You slide in the disc, power on the console, and hit Start. The flurry of developers and logos come fast, all the old familiar faces. You settle in. The opening cinematic begins…
A sky scorched black, a landscape rotted brown. The crack of thunder, the rumble of distant war. The 3-chord hum of an electric guitar. An arena of broken stones, sand and stagnant pools of defeated blood. And, striding to one end of the expanse, the Hero. The player. You.
Hair black as pitch, twisted into a mess of dreadlocks. Burning eyes peering out from a face equal parts scar and stubble. Skin – what of it is visible through a patchwork of torn rags and scrap-metal armor serving as clothing – seared with the lines of age and war. The hard contours of a Neanderthal physique bulge obscenely, as though the skin encases not muscle, but throbbing tumors of rage and angst. Perhaps once, this was a boy. An adventurer. But now, he is a man. A man of manly mannishness.
Now, he is … Hardcore.
Hanging from his belt by a nest of rusted chains are a collection of weathered spheres, bisected in half between red and white. Without a word, he takes one in his calloused hand. It glows, as though with magic, but he takes no notice. No acknowledgement. For he is jaded. For he is grim and disaffected.
For he is … Hardcore.
Opposite the arena is another – pale of skin, clothed in straps of leather and silver spikes. At his side is a creature. It appears to be some Eldritch horror, all tentacles and fins, yet if you were to squint hard enough you might nearly see it as it looked in the days before…
When the graphics were less detailed.
When the details were less graphic.
Gravely, the Hero raises the sphere level with his chest. His eyes narrow, and he utters with the voice of a man for whom the very act of living is pain and struggle: “I choose you.”
Hurled like a grenade, the sphere lands with a crunch in the gravel of the arena. A flash of light, a shower of sparks, and it unleashes an animal that looks not unlike a massive rat – save that it is yellow, and throwing sparks of electricity from its very body. It looks to its opponent, then back to its Master. Not a word do they exchange, only a solemn nod. Words are for children. For women. For sissies. They are none of these things. They are serious. They are mature.
They are Hardcore.
The clang of a discordant gong, and they are off! The beasts charge eachother, destined for the arena center. Their clash you do not see – only a hard cut to black, the flash of claws, the howls of animal rage (and, most likely, also animal angst) and the last, angriest chord the electric guitar has to offer.
Finally, a sudden streak of oily crimson, and title spelled in iron-wrought Gothic script: POKEMON: BLOOD RED.
Rated M for Mature.
Now, honestly… do you want to see that? Really? Yes, sure, it sounds cool, (if I do say so myself), and as a thing in-and-of itself – a spinoff, some Flash thing on Newgrounds, a one-off manga, a rambling bit of satire at the start of a weekly opinion column – sure, could be fun. But as the official evolution of the main franchise?
If you grew up with Pikachu and company, is this what you’d want to see become of them? Why? Would it occur to you that if this was how you’d first encountered them, you might not have wanted to grow up with them? Would your thoughts turn to the kid who, thanks to what they’ve become to remain relevant to you, won’t even get the option of growing up with them?
It’s one thing, once one has reached the age of legality, to prefer to drink one’s Coca-Cola with a bit of rum. It’s another thing entirely to demand that Coke henceforth only sell its beverages with rum, on the basis that this is the preference of you, the mature, hardcore soda fan.
Sounds insane, right? And yet geek culture does this to itself day after day, from comics to movies to gaming and back again. “I loved this as a kid, and I’ll love it now, but only if you darken it up. Make it bleak. Make it angsty. Make it hardcore! Make it so there can be no question whatsoever that it’s appropriate for someone my age because, while I’m hardcore, I’m also surprisingly self-conscious.” And what of the young of today, who might’ve enjoyed it the old way like I did in the first place? Screw `em! It’s their own fault for taking so long to get born!
The genesis of this goes back to the late-1980s comic book scene, when gritty reimaginings like The Dark Knight Returns brought the silent majority of older readers out of the closet and publishers realized there was greater (short term) money to be made selling mature books and premium-priced merchandise to this audience than there was in newsstand-priced books sold to younger fans – the business model that had sustained the industry for nearly half a century.
Today, this attitude bleeds across the whole of the geek spectrum: Batman doesn’t get to keep his sidekick, Superman can’t have his dog. The Bionic Commando is a brooding psycho (and wait’ll you see what the arm is made of). The Green Goblin and Dr. Light (not the one from Mega Man) aren’t merely super-criminals anymore, they’re rapists. In the most recent Street Fighter movie, Chun-Li discerns that Bison’s henchwoman is a lesbian, lures her into the ladies’ room for a tryst and then beats her (nearly?) to death. Blue fireballs and electric ape-men? Bah! That’s kid stuff! Literal gay-bashing? HARDCORE! Later in the same movie, Bison will gain magic powers by ritualistically ripping a baby out of his wife’s stomach – apparently a gritty and realistic replacement for being able to fly. Battlestar Galactica lost its cyborg monkey, and picked up existential debates about abortion (note that not all of these are necessarily bad ideas, and that I’m not suggesting that anyone be prevented from telling these kinds of stories.)
And, look, there was a time in my life when I thought this kind of thing was all kinds of awesome. I wished to see acres of corpses flattened by Godzilla’s footsteps, or muggers’ heads liquefied by a casual slap from Superman. I had an excuse, though: I was fourteen! Know what else I thought was cool at fourteen? Wallet chains. Now, I look back and keep finding that stuff that tried to keep up with my “maturity” just doesn’t hold up – Todd MacFarlane’s Spider-Man reads like even more of a bad joke than Todd MacFarlane’s … everything else.
More so than that, I find myself appreciating all the more the things that didn’t go that route. I’ve never seen the logically-gruesome results of realistic Goomba-stomping. Blood doesn’t stain the Master Sword. Shaggy and Scooby aren’t strung out on meth, chasing down serial cannibals. I’m thankful for that. I wouldn’t wish that for them – at least, not without separately preserving the proper version for the next generation. I hope Darkwing Duck never trades his Gas Gun for a glock. I hope Mega Man never finds out that he’s really made out of Chernobyl and orphans.
Besides, if I do want to see stuff like that happen, I can see it happen to fake versions on The Venture Brothers. That’s the context where these darkenings truly belong – hence why the best thing that ever happened to Watchmen was Alan Moore being told he had to change the character names.
I’m awaiting my copy of Super Mario Galaxy 2 right now. In the broad strokes, Mario hasn’t changed much since I first met him in 1986. What if he had? What if his face was just a bit more grim, Bowser just a bit more threatening, Princess Peach a bit more affectionate? I dunno. Might make a nice comic. Or a spinoff, even. Maybe. But as the Mario? No. It would be a betrayal of what he’d meant to me in the first place; and it’d be selfish of me to try and keep him for myself and deprive the next kid who hasn’t found him yet. Especially for a stupid reason like “I don’t want people looking at me weird when I ask for it at the store.”
Geeks grow up. The stuff we’re geeks FOR doesn’t have to – often, that’s part of (if not the whole) appeal. The geek genres (scifi, fantasy, etc.) after all, tend to be things you first get into in youth, when the imagination is at its most open.
The next time you find yourself looking on some less-than-R-rated vestige of nerdity-past and wishing it could be more mature, ask yourself: In asking something to grow up, are you not also asking it to grow old? And if so, are you not also asking it, implicitly, to eventually die?
And what sort of person, in the end, wishes for their heroes to be dead?
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.
(Image courtesy ClanBase)