BY JOHN SIFTON
Well, there it was on eight-year-old Matthew's Christmas list—Double Dragon. I checked with the local dealer on December 20th. "Come back in February," he said, "but phone first." So we—that is, Mom and Dad, both pacifists, both profeminist, both still stubbornly socialist children of the 60s—wound up putting an envelope addressed to Matthew under the tree on Christmas Eve. The note inside said: "I.O.U. Double Dragon. Merry Xmas, Santa."
"So when's Santa gonna ante up, Dad?" Matthew demanded Christmas morning, staring at me meaningfully.
"Well...uh...they said it might be in February, but...you know...uh...you never can be sure," I replied with my usual eloquence.
For the next six weeks, Matthew was a model of patience He didn't ask me more than five or six times a day, seven days a week whether I'd phoned the computer store. And it was with no little relief that I went to the dealer in mid-February and picked up Double Dragon.
"Aaaaaalriiight!" roared Matthew when he saw the package. Up he thundered to the third floor, where my 1040 lies with its hard disk and a bookshelf on a homemade desk. As he ran, the house rocked; pictures tilted, three books sailed off the shelf. I stared heavenward, asking the gods of computerdom how many scallops of precious data had been sliced off my hard disk.
As we booted up the two single-sided disks, the theme music—a pulsing, neuron·pulverizing rock instrumental—blared from the color monitor. I knew it was time to leave.
But getting away from Double Dragon was not as easy as I'd expected. To grasp why, you have to understand the living and working arrangements in our house. My wife works nine to five and beyond for a union. And I, having quit my strategic-planning job in government, make a less-than-adequate living struggling to churn out great drama on the 1040.
This arrangement works pretty well under normal circumstances. But Double Dragon, in addition to bringing electronic chaos to the monitor screen, zapped our happily disorganized life with an electroshock of hyperactive nihilism that sent the family's collective synapses into hyperspasm.
Let me set the scene.
Dad's up on the third floor working on the computer, turning himself inside out struggling for the perfect, magical phrase that'll crystallize a scene and make the story editor purr without causing a catfight among the producers. The brakes of a school bus screech outside. Matthew and his friend, Guy, disembark and enter the house. Four small feet tip the Richter scale at about 5.8 as they run up the stairs. Two books fall off the shelf over the computer. The hard disk tips as if drunk. Dad feels beads of cold sweat forming on the small of his back.
"Hey, Dad!" Matthew says with a big grin, "Can Guy and I play Double Dragon?"
"No, I'm working," I answer grumpily.
"Guy's really looking forward to it," he pleads.
"I have to work. Maybe later." Dad's starting to feel like having a drink.
"Say half an hour." Maybe a nice soothing scotch with one cube and a splash of water.
"How long's that?"
"Thirty minutes!" Forget the water in the scotch.
"I'll get the egg-timer!" Matthew, all grins, charges down the stairs with Guy.
"Don't bother," Dad says, voice even, stomach approaching meltdown as he parks the hard disk. "You can play now."
"Yaaaaaaaaay!" Matthew and Guy scream together as they stampede up the stairs, rocking four more books off the shelf.
Down in the kitchen, Dad drinks straight from the scotch bottle.
Sometimes, of course, Dad hangs tough, usually out of deadline desperation. "Maybe after supper," he says.
Four big eyes stare at him appealingly. "But Guy was really lookin’ forward to it," Matthew says. Guy nods.
Dad girds his loins and says in his deepest paternal voice, "No, I've gotta get this done."
"You know, Dad, you work too hard," Matthew says sympathetically. "And you're a dork."
Over dinner that night, Mom turns to Dad. "Do you want your son to turn into a computer zombie?" she asks pointedly.
"Uh...," Dad says.
"What's a computer zombie?" Matthew asks.
"A person who spends so much time playing on the computer that he can't do a thing but twitch and stare, stare and twitch, and his hand has a permanent joystick cramp," Mom says.
Matthew considers this for a moment. "Radical!"
The next morning, as Dad shaves he stares at the reflection of his eyes in the mirror. They're phosphorescent-gray from too much word processing.
