Arab Spring. Occupy Wall Street. Healthcare reform. The deaths of cultural icons Steve Jobs, Ray Bradbury, & MCA. The London Olympics. Obama up for reelection. The (supposed) end of the world.
What better way to frame 2012 than to talk about CHANGE? With Issue 6, we take a closer look at the transitions, turmoil, triumphs, and tragedies of games that spill over from our gaming lives to our real ones, and perhaps even the other way around.
Ralph Baer, the father of videogames, ponders the world he helped create. Former Parker Brothers CEO Rich Stearns tells us how cereal titan General Mills once held a portfolio of game licenses that would make Activision drool, and how they blew it. Journey across the former Iron Curtain to hear the tale of Ultimate Newcomer, an unfinished RPG that began development during the Cold War.
Plus what we can learn from a purportedly tasteless JFK assasination simulator. The benefits and drawbacks of biofeedback research. A 12 step process for gaming addicts. And a journey across the country to find what remains of America's arcades.
Written by: Carrie Andersen, Ryan Bradley, Nicholas Breckon, Dan Crabtree, Andrew Hayward, Jon Irwin, Darshana Jayemanne, Jason Johnson, Nicholas Keyasko, James Mitchell, Bo Moore, Levi Rubeck, Filipe Salgado, Anthony Sims, Jr., Andrew Vanden Bossche, and Luis Wong.
Art by: Braulio Amado, Dan Black, George Bletsis, Mikey Burton, Dan Christofferson, Mike Force, Josh Fronk, Gena Hayward, Jory Hemmelgarn, Regan Johnson, Jesse Lenz, Edward McGowan, Michael Mesker, Daniel Purvis, Colin Pinegar, Chaunté Vaughn, and Ping Zhu.
“[Kill Screen’s] reviews…are so smart and polished that they might help convince doubters that games are worth taking seriously.”–Time Magazine
“The McSweeney’s of interactive media.”–The New Yorker
“Kill Screen’s prose aims to answer larger questions like ‘What does it mean to play games?’ Heady stuff to be sure, but it looks like Kill Screen has collected the heads to deliver it.” –Wired “Ambitious…impressive line-up of talent…Promises a fresh approach to journalism.”–Gamasutra
“Kill Screen is a novel and elegant twist on modern publishing.”–PSFK
“My Mazda3 hatchback scoots up I-93, T. Rex’s Electric Warrior snarling from the speakers. Seemed like the right thing to listen to. I hit a patch of traffic and the flickering brake lights resemble a blinking reward for a well-placed skill shot. We must be close.
Destination: Pinball Wizard Arcade, located in Pelham, N.H. Pinball Wizard is that rare breed of arcade—new. It celebrated its one-year anniversary in January 2012. To a lover of coin-operated games, driving around New Hampshire and stumbling upon Sarah St. John's establishment must feel like pulling the famed coelacanth out of South Africa’s Chalumna River in 1938: here is something long thought extinct, in pristine condition and full of life.
Pinball Wizard is snuck into the corner of a strip mall, next to Suppa's Pizza + Subs and an empty space for lease that used to be Peking Garden. Storeowners here don’t waste paint on clever business names. I drove past one sign for GUNS: the shop’s name, line of goods, and security warning all in one go. Another store (“Discount Madness”) advertised Patriots hats and gloves on deep discount. Forty-eight hours before, the New England football team lost the Super Bowl. Pelham seems like a town with short loyalty and long memories. We’re moving on, Pelhamites say, but we’ll remember you fondly.
Perhaps this is why a 30-year-old idea may rise anew, as long as it stays out of sight. Pinball Wizard Arcade isn’t visible from the street. You enter through a side door, and walk down a short hallway, before finally reaching the main entrance. It’s 4:30 p.m. on a Tuesday and no one is at the front desk. As I make my way down the first aisle of pinball machines, Christina, the manager, passes me and says hello. The only other person in the arcade is a mechanic, tinkering with half-working games in a side room that will one day host birthday parties and board meetings.
