Being a writer means I have to open myself to as much sensory input as possible, as often as possible. It's like I have this giant sticky drift net that's always open around me, trapping sights, smells, feelings, and sounds which will jar loose some long – forgotten memory, or find their way into some future work of fiction.
My son is home from college, visiting briefly before he goes back for his summer session, so I've been making a concerted effort to cram as much writing as I can into limited working hours each day, so my evenings are free to spend with him and the rest of our family. This weekend, my wife and I took him out to dinner, where I found myself in front of a Centipede arcade machine, drawn there by the unmistakable sound of the player earning an extra guy.
Something caught in the mental driftnet, and I began to reel it in. “I have to play this,” I said, doing my best not to be as manic as Richard Dreyfuss behind a pile of mashed potatoes.
They looked at each other, warily. “Okay…” my wife said.
I dropped a quarter into the slot, felt the trackball fit comfortably beneath my right hand, and began to play. By the time the first flea dropped, I'd retrieved a childhood memory from the early '80s.
Arcade games – the actual cabinets that took actual quarters – were ubiquitous throughout my childhood. After about 1978, you couldn't walk into a fast food restaurant or convenience store and not find one.
For my friends and me, businesses were identified not by their names or what they sold, but by the arcade games inside. I would ask the kid next door if he wanted to go play Robotron, and he knew to ask his mom for permission to ride bikes up to 7 – 11 for Slurpees. When I was invited to a Track & Field meet, I begged my parents to let me travel one street farther than my usual boundaries, across traffic – heavy Foothill boulevard, so I could meet my friends for donuts. It never occurred to us to tell our parents that we were going to play video games, and as far as I can remember, they never asked. It may seem unnecessarily complicated now, but it's just how we did things in those days of two – toned corduroy OP shorts and Velcro wallets.
I could play about a dozen or so different games in various locations within a mile of home, from immensely popular machines like Donkey Kong to its sketchy knock – off cousin, Crazy Kong. We'd play Time Pilot and Gyruss at the sandwich shop by the park, and there was a little pizza parlor up by the bike shop that had an Asteroids machine with a unique condition that set it apart from the Asteroids machine at the grocery store that was three blocks closer: the owner turned it
off every night. This meant that kids who got there early enough on a Saturday could get their names on the high score list without much effort or significant financial investment; a hollow achievement, perhaps, but also an opportunity to enter forbidden initials like ASS and SEX. (Like typing 58008 into a calculator, or licking a 9 volt battery, this is how I got my illicit kicks when I was in 4th grade.)
The closest video arcade, Pinball Plus, was almost fifteen minutes away, and I could rarely convince my parents to drive me there, so I didn't have the nearly – limitless gaming choices I was convinced every other child in the world – whose parents I rationally believed took them to arcades and Disneyland on a weekly basis – did. About once a month, though, my parents would take my brother, my sister, and me up to Shakey's in La Crescenta for a school fundraiser, where there would be pizza, mojo potatoes … and video games.
Just as Barry Mann sought the identity of the guy who put the bomp in the bomp-bah-bomp-bah-bomp, I too hope to one day find the guy who put the game room into the average '80s pizza parlor, so I can shake his hand. For while it was a Herculean task to convince my parents to drive me to an actual arcade, the game room at Shakey's was nearly as large as the dining area, and an entirely acceptable substitute, where I discovered Gorf, Vanguard, the pinball machines Comet and Cyclone, and Centipede.
Centipede was released in 1980, so I was either 8 or 9 the first time I played it. We were at Shakey's (my sense is that it was the second Tuesday of the month, but my brain could be making that up to flesh out the story) and my mother had given me one of the precious few quarters I'd collect from her before the evening was over. I walked to the game room, but before I could get inside, I was distracted by a sit – down version of a game I'd never seen before, between the juke box and one of those mechanical horses, being frantically played by a kid who was about my age. I took a few steps closer and watched him, absolutely mesmerized by the complex sounds and fast pace of the game. When he finished, I jumped into his still – warm seat and began to play.
It was unlike anything I'd ever played before. It was fast, it was colorful, and it had a unique controller that set it apart from all the other joystick – controlled machines I was used to. I don't know how my first game went, but I recall feeling like I'd touched the Monolith when I was done.
(A little bit of historical context may help the damn kids today understand why I was so captivated: Until 1980, games were pretty simple, as far as graphics and sound went, and most of the games I had access to were basically derivative of Space Invaders. In fact, the only game I clearly recall that was not in black and white was Galaxian. In 1980, though, everything changed: Carnival, Missile Command, Defender, Berzerk, Tempest, Pac – Man, and Centipede were just a few of the instant classics released that year, which is when I believe the Golden Age of arcade games began.)
My game ended quickly, but I lingered by the machine to watch other kids play it. It only took a few games for me to figure out what sounds went with the spider, the scorpion, the flea, and the awarding of an extra turn. (In fact, ever since that day 29 years ago – holy shit, 29 years ago – if there's a Centipede machine in an arcade, I can hear the sound of an extra guy being awarded above the din as clearly as an air raid siren. I don't know why, and I don't care; it always makes me happy.)
Eventually, my dad used the family whistle to call me back for pizza, which I may have managed to chew once or twice before declaring that I was full, and by the way could I have another quarter?
A familiar, bemused look passed between my parents, and I was soon back at the Centipede machine, which was being played by a couple in their twenties. It's strange the details that stick with me now, 29 years later (holy shit, 29 years later): the guy had a thin mustache and carefully-feathered dark hair, he wore a blue T-shirt and a gold chain around his neck. The girl had blond hair, parted in the middle and equally-feathered. She wore a white peasant shirt with blue and red embroidering, an elastic neck, and a denim skirt. (It's funny, you know, I couldn't tell you what my wife was wearing when she left for work this morning, but I can see these two people as clearly as if I was yelling at them to get off my lawn.)
While they played – or, more accurately, tried to play – I enthusiastically provided a running commentary on their game.
“That's the spider! You have to shoot it before – oh, yeah, before it hits you.”
“When the scorpion poisons mushrooms, it makes the centipede dive straight at you!”
“Look out for the fleas! They start slow but go real fast – yeah. Like that.”
“That sound means you got an extra man! Radical!”
(1980 was the year that I experimented with words like radical, bad [meaning good], gnarly, stoked, and awesome. Thankfully, only “awesome” endures, because my brief flirtation with “bitchin'” came to an abrupt end in 1989 when a waitress thought I'd called her a bitch. Whoops.)
A few minutes after I ruined their game, something squawked out of the restaurant's address system.
“Our dinner's ready,” the girl said.
“I still have another life,” the guy said.
“Well, why don't you let him play it?” She said, pointing to me.
I could tell that the guy wasn't happy about it, but he got up from the game and told me to take over for him, which I gleefully did, before paying for my own game, which ended almost as quickly. I recall thinking how strange it was that he was so willing to give up his game; I guess it was because there were some games I still didn't know how to play at the time.
I don't know what happened with the rest of their date, and I bet they forgot about me before I'd even put on my Star Wars pajamas that night, but I could tell that the guy was annoyed with me, and I felt bad about that. It wasn't until years later and I started dating that I understood why; I wasn't trying to cock block the poor guy, I was just excited to see two grown ups playing the game that I'd just discovered, and I wanted to be part of it.
I haven't thought about that night – holy shit, 29 years ago – in well over a decade, but it flashed through my mind in a matter of seconds, like it had just happened yesterday, and all it took to knock it loose was a few notes of 8-bit sound.