Pac-Man Forever 

Thursday, Aug 21 2003

Billy Mitchell discovered his Calling early. It was 1981, and Billy was a teenager, with feathered hair, a faint mustache, and a Midas touch with a joystick: He was one of the best video-game players in the world. Preternatural was his skill then, and preternatural it remains 22 years later, which is why Billy was in Las Vegas last weekend — to represent the Old Guard at the Classic Gaming Expo, the sixth session of the one convention devoted to the dawn of the video-game era.

Unlike E3, Los Angeles’ colossal contemporary gaming trade show where throngs of attendees wander through tens of millions of dollars’ worth of elaborate booths, video screens and PR flacks, the Classic Gaming Expo is a small, muted affair. This year’s event took place in a somewhat shabby meeting room at the Plaza, one of the cheerless downtown hotels long since overshadowed by glitzy development on the Vegas strip. The booths here, about 25 in all, were not bursting with giant plasma screens or stacks of JBL speakers. Most were just covered tables, a few chairs, a sign or two, and maybe a TV.

Not that the Expo’s simplicity diminished the enthusiasm of the participants. Classic gaming needs neither glamour nor marketing might, because it draws its strength from the purity of Pac-Man, the splendor of Defender. Forget the new rendering engine of Doom III; at the CG Expo, gaming is about you, the dots, and Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde.

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This year, a couple thousand people showed up to talk, play and trade classic video games. Pioneers like John Harris, the creator of Frogger, addressed their fans. Serious enthusiasts could tour the museum and ask the “docents” for more details about the rare Intellivision musical keyboard add-on, or the Vectrex voice modulator that made the home version of Berserk! sound like the one in the arcade (“Get-the-hu-ma-noid . . .Get-the-in-tru-der!”). And for attendees driven to collector frenzy by all the mint-condition boxed Odyssey2 and Spectravideo systems, there were vendors selling piles of original cartridges, emulators, all manner of paddles and trackballs, and even an anthology of early gaming-inspired poems and feuilletons called Blue Warrior Is About To Die.

Snafu, Demon Attack, Sub Hunt, Shark! Shark!, Tower of Doom, Microsurgeon, Preppie! II, Safecracker, Beam Rider, Kool-Aid Man — it’s amazing how many electronic entertainments there were to be had at home in 1983. I was excited to find a copy of Rootbeer Tapper, which I once played extensively, and astonished to discover that there had been a game for the Atari 2600 called Porky’s, based on the 1981 movie. (A good copy of the game, by the way, would run you 20 bucks.) And it seemed fitting that on the last day to file a candidacy application in California’s premature gubernatorial hoo-hah, I would come across a copy of Campaign ’84, a simulation for ColecoVision in which “you become your own candidate” and play politics like the game it really seems to be.

Then there was the phalanx of arcade games, about 50 or so standups at both ends of the room. And, check it out: They were free, bro! No need for eighth-grade agony over which game down at the 7-Eleven would eat up the last three quarters of your allowance; each game had endless credits, and an Expo badge holder could play as much as he or she wanted. Which is exactly what I did for hours. Highlights included: 41,300 points on Donkey Kong Jr. Over on Track and Field, I discovered my champion skeet-shooting abilities and managed a 9.2 on the long horse. And during my first 1-Up at Krull, I got 43,250 points, putting me at No. 25 in the “Roll of Kings.”

Those numbers, I should mention, are pretty lame — peanuts compared to scores from official competition. According to Walter Day’s Official Video Game and Pinball Book of World Records, the best game of Krull, for example, was played in 1983, when Steve Harris achieved an extraordinarily even 6 million points. Walter himself was here in Las Vegas presiding over tournament play in a Footlocker referee shirt and recording the best scores.

And towering over him was Billy Mitchell, who, at 6-foot-3 and dressed in black, was impossible to miss, especially now that his mustache has become a beard, and his feathered hair has flowered into a strangely impressive pompadour-ish mullet. (Half of Silver Lake would trade all their free men to be able to rock what Billy Mitchell has on his head.) Billy wasn’t playing so much, and he doesn’t really need to, as he already holds world records for Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Burgertime, Centipede, Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. — almost the entire gaming pantheon.

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