Arcades are after my time, unfortunately. My only experience for years had occasionally been the scarce surviving ones that existed in those ma and pa pizzerias or in some local food shack that eventually removed it for whatever reason. They were the stereotypical "Mrs. Pac-Man." For years I never thought I'd play a game other than one that has become so iconic and archetypal you could almost visualize and play it fluently in your sleep.
Then came an arcade a close friend told me about a summer around two years ago. It was $15 to get in, and after that, "you're on your own," he told me. What he meant was there was a bright red button visible on most arcade machines that warranted a "free game" and all machines were rigged so that the button would be in effect. The second you walked in the place, you felt overwhelmed by the conglomerate of colorful, captivating electronic machines that offered cult favorites, such as the "Pac-Man" and "Donkey Kong" line of games, and those that went under the radar, "Elevator Action" (one of my new favorites) and even "TRON," based off the 1984 groundbreaker. The palace even featured tabletop arcade machines, newer machines housing the "Marvel vs. Capcom" and "Street Fighter" series, and provided their customers with a refreshment or an energy drink at little cost. It was a paradise I'm now itching to revisit just be typing this.
If that is the closest I come to a true arcade experience, then by God it was beautiful. On to the documentary at hand, Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade is a wonderfully engaging documentary that presents its subjects, arcade junkies with high scores on numerous games, with care and attention. Some of the faces we are acquainted, or even reacquainted with if you were fortunate enough to see The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, are Billy Mitchell, the "Mrs. Pac-Man" champion with a slick mullet, Joel West, possessing a high score on "Berzerk," Chris Steele, the king of "Centipede," Kent Farries, who painstakingly mastered "Donkey Kong" and "Space Invaders," and who can forget the referee of it all, Walter Day? We are told early in the documentary that the video game capital of the world is a place called Ottumwa, Iowa, which housed the Twin Galaxies arcade center where all these champions would hang out for afternoons on end and play their favorite games. Day declared himself the authority of video gaming high scores, saying the score would be official in his book if you achieved it on one of his prized machines. Day went on to publish a well-over seven-hundred page book, which he is shown writing here, that compiles the high scores on video games throughout years of playing. If he ever recovers from such a monumental effort, I'd love to hear how much money in quarters those hunks of metal made.
The most charming thing to hear from these indelible greats was probably their little tricks and primitive thinking that would go on to be pretty foreign to today's audiences. Chris Steele goes on to talk about how him and a friend would discover tricks such as the "double tap" on arcade machines, by placing a pencil's ends on two buttons and tapping the middle of the pencil back and forth, so as to hit the buttons at a rapid rate. Him and his friend would also label their high scores under the obviously ambiguous name of "WIZ," and remark with wit and humor how the question, "who is 'WIZ'?" would come up often in the arcade. It's the subtle, little welcomed things that we will miss from these establishments.
What struck me as a greater surprise was to discover how short of a lifespan arcades actually had. They were accompanied by a sudden rise in popularity in the 1980's, but by the later end of the decade, they were then met with the look of distaste. Home-gaming, made popular by Atari, but mainly Sega and Nintendo, was advancing in not only consumer-familiarity and recognition, but also stylistic and graphical attributes. Games became brighter, more vivid and fleshed out, as apposed to the redundancy of many arcade games. Not to mention, once you paid the flat rate, you could freely stay home, go to the bathroom, get something to eat, and pause your game without the fear of something happening. The moral here is that time makes you bolder, children get older, and I'm getting older too.
NOTE: Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade was released to video on demand outlets two weeks ago, but Hulu is offering the documentary in its entirety free of charge, http://www.hulu.com/watch/319596 Starring: Billy Mitchell, Walter Day, Joel West, Chris Steele, and Kent Farries. Directed by: Lincoln Ruchti.
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