutual respect, both McVey and Richard were hardcore competitors who both wanted the ultimate title for themselves. A grudge match was set for MAGfest in Alexandria, Virginia. But the story wouldn’t end there.

While the eight bit graphics that make up the opening sequence and the animations that serve as flashbacks throughout the movie have their charm, it’s the story of McVey that is the heart and soul of this movie. He is a genuinely sweet guy who you root for instinctively from the get-go. Even Richard, who is ostensibly the antagonist here, isn’t really a bad guy; while he is all bravado and bluster, there is enough decency about him that means he gets to keep his Canadian citizenship. I mean, I understand that being an arsehole can get your Canadian citizenship revoked.

Unlike a lot of modern documentaries which seem to be about cramming as many interviews in as they can, this is more centered around footage that the filmmakers shot during McVey’s quest to regain his record, even though he technically still held it. McVey was forced to confront the reality that he was no longer a teen and the stamina to stand and work a joystick for thirty plus hours was simply not as easy to come by anymore. There is a tendency to dismiss gamers as couch potatoes with overdeveloped thumb muscles, but for this kind of gaming, there is a certain amount of physical stamina needed to put up with the demands necessary. Who knew that gaming required that kind of endurance, particularly when there’s no pause button.

There’s plenty to like here; many critics (and viewers no doubt) have compared it to Seth Gordon’s seminal videogame documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. I’m not sure it’s at quite that level of entertainment but Gordon’s opus has the advantage of having been first, but also of having a much more familiar game for most viewers. Although McVey grouses that people continually look at him weird when he mentions the name of the game, there is the reality that not many arcades carried it even back in the day. Mine certainly didn’t. To my knowledge, I’ve never played it whereas most gamers who are old enough to drink can say they’ve played some version of Donkey Kong.

The movie does go on for a little longer than I would have liked; the whole MAGfest sequence could easily have been summed up in a thirty second animation for example and was somewhat anti-climactic. Still, the movie does make you leave the final credits with a good feeling and not many movies can truly say that. Generally, any movie in which the underdog does something nobody else has ever done is going to be a welcome addition to my viewing list.

REASONS TO GO: Nice wry tone throughout. Graphics and animation both suit subject matter well.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit too long.
FAMILY VALUES: Some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: MAGfest stands for Music and Gaming Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/11/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Donald Cried

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Pixels


Game over.

Game over.

(2015) Family Sci-Fi Comedy (Columbia) Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Michelle Monaghan, Peter Dinklage, Josh Gad, Matt Lintz, Brian Cox, Sean Bean, Jane Krakowski, Dan Aykroyd, Affion Crockett, Lainie Kazan, Ashley Benson, Denis Akiyama, Tom McCarthy, Tim Herlihy, Serena Williams, Martha Stewart, Dan Patrick, Rose Rollins. Directed by Chris Columbus

It’s hard to believe, but the 1980s are now three decades in the rear view. It doesn’t seem that long ago that I was hanging out in the local video arcade, losing quarters at a terrifying rate and listening to Depeche Mode, Duran Duran and Culture Club on the radio and, being me, looking like a reject from the 70s. My fashion sense has always been a decade out of whack.

But the sins of the 80s are catching up with us. The footage of a video game championship contest are among the clips that have been sent out by NASA in a probe into outer space, hoping to find intelligent life and re-assure them that we are peaceful and eager for friendship. Instead, the aliens (whom we never see) get the wrong idea; they believe these violent games to be a declaration of war and in their culture, they send out their warriors to face our warriors in a test of strength, only our warriors don’t have a clue what to do with these now-archaic video games.

It will be up to Brenner (Sandler), the runner-up in the contest and boyhood friend to President “Chewy” Cooper (James) to save the day, along with the winner of the contest, the arrogant Eddie (Dinklage) and  another childhood friend, Ludlow (Gad) who is a raging conspiracy theorist these days in tow. A fetching Marine Colonel, Violet Van Patton (Monaghan) serves as the military liaison with Brenner’s Arcaders team with Admiral Porter (Cox), the Pentagon Chief of Staff, who doesn’t think much of Brenner and his team. They ain’t much but they’re all we’ve got.

This is based on a short film which is far superior to the feature. There are no name actors in it and the special effects are much less detailed shall we say. Still, it’s far more entertaining than this flat and generally unfunny comedy which has been somewhat justifiably excoriated by the critics. However, I have to admit that the video game characters, the scenes in the arcade in the 80s and the general vibe induced a nice feeling of nostalgia in me, which I assume was the point. But unfortunately, I needed more and I assume, so did most of those who have been panning the film.

