RICK FOTHERGILL DOESN'T
look like a world-class athlete. With a gray-flecked
T-shirt clinging to him like Saran wrap and a pair
of pale legs protruding from his baggy shorts, the
27-year-old concrete tester from Ontario, Canada,
looks as though a round of golf might kill him.
But Fothergill is on the verge of accomplishing a
rare - historic, even - feat of skill and endurance.
After a grueling six hours and 15 minutes of play,
he is about to enter into the 256th screen of Ms.
Pac Man. Known as the kill screen; its
the last screen Ms. Pac Mans creators bothered
to program. When you clear it, the machine simply
packs up exhausted.
"Last board! Last board!" cries one of
the spectators milling around behind Fothergill's
back. The announcement has people tottering atop stools,
craning necks, clicking cameras. Only a handful of
players have ever reached this stage.
Fothergill has finished off Ms. Pac Man about a dozen
times in his long career, making him perhaps the most
accomplished player in me history of the game - the
Michael Jordan, the Mark McGwire, the Joe Montana
of Ms. Pac Man.
A hush spreads as the kill screen dissolves into
a mess of squiggles, its program scrambled by endgame
glitches. The board is inverted, the score upside
down on the bottom of the screen. A roomful of techies
fidget. Fothergill, oblivious to the crowd, hunches
over the controls, yanking and flicking the joystick.
Before him, a little yellow blob flees a cluster of
multicolored ghosts. "It doesn't get any more
than this," mutters an awed onlooker.
The action is taking place at Funspot, a sprawling
multi-entertainment complex at Weirs Beach, New Hampshire,
which is hosting a three-day tournament of classic
video games. In an upstairs room roughly the size
of South Boston, 110 video games from the late '70s
and early '80s heyday of the video arcade - have been
fixed up, turned on, and tuned to their tournament
The event, on the first weekend in May, is far and
away the largest of its kind to have been held in
15 years, both in the number of machines and the number
of world-champion players present. Mark Longridge,
Pat Laffaye, Stephen Krogman, Robert Mruzak, Perry
Rodgers, and Billy Mitchell may not be household names,
but between them, these six men have set world records
for Wizard of Wor, Dig Dug, Space Invaders, Pac Man,
Ms. Pac Man, Joust, Frogger, Galaga, Arkanoid, Tetris,
Doctor Mario, Firetruck, Donkey
Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., Q*Bert, BurgerTime, Centipede,
Galaxian, Carnival, Mario Bros., and Star Wars.
"These guys were my heroes growing up,"
gushes one young local. "This is a dream come
Right now, my attention is on Fothergill, who has
just completed the kill screen. The crowd applauds.
He turns around and pumps his fists in the air. Though
his score of 901,540 failed to set a record, and indeed
fell 900 points short of Fothergill's personal best,
it's still one of the highest scores ever recorded
for the game. The previous evening, he set a new world
record for original Pac Man with a score of 3,333,270,
a mere 90 points away from a perfect score. "This
is unbelievable," he says, breathless. "I
All of the weekend's contestants share a similar
sense of elation at having been given the chance to
compete once more. "I haven't walked into an
arcade in 15 years," says Pat Laffaye, a Connecticut
computer consultant who's hoping to regain the Frogger
record he lost in the early '80s.
"I never thought I'd be doing this again,"
says Wizard of Wor whiz Mark Longridge.
Galaga master Stephen Krogman is equally thrilled.
"It's an honor to play with all these champions,
people I've just read about in books," he says.
It's difficult to overstate the momentousness of having
all these players, all these years later, gathered
together under one roof. But Walter Day, the organizer
of the tournament, somehow manages: "It's like
Batman coming out of retirement, Superman coming out
of retirement, Spiderman coming out of retirement."
If the video-game world has a patron saint, it's
Day. With a thick beard, a receding hairline, and
a pair of intense, smiling eyes set in a gaunt
face, he patrols the floor of his tournament in a
black-and-white-striped referee's jersey, carrying
a clipboard and encouraging the contestants.
Day's interest in classic video games dates back to
1981, when he opened a small arcade in Ottumwa, Iowa.
"I became fascinated by the superstars who get
the high scores," he says. The following year,
Day founded the Twin Galaxies Intergalactic Scoreboard,
which is the nearest thing to an official record-keeping
body for video games. If Twin Galaxies hasn't verified
your record, you don't hold it; "I'm the scorer
for the whole world," Day says. Its
a very, very busy job.
Every serious video-game player in the country is
aware of Day's work - at least, every player who is
considered serious by virtue of having had Day tag
him as a champion. Thus the large number of superstars
at the tournament. "These are extraordinary people."
