The Boston Phoenix
May 20 - 27, 1999


Game boys

For the masters of early-'80s video games, the two saddest words in the English language are 'Game Over'

by Chris Wright

Rick Fothergill doesn't look like a world-class athlete. With a gray-flecked T-shirt clinging to him like Saran wrap and a pair of pale legs protruding from his baggy shorts, the 27-year-old concrete tester from Ontario, Canada, looks as though a round of golf might kill him. But Fothergill is on the verge of accomplishing a rare -- historic, even -- feat of skill and endurance. After a grueling six hours and 15 minutes of play, he is about to enter into the 256th screen of Ms. Pac Man. Known as the "kill screen," it's the last screen Ms. Pac Man's creators bothered to program. When you clear it, the machine simply packs up, exhausted.

"Last board! Last board!" cries one of the spectators milling around behind Fothergill's back. The announcement has people tottering atop stools, craning necks, clicking cameras. Only a handful of players have ever reached this stage. Fothergill has finished off Ms. Pac Man about a dozen times in his long career, making him perhaps the most accomplished player in the history of the game -- the Michael Jordan, the Mark McGwire, the Joe Montana of Ms. Pac Man.

A hush spreads as the kill screen dissolves into a mess of squiggles, its program scrambled by endgame glitches. The board is inverted, the score upside down on the bottom of the screen. A roomful of techies fidget. Fothergill, oblivious to the crowd, hunches over the controls, yanking and flicking the joystick. Before him, a little yellow blob flees a cluster of multicolored ghosts. "It doesn't get any more intense than this," mutters an awed onlooker.

The action is taking place at the Funspot, a sprawling multi-entertainment complex at Weirs Beach, New Hampshire, which is hosting a three-day tournament of classic video games. In an upstairs room roughly the size of South Boston, 110 video games from the late '70s and early '80s -- the heyday of the video arcade -- have been fixed up, turned on, and tuned to their tournament settings.

The event, on the first weekend in May, is far and away the largest of its kind to have been held in 15 years, both in the number of machines and the number of world-champion players present. Mark Longridge, Pat Laffaye, Stephen Krogman, Robert Mruzak, Perry Rodgers, and Billy Mitchell may not be household names, but between them, these six men have set world records for Wizard of Wor, Dig Dug, Space Invaders, Pac Man, Ms. Pac Man, Joust, Frogger, Galaga, Arkanoid, Tetris, Doctor Mario, Firetruck, Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., Q*Bert, BurgerTime, Centipede, Galaxian, Carnival, Mario Bros., and Star Wars.

"These guys were my heroes growing up," gushes one young local. "This is a dream come true."

Right now, the attention is on Fothergill, who has just completed the kill screen. The crowd applauds. He turns around and pumps his fists in the air. Though his score of 901,540 failed to set a record, and indeed fell 900 points short of Fothergill's personal best, it's still one of the highest scores ever recorded for the game. The previous evening, he set a new world record for original Pac Man with a score of 3,333,270, a mere 90 points away from a perfect score. "This is unbelievable," he says, breathless. "I never . . . "

All of the weekend's contestants share a similar sense of elation at having been given the chance to compete once more. "I haven't walked into an arcade in 15 years," says Pat Laffaye, a Connecticut computer consultant who's hoping to regain the Frogger record he lost in the early '80s.

"I never thought I'd be doing this again," says Wizard of Wor whiz Mark Longridge.

Galaga master Stephen Krogman is equally thrilled. "It's an honor to play with all these champions, people I've just read about in books," he says. It's difficult to overstate the momentousness of having all these players, all these years later, gathered together under one roof. But Walter Day, the organizer of the tournament, somehow manages: "It's like Batman coming out of retirement, Superman coming out of retirement, Spider-Man coming out of retirement."

If the video-game world has a patron saint, it's Day. With a thick beard, a receding hairline, and a pair of intense, smiling eyes set in a gaunt face, he patrols the floor of his tournament in a black-and-white-striped referee's jersey, carrying a clipboard and encouraging the contestants. Day's interest in classic video games dates back to 1981, when he opened a small arcade in Ottumwa, Iowa. "I became fascinated by the superstars who get the high scores," he says. The following year, Day founded the Twin Galaxies Intergalactic Scoreboard, which is the nearest thing to an official record-keeping body for video games. If Twin Galaxies hasn't verified your record, you don't hold it. "I'm the scorer for the whole world," Day says. "It's a very, very busy job."

