Video Game Excitement

I don’t remember the first video game that I played. I think my earliest memory of playing anything was Space Invaders. It was, I think, in a pizza parlor in Denton, TX. If I remember right (which I probably don’t), there was also an Atari Football game, as well. One other thing I remember, was that the place sold a pizza called “The Wagon Wheel.” It was an enormous pizza, at least to a kid about ten years old.

Like I said, though, it was a long time ago and I’m somewhat sure I’m not remembering it correctly. Or in the wrong place. Or something. I don’t really remember video games being all that important to me at that particular moment. Maybe I was already past Space Invaders? I don’t know.

We used to go to Seaside Heights fairly frequently. There were several arcades, there. It seems they never got rid of stuff, either, because I would find the newest games spread out across the different arcades, as well as old games that most people wouldn’t remember. Like Stunt Cycle. Or Maneater.

Not only did they have video games, but they had mechanical games that were the precursors of video games. Games where you drove a car on a stick on a roadway that was belt driven. Or shooting gallery games. Or Skee-Ball.

When our sister would go there with our dad, we’d walk over to, I think, the Casino Pier. I will always remember the smell of salty air and tar on the piers during a hot day. Anyway, the Casino Pier had a carasoul, there, along with arcade machines and Skee-Ball, along with a lot of other things, I think. Also there was a lunch counter. Dad would make us sit there and eat something before letting us go all higgeldy-piggeldy around the place. He wouldn’t let us eat funnel cakes, which smelled really good amid the hot tar, but we could get a hot dog or hamburger at the lunch counter. It’s strange to think that, back then, it took effort to get me to eat something, but I was all fired up to have a go at the games.

I don’t think my sister ever understood the attraction. She asked me, once, what was so great about video games. She was a Skee-Ball girl, though. She’d spend a lot of time racking up points and getting tickets. She thought that was better, because she could take all her tickets and redeem them for something. Like, glow in the dark vampire teeth. Or rubber balls that would bounce higher than a house.

It’s been too long for me to remember, exactly, what I told her and I probably didn’t articulate it very well. Honestly, I probably called her stupid or left it at a lame “it’s fun” kind of explanation. In her eyes, her dimes gave her entertainment and something physical to take home, where my quarters got

But what arcade games gave me was a chance to be something I never would be: a hero. At the arcade, I was repelling alien invaders. I was catching Old Western outlaws (well, shooting them). I was a race car driver, a jungle explorer, a mouse cop catching robbers, Popeye, a chef making hamburgers and keeping the world safe from psychotic pickles.

Were those experiences worth more than a set of glow in the dark vampire fangs? Yeah, to me, they were. I’ve never been any of those things in real life, except, maybe, the last thing. You can never tell with pickles, just by looking at them.

As I got older, arcades became more prevalent and also became more important, socially. Friends would show up and we would hang out. There were times when I would walk four or five miles to an arcade. If nobody I knew was there, that was all right because I could just play games. Then I would call my dad to come pick me up, which, surprisingly, he was never happy about. You’d think he’d be glad that I got the exercise.

When I was old enough to have a driver’s license we’d go more frequently. After work, we’d head to the arcade for a while then go to a diner and get a late night breakfast. These were probably the best days of my life.

A lot of people talk about the games from back then. To me, one of the best things was walking into an arcade, which were usually dimly lit, and I would stand at the entrance waiting for my eyes to adjust to the light and I could listen and tell what games were there by the sounds. I think of all the things I miss about arcades, the sounds are at the top. A cacophony of Pac-Man, Defender, Jackal, Operation: Wolf, and so many others.

It’s strange that now, with a disposable income and ready transportation, I don’t make use of the arcades that around me now (and there are several). But I guess that’s part of the curse of getting old.

Hi-Tech Nostalgia

Invader Seperator

It’s a bright sunny day. I’ve walked about a mile, or more, to get to this building but I’m young and I’m not tired. I walk inside, into the darkness. Standing there, just inside, I let my eyes adjust to the darkness. A Thomas Dolby has just finished singing about being blinded by a woman and her science, and The Motels begin their song about how only the lonely can play. The music is just barely audible above the din of a multitude of arcade machines beeping and boinging their sound effects and musics. I can tell which machines are here by sound effects alone. There must be a new game because there’s a spot where a lot of other people are standing and watching; kids and adults gawk at the screen, bathed in the ghostly light. Off in the corner I see a group of friends at a machine. Coins line the marquee showing that a few of these kids are lined up to play. I put a dollar in the change machine and four coins drop down. In the darkness I can’t tell if they’re quarters or tokens. It doesn’t matter; they’ll all be gone, anyway.

I’ll admit it: sometimes I get nostalgic. I just get nostalgic about weird things. Lately it’s been video games. Yes, I know, I’ve been preoccupied with this for a while now. I still don’t think I’m explaining it very well, why I feel this way.

Video games. They’re a part of my life. They have been since I was a very, very young boy. They’re as part of my life as, say, baseball is to someone a generation older than me. I could not become disinterested with them even if I tried. The generation after me, I suspect, will be much the same. They grew up with computers and game consoles, they never knew a time without them, they will be an integral part of their lives as well.