Day says. "They have a higher sense; they're
seeing a bigger picture. They have more creative intelligence,
more integration with their nervous systems.
J.C. Herz, author of Joystick Nation: How Videogames
Ate Our Quarters, Won Our Hearts, and Rewired Our
MInds (Little Brown, 1997), puts it even more strongly:
"A lot of these guys have the same understanding
of Asteroids that a concert pianist has of Haydn.
They play these games like musical instruments.
Plenty of people at Funspot share her high opinion
of the players. The place teems with youngsters: rookies
eager to learn a trick or two, whiz kids intent on
flaunting their own virtuousity before the masters.
Theres even a small contingent of reporters,
scurrying around after the contestants.
The level of enthusiasm for a tournament of early
80s video games has surprised even the hosts. "I
can't believe it," says Funspot's Gary Vincent.
"I thought we'd-get some locals, some people
from Massachusetts. But I've got people calling me
from all over the world."
It wasn't always so. Technology moves fast, and the
tastes of 13-year-olds moves even faster. The video-game
industry long ago left games like Galaga and
Dig Dug behind, replacing them with a series of increasingly
realistic shoot-'em-up and kung-fu fantasies. Plus,
there was the crash. "The whole industry went
bust in '84, says Walter Day. "A lot of
arcades went out of business.". By the mid '80s,
the days when people like Perry Rodgers appeared in
TV commercials ("When I'm not playing games
in the arcade, I'm ... ") or competed on the
US National Video Game Team were over. The Guinness
Book of World Records, which had previously published
the scores Day compiled, withdrew its video-game category.
By then, most video-game superstars had given up.
In fact. Day himself retired in 1986. "I was
so tired," he explains. "It wore me out."
But a handful of classic games survived in arcades
such as Funspot, and interest -perhaps buoyed by a
growing '80s nostalgia - began to revive. In
1995, Day got back into the game, and last year he
edited the first edition of Twin Galaxies' Official
Video Game & Pinball Book of World Records, a
984-page tome that logs thousands of scores and statistics
culled from 31 countries. Suddenly, the old stars
had a new reason to go on competing. The response
to his book has been so overwhelming. Day says, that
next year it will be published in two volumes.
Home-entertainment giants such as Hasbro Interactive,
Midway, and Sega recently decided that they want a
piece of the pie, too, re-issuing many of the classics
for home game systems. Web sites carrying the MAME
(Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator) program -
which allows home computers to mimic classic video
games - are proliferating like mad. Classic video-arcade
consoles, which a few years ago could be bought for
as little as $50, are suddenly worth much more.
To some extent, the resurgence of classic video games
is fueled by a generation's predictable longing for
the toys and joys of its teenage years. But there's
also a growing consensus that these old machines
are simply a lot more fun than their modem counterparts.
Kids still drop millions of quarters into the new
games, but no one would argue that anyone is forming
the kinds of emotional bonds to House of the Dead
that people did to Pac Man.
"I like simpler games from a simpler time,"
says Frogger champ Pat Laffaye. "Some people
might look at Frogger champ Pat Laffaye. Some
people might look at Frogger and say it's corny. Some
might even say it's a girl's game. But I find the
violence of the new stuff disturbing. It doesn't really
"There's a big difference between old-school
and new-school games," says ].C. Herz. "The
old games are better designed because they didn't
have good graphics, they didnt have the realism.
Game design was all they had so they had to work harder
to design and entertaining experience. Now they spend
more money, but the design is a lot more sloppy.
You could think of the difference between old and
new video games as analogous to that between old and
new films. Old filmmakers, without special effects
to rely on, had to work harder to cultivate a mood,
and thesame goes for the creators of classic video
games: without modern-graphics and powerful processors,
the designers of games such as Centipede and Donkey
Kong had to rely on simple human creativity, and that
turns out to be a lasting thing. "Pac Man is very
primitive," says the Funspot's Gary Vincent."As
far as memory, the only thing it remembers is high
score." New games, on the other hand, have multi-layer
logic boards, adjustable everythings, and high-definition
screens. The result is that when you're driving one
of cars in Daytona II, you're not only looking at
a very realistic road before you, but your car
behaves as it would in real life. There's a lot of
technical skill involved, but not much artistry. "A
lot of people are seeing these media masterpieces
for what they are," says Herz of the older video
games. "I really think that one day they will
be considered great pieces of modern art. They hew
to the same principles: simplicity and elegance.
