February 26, 2009

(new 2023 editor’s note): I finally scraped this out of an old SQL file. It’s not actually very good, but I’ve been writing schlocky dork prose for 35 years now and ending sentences with prepositions for almost as long, so I’ve just decided to stop being embarrassed and celebrate the late-20s version of myself.

(original 2009 editor’s note): I wrote this the other night, after staying up way, way, way too late trying to get “Die Hard Arcade” to work, and then beating it despite the fact that it was terrible and not that fun. It’s one of those things where you say, hey, it’s 1:30am and I’m going to be exhausted in the morning, I might as well stay up until 2 thinking about why, right?And that sort of thing makes sense for some reason, probably because you’re exhausted, ironically. Anyways, you’ve been warned — delirium often produces strange nostalgia and poor writing.)

There are two kinds of people in this world; people who know you can emulate old arcade games on your computer, and people who don’t. And really, there’s not a lot of middle ground between the two — either you’re a dork about this, or you’re not. 

I happen to be a huge dork about this, and it’s my parents’ fault. When I was a kid, they didn’t buy a Nintendo during the absolute apex of Nintendo-dom, also known as the years between 1987 (when I was 5) and, I dunno, maybe 1992. As a result, I missed out on a huge part of growing up — playing Nintendo games constantly for a few years, until finally getting overstimulated and ultimately sick of them.   

I did not go through this vitally important period of time (“pre-adolescent de-dorkification”, as it’s clinically called), because my parents basically kept accessible video games out of our house. Yeah, we had a computer, and eventually I had a Game Boy, but both of those were heavily monitored, and simply weren’t the same experience as playing Blades of Steel with your cousin from dinner to bedtime (I did this later, at age 17, when it was somewhat less socially acceptable). As a result, video games remained freaking amazing to me for way, way, way too long. 

This was about as intense as we got in my house.
This was about as intense as we got in my house.

The biggest example of that was my near-obsession with video arcades. Back in the day, before home systems and televisions were so ridiculously amazing (well, not mine, but other people’s), the games you played at home were often based on much, much better versions that ran on giant, stand-up cabinets you put quarters int— 

… wait a minute, why am I explaining this? You all remember arcades. The important thing is that compared to home systems, arcade machines were AWESOME; they had better sound, better graphics, better displays, they ran faster, and they often had cooler controls (like steering wheels, guns, a million buttons, etc.). Home video game systems were constantly seeking an “arcade-like” experience — an actual “arcade” experience was clearly impossible from a technical perspective, so home systems would just try to get as close as they could. It was often laughably pathetic, but we didn’t hold that against home systems; the arcade machines were just too good and made for an unreachable standard. 

When you combine crazy, overwhelming visual and auditory stimulus, a lot of action, and a “HURRY, HURRY!!!” urgency to a virtual experience, your mind fills in the unexamined blanks with the best possible content.

Now, if you think arcade machines were cool for kids who HAD Nintendo (or Sega Genesis, or whatever), imagine how they looked to the poor idiot whose video entertainment was limited to “Where In the World is Carmen Sandiego” and “Oregon Trail”? Yeah, much, much cooler. Plus, you throw in the fact that because you had to actually put money in the machine (and basically pay per second of blissful visual stimulus), and there was, more or less, about a zero percent chance you would get tired of these games, let alone finish any of them. I got pretty good — when I was seven, my dad used to give me a dollar to play “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” at one of the rest stops on the New Jersey Turnpike; by the time I was nine, he couldn’t give me a single quarter unless he wanted to hang around Sbarro’s for twenty five minutes waiting for Bebop and Rocksteady to finally kill me off.

Gigantic TMNT arcade cabinet.

This is how we used to roll.

At any rate, the point of all this is that these machines were incredible; you never got to play any of them long enough to really see the flaws of any one game — the entire nature of the machine meant you always left wanting more (unless the game really, really sucked, which did happen sometimes). When you combine crazy, overwhelming visual and auditory stimulus, a lot of action, and a “HURRY, HURRY!!!” urgency to a virtual experience, your mind fills in the unexamined blanks with the best possible content — this happens with certain movies, especially when you’re a little kid (or the kind of person who writes Star Wars fan fiction, which I am not). There always seemed to be so many things you would do in these games if only you had time, but of course, you never ever did — that’s the way the games were designed; they were so good because they only focused on a few things, and then they forcibly directed your attention to them, because they could. 

If you’re any kind of dork, you know that now, twenty years later, it’s not even remotely difficult to download these games and run them — literally emulate the exact code that the arcade machine executed — on your desktop PC. The games are laughably small; I sent an email this morning bigger than the original Turtles arcade game, so you can download hundreds of them in minutes — and you’ll quickly realize how terrible most of them are, once you actually have a chance to pay attention to them.

