Recently, I was blessed with a glimpse through that middle-class wormhole into semi-luxury known as the Starz Free Weekend. For three magical days, even the most deprived basic cable peasant can enjoy all the low-hanging fruit premium channels have to offer: the entire Tom Green and Seth Green film oeuvre! A hodgepodge of random cult movies last seen together in the five dollar bin at your local gas station! A seemingly inexhaustible supply of Freddie Prinze Jr. and his distinctive brand of non-threatening metrosexual hunking! Low end softcore pornography, featuring a dazzling assortment of fake tits, hairplugs, and spray-on tans, all politely dry-humping their way through some profoundly un-erotic human sadness! Not that I would know! And no less than seven showings of Jurassic Park 3 -- the Freddie Prinze Jr. of the Jurassic Park franchise, in that both are crushing disappointments compared to their awesome namesake, and have no reason to exist other than to sell plastic dinosaur toys, which I can only assume is what Freddie Prinze Jr. is doing now, at roadside flea markets throughout Southern California, for bus fare and gin money.
It was amidst this parade of C minus comfort food that I saw The Last Starfighter for the first time in probably fifteen years. It was a childhood favorite, and out of curiosity, nostalgia, or maybe Pavlovian reflex, I decided to sit through it and see how it measured up in the cold light of adulthood. The result has forced me to reevaluate my entire gaming habit from beginning to end, and I would like to encourage those of you who were exposed to the film at an early age to do the same, for we may all have been living with a deep-seated fear of getting -- and please pardon the technical jargon -- Last Starfighter-ed, a fear that could very well be governing our gaming decisions and performance to this very day.
For those of you not in the know, The Last Starfighter was a 1984 summer kiddie flick about frustrated man-boy Alex Rogan, who feels stifled by his sleepy trailer park existence and pines for bigger and better things, but can't quite summon the wherewithal to do much besides engage in the occasional PG make-out session with his powerfully 80s girlfriend Maggie, and sink quarters into Starfighter, the arcade cabinet outside the corner shop constantly badgering passersby to help defeat Xur (whoever he is) and the Ko-Dan armada (whatever they are) in a full 3D rail shooter sporting some mighty rad graphics for the mid-eighties. Imagine Starfox with better texture mapping and no goddamn worthless androgynous frog co-pilots and you're on the right track. On one particularly fruitful gaming binge, Alex manages to beat the standing high score, an occasion that draws the entire trailer park out to cheer him on in what is still the most hilariously ludicrous sequence in a movie full of spaceships and aliens. None of sci-fi trimmings will challenge your suspension of disbelief quite like the lady in the floppy sunhat yelling "CommaaAAaand Ship!" with a look of fevered ecstasy on her face.
Apparently, Mabel has suffered one too many thrashing at the hands of the Ko-Dan to conduct herself with the poise and dignity such a large hat would suggest.
Regardless, Alex beats the game, or the high score, the movie doesn't seem to understand the difference, but whatever, hurray for our hero! Immediately after that flighty high he receives a rejection letter from the University of Anywhere But Here. Aww, boo for our hero. But never fear, friends, for he won't be languishing in white trash torpor much longer. Rather, the fucking Music Man himself rolls into town in a space mini-van, proclaims he is the creator of the recently bitch-slapped Starfighter, and wants Alex to get in his angular candy van under the auspices of a vague business deal. Uh-huh. Displaying an alarming disinterest in self-preservation, our canny hero hops into the back seat, and where nine times out of ten this would serve as the jumping off point for a low-rent version of Cruising, here, our would-be Huckster-Rapist really is a space alien sent from a distant world, and isn't just saying that to spice up the otherwise humdrum task of sexing a naive hill-stranger in the face. To the Stars!
As it turns out, Starfighter was manufactured as a covert recruiting tool for the Rylan Star League, an entire species of prematurely balding aliens and their bullpen of foam-rubber ringers, who are locked in an intergalactic grudge match with a very real, apparently unpleasant Ko-Dan armada. See, the ships that the Star League built are so difficult to fly that only a select few spread out across the galaxy are even capable of operating them. I would hope that to most advanced, space-faring civilizations, this would be a wake up call that they need to go back to the drawing board and design something more than six people in existence can fly, but I guess manufacturing a simulation, localizing it correctly for each region on each planet throughout the galaxy, conducting this research and discretely dropping off the game without anyone noticing you're a space alien, and then kidnapping anyone with enough free time to beat it, all for the sake of assembling a pantheon of the half-dozen biggest virgins in the galaxy, yeah, thats a perfectly good plan, too.
There's a catch, though: they are not allowed to recruit from planets that are not part of the Star League, a rule our incorrigible Lyle Langley figure has zealously ignored. Whether this was actually a rule, or the only polite way to diffuse the situation when the purported savior of the universe turned out to be a carpet-pate with no concept of stranger danger, we may never know, but for his part, Alex doesn't seem terribly enthused about any of this now that the possibility of a degrading sexual encounter seems remote at best. Thus the runtime gets padded out a bit, Alex is taken back to Earth, and then back to space, plus there's a robot that assumes his identity, and shape-shifting alien police officers, and a freaking Robert Preston laser gun battle. It's all rather complicated stuff, people, but what's important is that Alex eventually does hop in a space-ship and commence with the whiz-bang (with an androgynous frog co-pilot, no less), saves the universe from the scourge of the whoever-the-fuck-they-weres, and goes on to live amongst the balding star people as their furry-scalped messiah.
