Andy’s Read Pile: Centipede

GhostAndy

IMG_4612Tag Team back again. Can you dig it? We can dig? Can you dig it? We can dig it.

Okay so before you think this entire blog is just going to be me reciting all the lyrics of “Whoop! There It Is!”, trust me I’m not that hip.

I mean for one thing I’m still obsessed with video games that came out with Reagan was president. No Fortnight for this cowboy, the only flossing I do the occasional 6 month visit to the dentist where I lie about how I do it more often. Yeah, my bag has always been classic 8 bit and 16 bit games especially those of the arcade era as I’ve mentioned previously in such great blogs as my Top 10 list of Classic Arcades Games Part 1 and Part 2.

But in writing those blogs, I often am chided for not including one game that many feel is one of the best of that age: the bug blasting classic, Centipede.

The truth is although I have enjoyed this game over the years and played it hundreds of times, it was never really one of my favorites. Maybe because my sisters loved it so much and as a young boy, the last thing you wanted to like was the same things that your icky older sisters liked. And I guess that’s a shame because it is easily one of the all time best SHUMPs ever created (for those of you that don’t know what a SHUMP is…look it up…I’m not in the mood to explain right now).

Regardless, after my earlier post about Dynamite’s reprinting of the comic book based on the old Atari game, Swordquest, I was curious to see if there were any other classic arcade game based comics out there for me to peruse. That’s when I came across today’s book written by Max Bemis with art by Eoin Marron based on the aforementioned garden party insect hunt.

I was intrigued by some of the other reviews I came across about it which said it was nothing like you would expect from a video game inspired comic, so I gave it a go. The following is the results of that subsequent reading. Be warned. This  is definitely not your big sister’s Centipede.


Synopsis:

On an Earth like planet (which is definitely not Earth) inhabited by Earthling like beings (which are definitely not Earthlings), the Centipede has come. Although it’s not the smartest tack in the box, it’s enormous, practically indestructible, and ravenous devouring everything it can get its grumble little mandibles on. Not only that but it was followed by giant spiders and other related bugs which together with the Centipede has pretty much created post apocalyptic conditions on this planted called “Sty-Rek”.

Enter our protagonist, Dale Trell, a prototypical gamer geek who spent most of his days prior to the insect holocaust, watching Earth movies and playing Earth video games he has downloaded from his planet’s magical subspace database of other alien cultures. He’s got major daddy issues, antisocial neuroticism, and desperately wants to prove himself worthy to his boyfriend who he feels is in every way his better. So when the monster comes to the planet he shuts himself off from the rest of humanity and makes it his holy mission to eradicate the beastie all by himself.

Through the course of the story,  Dale goes from being a goon with a death wish playing action hero to a semi competent goon with death wish living as an action hero. And in the process he learns about not only what he’s capable of, but the hard truths about the monster he desperately wants to slay. It’s like Nietzsche said, sometimes when you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you…all 60 nasty feet of segmented terror that this book calls its abyss.


Things I Liked:

This section is pretty simple. You can’t talk about why you like this book if you don’t talk about the main driving point of why it was written. That being the relationship between Dale Trell and the Centipede Monster. And when I say it’s a relationship, I really do mean it’s a full fledged complicated as hell relationship.

You see Dale is written as pretty much our Captain Ahab from the legendary literary classic Moby Dick. He feels personally wronged by the enormous creature with which he fights, blaming it for all kinds of calamities and hardships he’s had to endure. He feels as if he can kill the beast with his own hands not only he will vindicate himself in terms of the failures of his past, but become something greater than what his meager existence has so far provided him. He will be a legend, a hero, someone worthy of admiration and praise.

In short, Dale has a massive inferiority complexity and instead of coming clean with it, he has transferred and personified it as the Centipede. Thus all that pent up rage and frustration has now found a target in which to aim his gun, and like so many immature men in cultures all over the place, all of that almost holy wrath can be unleashed on a scapegoat instead of dealing with the underlying issues that started the inadequacy.

But this scapegoat isn’t just any scapegoat. It’s massive, hungry, laid waste to everything in its path, and most of all seems completely indestructible. It really is a Moby Dick, especially in its movements as instead of swimming freely through the oceans, it’s sea is the air, flying fluidly from place to place. It’s also just as impersonal, as it doesn’t really view Dale as it’s nemesis. He’s just a scrap of food. Meaning, it’s just there to feed on Dale as long as he will let it.

It’s also fitting that it should be indestructible, as Dale realizes once he gets started, that like his own deep seated insecurities, this monster isn’t going to shrivel up and die just because he just happened to aim a giant Gatling gun at it. It takes real time and personal growth to conquer this abomination. If only all of our own personal hang ups could be given life as unstoppable engines of destruction, then maybe we too could visualize how gigantic those problems really are and that the real solutions aren’t easy.

And it’s true. In the end, the only reason Dale manages to take on this creature, is by becoming one with it. Internalizing the way it thinks and acts to large degree. Understanding that it too has a place and is in a lot of ways just as messed up as Dale is.

Empathy really is the secret weapon that Dale has needed all this time to really conquer this demon. That and an awesome flying spaceship with an Atari joystick to fly it.

Seriously, that’s deep stuff from Max Bemis, and really is the reason most people should give this book a try.


Things I Didn’t Like:

Although key in so many ways to the exposition and ultimately understanding of the entire series, I wasn’t a huge fan of Dale’s vision quest after he ingests magic mushrooms and subsequently trips balls in becoming a baby centipede. I couldn’t really put my finger on why I disliked it.