The first time I remember being interested in video games was when I was visiting my mother in Texas, one summer. She lived in

Denton, Texas, and there was a pizza place there. I think it was called Mama’s. I could be wrong about a lot of this, since I was quite young at the time. Anyway, this place had a Space Invaders machine and an Atari Football tabletop. I don’t remember being any good at either, but that’s where the spark started.

I would spend a lot of time in varying arcades when I was able. Going to a new arcade, in a different state, was exciting to me because I could see games that they had that I didn’t have access to. I would read magazines devoted to games and read about machines that I had never seen before. If I was lucky, one of the “foreign” arcades that I visited would have one of them. To me, as a kid, it was very exciting.

Arcade machines started the longing for a home system, the Atari VCS. The VCS had home versions of the some of the great arcade games, too. Like Space Invaders. It also had some arcade games I never knew were in the arcade, like Warlords. In fact, I didn’t know that was ever an arcade game until a few years ago. Home consoles led to wanting a home computer. My first computer was a Commodore VIC-20 and it was followed shortly afterwards by an Atari 400. I had actually wanted an Apple II, but after working and playing with the Commodore and

Atari, and then using an Apple ][ in school, I quickly lost that fantasy. I had always hoped I’d be able to write my own games. Sadly, that never happened.

So, why now, some 30 years later, am I still enamored with them? Why am I not so “wow’ed” by the new games that I just forget about the dinosaurs and let them die? Those games had very little memory, poor graphics capabilities, and were just plain limited in so many ways. Now, the sky is the limit. The graphics of games today is such a huge leap over what was available in the 1980’s and 1990’s that it’s astonishing to see the difference. An arcade machine of the 1980’s, which was a major heavy hitter when compared to the home systems, now has less power and capabilities than even the cheapest of handheld systems.

That’s one of the reasons why I’m so smitten with them. At the time it was easy, because arcade machines were the power houses. Home systems were okay, and fun, but not quite the same. The computers fell in somewhere between the two.

Anyone that looks at Donkey Kong now and dismisses it with a, “It sucks” just doesn’t understand what went into it. Back then, the majority of games were a one-man show. One person would design, create the artwork, and write the code. Some of the machines didn’t really have a “processor” or CPU as we know it, and were wired to work. Sound worked the same way.

In my eyes, the best part of those old games was the fact that it was so new that anything could be a hit. Just like when rock and roll was new, or when television was new. Something special comes along and people know that it’s going to be huge. In those first years, everyone gets to be a child again. Experimenting, poking, playing.

Just as the 1980’s gave us a decade of diverse musical styles that

managed to co-exist on the pop top 40, that decade also gave us a magical mix of different types of games. Back when the whole thing started there were no genres, they were being created. A game could be different from anything else and still be a hit.

In today’s world of huge, mega-corporation, large-scale design and delivery, such things aren’t possible. Can you imagine a game designer going to his manager with this idea:

D: I’ve got this great idea for a game!
M: All right, lay it on me.
D: Okay, you’re this chef, right? And you make hamburgers.
M: Um, okay. Like on an assembly line or something?
D: No! There are these huge buns and beef patties and stuff. And he has to run over them and knock them down to the bottom to make the burger.
M: Giant burgers?
D: And he’s being chased by enemies.
M: Ah, like monsters and stuff. And he sprays them down with a machine gun!
D: Well, no. With a pepper shaker, actually.
M: A pepper shaker.
D: Yeah, but he’s only got a limited supply of pepper.
M: Ah. And these enemies are…?
D: A pickle, a hotdog and a fried egg.
M: Okay. Let me see if I’m getting this right. You play a chef who makes hamburgers by running over giant buns and stuff, which knocks the hamburger stuff to the bottom. Along the way you’re chased by a pickle, a hotdog and a fried egg, who you can incapacitate by throwing pepper on them?
D: Yes. Or crush them if they’re walking on a hamburger ingredient and it falls on them.
M: I see. Yes, I’m glad you brought this up. I’ve just been notified that it’s time for your completely random drug test.

Sure it sounds weird, but Burger Time was still a fairly popular game. And it’s still fun to play. Not all games require massive amounts of violence and gunfire to be interesting. Not that I’m against visiting violence upon pickles.

It was just so new and open that if you had an idea for a game, someone would listen. Maybe it wouldn’t turn out too good, but maybe it would turn out to be a big surprise hit. Who would’ve thought a cheddar cheese wheel that ate dots and was chased by ghosts would become popular? Or a guy

sticking a bicycle pump in a dragon and “blowing them up” would be a hit?

But besides the games, there was also the atmosphere. Walking from bright sunlight into a dark, smoky building that was just overflowing from the noises of people talking, the latest pop hits from the radio, and the beeps and boings of lots and lots of arcade machines. There was just nothing better for a kid.

That’s where it all began.

That’s about it for the arcade portion of my nostalgia. Next I’ll be getting into the home game consoles.