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Memories of Arcade Dreams

It’s a dangerous practice to start one’s day with BoingBoing – it’s far too easy to lose a couple of hours exploring a thread touched on in one of the fantastic foursome’s excellent posts. Mark Frauenfelder points to an excellent article in this month’s Harpers by Joshuah Bearman, about champions of “golden age” arcade games, the upright consoles like Ms. Pac-Man and Donkey Kong that were ubiquitous in my 1980s childhood.

A rare breed of late-thirties and forty-something obsessives have mastered these games, and Bearman’s article follows Billy Mitchell, who holds the record for a “perfect” game of Pac-Man – every dot, every ghost, every fruit for 256 levels on the first man… and his nemesis, Abdner Bancroft Ashman, whose obsession focuses on the game’s successor, Ms. Pac-Man. The challenge of the games turns out to be somewhat different – Pac-Man is pre-programmed and is beaten by mastering a set of patterns that work on different levels, while Ms. Pac-Man is somewhat random, and a player needs to develop a strategy on each level based on the initial configurations. There’s a fixed high score to Pac-Man – 3,333,360 points – while Ms. Pac-Man includes the intriguing possibility that scores could increase beyond today’s known highest scores. It’s a beautiful little essay, and a wonderful stroll through the past for those of us who hoarded our quarters as children, waiting to discover something strange and amazing as we stared into these screens.

It sounds like Jason McIntosh spent much of his childhood wondering about the mysteries of the arcade in much this way. He’s got a wonderful (though too short) set of videocasts where he talks about his childhood while playing the games he remembers from those days. Above, he walks us through the (vicious, difficult) side-scrolling game Scramble while talking about taking ice skating lessons, his fascination with the arcade games in the skating rink and how staring at his skating instructor likely cemented his ideas of female beauty. It’s an honest, moving and lovely piece of storytelling, and I’m glad I stumbled on his podcasts while searching for information on Nibbler, a game mentioned in the Bearman story and the subject of Jmac’s third “arcade” podcast.

McIntosh and friends now produce a television show, podcast and blog called “The Gameshelf” which looks in depth at board, arcade and computer games. It looks to be video crack for folks like me who consider playing obscure board games with friends to be one of the best possible ways to spend an evening. Stepping away from the browser right now.

2 thoughts on “Memories of Arcade Dreams”

  1. Pingback: Jmac’s Arcade « Andy on the Road

  2. Don’t end your day with this article, either – or you’ll risk not getting that last bit of work done in time to leave promptly! Thanks Ethan, it was a great read.

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