The Bizarre Triumph of Classics of Game

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An old man in Y-shaped overalls and a newsboy hat pedals a bicycle down a wide, one-way road in the countryside at about 300 kilometers per hour. A man in a black biker jacket and helmet yells at the old man to hurry as he overtakes him. As the road gives way to the developing plunge pool of an infinite series of paper-thin waterfalls (still shallow enough to not slow him down in the slightest), the old man overtakes his harasser, marked as “RIVAL.” He begins snaking back and forth through the plunge pool, knocking down several identical street signs as we discover that the two riders are not alone on the road. Eventually, the old man bumps into the back of a semi and dives off the edge of the road, only to reappear above the waterfall, descending right back onto the road he had fallen off, a giant exclamation reading “OUCH!” popping out of him, along with a series of gold sparks. The old man repeats the fall twice again, landing back in the middle of the road both times but trailing behind his would-be rival. After his second fall, fish being jumping overhead as the man in black exclaims, “Don’t-don’t you drive?” though the speech bubble emanating from him says “Don’t you know how to drive?” The video abruptly ends after the old man’s fourth fall.

The tale of the old man and his rocket cycle is a scenario we encounter in games all the time, but without context, the clip is especially absurd. Gaming’s longest-running joke, its lowest-hanging fruit, is applying real-world logic to game worlds that don’t hold up to such scrutiny, and presenting the weirdest instances of that is what the YouTube channel Classics of Game boils down to—highlighting the stupendously odd interactions in gaming that, when we as players actually engage in them, feel completely normal or in line with a game’s infrastructure. Perhaps, in the game where the above clip originated, you have to work up to the bicycle that lets you go that fast. Maybe the rivalry between the old man and the man in black is fleshed out, and the waterfall scene makes thematic sense. That’s not especially relevant, however, and the moment is better without any of that knowledge.

Ranging from nine seconds to about a minute, Classics of Game videos are just long enough to encapsulate a crazy congregration of gameplay concepts but short enough to prevent any real analysis of a situation to sink in. Other highlights the channel has captured include: A Comanche helicopter bouncing off a beige Washington Monument then exploding; a backhoe scooping turtles out of a pool while erratically flailing up and down; a diminutive Cloud Strife running around a parody game called Fatal Fantasy VII. For the most part, the reaction to most of these scenarios is the same—a slightly tilted head and a confused smile. Occasionally an audible laugh. Many of them aren’t exactly “funny,” per se, but all the clips are definitely strange.

Classics of Game is reminiscent of other irreverent clip show series (Everything is Terrible, TV Carnage, etc.) that decontextualize a piece of media for the sake of irony. We watch two ugly, long-forgotten 90s mascots run into traffic and engage in firefights and fall over, then shake our heads at the idea that videogames were ever so blatant in their attempts to appeal to current trends (the irony, of course, is that they still are). Most of the videos feature obscure, old, clunky-looking or foreign games, and if you haven’t played them, being introduced to games at their least coherent constantly makes for a good laugh or two. This isn’t just a clip show of funny glitches or the failings of the latest video game—an important part of the channel’s appeal is that the audience has likely never seen most of these games before.

The key difference between Classics of Game and other nostalgia trips is that the subversion these media attempt is inherent in the target itself rather than external. When we see a woman demonstrate the proper methods for giving cat massages, we laugh at their earnestness while secretly wishing we could embody their lack of self-awareness. The fast edits, cheesy transition, and lack of context slather the video with purpose and nudge us towards a laugh, but the video is the video—only its presentation changes. Introduce the element of interaction, however, and the conflict between earnestness and irony is the art; there’s no need to mash the horn button during the dramatic truck chase, but that horn is what takes the clip from being yet another rendition of the casually racist “Oh, Japan” meme to being a sort of performance art. Jackie Chan’s evil twin in an admiral uniform spamming a quick, low kick attack to drain his enemy’s entire health bar was likely not what the developers had in mind for that game in terms of balance.

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Sometimes the game being shown is strange enough when it’s played as intended that no real manipulation is necessary, but the channel’s best videos are those that do muck around with a game’s systems in unexpected ways. Perhaps the most obvious manipulation the puppeteer in charge of capturing all these videos performs is switching songs in a Tony Hawk game as Mr. Hawk undulates upside-down in a glitched netherspace. The game creator’s simple intentions (ride the skateboard, enjoy a fighting game where you can play as Jackie Chan in three different styles) is the earnestness, and the subversion of those intentions is the punchline. Sometimes there’s no punchline at all—just a strange moment.

What ultimately elevates Classics of Game beyond emotionally distant snickering at the absurdities of a culture (as with similar channels) is that by playing ridiculous games in unconventional ways, the implicit commentary of the channel ends up being as celebratory as it is cynical. With videogames, it’s not just the artifact itself that’s funny, absurd, or a relic of its time—how we interact with them plays into the joke. It’s a crash course on the ways that the player can subvert the expectations of designers, and subsequently a reminder that games are the only medium that intrinsically allow for the audience to insert themselves into the performance, creating something unique to that player along the way. All without saying a word.

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Classics of Game is currently in the midst of a resurgence (the channel is finally posting videos frequently after a year-long hiatus), but the channel remains a whimper against the modern cacophony of gaming commentary and entertainment. YouTube Let’s Plays, Twitch streams, and websites like Giant Bomb all have gaming as their nexus. Increasingly, however, personality-driven content has started to dominate as it becomes more and more clear that simply showing a game on screen isn’t enough to guarantee views or hits. Cultivating audiences requires another hook to differentiate one person with a capture kit and a knowledge of videogames from all the others. If you don’t like a particular YouTuber’s voice or personality, it’s easy to move on to another and still get to see the same game in action. The most popular gaming personalities are entertaining in their own right, usually under some pressure to be entertaining regardless of whatever game they’re showing off. As a result, the games are often incidental, and these channels are effectively comedy routines with gaming as a backdrop. Sometimes for better, often for worse.

That’s fine and all; I watch one or two outlets on the regular and stream the occasional Dota when I need background noise. Searches for these kinds of videos usually start with the game in question, so I doubt there’s a huge risk of these personalities overshadowing the content they cover in the long term. But Classic of Game’s beauty is in its silence, in that it never feels the need to elicit our reactions for us, or entertain us by turning an odd moment into more of a spectacle than it might otherwise have been. It’s content to let the moments speak for themselves. It may not be the first thing you think of when watching it, but Classic of Games’s defining aspect (besides the overwhelming weirdness of it all) is that it knows where and when to throttle. It’s surprisingly subtle, in that way.

The channel isn’t likely to make as big of a splash as the gaming giants of YouTube have—the whole idea is perhaps a bit too niche. Without a likable face to back its insanity, it’ll be hard to maintain a relationship outside of a small, dedicated audience. And while it’s been on a roll over the past week, no one knows when it will stop, and if it does, when and if it’ll return. But I genuinely appreciate that whoever manages the channel doesn’t feel the need to milk their idea the instant it gains traction. In a web where every good joke hits its tipping point and crashes into a den of clichés and tired references in a matter of hours, Classics of Game lets the funny bits breathe between its odder moments, and is all the better for it. It isn’t exactly a high-minded artistic work, but it’s an artifact in the ways that most other modern outlets of today are not—unfettered by a latent desire to be more than what it is. On the internet, that’s pretty rare.

Suriel Vazquez is a freelance writer who, actually having played through the Witcher, has no idea who the Lords are or who could possibly be above them. He’s written for Kotaku, Paste, Shoryuken and several others. You can follow him on Twitter @SurielVazquez.