Stuart Ashen, aka Ashens, is a comedian, actor, journalist, author, and living legend in the retro video game community. We recently had the honor of chatting with him about his new film Ashens and the Polybius Heist, available now on your local internet.
The movie follows a ragtag team of collectors on a heist to steal the infamous game Polybius, until now believed to be an urban legend. On the heels of writing a history of the mythical arcade cabinet, I got the opportunity to screen the movie and chat with Stuart.
The film itself is delightful — a perfect love letter to the booming retro game collecting community. But before you stream it with your family over this lonely holiday weekend, hear from Ashens himself what inspired the movie, why Amazon won’t sell one of his books, and which retro game even he can’t seem to get his hands on.
Ryan: How does it feel to have the career that everyone in my line of work wishes they had?
Stuart: Oh, be careful what you wish for. It's been a lot of work over the last couple of years. It's been a strange thing. I mean, imagine if the careers advisor at school had said to me, "What you should do is stick stuff in front of a sofa and film it and make jokes occasionally." I'd have been like, "Okay. And what would I do with that footage?" "Upload it to YouTube." "What's YouTube?" "It's a website that doesn't exist because there isn't any internet yet." You know, it's just bizarre.
We were joking the other day actually and saying, "All those years I spent studying, I should have just played more video games. Because that would have actually done me in better stead probably for what I'm doing at the moment." Such is life, I suppose.
Ryan: All the time I think about the fact that my parents would discourage me from “wasting” my money on video games or like spending all day on the internet. And now I think like, "God, I wish I’d been able to do more.”
Stuart: Right? But recently I dropped a friend's daughter off at school, at a primary school, and there's a big sign saying, "No phones or tablets in the playground." Afterwards, I said "My goodness,” because they're quite young, primary school age. "Are kids that young having phones and tablets? That seems a bit..." And he said, "No, not at all. That sign is there for the parents. They'd have parents just not watching what the child was doing because they're too busy watching their phone or whatever." Fascinating.
Ryan: People are throwing themselves into video games like never before. If you look at the quarantine landscape of entertainment, the Nintendo Switch is the most popular thing around. But most “mainstream” entertainment media still do not seem to understand gamers, nerds, the internet. Yet you look at YouTube and there's so much funny and sharp gaming and nerdy content. But Hollywood and its equivalents still don’t get it. Does it inspire you to prove them wrong?
Stuart: As we all know from films and things, it's obviously a big problem. Gatekeepers and the people at the top just weren't interested in video games because they were a little bit too old or whatever. As a result, they don't understand it. So it doesn't exist, or it is evil and must be burned in the fires of hell. For years we were [unsuccessfully] trying to pitch some sort of TV thing about video games around the UK.
One of the most popular programs ever to this day on Channel 4 was GamesMaster, which was literally a video game TV program. It did it quite well back in the ‘90s, but no, they just totally ignore it. We've had the weirdest excuses. Things like, "Well, you see, the problem is, video games are competing with television. People playing video games are not watching television. Why would we make programs to encourage that?" "Yeah. Okay, dipshit, what about all these film programs? I don't know if you've noticed this, you can't watch films and television simultaneously. What about all the sports programs?"
Very rarely in a popular soccer match have I ever seen one team entirely sit down to watch the next episode of something in the middle of the match. You know, it's just an excuse more than anything. It really is.
Ryan: Yeah. You look at Twitch and clearly it's working great. It feels like there's a reality show or like a competition show for every single thing in the world except for gaming. I mean, there's a glassblowing show on Netflix that does very well.
Stuart: Yes. I mean the internet, YouTube first, and now Twitch, absolutely ate it alive and with absolutely huge audiences.
It's just something they never looked into. It just seems so crazy to anyone who's not sort of very far removed from the whole industry. I mean, my dad's in his late 70s but he understands that video games are popular, you know? If he was running a TV channel he probably wouldn't have just passed it over. It seems very strange to me.
Ryan: So I was definitely the kid who combed through books about the Loch Ness Monster, etc. and I've been fascinated with the Polybius story since forever. Even when I was old enough to know what an urban legend was, I was still fascinated with the idea of it. Why do you think it’s captured our imagination?
Stuart: I think by far it's the best video game urban legend, partially because it's accessible — because even people who don't understand video games can understand the concept of “Ooh, there was an upright arcade cabinet and it disappeared!” It requires no specialist knowledge. But equally it's got all the hallmarks of a good legend. You've got potentially dodgy things behind the scenes that may have been sort of dubious operatives or something to do with the government, maybe, you don't know. You've got people affected by it, or maybe it made people collapse. Maybe it made people want to go and strangle Fidel Castro or something, depending on which version you got told.
