One of the cool things I enjoyed as a kid was playing arcade games at the theater before or after seeing a movie. In fact, I’m pretty sure the first video game I ever played was Pac-Man. I was probably five or six years old.
Okay, “played” is a bit too generous.
As Pac-Man appeared on the screen, I had no idea what to do. I don’t believe I ate a single dot before a ghost came by and swallowed me up.
For Pac-Man’s second life, I managed to use the joystick and eat an entire row of dots before another ghost consumed me.
After that, I started to catch on. My brother pointed out the magical qualities of the power pellets, so I ate one and gobbled up a ghost. Now, I understood! Eat the blue ones! This was fun!
Here comes another ghost and . . . oh no. For the first time, I saw those infamous words: GAME OVER.
Mixed with the disappointment, though, was something else: I had Pac-Man fever!
Another early favorite was Pole Position. I fared a little better on that one, as the concept was a lot more straightforward. Drive fast. Real fast. And don’t crash.
I’ve played a ton of race games since then, including fairly complicated and highly detailed simulations, but none of them have come close to the fun and excitement of Pole Position.
While I played Pac-Man at the movie theater, Pole Position was located at the bowling alley. I played in a youth league there in second grade. My first team was called the Jedi Knights. And, though you may not believe this, that name was not even my doing.
There was an older kid on the team, Ryan, who thought of the team name. I guess he was the captain. He told me that he saw Star Wars 14 times in the theater, or some other number that I found impossible to imagine at the time. In my mind, he might as well have been Yoda, the Jedi Master.
The only problem with a cool team name like the Jedi Knights was that the opposing team would really give you the business if they beat you. Fortunately, we didn’t lose often.
Another kid on the team, closer to my age, was Jimmy. Now, though he was a pretty good bowler, Jimmy mostly came for the french fries.
And while I certainly helped to lead the team to victory, I must admit I mostly came for the video games. You see, the bowling alley had the best arcade outside of Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre.
And it was at the bowling alley, in 1983, that I first experienced the ultimate arcade game.
The arcade game to end all arcade games.
Of course, I’m talking about Atari’s Star Wars.
With cutting-edge vector graphics, the Star Wars arcade game actually gave a fairly decent illusion that you were Luke Skywalker, flying your X-Wing through the Death Star battle.
And this was a sit-down, cockpit version, too, which added to the effect. With the actual voice of Obi-Wan Kenobi urging you to use the Force, how could any 8-year-old resist the urge to fill the game with quarter after quarter?
I played it every week, intent on beating it. I was going to use the Force, blow up the Death Star, and finally beat an arcade game.
You see, I was an idiot back then. Yeah, I know that’s hard to believe, but it’s true. And I thought it was possible to beat an arcade game. I thought it was possible to win.
While my bowling average went up each week, my allowance savings steadily declined. But I was getting closer.
But first, I had to figure out how to use the Force.
Whenever Obi-Wan offered, helpfully, “Use the Force, Luke,” I interpreted this to mean “Start firing wildly all over the screen with your eyes closed, Luke.”
You can thank Luke’s lightsaber training against the remote aboard the Falcon for the eyes closed bit.
Luckily for me, Ryan/Yoda happened to watch me play one week. “Why do you close your eyes and start firing wildly all over the screen whenever Obi-Wan says to use the Force?” he asked.
“Isn’t that how you use the Force?” I replied.
“You must unlearn what you have learned, young one,” he said.
Well, no, he didn’t really say that. He probably laughed. But he was nice enough to suggest that I try battling the Death Star with my eyes open next time.
Soon thereafter, I did it.
I destroyed the Death Star.
I waited, patiently, for the medal ceremony that was sure to follow. And I was pretty sure the folks at the bowling alley would want to give me a special trophy or something, too. I mean, if bowling a 110 earns a patch, surely blowing up the Death Star would warrant at least a nice plaque.
The screen refreshed. No medal ceremony. What was this?
It couldn’t be.
But it was true. On my screen was the Death Star again.
As my impending victory celebration faded away, I went in a bit half-heartedly against more and faster TIE fighters and was soon destroyed.
Weeks of waiting to find out what happens when I blow up the Death Star, and what do I get? Another Death Star! The screen might as well have said, “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine.”
By the next week, though, I had made sense of this impossibility. Obviously, the second Death Star represented the one in that summer’s big movie, Return of the Jedi.
Of course, if the Rebels had to destroy two Death Stars, then so did I! How silly of me to think otherwise.
So I powered up my X-Wing with a shiny, new quarter, fought the TIE fighters, faced down the gun turret towers, and blew away the Death Star. Twice.
As Level 3 began, I realized that a third Death Star now had to be destroyed.
I finally mentioned my frustration to Ryan. “I’ve made it to Level 18 so far,” he told me. “There’s always a new Death Star. It just keeps getting harder.”
All along, I thought I was Luke Skywalker. But, as it turned out, I was actually Chewbacca. I wasn’t going to get a medal.
Maybe Jimmy had the right idea after all. Bowling wasn’t about the arcade games. It was all about the french fries.