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.
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.
“I do still compete,” he told me. “In fact, I’m working on an ‘ultrasecret.’” He said this with utmost gravity and made furtive glances at passersby. What’s the secret? “Can’t say,” he said. Does anyone else know what it is? “No.” Not even Walter Day? “Nope.” Well, what the hell is it? “It’s a world record bigger than anything I’ve ever done.”
What could be bigger than the world’s only perfect game of Pac-Man, which is another of Billy’s achievements? Whatever the ultrasecret turns out to be, Billy’s been working on it for a couple years, sometimes for several hours a day. Billy likes to say that he and his cohorts are to video games what the Blue Angels are to aviation, which sounds corny at first until you realize that it’s sort of true: Hitting the far reaches of games like Dig Dug requires sustained, intense training, incredible focus, precision and stamina.
Early video games couldn’t be paused or continued. When Tim McVey got more than a billion points (yes, a billion) on Nibbler in 1982, he did it with one quarter — that was 44 hours of Nibbler for 25 cents. And when Billy played Centipede for two days straight in 1986, he had to go to the bathroom so badly he actually dragged the game into the restroom with him.
“We do things that the average person can’t do,” he says. “Things that no one should be able to do.” Indeed, many of the companies that made early games say that they didn’t think such high scores were possible. “We play so long that the program runs out and there’s no code left. At really high levels, parts of the screen disappear,” Billy explains. “Or the game gets so violent and fast it’s hopeless. We call that a killscreen.”
Pac-Man, for example, goes haywire at level 256. Same thing with Dig Dug. Galaga ends in existential emptiness: Eventually, it’s just your ship and space. Which, when you think about it, kind of makes sense.
Upon hearing I was from Los Angeles, Billy expressed sympathy for our state’s political disarray. Then he suggested that the Davis recall could be solved with a video-game competition. “Whoever wins would be governor,” he said, which I thought was kind of strange, until he added, “It would be just about as effective as the upcoming campaign.” He has a point. And Arnold probably would win at Contra anyway.
I have seen things on Silver Lake Boulevard: four car accidents, a knife fight, a man walking a Siamese cat on a velvet string. So it wasn’t surprising to walk out, find a medium-size turtle plodding gravely, with great determination, toward oncoming traffic. His very grimness made him seem as if he was on his way to work.
Looking under “emergency turtle rescue” on Google and Hotbot, a picture starts to emerge. There’s a woman. She lives in Montecito. She’s a wonderful woman, wonderfully strange, quite possibly eccentric. An 805 phone number connects you to a machine that tells you that, if you are looking for the Turtle Lady, you must call another 805 number. On that number is a machine with a delightfully flutey voice, a voice that sounds authoritative, calm and kind. It is the voice of Jeanie Vaughan telling you you’ve reached Turtle Dreams.
It is rather dreamlike to wind up the lofty hills of Montecito, passing the gated mansions, the faux country spreads, the thick eucalyptus, lazing horses, men playing golf in astonishing pants. You drive and sigh. At the end of a tropical cul-de-sac you spy a low, lovely Spanish-style estate; olives, fuchsias, thick shrubbery abound. A map is consulted. Maybe a wrong turn has been taken; almost certainly a movie star lives here. But wait. There are tanks and aquariums piled next to the black Lexus. There are plastic tubs, hoses, panes, coils of indeterminate usage.
First question: Does she look like a turtle? Well, no. She looks like a patrician, elegant, wry mother of three grown kids, which, in fact, she is. ‰
Through the window, Jeanie Vaughan waves you forward. On the driveway in a box is the latest of the new refugees — 19 turtles and tortoises so far that morning. The telephone is jumping; Jeanie is talking and waving and smiling. The anteroom smells of heat lamps, of water, moss, movement. The room is alive with turtles: pale, elegantly orange-tipped japonicas, jewel-like graecas, musk turtles, box turtles, painted turtles, more. The hallway is simply a turtle-endowed extension of the anteroom: pelusios, ornates, comical pig noses, snake-necked turtles that look exactly as their name implies. What kills me are the matamatas; each looks as if dressed for the Carnivale, piquant streamers of skin adhere like tassels to each face.
“The matamatas are native to South America,” the turtle lady says.
That would explain it.
Jeanie is still on the phone; turtle matters are being taken care of. Who knew how much turtle-saving business went on in the world?
The heat lamp burns bright in yet another room. Signs read “Deworming,” or “Tube Feeding” or simply “check.” In the sparkling bathroom, you find, of course, terrapin prints, a soap bottle decorated with a turtle theme. The garage has tanks and tanks, an enormous snouted pig nose, a giant Amazon River turtle, an incongruous Everlast punching bag.
“When my mom spends too much on turtles,” Jeanie’s daughter jokes, “my father comes out here and punches away.”
And yet, at the Turtle Lady’s house who can be angry? The lovely, hushed grounds have been mostly converted to tortoise habitat. In one expansive enclosure, African desert tortoises, huge as walking ottomans, recline in a landscaped tableau. In another, newly hatched babies walk around unsure like little, tottering top hats. A pond, enclosed against coyotes, gurgles forth turtles with tart racing stripes. In the winter, the Russians hibernate in a family-sized Frigidaire.
Turtle noises are quiet, soothing, munchy. Their placid blinks make you yawn. “What you’ve got is a cooter,” the Turtle Lady says, in a rare moment of inactivity. She bends to look. There’s always time for turtles. “How beautiful he is.”
We’re in luck. The Turtle Lady will take the wayward cooter. In fact, she knows of a lovely pond where he can live, unmolested, among his fellow cooters. Beautiful.
So what makes a woman who seems to have it all turn into a Turtle Lady? We stand in the hot California wind, the clear light like a faucet of white. Five hundred turtles and tortoises and counting. There is not much time to explain the inner workings of a herpetological enthusiast; there is ever so much work to be done.
The phone rings again. A gracious exit is in order. But . . . wait.
How did this all start?
“It started with one.”
Is there anything at all Jeanie Vaughan would rather be doing?
A laugh. Another laugh. A gesture of surprise. Ha. “No.”