It's a scene that plays out on the news all too often. A teenager somehow gets his hands on his parents' gun or makes his own in wood shop and then goes on to commit a shooting. When the press finds out one of his hobbies is playing video games, they narrate their report over ten year old stock footage of Doom and Mutant League Football while speaking in very concerned tones which you might mistake as genuine. As far as the press is concerned, this is the only side of gaming that we need concern ourselves with. But they are wrong. There is a much darker aspect of the industry that lies below the public's radar; a seedy underbelly laden with shattered dreams and tragedy.
Glass Joe (pictured top, unconscious and face down on the canvas) at the best of times.
Meet Glass Joe. A fan favorite in the NES hit Mike Tyson's Punch-Out, Joe lived the high life in the 1980's. With the game selling strong, Joe dined in New York's poshest restaurants and signed a lucrative endorsement deal with Calvin Klein to star in a series of racy and provocative billboard ads promoting their line of pixilated boxer-briefs. When the time came for an inevitable sequel to the NES title for the SNES, however, Glass Joe was inexplicably kept out of the loop. Upon Super Punch Out's release, Joe's popularity waned and the money stopped rolling in. Facing the possibility of living on the street, his options were limited.
"I swallowed my pride and took a job at the Beating Factory, getting pummeled by an automated mechanical fist ten hours a day for minimum wage", Joe says before taking a long pull from a no-name beer. His feet rest upon a table made of cinder blocks and plywood, and his chin is covered in days-old stubble. I ask him what the purpose of the constant beating is, and what the factory can possibly produce. A look of genuine surprise washes over his face. "You know, I never thought to ask. I'm a simple man. I just do my job. I make enough to get by, and I get a great employee discount on beatings. Hey, you aren't gonna eat that, are you?"
I stop writing long enough to note what he's pointing at. "My pencil?"
He shrugged. "You call it a pencil, I call it a pencil. That I eat."
Glass Joe isn't the only video game character to fall from fame. Not by a long shot. Consider the heroes from Altered Beast who starred in numerous hardcore furry porn videos, the medium-sized asteroid from Asteroids that coaches a WNBA team, or Ecco the dolphin who now operates a forklift in a struggling tuna cannery.
"Don't you think I'm aware of the moral dilemma this job puts me in?", Ecco scoffs, gesturing wildly with his flippers. "Don't you think I lie awake at night in shame? What I'm doing... it's not natural. I know it. Hell, I don't think I'm even supposed to live outside of the water for more than a few minutes. But when that big check from Sega stops rolling in, you do what you have to just to survive." His eyes brighten and he leans forward. "You know, I really thought I was going to make it. The full-page ads in gaming magazines, all the hype in the previews. For a while there I began to think I was really going to be somebody. I was so close." At this point his voice takes on a dreamlike quality and I realize he isn't looking at me, but past me and into a distant and happier time. I leave quietly, and if he notices he gives no indication.
For every Mario or Mega Man that manages to star in multiple sequels and stay in the limelight for years, there are thousands of one-hit and no-hit wonders such as Glass Joe and Ecco who fall through the cracks of the industry, never to be seen again. Sadly, these two seem to represent the best-case scenarios for this ever-expanding group of gaming outcasts. Many fall into a life of crime, particularly the "mascots with an in-your-face attitude" that numerous companies had at one point hoped to create franchises with. They can be easily identified by their trademark mohawks or surfer cuts, sunglasses, baseball caps worn sideways or backwards, and constant use of the words "radical" and "extreme". These misfits' poor behavior and lifestyle choices were positively reinforced with game deals, and after their eventual failures they were never able to become productive citizens.
"Take a good, long look at this face, Mr. Farrell", rasps Bubsy the Bobcat through the prison phone. The figure glaring back at me from the other side of the bulletproof glass has sunken, haunted eyes and is horrifically emaciated from either a heroin addiction or some sort of exotic sexually transmitted disease. "I am Johnny Depp without the success of Edward Scissorhands after 21 Jump Street. I am the face of horror. Do not forget this face. Make it immortal with your words, Mr. Farrell." At that, he withdraws a shiv and runs the crude blade in a slow, deliberate arc from the top of his brow to his chin as the guards rush and tackle him. I stumble away in the confusion, dazed and fighting back the urge to vomit.
The face of a laughably cute enemy, or that of pure terror?
Here our story takes a new twist. You see, heartbreak and horror isn't confined to those who have failed in the video game industry. Even those who achieve continued success hold dark secrets. Some low-level baddies from popular game series grow increasingly frustrated as experienced players easily defeat or simply run past them and feel the urge take their agressions out on others. To see a recent example of this, one need only look at the recent rash of terrorist bombings undertaken by a group of extremist Bob-ombs from Super Mario Brothers fame. "Koopa Ackbar!", one Bob-omb was reportedly heard screaming mere moments before detonating himself outside of an Italian restaurant, killing 29 and conveniently opening a passageway in a section of wall where there had previously been a barely noticeable fissure. The authorities refuse to confirm or deny the contents of said passageway, but it's commonly believed that a 1-Up mushroom of some sort was found inside. An extra life that comes too late for the charred remains of the Bob-omb's 29 victims.
And now we begin to see the scope of evil which is inherent in the industry. Are these tragedies the result of a deep rooted problem in video games, or simply the end result of years of bad choices on the part of individuals who were unable to cope with pressure or take responsibility for their lives? What can be done to remedy the situation, if anything? Can you really eat a pencil? I simply don't know. But maybe - just maybe - we'd have a better understanding of the situation if my fellow journalists did their job and dug a little deeper.
Step One: Salvage a ridiculous chair from a race car or a fighter jet. Now it will support your ridiculous body as you play a virtual card game.
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