As I type this, one of my longstanding gaming prayers has just been answered: Jaleco’s Rod Land, one of my favourite games of all time, has just got an Arcade Archives release on Switch and PlayStation 4. This is, to my knowledge, the first time the original arcade game has ever been rereleased on any platform. It even lets you start straight at the “sequel” set of levels if you want to.
I’ve written about Rod Land before — as well as showing the excellent Atari ST version in the Atari A to Z series — but what I haven’t done is share a personal story about why this game is especially important to me. And why, in retrospect, the first time I encountered it was probably a defining experience for me, not just in terms of gaming, but also in terms of things like self-expression, self-perception, taste and perhaps even a touch of gender identity, too.
So indulge me a moment, dear reader, and I’ll tell you why Rod Land means so much to me.
As has hopefully been fairly well established on this ‘ere site by this point, I grew up with video games through some of their earliest days in the mainstream; some of my most treasured childhood memories are of playing games on the Atari 8-bit and later the Atari ST. Gaming — or more accurately simply “using the computer” — was something that my whole family got involved with, and everyone had their own things that they were interested in. My mother enjoyed adventure games, creative writing using word processors and rudimentary desktop publishing with The Print Shop; my father was fascinated by SubLogic’s Flight Simulator II and the possibilities that MIDI on the Atari ST offered; my brother, ten years my senior, was very much into gaming — and writing about games, which eventually led to a long and fruitful career in the industry which is still going strong; and me? Well, I was starting to figure some things out about myself.
I knew that gaming was important to me. There were lots of things that fascinated me about it: the visual stimulus; the musical element, which I learned to appreciate early thanks to my studies of the piano from an early age; the mechanical component, where you had to learn how to play things properly in order to engage more deeply with them; and even the social aspect, where you could do things with your friends — or at the very least, talk about the experiences you’d had.
The 16-bit home computer era marked an important moment so far as gaming was concerned, because it represented a time where game creators’ creativity was somewhat less constrained by the technology itself, and instead the artistic side of things could be pushed to the forefront — still within certain limitations, but far fewer of them than in the past. Specifically, if we compare the Atari 8-bit to the Atari ST, we’re looking at a shift between the 8-bit’s seventeen different screen modes, each of which have their own limitations, colour palettes and resolutions, and the ST cutting this down to just three, only one of which — the 320×200, 16 colour “low resolution” mode — is regularly used for games.
This might not immediately sound super-significant, but the important thing here is standardisation. While one might argue that the 8-bit’s wider range of screen modes offers more flexibility — as well as a more distinctive, iconic, immediately identifiable look to the visuals of the system — the simpler format of the ST’s graphics meant that artists could concentrate entirely on making things look nice within clearly defined limits rather than demonstrating their technological mastery by, say, doing things that you “weren’t supposed to be able to do” in Graphics 11 or whatever.
The upshot of all this is that the 16-bit era is where we really started to see games with distinctive art styles that were unique to the game, rather than necessarily to the hardware. There was still an element of distinctiveness to the different 16-bit platforms, of course — the longstanding rivalry between the Atari ST and the Commodore Amiga was based largely on the latter’s ability to display more colours on screen, for example, which meant in most cases you could immediately tell an ST game from an Amiga game from just a screenshot — but for the most part, creators were able to express themselves somewhat more “artistically” than “technically”.
It was around this time that we started to see what the press of the era typically referred to as “cutesy” games. In retrospect, a lot of these games tended to either be ports of Japanese arcade or console titles, or simply games that were attempting to ape the Japanese style in one way or another. There was often a certain amount of disparagement towards games that looked like this — and indeed, when Rod Land finally hit the Atari ST in 1991, The Sales Curve (the company who ported the game to home computers) even advertised it with the rather self-deprecating slogan “so cute it’ll make you puke”.
The reason for this sort of reaction can be attributed to any number of things, but probably the most likely explanation is the perception of computer and video games as being something of a “boy’s” activity. Looking back on the history of gaming, we can of course see that this was a very silly way of looking at things — particularly given how many talented women put out some amazing games in the medium’s early years (see Carol Shaw’s River Raid, Dani Bunten’s M.U.L.E., Carla Meninsky’s Warlords and Cathryn Mataga’s Shamus, among numerous others) — but it’s hard to deny that it was a popular perception of the time, and one often reinforced by the media.
