Sway Speaks - A Gaming Moment

You guys started a thread in the forums about gaming nostalgia. It is a wonderful collection of those little moments that keep us at this hobby. I haven't posted in it yet, because I couldn't choose one to tell. My earliest gaming memories were probably from the Atari 2600. My first arcade game was Pac Man. I've got stories about both of them, but since it happened so long ago, I had a tough time remembering details. However there is still one gaming moment that is forever burned into my brain.

I'll tell you now, this is ultimately a story of failure. However, it had enough triumph to prevent this from being a bitter memory. This is the story of my early training as a young narcotics officer working the streets of a dangerous city. This is also the tale of how I almost beat an arcade game, I think. This is a story of N.A.R.C.

Life was so simple back in early high school summers. I had my driver's license. I had a minimum wage job that provided me with a handful of dollars every week. My only bill was the cost of a tank of gas. As long as I dropped my Mom off at work in the morning and picked her up at the end of the day, I had a car, money, and ultimate freedom. So what did a kid like myself do with a full day off work and so few responsibilities? I went to the arcade.

The arcade was a golden temple of nearly forbidden passions for me growing up. About the only time I got inside one was at a birthday party or some such event. Sure there was the occasional arcade machine standing in the corner of Pizza Huts and the like, but that really didn't compare to the cacophony of blips and blonks and wawawawas, and the grilled onion smell of a couple dozen grubby youths too young to realize how badly they smelled. A single arcade machine would never be able to approximate the total sensory inundation (yes, I'm pretty sure even taste figured in) that was waiting inside of that arcade. My arcade wasn't one of the shiny chain arcades you found in the malls. Mine was the child's version of a hole-in-the-wall bar. It had very little signage. The door was a heavy wooden affair that pretty much soundproofed the place. And even the name was pretty weak. This wasn't Aladdin's Castle. This was Pin Pan Alley. (Although I just Googled it and it came back with a few results. Perhaps it really was a chain.) As a 16 year old kid with access to a car, I had basically been granted one of my greatest wishes. I could go to the arcade whenever I wanted and stay for as long as I could endure, or until my Mom got off work...whichever came first.

The day I realized this awesome privilege, I dropped Mom off and pretty much drove directly to Pin Pan Alley. I had about 25 bucks in my pocket and I was determined to spend it on arcade games. Now I'm not sure if you've ever been to an arcade when it first opened on a weekday morning. It was a very strange world and threatened to wipe some of the mystique from the place, just as the staff person wiped the handprints off the Track & Field screen. The morning sun streamed through the one window, squeezing between black arcade cabinets to glimmer in dusty rays the color of new tokens. And the place was deserted. There wasn't a soul in there besides the one guy on staff, some guy about my age now with what I was pretty sure was the most enviable job in the universe. It was like a nearly cleared stage of Galaga. I was the last remaining ship and trying to dodge the alien staff guy who kept circulating through the three areas of the arcade. I really didn't want to have to make conversation.

I was forced to confront him, though, because of my lack of foresight when packing my wallet. All I had was a $20 bill and five singles. I knew I wouldn't get the four bonus tokens from the machine if I fed it $5 in singles. I needed some fivers. I steeled myself and approached Arcade Attendant while he was in his token lair, no doubt counting his piles of gold like Scrooge McDuck. Just as I was about to initiate the transaction, I happened to catch a glimpse of a sign. It was clearly meant for parties and detailed how many FREE bonus tokens one could get when purchasing them in bulk. I hadn't entirely failed out of math yet, so I was quickly able to realize the amazing value in spending my $20 bill on tokens rather than just a fiver. But did I dare drop an entire $20 on video games? In what would be only the first of a long series of absolutely horrendous abuses of my gaming budget, I held out my $20, and did my best impression of a wealthy chaperone of a busload of birthday kids. I think it must have been pretty convincing, because he hardly batted an eye while taking my money and giving me, and I do not exaggerate here, a sack of tokens.

