Pac-Dad Fever

The secret 258th level of Donkey Kong, where he stops throwing barrels in favor of throwing the Sun itself at Mario.

I remember playing my very first game of Pac-Man when I was 4 years old. I felt like it lasted a long time, which was pretty weird considering I thought the ghosts were my friends and I was trying to chase them. I’m guessing preschool-me managed to find some loophole in the Pac-Man patterns of old, a premise which sounds awesome and shall thusly be adopted into my official records as being arcade-analogous to baby Hercules strangling the serpents in his crib.

A trip to the arcade was pretty much the high point of my life when I was a kid. We had video games at home, but despite the Colecovision’s claims to be “just like the arcade”, I knew that the games in the arcade were much harder, had extra features, and about 8 bits more color depth. The sights and sounds at the arcade came at a critical time in my formative history, and my inner happy place is equipped with brightly colored pixels and FM synthesis music.

Even so, the arcade was more than just cool graphics and space-age sound effects to me. It was the place where adventures were had, trials were overcome, and – once in a great while – I could beat my older brother at something. Really, it wasn’t about beating him, per se, but more that he was Good At Video Games and I wanted to prove I was too. My dad totally reinforced the idea that videogame skills were the key to life success by winning a Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator tournament at our local Aladdin’s Castle, scoring some free swag from The Last Starfighter. To this day, entering a videogame tournament and winning it all is still on my bucket list.

As we all know, our ability to play videogames at home started to get a lot better in the 80’s, and my beloved arcades slowly became all but extinct. Though I dearly loved my NES, I still went to the arcades quite a bit even in the early 90’s. I was a teenager and fighting games were very much en vogue (as was, well, En Vogue). So many of my grandmother’s quarters were lost to the Mortal Kombat machine at the pool hall down the road. Some were for 2 player matches, but many were lost to Goro and his money-sucking cheat-algorithms. In 1995, I quit my job at the Radio Shack at the mall (for very teenage reasons), and found myself at my childhood arcade just down the hall to play some Mortal Kombat 3 to let off steam. It wasn’t long after that it closed.

I still miss it.

At least I have one childhood arcade refuge left. My family always gets Godfather’s Pizza at every birthday. Usually we bring it home these days, but when I was a kid we’d go there. It was the place I first played Ms. Pac Man, and they always had a pretty good selection of arcade games to play. It’s one of the few places around me that even today still has a bunch of old arcade machines. I don’t know how long it will last, but it’s nice to be able to hop into a pizza-flavored time warp once in awhile.

Emulating The Past

When I first started college, I met a guy who claimed to play arcade games on his PC. The real ones, not the horrible ports that had been continuously coming out since I was kid. Clearly, the guy was full of it, but the idea was so compelling I had to be sure. I fired up good old Metacrawler (this was pre-Google, don’cha know!) and eventually found evidence that this technology actually existed.

What I found was called the Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator, or MAME. At the time, it supported something like 17 games. One of them was Donkey Kong, so I was pretty much sold. Of course, this wasn’t as easy as popping in a floppy disk and running a game. You had to locate files that were essentially software copies of all the ROM chips inside each individual machine, and even then very few games were supported fully. By that, I meant a game might not look right, sound right, or even work right. I’d frequently be playing bizarro-world versions of games I loved as a child, but as least I was playing them.

I spent my college years collecting emulators and games to go with them. I found myself reliving the glory of all my old c64 and NES games, playing systems I had heard of but never got the chance to try (like the TurboGrafx-16 and Amiga), and even dabbling in some stuff I never even knew existed (like the Fairchild Channel F). MAME grew at an utterly ridiculous pace (it supports something like 9,000 arcade games now, not including clones and bootleg versions). There were always weird little issues to contend with since no one configuration could fit the unique hardware needs of that many games.  For the most part, though, I could play whatever I wanted whenever I wanted.

There is, of course, the issue of legality when it comes to getting the ROM images of all these games. Back in the 90’s, retrogaming was pretty small. We didn’t have things like the Wii Store with options to buy tons of old games over the Intertrons. Now that I’m older (and have a job), I try to make it a habit to purchase a copy of games I play for any length of time. You’ll find a healthy selection of emulated games on all my consoles (many of which I already had copies of). I don’t think it’s a perfect solution, but I do want to support game companies who keep the old games I love so much available to the public. (And sorry, it should go without saying that I’m not going to give anybody else my ROM collection or tell you where to find them. I don’t even go looking for any new ones anymore.)