Again I applaud the author for coming up with an interesting way of relating the history of what the Centipede was and why it ended up on the planet, but yeah the whole exchange was pretty unsettling in some ways. Maybe it’s the word, “icky”, that best describes it, that is at least if I asked my 4 year old daughter to sum up my thoughts, that’s probably what she would say.

It’ s truly sad because there is so much to gleam from that single issue as you again get the full backstory of the Centipede, it’s life before the planet when it was sold into slavery and forced to fight for it’s existence. And I’m not going to go into great detail because it’s probably the best of issue of the series and if you are going to read this series for yourself, this is the one that you have to just experience.

But yeah, maybe it’s the fact that they stuck a human head on a bug body. That’s just unsettling. Yep, that’s it. That’s what I didn’t like. If they would have told the story in some other way, like being a ghost watching the proceedings, I probably would thought it was one of the best single issues of a comic I read in years. But yeah, whether it was for originality or sh*ts and giggles, the decision to give the Centipede the protagonist’s face really put me of off my lunch and was more of a distraction than a benefit to the story.


Fun Facts:

Instead of giving you Easter Eggs about the comic itself, I thought I’d use this section of the blog to talk about the history of the actual game itself, Centipede.

This classic arcade game was developed by Ed Logg and Dona Bailey for Atari back in  1980. Although Logg, who was the supervisor, said that he did the design, it’s really Bailey who did about half of the programming that we want to talk about.

You see Donna Bailey was one of the few female game programmers in the industry at that time, so for her to attached to one of the all time classic arcade games really is the long and the short of any conversation we should have about the lasting effect of this game’s legacy.

Logg has been quoted as saying that he intended the game to attract women players mainly because he believed that its design was not biased by gender, unlike a fighting or sports games. However, many have cited that it was Donna Bailey’s unique visual design that helped set this game apart and make it one that really would attract female gamers Hence, it makes sense that this game was dominated by my older sisters at the arcades while my older brother was busy with games like Galaga.

In interviews Donna has said “I really like pastels … I really wanted it to look different, to be visually arresting”, and it’s true. The color choices really did make the difference in setting this game apart from the rest of the competition and this coupled with the intuitive track ball controls made for game that really was geared towards the preferences of the fairer sex without sacrificing the overall incredible game play that would appeal to everyone regardless of gender.

Some other interesting tidbits include, this game was chosen for the final round of the 1981 Atari World Championships run by Tournament Games International. The men’s champion was Eric Ginner and the women’s champion was Ok-Soo Han.

The original world record score on the arcade version of Centipede was 16,389,547 points by Jim Schneider of the USA on August 1, 1984.

Since then, Donald Hayes of Windham, New Hampshire, USA, has set the new world record back in November of 2000, at  7,111,111 points.

Centipede was followed by Millipede in 1982, which suffered from sequelitis in some ways, being a less successful arcade game than it’s predecessor despite having more variety and a wider array of insects than the original such as an Earwig, Inchworm, and Dragonfly opponents. I honestly don’t mind Millipede at all and do think it’s a superior game, but I can understand the notion that less is more and that many may feel that all Millipede is a game that’s like Centipede with a bunch of extra unnecessary crap jammed into it.

If you are one of those young ones that have never played Centipede, or an old fogey like me that would want to hit that high score one more time, you can play an authentic version of the arcade game over at IGN, 24/7 by just clicking on the graphic below!

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Final Thoughts:

I’ll be honest. I probably should have liked this book way more than I did. In terms of types of books I like to read, it had a lot going for it. Sci-fi setting, Retro video game feels, and of course the smart original writing that took what could have been a pretty stupid idea for a comic book (a video game released almost 40 years ago) and actually made it a pretty captivating little yarn.

It dares to turn the entire monster movie genre on its head, humanizing the “villain” as it were in ways that I doubt other authors would have the balls to contemplate. I mean by the end of the story, I was equally invested in both of the “knight” and the “dragon” as it were and as a result it delivered a solid emotional punch that is still resonating days after I finished it.

Not only that but we are given an extremely nuanced and complex protagonist who dives head long into his hero’s journey in hopes of fixing those broken feelings he has inside, only to come out the other end, with the sobering realization that being the “hero” often means making decisions that can leave you more broken than how you started.

Finally some of the ideas delivered in this story are as close to meta-fictional genius as you can get. The best one being the portrayal of the hero as the atypical guy that would be playing Centipede anyways.   Yep, our hero is a dude that lives out of a basement, watching old movies, not showering, staying up for days, shunning people and relationships. Throw in a couple copies of Watchmen, Days of Future Past, and a nasty half eaten pizza, and you got the epitome of the mouth breathing nerd that all of our mothers hoped we wouldn’t become.

But for some reason in the end, I didn’t like it enough to give it an “A”. Maybe it was because I had to read it twice to really get all of what Max Bemis was throwing over the fence at me. Maybe I thought it was a little heavy on the Daddy Issues aspect. Maybe I didn’t like the conceit that it was on some other planet that was “exactly” like Earth even down to the pop culture. Or maybe it was the gross centipede with a man’s head…yeah…I still didn’t like that.

Regardless of the reason, I can’t really give this book an “A”. It’s definitely one of the best video game based comics I’ve ever read, but honestly, most are pretty terrible so that’s not really something to hang your hat on.

Still though, I am glad I read it and I would recommend it to anyone regardless of whether they are fans of the old video games or not. It does have a tendency to surprise you throughout the course of the story, and that’s never a bad thing.

Andy’s Read Pile Grade: B


 

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