Prior to the museum opening of Videotopia, I was assigned to “test” the vintage arcade games that were arriving as part of the exhibit. That’s right—I got paid to play arcade games for the better part of a week. I know what you are thinking, but this is research. At least that’s what I keep telling everyone.
It’s hard work navigating virtual asteroid fields, battling predatory insects, and saving the planet from pixilated alien invaders, but someone had to ensure the games were running properly. It is all in a day’s work at NCHEG. And the best part is, I had an unlimited stash of tokens to play everything from Space Invaders to Robotron: 2084 to Virtua Racing.
As NCHEG curator, I found it both fascinating and informative to play a number of the culturally significant games that predated my own gaming experience, including Computer Space, the first coin-operated arcade game. I even got to play a round of Pong against NCHEG Director J.P. Dyson during an interview with a Russian television station. He won, but my pride wasn’t damaged too badly because Pong—or at least the Atari home version I remember playing—was never one of my favorites growing up.
Now had he beaten me on Galaga, Joust, or Atari’s vector classic Star Wars, that would have been a different story. These were the games I prided myself on having mastered in my youth, so it was with great satisfaction that I piloted my X-wing fighter down the trench and destroyed the sinister Death Star with my very first token some twenty years after I’d last played the game.
As much as I enjoyed battling Darth Vader and the dark side of “The Force,” that was nothing compared to my addiction to Atari Games’ Gauntlet. I loved this game. For those not familiar with it, Gauntlet is a simultaneous four-player game where each player controls a different character (Warrior, Wizard, Valkyrie, Elf), each with distinct skills. While the game has no set objective, players navigate a mazelike dungeon, engaging in close-quarter combat along the way with hordes of ghosts and demons. The key to success was cooperation among players, and I remember lengthy strategy sessions with my friends as we waited in line—often a long line—for our turn to play at a local mall’s arcade.
Playing Gauntlet again certainly took me back to my younger years (all I needed was a jean jacket, plastic comb for my back pocket, and a Duran Duran cassette to complete the experience), but Videotopia goes beyond the nostalgic in its effort to highlight significant games in the video-game industry and explain the context in which they were created. It’s truly a fun and informative experience.
Now, you’ll have to excuse me. Each day I head down to the exhibit gallery with a handful of tokens to conduct an additional round of research. I’m off now to try to break my high score on Paperboy.