Return to Consolevania (Part 2)

Return to Consolevania

[Part 2 of a 2-part series. Read Part 1 here.]

In mid 2004 I was a recent university graduate, emerging doe-eyed and blinking into a world of employment I was not really ready for. After a few weeks of low-level job hunting around Brighton I ended up working in a Co-Op store, which was not the worst place I’ve ever worked (that accolade goes to a Co-Op store back in Shenfield, mainly because the manager was a total fuckass). Nor was it where I wanted to stay, of course, but with a degree in English literature, a minimal work ethic and the usual early-20s white middle class male sense of confused entitlement, what was I to do?

Answer: blunder through life aimlessly for a month or two more until a friend gets you a job testing videogames. Then blunder poorly through an interview trying to gloss over the fact that 99% of your experience is with PC games from the 1990s and the SNES, and not realise that name-dropping Final Fantasy does not make you cool in the eyes of the games industry. Fortunately, I was hired despite this.

I made a lot of friends at this old place of work, including Arcadian Rhythms’ AJ, and quickly learned a whole fucking lot that I didn’t know about videogames – both in terms of QA and of what people had grown up playing and were into. I was also introduced, by a bloke called Simon, to a little internet video series that had just recently released its first episode. That series was Consolevania.

It’s been… kind of a while since Part 1 of ‘Return to Consolevania‘. If you want to refresh your memory there’s a link to part one above, but really these two articles can be read separately. So why not simply remember the first article through a haze of nostalgia instead?

In the introduction above I briefly covered how I came to know the show. In all honesty I only watched two, maybe three episodes in the following twelve months, but after that I really started getting into the show. I think this is because when I was first introduced to it, I was coming in from the wild and being introduced to gamer culture for the first time. Before then, I didn’t follow the news and I only knew about my particular areas of interest (admittedly, “PC games” is pretty broad).

After a year of working in the industry and alongside avid gamers of all stripes, of playing games across a range of platforms and exploring ideas and gameplay I’d never encountered before, I was in a position whereby Consolevania and I were coming from similar places.

Rewatching episodes today it’s amusing how well Consolevania, and little sister videoGaiden, function as a sort of historical artefact. It’s all in there. The mockery of New Games Journalism. The early struggles of the PS3. The end of the last generation of consoles. The early signs of life in what would explode into the PC indie gaming scene after ’07. The immense nostalgia for the Dreamcast. The doubt about the Wii (in this case catchily rendered in a song called ‘Let’s Say Nintendo’s Doomed’). Reggie Fils-Aime, Jay Allard, and Ken Kutaragi… and the most horrifying group sex session you can imagine. That’s not on YouTube, sadly.

Of course, a lot of this isn’t true history: it’s just an aggregation of shared memories from a period of about three years within a sector of the entertainment industry. Personally, I’m quite content to indulge in nostalgia when it amuses me and when it makes me think, but I won’t try and argue that knowing who Jay Allard is or having read the original NGJ manifesto is essential to a good grasp of videogames history.

Fortunately there’s a lot more that makes Consolevania worth the time of a modern gamer. Perhaps my favourite aspect of Consolevania, and by extension videoGaiden, is how they managed to strike a good balance between comedy and insight. The one’s no good without the other and CV is one of the few shows I’ve seen about games which was both genuinely funny and provided interesting, relevant insight into games.

Rab, Ryan and the rest of the CV crew always appeared very down-to-earth and grounded; their comedy was rooted in piss-taking and absurdity, from the so-bad-it’s-funny cosplay of the first series to the later quick time event-mocking TapTapTap! skits. Being a labour of love made with no budget whatsoever, it was also wonderfully lo-fi, evident in both the grainy scanline-riddled camcorder footage reviews and coathanger mike from the early days through to the aforementioned cheap cardboard costumes (which we got to enjoy throughout the show’s run; I think their last outing may have been in the trailer to the Rockstar-baiting Manpuncher versus Boxhead 2.

Humour is a deeply subjective thing, of course, and there was material that I felt fell flat. Michael’s turn as Hitler, for example, was at its best when really trying to be outrageous – returning a pre-owned game in full uniform, or ‘Pimp My Console’, or his bizarre relationship with undead luchador El Zomba – whereas the interviews with him were never all that amusing, probably because they lack any sort of satirical direction in favour of just being outrageous. And I don’t mind saying that I never found Legend funny… okay, except for when he nicked that teenager’s skateboard.

There was never any pretention about these shows. I stole the phrase “wank-hat” from CV’s Ryan and it’s a great self-effacing term. They demonstrated that it was quite possible to say deeply insightful things about videogames, to have a comprehensive knowledge of the medium and the games that composed it, without straying into pomposity or a faux academic tone.

Throughout the shows run they dug up gems I might otherwise never have heard of, from Japanese imports like Bujingai and Glass Rose through indie releases like The Ship, Naked War and Tremulous by way of retro games like Castle of Terror and Lack of Love (sorry, couldn’t resist the little DC jibe there).

Some reviews were impressive for how successfully they got to the heart of a game, for better or worse. The final conclusion about Fallout 3? That it is a game which generates unique stories for every player to share, and that is what made it great. Galactic Civilisations 2? That it’s big, like space, and dramatic, like opera, and it constantly pushes decisions at the players, like a good strategy game. Sherlock Holmes: The Awakening? That it’s an appalling joke of a game and an insult to the legacy.

I also have to mention that, despite the show’s unpretentious attitude, it wasn’t short on ambition or intelligence: there was plenty of playing with form, from the Resident Evil episode (a plot ran through the episode which saw Rob and Ryan attacked by zombies), to the Dreamcast episode (in which they voyaged to another dimension with the Dreamcast never died), to season 3 (which charted the boys selling out, going rogue and creating a garish and semi-nonsensical episode, culminating in a bland advertorial style episode hosted by stand-in presenters from ‘the sponsors’ – including Glaswegian comedian Limmy before he broke through with Limmy’s Show).

I’ve probably re-watched CV and VG more than I have any other show except maybe Futurama. Why? Well, because there are still moments that make me laugh every time (the over-encumbrance sketch, the Shenmue drinking game, Ken Kuturagi’s Animal Crossing-style advice to a farmer, Gundam cosplay, anything involving Overblood, etc) and because I continue to find their video reviews fascinating. They’re so short, and seem so casual, and yet in just a few minutes they manage to reflect both the character of the game and articulate why something does or does not work. It’s impressively concise yet in-depth reviewing, eschewing all of the padding you tend to find. I already touched on this above and in part one, but it’s worth restating.

Ultimately, others may try to emulate but so far no one has come close, either playing it safe with overly predictable jokes, reaching time and time again for the same schtick, restricting their outrageousness to Trigger Happy TV-style audience baiting (which tends to boil down to “ha ha, laugh at the people who don’t understand our hobby”), or just not having the experience and insight to consistently present interesting, solid arguments. I’d say it would be great to see CV return, but with Rab busy with the increasingly successful Burnistoun and the rest of the boys doing whatever it is they do (cursory google research returns nada), it seems unlikely.

Fortunately, Consolevania is now on iTunes. So fill yer boots.