It seems to be effectively a hoax for publicity that was created sort of on the back of a couple of misremembered anecdotes, really. But that doesn't matter, because the legend is the thing. It's why we're very careful what we show in the film, because the legend is always going to be far more impressive than anything you can show people. When you bring it out of their minds onto the screen, it isn't going to be what they imagined. So it's like, "Oh, I thought it would be cooler than that." So hence we were very careful with that. Very careful.
Ryan: I was going to ask, the few versions of Polybius that I've seen on the screen, it’s always been a bit disappointing because it makes it too real. Then you say to yourself "Well, it probably wouldn't be like that." Did you guys have rules set up so that you made sure that you didn't ruin it?
Stuart: We did. I had a very strict rule from day one, which co-writer and director Riyad [Barmania] was totally on board with. A little bit spoilery — but I'm going to say it anyway — we never show it. We never show the game actor. Well, you kind of see a title screen, but that's it. We do not get into it. You don't hear it being played. You don't see it being played. It is the MacGuffin in the purest sense in that it's there and people are after it, but you do not need to see it.
Ryan: Most modern comedies feel the need to actually be dramedies. Whereas this movie and a lot of your other stuff, it's just very funny. And that doesn't mean it's not affecting or exciting, but it's very funny. Just joke after joke, after joke. Is that something that you’re intentionally bucking the trend of?
Stuart: I don't know if we were bucking the trend as such, but it's certainly what we have in mind. Whenever we go in to write a comedy really. It's what both myself and Riyad enjoy. I mean, I grew up obviously with the very British Monty Python, etc. He's Canadian, so he grew up in sort of a more North American aspect. We bring those things together — he stops me being too depressing and I stop him being too zany and we kind of hit this nice peak. I totally understand what you mean where some comedies are, like, "I feel there haven't been any jokes for a while..." Sometimes that works, don't get me wrong, but it's a hard one to pull off.
It's quickfire. Not every gag is going to land for every person. But if there's another one coming along very shortly, that doesn't matter too much. Whereas if you're building up to a huge joke and it's your only funny bit for like fifteen minutes, if that doesn't land, oh, that's gonna sting for most people watching it. It is a hard balance though. You've got to have that emotional element to it as well so people do care about the characters, but it's a case of not taking that too far.
Ryan: People spent decades bellyaching about British comedy versus American comedy. Do you think the internet or YouTube has broken down that wall and sort of united our national senses of humor?
Stuart: I think it must be the increased access to it. Because you used to hear, years ago as you absolutely correctly say, people in America going, "Ah, this British humor. Oh, it's so much more sophisticated and clever,” and all that kind of stuff. I'm like, "Is it really? What are you watching?" Because you know, I've watched a lot of American comedy over the years and some of that's pretty bloody good. You know, it's perhaps a case of what their tastes were at the time. But as you say, over time, there seems to have been a little bit of crossover.
I think it's really helped things because you've been able to get a bit more darkness in the general sort of American humor, which I appreciate. It was always there in some stuff, but in less of the mainstream. And a lot of the English stuff has a little bit less of the need to be quite so dark and down all the time. I mean, that works for some things. There's some fantastic series in the past. Things like Nighty Night, which is one of the darkest comedy series I think I've ever seen. Human Remains is another one. These are all quite obscure, but my goodness, they are absolutely darkest pitch. But very, very funny.
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Ryan: So on the topic of video game stuff, there's different kinds of gamers, right? We all get lumped into the same category. What kind of gamer are you?
Stuart: I love all of it. I've just been obsessed with video games since I was a child. I love the new stuff — I mean, my favorite game ever is Bloodborne, which is relatively recent for somebody you would think is sort of heavily into the retro — but I love all the retro stuff and the history of things, obscure games. I most love finding something that nobody else has played and then discovering why is it, nearly always, terrible? I mean, I spent a couple of years researching really bad old games for two books I wrote, Terrible Old Games You've Probably Never Heard Of and Attack of the Flickering Skeletons. So I spent a lot of time in the sort of the retro mindset.
And then after that was like, "Right, I'm going to play some new games again" and now I'm kind of, well, in theory I should be slipping back towards getting more back into the retro stuff. In reality, the film has taken up so much time that I haven't played any games for bloody months and months. I'm getting a horrible backlog. I mean, I haven't played Sekiro yet, which I'm almost certain I am going to love to pieces.
