What the Crap?: 8-bit Racism

Can't we all just get along?

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jackie-chan-racistWelcome to the 23rd installment of “What the Crap?”, where we take a hard look at just what the crap is going on in the world of gaming. This week, we examine racism. Racism is everywhere, in segregated bathrooms, diners, podcasts—even in our videogames. But why? There’s enough of it out there in the real world; why is it so profound in the artificial 8-bit world? Can’t we all just get along?

Ghostbusters

Ghostbusters for the NES is based on the hit film Ghostbusters—or at least, that was the objective. The movie starred Harold Ramis, Dan Akroyd, Bill Murray, and Ernie Hudson. The videogame would make you think that it only stared the first three, however. Each game area shows either two or three ghostbusters, but they’re always the same-looking white guys! They didn’t include Winston, for some reason. He was a pivotal ghostbuster, even though he wasn’t a scientist and didn’t show up until later in the film. He became the main driver of ECTO1 and was a great presence in the team. Here’s the conversation that must have gone on at Activision:

Developer 1: OK, I got the sprites together for the ghostbusters. I realize that they’re three white guys of average build, so I just went ahead and made them look exactly the same. All white people look the same, so this is a pretty accurate portrayal.

Manager: Didn’t the movie have four ghostbusters, though?

Developer 1: Oh…yeah, you’re right. Well, I never actually saw the movie, but I looked at the poster for a couple of seconds. Well, we could include him. Most of the scenes only show two ghostbusters…so I guess I can do a quick palette swap and make a black sprite in some of the scenes.

Manager: No…no. We want the game to look as bland and gray as possible. Throwing a black man in the game would totally screw up the color palette we’re going through. Don’t even bother.

Developer 2: OK, well, all we need to do then is proofread the ending screen.

Manager: Don’t bother. This game is so horrible and difficult no one will ever reach the end. We’re just putting the Ghostbusters logo all over the place so it sells well and…

Developer 1: Oh yeah, about that. I noticed that the logo is actually backwards on the main map screen. You know, the one where you’re driving around as the Ghostbusters logo for some reason. Yeah, it’s mirrored.

Manager : Ah well; no one will notice. Chances are, anyone playing this game doesn’t even know what Ghostbusters is. Ship it!


The ZUUL building (aka Dana Barret’s apartment) is apparently an ugly garage.

Mike Tyson’s Punch Out!!

You play as Little Mac, an equal-opportunity boxer, hell bent on smashing stereotype after stereotype as he makes his way up to the Dream Bout against Mike Tyson himself. You got the bandanna-wearing Japanese guy, the weakling Frenchman, the Flamenco-dancing Spaniard, the drunk Russian (although this changes to soda pop in USA), and the turban-wearing Indian. This game pretty much ran the full gamut of racial and ethnic stereotypes.

As graphics and sound improved, surely the bigotry would subside, right? Unfortunately, things seemed to just get more flamboyant and repugnant as the years went on.


An actual screenshot from the Wii version.

Jackie Chan’s Action KungFu

Jackie Chan. One of the most well-known Asian actors in mainstream America. Surely a Nintendo game with his shining endorsement should help to clear up some of the racism prevalent in the system. Well, let’s just boot it up and…holy crap! What happened to Jackie’s eyes?! It looks like he was in a horrible car accident and burned alive! Oh, Jackie! Jackie! What happened? Is this a quest to hunt down the drunk driver that did this to you? Oh wait, I see; your eyes are just way overly slanted, because all Asians look like that. What the crap, Jackie? I’m guessing that Jackie had absolutely nothing to do with this game. What’s strange is once you get past the title screen, Jackie looks like a normal-eyed individual, ready to kick a bunch of tigers and frogs. This reminds me of all the junk that Krusty the Clown puts his name on, but at least that was an accurate portrayal.

jackie

I’m sure I’ve missed some, but it’s clear that the late 80s and early 90s were pretty rampant with this stuff. Looking back, almost every game even had a white male protagonist, which says something itself.

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About the Contributor


Since 2006

Mark Freedman is a hard hitting reporter on just what the crap is going on in the world of video games.He also writes reviews and manages the staff Q&A column. Occasionally, he has been known to take a shower. zzzz

12 Comments

  1. True story: I was dicking around on a gamedev message board, and one of the more hardcore moderators (you know, the kind who posts “THIS POST DOESN’T BELONG HERE” on, like, every post) lists as a game he worked on the NES Ghostbusters. Wonder if it’s all his fault.

  2. RE Ghostbusters: New Ghostbusters 2 for NES has Winston.

    RE Punch Out for NES: you look at them as “stereotypes”, but aren’t considering that the Indian man wearing the turban is from India and the Japanese guy wearing the headband IS from Japan. This is how people do dress over there. It would be a better argument for a stereotype if all said characters were from the US and still dressing this way, but even still, it’s not unlike people that move here to hold on to their culture. You could look it as the game embracing a multicultural feel.

    RE Jackie Chan: I’m guessing you’ve never watched Japanese animation before… character design in old games begin as an illustration and Nintendo – being a Japanese based company – would often times implement the help of anime artists for such a task… by the way, these artist teams were from JAPAN, so the complaint you have is actually hilarious since the original renders were likely from Japanese men.

