It's 1983, long before the heyday of personal computers and home consoles, so the only serious videogames are the wildly popular quarter-eating machines at the local arcade. But when the town council decides the games are evil and tries to ban them, the gamers of the metropolis of Bunker Hill Bluffs mobilize to try to keep their entertainment free from the censors. And in the process Zoz Boylan, one of the ringleaders of the protest, learns a lot more than he'd bargained for about games, life, politics, and the opposite sex.
"After I was alerted (via the 'Golden Age Arcade Historian' blog) to this 1983 Young Adult fiction book about attempts to ban a video game arcade, I tracked down its author, and managed to get it made specially available for this Storybundle! Released at the height of the arcade craze, it was actually banned from the B. Dalton book chain for foul language (!), but is a fascinating artifact of its time - and a really fun teen drama read!" – Simon Carless
". . . as a thirteen year old who realized that video games were to me what rappers and rock bands were to everyone else, I found this book revelatory. It was my first experience with first person present tense. The way Stephen Manes used descriptions of fictional video games to describe what was happening to the protagonist opened my eyes to new ways of using language as well as to thinking of video games as something other than my favorite distraction. Before I found my love of 80s teen movies, this was my too-cool high school fantasy."– Goodreads Review
"A fun, modern, and above all teenage novel about fighting city hall."– L. A. Weekly
"This is a wonderfully plotted book. Zoz, Brian, Jenny and the enigmatic Rowena are also some of the most likable characters to appear in a YA novel for a long time. And it's very funny at the same time as it makes a lot of points about principles and fighting for them, and the nature of freedom, without sounding preachy or didactic."– School Library Journal
" . . . one of the most exciting new YA novels comes out of the video-game mania. . . a witty and fast-moving story about some kids who organize to head off the city council's move to close their favorite arcade . . . This is a book that should be bought right now . . . And, oh yes, the kids talk the way kids really do . . ."– Wilson Library Journal
I am on Penetron, and I have got 49,000 points up there already, and another thousand gives me an extra ship and two more power pods, which I desperately need. I go into my special ease-back-and-blast-'em mode. You know: Just sit there and hover, and wait for the enemy to come to me.
"VOLUNTEERS NEEDED FOR GALACTIC EMPIRE! THE GALACTIC EMPEROR HEREBY COMMANDS YOU TO ENLIST NOW! THE GALACTIC COMMAND NEEDS YOU!"
The Galactic Empire machine beside me is just desperate because nobody will play it. Which is no surprise, because it sucks. I wish to hell it would shut up. If I wanted to hear a machine stand there and hype itself, I'd go home and watch TV.
Not that it's exactly distracting me. It won't be long now, the argoffs are coming up on the scanner, and I am ready. Then some asshole sticks a quarter on the machine for next game.
I mean, he's entitled to stick the quarter on the machine, that's what you're supposed to do, but what this guy does is, he sticks the quarter on the machine so it slides off. The damned thing lands on my foot, and in the fraction of a second my body's reacting, some tiny little fucking minveek comes up from behind and blasts me to smithereens.
! ! ! ! ! GAME OVER ! ! ! ! !
Shit. I reach into my pocket. Without even checking to see who busted up my game I slam a quarter into the slot.
*********PRESS PLAYER NUMBER 1*********
"Hey, Elmer, goddamn it, come on! This ismygame!"
Now I know exactlywhichasshole dropped the quarter on my foot. I could recognize that deep voice anywhere. Handsome Frank Cutler. TheAll-Americanasshole. I can smell the alligator on his shirt. He also uses my real name, which shows you exactly how much of a friend he is.
So fuck him. "Like hell it is." I lean into the PLAYER NUMBER ONE button.
"I put my quarter up there."
Oh, whine, whine, whine. If I wanted to hearthatI'd've stayed home and listened to my mother. Frank, I know you aren't aware of this, but it is a particularly bad evening to mess with me. "You put your quarter on the floor. You get next game. If you manage to get your money to stay on the machine."
"Hey, man, come on."
I just grunt. I know he isn't going to put up a real fight, so what the hell. Enemy starships are swooping down on the screen, but this is wave number one—baby stuff—so I can afford to give him a little grief. "Just stay cool, Frank. Don't mess with me. You'll get the machine."
Frank puts his quarter down—it stays there this time—and mutters what sounds suspiciously like "Okay for you, shithead."
I give him a quick, tough glance. "What'd you say?"
"Just play, Elmer, play. Lose."
The goddamned early smart bomb turns up. I missed it in the scanner in the fraction of a second I was looking at Frank.
B LAM ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! !
"Gotcha!" he says. I don't even have to turn and look to see that snotty smile of his.
