Monday, June 29, 2009

RIP Robot Michael Jackson, 23:43 6/27/09 -- 00:03 6/28/09


That unmistakable hoot-howl, at once lilting and tormented -- I'm reminded of Werner Herzog's line on the Amazon jungle: "the birds do not sing; they shriek in pain" -- comes forth when you drop a credit into a Moonwalker cabinet. It used to be the loudest sound in the arcade, louder even than the theme music from the TRON game; you always knew when some poor sucker, his curiosity having got the better of him, was about to enter Michael Jackson's vitrual futuristic dance-battle adventure. Sometimes you'd get a savvy repeat customer, or a multiplayer group of them, who knew what a merciless quarter-sucker the game was, stocking up on continues right off the bat, as I'm doing right now:

WHOO-hoo! WHOO-hoo! WHOO-hoo! WHOO-hoo! WHOO-hoo! WHOO-hoo!

I'm not really standing in an arcade, and I'm not really feeding a week's worth of allowance into a real Moonwalker machine. This is all virtual, emulation. That's the beauty of digital media; it may exist, pristine, forever. We'll never see Nijinsky dancing with Les Ballets Russes, or John Barrymore's Hamlet, but long after the last physical Moonwalker cabinet is broken down and shipped to a Ghanian recycling centre to have the precious gold acid-leached out of its circuit boards, we'll still be able to play the game itself, on our laptops and iPhones, on any electronic device that can be coaxed or hacked into running an emulator, in perfect fidelity. As I am doing now. In memoriam.

Comix-style panels fly across the screen, setting up the scenario. An evil-grinning unsavoury type known as "MR. BIG The Boss" -- I know he's known as this because he seems to be wearing a sign to that effect -- is kidnapping children for some reason. It can't be a good reason; at best it could be a morally ambiguous reason. Perhaps MR. BIG The Boss is kidnapping children in order to save them from terrible circumstances, to give them a chance at a better life? MR. BIG The Boss might be to Child Protective Services what Batman is to the cops, a vigilante working outside the system to get the job done. Whatever, Michael Jackson's not having any of it. Besides, as MJ himself said, it doesn't matter who's wrong or right. He is going to show them how funky and strong is his fight. He is going to Just Beat It.

A little picture of the King of Pop comes on the screen -- this is 1990, and it's weird; at this point MJ's epic self-mutation is already as legendary and rubberneck-fascinating as his musical and choreographic accomplishments, but I'm looking at that picture going "Michael, you look fantastic! You can stop there!" -- and registers his displeasure in a two-frame animation. One defiant "HOOO!" later, and it is on, motherfuckers. On the streets.

Michael Jackson's not too keen on guns or knives or swords, or sword-guns, or any other videogame armaments. His weapon is Dance itself, augmented by glowing blue-white lightning bolts of pure will that he shoots out of his hands like a taser. He can also drop a funky Dance Bomb on the whole place; accidentally, fumbling around the keyboard trying to figure out the controls, this is the first move I trigger. A spotlight comes out of nowhere -- or maybe Michael has a fleet of choppers providing airborne pyrotechnic and lighting support? -- and the move is righteously busted, its power such that MR. BIG The Boss's henchmen, a weird mix of fat gangsters from the Twenties and sci-fi jumpsuit types, are compelled to helplessly dance along until it kills them.

Or does it? At the end there, Michael does this thing where he flings his hat and it flies around the screen trailing magical sparks before returning to him, boomerang-style. Maybe it's the hat that does the killing; maybe Michael borrowed the hat from Oddjob, or bought it at an auction to add to his Cabinet of Curiosities, knowing it would come in handy when MR. BIG The Boss made his play for the innocent children of Michaeljacksonville or whatever this weird city is supposed to be. Either way, I busted the righteous move too early; there were only two bad guys on the screen. A waste of precious righteousness, but at least I made an entrance, gave those henchpeople something to think about. I rescue a little girl trapped by magic rings like the ones Marlon Brando used to keep General Zod in the prisoner's box when the Kryptonian Science Council sentenced him to the Phantom Zone. She gives me a first-aid box in gratitude -- the parents and guardians of Michaeljacksonville are really into preparedness; all their kids are packing either EMS-grade trauma kits or Dance Bombs -- and runs off.

Dance, dance, dance; yaargh, yaargh, yaargh. These thugs go down pretty easy, but there sure are a lot of them. Are they really mercenaries, I wonder, or did MR. BIG The Boss just send out an open casting call and recruit every up-and-coming backup dancer in the state? A paycheck's a paycheck when you're struggling to the top, and some of these guys -- even the droids! -- display some pretty sick moves before the Dance Bomb (or maybe the hat) kills them for not being Bad enough. Hey, is that a chimpanzee in overalls and a longshoreman's jersey? It's Bubbles! Bubbles, over here! Whaddya got for me, little buddy? Maybe some more Dance Bombs, or... oh. Oh, OK. You turn Michael Jackson into a robot. I totally get it.

Michael Jackson's not too keen on guns, no. But Robot Michael Jackson? He fucking loves guns, laser guns especially. He loves laser guns so much that instead of hands he's got laser guns. Now he's just walking with his laser-gun arms outstretched like a mummy or a zombie, just lasering the living shit out of everything. BYOO-BYOO-BYOO-BYOO! It's kind of hard to aim, but who cares? Robot Michael Jackson's got lasers enough for everybody, but all the little kids trapped in those magic rings (note to self: MR. BIG The Boss a Kryptonian?? Investigate further) aren't even scared or anything. They just say a cheerful thank-you -- very polite, these Michaeljacksonian sprouts -- and hand over their first-aid kits, happy to help Robot Michael Jackson hand-laser his way to the end-level miniboss, which is a couple of Tilt-A-Whirl carriages with flamethrowers where the seats ought to be. Yeah!

Haters, step right off; Michael Jackson was fucking awesome. WHOO-hoo!

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