Thursday, March 7, 2013

Kyle Justin - The Unsung Hero Of The Angry Video Game Nerd

It seems almost unfortunate that of the original folks responsible for the enduring popularity of the Angry Video Game Nerd franchise, theme song composer and independent musician Kyle Justin is the one who gets the least screentime in the series. Obviously, we see James Rolfe since he's the Nerd... sometimes, we'll see Mike Matei in some costume that looks better than his performances... and on rare occasions, we'll have a guest appearance from new folks or some familiar personality... but the number of times Kyle Justin makes his presence felt in the AVGN series, barring any musical cues, is far few and between. It is unfortunate because, whenever he appears onscreen in a Nerd video, he ends up being the most entertaining and humorous of the bunch. And oftentimes, the highlight of a Nerd video.

Case in point; the recent episode of AVGN covering the NES version of Ikari Warriors.

The NES conversion of Ikari Warriors is not a particularly good game, even when taking into consideration that it would be impossible for the NES to replicate the original arcade game's unique rotary controls. And indeed, even of its own merits, it was a slow, plodding, and ultimately mundane game that seemed to drag forever, played horribly, and gave you little incentive to press onward or try your very best to overcome the game's extreme difficulty. Even with the ABBA continue code or the hidden Level Select code, Ikari on NES gave little reason for gamers to give a damn, especially when they had a much superior run and gun game in Commando, whose NES conversion graced store shelves in 1986.

See, Rolfe? That was a more fairer comparison than the one you pulled out. I know Super C is the easy example, but Ikari Warriors was released in May 1987, while Super C was released in April 1990. Of course, the 1990 game is going to pull it off better!

Now, here's the part that I added in a day or so later to clarify a point that people are probably going to miss when reading what I'm going to say. James Rolfe -  is a talented filmmaker who could make the most of what he has and produce some really entertaining stuff, as evident by some of his short films and documentaries such as The Deader, The Better and Rocky Jumped A Parkbench. And I definitely found his movie reviews and his Monster Madness marathons to be quite informative and entertaining. So the man has that talent to produce some quality stuff. Unfortunately, when it comes to the on-screen presence - you know, the acting or overacting, more like - Rolfe is pretty crap at it.

Now I'm of the belief that that the Nerd hasn't been great and worth watching since 2007 and I don't consider that to be a negative because in my mind, 2007 was the Nerd's best year in terms of quality and nothing he has done since (or will do, it seems) will match that level of excellence. Sure, there have been some duds along the way, but then there are some really funny and charming videos such as the Spiderman (sp) one (with Kyle Justin) or his Nintendo Power retrospective. The Halloween episodes of that year, which covers the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween games for the Atari 2600, are probably his best sketch based AVGN episodes due to how different they felt and are the only episodes to truly showcase Rolfe's talent as a filmmaker. I could dwell into this a little more, but that's not the point of this post.

Anyway, as far as the episode goes... it was mildly entertaining. A couple chuckles to be had here and there, but unfortunately, none of them was a result of Rolfe's performance or anything of the sort. As a matter of opinion - and I know some folks will find this stuff humorous or whatever, and that's fine - Rolfe's performances in these past few AVGN offerings came off as tired, uninspired, bland, stale... it just feels like something that's phoned in. The joy is gone. The charm is gone. It's been done before. It's been done better. There's really nothing left in the tank as far as the Nerd thing goes. At least, that's how I see it. Others will believe otherwise and, again, that's fine.

When I read that the Ikari video was going to be mostly improvisational,  I thought that maybe that would help matters a bit. Maybe a more spontaneous kind of Nerd video would make things a bit more interesting... and it did... but again, none of that was due to the Nerd. He brought nothing to the table that had me laughing or chuckling or even smiling. His skits were tiresome and (not in a good way) stupid that made me feel dumber for watching it. None of his jokes were that great... I don't know... Rolfe just seemed to be going through the motions. I'm sure that's not really the case, but at the same time, I don't feel any of that natural charisma or screen presence that he's supposed to be have. It's a tired act that made for what would have been a mediocre episode... and it's because of this aspect that I fear for the upcoming AVGN movie.

