Last weekend my friends took me out for my birthday to “The 8-Bit Arcade," a bar-slash-vintage video game arcade up in Bloomington, a town that apparently isn’t called “Bloomies” by the locals. Shows what I know.
My last time at an arcade would have been to the “arcade with no name” in Effingham’s Village Square Mall back in 1997. I technically did go to two arcades on my last night in Vegas back in October, but those felt like game rooms. If you don’t know the difference I’d say you didn’t grow up in the ‘80s. More than one stuffed animal claw-machine game and that’s a Chuck-E-Cheese.
It took only one second inside and I was instantly transported back to my past. Well, except for the guy carding me at the door. Exposed brick walls, pipes and ductwork visible overhead, music playing, people everywhere moving from game to game, determined eyes lit up by monitor-light.
My friends, who clearly knew I was going to be in my element, handed me a drink and told me to have at it, pointing me directly at Data East’s 1988 RoboCop arcade game, a game I’m positive I hadn’t played since Aladdin’s Castle was right next to the GNC. Me and RoboCop got reacquainted real fast and before I knew it I had my first top score of the night, although I accidently put in my initials as “C.L.I.” I thought it would let me put in my whole name.
Seeing all those games I used to feed tokens to as a kid - “Heavy Barrel,” “Root Beer Tapper,” “Rampage,” “N.A.R.C.,” “Revolution-X,” “Super Sprint,” “Turbo,” “Vindicators,” and so many more - was like a reunion with old friends. Meanwhile my human friends sat at a table being social, wondering where I had disappeared to. One of them actually had to find me amongst the games just to make sure I hadn’t been human trafficked into a van in the alley.
And while most of the games I just mentioned were from the Silver Age of Arcade games (roughly 1988 to the mid-'90s) there were a few golden oldies there as well, which is where Asteroids comes in, as does this local news article from the Aug. 9, 1982, Journal Gazette, featuring EIU student Dave Matteson spending an insane 37 hours straight setting an equally-insane high score of 17 million points on the Asteroids game in the student union.
What a Saturday afternoon that must have been; just you, one quarter, a bar-stool, and before you know it, you’ve got a crowd behind you cheering you on as you reach for greatness. Although, no offense to the dude with the tight Will Riker beard in the background of that photo, where’s all the ladies? Geez, when I broke the high score on “Chase H.Q.” back in junior high even I got an excitable squeeze on my shifting arm from a blond girl I didn’t recognize who no doubt went to school in Sullivan.
Also, how in the world did we actually get someone out there to take that photo? It’s not like people had cell phones. One of his buddies would have had to run to a pay phone, call the Journal Gazette and scream “Send a beat reporter over here…you guys gotta see this…he’s going for the record!” Oh well, like I said, he was there for 37 hours.
We even ran a follow-up piece the next day when he discovered Guinness didn’t recognize video game scores at a “world record” level achievement. Dude kept a good outlook though, saying he was happy that UPI put his accomplishment on the wire for the world to know. Still, it’s got to sting a bit even now since leaderboards for all these classic games are currently a going concern amongst roughly the top .0001 percent of all nerds.
I searched our archives far and wide to find out what may have happened to Dave. Being a native of Flora he probably moved back home or goodness knows where else. Wherever you are now, my good arcade warrior, even though it’s probably small comfort given the recognition you actually would have received if you achieved this feat today, in this space and in the authority given unto me within it, consider yourself duly honored.
My experience playing Asteroids at The 8-Bit Arcade wasn’t nearly as eventful, unless of course you count my back and forth battle over the course of the night with some old guy (as in older than me) who kept running back to the machine after I was done to beat my high score, and vice versa. Hey, “J.E.K.,” wherever you are…I stayed until last call and beat you by three thousand points.
Matteson didn’t talk much in the article about his strategy during his marathon run, but I’ve got an idea of how he went about it. More so than a lot of those early arcade games, Asteroids was less about reflexes and quick reaction time than it was about staying calm, letting inertia carry your little spaceship into the right position and trusting the asteroids will come to you in due time.
I’ve discovered over the years that you really do enter a zone of mental clarity when you’re making an active high score run on these old games; where suddenly you’re seeing four and five steps ahead and you’re totally absorbed in even the slightest twitch of the controls or the flutter of a fingertip over a button, and yet still hyper aware in the calmness of everything around you.
That’s how I overheard an exchange just over my shoulder between a guy and a girl, probably both in their twenties, having a friendly and excitable complaining session about their respective love lives. When she exclaimed to him, in no uncertain terms, that he really needed to ditch the chase of whatever other girl he was obsessed with, he went to the nearby restroom and in the reflection of my screen I could see her body language change. She just stared at the floor with a sad, blank look on her face like someone had just hit her off button. It was then I surmised, in my own moment of clarity, that she was trying everything she could do to get that poor guy to realize she was the one he should be with.
For a second, and only a second, part of me almost thought of saying something to her, maybe proffer some advice as simple as, “Dude, just tell him.” But, well, I would have had to turn my head away from the screen and like I said, I just had to beat that old guy. Still, as with Dave Matteson and even “J.E.K.,” I wish her well too. The games people play, right?