One ship down, two to go. I push the joystick all the way to the right and get ready for the attack wave. "Look, Frank, shut up, huh? Don't get me pissed off, okay?"
"The way you're playing, I don't have to say one word."
The goddamned torque-force lasers are coming at me, and the way I'm going, I'll be lucky to survive one screen. "Whose name is up there on five top scores?"
"And whose name's up there on number one?"
Frank is just asking for it, he really is. "Frank, will you shut the fuck up?"
"GODDAMN IT, NO FUCKIN' SWEARING IN HERE!"
That's Arnie, the stubby little bald guy who owns the place. He likes to walk around and yank the cigar out of his mouth and toss off a line like that once in a while. The first couple of times it cracks people up and throws them off their game, but if you're any good, you get used to it.
Not tonight, though. My concentration sucks. Anything'll get to me with what's been going on. Nerves. Thank you, Elaine. Thank you, Harold. Thank you, Mom.
Shit! Two more radbeams, both in opposite directions. No way in hell not to lose another ship. All I can do is make sure of nailing one of 'em to get my score up a little.
B L O O M!
One ship left.
"This is gonna be a quick one," says Frank Cutler.
"Quick one, my ass. Just watch."
And naturally in about ten seconds another fucking smart bomb sneaks up and blows me out of the sky.
S H I T!
At this point Frank takes over the machine with that goddamn smirk of his, and a couple of other kids, tenth-graders, I guess, move in behind him. They're piss-poor players, and there aren't any other Penetron experts around, so I know just about exactly how long it's going to be till I can get back on that game again, and I don't even bother to stick my quarter on the machine. I go over to the counter to get a Coke.
It's a typical Thursday night at Arnie's. Well, not quite typical: a little slower than usual, really, on account of the hassle and the drizzle. Arnie's is what everybody calls the place, even though the sign out front saysASTRO 2001, CARDS AND STATIONERY.Actually, there are a couple of racks of dusty old birthday cards that no one in his right mind would ever send anybody, and if you need a pencil, Arnie will sell you one, and you can get Cokes and potato chips and candy and stuff, but basically the place is for video games.
I lean against the counter and sip my Coke. Like I say, it's almost a typical night. The noise level is just right, a nice mixture of the tinkly music on the tamer machines and the blasts on the real aggressive ones. About half a dozen people are in line for Pac-Man, mostly girls, and a bunch of guys are waiting to play Defender, and three or four Tempest freaks are hanging out on that one. Frogger's got its usual twosome, Dana Stanley and Jake Christensen. They're playing doubles, and they've got their headphones around their necks, and when it's one person's turn, the one who's not playing puts an arm around the other one's waist. It's real cute. They do absolutely everything together. How somebody with acne as bad as Jake got somebody as great as Dana —I mean, not only is she nice, but she also has this incredible set of tits—now, that's something all us other guys in the place wish to hell we could figure out half as well as we've figured out the games.
Over in the far corner is this humungous guy we call The Tank—though not to his face. He's older, I would guess maybe in his early twenties, and he always plays the same goddamned machine, Robotobor, where you kill robots and kill robots and then kill more robots. He'd make a pretty good robot himself, except for his beer breath, which you can smell halfway across the room. He is one guy absolutely nobody messes with. I mean, nobody ever sticks a quarter on that Robotobor machine for next. When The Tank is around, that's his machine, and everybody stays the hell away from him.
Meanwhile, there's a loud "Damn!" from Penetron, and the sound of a slap against the cabinet, which means Frank has just gotten blown away. Every once in a while Cutler comes up with a good score, but he just isn't willing to put in the time you need to get really consistent. That high score of his was mostly luck. Hell, some of the girls in the place could beat Frank most of the time, and they hardly ever play Penetron.
Frank gives up and goes over to Zaxxon. The girls never play that one, either, and Frank is absolutely rancid on it, but it's right next door to Pac-Man, where all the girls are, so Frank figures what the hell. Besides, with his money, games that last thirty seconds don't exactly bother him.
So there are only two more in line for Penetron, those two tenth-graders, who'll be lucky to get three minutes' playing time between the two of them. I go up and stick my quarter on the machine—which kind of freaks out the kid who's on it—and then I go back to the counter.
"Off to one hell of a start, Zoz," Brian Friedman tells me, and slaps money down on the counter for a Coke. "New third-high on Pac-Man." Brian's specialty is maze games. He can wipe out anybody in town on them. It's supposed to get him girls. The maze games are generally the ones the girls play, so he offers to play doubles. He even pays. What he won't do is deliberately lose, which is against his code of honor, which means he always wins, which means instead of getting girls, he just gets girls pissed off at him. He's my best friend, I keep telling him to throw a few games now and then, but he always says he's got his standards.
