Columns

A Fistful of Quarters

If only I could love Ms. Pacman the way I want to love Ms. Pacman.

The unwritten rules for laundromats built before 1987 are as follows:

A. A half dozen washers or dryers must be bear 'Out of Order' signs and the dollar dispenser on the Coke machine must never work.

B. A crazy looking homeless person who doesn't appear to be doing laundry at all must stare in space or talk to themselves.

C. A musty, classic arcade game such as Ms. Pac-Man or Galaga must sit in the corner near the change machine for entertainment.

Now, I'm no slack-jawed obsessive classic arcade gamer by any means, but I try to make it a priority to drop two quarters into Ms. Pac-Man's bright yellow cabinet every other laundry trip or so.

Ever since I was tall enough to reach the arcade stick I have, on occasion, gently guided dear Ms. Pac-Man through maze upon endless maze, searching for succulent fruit and giant hopping pretzels while deftly avoiding Inky, Blinky, Clyde and Sue. Sue, of course, is the female ghost even though all four ghosts look exactly the same except for the colors of their "sheets".

After several months of games at the local laundromat, I was dismayed to find that I still couldn't break the 100,000 point threshold. It annoyed me at first in the same, slight way that hearing Kevin Federline's name or discovering that Arby's discontinued their regular french fries gets me perturbed. But that tiny annoyance grew to a gnawing feeling of mild obsession.

I began to daydream of questions such as: 'Why did I suck so bad at eating ghosts?' and 'Are the Power Pellets like Ice Cream of the Future?' Luckily, before I crossed into the dangerous realm of bringing a single pair of dirty tighty-whiteys to the laundromat in order to have a lame excuse to guide Ms. Pac-Man through another maze, something magical happened. It seemed like another routine laundry trip.

Whites and coloreds. Losing a life on the first maze and another on the second. I could almost hear Ms. Pac-Man herself for someone less clumsy to control her. But something snapped in me and I made an incredible run on my last life, racking up almost 70,000 points before the game ended. I itched for more and after pacing a bit and preparing myself mentally I put another quarter in and pressed 'play'.

There is something completely Zen about playing Ms. Pac Man. While I love many modern video games, some of them require more training and practice than a helicopter pilot in flight school. In Pac-Man, there are no buttons involved, no complex thought needed, it's just you and the stick.

I don't know why exactly, but in the midst of that second game, I was in The Zone. The ghosts seemed like they were moving in slow motion and I was flying around the maze with relative ease. Something that second game told me I was going to break my personal record.

It wasn't until I racked up 95,000 that I even lost my first life. When I did, I halfway yelled "Damn it!" and I caught some funny looks from a couple of sorority girls who were folding their obligatory black stretch pants. For a second, I thought the fates were suddenly going to conspire to stop me from breaking the record. But instead of tensing up, I just looked on with a Bill Belichick-like coolness.

Not only did I break 100,000 and the High Score at the machine, ladies and gentlemen, I shattered it. Before I was finished, I scooted through Act III not once but twice. I was a God. I imagined Ms. Pac-Man was looking at me now with a sort of admiration. My final score was now etched as the top score on the machine: 155,410.

This, of course, is not just an inspirational tale of triumph of the human spirit over the spirits that haunt Ms. Pac-Man. It's a long precursor to say, to paraphrase Chris Rock, I wouldn't have done what the men in the fabulous new documentary King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters did in pursuing the high score in games like Donkey Kong, but I understand. I understand the need to conquer something no matter how petty and ridiculous. I just wouldn't go to the extreme ends that the fellows in King of Kong did to accomplish it.

The antagonist of King of Kong is Billy Mitchell, the vain, comically cocky video jockey who set a yet-to-be-broken record of 874,300 points on Donkey Kong way back in 1982, when those games were at the peak of their popularity. "My (cell) phone says 'Never Surrender'," Mitchell intones seriously. On the other side is 'aw-shucks' family man Steve Wiebe, who was laid off from a job at Boeing in recent years and spends much of his unemployment practicing Donkey Kong until he is finally able to beat Mitchell's record.

For Mitchell, his Donkey Kong high score isn't just a nice accomplishment – it's part of his identity; his very DNA. He and his sycophantic crew of classic gamers are so utterly un-self consciously consumed by their singular passion for holding world records in video games that they've carved out an insular niche that looks ridiculous and petty to outsiders like us. Really, there's a guy who enjoys watching countless hours of videotaped game sessions? Wow, how many hours did Steve Wiebe spend practicing a game in which a large monkey holds a woman captive and tosses flaming barrels at Italian men?

We can laugh at the nerd savants in King of Kong not only because they're mostly social misfits who have unfashionable tastes in hair and clothing, but because they're so earnest about these seemingly pointless pursuits. We, the audience, on the other hand, maintain the requisite cynical ironic distance mandatory in our culture, and so we laugh at the people in documentaries that are way into Star Trek (Trekkies), spelling bees (Spellbound), air guitars (Air Guitar Nation) or pointless arcade games.

But the question I have to ask is: are we casual Ms. Pacman player-types really better than them? There's a part of me that respects them. Part of me wishes I didn't feel the need to wear cool detachment like a cloak and immerse myself deeply into whatever I'm pursuing whether it be watching a movie, going to a concert, or playing Ms. Pac Man. So keep on, Steve Wiebe. Keep on Billy Mitchell, even if you're a mullet-head jerk. At least you're doing what you love and not what you "love".

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image