I honestly think that Asteroids should sit next to
Mondrian in a museum one day." There's also a
quirky surrealism to the classic video games that's
lacking in their contemporaries. It must have taken
a delightfully trippy imagination to dream up Frogger,
with its little green critter hopping on the backs
of turtles, dodging streams of traffic, occasionally
getting flattened. Or BurgerTime, wherein the object
of the game is to help Peter Pepper assemble enormous
hamburgers. In today's bloodthirsty video-game market,
it's unlikely that we'll see the likes of Mr. Egg
and Mr. Pickle again."
If you're reading this and thinking, "Ah, Mr.
Pickle!, youll understand why these guys
have come to New Hampshire from all over the country
and beyond. Walk into the upstairs game room at Funspot
and it all comes flooding back: the dim lighting,
the whiff of physical exertion, the riot of bleeps
and squawks. And then there are the players. Wizard
of Wor ace Mark Longridge, fairly or not, fits the
video-game-player stereotype perfectly. Disheveled,
untucked, with the facial and cranial hair of
a revolutionary poet, Longridge came all the
way from Hamilton, Canada, for the chance to compete.
"I haven't woken up yet," he says. He insists
he didn't think twice about making the trip. "Everyone
gets nostalgic about what they liked to do as a teenager,"
says Longridge, who is 33. "We actually get the
chance to do it again."
It's no surprise that every contestant in this tournament
is circling 30. Look at the dates the games were conceived:
Space Invaders (1978); Asteroids (1979); Defender
and Missile Command (1980); Donkey Kong, Frogger,
Galaga, and Space Duel (l981); Tron, Q*Bert, Millipede,
Pengo,: BurgerTime and Zaxxon (1982); Congo Bongo
and Star Wars (1983).
The majority of
these guys were in their early teens when they
hit their peak, which happened to coincide with
the golden age of arcade games. They were hotshot
kids, skipping school and showing off to their
buddies. Now they're approaching middle age,
with jobs and families and mushrooming midriffs.
"When I heard about the competition, it
was an odd feeling," says Mario Bros. champ
Perry Rodgers, 36. "It felt like the '80s
weren't that long ago, like it's all been continuous."
Youth, as someone once said, is wasted on the
young - and so, apparently, is video-game prowess.
The Funspot tournament doesn't offer contestants
a chance just to relive childhood, but to improve
on it. As Pat Laffaye says, "I didn't know
how good I was back then. There was no one there
to push me to the next level. Then, after
a pause, he says This is my chance to
make up. I'm not one to toot my own horn,"
he continues, "but I should be the Frogger
world champion by the end of the weekend."
There are a lot of world champions here, but when
video-game buffs talk about their heroes, one name
keeps cropping up: Billy Mifchell. He was one of the
first players to get his name in the Guinness Book
of World Records. He set records on a mind-boggling
selection of games: Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr.,
Pac Man, Ms. Pac Man, BurgerTime, Centipede.
He still holds the longest-standing record: in 1982,
he scored 874,000 points in Donkey Kong, and no one
has topped it since. Indeed, Billy Mitchell might
just be the most famous player in the world.
Sporting a stars-and-stripes tie over a denim shirt,
with a trimmed beard and a head of immaculate, Shaun
Cassidy-caliber hair, he certainly looks the
part. And he acts it, too. Speaking on the phone on
the first day of the tournament. Mitchell begins our
conversation by saying, "If I sound a little
absent-minded, I'm playing while I speak. There's
a world record in the making here."
In the mid '80s, Mitchell set high scores for Pac
Man and Ms. Pac Man, only to have both records snatched
away shortly thereafter, an experience he describes
as "agonizing, a tremendous disappointment."
Fifteen years after the fact, he says, "I've
come to take them back." This weekend, Billy
Mitchell is setting his sights on the elusive Pac
Man perfect score, yet to be achieved by any player.
"My motto," says Mitchell, "is play
to win. People ask, 'Do you ever play for fun?' I
say, 'No. I play to win.' The satisfaction is that,
you achieve what others can't. If you can get 100,000
on Pac Man, you'd surely be in the top one percent
in the country, you'd turn heads anywhere you go.
You've achieved a level that three or four people
in the whole world could achieve. But if you don't
get that top score, you feel like you're beaten. I
know it's silly but it's the truth. If you're not
the lead dog, the view never changes.
Mitchell insists that his passion for winning
has abated somewhat, or at least shifted. On
the phone, he says he can't wait for me to get there-he's
itching to talk about Rickey's, a hot sauce put out
by the chain of restaurants Mitchell owns in Florida.
"Now," he says, "I bring my passion
to the sauce."
As the weekend wears on, however, it becomes
increasingly apparent that the sauce is only sharing
his attention, at best. The whole weekend, Mitchell
barely budges from his Pac Man console-often playing
the game and speaking into a cellular phone at the
same time. If he made a trip to the bathroom, if he
ate anything at all, I didn't see him do it.