Certainly it helps to have had some connection to the 80s to enjoy the movie at all, but like a lot of Sandler films as of late, this just isn’t that funny. It’s almost all shtick, and that is the kind of humor that can be taken only in small doses, at least by me. Sandler, who had done some pretty funny movies early on, like Happy Gilmore for example, hasn’t really made me laugh for it feels like a decade or more. I don’t know why; he’s a genuinely funny guy, and he has a quick wit that comes out in talk shows. It just feels like he’s playing the same character over and over again, so much so that he has stopped caring about it. I can’t say for certain that it’s true but it sure feels that way watching him.

I like Kevin James too but he suffers from the same issues as Sandler; mostly, playing the same guy in generally unfunny comedies. There were some moments, like when he appears in front of a crowd that clearly hates him and he’s nothing but polite and almost ignorant of the hatred directed at him – now, that was funny. Some have said that he blends the girth of Christie, the timidity of McConnell, the ignorance of Perry, the reading issues of Dubya and the hair of Paul – essentially the perfect Republican presidential candidate. I don’t know if that was the filmmakers intention but the role certainly satirizes modern politics nicely – and subtly. I wish there was more going on like that.

Instead, we get the bombast of the space invaders, coming at us with Centipede, Pac-Man, Galaga and Donkey Kong. We get a life-size Q-Bert and gigantic Froggers hopping across traffic. I think it probably sounded impressive to the producers and the executives who greenlit this, but there really is no way to make the clunky graphics of the 80s come off as anything other than clunky graphics. And don’t get me started on the extraneous, completely unnecessary 3D.

Every summer there’s always one movie that just bites the big one, and this summer it appears to be this one. It gives me no joy to say this; I think Adam Sandler is a decent guy who really needs to make some different choices in movies. He needs to re-invent himself and I wish him luck at it; comebacks are notoriously hard in Hollywood but Sandler is still a talented guy. So are most of the people involved with this movie but this would have better been left a short.

REASONS TO GO: Video arcade nostalgia. Some of the more satirical stuff works.
REASONS TO STAY: Not very funny. Special effects are clunky.
FAMILY VALUES: Some slightly foul language and suggestive comments.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Akiyama plays Pac-Man inventor Toru Iwatami, the real Iwatami appears in the film. He didn’t want to play himself because he speaks no English.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/30/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 18% positive reviews. Metacritic: 27/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Super Mario Brothers
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Primeval

Wreck-It Ralph


Wreck-It Ralph

Arcade or Atari 2600?

(2012) Animated Feature (Disney) Starring the voices of John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Alan Tudyk, Ed O’Neill, Mindy Kaling, Adam Corolla, Horatio Sanz, Dennis Haysbert, Edie McClurg, Joe LoTruglio, Roger Craig Smith. Directed by Rich Moore

 

Modern kids may not get the allure of the arcade in the same way their parents do. Who among us, children of the 80s, don’t remember eagerly headed to the arcade, quarters in pocket, to try out the latest and greatest from Namco, Konami, Nintendo and Atari? And await eagerly as those great arcade games to arrive on our videogame consoles like the Intellivision and the Atari.

One of those classic games (not really but for the sake of the film) was Fix-It Felix, Jr. In the game Wreck-It Ralph (Reilly), a gorilla-like brute with ginormous arms and hands wrecks the Niceland apartment building, causing damage galore mainly because they built it on the site of his beloved tree stump where he lives (like all 80s arcade games, don’t worry so much about the plot and just go with it). The damage would be repaired by Fix-It Felix (McBrayer) and his handy dandy magic hammer. The citizens of Niceland would aid Felix by baking him pies and giving him other power-ups. When the building was completely repaired, the citizens would give Felix a shiny medal and hurl Ralph from the roof into a mud pit below.

Thus it has been for 30 years and frankly, Ralph’s getting a little tired of it. You see, when the arcade closes, in Toy Story fashion the characters of the game have a life of their own, meeting and mingling in a Game Central Station (arrived at through their power cords) and hanging out at the Tapper Lounge for a brew (of root beer – for those who remember that classic game). Ralph himself attends a 12-step program for videogame baddies who have encounter session meetings where they affirm that just because they’re bad guys in their games doesn’t make them bad people – they’re just fulfilling a necessary role but Ralph isn’t hearing any of this.

And you can hardly blame him. He is regarded with a bit of fear and a lot of being looked down upon. He is not invited to the 30th anniversary party, with the 8-bit residents of Niceland fearing that he’ll just wreck the party. He doesn’t live with the rest of his fellow game characters in Niceland – he lives alone in the dump, a massive pile of bricks. He hates his life and just wants people to like him. He wants to be a hero.

