the seat with the clearest view
I'm frequently asked how I choose the games I write about for Games of Our Lives. Do I randomly pick them out? Do I take suggestions from people? Are they assigned? Do I go out on massive wumpus hunts to find the most obscure ones I can find?
No, yes, no, and no. I mostly choose games that, for one reason or another, are important to me. If a game as been important in my life, I'll consider it for games of our lives. Two recent columns provide good examples. A couple of issues ago, I looked at Wizard of Wor:
It was one of the earliest machines to actually talk to you with creepy, synthesized speech that added as much character to the game as the dark, moody music and graphics. Few people could ignore the command, "Hey, insert coin! Ha. Ha. Ha." In fact, a newly fabricated report shows that between 1980 and 1982, more than 6.3 billion quarters were pumped into Wizard Of Wor machines by destitute gamers who later said, "The game told me to [insert a coin]."Har.
Yeah, it's a swell game and all . . . but why did I pick Wizard of Wor instead of Berzerk, which also talks?
When I was a kid, I had auditions almost every day after school. It was a predictable routine: mom would pick me up, drive me through Burger King or Taco Bell or something, and we'd head "into town" for my calls. In those days, it was not uncommon for me to have three or four auditions in an afternoon, and they were usually spread out across the city in very inconvenient ways. I'd have a commercial call at 3:45 on Fairfax near Sunset, then a 4:25 call for a movie of the week down in Venice, followed by a 5:10 appointment, back in Hollywood somewhere. It was a brutal grind, and I don't know how my mom did it, day after day after day.
Occasionally, we'd get somewhere early, and we'd have twenty or thirty minutes to kill between auditions. Because it was the early 80s, just about every store in the world had arcade games in it, and if my homework was done, my mom would stop somewhere, give me a dollar and let me play whatever I wanted.
My auditions were in a limited number of places, so I quickly built a mental Rolodex of good games and their locations. In Culver City, it was a donut shop on Washigton: Mr. Do! and Star Castle, with the bonus possibility that mom would let me get a devils food with sprinkles, In North Hollywood, it was a convenience store: Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, and Tempest. In Venice, it was a skanky head shop with one Asteroids Deluxe machine near the cash register.
There were also arcades, but they were mostly in shopping malls, so a trip into one of them was actually quite rare. (In fact, if you watch Fast Times At Ridgemont High or "The Bishop of Battle" segment in Nightmares, you can see one of the best arcades that was inside the Sherman Oaks Galleria.) The one arcade that we got to visit pretty regularly was on Pico near 20th Century Fox. I loved this place because it was never very crowded, I got five tokens for one dollar, and I always felt like I was hanging out with Cool Kids. The way I remember it, songs like Don't Stop Believin', and Tainted Love were ever-present, and there were never any adults around to catch us cussing when we died with one rivet to go on the Ziggaurat level of Donkey Kong.
In late 1982, or early 1983 I had a callback at 20th Century Fox to play the kid who can wish people into cartoon land for Twilight Zone: The Movie. We got to West Los Angeles very early, and my mom let me stop at that arcade. Pico was a busy street, and when I walked out of the hot, bright afternoon sunlight and into the dimly-lit arcade, I left the roar of traffic behind me and entered another world. There were neon and black lights, posters of girls and rockstars, and the faint smell of mildew hung in the cool, recycled air. Runnin' With The Devil blasted out of the jukebox. I carefully smoothed out my one dollar bill, and fed it into the token machine. Familiar excitement and anticipation welled up while it whirred and prepared to spit out five tokens. In the back of the arcade was my intended target: Super Pac-Man. It had recently replaced a Battlezone machine with a flaky controller at Sunland Discount Variety, and I'd stumbled upon a pattern that was virtually fool-proof. I could play for an incredible ten minutes or more on Super Pac-Man, an impressive feat among my group of friends.
Five tokens clanged out of the dispenser, and I eagerly picked them up. I jingled them in my hand as I walked through the arcade. In my memory, I can hear the sounds of Tempest, Space Invaders, and Defender occasionally rise above Van Halen as I pass them. A kid kicks a machine and says, "That's bullshit, man! I fucking shot him!" before an employee shouts, "Hey! Take it easy, guy!" over the pong! pong! pong! ka-chunk! ding! ding! duk-duk-duk-duk-duk! of pre-digital pinball machines.