How To Make A Wookiee Life-Debt In One Easy Step

For almost as long as I’ve been messing with game emulators, I’ve been jealous of those people with sufficient woodworking skills to build their own game cabinets. There were two parts to the equation, neither of which I had the skills to do. There was the cabinet itself, and there were the controls. In the early days, you’d always see some guy with crazy electronics skills who rigged up real arcade controls to some homemade keyboard interface. Later, companies like X-Arcade started to make pre-made controls that could be more easily installed in a cabinet. At some point, people started offering fully-built home arcade cabinets for sale — but they were really expensive.

A couple years ago, I decided I needed to have one of these. I knew I’d soon have a boy about the same age as me when I started playing videogames, and I wanted to share with him the happiness they’ve given me. (Plus, my wife loves playing Galaga.)

I bought an X-Arcade stick, and I started talking to people I knew who could do the woodworking part of the job. Unfortunately, a variety of things happened that put this project on the backburner.

Over the summer, I started a new job. One morning, I was talking with my coworkers and we started talking about old arcade games. One of them mentioned that he had an arcade cabinet he’d built that was just taking up space in his garage. My interest was piqued, to say the least. So, I asked him how much he wanted for it. He told me it was mine. I just had to come pick it up. HOLY CRAP. So I did. My parents and I went over to my friend’s house in a big pickup truck and retrieved a load of pure awesome that now inhabits my dining room.

I wasn’t quite done yet. I still had to build the computer that would run the games. I’d built a PC way back in 2004 as a DVR, when that kind of thing didn’t come stock with every cable box. It had been awhile since I’d tinkered with computer hardware, so I pulled a couple boneheaded moves trying to get it to work. For instance, it’s good to find out if you have a DVD or a CD drive in your computer before you go trying to boot Windows off a DVD. That’s a couple days of my life I’ll never get back. Trying to find decent drivers for a bunch of equipment you bought on a shoestring budget 7 years ag0? Also not fun. My favorite issue: having a legitimate copy of Windows XP lock me out because I replaced the CMOS battery to make the system clock stop resetting. You get 30 days to activate (which I couldn’t do with no network drivers), and setting the current date made me overshoot the trial period by about 7.92 years. Whoops.

Last Saturday was my birthday, and I was trying really hard to get this machine together before I had my gaming group over to game our collective faces off. At long last, in the last few minutes before midnight on Friday, the last piece came into place. I fired up Robotron 2084, and playing it again on an arcade cabinet with 2 real full-size joysticks was everything I ever hoped it would be.

The cabinet was a big hit at my party, and people were having fun with it all night long. The only downside: I don’t recommend trying to explain how to play Fiasco while someone is playing in the background. It raises the DC by about 40.

The Most Important Part

My 3 year old son Sam had been interested in the game cabinet ever since we got it home, but he didn’t know what it was, especially since I had the joysticks and control board off it at first. When I put the controls back on (but it still didn’t work), he loved to push all the colored buttons just because it was fun. I really didn’t know what he’d think when faced with Donkey Kong.

As it turns out, it’s really funny when Mario gets hit with a barrel. And when Donkey Kong Jr. falls into the water. It is HILARIOUS  when Q*Bert does pretty much anything. Robotron makes him want to grab both joysticks and do something but I don’t think he’s quite got the idea that moving the joystick moves his guy yet. Freaking iPads, ruining America’s youth with their touchscreens.

He’s too young to get the details yet, and that’s OK — because he really loves being with me while I play games, and it won’t be long before we’re playing them together.

I need to take a moment to give the largest thanks I have available to my friend John for appearing out of nowhere like a ninja and fulfilling one of my fondest dreams. You have made this nerd and his family very happy.

Now I just have to figure out how to decorate this beast. Maybe I’ll ask Sam for pointers.

Comments

  1. You win the internets today. Way to make dreams come true! Congrats!

  2. I still think QBert doing pretty much anything is reasonably hilarious as well.

  3. While this entire article is full of pure awesome, I still gotta say that the best part (as a gamer myself) is that the cabinet is in the dining room. 🙂

  4. Awesome sir! Very inspired!! As a Dad of five kids (all under the age of 7) … I can relate to those magic moments when you know your making a memory that they will never forget. That is indeed priceless isn’t it. Kudos to you … may your awesome arcade cabinet of epic-ness … provide unending hours of joy 🙂