Which brings me to Kyle Justin.

Kyle Justin, for all intents and purposes, is the highlight of any AVGN production. His interpretation of a drunken hobo in a Spider-Man costume (that's how I prefer to see it, anyway) is one of the few things that still gets a laugh or two from the old AVGN backlog of videos. He was a joy to watch in that Battletoads video, going from whimpering guitar guy just wanting to play a game or two to an irritated and frustrated guitar guy who's happier sitting behind the couch - a role that he pulls off with absolute brilliance. And his few appearances in that God-Fucking-Awful Crazy Castle video are the only highlights of a video that can only be described as the internet equivalent of water boarding... God only knows what kind euphemism can be said for the much-maligned 100th episode, which is FAR, FAR WORSE. Not even Kyle Justin could save that one.

The tease of Kyle Justin's possible appearance in this new AVGN - the first in many years - was what intrigued me more than anything, because other than the Atari Sports games - which was rather... bleh, for lack of a more coherent word - I haven't seen any of the recent AVGN offerings of 2012. No reason to, because the AVGN was, in my mind, boring. Predictable. Bland. It wasn't funny in either a clever way or a dumb way. It was... bland. So, when I found that Kyle Justin might make a big return to the AVGN franchise that he helped become what it is, that piqued my interest. Didn't care what it was about, didn't care what the Nerd was going to do... all I cared about was how Kyle Justin was going to steal the show.

And steal the show he did.

Starting off as a skeleton and resurrected, the first highlight comes when he's strumming the old AVGN theme old-school style and not missing a beat. I always found the raw, acoustic interpretation of the AVGN theme to be best and would prefer that having played over the over-produced version that would be used and sold. From there, Kyle Justin fills in as second player and with what little he has to work with, he manages to pull it off convincingly, breaking into brief bits of song and making the bland jokes (Rambo Commando? Seriously, Rolfe? That's the best joke you can come up with?) somewhat chuckle-worthy. He does such a brilliant job with what he's got that, quite honestly, every time Rolfe does appears on screen to deliver another dumb joke or make another one of his tired and moronic forced facial expressions, I'm often thinking, "Shut the fuck up, man, and just let Kyle Justin talk some more."

Because you know what? Kyle Justin does a better job reacting to what's going on screen than James Rolfe. I'm being completely serious. His reactions to the game, both in terms of delivery of his lines and the facial expressions especially, come off as natural, it doesn't feel forced, and he does come off as lively in spite of his subdued performance. Seriously, Rolfe, why the fuck didn't you get Kyle Justin to do some videos this past year while you were making a movie featuring much better actors? It would have offset the more-miss-than-hit output of Irate Mike Matei, whose content has been, well, more miss than hit.

It always seemed to me that if they really needed someone to fill in as secondary Nerd clone disguised as a generic caricature from whatever game is being played for a guest spot, Kyle Justin would've suited the role perfectly because he nails that archtype in a way that makes it believable and enjoyable. Unlike Rolfe, whose portrayal of that archtype has gradually degraded over the years to the point that his attempts at humor and feigning anger is on par with that of a hemophiliac on blood thinners, Justin does have that natural talent and ability to turn even the poorest bits into solid gold. He's the kind of performer that delivers his very best with whatever is given to him, makes the most of it, and manages to make a crap show that much better because he's really good at what he does. So good, in fact, that he not only OUTPERFORMS but also OUTSHINES Rolfe in every conceivable way. Even within the realm of silly internet videos that aren't supposed to be taken seriously.

And so, I tip my coffee mug up to you, Kyle Justin. It's good to see you back in action one more time... and hopefully, the first of many guest stints in future AVGN or Cinemassacre productions.

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