Just before I got to Super Pac-Man, I passed a tall white machine I'd never seen before. The decals on the side showed a scary, blue-robed warlock with his hand raised. On the marquee, the same wizard shot lightning bolts from his fingertips. I paused to look at it, and it said, "Hey, insert coin! Ha. Ha. Ha."
I looked around. "Holy shit!"I thought, "this thing talks!" Before I knew what I was doing, I'd done as the machine commanded. Creepy synthesized music played and the screen showed me that I could play with three Worriors, or I could insert another coin for seven. "Seven men?! For just two quarters?! Awesome!" I reached into my pocket, but stopped short of buying the additional men. Did I want to risk almost half my tokens on a game I'd never even seen before, much less played? I'd play it once, and reassess my situation when I was done.
For the next few minutes, I was blown away. The game didn't just talk — it was cool! It was a combination of D&D and SciFi. It was like someone had reached into my dreams, found the two things I loved more than anything else in the world, and put the result in front of me. This perfect storm of passions wouldn't happen again until I visited Olympic Gardens when I was 22, but that's all you're ever going to hear about that story.
When I lost my three Worriors, I quickly inserted two more coins and played with seven. I didn't see the feared Wizard of Wor, but I blasted the Worluk, figured out that I could get a thousand points if I killed the other Worrior on the screen, and made it to a level called "The Arena." I got the fifth-place high-score, and didn't even care that I couldn't put my initials into the game. I spent all of my tokens on Wizard of Wor before my mom came in and told me it was time to go on my audition. I talked her ear off the whole way to Fox, all about how cool this talking game was, and how I couldn't wait to play it again.
"I'm glad you enjoyed your game so much, Willow," she said, "but you need to focus on your callback right now."
She was right, and I did focus . . . on how cool that game was, and how much better Van Halen sounded than the Barbara Streisand stuff she had playing in the brown Toyota hatchback that was a second home to us after school each day.
For whatever reason, I hardly ever found Wizard of Wor in other arcades, other than a brief appearance at Shakey's Pizza Parlor on Foothill Boulevard in La Crescenta, so the music, the glittering starfield, the color palette, and the graphic design are all inextricably linked with that arcade on Pico. Whenever I see Wizard of Wor, I am worm-holed back to that hot afternoon in the early 1980s, when I heard a game talk to me for the very first time.
This week, I wrote about one of those "B" list games that I'd play if there wasn't anything else available, or if it was Free Play day at Pinball Plus in La Crescenta, Kangaroo:
Kids today might not like it because: They've grown up in a world where monkeys are cool and hip, not pink, apple-throwing wusses. It could turn their whole world upside down.Even though Kangaroo is sort of a forgettable game, it will always be special to me because, like Wizard of Wor, it reminds me of a specific time and place in my life: the set of my first feature film, The Buddy System. We shot that movie at 20th Century Fox during the summer of 1983, and the art department had both Kangaroo and Turbo set on free play, and because the sound was turned off, I got to play them whenever I wanted to. That movie was a lot of difficult work. Richard Dreyfuss hadn't gotten sober yet, and many days he just didn't show up for work, so I spent a lot of time playing gin rummy with my aunt, racing cars, and beating up the evil pink monkeys. The director didn't know how to talk to kids, so he just gave me lots of line readings (which annoyed me, even as I neared my eleventh birthday) . . . but when I look back on that summer, what I really remember is the time I spent with Susan Sarandon, who played my mother in the film, and how much fun we had together. She took me under her wing, and treated me like I was her son, colleague, and friend. When the director was a dick, she made it okay. When Richard was looney on the cocaine, she made it okay. But more than anything else, she never talked down to me. She made me feel like I was part of the cast, and I deserved to be there, even though I was just a kid. The only other person to treat me that way when I was a child working in movies was Rob Reiner.
Kids today might like it because: It's so weird to assume the role of a boxing kangaroo who fights evil pink monkeys, even the most jaded teenager may feel a twinge of... Ah, who are we kidding? They're probably not going to like it.