Every serious video-game player in the country is aware of Day's work -- at least, every player who is considered serious by virtue of having had Day tag him as a champion. Thus the large number of superstars at the tournament. "These are extraordinary people." Day says. "They have a higher sense; they're seeing a bigger picture. They have more creative intelligence, more integration with their nervous systems."

J.C. Herz, author of Joystick Nation: How Videogames Ate Our Quarters, Won Our Hearts, and Rewired Our Minds (Little, Brown, 1997), puts it even more strongly: "A lot of these guys have the same understanding of Asteroids that a concert pianist has of Haydn. They play these games like musical instruments."

Plenty of people at the Funspot share her high opinion of the players. The place teems with youngsters: rookies eager to learn a trick or two, whiz kids intent on flaunting their own virtuosity before the masters. There's even a small contingent of reporters, scurrying around after the contestants.

The level of enthusiasm for a tournament of early-'80s video games has surprised even the hosts. "I can't believe it," says the Funspot's Gary Vincent. "I thought we'd get some locals, some people from Massachusetts. But I've got people calling me from all over the world."

It wasn't always so. Technology moves fast, and the taste of 13-year-olds moves even faster. The video-game industry long ago left games like Galaga and Dig Dug behind, replacing them with a series of increasingly realistic shoot-'em-up and kung-fu fantasies. Plus, there was the crash. "The whole industry went bust in '84," says Walter Day. "A lot of arcades went out of business." By the mid '80s, the days when people like Perry Rodgers appeared in TV commercials ("When I'm not playing games in the arcade, I'm . . . ") or competed on the US National Video Game Team were over. The Guinness Book of World Records, which had previously published the scores Day compiled, withdrew its video-game category. By then, most video-game superstars had given up. In fact, Day himself retired in 1986. "I was so tired," he explains. "It wore me out."

But a handful of classic games survived in arcades such as the Funspot, and interest -- perhaps buoyed by a growing '80s nostalgia -- began to revive. In 1995, Day got back into the game, and last year he edited the first edition of Twin Galaxies' Official Video Game & Pinball Book of World Records, a 984-page tome that logs thousands of scores and statistics culled from 31 countries. Suddenly, the old stars had a new reason to go on competing. The response to his book has been so overwhelming, Day says, that next year it will be published in two volumes.

Home-entertainment giants such as Hasbro Interactive, Midway, and Sega recently decided that they want a piece of the pie, too, re-issuing many of the classics for home game systems. Web sites carrying the MAME (Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator) program -- which allows home computers to mimic classic video games -- are proliferating like mad. Classic video-arcade consoles, which a few years ago could be bought for as little as $50, are suddenly worth much more.

To some extent, the resurgence of classic video games is fueled by a generation's predictable longing for the toys and joys of its teenage years. But there's also a growing consensus that these old machines are simply a lot more fun than their modern counterparts. Kids still drop millions of quarters into the new games, but no one would argue that anyone is forming the kinds of emotional bonds to House of the Dead that people did to Pac Man.

"I like simpler games from a simpler time," says Frogger champ Pat Laffaye. "Some people might look at Frogger and say it's corny. Some might even say it's a girl's game. But I find the violence of the new stuff disturbing. It doesn't really interest me."

"There's a big difference between old-school and new-school games," says J.C. Herz. "The old games are better designed because they didn't have good graphics, they didn't have the realism. Game design was all they had, so they had to work harder to design an entertaining experience. Now they spend more money, but the design is a lot more sloppy."

You could think of the difference between old and new video games as analogous to that between old and new films. Old filmmakers, without special effects to rely on, had to work harder to cultivate a mood, and the same goes for the creators of classic video games: without modern graphics and powerful processors, the designers of games such as Centipede and Donkey Kong had to rely on simple human creativity, and that turns out to be a lasting thing.

"Pac Man is very primitive," says the Funspot's Gary Vincent. "As far as memory, the only thing it remembers is the high score." New games, on the other hand, have multi-layer logic boards, adjustable everythings, and high-definition screens. The result is that when you're driving one of the cars in Daytona II, you're not only looking at a very realistic road before you, but your car behaves as it would in real life. There's a lot of technical skill involved, but not much artistry.

"A lot of people are seeing these media masterpieces for what they are," says Herz of the older video games. "I really think that one day they will be considered great pieces of modern art. They hew to the same principles: simplicity and elegance. I honestly think that Asteroids should sit next to Mondrian in a museum one day."

