For anyone who’s ever taken an English course in undergrad – which is just about everybody – you’re bound to have been subjected to F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s The Great Gatsby. Even people who majored in something actually useful in college (unlike me) encountered it in high school at least once or twice, and many people have fond memories of hating the ever-loving shit out of that book. Well, if you haven’t seen this before, you’re in luck: there’s a way to get some revenge on those snooty West Egg bastards, thanks to the Great Gatsby NES game.
Take it from someone who’s written Great Gatsby fan-fiction (don’t ask): this game will bring you back to exactly why you loved the book the first time you read it or saw the Robert Redford movie adaptation. It will also remind you how absolutely bored you became of it after the second, third, or fifteenth encounter, as it’s one of those books that continues to be used in countless English classes from high school to undergrad to graduate-level American Literature courses. Nothing makes the ginned-up freeloaders vomiting in the bushes more appealing than being able to beat the crap out of them.
The game is ingeniously made by four very clever people that demand a ton of respect for capturing the essence of not only one of the most over-saturated early 20th century novels but also of the NES gaming aesthetic from the late 1980s to 1990s. I know that I’ve talked about NES games in the past – namely my obsession with a certain Capcom vertical scroller where you get to murder countless waves of Japanese pilots – but considering how this one was made only a few years ago, the resemblance to side-scrolling games like Castlevania is fantastic.
The game revolves around good old Nick Carraway, the protagonist of the novel, in his search for his neighbor Jay Gatsby. You move across the screen from left to right, using your hat as a weapon against the myriad of enemies that come at you (imagine Link’s boomerang from Zelda II and you know exactly how it works). Power-ups come in the form of a bright shiny party hat that gives you a longer attack range, and you can restore your health by picking up martini glasses strewn about each stage; getting to the end of a level gives you a Ninja Gaiden-style cutscene where the story advances.
The game even reminded me a bit of the stupid-hard difficulty of Ninja Gaiden, especially on the second level, where Nick Carraway is inexplicably fighting his way across the tops of train cars as the train speeds through the countryside. The stage’s end boss is a gigantic pair of disembodied glasses, designed to represent the ever-watchful gaze of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg, Oculist, and his faded billboard that hangs over the valley of ashes, and I have to tell you – the good doctor is a cheap bitch. Either playing an NES game using a keyboard instead of a gamepad was my downfall, or my action-platformer skills have atrophied to the point where I’m a flailing idiot, but trying not to get killed by that pair of floating spectacles turns out to be harder than trying to dodge Mike Tyson the first time you ever got to him in Punch-Out (and I’m talking about MIKE TYSON’s Punch-Out, not that crappy version they re-released when his license expired and they replaced him with some whitewashed assknuckle named Mr. Dream).
The whole meta-story around the game is great, too, with the creators claiming to have found an unmarked NES cartridge at a yard sale with a beaten-up manual attached to it by rubber band. The art created for the game by the massively talented Michael J. DiMotta is pitch-perfect and makes me wish there was a Japanese anime action-adventure series that originally accompanied it. I would have imported the shit out of that back when I was still deep in the clutches of my anime addiction.
I have to simply say that even though my fat stupid fingers couldn’t get very far into the game, I had a serious laugh at my own expense. I’m sure if I sat down and really gave it a good, serious try, I could probably finish it, but I don’t have the patience or the drive I did back when I was a kid after renting some NES game for the weekend.
You may be familiar with the scenario: you badger your parents for a couple of days beforehand, begging them to take you down to the local Pathmark where they have VHS tape and NES game rentals in the electronics section, and you look through the rows of games until you find one that, based on the box art, looks like it’ll be fun. You take it home and pop it in, feeling lucky that you’ve got something to keep you occupied for a whole weekend, and then upon starting up whatever inevitable shitfest of a game you picked up on blind, stupid faith, you play the hell out of the game until you either finish it or you break a controller in frustration.
The worst was when you selected an RPG or something else with a battery backup and you couldn’t finish the game over the weekend. You bring it back, hoping that the next time you get to rent it that your saved game is intact, but you know it never will be; some 14 year old illiterate chucklefuck – and probably the last living descendant of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg – has erased all your saves and instead spelled out “UR A FAG” across all three save slots. You’re forced to start all over again, and he didn’t even bother to spell “you’re” right, the bastard.
Looking back at this memory, it wouldn’t surprise me if there was some correlation between renting these types of games and getting diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder as a child for replaying the same 20 hours of a game over and over again. Well, anyway, you learn your lesson early on: never judge a game by its box art. However, if the Great Gatsby NES game had actually been published by some very confused Japanese game developer in 1990, it would have made having to read it over and over and over again in the English classes of members of my generation, many of whom were destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the halls of my high school by the 170th reading of the goddamn book, a lot more palatable.