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Book Report: Downright Bizarre Games by Michael Thomasson

One of the most rewarding things about my job here at RGM is putting a game that has no business being in anyone’s library into the system, pressing power, and sharing the stupid with all of you. Over the years I’ve defiled my PlayStation with Hooters Road Trip and Simpsons Wrestling, subjected my PC to Trump Castle II and South Park, humiliated my Game Boy Color with Austin Powers: Oh, Behave!, and abused my Dreamcast with The Ring: Terror’s Realm. I’ve produced enough evidence of my own misdeeds to qualify for a restraining order with regards to almost every system I own, and I’m just getting started. But veteran games journalist Michael Thomasson makes me look like small potatoes with ‘Downright Bizarre Games: Video Games That Crossed the Line’, a portfolio of perversion and peculiarity published in 2016. Full disclosure: despite my attempts to humiliate and insult him in many of my columns, I received a hardcover copy of this book from Carl, inscribed by Mr. Thomasson, as a gift. Hmmmm…perhaps my New Year’s resolution should be to heap more shame and degradation on my boss this year instead of trying to drop that last stubborn 10 pounds?

If anybody on the planet should know weird games, it’s Michael Thomasson. The guy holds the world record for largest personal video game collection, with well over ten thousand titles in his library. You can’t be a hoarder collector on that scale without coming across some oddballs, and he’s compiled seventy-eight of his favorites in this entertaining tome. The entries he’s selected for this work cross all genres, and account from every era from the earliest Atari and Intellivision software to the PS3/360 generation. No matter how encyclopedic your knowledge of gaming history, I guarantee there’s at least a handful here that will have you scratching your head, thinking, “Who thought that was a good idea?”

Titles are presented in alphabetical order, starting with 2013’s Akiba’s Trip: Undead and Undressed for the PS3/PS Vita and concluding with Zombies Ate My Neighbors for Genesis and SNES. You can probably guess a reasonable number of games that will appear in here, either courtesy of the book’s cover or your own gaming history: of course we’re going to see Earthworm Jim and Incredible CrisisKatamari Damacy and Parappa the Rapper are shoe-ins, and any book like this that failed to include Seaman on the Dreamcast would be worthy only of mockery. What surprised and delighted me is the case Thomasson makes for games most of us wouldn’t think twice about. Consider his entry for Super Mario Bros., which is one of the last games I’d have thought about for a book like this:

“We take this highly influential game for granted now, but when it first appeared, it seemed rather radical. Think about it…

Pounding Mario’s head against bricks conjures coins. Swallowing a yellow mushroom causes him to double in size. Turtles fly and throw hammers. Man-eating plants reside in flower pots and sewer pipes. […] Perhaps the Mushroom Kingdom is named as it is because what happens there can only be explained as a bad trip brought on by hallucinogenic mushrooms!”

And he’s right. We’re so used to Super Mario Bros. in its various incarnations that we readily accept stars that grant invincibility, flowers that allow us to fling fireballs, and spike-backed bipedal turtle creatures that reside in lava-filled maze-castles. If that isn’t downright bizarre, I’ve no idea what should qualify.

“But wait, that’s not all!” intones the amazing TV ad announcer voice inside my head. In addition to the 1-to-4-page write-ups these games receive, he’s also included a bevy of extras. You get:

  • Tributes to weird game cover art (Phalanx, anyone?)!
  • Strange, poorly-translated, and memorable quotes!
  • Lists of parody/homage sources in various titles!
  • A forward by “Mr. Intellivision” himself, Keith Robinson!
  • Cheat codes to both amuse (Earthworm Jim) and disappoint (Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties)!

But my absolute favorite part of the book is the Intermission. This forty-four page section, which appears between the entries for Kung Food on the Atari Lynx and Little Red Riding Hood’s Zombie BBQ for the Nintendo DS, compiles a mind-boggling array of magazine ads, television commercials, PR stunts, publicity shots, contests, and gimmicks used by the industry that backfired spectacularly, flew in the face of common sense, or provided evidence to the non-gaming world that we joystick jocks were just as sociopathic as they suspected. I love how well thought-out the game entries are, but this section is worth its weight in gold in my opinion. Game ads are a particular passion of mine, and Thomasson’s decision to spend nearly fifty pages on this aspect of history is heartwarming.