There's also a quirky surrealism to the classic video games that's lacking in their contemporaries. It must have taken a delightfully trippy imagination to dream up Frogger, with its little green critter hopping on the backs of turtles, dodging streams of traffic, occasionally getting flattened. Or BurgerTime, wherein the object of the game is to help Peter Pepper assemble enormous hamburgers. In today's bloodthirsty video-game market, it's unlikely that we'll see the likes of Mr. Egg and Mr. Pickle again.

If you're reading this and thinking, "Ah, Mr. Pickle!", you'll understand why these guys have traveled to New Hampshire from all over the country and beyond. Walk into the upstairs game room at the Funspot and it all comes flooding back: the dim lighting, the whiff of physical exertion, the riot of bleeps and squawks.

And then there are the players. Wizard of Wor ace Mark Longridge, fairly or not, fits the video-game-player stereotype perfectly. Disheveled, untucked, with the facial and cranial hair of a revolutionary poet, Longridge came all the way from Hamilton, Canada, for the chance to compete. "I haven't woken up yet," he says. He insists he didn't think twice about making the trip. "Everyone gets nostalgic about what they liked to do as a teenager," says Longridge, who is 33. "We actually get the chance to do it again."

It's no surprise that every contestant in this tournament is circling 30. Look at the dates the games were conceived: Space Invaders (1978); Asteroids (1979); Defender and Missile Command (1980); Donkey Kong, Frogger, Galaga, and Space Duel (1981); Tron, Q*Bert, Millipede, Pengo, BurgerTime, and Zaxxon (1982); Congo Bongo and Star Wars (1983).

The majority of these guys were in their early teens when they hit their peak, which happened to coincide with the golden age of arcade games. They were hotshot kids, skipping school and showing off to their buddies. Now they're approaching middle age, with jobs and families and mushrooming midriffs.

"When I heard about the competition, it was an odd feeling," says Mario Bros. champ Perry Rodgers, 36. "It felt like the '80s weren't that long ago, like it's all been continuous."

Youth, as someone once said, is wasted on the young -- and so, apparently, is video-game prowess. The Funspot tournament doesn't offer contestants a chance just to relive childhood, but to improve on it. As Pat Laffaye says, "I didn't know how good I was back then. There was no one there to push me, to take me to the next level." Then, after a pause, he says, "This is my chance to make up.

"I'm not one to toot my own horn," he continues, "but I should be the Frogger world champion by the end of the weekend."

There are a lot of world champions here, but when video-game buffs talk about their heroes, one name keeps cropping up: Billy Mitchell. He was one of the first players to get his name in the Guinness Book of World Records. He set records on a mind-boggling selection of games: Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., Pac Man, Ms. Pac Man, BurgerTime, Centipede. He still holds the longest-standing record: in 1982, he scored 874,000 points in Donkey Kong, and no one has topped it since. Indeed, Billy Mitchell might just be the most famous player in the world.

Sporting a stars-and-stripes tie over a denim shirt, with a trimmed beard and a head of immaculate, Shaun Cassidy-caliber hair, he certainly looks the part. And he acts it, too. Speaking on the phone on the first day of the tournament, Mitchell begins our conversation by saying, "If I sound a little absent-minded, I'm playing while I speak. There's a world record in the making here."

In the mid '80s, Mitchell set high scores for Pac Man and Ms. Pac Man, only to have both records snatched away shortly thereafter, an experience he describes as "agonizing, a tremendous disappointment." Fifteen years after the fact, he says, "I've come to take them back." This weekend, Billy Mitchell is setting his sights on the elusive Pac Man perfect score, yet to be achieved by any player.

"My motto," says Mitchell, "is play to win. People ask, `Do you ever play for fun?' I say, `No. I play to win.' The satisfaction is that you achieve what others can't. If you can get 100,000 on Pac Man, you'd surely be in the top one percent in the country, you'd turn heads anywhere you go. You've achieved a level that three or four people in the whole world could achieve. But if you don't get that top score, you feel like you're beaten. I know it's silly, but it's the truth. If you're not the lead dog, the view never changes."

Mitchell insists that his passion for winning has abated somewhat, or at least shifted. On the phone, he says he can't wait for me to get there -- he's itching to talk about Rickey's, a hot sauce put out by the chain of restaurants Mitchell owns in Florida. "Now," he says, "I bring my passion to the sauce."

As the weekend wears on, however, it becomes increasingly apparent that the sauce is only sharing his attention, at best. The whole weekend, Mitchell barely budges from his Pac Man console -- often playing the game and speaking into a cellular phone at the same time. If he made a trip to the bathroom, if he ate anything at all, I didn't see him do it.