Eventually, at Matthew's insistence, Mom and Dad play Double Dragon. They learn that one of its big attractions for Matthew is that it's a two-player game, so a guy doesn't have to face all that street violence alone.
The sophisticated premise is that you're two tough hombres who've agreed to team up to save your girlfriends from a gang of karate kidnappers. Dad has seen better graphics on the ST, but the ones here, along with the gruesome sound effects, are lurid enough to make your joystick sweat.
You can beat the baddies with the usual array of karate kicks, blows and leaps. Matthew quickly masters all the necessary joystick twitches. Dad doesn't.
If you feel inclined to make mashed potatoes out of your enemies, you can hurl oil drums or boulders at them. Several times, Matthew accidentally makes shepherd's pie out of Dad with this tactic.
Sometimes, Dad—bruised, beaten and virtually scoreless—gets to the final screen with Matthew, where the kidnapped girl hangs in semi-undress from manacles about ten feet above the floor. After pulverizing another army of baddies, Dad and Matthew must fight to the death for the girl. Matthew demolishes Dad. As romantic music plays, the girl, miraculously freed, climbs down the wall and goes over and kisses Matthew. A tiny three-dimensional heart glows over the victor and his woman.
Matthew and Dad smile. It's heartwarming to see such a moving illustration that love makes the world go ‘round and that everything else is quite beside the point.
Take death, for example. It's wonderfully tidy here. The bad guys’ corpses simply vanish. Matthew, however, can resurrect himself by pressing his fire button. Just what he needs to learn about the meaning of violence.
There is a hard-nosed lesson, however, on the limits of love. Spike and Hammer, the heroes, have white skin. Many of the baddies are brown or green. But it's just a game, right?
An especially nice touch are the scantily dressed ladies with the whips. They yelp most satisfyingly when you kick them to oblivion. But what's a little sexism and sadomasochism among eight-year-olds?
After Matthew has gone to bed, Dad and Mom, those pro-peace, pro-feminist, socialist children of the 60s, look at each other over the kitchen table, It's a dull nullity of a look, glazed with poignant helplessness and a tiny bright tint of anger. It's the look reserved for parents who know that TV, peer pressure and our crazed 80s culture have swallowed their child whole. Mom and Dad know how the Trojans felt after Hector died and the Greeks came bellowing out of that infamous horse. Mom and Dad know there's nothing to be done. They hope it'll all pass.
Mom recalls playing guns as a child. Dad remembers games of cowboys and Indians, Allies vs. Germans. He even remembers having his toy soldiers repeatedly machine-gun all his younger female cousin's plastic horses. Where are the dead horses now?
Just games, right? Kids need violent fantasy to work off the impotence they feel as the youngest, smallest members of a family, don't they? It all comes down to the innocent exuberance of childhood, doesn't it?
Mom and Dad aren't violent people. Of course, there's been at least one war, and usually several of them going on somewhere in the world since they were kids. And crimes of violence, including rape, maintain their steady rise. Racism too is alive and well and living just around the corner. But that has nothing to do with childhood games, does it?
Mom and Dad tell Matthew they don't like Double Dragon's violence; yet they let him continue to play. Fortunately, after about six weeks he starts to lose interest. It's a little too easy, even for an eight-year-old.
So what's it all add up to? On a global scale, likely not very much. Probably just a niggling bump on the smoggy, war-torn, unjustly tilted road to the brave new world of the 21st century.
John Siftonis a freelance writer living in Ottawa, Canada. When his eight-year-old son, Matthew, permits, he uses his 1040ST to write fiction, screenplays, speeches, reports and just about anything else.
ST-LOG invites all authors to submit essays for possible use in the Footnotes department. Submissions should be between 1,000 and l,500 words, and may be on any aspect of Atari computing. Any style or type of essay is acceptable—opinion, humor, personal experience—but creativity is a plus. Send your submission to: Footnotes, c/o ST-LOG, P.O. Box 1413-M.O., Manchester, CT 06040-1413.