River City Breaks was an exhibition/project at Walled City. It had two primary components, a series of giclee prints based on the Nintendo Entertainment System game River City Ransom, and an installation/sculpture that allowed up to six people (in pairs) play River City Ransom at the same time.
History and Ideas Behind the Project
River City Ransom is a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) game that looms large in my personal memories of childhood. Together with my neighbor, Chris Doty, I spent a seemingly vast amount of time playing and re-playing this game. My memories of childhood are woven through with the narratives and experiences of many video games, but River City Ransom continues to fascinate me to this day.
In 2001 I started actively obsessing about RCR. I began using a NES emulator to play the game on the computer and started taking hundreds of bitmap screenshots of the game and manipulating them in MS Paint. I fiddled around with the bitmaps of the game for about a year or so before I really got interested in using the game as source material for a project. I started collecting screenshots to isolate sprite graphics for later use at that time. When I started making the illustrations that became the River City Breaks project, I had about 1100 screenshots, which I used to generate both backgrounds and reference images for the body of work.
About River City Ransom
I’m obsessed with River City Ransom. I think that the game was vastly ahead of its time and that it contains the nucleus for the type of semi-open ended gaming of the sort that’s present in Grand Theft Auto and other games today. As a child, I spent what must have been hundreds of hours playing the game in co-op mode with my across the street neighbor, Chris Doty. It seemed to have endless re-playability, and I never, ever grew tired of it. In the game you play either Alex or Ryan, and must fight your way through various street gangs to reach an end battle with Slick, who has kidnapped Ryan’s girlfriend, Cyndi.
Having the giclee prints made was simple, and we stretched them ourselves, not so simple. The core of the exhibition was an immense three-monitor video game cabinet called the NESvision System (I hate naming things). The whole thing was painted a glossy primary blue. It had a sort of C-shaped companion unit that enclosed a couch for players to sit on. Both sections were constructed on wheels so that they could be moved to the back of the gallery after the exhibition closed.
The NESvision System was powered by three Pentium II computers running Nesticle to emulate the game. In retrospect it would have been better to use original NES consoles, but I thought I might use the object for other projects which would require a computer. It was large enough that the operator could open a hidden door on the side and go inside to service the computers. Six players could cram into the thing and all play at the same time, which was the point of the installation – the crowding, the sharing of the experience, the close quarters. I don’t have a decent photo of the thing, as I didn’t own a camera at the time of the show, but someone may have. Today, almost every part of the construction and design seems primitive and stupid – but it was my first solo show, and I didn’t quite know what I was doing, nor how to do it.
I realize that this project came to fruition at the same time that a lot of pop culture video game art started emerging, quickly followed by the first I Am 8-Bit show at Gallery 1988 in Los Angeles. I was really proud of this project, and it’s aborted sequel (more on that in a bit), but as an artist, I had a real aversion to the kind of crappy nostalgia that I saw most video game art pandering to. River City Breaks was an intensely personal project for me, and although there was a huge amount of interest in the work, it was really only of a nostalgic nature – not something that I was trying to achieve with the work. I think I was naive to believe that the public was interested in considering this kind of material as a serious subject.
I have since used 8-bit imagery as reference in some of my other work – one of the images used in the Avian Flu Awareness Project installation/performance at Walled City was based upon an 8-bit image, but I have a real aversion to working with the material, as I think it really paints one into a corner. I still have a deep passion for the aesthetics of 8-bit graphics, and I would like to incorporate them into my work in some way, but I haven’t found a place for them in anything that I’m doing.