The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
last seen online via YouTube
It was sometime during my junior high school years that my love affair with video arcade games began. We had a Commodore 64 home computer around this time, and in addition to learning BASIC (does anyone still use BASIC?) at a computer camp one summer, I also had some video games that my sister and I played (me more than her, I think). Arcade games were different, though. Maybe it was the better graphics, maybe it was the size, maybe it was the fact that they were just about everywhere you went, but I took to them with the kind of obsession unique to a twelve-year-old.
Neighborhood five-and-dime shops were the easiest places to find them. There was one a couple of blocks from the house I grew up in. It was a tiny little shop that sold snacks and drinks. It had a counter with stools, though I don't remember ever sitting in them, because any time I didn't go in there for some snack or other (Funyuns, Cheez Doodles, Doritos), I was there to play video games. The only ones I remember playing there are Gyruss and Jungle King, though there were others. They were off to the left of the door as you entered, in a fairly dark corner. I remember the lighting in that place as always being a bit low.
There was another shop, a little further away, on Northern Boulevard. I would pass by it every day as I walked to school, and many afternoons, on my way home, I'd stop in there and play whichever game they had, sometimes alone, sometimes with friends. Whenever I went into a candy shop or bodega of some sort, the first thing I'd look for was a video game. Usually it'd be in the back or near it, and it'd usually be just one, though some places had two. Once I started going to movie theaters on my own, they were another great source for video games. The Jackson in Jackson Heights always had good games.
Then came arcades. My first memory of an arcade-like experience was going to a Nathan's in the Bronx (or was it Westchester County?) with my parents and family friends and just being immersed in the big arcade room they had there. At summer camp, we would often go to an amusement park on Long Island called Adventureland that had a sweet arcade. (I remember begging my mother for extra cash on those days so I'd have enough money to play the games.)
I associate arcades with high school, especially my freshman and sophomore years. Penn Station in Manhattan used to have two good ones that I went to after school. I never went to the famous one on Mott Street in Chinatown that often. I'm not sure why; I just never went that far downtown much. The one I went to the most was the one at the Roosevelt Avenue subway station. I'd take the 7 train there from the city, go downstairs, hang out there for an hour or so, and then take the bus home. It was a dark, kinda scuzzy place that tended to attract some weird characters, but that never bothered me, as long as I could play my games. I even dated a girl who I met there once... but that's another story.
My favorite kind of games were shoot-em-ups, especially goal-oriented ones. Gyruss is a great example. The goal is to make it to Earth from the outer rim of the galaxy, while fighting off alien invaders. I loved it because you could move your ship in a circle around the screen and fight the enemies in 360 degrees. Plus it had cool music and graphics. And as for my screen name? Well, I had started reading comic books around this time, among them Uncanny X-Men. My favorite X-Man was Nightcrawler, who, because of his pointy ears and tail, was nicknamed "Elf." Some people who knew me from the arcades knew me only as Elf, and I have to admit, I liked having a secret identity like my favorite comic book superheroes.
In recent years, there were a couple of sophisticated arcades in Times Square. I don't remember the name of the one across the street from 1 Times Square, but the one on 42nd Street near Eighth Avenue was Broadway City, the one I frequented most. They had 21st-century arcade games with super-sophisticated graphics, and even the controls were unique. There was a skiing game in which you stood on a platform shaped kinda like skis and held onto grips as if they were poles, and you physically moved your body to manipulate the skier on the screen as it goes down a slope, as if you were doing it for real! There were other games like this, in which you had to move your entire body. Naturally, these games were more expensive than a mere quarter - a dollar at the low end. I tended to be very careful with how I spent my money there. Unfortunately, neither of these new arcades lasted long.
I was in San Diego, attending Comic-Con International, when I first heard about the movie The King of Kong. They had a big display where people could play Donkey Kong arcade games. I was never that good at DK. It was always frustrating as hell to even get past the first or second boards. I never liked the feel of controlling Mario; it always felt like he was moving too slow for me. I do remember playing a tabletop version of DK that I liked much better. It belonged to my friend Ozzie and whenever I went to his house I'd always want to play it. It was small, and it had two screens, an upper and lower level, and I always preferred playing that version instead of the arcade one.
Competitive arcade gaming does kinda feel like the death of childhood for me. Sure, I always played to win, and there was always a sense of competition whenever I challenged someone to a game, but it was never all that serious. To me, I was more interested in developing my skill than anything else. Taking down a high score was always a goal, but it wasn't always the goal. So to see these guys go back and forth trying to become the DK champ is utterly fascinating, yet a little startling as well, because to me these games always were and always will be just that - games. Especially now that I'm older and (presumably) wiser.