Friday, December 14, 2012

Welcome to Hellevator: Your favorite stage of every game

at 9:04 PM
Whoa, between writing that title and tabbing over to this box to enter text, I had a fantastic idea. Sometimes they hit you fast and furious like that. So [the] Fast and [the] Furious, in fact, that between that last sentence and this one I had the idea to make a joke about that car movie. That last sentence was the joke, unfortunately. Alas, they can't all be winners. Probably what the makers of that The Fast and the Furious movie told themselves. Maybe it was the lesson of the movie - it was about racing cars, after all. Not everyone can win a car race. A valuable lesson, though a familiar one to we lifelong fans of Wacky Races.
If you'll allow me to go two full paragraphs without once addressing the title/subject of the post, did you know there was a Wacky Races adaptation for NES, brought to you by the ever-wacky Atlus? And while the premise of the show is certainly begging to be brought to a racing game, since it essentially invented the idea of weaponized kart-racing, I'm sure the designers at Atlus would be proud to tell you that they exceeded all expectations and made it a fucking platformer. You play solely as Muttley, that snickering dog. Because that's what the kids loved about Wacky Raves, apparently. The dog running and jumping across the American countryside, throwing bones at things. Christ, they could've at least tossed in another character or two, since the colorful cast WAS THE WHOLE POINT OF THE SHOW. Just imagine the fucking disappointment a seven-year-old would feel, looking at this cartridge with dreams of sugar-plums and sugar-cavemen-cars-powered-by-hitting-each-other-on-the-head dancing through his head, to then power it up and find out it's Super Mario Bros. with a dog. It'd be like buying a Superman game and discovering that it's about flying through rings a la Pilotwings.
Of course, that's assuming anyone gives a shit about the integrity of the Wacky Races franchise, which is a pretty hilarious assumption.

One thing Wacky Races probably doesn't have, since it was a pain to pull off vertical scrolling on the NES, is a Hellevator level. Before I've already confused the fuck out of you, let me clarify that by Hellevator, I'm neither referring to the Japsploitation flick of the same name, nor the M. Night Shyamalan filmic expression about the Devil being late to an interview because of an elevator malfunction. Spoiler warning: the Devil didn't get that promotion. M. Night Twistalan warning: the promotion was actually a ghost. I'm going to stop using the word Hellevator before spell-check has a heart attack (and moreover because it's not very funny); what I mean are elevator stages or segments.

The elevator stage is a 2D classic: the doors lock, the screen takes a break from scrolling horizontally, and you take off toward the stars. Or uh, just the top floor. Brawlers loved this gimmick because it's a great justification for an arena fight, and back in the early '90s, the big bad was for some reason always a high-powered executive with an office on the top floor of a skyscraper. Often the elevator served as the penultimate stage, whether it be Streets of Rage, TMNT II, or Final Fight. It's a build-up where often the entire game's enemies are recycled at you, bosses and all. These days, it's all but tradition for the brawler - frankly you aren't welcome in the genre without an elevator. Even a medieval game like Castle Crashers finds a way to jam it in. 3D actioners have picked up the trend too, though it's not as charming or necessary.
But it's not brawlers that get to have all the fun, for all heroes must at some point make the journey from one floor to a different one. I hate to sound like a person that cites Joseph Campbell everyday (though I try, simply for health's sake), but he did dedicate an entire episode of his PBS special The Power of Myth to multistory buildings and their role in the monomyth. Basically the Zeitgeist of his dissertation, if you will, was that the ascension between floors represents a "leveling up" of the hero to a "higher power level", in the vein of the Buddhist cycle of rebirth (and I discuss Buddhism with the utmost confidence, having once kinda read like half of Siddharta in high school). In Shinobi III, for instance, Joe Musashi enters an elevator as a ninja, yet emerges a mere few minutes later as a ninja with probably a bit less health and ammo. This is what Campbell would have called a "The Way of the Celestial Lights".

I don't think there's a ton to say about the elevator level - once a simple way to pad out the length and difficulty of your arcade game (Metal Slug... 5 I think has one?), it's now more a trope for those who want to give a small nod to the glory days of 2D. Black Knight Sword has one, which was what inspired me to write this piece. Platformers like New Super Mario Bros. and Kirby's Epic Yarn use it as an implementation of forced scrolling, a friendlier flavor of rising lava a la Donkey Kong Country Returns. In these cases it speeds up the platforming and adds some risk to greedy collection, though it can be frustrating for making you replay the entire level if you miss just one MacGuffin.

So next time you're sharing a drink round the bar, pour one out for the old Hellevator. Over the head of the prettiest girl. I promise you, it's a pickup line that'll never fail.

Edit 12/15: My schizophrenic writing actually caused me to completely forget to mention the "fantastic idea" I had in the first sentence of this post. It was to be a game called Hellevator, entirely composed of elevator levels. And yes I just patented that, so don't even bother.

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