I remember waiting at the Pizza Hut for the personal pan I earned for maxing out my Book it! badge and the thrill of putting my initials in the high score leaderboard of whatever arcade game they had next to the jukebox. That tradition lives on as I’ve spent the last week obsessing over my spot in the online rankings for a bundle of classic arcade games I bought online. So I bring to you a like-minded item from the Aug. 10, 1984, Journal Gazette -- the movie listings featuring the Will Rogers debut of the sci-fi cult classic “The Last Starfighter.”
Before we get to that, a quick mention of what else was playing that week: We had “Conan The Destroyer”, the second of two Conan movies “Ahh-nold” starred in. Of the two, this one had a PG rating. Weird considering the original was an old-fashioned, ‘80s-style “Hard-R” that sent a lot of parents screaming to the “Stop” button at the part where the (ahem) “spirits” resurrected Conan at that creepy tree. The most explicit that “Conan the Destroyer” got was a whole lot of Grace Jones’s leg muscles and Olivia d’Abo batting serious eyelash at Conan while he flexed.
Ahh, “Ghostbusters.” The furor over the recent, perfectly acceptable, remake with a female cast led to an insufferable amount of “think-pieces” I’m going to guess most of the readers of the column had the good enough sense to not care about. I only really started to chafe when the wheel spun back around to the “guys who think the original ‘Ghostbusters’ was that awesome are just boys who won’t put away their toys” argument. Ouch. Look, you’ve read this column a lot; you can say there’s a lot of things I need to outgrow, but as a young boy in 1984 there was no movie cooler than “Ghostbusters” and no one I wanted be more than Bill Murray…even though I knew I was stuck being a Dan Aykroyd.
Most kids of the ‘80s probably have fond memories of “Red Dawn” as well. It got a lot of play on afternoon and late night movie showings on WRSP/WCCU out of the Champaign area. It was the first time I ever saw a war movie with a “What-If” premise, namely, a bunch of high school students up in snowy Colorado becoming guerrilla fighters when the U.S.A. is suddenly invaded and occupied by the Russians. Oh, how I remember not paying attention in Mr. Gibbons’ fifth-grade class and daydreaming out the window, imagining seeing hundreds of Russian parachutes descending into that vast empty cornfield east of Humboldt Grade School and wondering if I could make it to “Free Mattoon.”
And then there’s “Cloak and Dagger,” the one film of the bunch I actually haven’t seen, although it may as of this writing still be lodged in my DVR from a free Cinemax preview from year. Interestingly enough, it was a movie that used video games as a plot element in the same way that our main feature “The Last Starfighter” did.
Young Alex Rogan is going nowhere, stuck doing odd jobs at a local trailer park full of lovable oddballs while his lovely girlfriend Maggie prepares to leave for college. One night, while feeling sorry for himself, he does manage some small accomplishment: He breaks the high score on the “Starfighter” video game outside the local convenience store; draws a crowd and everything. He then finds out that “Starfighter” is actually an interstellar recruiting tool, a simulator of the real thing, and soon, Alex is whisked into space by smooth-talking “Centauri” (the late Robert Preston) and, just like it says in the game, “recruited by the Star League to defend the Frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan armada” in a starfighter called a “GunStar” piloted by a “gung-ho iguana” named “Grig,” played by the late Dan O’Herlihy.
No, it’s not a documentary based off my life, but I sure wish it was. “The Last Starfighter” sits at an intersection of about five or six nostalgia points. It was about video games, high scores, space ships, and bad guys in cool-insectioid armor made of red plastic. We recorded a broadcast TV airing to a VHS tape I watched until it got grubby. I remember freaking out when a Nintendo game based off it just appeared one day at the old Broadway Video. Sadly, it was horrible in that the programmers just slapped the “Last Starfighter” name on a pre-existing game. The sweeping orchestral theme, the first song I ever downloaded off iTunes, was and is my “heroic theme” of choice for pretty much any impressive thing I pull off, even if it’s just me successfully getting the lid off the jelly jar.
What kid wouldn’t want to know his ability to master something as inherently meaningless as a video game would result in being swept into outer space while his girlfriend back on earth with the tousled shoulder-length brown hair kills a “Zandozan” (an interstellar “hit-beast” that looks like a pug’s head turned inside out) and looks up at the stars and yells “I love you, Clint Walker”…err...I mean “Alex Rogan.”
Like just about everything else, those “old” games that once ate our quarters during our misbegotten youth spent hanging out at the arcade are back in favor now, amongst those of us who remember them well, and those young folk who have learned to appreciate the craft the programmers put into making them and the skill needed to play them well. Depending on your age, it’s possible this particular brand of nostalgia might seem completely alien to you. Fair enough. Still, no matter what you may think about video games then or even now, such things, like my online leaderboards and “The Last Starfighter”, certainly gave us something to strive for.
And for the record, I’m currently ranked 448 in the country at Pac-Man, 576 in Galaga, and 654 in Dig-Dug. I suspect Centauri will be along any minute now to pick me up.