"Who?" I ask, just to needle him. "Jenny?"
"Jenny?" he snorts. "Hell, she'll be lucky if she makes it past the fourth screen!"
"I heard that, Brian," Jenny says, shooting a smile my way. "I'll forgive you if you give me a sip of your Coke."
"How do I know where you've been putting those lips of yours?" Brian says.
"Well, you know damned well where Ihaven'tbeen putting them," Jenny says. Jenny has quite a mouth on her.
"That's exactly why I won't give you a sip," Brian says.
"And that's exactly why I won't give you something else," Jenny says sweetly. She walks away.
Arnie shakes his head and takes a puff on his cigar. "You kids are really something. You know what would happen if we talked like that when I was a kid?"
"You probably didn't know what that stuff meant when you were a kid."
Arnie blows out a thoughtful smoke cloud. "You know what? You're absolutely right."
"You got any new games on order?" Brian asks.
"I'm thinking about it," Arnie says. "More likewasthinking about it, till this business the other night." He pulls out this magazine for video-game owners, which tells them about all the new games coming out and how loud to set your machines depending on what kind of customers you get, and stuff like that. He shows us this ad for a game called "Safari." It's got an African theme—you know, shoot the lions, kill the tigers, blah, blah, blah—but the big deal is supposed to be a new set of enemies, stuff like tsetse flies and giant mosquitoes and cannibals that come at you when you least expect them.
"Doesn't look so hot to me," says Brian. That's because it's not a maze game.
"Hard to tell," I say. "Probably is not wonderful."
"Yeah," says Arnie. "They always make these goddamned machines look better in the pictures than they do in real life. Next time I'm in the city, I'll take a look."
"You need some new games in here," Brian says. "You haven't got a new one now in a couple of months."
"Hey, pal, games cost dough. Besides, you jokers never even play that last one I got. I'll never make my money back on that thing."
"That's because it sucks," I point out. "Galactic Empire. You look over there now, and who's playing it? Nobody. Who gives a shit about a machine that's so desperate it begs you to play?"
"Yeah, it's like a guy going up to a girl and saying, 'Please go out with me, I'm so horny, please, please, huh?'" Brian tells Arnie. "A lot of us told you never to get that game."
"All right, all right. Tell you, if I had a way to figure out which games would catch on, I'd be a millionaire by now."
The first of the tenth-graders has just gone under with a grand total of nine hundred and twenty points. He moves over to watch Frank drop his quarters on Zaxxon. Meanwhile, Brian and I swig our Cokes and admire the second kid's technique. He's really amazing. He loses his first two ships in maybe fifteen seconds, and then he blows the easiest maneuver in all of Penetron, the one where you swoop down and fire clusters at the warraws and then reverse and get the minveeks coming up on your tail. This kid just shakes his head as he loses his last ship, and then he kind of looks around to see if whoever it was put their quarter on the machine maybe forgot and he can play another, but I give him my best don't-shit-me smile, and he moves away so I can get in there.
He sticks around to watch me play. Fine, as long as he keeps his mouth shut. On that machine I am king, but hell, I don't mind sharing a few secrets with my royal subjects.
On the other hand, it's been a rough night. I mean, I am in a real Penetron mood, I just want to blast the shit out of argoffs and enjoy the nice loud noise when I do it, but man, am I not hitting tonight. I've been getting up maybe six waves, but then I'll just blow it on stupid little things—just zero concentration. A lot on my mind. But I'm fucking determined to get at least one decent score before I quit.
I whip through the first four waves without even thinking. I mean, the secret is to make yourself a fucking part of the game, and with assholes dropping quarters on your foot and shit, that is not easy. But now I'm in the groove.
There go the dreaded zorch zappers.
The invisible darkness fleet—you know, the ones you can only find from their shadows—are dead. 10,000 bonus points—all right!
I have nailed the quadruple argoffs. Rolling, rolling . . . let's go, new screen. The planetary showdown!
Yeah! Beautiful! I am in command!
But what the fuck do I hear behind me?
"All right, Elmer," says this woman's voice, angrier than any enemy I ever faced on alien planets. "Let's go."
Am I imagining it?
I wish. That voice is all too familiar. But I stay cool. I just keep playing the game as if the screen is the only thing in the entire world that's real.
The planetary showdown begins!
My patented twist maneuver scores again!
Take that, you lousy argoffs!
"Elmer, did you hear me?"
Jesus, how could you not hear somebody who's screaming in your ear at the top of their lungs?