By no means a great film. At best, it's an unusually well put together diversion (though it does contain a moment of staggering dedication to the craft of thespianism, when the leader of the striation-faced villains. having botched the final battle so badly that telltale sparks are shooting out of the set, serves up a pithy line right before exploding to death, which the actor delivers -- with all the thunder and gravitas of a brave man's final words -- while getting slapped in the cornea by a piece of plastic. That, ladies and gentlemen, is an effin' professional). On the surface it promotes a very pro-game message (that even apparently useless hobbies can make you Space Jesus if you just have the courage to get in the stranger's van), but to the unguarded mind of a young video game enthusiast, there is an insidious subtext in there, a tiny seed of doubt and wariness that lodges itself deep in the subconscious, and forces us to question every game we encounter thereafter, whether we're aware of doing so or not. It suggests the possibility -- no matter how remote, absurd, and improbable -- that each game you play could really be a test put forth by unknown forces, out there in the ethers, who will come acquire you the moment you show signs of potential.
Now this sounds great on the surface because sure, who doesn't want to be Space Jesus? If anyone tells you they'd rather not be whisked off to another galaxy for all the green poon and Robert Preston laser battles they can handle, they are either a coward or playing a very long con, and either way not worth striding abreast to and from life's many watercoolers. The problem is that a surprising percentage of games aren't about becoming the star christ, and in such situations you have to weigh failure against earning a destiny you never wanted. How does one navigate all the stresses of Tetris while grappling with the unarticulated fear that if that long block ever decides to show the fuck up and wipe another four lines, in a few days a burly Soviet man will arrive at your doorstep, speak briefly to your parents in hushed tones, and then whisk you off to the Moscow Airport where you'll spend the rest of your life quickly and efficiently packing luggage?
Alternately: say after hours of grinding you finally hit the level cap in Dragon Warrior, and before you get a chance to test drive you're newly minted chibi-demigod, the village elder strolls into your room and stands directly in front of the television. Do people still live in villages? Don't we have a mayor? No time for that, he assures you, ancient evil stirs, forces of darkness draw nigh, prophecies speak of a legendary chosen one, etc, etc. All a roundabout way of saying somebody's got to carry this satchel full of bullshit to a guy two towns over. And upon bequeathing you with the bullshit in question, along with a gallon of styling gel and your only change of clothes for the next ever (hope you like ornate gypsy blouses, by the way), he explains that while you won't get "paid" paid, once outside city limits you're going to want to stab everyone you encounter. Basically, if it's out of town and you can interact with it at all, it probably means you harm, but whatever you take off the bodies, yours to keep, no questions asked. It's around this time you begin to think it odd that the elder is a heavy-set Italian man in a track suit, but it's time to get hoofin', that plot contrivance ain't gonna kill two hours and a half dozen drifters by itself.
Dig deep, friends. Ask yourself, honestly, how many games you may have inadvertently bungled on the off chance, the niggling uncertainty, that you're one high score away from getting impaled by a man on an ostrich, just as the gypsy woman foretold. How many games? Are you really going to beat Star Tropics when your subconscious thinks there's a possibility you'll have to thwart an alien invasion with nothing but an extremely modest vertical jump and a fucking yo-yo? Are you really going to give your all to a game of Paperboy when every negligent driver and errant big wheel you avoid is waiting a few blocks from your house, sitting in darkened garages, frozen in unblinking stares over the tops of steering wheels, whispering pep talks to themselves as they pull on their fingerless gloves, balling their fists until the knuckles pop, waiting and swearing and never, ever blinking? And why was it again that so many guys never played as Chun Li?
That's not a conversation your average World Warrior wants to have. Not even a little. And I daresay most of you wouldn't survive the magical seven-part franchise that would follow that bombshell, because any two-bit tramp can hold down for two seconds, tap up and a kick button, but you need your shit indisputably together if you want to become the Tiger Mother. You going to Kikouken your son into an Ivy League medical school? No. No you're not. Priorities, he-ladies. Priorities
So now what? Now that you've been made aware of your self-induced finger incontinence, what's to be done about it? Are you doomed to become the human game over screen, drifting through a morbid succession of shoto-beatdowns, ostrich lancings, tonberry knifings, wallmaster gropings, flying medusa headbutts, and disobedient children who attend a liberal arts college and date filthy gwailo just to shame you? No, friends, I wouldn't stretch a premise this thin and leave you hanging. You must not let these fears run your extra lives. Rather, you must embrace them, meet them with open arms. Each game, each potential destiny, is like a bow-tied stranger inside a futuristic van, beckoning you to get in. Sure, you can play it safe, walk away, alert the authorities. Or maybe halfheartedly stick your head in the door, try to suss out the fate that's hiding in the shadowy recesses of that all-leather interior. But if you don't get in, you will never know for sure, never experience the thrill of the high score, the rescued princess, the umpteenth pristine row of blocks, the perfectly timed Spinning Bird Kick. You may wind up on a marquee or a milk carton, but the only headlines you'll net by playing it safe is a banner headline in the Who-Gives-A-Shit Tribune, which, I'm compelled to add, is not a widely circulated daily.
So, fellow eighties gamers, I say to you: get in that stranger's van. It might lead to the stars. More likely, a fetch quest, a few QTE's, and a middling sense of manufactured accomplishment, but by god, you'll have thrown your chips in, and for that you'll always be a Space Jesus to me.