I remember one afternoon, while we were on a break between scenes, I walked through an empty set, and saw Susan listening to her Walkman (like an iPod, but it uses these things called "cassette tapes," that you may have seen on "I Love The 80s.") She pulled off her headphones, and said, "Do you want to hear some cool music?"
"Sure," I said, and walked into the room, which was her character's bedroom in the movie. They'd built an entire house on the stage, and even though I'd been on lots of sets before, it was still magical to me. There were lights and catwalks and cables and all the elements of movie magic just outside the camera's view. Some lights, flags, and C-stands crowded the corners of the set, and our chairs were pushed up against one wall. The room was dimly lit by the reflected light from the shooting set, a few rooms down the hall.
I sat down next to her and heard music coming out of her headphones.
"How are you doing today?" She said.
"I'm fine," I said. "I saw Superman III last night."
"Oh? How was it?" She said. She paused her Walkman, and the tinny sound of a guitar was replaced by the voices of the crew setting up the next shot.
"It was really stupid," I said. "They tried too hard to be funny, so it wasn't cool like the first two."
"Do you know who Richard Pryor is?" She said.
I shook my head.
"He played Gus."
"The guy who made the machine?" I said. "Oh god! I hated him."
"He's a famous comedian." She said.
"Well, he's not very funny," I said. Compared to the antics of Jack Tripper, or Arnold Jackson's Watchoo talkin' 'bout, Willis? which was the height of comedy as far as I was concerned, Richard Pryor just didn't rate.
"When you get older, you should listen to his comedy albums," she said. "I think you'll change your mind."
She was right. When I was fifteen or sixteen, my friend Pat and I picked up Richard Pryor Live in Concert, and I laughed so hard I almost forgave him for Brewster's Millions. He went on to be a comedic influence in my life, joining Bill Murray, Bill Hicks, Bill Cosby, and a few comedians who are not named Bill, including Chevy Chase and Steve Martin.
"If I do, I'll call you," I said. Unfortunately, by the time I did, we'd lost touch. That has always made me feel a little sad.
"We're ready for first team!" The first assistant director called out.
She picked up her headphones and put them over my ears. "Quick! Before they find us!" She said. I giggled as she pushed play.
A man started to sing. His voice was deep and beautiful. The music was soft, and felt sort of sad. If I'd known what "haunting" was, that's how I would have described it.
After a minute, she said, "Do you like it?"
I did. It was unlike any of the music my parents listened to, and was very different from the pop music I heard on the radio.
"Who is it?" I said.
"It's my friend," she said. "This song is about an astronaut who blasts off and never comes back."
"It's really cool," I said, as an assistant director poked his head into the room.
"I have first team," he said in to his walkie talkie. "We're ready for you on set," he said to us.
We got up and went to work before I could find out the title of the song. As the day went on, and the work took over, I never thought to ask, and by the end of the day, I'd forgotten about it entirely.
Later that year, I helped my dad repair a gate on the side of our house. We listened to KMET (the greatest rock-n-roll radio station in history, which was tragically replaced in 1987 by the worst light-jazz pile of shit in history) while we worked, and that song from Susan's friend came out of the radio.
"Dad!" I said, "This is the song that Susan played for me when we filmed The Buddy System! This is her friend!"
My dad stopped hammering, and listened.
"Do you know who it is?" I said.
"Yeah," my dad said. "This is David Bowie." The song was Space Oddity.
To this day, whenever I hear it, I can see my eleven year-old self, sitting in that empty, dusty, dimly-lit set on stage 18 at Fox. I can feel the rough pads of Susan's headphones on my ears, and remember how happy I felt to be part of a secret club.
Kangaroo spent much of that summer sitting in the darkened corner of stage 18 near the art department. It only worked in one shot, as part of a montage that we filmed at a miniature golf course out in Sherman Oaks. When I was looking through MAME for a game to write about for Games of Our Lives, and I saw Kangaroo, all these memories came back to me, just like they did with Wizard of Wor two weeks ago. It's funny . . . for most people, Kangaroo and Wizard of Wor are just arcade games, but for me they are much more — they are important touchstones.
They are just two of the games of my life.