Teleforces into raycloak mode. Ten seconds till the cloaking shield vaporizes. 10 . . . 9 . . . 8 . . . 7 . . .
"Goddamn it, Elmer, you're asking for it!" my mother screams. Hell, the alcohol in her breath might vaporizeme.
Then she hits all the buttons on the machine. This makes all kinds of weird shit happen on the screen, but I just stay cool and ride it out. I mean, I've got so goddamn many extra rockets up there by now, she'd have to press the buttons for about a minute straight till I'd actually lose, and hell, who knows, just pushing the buttons like that, maybe she'll get in a few lucky shots and destroy somebody or something and get more rockets for me.
3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . . exit from shield force!
There goes one rocket.
She gives me a shove. I act like I'm made of wood or something, just kind of roll with the punch. "Goddamn it, Elmer," she screams. "I told you not to come in here tonight!"
God, is she pissed. She is just smoldering. This is really wonderful. I mean, shit, everybody is staring at us except maybe The Tank. Even Dana and Jake turn around to get a look. You can see that nobody can believe it. Hell, I can hardly believe it myself.
"I've had it with you, Elmer!" my mom yells.
I turn into a wall. You know—just sort of go into a blank, and whatever anybody says just kind of bounces off. I mean, sometimes it's the only thing to do. And I am fucking spectacular at it this time. My mother is so pissed off she doesn't know what to do. Meanwhile, the machine just sits there playing itself, and every so often it knocks off one of my extra rockets and sends up this loud howl.
"Do you hear me, Elmer? Do you?"
Walls can't hear.
Another one bites the dust. "When did I tell you not to come in here? When was it, Elmer?"
An entire formation of invisocrats. "Goddamn it, Elmer, if you don't start listening to me . . ."
Even The Tank is sneaking looks at me and my mom now. Arnie is shaking his head as thoughhecan't believe this is happening.
Mom wheels around and starts screaming in his direction. "You think you can lure our kids in here and ruin their lives, Wilner? You think you can do that, huh? Well, you're not going to mess up my kid's life, I'm telling you that for sure!"
I hear one of the girls, probably Jenny, mutter, "What an asshole!"
Arnie has this look on his face as if to say, "What did I do to deserve this?"
But Mom's only just getting started. "Now you've got him wasting all his money on these stupid games. Next thing you'll try and get him hooked on drugs. Well, notmykid. Not Elmer."
I can see everybody looking at everybody else out of the corners of their eyes. It's all anybody can do to keep from cracking up. I can't blame them one fucking bit. I mean, it's terrible being the source of everybody's goddamned amusement, but hell, if I was watching, I'd be cracking up, too.
"I'm going to tell you something, Mister Wilner," my mother screams with what I guess is supposed to be sarcasm. "Here's what I think of your goddamned machines!" And with that she goes over to the Penetron machine and rips the plug out of the wall.
It's pitiful. The screen just sort of caves in and goes dark, and then the thing dies with this awful
From the far end of the place, somebody yells a sarcastic "Tell him!" Somebody else hollers "All right!" My mother looks as though she could bite their heads off.
"That's right,children,"she snaps. "Go ahead. That's just your speed." She turns back toward Arnie. "Wilner, if I find my kid in here one more time, I'm pressing charges."
"What charges?" Arnie sounds totally worn out, as though he's never been more hassled in his entire life.
My mother hesitates for a second, then plunges right in again. "Delinquency of a minor. You hear me? You're screwing up his entire life!"
Arnie sort of shudders. He picks up his cigar from the ashtray and waves it at her. "Let me tellyousomething, Mrs. Boylan. I run a peaceful little store. I don't give nobody no trouble. But if you come in here and shout and carry on like this again, I'm gonna haveyouarrested—for disturbing the goddamn peace!"
Applause and shouts of "Right on!" from the crowd. Nice work, Arnie.
You can see the wheels turning in Mom's head. She's looking for a snappy comeback. And can't find one. "You can go straight to hell!" she finally snarls.
Then she whirls around and grabs me by the arm. What can I do? I mean, I don't protest or anything. I just put up enough resistance to make her have to drag me along. Hell, I'm not gonna make it easy for her.
As she sort of half pulls, half pushes me toward the door, she's screeching, "What am I going to do with you? What in hell am I going to do with you?" and there's a confusion of whoops and hollers from the crowd. Somebody yells "Let's hear it for Arnie!" and a big cheer goes up. Somebody else yells "Let's hear it for Pac-Man!" and there's a much smaller cheer, accompanied by a large bunch of groans.
As we go through the door, I turn back and see Arnie just standing there, shaking his head. "Some people," he says philosophically.
"Fuckin' A," grunts The Tank.