Archive for April, 2010

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8-Bit Wonders of the Ancient World

April 17, 2010

In my last entry I said I didn’t think I would have time nor cause to update this blog for a while, as I was busy preparing for the Museum of Comic & Cartoon Art‘s annual Art Festival, which was this past weekend at the Lexington Ave. Armory. I was decidedly non-thrifty there, dropping a whopping $200 or so on the most exquisite selection of the finest indie comics barely on the market. It was precisely because I knew I was likely to spend so much (and, indeed, had I been more diligent on my own comics I’d have needed to spend even more to have them printed in time and spring for a table) that I thought it best to stay out of the thrift stores.

Alas, or perhaps “aha,” Thrift Fu is a slave to no one’s agenda but its own.

(Sidebar: Just how crazy do I sound when I speak of Thrift Fu as having its own undeniable will? I fully recognize that I am anthropomorphizing what in other terms is a very specific shopping addiction, more so than even my comic jones, which I have admitted I think would be harder to quit than any drug I could be taking. I do not wish for my readers to think I lack the perspective an outsider might have, wondering where the joke ends and where a serious pathology begins. I wonder it myself. I console myself and reassure you, thus far this fixation has yet to noticeably impair my life, and in fact I feel it enhances my life and adds mystery and wonder to it. And like The Church of the Subgenius, the distinction between the joke and reality may become irrelevant if it brings me a peace and joy analogous to that which organized faith supposedly does its adherents. If you don’t yet understand what I mean, perhaps you will by the end of this entry.)

As I also said in my previous entry, my finds had been stagnating, with my choice to half-assedly plunder one of the dying tendrils of the once mighty Blockbuster Video kraken unfortunately detouring my attendance of a show in my adored 8-bit chiptunes fringe genre. Chiptunes, in my opinion, are a cousin of Thrift Fu, or at least a spiritual peer, as they are a reappropriation of an anachronistic level of technology, now eclipsed by functionality found in a higher-end digital watch, to create their own unique beauty that their inheritors are too strictly-defined to allow. It gives planned obsolescence a much-deserved nutshot.

The tool of choice for most chiptune artists is the first generation Nintendo Game Boy. Interestingly, though the Game Boy was introduced onto the market at the very end of the 8-bit period, just before home video gaming systems upgraded to 16-bit, it would remain 8-bit through most of the 1990’s, supplanted by the Game Boy Advance just in advance of most gaming systems reaching 64 bits. It was not even the most advanced system on the market during that period, even at the time of its introduction: I owned an Atari Lynx, the first color portable gaming system (“portable” being a relative term, being roughly as long as my forearm), which streeted maybe a year after the Game Boy but flopped, and the more compact Sega Game Gear of the mid-1990’s was capable of running Sega Genesis games. Still, the simpler nature of the Game Boy made it more widely adaptable and easily-programmed. This, in the long run, would be key to its resurrection as the rock of the chiptune scene.

As with anything I admire enough, it was inevitable I would want to try it myself. One problem: no Game Boy.

It was always in the back of my mind whenever I visited a thrift store. I’d ask whether they’d got one in, and I always had seemed to miss it by several weeks. More often I’d spy a couple Game Boy cartridges, taunting me with my inability to play them. It was to the point I considered heading down to Video Games New York (né Multimedia 1.0) and shelling out the collector’s price, roughly one arm and one leg.

Three weeks ago I dropped into my local Goodwill, which I’d shunned for a while, thinking I’d gone to that well too often. The first thing I spied upon entering was a sweet Iron Man mask, which I snaked from right over the head of an adolescent kid who’d probably have dug it at least as much I do but hadn’t noticed it. (Did I consider giving it to him once he saw I’d snagged it? Ummm… no.) I ambled around the glass display case on the far side of the counter where smaller electronic devices and their peripherals are kept. A basket of doodads obscured my view, so I pulled it aside.

And there was my golden ticket. Literally, it was painted gold. A latter day 8-bit Game Boy, dated 1996 on the back, half the thickness of the original grey “brick,” with a stack of six cartridges: Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Super Mario Land, Tetris, Mickey Mouse’s Magic Wands and Bugs Bunny’s Crazy Castle 3. The Game Boy was marked $35, but at least one of the games was marked $5; I sure as shit didn’t want to shell out $65 for the entire kit n’ kaboodle. Even if I intended to use it for chiptunes, a Game Boy with no games was kinda pointless.

I needn’t have worried. $35 was the price for the entire lot. Ironically, I added on another $30 in purchases, including the Iron Man mask, three Club Penguin toys for my nephew and a stack of CDs and books, to bring my total to $65 anyway.

I’d intended to write an entry on that score for this blog, but as I said, I was busy with other matters. What I didn’t know was that the story wasn’t yet over.

Is it possible for a store to be infatuated with someone? Not the employees. I mean the store itself. Like an ardent suitor heaping on bouquets of daffodils and heart-shaped boxes of chocolates, can a store express itself by presenting someone with everything it can think of to win their love? It’s an amusingly poetic if outrightly loony idea, I know. And yet, I’m beginning to wonder whether my local Goodwill is trying to win my heart so I might never grow weary of it again.

Almost two weeks ago, I was coming home from work just before several days of crunch time. I ought to have gone right home and got down to business. Hell, the Goodwill would be closing too soon to have a good look around anyway. Of course, I have a difficult time disciplining myself into doing what I ought to do and listening to reason.

I’d barely made it past the counter before the clerk was announcing the store was closing. I was ready to walk back out when I looked over where they tend to stick their larger electronics. I spied a wood-paneled hunk, like a coffee table with a gut. It had a glass surface, inside of which was a small TV monitor. There were on both sides small white joysticks and a couple buttons, and on one side I saw a coin slot.

There was no way this thing worked. It wouldn’t be here if it did, and it definitely wouldn’t be priced at only $40. And so I plugged it in and was unsurprised when it did nothing.

Until I flicked the switch on the bottom.

The monitor flared to life with wireframe graphics which produced Japanese kanji text which I could only assume meant the title printed on the control pad, ASTRO FIGHTER. The demo started, showing a game that looked like a cross between Space Invaders and Galaga. It was an honest-to-goodness, functional classic cocktail table arcade game.

I couldn’t get it. I couldn’t not get it. I had nowhere to put it. I would make a place to put it. What would I do? What would I do??? The store was closing! I had to decide!!!

“We’re having a 25% off everything sale today,” the clerk piped up.

SOLD,” I replied.

The next day I rolled my landlord’s handtruck over to pick it up. I had just spent $30+ on an old arcade game, and spent $65 the week before, and had a comic show I would be attending for which I’d be shelling out hundreds the next weekend. I could not afford any more. So of course I browsed, and naturally my erstwhile Goodwill shoved no less than eight graphic novels, among other items, into my eager hands for an additional $50 sale.

I think the Goodwill and I will have a June wedding, officiated by Thrift Fu.