White Whale

I’m 30 years old, sitting in a basement jam space in the worst part of Vancouver. My best friends conveniently form a band. Sitting in on practice is the best way to see them all at the same time. Despite the mildew and cigarette smoke slowly choking the life from me, this is one of my favorite places in the world.

Jamming ends. We take turns plugging our phones, laptops and MP3 players into the amp to share music. I queue up my song. When the moment is right, I strike, connecting my phone with one practiced motion.

All I know is that I have a date with a big, bald prick on the conveyor belt and I’m ready to end his hold on me.

The surprisingly catchy and complex theme from Dr. Chaos floats from the amp in all of its 8-bit glory. I smile. “You guys should cover this for fun,” I say. They suffer me brilliantly, as always. But I know that one of the keyboardists is with me. At that moment, we’re both sharing a memory of the time we beat Dr. Chaos together. He had always wanted to play through it and I was unable to complete it on my own due to childhood fear. So, we took it on together. I offered my limited experience and navigation skills and he was more than happy to be at the helm. Together, we guided our knife-wielding protagonist through the Chaos mansion and dimensions beyond. Beating Dr. Chaos remains one of my favorite memories, not only because I shared it with a close friend, but also because it was one of my white whale games.

A white whale game is special. It’s a classification reserved for games that haunt me. They’re games that my younger self was unable to finish for reasons ranging from anxiety to extreme difficulty. Some white whale games are forever tied to real-life situations that occurred while I was playing them, forever marring their memories and keeping me from revisiting them.

I don’t have a list of my white whales and I can never really label one until it pops up in conversation or appears during a hunt. Once I remember why I quit playing a white whale, I either make a conscious effort to face the cause of that lingering anxiety, or I push it back into the annals of my psyche and move on. In the case of Dr. Chaos, my friend and I joined forces to finally end that particular story.

Dr. Chaos bothered me in the way that it brought jump scares into my childhood. Those first-person sequences were more potent than any horror movie, and they filled my nightmares for longer than I care to admit. When Michael, the game’s protagonist, enters a door in the mansion’s regular side view, he enters a Goonies II-esque exploration sequence. He can turn 90 degrees, move through doors and portals and punch walls like an aggro kid to reveal treasures and passages.

Every once in a while, though, Michael would turn around and come face-to-face with a monster. It would rush the screen and push him back into the hallway, where it would most likely kill him. The worst one was the giant blue ape with a fleshless, exposed ribcage. Not only was he the toughest of the subspace monsters, but he also slowed your movement while he was on the screen, just like monsters do in my nightmares.

His appearances became so traumatic that I would often dart forward and press the Reset button as he ran at me. It was like closing the door in his face, and in my young mind, that kept him at bay.

Sitting down with my friend years later, we were able to figure out that the monsters only appear if you turn around too many times in exploration mode, so as long as we were quick and thorough, I would rarely see the ape. Once we found automatic weapons and grenades, he was a joke to me. His appearances became the equivalent of throwing open your closet door to find a pile of clothes instead of the bogeyman, and then shooting the shit out of it. The fear lifted. One less game to feel anxious about, and one less black memory clouding my formative years.

With Dr. Chaos out of the way, I’ve slowly begun smashing the games that intimidated me in the past in an effort to chip away at the anxiety that currently dominates my adult life. Games were a critical part of my development, so by dealing with the difficult ones, I’ve had the opportunity to face and cope with a lot of issues and memories that have held me back. It’s been a great experience, and it’s given me more control over my life than my therapist ever did.

But there’s one game I’ve been avoiding. It’s the granddaddy, the first, the game that all of the other white whales I’ve played to this point have been leading up to. I’ve allowed it to have a critical, unhealthy impact on my life. It helped set the stage for nearly every mental hang-up I would develop during my teen years. To this day, I’ve never been able to beat the first level legitimately.

That game is Double Dragon for the NES.

———

I’m eight years old, sitting in front of the TV, crying.

I finally got my own NES two weeks ago, so my mother has rented a new game from the video store every day without fail. After a trip to the theater and fifty cents spent at an Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom arcade machine, I came home from school to find the NES port running in attract mode on our ancient CRT. When I expressed my love for Robocop after being finally allowed to watch the old-fashioned ultraviolence, she pointed the NES version out to me at the video store.

It’s around 8 a.m. I woke up early to sneak in some game time before school. Today’s game is Double Dragon, a game I occupy myself with whenever my mother does groceries. It’s my favorite game and I’ve never been so unhappy to be playing it.