"That's the kind of player Billy Mitchell is,"
says Gary Vincent; "Last night I had to switch
off the machine and tell him to go home."
Video game lore is rife with tales of players pulling
all-nighters, all-day-ers, all-weekers. Mitchell says
it took him 47 hours to set his Centipede record ("25
million and one"). Perry Rodgers did 27 hours
at a charity event playing Mario Bros. Rick Fothergill
says that in his heyday he'd regularly play 12
to 16 hours at a stretch. Stephen Krogman, who works
in a video arcade ("I play them and fix them"),
recently knocked off his 10-hour shift, only to spend
another 10 hours playing. Robert Mruzak once spent
49 hours playing Star Wars, an experience he describes,
with deadpan understatement, as "draining."
"These people are bound by the fact that they've
gone through this ordeal, this manic dedication to
a fringe activity," says J.C. Herz: "There
must be something like a Tao 'of Galaga in the seventh
or eighth hour."
There is certainly a philosophy that grows out of
spending long hours before the console. At least,
if you're Billy Mitchell there is. "You have
to be able to question everything that happens in
the game," Mitchell explains. "Every time
you die there's a reason, and if you discover the
reason you can prevent it."
According to Pat Laffaye, there's something
pre-logical, even extrasensory, about mastering the
game. When he's playing Frogger, he says, he has to
"predict" what's going to happen next. "When
you hop on a log," he explains, "you have
to have a leap of faith." At this point, when
you don't even have to think, you've entered what
players call the Zone - or what cognitive scientists
"It's basically when you can do no wrong,"
Laffaye says. "It's hard to explain: you're totally
focused on the game, you've blocked everything out,
everything happens naturally." When Laffaye's
in the Zone, he says, "I see everything in slow
motion; I see this clear path, this very wide path.
Everything is exaggerated. Milliseconds seem
And then there's Bob Mruzak, for whom the weekend
is all Zone, all the time. He just smashed his Star
Wars record by nearly a million, "I thought I'd
lost my knack," he says, beaming. "It just
came back to me after 13 years."
I, on the other hand, am a complete stranger to the
Zone. All weekend I play 1942, a game I vaguely remember
being quite good at as a kid. The object is to fly
a little World War II aircraft over a series of rudimentary
terrains, shooting squadrons of enemy planes as you
go. The only problem is, the little bastards
shoot back. No matter how hard I try, I can't seem
to log more than a few thousand points before being
blasted out of the sky. It's a very sobering experience.
Not to mention tiring and maddening. At one point,
as I slam my hand on the control panel and utter an
Oedipal profanity, Walter Day happens by. "Remember^"
he says, "1942 is a state of mind. I watch
him to see if he laughs. He doesn't.
So, with this advice ringing in my ears, I go on
to log a score of 207,000, a high for the day. Here!
I yelp at one of the clipboard-wielding officials
wandering the floor. "Over here!" My name
is entered onto the roll of honor. Never mind that
the next day, when I walk past the machine, I will
notice that some anonymous player has quadrupled my
score. For a brief, shining moment, I am the best.
It's a good feeling.
"Getting a high score is a real rush,"
says Krogman. "I don't drink, I don't smoke.
When I get a record, I've proved myself a thousand
percent. I'm not ashamed to say it, I'll stare at
a high score for 10 minutes and think, 'No one will
ever beat me.'"
Krogman is keen to come out of the weekend a
winner. "I've been pushing buttons and moving
joysticks for 19 years," he says. "I don't
want to look back and go, 'Yeah, I'm okay.' After
all the time and money I've put into it, I'd better
be the best."
Time, though, might just turn out to be the video
virtuoso's greatest enemy, Krogman, like most
of the other Funspot contestants, fails to live
up to his teenage brilliance. "I'm a bit disgusted
with myself," says Mark Longridge. "I'm
not as sharp as I used to be. I'm slower. I'm finding
it hard to get the scores I used to, and that's frustrating."
Billy Mitchell doesn't buy this at all. "Past
my prime? Not at all. It's like being a boxer: you're
not as sharp, but you're a lot wiser."
As the weekend draws to a close, however, only
two records have been set: Rick Fothergill's 3,333,270
on Pac Man and Bob Mruzak's 2,599,701 on Star Wars.
At nine o'clock on Sunday evening - Mother's
Day - Billy Mitchell is still sitting at the Pac Man
console, still reaching for the perfect score, still
not quite making it. The tournament has officially
been over for three hours. As I walk out of the arcade,
I try to get his attention. "Bye, Billy,"
I say. He doesn't turn around.
Chris Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Chris Wright
- Reprinted from the Boston Phoenix. Issue date May