I suppose if I were to find a similar red felt bag with a little gold drawstring today, it might seem a little dainty. At the time, however, it felt like I had burgled the vaults of a cartoon king. I weighed it thoughtfully as I walked slowly around the machines. It reminded me of the heavy pouch of sand that Indiana Jones swapped for the artifact on the booby trapped pedestal. I jammed it in my pocket before highwaymen could attack me. I now had what could probably be described as an infinite supply of tokens. And so I began to spend them.

The bigger the plate of nachos, the less you tend to savor them. This also became true for me as that first hour or two ticked away for me that day. I lost men on a half dozen machines and felt nothing. I played the opening rooms of Dragon's Lair countless time, never getting any better and never progressing any further. Still I felt nothing. I needed something new to kill some tokens and some time. That's when I wandered over to the colorful cabinet whose screen was daring me to take up arms in the war against drugs while flashing gritty images of the seedy world of narcotics.

N.A.R.C. happily accepted my quarter and I began my career as a helmeted narcotics officer walking down the drug strewn streets of some distant city, probably in Miami, if I was to believe what the TV told me. And I did. Having grown up in the suburbs, just the setting of N.A.R.C. was enticing enough. There were vagrants,  and boarded up buildings, and strip joints. And I got to walk down the street pretty much shooting everything in sight, or, in some levels, running them over with a red convertible Porsche.

The game's graphics utilized the digitized photo technology that would eventually enjoy  major success with Mortal Kombat. But that wouldn't be for another three or four years. N.A.R.C. featured little pixelly photos of guys dressed up like punk crackheads and homicidal drug clowns and steroidal hulkmen. The game also featured plenty of the blood and gore us young gamers craved. When I finally picked up the rocket launcher, I was blessed with total destruction and bouncing body parts.

But this isn't a review of the game. Even though I've cross-referenced a couple vague memories with the almighty knowledge of the Internet and have just learned that it was the first 32-bit processor arcade game, that's not what was important to me. What caused that day to become etched in my ordinarily hazy memory is the fact that I was pretty good at it, and I had enough tokens to play more continues than anyone else normally would. I busted drug user after drug user. I nimbly dodged the hypodermic needles being flung at me by strung out weirdos. I swiftly countered every time a musclebound ogre whacked out on goofballs heaved a dumpster at me or my Porsche. I used my rockets frugally and worked my way from the streets into the subway and deep into the very drug lab that was producing this filth. Digitized beakers bigger than alpacas burbled their bright blue or green crackjuice in the background as I continued to shoot my way to the source of this blight.

I shoveled a steady stream of tokens from my velvet sack into the hungry maw of N.A.R.C., but this was no longer about the money. I felt personally responsible for saving the citizens of Miami by ferreting out the head of this operation and taking him down. While there is a slight possibility that the arcade attendant was just bored wandering around his empty arcade, in my memory he was awed at the wunderkind who was closing in on notching his bedpost with another beaten arcade game. Whatever his motivations, he stopped what he was doing and hovered nearby to watch. With the pressure of an audience, I stepped up my game. I believe I did this by putting more tokens in. Eventually, after wrecking their lab, I fought my way into the very office building the syndicate was using as a base of operations. The syndicate, known as K.R.A.K, employed a large number of guys in suits that would roam the halls with a mission to shoot me. I wasn't having any of that, though. I had a sack of tokens.

Somehow, I made it into the sanctum sanctorum of nose candy where I was greeted by the kingpin himself, Mr. Big. Somehow this drug empire was being run by a monolithic moustachioed head wearing Foster Grants and a white fedora. I was willing to suspend my disbelief, especially since I knew the arcade guy was standing behind me to the right. For all I knew he owned the entire arcade and was a talent scout for a special arcade school. I didn't care how fast the bloated head moved on its electric sliding pedestal, I was going to finish what I had started. It was a good thing I had been careful with my rocket supply. I unleashed a fiery maelstrom of rockets into the grim visage of Mr. Big. He reacted like any good boss does by getting hit. He flashed red and moved faster. I'm afraid the sweat that was running into my eyes, and the stress of the situation clouds my memory a little at this point. I'm fairly certain that parts of his face began to fly off due to my righteous assault. As I fired my last rocket and switched back to my machine gun, I felt sure I was about to be treated to the most glorious of all gaming sights, the end credits.

