The Games of My Second Decade
By Jeff Lewis

I am a bad video game player, so incompetent that I could not progress from the “joystick and one button” games from the eighties to the more complex “buttons all over the damn place” games that the early Nintendo systems popularized. Therefore, I essentially have retired from video game competition and when presented with ten tokens and an arcade, I generally play skeeball seven times and then waste the remaining three on a skateboarding game.

Despite this, I look back fondly on video games, particularly the arcade games of the eighties, which I classify into two families of the order arcadus:

simplia – games in which I have a remote chance of earning an extra man

dificile – games in which I last less than one minute, thirty seconds

Each of these two families has two genii:

lamer – unpopular games that languished in a corner, ensuring that I didn’t have to worry about anyone looking over my shoulder, making me self conscious and prompting me to run my spacecar into the wall

trendis – games that perpetually had a row of quarters lined up, denoting a waiting list of skilled players

The following are my favorite games of this era, which I usually played at Chuck E. Cheese’s in Salinas, California.

1. Pong (arcadus simplia lamer pongpong)
Perhaps the second most revolutionary event of my childhood occurred on Christmas Day, 1979, when my aunt and uncle brought their Atari system to my grandparents’ house, for my first exposure to Breakout, Combat and Pong (the most revolutionary was seeing Star Wars, the third was learning from my mom that I shouldn’t lob tennis balls at my baby brother’s head because he had a soft, mushy spot on his skull).

Later, my brothers and I would search out sit-down Pong games with their glass tops, where you could rest a root beer. The fact that you could sit across from your opponent gave the game an air of realism, almost like our tiny hands were wielding the two-dimensional Pong paddles. We seldom had a quarter, but we had fun pretending to play.

When Pacman exploded in popularity, the sit-down Pacmans pushed the Pongs out of the pizza parlors and arcades. I never cared for Pacman—nor its tactile counterpart, the Rubik’s Cube—because success came from rote memorization of moves. I much preferred games with little blips moving back and forth on a black background.

Fun Fact: The best Pong game I ever came across was a projection Pong at a Holiday Inn built for the spectators attending the kayak competition at the 1972 Olympics in Augsburg, Germany.

2. Galaga (arcadus simplia trendis galaga)
I like games that require sacrifice. For example, in order to get a good score in Galaga, you must let an alien ship capture your own and then later you must shoot down the alien, thereby recapturing your ship, giving you double firepower. The game’s brilliance is that you can shoot down your own ship in the process. For a bad player like me, I had to make a conscious decision: which way should I suck? As a wuss, avoiding capture and therefore dooming myself to single-fire mediocrity, or by dying at my own hand after accidentally shooting my own ship? Sometimes I would do both by bailing out of the alien’s tractor beam at the last second, into the path of another alien ship.

3. Joust (arcadus simplia trendis doooool)
I love the idea of this game. Instead of shooting, punching or slashing, you dispose of opponents by falling on their heads. Instead of running or jetting around in a high-powered car or spaceship, you flap. I loved watching brothers play this game because it lets you cooperate with fellow players and then turn Judas and kill them when they aren’t paying attention. That usually resulted in one of those fist fights where all punches target the upper arms.

Joust also holds a special place in my heart because when I’d get an itch to play the game on our Atari, I’d think to myself, “Mmmm. Feeling jousty.”

For a while, my wife and I would play Boggle fairly often, but she would beat me silly. She has lots of words in her head, which she can access easily. I store most of my words in the Oxford English Dictionary. Unfortunately, the words that I have ready to access are technically not words, or at least not words that gain you points in Boggle, such as jousty. For many years, Lynn did not consider this a word, even though I could use it in a sentence (“Mmm. Feeling jousty”). This was tough to stomach, since I’d often forget to write down “joust” when we’d play, so instead of getting points for “jousty,” I’d lose points to Lynn for not noticing “joust.”

Nor would she accept “questy.” If you aren’t familiar with this word, it is the state of feeling so jousty that you must go on a quest. Sometimes—and I’m not making this up—when I am very questy I sing, “Hello lamppost, how’s it going? I’d like it when there’s flowers growing. I’m kicking down the cobblestones, looking for fun and feeling questy!” I’m not very good with lyrics.

Eventually, my wife relented and allowed me to score points for jousty and questy, as well as a few other non-words like zool. It makes the game a little more competitive, although Lynn is starting to get good at using these words, too. There’s a gray area now, because we have to decide if the made up words are worthy of points, but when my mom plays with us, we don’t have that problem because then me and my mom completely cancel each other out as we independently make up the same words, such as “quert.” At least one of us would even have a definition for it, such as “shorthand for ‘QWERTY,’ the upper left letters on a standard typewriter.” Lynn in the meantime, scores points for “query.”

4. Grand Prix (arcadus simplia lamer shiftless)
In counterpoint to Pacman, I was very happy when Atari released Pole Position because it drew all of the racing traffic away from Grand Prix, allowing me to get onto the high score list at Chuck E. Cheese’s once or twice. I preferred Grand Prix to the more complex games that involved shifting, breaking or excess turning, which probably wouldn’t surprise anyone who has seen me drive.

5. Centipede (arcadus simplia trendi scolopendra)
The roller ball had good hand-feel; it was a welcome change from all of the joystick games. Plus, I sometimes earned a free man and when I didn’t quite make it, I enjoyed the ten-second glimmer of hope when the game gave out bonus points while restoring the damaged mushrooms.

On the negative side, the mushrooms made me sad when they cluttered up the bottom of the screen. I spent much of the game cleaning out stray mushrooms, so it was a downer when I repeatedly missed the dive-bombing fleas that left mushrooms in their wake.

I never cared for Millipede, by the way. It was too difficult for my skills.

6. Tubin’ (arcadus simplia lamer tubin)
Every year, our college swim team would compete in Las Vegas. Gambling was out because I could never pass for twenty-one—especially by mid-season when the chlorine had stripped most of my body of hair and I had to shave the rest off for competition, except for the top of my head where a silver shock of lint grew. Casinos were out of the question, then, so when I wasn’t holed up in my hotel room studying for midterms that my professors wouldn’t let me postpone, I wasted money in arcades at Bally’s instead. Tubin’ was my favorite, maybe because I could pretend that I was innertubing at Lake Havasu instead of spending the weekend at a swim meet.

7. Seawolf (arcadus simplia lamer seawoof)
The fact that this game is on the list is telling: I liked it because it was slow and unpopular. Even a lousy player didn’t have to worry about dying in less than forty-five seconds and there was never any waiting. In fact, the only other person I can recall playing it was my brother Tim, who liked the false periscope and the pinging of the fake sonar. Similar tank games were not as much fun—no pinging.

Fun Fact: Mr. Walch, my high school English teacher did not pronounce l’s very well, so we were required to read Jack London’s Sea Woof. He could also turn his ears inside out. Plus, he was a good teacher.

8. Tempest (arcadus dificile trendis tempestuous)
From my point of view, Tempest had two things going for it: a great name and a dial instead of a joystick. According to Wikipedia, when it was released in 1980, it was the first video game with color vector graphics, multiple levels, and a feature that let you continue the next game from where you left off.

9. Tron (arcadus dificile trendis tron)
I’ve mentioned before that when I was a kid, I loved the now-defunct People Mover ride at Disneyland, which featured a Tron room with bad special effects and an enthusiastic announcer who boomed, “You are entering the gamegrid of Tron!” This early attempt by Disney at corporate synergy was “so bad it’s good,” as was the terrible Tron video game that just ripped off earlier video games. Nonetheless, I liked it.

Copyright Jeff Lewis, 2005.