I represent the first generation that came of age in the world of video games, which includes being old enough to just barely remember that there was a “before”. Before Pong came into homes in the mid 1970s, there really wasn’t anything that one would recognize as being a home video game. All you had were board games, plastic toy soldiers, and sticks. Those were different times.
… waka waka…
For whatever reason, my parents were early adopters in the world of video games. I know we had Pong when we were still living in Philadelphia, so that means we go it sometime during or before the summer of 1977. And I’m pretty sure we got our Atari 2600 for Christmas in 1977. Mind you, I never remember either of them playing those games… but I certainly did. From there I progressed to Intellivision, NES, SNES, Sega Genesis, and Sony Playstation, along with a parade of different early handhelds. Currently we have a seldom-used Wii and a recently-acquired “throwback” NES so I can try to relive my Super Mario Bros. glory days. (♠) There were always video games around the house, and even through high school any sleep-over resulted in at least some video game playing.
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Home video games were tons of fun, but for a long time they lacked the visual appeal and complexity of what you could find at the arcade. For a quarter a play you could interact with computers more complex than anything any of us used to do actual work. The learning phase with a new game was always painful, the learning curve being constructed on top of stacks of hard-earned (or begged) quarters. It wasn’t uncommon to find younger games spending most of their time watching those who had more experience, trying to absorb whatever knowledge or hits or tricks they could for free. I was often one of those kids.
… waka waka waka waka….
As for arcade games, some larger department or grocery stores might have a machine or two in the lobby area, and bowling alleys were usually a safe bet when trying to scratch that video game itch. But the place you really wanted to go was the arcade, that palace of games that had all the newest stuff… as well as a few classic titles for when you needed to stretch out your quarters a bit by playing games you were already good at. The arcade became my constant goal when we moved to Columbia, South Carolina in the early 1980s. There was one in the mall, and since my mom worked at the Sears there I’d often spend entire summer days at that arcade and at the mall music store. But there was also an amazing, multi-level, purposely laid out and designed arcade that was harder to get to, since we’d have to convince someone to give us a ride and then come get us. I’ve been trying to remember the name of it all week before finally doing what I should have done from the start and just Googling it. Because then I would have remembered it was called Galaxy World. It was pitch dark inside and it was laid out in multiple circular tiers of games. Going there was like going to heaven.
… waka waka waka waka waka…
Probably the first true video game phenomena was Pac-Man. Released in 1980, it quickly became an arcade classic. When it came out for the Atari 2600 the following year people we’re going crazy to get it – it sold over seven million copies with a retail price of about $40… which is the equivalent of about $115 today. And it sucked on the Atari. Suuhhkkttt. But people kept buying it. In many ways Pac-Man can be seen as the opening salvo for what became “The 80s”. The nihilism of its game play, in which the user simply attempts to continuously acquire more and more while trying not to die in a maze with relentless threats constantly chasing you without end (♣), is a metaphor that could be used to describe the rise of yuppies and the Wall Street generation (“Greed is good.”). The game spawned toys, a TV show, a cereal, an oft-arrested and suspended cornerback named Adam Jones, and more sequels than you can count. It’s the Gene Simmons of video game franchises. Pac-Man scoffs at your Pokémons, eats a power pill to turn them blue, and then tries to consume them too. It is the alpha and the omega… and then back to the alpha again when the next fresh level starts.
…waka waka waka waka waka waka…
Pac-Man also spawned a hit single when novelties like that were still a legitimate thing. Buckner & Garcia put out a song in late 1981 called “Pac-Man Fever” that made it to #8 in the US and sold over 2.5 million copies. The following year the duo put out there eight-song video game concept album called, of course, Pac-Man Fever, which sold well over a million copies. I had a copy back in the day and have been looking for it everywhere with no success since getting back into vinyl a few years back, so I recently broke down and ordered a copy online. This decision was driven in part by the video game sounds of the song by the same name incorporated into John Grant’s new song “Tempest”.
…waka waka waka waka waka waka waka…
I got a pocket full of quarters
And I’m headed to the arcade.
— “Pac-Man Fever”
The title track is like some kind of bizarre blues rocker, but with synths, being sung with a sort of country twang. It’s what I remember it being… but also more… and also less. I mean, it hasn’t held up all that great, but it’s a novelty song taken completely out of its contextual place in the space-time continuum. It’s 37 years old, for Christ’s sake. But then we’re treated to “Froggy’s Lament”, which feels like a Frogger-related remake of C.W. McCall’s “Convoy” but sung by actor Gerald McRaney, who is perhaps best known for playing Rick Simon in the TV show Simon & Simon and the lead character on Major Dad. “Ode to a Centipede” is pure synthwave and reminds me more than a bit of “Mr. Roboto”, though this track came out a bit before the Styx mega-hit. And “Do the Donkey Kong” is straight up country line dance. Stylistically, there’s something on side A for almost everyone.
The B side is more of the same (is the intro to “Goin’ Berserk” taken straight from KISS’ “Beth”?). Back in the day I thought that “The Defender” was my jam because it was my favorite of the games featured on Pac-Man Fever, even though I actually sucked at it. Hard. No matter how many advanced players I watched and quarters I spent I never got even halfway decent at that game (♥). But hey, at least I had the song.
I’m kind of surprised there was no follow-up to Pac-Man Fever. It certainly sold well enough, and new games were constantly coming out. I suspect if Buckner & Garcia had launched another successful single off this record they might have been green-lit for a second. Perhaps we’d have been treated to odes to Joust or Robotron: 20184 or perhaps even Dig Dug? <Sigh> We’ll never know.
(♠) I currently can’t seem to make it past level 8-2.
(♣) The game was designed to just keep going in a continuous loop as long as the player had lives remaining, but a glitch meant that things basically fall apart on level 256. So there is a maximum score than can be obtained. But the intent was an endless cycle of acquisition while trying to stave off death for as long as possible. If Kafka had invented a video game, it would have been Pac-Man.
(♥) However, I dominated it on Atari 2600. Go figure.