    It was a different time back then. No one was going on pointless PC crusades & racial witch-hunts, so there’s really no need in 2012 to shit on innocent games “just because…”. Enjoy them – They’re good games! Have fun!

    1. In reply to this “Um, actually” response:

      Ghostbusters: That’s why he was talking about Ghostbusters 1 and not 2.

      Punch Out: Punch Out is so full of ethnic stereotypes it became the theme of the Wii version, with Glass Joe exploding croissants when beaten. Throughout the series you’ve got an Indian guy that can teleport, you know, because Indians are mystical, you’ve got wussy Frenchman, a drunk Russian, a lumberjack Canadian, and an Italian guy named Pizza Pasta.

      Nobody is trying to seriously insinuate that NES games are created by a cabal of neo-nazis and KKK members. Enjoy it – it’s a good article! Have fun!

      1. Thanks Christian!

        Also wanted to respond about Jackie Chan. Jackie is Chinese, so I’m not sure the point you’re trying to make regarding the developers and artists being Japanese.

  3. Winston was a brand new character to the station in the first movie; almost in training. He’s a predominant character in the sequel because he’s because an actual established member of the team. So therefore it makes sense why his character was only featured in the second one.

    I was actually talking about Punch Out for the NES. I think the Wii is just following suit with all the other stereotyping media outlet – tv, movies, video games, music. You can’t escape it. I don’t think it negates the negative part of what they’re doing, but it’s just “kinda how it is” and is not limited to only video games. How a different note, the stereotypes used in the game aren’t negative, but rather playful, but that’s just me… I think the world has bigger concerning in mainstreaming stereotype and I believe that television is both the focal point and the main offender in propagating this way of thinking.

    I mentioned them being Japanese (and after some further investigating, the artist team was actually Korean) because I was pointing out that this team responsible for making this game was not a group of white people that just wanted to make Jackie look like some white dude. They’re typical rendering style – otherwise known as anime/manga – consists of round-eyed people and slanty-eyed people of Asian decent. They use the round eyes to express a deeper sense of emotion. It’s not racist. It’s just their drawing style.

    As i said before, the 80’s were a different time back them. People weren’t PC and, to be honest, people were fine with that. But the standards of exceptable stereotypes were different and acceptable among the world at the time. There’s no valid reason to sully the nostalgic image of these games just for the sake of… whatever it is you’re hoping to accomplish with exposing the truth of Nintendo’s hate in the 1980’s, or whatever, in 2012. Different society. Different time.

    please don’t take any of this as me being negative towards your pursuits. I think you have a good eye for detail and, personally, I would love to see you expose some of the truth about today’s racist mental-conditioning in movies and television – the stuff that people aren’t aware of. That’s the exposure that will actually matter. That’s the truth that people NEED in 2012.

    Have a good day

    1. I think you’re forgetting that we’re a website about videogames and videogame-related media. I mean, our tagline is “Gaming Outside the Mainstream”, so we’re not even looking to review modern, commonly-known games.

      It’s ok to like problematic things. Noone’s saying you need to stop liking these games. But, if you say “Well, it’s acceptable for it to be racist because it’s old”, you’re probably going to say it’s acceptable in other places.

      Not trying to make you out to be a bad guy or something. You just seem to be struggling to defend a silly position. Like, “These games can’t be bad because I like them and I’m not bad”. You seem like an ok guy, and liking things that are problematic doesn’t make you a bad person, so you really don’t need to defend the games on the basis that “They’re not racist because racism was more acceptable back then”.

  4. I, personally agree with the dude who says its no big deal cuz, well, its not. These are not racist entities being created, they are ethnically different. The headband, turban, rose in the mouth stuff is all done in the name of differentiation, not bigotry. I can appreciate you trying to skew things to help fit your article, but you gotta let people have their opinions without immediately telling them they’re wrong. First of all, cuz its bad for business. But also in this case, because the dude isn’t wrong, you are. Lol. Anyway, this article is mass old, and I’m not quite sure how i ended up here to begin with, but ya, lighten up on the very few people who are actually reading your garbage.

    1. I think you should read my comment above. It’s alright to like a game that has issues. You can like a game that has bad controls or bad graphics or bad music. You can like a game that features racist and stereotypical portrayals of other cultures. It’s just better to recognize that the portrayals are racist, rather than trying to defend the game by denying it.

    2. I’m not exactly sure if your comment is directed at me (the author) or someone else posting on here, or both.

      First of all, no one posted on here saying that anyone’s comment on here was wrong, except for you. Everyone has a right to their opinion, which is one of the reasons why you can post things on the internet. However, you really corrode this concept of an argument when you reply by simply saying “because the dude isn’t wrong, you are. Lol”

      Second, no one is suggesting that you like or dislike these games based on what I wrote.

      Third, you are right, some of these things are points of ethnicity (some of the Punch Out items), but most are about race. Still, the main point I was trying to make was points of unnecessary stereotyping and exclusion in 8-bit games.

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