Ryan: Do you have a PlayStation 5 yet?
Stuart: Oh no, they're really not easy to get over here. A few people have got them. But to give you an example, I thought today, "Do you know what? I should look into getting a PS5," but I didn't worry too much; I knew I wouldn't be able to play on it for like a month or so anyway. I went to one of the big sellers of it in the UK — there's not many places selling it — and it said, "Oh, you can join a queue for the pre-order." "Oh, that's good!" Press the button. I was number 14,000 in line.
Ryan: Would you ever make a game? Would you want to make a big AAA title or a weird indie one-off?
Stuart: I can never make a AAA title, I don't think. I don't think I have the skillset or the understanding of how to get that to work really. I could maybe do some small aspect of it, but that is not my kind of thing. A very odd indie game? Maybe. I would need to work with the right people because I wouldn't trust myself amongst the design process to get something properly good. I would want somebody with a bit more experience to sort of bounce ideas off of.
We had an idea, which we couldn't realize but something I'd love to look at in the future, of a tie-in, very short, Polybius Heist point-and-click adventure. The joke is there's only a few rooms, but every room has one of the worst puzzles from point-and-click game history. Room one is the goat puzzle from Broken Sword. Although, that was partially ruined for me by playing a retro game called Chrono Quest 2 to completion where every single puzzle is like moon-logic nonsense, and every single slight mistake you make is a soft lock. Except the ones that kill you instantly — there's a lot of those as well. That kind of put me off it, almost. I was thinking, "Hmm, there's me wanting to poke fun at all these little bits and bobs from other games,” and I've got a game here which is ten times worse all the way through. It already exists and it's satanic.
Ryan: It sounds incredibly funny so I will encourage you to write that game. What do you imagine Polybius would be like if it were real? To me, I think it's Tempest.
Stuart: I think if I had to picture it would just be Cube Quest. It would be that weird Tempest looking thing with the streaming LaserDisc background. I mean, that must have been... no wonder there's sort of reverberations of the Polybius legend early on. Because if you go in an arcade and, "Oh, SpyHunter, this is new, this is fun,” and then the machine next to it has spinning, broadcast quality tunnels of lizards and you're flying a thing through them. You'd be like, "What on Earth is this? This is like something from another dimension or from the future." It's the Dragon's Lair technology, so it wouldn't have been totally unknown, but I think it's the only thing at that time which was overlaying video game graphics onto LaserDisc footage. To my knowledge at least.
Ryan: As a fellow retro gamer, are you put off at all by the idea of streaming gaming?
Stuart: Ultimately, as many people who are even brushing the corners of the industry will know, it's not going to be a positive thing. People talk about the sort of technical problems and this is all entirely valid. You've got to have a bloody good internet connection before you can get into this. I played with Google Stadia a bit and was genuinely impressed, actually. Not just from the look of it but, I mean, you could play Samurai Shodown on it and it works. I thought the lag would be a bit much for that. I wouldn't have said it was quite as I would want it, but it's plenty good enough for basic play. But the problem is, it's all about control of course, and how your gaming is controlled. More to the point, how you pay if you're gaming is controlled, ultimately, which is what it all comes down to.
Stadia really is something more of an experiment than a games console, which is why it's not really had much in the way of support. Which is a polite way of saying they basically threw it out the door and then kind of forgot about it, as with many Google things. But the actual ethos behind Stadia seems to be more like seeing if A, the technology works — which is understandable — and B, if people will accept it. Is the convenience enough for people to then not necessarily have access to their games going forward as they would want? With things like iTunes, you can buy a movie on iTunes but sometimes they disappear and you're like, "Didn't I have that in my library? Oh, it's not available now. But... I paid."
Then you have to go off to the customer service and they say, "Oh, sorry, have this voucher for the value of it,” and you're like, "This is a bit… uh… isn't it?" Well, the ultimate example is of course in the early days of the Kindle, where Amazon removed the 1984 from everybody's Kindles, which is beyond parody, frankly.
Ryan: After watching a movie that is such a celebration of collectors and retro gaming, it's tough to turn it off, feel all warm and fuzzy about old games, and then remember that Microsoft and Google really want us to switch to streaming. The entire premise of this movie would not exist in a world where everybody is only streaming games. We would be saying goodbye to arcades and stuff, which are already disappearing because of COVID. It's a very sad idea for me.
