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Ms. Pac-Man and Centipede do mortal kombat in McPherson Square.
The graying convenience store owner works the cash register, carefully inspecting a handful of change. A collection of cheap electronics on the wall behind him offers the promise of overly trebly music. A baggy-eyed professional ransacks her purse for the final dime required to buy a cup of coffee.
But what’s that behind the man browsing through the greeting cards? Over there, beneath that old-fashioned sign, on which some poor soul, lost to history, has painted “Game Room” with all the adolescent concentration of a 14-year-old? And what’s that alien soundtrack issuing forth from the whirring set of flashing, neglected machines?
It’s lunch time at Vermont News and Variety, McPherson Square’s most illustrious, if seldom visited, home for classic video games.
“You see me sweating?” asks Marcia Bennett, lining eight quarters across the lip of an ancient amusement.
Taking a break from her identity as a public relations assistant, Bennett, who’s pushing through her late 40s, habitually uses the precious 60 minutes the powers that be allot for lunch to assume a more serious identity: the Woman Who Would Break 40,000 in Centipede. “This is work,” she declares after a particularly vicious session of blasting tiny dot-matrix insects, beads of perspiration lining the boundary of her salt-and-pepper hair.
Bennett is one of the few working stiffs slumming around 14th and K Streets NW who’ve had their proletarian doldrums lifted by the discovery of the classic games in Vermont News: a number of pinball machines, the aforementioned Centipede, a Ms. Pac-Man, and, the ultimate jackpot, Missile Command. That’s right—rolling ball in lieu of joystick, vital allies stationed at Alpha, Beta, and Omega bases under alien attack. You know: Missile Command.
“I haven’t seen Missile Command since I was a kid growing up in Ocean City, Md.,” confirms 28-year-old Brian Duncan, practically saluting this Tyrannosaurus rex of the arcade. Smiling wistfully through his goatee, Duncan expresses the arcade veteran’s heartfelt nostalgia for the simple, straightforward allowance-eaters that time forgot. “I can’t relate to the new games. They concentrate more on the special effects than the story,” he says.
Indeed, Duncan’s complaint is not so rare in a contemporary scene dominated by cold, virtual-reality violence and grounded in complex game techniques, which cost more money to master. The recently designed games lining the wall at your local megamall’s Dave & Buster’s not only cost 50 cents a pop (at least), but require joystick chops liable to make a 20- or 30-something’s head spin. Faced with harder, more expensive games—and, as a result, shorter, more expensive playing times—the generation used to following simple directions (i.e. “eat all the dots and go for that ghost named ‘Inky’”) sometimes resists plunking down a stack of quarters.
“Ms. Pac-Man is pretty damn easy,” says Eric Shoenborn, a graphic designer who proves just how often he frequents Vermont News by reaching the game’s elusive “banana board.” Shoenborn, who admits that he enjoys taking the modern shoot-’em-up Area 51 for a whirl, believes that today’s games have been made more complicated largely for economic reasons. “New games are awesome, but they figured out how to make you pay,” he says. “I prefer the older games.”
Vermont News harks back to a time when Zaxxon’s freakish diagonal-scrolling spacescape and Asteroids’ eerily abstract vector graphics were judged gnarly/radical and Ronald Reagan was playing Pac-Man with the U.S. economy. The props for a nostalgic ’80s group hug are all here, but for one problem: The games just aren’t that popular.
“I would rather have new games than the old ones,” grumbles Sam Chung, the store’s proprietor, seated behind his cash register. Chung says that all of his games together earn him less than $400 a month—chump change when you’re paying rent. The amusement vendor Chung has contracted with has been slow to replace the electronic mastodons with something a little farther up the evolutionary ladder, he says, despite his complaints. “They just don’t have any new ones,” he says.
Chung’s comments seem shortsighted in light of regular customer Mildred Dunmore’s gaming habit. An office manager in McPherson Square and golden girl of the arcade at the ripe old age of 50, Dunmore says she spends—count ’em—$10 in quarters a day on the various salary-vacuums offered in Chung’s parlor of sin.
“When I first stopped in here to play the numbers, it was like, ‘Oh, my God…paradise,’” admits Dunmore as she donates another 25 cents to a pinball game, despite the fact that Centipede is her “forte.”
If Chung trades his classic video games for profit-turning flavors-of-the-month, old-time gamers like Dunmore looking for a friendly round of Dig Dug or Donkey Kong will lose not just trivial novelties but meaningful artifacts of their relationships with their parents and/or children. Families of the 1880s may have grown closer by circling the wagons and pickin’ banjos; for families of the 1980s, the bond of choice was Burger Time.
“I learned to play with her,” Bennett recalls, remembering her trips to the arcade sometime last century with her now 26-year-old daughter. “She still says, ‘Ma, let’s go down to 7-Eleven.’ We don’t have to say anything—we know we’re going to play.”
But if the proprietor of Vermont News gets his wish, this happy accident of time and place will go the way of the dodo. The desperate souls who gather there can only nurture a fervent hope that, sleeping in a forgotten corner of a laundromat or nestled next to the potato chips in an obscure carryout, there will always be a Galaga out there somewhere.
“I used to use my daughter as a front to get into the arcade,” says Dunmore, a silhouette against the flashing reds and oranges. Her daughter may have grown up, but Dunmore will play on as long as she has breath, life, and Vermont News. “I guess I’m just a big kid,” she says. CP