Remember, these aren’t conversions or anything; as far as the game is concerned, you’re standing in Chuck E. Cheese playing this thing in 1990. You’ll even see the “WINNERS DON’T USE DRUGS” message on many of them (remember that?), complete with the signature of some long-forgotten Surgeon General. Because of this, the software you use to play these games actually has a button that simulates putting a quarter into the machine.

Think about what this represents. I spent significant amounts of my pre-teenage years essentially begging my parents for change (usually unsuccessfully) just so I could play the very game in front of me, which is flashing the very same “Insert Coin” message it displayed at Papa Gino’s two decades ago, right before my dad yelled for me to come sit down and eat my baked ziti. If you had given me a quarter right then and there, there is a 100% chance I would have used it to play TMNT. In my seven year old brain, money equaled another two lives for Raphael (he was my favorite).

Now, I press “F5”, and the machine makes the overly triumphant little victory noise, no less earnestly than it did back in the day. Two lives. 

I press it again. “DING!!!” Two more lives. I press it over and over, as fast as I can, like one of those rats they get addicted to the little lever that dispenses cocaine. The machine can’t even keep up, beeping away as fast as it can, until Raphael has 36 lives. 

Thirty six lives. In 1990, I would elect to jump kick the bad guys to death, even though it took three times as long as just mashing the “Attack” button, if it would save me a tenth of a life in this stupid game, and now, I have thirty six of them. Even though I’m twenty something years old, and have car insurance payments, this is a jarring experience. Zimbabwe’s currency didn’t plummet this suddenly. Am I ready to live in a world where the physical well-being of Raphael is so worthless?

The answer, sadly, is no, I am not. The issue of inflation here isn’t totally irrelevant — with too much “currency” (turtle lives, really) in the system, the game effectively loses any and all motivation for playing well. Without the thrill of imminent, impending death, you start to pay attention to how repetitive all the enemies are, how static the backgrounds look, and how everyone falls down the same way. The music loops, you start to notice absurdly obvious, money-eating tricks in the game (unexpected, difficult to avoid things that kill you instantly — not that it matters now, “F5” takes care of that), and eventually, through sheer attrition, you plow through everything and anything the  game can throw at you. 

What is this billboard even advertising? Ohhhh…. “Trapcorp”… that’s… why it falls on you.

The biggest irony is at the end, when you fight the last guy (anyone remember “Shredder”?). He continually clones himself — this was absolutely horrifying when I was a kid; it made the task of killing him seem totally insurmountable — so you basically have to kill him twenty times, all at once. Now? Shredder can’t clone himself fast enough. He can kill me fifty times with that stupid little laser gun of his, and I just keep coming back, stronger than ever, like Neo at the end of the Matrix. I am not playing by the rules of his universe. I am not dependant on the whims of mom’s quarters, or anyone’s quarters. Shredder has no idea; he is laughing maniacally every time I die, probably assuming that this is really frustrating me, and that his resilience is making Konami a crapload of money. 

This is supposed to be incredibly hard. 

Eventually, he dies, with the (incorrect) knowledge that this epic battle has cost probably close to seven dollars; by mom-standing-behind-you-in-the-arcade standards, that’s the practically the bridge at Antietam, and I’m George-freaking-McClellan. In reality, it’s nothing like that. All I’ve done is push down an old, irrelevant foe who doesn’t even know what’s going on. I may as well storm into the old folks’ home where my second grade gym teacher probably lives, and wave my diploma at him.


Just like the guy who made me do sit-ups, Shredder and the five hundred bazillion purple, orange, yellow, and white ninja-looking dudes I’ve laid waste to were simply about the challenge of meeting an impossible goal. Winning (no matter how you did it) had no point, so much so that it was never even seriously considered when the challenge was designed — imminent failure was always part of the plan.

I hate when things are like this, and yet, they almost always are. How many other things consisted of me pursuing a far-off definition of success that was never actually related to the point of the exercise? Junior varsity basketball? High school science projects? Higher education? Every band I’ve ever been in?

That was the thing about being a kid. You believed in these pursuits and their ostensible goals so much, so purely, that if by some technological innovation or weird sleight-of-hand, you can now actually put yourself back there for a minute, the perspective is a little overwhelming. For one of the birthdays that came and went during the arcade era, part of my present (my favorite part) was that my dad went with me to the arcade, gave me five bucks to play TMNT, and stood there, letting me play for as long as those five bucks would last. I remember being almost delusionally excited about this, and the prospect that I might actually beat the game.  

I got pretty far, but eventually, I ran out of money. And my father cut me off at five bucks, just as the terms of the deal specified. I was disappointed, but then we ran off and drove go-carts or played miniature golf or something (which, hilariously, probably cost a lot more than five bucks) and I quickly forgot. Considering how much I now realize — twenty years later — I enjoyed not winning, I think that was probably good he stuck to the plan.