Stuart: Absolutely. I mean, how do you archive these things when you never have access to it, you know? And online-only games are hard enough to archive in any meaningful sense. So if you've never had access to the source code, it's just something that exists in the cloud. How are you going to play it in the future? These things should be preserved in some way, shape, or form. A video game is only properly preserved if you can play it.
Ryan: What’s the next project you want to tackle? Care to share a hint?
Stuart: Yeah, I totally can, the next project actually is another book. It's one about weird old action figures. I’m co-writing with somebody. I'm going to get going on that properly next year, actually. Really looking forward to that, mainly because it's an excuse to buy lots of old action figures, which I love.
Ryan: Will you ever come out with a sequel to Fifty-Thousand Shades of Grey?
Stuart: Fifty Million and One Shades of Grey, the prequel? Probably not, since Amazon basically removed it from the shop because somebody complained.
Somebody complained it wasn't a parody of Fifty Shades of Gray, it was a parody of the concept of books. That's true, but I did write that in the title. It's a physical prop gag. Amazon said they're removing it until I put in the title that it's a parody of Fifty Shades of Grey but I can't do that because it's not a parody of Fifty Shades. I would then be misselling it. I can't do that. That's not fair to people who have bought it. They buy it, genuinely expecting a parody of a book and get a parody of the concept of books? They're not going to be happy, you know? That's why that one died and probably goes for crazy money on Amazon by now, because that always happens with things like that, doesn’t it?
Ryan: I ask everybody this. What’s your favorite console and video game?
Stuart: Favorite game? Bloodborne. [I] started off years ago with the original Demon's Souls. A friend actually sent me a copy and said, "You have to play this." He’s one of these people who very rarely recommends something and when he does, you kind of drop everything. Oh Dan has recommended something? Right, get on this because it will be worthwhile. And it absolutely blew my mind — even though it was a bit budget and janky, there was something about the atmosphere and the way it works. Then of course, Dark Souls came along, which I loved as well. Then you had Dark Souls II and Dark Souls III — we won't mention that one. Then into Bloodborne, which... just... there was something about the gameplay and the aesthetic, which I had so much fun playing that it sits in my mind. It's my favorite game.
For console, you see, I grew up with the various home computers and things. So I've got massive soft spots for the ZX Spectrum and the Commodore Amiga and the Atari ST. I love my Sega Saturn — getting into the proper console. Oh, that came out at such a time. I had such good fun with the games back then. Then the PlayStation as well, which I got at a similar time. It was nice having a job then because I could actually afford these, whereas most people were sort of still at school.
But if I had to say my absolute favorite, the one I'm always going back to —and partially because it's a handheld and therefore it's always on my desk — the Neo Geo Pocket Color. That little clicky stick. Do you know, it's on my desk, literally, now. Here we are. The little clicky joystick. [Clicky sounds.]
Ryan: That's so good.
Stuart: Nothing quite like it, yeah. I'm going through Match of the Millennium again. I got a fresh cartridge of it after selling my own years ago. So now I've got to go and unlock all the characters again, which takes forever.
Ryan: What's your crowning achievement of collecting?
Stuart: That is my collection of PAL Sega Saturn games, which are rare and difficult to find. I've managed to get almost of them over the years. There's still a few ones to get ahold of, but they go for such insane money now, some of them. I managed to get Panzer Dragoon Saga, which is great. I still never got the Mega Man game for Saturn, which the prices of are terrifying — over hundreds upon hundreds of pounds. I think it's since the start of the first lockdown in March, retro prices have absolutely gone through the roof.
Ryan: Oh my God, they’ve gotten insane.
Stuart: Ah, so it's the same in America? Prices have just gone up.
Ryan: Insane. I bought a Virtual Boy and a bunch of games and I was going to get the complete Virtual Boy collection, just because I thought it was very funny. And I bought a few of the games and then waited like six months into COVID and looked again. And I was like, "Well, I've been priced out of the market."
Stuart: Oh my goodness. You're making me wonder what a Virtual Boy goes for now? I'm going to have a quick look here. Oh my God. Virtual Boy is going for hundreds of pounds in the UK. And it was never released over here, so it was always a rarity, but I paid £70 for mine with a couple of games not that long ago. Now it's going for like hundreds.
Ryan: Yeah, not anymore!
Stuart: Oh my goodness. That's absolutely insane.
Ryan: Well, I will let anyone who reads this piece know that if they have a copy of Mega Man for Saturn to send it over to you.
Stuart: Yes please, as many as you can. I also like rubies and massive diamonds. They're all very good.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.