It’s not the same as the arcade version. All I can do is punch and kick. The graphics don’t look right. I can’t play with one of my non-existent friends at the same time. That means I have to face Abobo, the steroid-infused boss of the first level, all on my own. For all my efforts, I can’t beat him. He towers over me, laughing off my punches and throwing me to the ground like every bully I’ll ever encounter. I can’t handle the feeling of helplessness. So, I cry.

My mother hears my crying and comes downstairs, thinking I’m injured. She asks me what’s wrong. I tell her that it’s Abobo. He knocks me off the conveyor belt and I die. There’s nothing I can do to beat him. He’s too big, too strong. Why am I so weak? Why can’t I be big, too?

She’s furious. How could I be so upset about a game? She threatens to take it away and never rent another game again. I’m ashamed and embarrassed. She’ll tell me years later that it broke her heart to see me crying over something that was supposed to make me so happy. Something she brought into my life.

It’s the first time I’ve been this frustrated. From my mother’s reaction, I learn that I can’t be open with my frustration and need to hide it from the people around me. I put Double Dragon back in the case and place it on the kitchen counter before I trudge up the stairs to get ready for school.

As someone who thrives on progress and personal improvement, I experience anxiety most often when I lose control of what’s going on around me. To me, Abobo represents the first time in my life where I craved agency and wasn’t able to exercise it. I felt like I couldn’t influence the outcome of that fight at all. Of course, I had all the choice in the world. I could have stopped playing. I could have let a stupid videogame not bother me. I could have kept trying.

If only my 8-year-old self had the insight I have now. Maybe he would have done better in life. Maybe he had to fail in order for me to become who I am. Who’s to say?

All I know is that I have a date with a big, bald prick on the conveyor belt and I’m ready to end his hold on me.

———

I’m almost 31 years old and I’m staring at the envelope sitting at the edge of my desk. It most assuredly contains the copy of Double Dragon I triumphantly ordered off of eBay, yet am now reluctant to play. I know that inside that envelope, Billy and Jimmy Lee are waiting, giving each other that permanent “Fuck Yeah!” bro pose.

Finally, I flare my pocketknife and rip the package apart. There it is. Loose cart, but perfect. I take my time cleaning the connectors with diluted rubbing alcohol and Q-tips. It’s cathartic. Long, smooth strokes, like a knife over a whetstone. I’m not about to let someone else’s crud glitch my vengeance.

Eventually, I get the courage to begin. Mission 1. Marion takes her shot to the stomach and goes down. It wrecks me every time I see it. I hate seeing girls get hit.

Two enemies come at me. I’m rusty and take a few licks, but they go down with a few punches. One more steps up behind them to have a taste. He’s easier than the other two, but he’s still practice. I have the range of my kicks zeroed in now.

More friends come out to play. I’m noticing a pattern. Only two enemies at once and they have to be the same enemy. The man behind the curtain shuffles nervously. The blue ape will have new playmates soon enough.

I lure the two Lindas up a ladder and kick them down. What did you think would happen? They get stuck on a wall, so I finish them both off on their level. Two ripped guys approach. One knocks me down with a barrel. I pick it up and send it back to him and all of his friends in turn. We’re not in this for style.

More enemies. My training returns. I use vertical positioning to lure them onto my plane. Linda with a whip is tricky. She approaches vertically while keeping her distance. Surprisingly advanced for one of the worst arcade ports ever. I take her whip and drop her and her friends.

The warehouse door opens. It’s time.

Inside, two thugs provide a lackluster warm-up. They flash out of existence and the back door opens. Abobo appears. I rush at him, mashing my punches, hoping to beat the odds. He knocks me down easily with his muscled reach. I realize that I never lost as a kid due to lack of skill; Abobo is just a cheap sack of shit, designed to have every advantage. I don’t feel so bad for losing in my youth.

I lure him onto the conveyer belt, but he won’t step over the edge. I close in and we hit each other at the same time. We both careen over the end. Pyrrhic victory, but not good enough. The battle restarts.

This time, I use my kicks to outrange him, like Van Damme would have. I work his testicles for a while until I’m satisfied. I lure him back onto the conveyor belt, staying just outside of his range. He swings. I move in and kick him once. He falls off the end and plummets to his death. No points awarded, but the job is done.

Mission 2 starts. I turn off the game and take the cartridge out. My work here is done. For me, the game is over.

———

I’m almost 31 years old and I’m getting ready to leave for work. At the end of my desk sits Double Dragon. Fuck Yeah, Billy and Jimmy. You’ll make an excellent gift for my keyboardist. He doesn’t have you in his collection yet. Hell, according to the alphabet, you have every chance of getting placed next to Dr. Chaos. Say hello to the blue ape and Abobo for me. Tell them they’re nothing to me now.

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