That said, no book can be all things to all readers. These are just some thoughts/observations I had while reading. They aren’t necessarily critiques or problems, just things to be aware of before you buy in case you are expecting something other than what you’ll get.

First, Thomasson’s selections are all console-based. With the exception of some ads in the Intermission section, you won’t see anything pertaining to the home computer side of the hobby. That doesn’t mean some of them don’t cross platforms (The Guy Game, for instance, was released on PC as well as Xbox and PS2), but people who are interested in computer-themed wackiness or strange stuff from the arcade world won’t find much here beyond the occasional coincidence.

Second, while there are plenty of games like the aforementioned Incredible Crisis and Akiba’s Trip which began life in Japan before getting ported to US shores, you won’t find any entries for games that did not receive a North American release. If you want to learn more about the types of games that make all of us smack our heads and go, “Dammit, Japan!”, there’s much less of that here than you might expect.

Third, as Keith Robinson himself points out in the forward, this isn’t exactly a scholarly tome or reference book. Thomasson isn’t reviewing these games, so there are no ratings or numbers, he’s merely pointing out they exist so interested readers can use the book as a jumping off point for their own research and collecting. It won’t make you an instant expert on any title, it’s purely distilling information about the existence of these games down into short commentary. It’s a catalog, not an encyclopedia, and for some I can see this being the major hurdle to overcome when deciding whether or not it’s worth adding to their library. Personally I think it serves a useful purpose for both casual and hardcore gamers alike, but no matter where you fall on that continuum you’ll need to pursue other sources to get the full stories behind the creation and publication of these titles.

All told, Michael Thomasson should be damn proud of the time and work he invested into this book. It’s appealing to a broad base, loaded with games I never knew about or would have even thought twice about if I were compiling a book on bizarre software, and it’s given me plenty of inspiration for future in-depth write-ups here at RGM. Perhaps the best part about this book’s publication is that there’s room for so much more. Imagine a volume that focused on titles released only in Japan, one devoted to early arcade games, or one looking at titles from the PC era. My brain’s already brimming with ideas for places to go with this stuff, so don’t tell me you aren’t compiling your own mental list at this point too. You can’t set this one down and not feel inspired.

Finally, something else I want to note that caught my eye for a good reason. Many books have dedications, but Thomasson’s is one for the ages. This here’s a guy who wants everyone to know just how many other people had a hand in making this project happen, and he goes beyond just thanking his family and his editor/publisher. His dedication spans three full pages, acknowledging the parts played by pretty much everyone in his life who helped him reach the point he’s at today. There are a ton of names in there, most of them you won’t recognize, many of whom will only hold meaning to those who are closest to him, some of whom are no longer with us. It might be easy to call this a waste of space that could have been trimmed to feature a 79th title, but this is a tribute that has obviously been a long time coming, and I applaud the courage of his conviction to list childhood friends, online buddies, former co-workers and bosses, and other sources of inspiration right up front. None of us plays in a vacuum, and if Michael’s book helps remind us of that and consider our own roots that brought us to where we are today, then it’s well worth the price of entry for that alone.

(Pssssst! If you buy your copy through the website at Good Deal Games, he’ll even autograph/inscribe it for you at no extra charge. Pass it on!)

Michael Crisman

In 1979, Michael Crisman was mauled by a radioactive Gorgar pinball machine. After the wounds healed, doctors discovered his DNA had been re-coded. No longer fully human, Michael requires regular infusions of video games in order to continue living among you. If you see him, he can see you. Make no sudden moves, but instead bribe him with old issues of computer and video game magazines or a mint-in-box copy of Dragon Warrior IV. If he made you laugh, drop a tip in his jar at http://paypal.me/modernzorker (If he didn't make you laugh, donate to cure his compulsion to bang keyboards by sending an absurdly huge amount of money to his tip jar instead. That'll show him!)

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