McGinnis: James Rolfe — In praise of a nerdWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s virtually impossible to quote the subject of this column in a family newspaper. It seems like every other sentence he utters is laced with some form of profanity, with a variety and creativity that approaches a vulgar art form. He is ranting about what he hates, which is much. He always wears a white, button-down shirt and glasses, with a front pocket jammed to the brim with Sharpies. He is a nerd. In fact, he is the Nerd.
The character’s name is the Angry Video Game Nerd. As portrayed by creator/filmmaker James Rolfe and loved by thousands of fans on the Internet, the Nerd is both an embodiment and parody of the world of retro video gaming. His Web show is dedicated to analyzing old games (his subjects are almost all from the ’80s and early ’90s), finding all the flaws inherent in their construction, then ripping them to shreds in as funny and profane a way as possible.
The first question is obvious: Why would anyone spend so much time harping on the flaws of a product now decades out-of-date? But that’s part of the joke, of course. His over-the-top criticisms are based in reality, sure, and anyone who played the titles he discusses will spend much time nodding in agreement. But the level and longevity of his anger push his commentaries from simple criticism into outright absurdity.
The character was born out of accident. Rolfe, as he has discussed in numerous interviews and documentaries, has been a filmmaker for most of his life. He was always trying new ideas and seeing what happened. One day in 2004, he made a video where he verbally ripped apart the classic Nintendo game “Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest.” The goal was not a franchise, but simply a joke for friends.
Two more angry reviews followed, and for years, almost none outside of Rolfe’s circle would see what became known as the “Angry Nerd Trilogy.” Finally, in 2006, Rolfe’s friend and frequent collaborator Mike Matei (known to fans by a nickname which also cannot be printed here) convinced him to post the videos to YouTube.
The titles struck a chord with gamers. Before he knew it, Rolfe was at the center of one of the most popular franchises on the Web. He still ranks among the 100 most subscribed channels of all time on YouTube, despite the fact that new episodes have been exclusively posted to GameTrailers.com for years. The show recently celebrated the release of its 100th episode.
How can a show built seemingly on one joke maintain popularity for more than 100 installments? A number of reasons. For one thing, Rolfe is first and foremost a consummate filmmaker. The Nerd’s escapades are not as simple as constantly showing him ranting about an old game. The episodes frequently feature action sequences, sight gags, visual effects, an overarching storyline, guest stars and more. Though Rolfe’s core concept is relatively simple, he doesn’t take that as a cue to be lazy.
Rolfe has also used his platform to do more than simply bash the bad of the gaming world. He also takes time to celebrate the good, reviewing classic games and analyzing their impact, as well as explaining to fans unfamiliar with gaming history the story behind some of the most rare and fascinating titles.
Beyond simply poking fun at the industry’s failings, the Nerd also reminds his fans why they love games in the first place.
The series is influential in another way, as well. Rolfe has made more than 300 films, by his count. Like many on the independent scene, he has struggled with the issue of distribution — how can you get new material made outside of the studio system?
Rolfe’s amazing success in posting his videos online, both on YouTube and his own website, cinemassacre.com, reaffirms the possibilities of the new era of entertainment.
If an artist wants to find an audience, he or she is no longer constrained by the shackles of conventional distribution. Artists can take their work to the people directly. The channels are there, and they’re open to everyone. If someone wants to see what you do, you can find an outlet to deliver it to them. This is the greatest lesson to be taken from Rolfe’s success. His most famous creation is vulgar, hilarious, obscene, insightful, occasionally childish — and an inspiration to creative minds everywhere.
Email Jeff at PopGoesJeff@gmail.com.