The space strikes an odd half-note in my gut between giddy nostalgia and modern perversion. I’m not used to this anymore—a room filled with nothing but upright arcade cabinets and pinball. The eight rows of games form four wide aisles; walk slowly and absorb the resultant barrage, an audiovisual cocktail mixed and poured 20 years prior. Yet the sensation is very contemporary. The room feels like the physical embodiment of a Twitter feed. Each bringer of noise is lost in time, an anachronism: Gene Kelly seen dancing in a Dirt Devil commercial. None of this should be here. But there I am, pulling the plunger, shooting this silver ball into a minefield of bumpers, each ricochet popping with the satisfaction of a high-decibel “ding!”
While playing at home we forget the clever beauty of games designed for public consumption. Like children seeking approval, they try to get our attention. A pinball table from 1989, Bad Cats, calls out to me in a sweet baritone, “One more time?” The illogical request piques my interest. Easily swayed, I put two tokens in. And quickly lose. Arcade games founded this incremental pay-to-play model long ago, now exploited by super-cheap iPhone games, free-to-play web games requiring real money for upgrades, and even downloadable content for more traditional console games. But what separates the arcade experience from any modern incarnation is its transience.
I can only play Bad Cats standing right here. Once I leave, the game stays. A mobile device’s portability allows a user constant access. Your console sits by the television, plugged in and ready. But the nearness sours desire. If you can always have something, you never feel that need, that pull. The arcade traded on time’s capacity for running out: in here, time was precious because you never had enough. Your parents took you away; the building closed. Meanwhile, Capcom Arcade for my iPod Touch sits patiently, awaiting my tapping. Knowing it will always be there. Ignored. This is the game maker’s anathema: mild disinterest. In 1987, a year after Nintendo marched onto American soil and launched the industry-saving NES, Atari attempted to regain the public’s mindshare with a handful of relaunched classics. At Pinball Wizard, we see the rotten fruits of its panic. Pac-Mania stretches the elegant 2D silhouette of Pac-Man into a bloated isometric mess. Blasteroids begins with the classic shooter Asteroids and makes an ill-conceived slant rhyme. One is silky smooth, feeding our imaginations with the vivid white-hot lightning of vector graphics; the other slaps paint on our eyeballs, the sequel a collision of ugly sprites and chunky moon rocks. Here, then, is another clue to What Went Wrong: the impulse to overreach. Poisoned by desperation, a company tries so hard to excite, to nourish a public’s enthusiasm, that it squashes past success. When something no longer works, it’s better to part ways.
In 1993, when NBA Jam and Street Fighter II were raking in quarters that would soon go toward their maturing players’ laundry, I saw my father three times as often as when we lived in the same house. Something no longer worked, so he’d left. Nearness had soured desire—he’d found it elsewhere. Atari didn’t learn this lesson. Only a return to the past would salve its wounds. In 2004 it released the Atari Flashback, a plug-and-play home system of stored classics—the very same that were left to wither on the vine decades prior. (Writing this, I can’t not imagine his whispered pleas to a younger mistress: The older the grapes, the sweeter the juice.)
In the arcade I step up to my 13-year-old self’s favorite game: Mortal Kombat II. After 18 years I can still pull off Baraka's fatality: Stand a step away from your dazed opponent, hold Block, pull the joystick Away four times, and hit High Punch. My mutant avatar severs the head of my opponent, a tanned alpha male, decapitating him to the sound of a faraway gong. Even with no one watching, the grotesque achievement satisfies. But the feeling fades. My last quarter goes into Battlezone. Unbeknownst to me, the Out-of-Order sign has been ripped off; my tank sits motionless, its cannon firing nonstop toward the outline of a volcano, before too many enemy shots pierce my armor and the screen cracks and I die. Time to leave. My own private arcade has finally been infiltrated by others. A dad and son stroll the aisles, separately, each looking for something the other can’t find.
Before leaving, I speak briefly with Christina Wagaman, Pinball Wizard’s floor manager. She tells me its arcade is the second-biggest on the East Coast. I asked if she knew of others nearby. She mentions only one.”