"That's the kind of player Billy Mitchell is," says Gary Vincent. "Last night I had to switch off the machine and tell him to go home."

Video-game lore is rife with tales of players pulling all-nighters, all-dayers, all-weekers. Mitchell says it took him 47 hours to set his Centipede record ("25 million and one"). Perry Rodgers did 27 hours at a charity event playing Mario Bros. Rick Fothergill says that in his heyday he'd regularly play 12 to 16 hours at a stretch. Stephen Krogman, who works in a video arcade ("I play them and fix them"), recently knocked off his 10-hour shift, only to spend another 10 hours playing. Robert Mruzak once spent 49 hours playing Star Wars, an experience he describes, with deadpan understatement, as "draining."

"These people are bound by the fact that they've gone through this ordeal, this manic dedication to a fringe activity," says J.C. Herz. "There must be something like a Tao of Galaga in the seventh or eighth hour."

There is certainly a philosophy that grows out of spending long hours before the console. At least, if you're Billy Mitchell there is. "You have to be able to question everything that happens in the game," Mitchell explains. "Every time you die there's a reason, and if you discover the reason you can prevent it."

According to Pat Laffaye, there's something pre-logical, even extrasensory, about mastering the game. When he's playing Frogger, he says, he has to "predict" what's going to happen next. "When you hop on a log," he explains, "you have to have a leap of faith." At this point, when you don't even have to think, you've entered what players call the Zone -- or what cognitive scientists call "flow."

"It's basically when you can do no wrong," Laffaye says. "It's hard to explain: you're totally focused on the game, you've blocked everything out, everything happens naturally." When Laffaye's in the Zone, he says, "I see everything in slow motion; I see this clear path, this very wide path. Everything is exaggerated. Milliseconds seem like eons."

And then there's Bob Mruzak, for whom the weekend is all Zone, all the time. He just smashed his Star Wars record by nearly a million. "I thought I'd lost my knack," he says, beaming. "It just came back to me after 13 years."

I, on the other hand, am a complete stranger to the Zone. All weekend I play 1942, a game I vaguely remember being quite good at as a kid. The object is to fly a little World War II aircraft over a series of rudimentary terrains, shooting squadrons of enemy planes as you go. The only problem is, the little bastards shoot back. No matter how hard I try, I can't seem to log more than a few thousand points before being blasted out of the sky. It's a very sobering experience. Not to mention tiring, and maddening. At one point, as I slam my hand on the control panel and utter an Oedipal profanity, Walter Day happens by. "Remember," he says, "1942 is a state of mind." I watch him to see if he laughs. He doesn't.

So, with this advice ringing in my ears, I go on to log a score of 207,000, a high for the day. "Here!" I yelp at one of the clipboard-wielding officials wandering the floor. "Over here!" My name is entered onto the roll of honor. Never mind that the next day, when I walk past the machine, I will notice that some anonymous player has quadrupled my score. For a brief, shining moment, I am the best. It's a good feeling.

"Getting a high score is a real rush," says Krogman. "I don't drink, I don't smoke. When I get a record, I've proved myself a thousand percent. I'm not ashamed to say it, I'll stare at a high score for 10 minutes and think, `No one will ever beat me.' "

Krogman is keen to come out of the weekend a winner. "I've been pushing buttons and moving joysticks for 19 years," he says. "I don't want to look back and go, `Yeah, I'm okay.' After all the time and money I've put into it, I'd better be the best."

Time, though, might just turn out to be the video virtuoso's greatest enemy. Krogman, like most of the other Funspot contestants, fails to live up to his teenage brilliance. "I'm a bit disgusted with myself," says Mark Longridge. "I'm not as sharp as I used to be. I'm slower. I'm finding it hard to get the scores I used to, and that's frustrating."

Billy Mitchell doesn't buy this at all. "Past my prime? Not at all. It's like being a boxer: you're not as sharp, but you're a lot wiser."

As the weekend draws to a close, however, only two records have been set: Rick Fothergill's 3,333,270 on Pac Man and Bob Mruzak's 2,599,701 on Star Wars. At nine o'clock on Sunday evening -- Mother's Day -- Billy Mitchell is still sitting at the Pac Man console, still reaching for the perfect score, still not quite making it. The tournament has officially been over for three hours. As I walk out of the arcade, I try to get his attention.

"Bye, Billy," I say. He doesn't turn around.

Chris Wright can be reached at cwright[a]

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