In a sudden blossom of explosions, the last bits of Mr. Big's face fell off and I prepared to bask in ultimate victory. However, instead of exploding like any proper monolithic evil head should, I was tricked by the oldest boss trick in the book, a two-stage boss. Beneath that disgusting head was a sinister cyborg roboskull that probably taught Albert Hoffman how to make LSD. It all became clear to me as he helped liberate me of the rest of my "guys". I slipped another token out of...what? An empty token sack? This couldn't be! Not in my moment of triumph. Nervously watching my continue countdown on screen, I slipped the token in and prepared for what surely was the final battle.  However level design was not what it is today. I had no way to restock my rockets, the only real way to do any serious damage in the game. It may have started me with three or something, but I needed a full arsenal. I felt my victory slipping from my fingers. Mr. Big killed me until I saw the dreaded continue timer ticking in front of my weary eyes. I shoved my hands deep into my pockets to seek out lost tokens, but they came out empty. In a cold sweat I glanced at the arcade attendant, but he quickly looked away and allowed himself to be distracted by some dust on the Street Fighter arcade. So I did what any levelheaded gamer would do in the same situation. I sprinted for the token machine with my remaining singles.

It's really not even worth going into the details of what happened next. I don't know if you remember the early days of machines that took dollar bills and how they reacted if your dollar happened to have been minted more than, say, fifteen minutes previously. Well it turns out that it usually takes longer than thirty seconds, or the average continue countdown timer on your late 80s arcade machine. What did I learn from all this as I wandered confused and spent into the sunny street outside? Not a thing. Sorry to disappoint. This was just this thing I remember. I think they released N.A.R.C. for the NES, but I was no longer interested. I still hate Mr. Big, because he represents the day when drugs affected my life.

- Sway


I remember that day well, which is problematic becasue I think Sway has been stealing my memories again.  That arcade, and we've all been to 'that arcade' really did smell awful. 

- Elysium

You summed up the arcade experience of my youth perfectly. I get sad when thinking about how great the times spent at arcades were and how I will never feel that way again.

Ah, the old sack of tokens.  A friend and I saved up and went to the arcade and each got one of those once...the feeling imbued by that sack was nothing less than true freedom.

Great article Sway.

I now had what could probably be described as an infinite supply of tokens.

You can almost hear the string orchestra in the background


Yeah, there's really two kinds of arcade memories for me.  One is the similar, "rode my bike farther than a 12 year old should to a dank, grubby arcade where I tried hard not to meet the eyes of the regulars."  For the life of me I can't remember the name of the game, where you're a sytlized C (space ship?) on the outside of increasing complex geometric lanes that shoot those little zappers at you, and the dreaded red Xs come for you (where only the best can zap them once they hit the outside where you are).I assume thie was around 1983.

Then once I had friends (heh) who happend to have cars, there's the mall arcade, with three friends and a huge pile of tokens, where occasionally you'd hear me mutter, "Elf is a dickhead." while the machine muttered, "Elf is stealing all the food."

Sway, while reading your post, I think we all silently muttered "Sad....sad but true!".  No, not sad that at 16 you needed oxygen, water, food, and tokens to live; sad that you didn't conquer the drug boss cyborg and are somehow responsible for all that's wrong in this drug-ridden society!  We were all counting on you Sway and it came down to 1 token, yes, 1 token that you didn't have!  

And now, Sway's Bane still dangles as a heavy burden on your heart.  One token to play some more, One token to beat them, One token to respawn again and in the arcade defeat them.