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On Humor via Nostalgia

February 7, 2011

Comic Jumper is a mean-spirited little thing, at heart.

It’s hard to argue that Comic Jumper is not a funny game — many of its one-liners are certainly good for a laugh, and the constant banter between Captain Smiley and the star-shaped thing on his chest is pretty consistently humorous. Still, there’s a mean streak to the laughs Twisted Pixel offers here, and they detract from what could be an effective homage to the evolution of comics as we know them. Rather than homage it would seem that the intent is satire of various eras and styles of comics; still, there is so little actual respect paid to these styles that the end result is more like mockery. Mockery of the comics, mockery of the people who made them, mockery of the people who read them, and perhaps most egregiously, mockery of the players who shelled out money for this very game.

This is largely due to a sort of frathouse mentality that drives most of what passes for humor in Comic Jumper. Example: During much of the “Silver Age” segment of the game, the plot is moved along by the “Origami Kid”, a full-on generically “Asian” walking stereotype with squinty eyes and a gaptoothed smile who switches all of his Rs and Ls. Twisted Pixel is walking a fine line here — obviously, the stereotypes are intentional, a spotlight on a less “enlightened” time when such caricature was considered okay and often played for comic relief. Still, the development team is going for laughs based on that same stereotype, and I’m not sure that acknowledging that it’s an intentional exaggeration makes that any better.

Perhaps I’d be more inclined to give Twisted Pixel the benefit of the doubt if it weren’t for the collection of stages based on manga.

The manga levels are a series of stages that get the look of the comic style completely right — they’re in black and white, and the hand-drawn look of them is spot-on. Still, the collection of characters you meet throughout these levels are completely bizarre, and a point is made of making the characters all shout and make no sense. At one point, you spend time dancing to send the soul of a dead unicorn to the sky. This stuff is one step removed from name-calling. “People who like this stuff are weird,” it seems to be saying, “because it makes no sense whatsoever and there are lots of mood swings and yelling.” While one can certainly see that much effort went into the visual presentation of the style, the actions and words of the characters transform this portion of the game from homage/satire to full-on mockery.

Contrast this approach to something like Super Meat Boy‘s take on nostalgia. Granted, Super Meat Boy has an easier time of it given that it’s a video game paying tribute to other video games, but the tone here is not of mocking so much as it is appreciation for its forebears.

(On a side note, “forebear” is a great word. It means “ancestor”, but it sounds like a woodland animal that travels in packs.)

Super Meat Boy‘s very name is likely a tribute to the game referenced most in comparisons to its gameplay, Super Mario Bros. If not for that classic game, a game like Super Meat Boy, which hinges above all else on the ability to change the direction of a jump while in the air, could not exist. Aside from that obvious comparison, though, there are many, many other tips of the hat throughout Super Meat Boy, most of which are so lovingly done as to invite immediate gasps of recognition from players who played the originals. Ninja Gaiden, Castlevania, and Mega Man 2 are a few of the ones that spring immediately to mind (these were all used as the bases for cinema screens in Super Meat Boy‘s level transitions), and I swear there was a cute little wink to the more recent Rhythm Heaven thrown in at the end.

All of the references in Super Meat Boy are quite obviously presented by artists who loved the original works. This is in stark contrast to Comic Jumper, in which the various eras of comic books exist purely, it seems, to be mocked.

I know, there’s no accounting for taste, and for plenty of people, it seems that the humor throughout Comic Jumper comes off as harmless, not to mention hilarious. I won’t begrudge them their opinions, uncomfortable as much of the humor of that game makes me (I haven’t even touched the contempt it has for feminists). Still, Super Meat Boy proves that you can be crude, get laughs, and use the past as source material without the need to eviscerate that past in the process. I certainly know which one I’d rather play.

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