Thoughts on the Buckaroo Banzai RPG

Back in 1984, I saw The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai in the theater on opening day. I sat through it twice. After that, I ate up everything Banzai-related that I could lay hands on. I joined the Blue Blaze Irregulars, and got the little info packet and the pin. I had patches on my jackets. I had a poster hanging on my wall, a bootleg tape of the soundtrack, and two copies of the novelization (one to read, and re-read, and read again, and one to keep in pristine condition on my shelf). Everyone I knew was forced to watch the movie; those that were interested got to borrow the tattered copy of the book. And of course I ran, and even wrote, some Banzai-inspired roleplaying games.

Adamant Entertainment has announce an officially licensed roleplaying game, coming in 2012. One would think that I’d be thrilled. It’s as if the mothership is returning. Somehow, I’m unable to muster a lot of enthusiasm.

On the day in 1984, there were no more than 6 or 8 people in the theater with me at my first screening, half that at the second. The film was never a commercial success, and in spite of its cult following it’s still not exactly a household word. I mean, the Special Edition DVD is marked down to less than $7 US on Amazon. Which is, like, half a step above being out of print again. Not everyone that I’ve screened the film for has become a convert; most just sort of nod and smile politely. Then there are the heartbreaking rumors and the broken promises. They’re finally making the sequel! They’re making a TV series! Earl Mac Rauch is writing a new series of novels! Well, we should be grateful that we got a handful of new comics, but the rest of the stuff never materialized. Buckaroo’s in trouble, and the Buckaroo IP has been in trouble since the end credits promised to show us the World Crime League.

Not that I don’t have faith that Adamant Entertainment will deliver. I’m sure that the game will be on time and of excellent quality, in line with the company’s reputation. I guess my question is, why? 27 years gone since 1984, 27 years full of might-have-beens. 27 years of failing to catch on in the popular imagination, of failing to garner more than a small cult following. Sure, tabletop roleplaying is a niche market, the perfect place for something that will undoubtedly only have a limited print run. This industry pretty much exists to cater to small cult followings. It wouldn’t be worth it for a big company to publish this; it has to be a company that can afford to perform labors of love. I understand, and appreciate that. I like living in a world where this is possible.

Yet… it all seems sort of sad.

Over dozens, probably hundreds, of screenings of the film, it’s really not that great. Hey! Hey! Don’t be mean. There’s no need to be mean. You know it to be true. It’s possible to love a flawed thing, and sometimes we love things specifically because they’re flawed. Watching it recently, it really doesn’t hold up. The writing seems weak, mostly due to poor editing. The plot has holes. The special effect aren’t really so special. The acting is wonderful, though. It’s a great cast, camping it up and chewing scenery, except for Peter Weller, who makes it all hang together by being totally serious, completely deadpan about all of the weirdness going on around him.

I think we love the idea of Buckaroo Banzai more than we love Buckaroo Banzai. We recognize a spark of something wonderful, we see all of the potential in the ideas, if not the actual execution, and we want more. Yet it never arrives. It never blossoms. It never grows. It’s always no more than the seed of a good idea. We hold on… like Jerry Lewis, he gives us strength to carry on, and we cling to hope. Buckaroo Banzai, like some of H.P. Lovecraft’s lesser works, informs and inspires so many other, better things. That makes me happy, that is a wonderful thing, and that’s a better testament to BB than repeated attempts to revive the corpse. Part of me thinks we should just let it go, move on, take what works and run with that into new, original works. It’s not 1984 any more. Syncopated music and skinny ties are so dated.

What the game will give us, though, is the ability to explore that potential, to tell the stories that we were never told, to create the sequels and the prequels and new adventures that were never given to us, to embrace it and make Buckaroo Banzai our own, the way we’ve always wanted. Maybe it can always be 1984, in our campaign. Maybe it’s 1938, and the campaign is centered on Hikita-san. Maybe it’s 1955 and we’re in the Texas desert, and explore the story ideas that arise from the deaths of Masado and Sandra. Maybe it’s 2012 and Buckaroo, now 62 years old, is leading a new team of Hong Kong Cavaliers. Maybe the team is led by the kids he and Peggy had, who would be in their 20s now. It can work. It can be glorious.

Yet, I’m still afraid it’s going to break my heart all over again.

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9 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Buckaroo Banzai RPG

  1. Great post. I think you’re right about loving the idea of it more than the thing itself. I did not see the movie when it came out but had always heard how great it was. Upon seeing it I did find it unique and interesting, but not especially good. I own it, and like it, but in some ways it is a mess of a movie. Still, I like that they are making a game of it, and would love to get it when it is released. It actually makes sense, unlike a lot of licensed games that are really only special because of the main characters (not the PCs), such Indiana Jones. What is Indy’s world except a pulpy Earth that has Indy living in it? Take him out to make your own PCs and it’s like any other pulp game. In the case of BB, you have the Blue Blaze Irregulars already established as helping Buckaroo directly on his adventures. That works out nicely for an RPG.

  2. Well said. That’s it exactly. Bittersweet.

    • In a conversation today I summed it up this way: When I was in high school in 1982 my best friend asked his older brother if he could borrow his brand new car to impress his prom date. This feels faintly of the older brother walking up *today* and handing him the keys to that ’82 Dodge and saying “have fun!”

  3. Pingback: Thoughts on the Buckaroo Banzai RPG (via Berin Kinsman’s Dire Blog) | Dr. Checkmate presents

  4. I think you nailed it. But, I like to hope it’ll be awesome. :)

  5. I could totally see running my son in a BB2012 campaign. :-)

  6. “I think we love the idea of Buckaroo Banzai more than we love Buckaroo Banzai.”

    This. This exactly, about so many things. Pulp fiction. Comic Books. Old School D&D.

    My love is a mix of nostalgia, a desire to see the world through younger eyes, the promise of missed potential, and the hope of undiscovered potential.

    This.

  7. I’m with you on pulp fiction and comic books, but having tested my nostalgia for BX D&D by running a game or two again, I have to say that rather than being disappointed I discovered a very well designed and focused game. It does its thing, little else, and it does it very well. I really expected to end up going all MST3K the first session and moving to another system, by it ran just fine with two thirds of my players being diehard 3e players. It was pleasant discovering that my glasses weren’t rose tinted and further, perhaps I had missed a diamond in the ruff back in those days of shiny new systems and supplements coming out constantly.

    Hell, I’m blogging monthly now about Savage Worlds and BX. My BX posts are almost six months ahead of my Savage posts. I think that says a lot. OK. I am WAY off topic.

  8. I’ll be saying absolutely nothing about any RPGs. They’re out of my area.

    I was just trying to look up stories of when BB opened. I, too, saw it that week. At least two or three times. I even remember where I saw it–WillowLawn theater in Richmond. Over and over again–maybe there were 20 or 30 people in the theater the first night, fewer and fewer the later days.

    It went away, and back in those pre-VHS days I was fairly sure I’d never get to see it again. But then tapes started! When you could buy it, I did! Again watched it again and again.

    Just got an HDTV combo, and what was the first movie I watched on it? Buckaroo, of course, in all its somewhat cheesy glory!

    Despite all of the folk who harrass us for being devoted, they do have to admit that it has a really good cast. Ot mostly unknowns at the time, but….

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