Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

Wasting time with MAME

I’ve been wasting all of my free time lately reviewing CDs. I’m not sure why, because I don’t want to be in the business of having a bunch of crappy death metal bands emailing me their mp3s to review. But I have a lot of loose reviews around, and I wanted to write more long-form reviews and find a place to put them, and I’ve got it about figured out now. When I get more than about 7 reviews done, I’ll post a link. Anyway, that’s why I haven’t been writing here much. It’s far easier to write 1500 words on an old Metallica album than it is to try to come up with 500 words when nothing is going on that I want to write about, except maybe the weather. So, there you go.

But, the other day, I was digging around and found a bunch of ROMS to various stand-up arcade games I had from my old laptop. So I downloaded a MAME emulator program for the Mac, and started digging around all of these old games. I don’t know about you, but I played a lot of arcade games back in the day, and I don’t just mean the really popular Pac-Man/Donkey Kong/Centipede era. I found a lot of these games and played them, and they totally reminded me of my days in a Bally’s, wasting a couple dollars while at the mall. And video game brand loyalty is a huge thing, and it made me think about all of the different brands and games and the whole caste system of consoles, and who played what.

For example, there were certain games that I absolutely loved to play. Like there was the Star Wars vector game, the original Tetris, this Tetris plus enhancements called Bloxxed, and Roadblasters. If an arcade had all of those, it was excellent. If it had one or two of them, it was good. If an arcade (like that shitty one in Pierre Moran Mall, or maybe one in an airport or something) didn’t have any of those games, it sucked, and either I’d play nothing and go off to the Walden Books, or maybe drop a quarter on a sub-par game, just to see if maybe it was really okay. There were a lot of games that either I didn’t like or didn’t see the point of, like most of the three-button-attack quarter-eater types that came out later, or the driving games that didn’t have a good catch to them. I mean, for a buck in gas, I could drive around the parking lot of the mall in my real car and have more fun than half of the sloppy-controller stand-up drivers out there in the early 90s.

But different people liked different games, which always made it weird when you went with other people, because people always had different allegiances to different games. It’s weird, because now, decades later, I can still remember what friends liked what games, way more than I could remember their favorite beer or band or movie. And that would be cool, but sometimes, based on the games there, it would cause problems. Like, sometimes I’d go to the Bally’s in College Mall in Bloomington with Bill, and I’d inevitably buy into some “a shitload of tokens for $20” deal before I’d remember that they had absolutely no machines I liked. I mean, the best game on the list was a Ms. Pac Man, and I could play that for about six months on $20 of change, given that I wouldn’t die of boredom. But there was some game there that he loved, and he’d play it all day, even though I was either no good at it or hated it. So you have that. Another example is that Spaceport had some pretty esoteric game machines, so if you stopped in there with someone who just wanted to play the core Atari games, they’d be screwed.

Oh, at the lowest end of the totem pole were the situations where you only had one or two games, and you had to pick one. A classic example is when you’re with your family at Pizza Hut, and there are two games, and it’s either Bust-a-Move or Robocop, and neither one are very good, but you need something to do until the breadsticks arrive or something. This also applies to dorms with a couple of stray machines, or little arcades in laundromats or whatever.

Another game I didn’t get were the sports games, like the football, hockey, and whatnot. None of my friends played these, because I think you had to like the sport in question, and none of my friends were huge soccer fans. The only sports game that was the exception to the rule was Summer Games. This – I think it came out around the time of the 84 Olympics, but wasn’t a sponsored game or anything – it was all of the track and field events, like throwing discus and running around a track and soforth. But the thing is, to run, you had to slap two buttons really fast to get your dude to run or throw or something. And for some reason, that made it different; it wasn’t about your ability to know about NFL football. It was about how fast you could slap two buttons, and dammit, you knew you could do it faster than the other guy. The sport part was secondary – it could have been monster trucks or shooting dragons or anything else, as long as it was competitive and measured your ability to pretty buttons at light-speed. I knew a lot of people who were really into that, and you could always tell when someone was playing, because it sounded like someone was bitch-slapping a keyboard. And now we wonder why so many people have RSI.

The competitive games, or more likely the collaborative ones, are the things that have so much memory to me. I’ve already written many times about how me and Ray used to play Smash TV for hours, feeding many quarters into it. I think the first game like this I remember is the original Gauntlet. When I play this now, it reminds me of Adam Pletcher, who I knew from school, and who is now more known for working on the video game Descent and a million others. We played the game a couple times at the Aladdin’s Castle in the Concord Mall, although at that point, the game was so damn popular, all four slots would be full, and the second someone ran out of change, someone else would jump in. Games like this were great, and it’s amazing how shitty some of them are when you look at them now. There’s a Simpsons game that came out in 90 or so that was the same console as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle and X-Men game. Then, the graphics were mind-numbing, but now, I cannot stop laughing my ass off the images are so blocky and bad. But being able to get two or three people on a machine to all kick ass hid the poor graphics somewhat.

One of the games that I played but didn’t entirely like at first was Golden Axe. The student union had a room with maybe six or eight game machines, all of them duds, and one of them was Golden Axe. I reluctantly played the side-scroller for a while, and it really grew on me. The animations weren’t bad, but the sound effects were horrible. (When I was playing the other day, Sarah said that the dying people’s screams sounded like some kind of Crunk rap.) It’s also a collective game, although I played by myself a lot. I got the ROM and actually finished the game, which I guess is easier when you’re pressing a button instead of feeding in a coin, but it brought back so many memories of wasting time at the IMU.

Anyway, just some vague thoughts. I think if I had a lot of time and could remember more of this, I could write some kind of book or at least a good essay on greater taxonomy of video games. But, I’ve got these music reviews to write…