He gets the notion that if he wins a medal he can live in the Niceland penthouse. While at Tapper’s drowning his sorrows in root beer he gets wind of a medal that’s available for those who beat the hot new game Hero’s Duty. There, a bunch of space marines commanded by the crusty Sgt. Calhoun (Lynch) take on a swarm of space bugs. Knowing that if he’s killed outside his game that he can’t be regenerated, Ralph is a bit wary with the bugs being kind of scary in a robo-bug kind of way.  Still, so great is his need that he ascends the tower himself and grabs a medal. This leads to a premature evacuation which lands him with a hatchling robo-bug in Sugar Rush, a candy-themed racing game.

There he meets Vanellope von Schweetz (Silverman), a somewhat annoying wannabe racer who has some messed-up code. She’s a glitch, whose body de-rezzes at inopportune moments. She and Ralph are more alike than un-alike; she dreams of acceptance as a full racer. Like Ralph, she needs that medal and winds up using it to get entered in a race that determines whose avatar gets to be used in the arcade the next day. This is presided over by King Kandy (Tudyk), the occasionally benevolent ruler of Sugar Rush.

But there is trouble in paradise and King  Kandy for some mysterious reason seems hell-bent on keeping Vanellope from racing. Felix and Calhoun have come over to Sugar Rush to search for Ralph and the bug, respectively – and a little bit of hanky panky maybe. And that robo-bug that made it over to Sugar Rush has been busy and things are going to get a whole lot of ugly a whole lot of quickly.

Moore whose background is in TV animation (directing episodes of “The Simpsons” as well as “Futurama”) gives this a plausible look. While there are elements that are awfully Toy Story-ish it’s so nifty seeing these characters interact you wonder why it took this long to get it to happen (and I’m sure it had something to acquiring rights and paying fees). That aspect is pretty delightful, particularly to those of us who were active gamers back in the day. However, that’s a bit of a double-edged sword – most kids, to whom this is mainly being marketed, won’t have a clue about some of the more obscure games although their dad may get a manly tear or two in the corner of their eye when some of the characters make an appearance.

One interesting aspect is the role women – and young girls – play in the movie. Although gaming seems to be a more male territory for the most part, women have become more and more involved with it in recent years. Here, the primary gamer in the arcade is shown to be a young girl, and of course two of the main characters, Calhoun and Vanellope, are from the more modern games – Felix and Ralph being from the 30-year-old game.

Reilly hasn’t done a lot of animated features (this is only his second, after 9) but this seems a good role or him (Ralph even resembles him a bit facially). Reilly seems to excel in socially awkward characters with a heart of gold, and that description fits Ralph to a T. He’s awkward all right; his size and temperament make him a bit clumsy, but he means well.

Silverman’s Vanellope was in a large part inspired by her own autobiography and so she’s a natural to take on the somewhat rebellious and also socially awkward Vanellope. Like Ralph, she wants very much to fit in but as time goes by, like Ralph, she discovers that fitting in isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. As with most kid’s animated features these days, the message is that being yourself is more important than fitting in which I suppose is as a good message to preach as any.

I liked Tudyk’s channeling of Ed Wynne and Paul Winchell for his King Kandy character and I was impressed by Lynch’s tough-as-nails Calhoun. McBrayer’s character isn’t too far off from the one he plays on “30 Rock” albeit  with a little more focus.

This is a world of bright colors and kinetic motion so even the really wee members of your family will be fascinated by it. While the appearances of certain 80s-era mainstays might go right over the heads of the target audience, their parents will be lost in a nostalgic glow from the retro opening credits to the VERY retro closing credits. That’s nothing to sneeze at.

Also to be noted is the short “Paperman” that precedes the movie. It’s very touching and very Disney and has a good shot at getting an Animated Short Oscar nod.

REASONS TO GO: Fun trip down memory lane. A must-see for videogame junkies.

REASONS TO STAY: Too much time spent in Sugar Rush game (due to Vanellope’s glitch nature)

FAMILY VALUES:  The violence here is no more than you’d find in a classic arcade game and there’s a bit of rude humor as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The game “Fix-It Felix Jr.” was inspired by Donkey Kong.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/4/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100. The reviews are actually pretty good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tron

CLASSIC VIDEO GAME LOVERS: Video game characters show up from a wide variety of classic games both arcade and console, including Q-Bert, Burger Time, Tapper, Sonic the Hedgehog, Pac-Man and Street Fighter.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Never Let Me Go