With the stereotype of something being a “boy’s” activity in the ’80s and ’90s came certain expectations — guns, bombs, explosions, fast cars, trophy women, space aliens, soldiers, aeroplanes, all that sort of thing. Something that emphatically did not fit into this stereotype was a game about a pair of pretty little fairies trying to rescue their mother through the use of their sparkly magic wands and rainbow-powered shoes, and how said fairies made a point of stopping to pick flowers while fending off the assembled forces of bunny rabbits, tearful sharks and what appear to be sentient ears of corn.
Rod Land was, in other words, a “girl’s game”. At least so far as my ill-informed, 10 year old mind was concerned. And in my defence, I wasn’t seeing a lot of resistance to this perception at the time. “Cute” games were something that was a bit of a joke to many people — but there must have been some appeal somewhere, because we were starting to see more and more of them. And there was something inside me that was interested and very, very curious.
And so, one month when ST Action magazine had a demo of Rod Land on the front cover, I made a point of ensuring I picked up a copy. I liked the magazine anyway, but my primary reason for purchasing it that particular month was the Rod Land demo — also the Another World demo was something I wanted to see, too, but that is, of course, a whole other thing not immediately relevant to the matter at hand.
I booted up the disk, gave Rod Land a go… and I was immediately in love. I was in love with the game, I was in love with the colourful aesthetic, I was in love with the jangly music… and I was in love with Rit, the player 1 character with the long pink hair. Prior to my first time with Rod Land, I don’t recall ever having played a female character in a game before — though that’s not to say there weren’t any female-led games out there, of course — and it felt… new, and interesting. I liked Rit; I found her attractive — particularly when she performed her idle animation of winking at the player, which she also does on the loading screens in the Atari ST version — but there was something more, too. I enjoyed playing as her; I enjoyed the novelty value of playing as someone or something that wasn’t a soldier or a spaceship or some sort of abstract object — or, perhaps most significantly, male.
Initially, I felt… I guess I’d call it a certain amount of shame. I was worried about being caught playing this game, lest I got called a girl or something. (I was about ten at the time, remember; these things mattered at that age, particularly in the early ’90s.) Of course, the members of my family are not the sort of people who would have done something like that to me — I didn’t even have much of a sibling rivalry with my brother at the time, since the large age gap between us meant there wasn’t any real “competition” or hostility between us — but I was still concerned. The popular perception of this game — and, indeed, as previously noted, the main marketing slogan — was that it was “so cute, it’ll make you puke”. That didn’t seem like something a young boy should be seen engaging with.
But I played it a bit more, and became more comfortable with it, and realised that I was unironically having a good time. I was enjoying it both for its colourful aesthetic — which was new and exciting at the time, since I’d not really come across much Japanese popular media before — and its solid mechanics. It wasn’t “turning me into a girl” or making me any “less of a man”, as I initially worried; it was just something I enjoyed that was a little bit different from other things I’d played up until this point — and which perhaps had a bit of a public image problem, no thanks to the people who were supposed to be promoting it!
So why should I feel ashamed about playing it? I should be playing this game with pride, specifically because it was something a bit different; I should be happy with my own open-mindedness and willingness to engage with something that appeared to be outside the area of the media I was “supposed” to be involving myself with.
And I was. Rod Land kicked off a lifelong interest with the cuter side of life. From the time I played that demo onwards, I was fascinated by other games that looked like it. I became interested in anime and its possibilities for storytelling like nothing I’d ever seen before in animated form; I became interested in console gaming beyond the possibilities of the home computers we’d had up until that point. I successfully convinced my parents to get me a Super NES one Christmas. Over the years, I became fascinated with Japanese games on the original PlayStation and beyond — to such a degree that any time my friends saw something that vaguely resembled an RPG on our local video game store’s shelves, they joked that I was definitely going to buy it. (I usually did, to be fair.)
Most of all, though, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to suggest that the entire reason I’m sitting here typing this on this specific site today is because of that initial encounter with Rod Land on ST Action cover disk number 28.
With Rod Land, I learned an important lesson about defining yourself and being comfortable in your own skin, even if you know you’re doing things a bit outside the “norm”. In the grand scheme of things, liking a video game that some people found nauseatingly cute at its time of original release isn’t a huge deal — particularly because it turns out Rod Land is actually an extremely fondly remembered game today, especially in its Atari ST incarnation — but it nonetheless represents an important moment in my life… and without it, I suspect I wouldn’t be the same person I am today.
So thanks, Rod Land; it’s really good to see you again. I’m up for an all-nighter if you are.
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