You need to watch out for the ones with blue wings. They'll fuck you right up.
Sometimes I think I have Benjamin Button’s disease – not so much in my physical characteristics (not that those are anything to write home about, either) but in my attitudes toward the world around me. I’m pretty curmudgeonly now, but as a child I was way worse. At the age of six I took myself very seriously, had little sense of humor, and thought video games were the stupidest thing in the world.*
*In my adolescence I hated rap music, and for my first two years of college I was too much of a prick to start drinking. Right now I think Dubstep is a joke. In 60 years I’m going to be the most awesome, well adjusted, open minded person ever, but it’ll be a long road getting there.
When I was six, though, video games weren’t nearly as big as they are now. At the time, there was Game Boy, there was Super NES, and there were enormous, hulking arcade machines, none of which interested me. Games like Super Mario Brothers, which shaped an entire generation’s childhood, struck me as a huge waste of time – at the age of six I had way better things to do, like roll Matchbox cars down a gentle dirt embankment or lie around wishing that Batman was real.
I quit hating video games – just like I quit hating alcohol and rap music – when I took a break from being judgmental long enough to actually try them. If you were to make a graph titled ‘AMOUNT OF TIME TRUMAN SPENDS OUTSIDE’, the line would take a precipitous dive in 1997, when my father bought a Nintendo 64 and I discovered a little thing called Mario Kart.
Looking back, I really regret that I missed out on retro gaming – particularly the simple yet excruciatingly difficult arcade games that have captivated nerds (and more recently insufferable hipsters) since the early 1980s. The games I play today are sophisticated, richly detailed, and fun. Retro arcade games are not any of those things – they’re tests of skill, endurance, and the human spirit, kind of like the Olympics but without all that pesky physical aptitude.
Today, almost everyone plays some form of video game, so they’re designed to be entertaining and accessible. Back then, very few people played video games, and they were designed to be digital feats of strength, complete with points and a scoreboard where your initials would live on next to your point total, taunting other challengers to try and beat your score. My initials have never been on an arcade game scoreboard, and I feel my life has been cheaper as a result.
So last night, when my friend John asked if I wanted to go with him to a cash-only bar in Koreatown that has a few dozen 1980s arcade games that charge 25 cents a play, I said, “Fuck yes!” (Because my weekend was bound to involve drinking and video games in one way or another.)
The bar (Barcade) was in a run down, almost enthusiastically dirty little storefront next door to a huge Laundromat and across the street from an imposing, three-story Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Because fuck your arteries, that's why.
We pushed through some ratty curtains hanging in the open doorway to find a dark room lit primarily by the glowing electric cases and screens of the arcade games lining the walls – Asteroids, Track & Field, Pac Man, Paperboy, Centipede… Nobody checked our ID, either, making this bar officially heaven for the cast of any given John Hughes movie.
Having seen The King of Kong recently, my quarters and I immediately gravitated toward Donkey Kong. Whenever I try something new I have the misguided hope that maybe I’ll discover that I have a natural aptitude for it. After blowing 75 cents and flipping off a laughing 8-bit monkey, I acknowledged that I had no natural aptitude for Donkey Kong and moved on to the game next to it – a spaceship shooter called Galaga where your objectives are pretty much to move to the left and right and shoot everything.
I want to live in a world where everything is this simple.
My responsibilities limited to one joystick and one big red button, I found Galaga to be more my speed. After about a dollar’s worth of enjoyable games I discovered that my button mashing hand was starting to cramp up, so I figured it was time to walk away. Before I did, though, I happened to glance at the scoreboard and saw that on my most recent death I had only been a couple of thousand points away from the number 1 spot.
I realized immediately that the bar staff simply reset all the machines’ scoreboards every night, and immediately after that I realized that I didn’t give a shit: My initials were going to be at the top of the Galaga scoreboard tonight, goddamnit.
After a trip back to the change machine for a dozen more quarters, I went to work. I unconsciously moved left and right with my tiny white spaceship, lowering my wrist so I could mash the ‘FIRE’ button with the full downward force of my arm. I swore whenever a single laser or kamakaze enemy destroyed my spacecraft, feverishly plugging in another quarter as soon as the screen flashed ‘GAME OVER.’ Sweat poured off my forehead and down the small of my back into the waistband of my jeans.
Finally, though, my score in the top right corner matched and then exceeded the high score at the top center of the screen. When my final spaceship was destroyed a few thousand points later, I breathlessly scrolled through the alphabet to chalk up the letters TSC next to my score – 32,990 points. (Wikipedia would later tell me that the highest Galaga score exceeded 15 million, so ultimately none of this matters.)
I left the console and went to find John so I could brag. As I walked away, three portly Korean UCLA students walked past me in the other direction and I heard one exclaim, “Check it out, guys! Galaga!”
I hung back in the shadows, creepy as ever, to watch him play, hoping to hear him exclaim, “Damn, 32,990!? I don’t know who this TSC guy is, but he’s by far the greatest Galaga player ever to have lived!”
Instead, he plugged in a quarter and promptly began mashing the fire button faster than I had thought humanly possible. Enemy fighters had scarcely appeared onscreen before they met firey death at the hands of his lasers. Points rapidly began to pile up at the top right of the screen, and as he approached 30,000 I anxiously stepped outside the bar for some fresh air.
Under the warm and watchful glow of Colonel Sanders atop the KFC skyscraper across the street, I pondered my legacy. No matter how well I played, my score still would’ve been wiped when they unplugged the Galaga machine at 2:00 AM, but I had kind of liked the idea that I might at least stay on top until then.
On the other hand, I had eschewed video games for the first few years of my life, while my challenger inside had undoubtedly put in the time and effort to master the craft. If anything, it would be unfair for me to be the reigning champ when others had tried so much harder.
When I went back inside the Galaga machine was unoccupied, and my opponent had beat my score by about 13,000 points. I spent another dollar or so trying to get my initials back above his, but to no avail. Much like the world economy in the 21st century, no matter how hard you try at something, you can usually count on there being an Asian who will put all of your efforts to shame.
My name is Truman Scott Capps, and on February 17th, 2013, I was the second best Galaga player.
Truman Capps washed his hands several times after leaving the Barcade and still didn’t feel clean.