I wouldn’t say I wasted my entire youth, just some of it. To be truthful I was pretty busy most of the time, so don’t feel too guilty. There were times, however, when I struggled to find things to do. We had no Internet, no cable TV, no DVDs, no personal computers or cell phones. In my spare time, it was either sports, or the beach, or music. The first VHS video rental store had just opened around the corner so every other Saturday we would rent a machine and a few films. Apart from this, my main form of entertainment was the radio. And arcade games.
In my early teens, I was a bit of a latch-key kid. We had escaped the tyranny of my step-father, my Mum worked, and my brother had moved out. When I got home from school the house was empty, which meant I learned pretty quickly how to enjoy my own company. I played sports two afternoons a week but, apart from that, I had to find my own entertainment. I usually made myself a snack before settling down with a book or listening to the radio. Sometimes my friends would pop round for a visit, but they were usually busy with homework. (I had discovered that if I could get my homework done at school I could have the afternoon off. This was not due to conscientiousness or anything so noble, but a desire to be able to relax after school. So, in essence, laziness).
Most afternoons I would visit the local store. I became friends with the owner, Gajen, who appreciated the company. At some point, he installed an arcade video game called Space Invaders. I tried playing a few times. It was okay. Later, he installed a second machine with a game called Galaga and then Pac-Man. By now, most small stores in the area had at least one arcade game standing outside.
Over a period of two or three years, I developed a taste for arcade games. When I got home in the afternoons, I would invariably look for a 20 cent coin and head down to the corner shop. If I couldn’t find 20 cents, I would have a quick search for “coppers” that I could exchange. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was becoming enslaved to that insidious desire to improve my score.
At some point, I discovered a game called Asteroids. If you haven’t seen this game, the concept is simple but addictive. If you know the game, skip to the next paragraph. You have a black screen (“space”) filled with white polygons (“asteroids”). You have control of a small triangle (“the ship”) that fires bullets out of its nose. If you shoot an asteroid, it splits in half. If you shoot those halves, they split in half. And again, these split in half. When an asteroid is split, the halves spin off at a random speed and direction. Pretty soon, the dozen slow-moving big asteroids are replaced by a screen full of speedy little asteroids zipping all over the place. If one of them hits you, you lose a ship. To add interest, you can apply thrusters to your ship, which has momentum. To slow down, you have to turn your ship around and thrust the other way. Also, the space is not closed. The screen wraps around. So an asteroid drifting off the top of the screen will reappear on the bottom of the screen. If you fly off the edge of the screen, you will appear again on the opposite edge. A final twist is the appearance of UFOs that will shoot towards your ship. If you don’t move the will shoot you, so parking and blasting asteroids is not an option. You start with 3 ships and every 10,000 points you get a spare ship, which appears at the top of the screen above your score.
The addiction comes with trying to get on the highest score list. Kids spent hours trying to get on that list. Silly, really, but there was a certain satisfaction in seeing your initials up on that screen for the world to see. And if your name got knocked off, you would gladly play half a dozen games to get back up there.
So what made Asteroids so interesting? Well, with most arcade games, there is one way of playing, and that’s it. With Asteroids, you could cheat, although it wasn’t really a “cheat” so much as an “exploit”. If you left a small asteroid flying vertically up the screen, you could fly alongside it and blast the UFOs as they appeared. The reason this worked is because the big asteroids were hard to dodge and didn’t give many points. Picking off UFOs, however, let you build up a lot of points very quickly. Using this method, players could “clock the machine”. In other words, the maximum possible high score of 99,999 would return to zero and you started again.
The aim then became to get as close to 99,999 as possible. Asteroids gave different points, as did the bigger and smaller UFOs. With some planning, it was possible to get close to the limit without clocking. There was, however, some fun to be had in building up spare ships. One afternoon, I spent two hours standing outside a shop, playing on one coin. I clocked the machine twelve times, building a score of 1,2 million. At one point, my spare ships were lined up almost all the way across the screen. I stopped because I had to go home. I let a kid who was watching me take over the game. I was pretty pleased with myself, but the shopkeeper wasn’t so happy. He told me I was banned from playing at his shop because I was hogging the machine. As I walked away I could hear the sound of the ships being destroyed in rapid succession (presumably, the kid didn’t know how to play with the exploit).
So, I wasted part of my childhood on arcade games. More specifically, on Asteroids. Then again, I did gain some amazing hand-to-eye coordination tapping those shiny plastic buttons. At some point during the game I was shooting a target moving in the horizontal plane from a ship moving in the vertical plane, from across the screen, with one bullet. Which is not an easy thing to do. Also, I recently found out that the world record for Asteroids at that time was 41 million, which means the game was clocked over 400 times. More recently, that record was broken in a session that lasted 58 hours. That kind of makes my two hours seem insignificant. And when I hear how long kids spend playing modern video games these days, I feel like an amateur in the time-wasting department.
I do, however, still have this small part of me that gets excited whenever I see a list of high scores. My fingers get twitchy and my mouth goes dry, and I start wondering where I can find a 20 cent coin.
Which is why I don’t play Farmville.