Raiding the Lost Ark

by Brian Clarey

First I take out Glass Joe with a devastating series of blows to the face and body. He doesn’t stand a chance.

Then I polish off Von Kaiser with a TKO in the first round.

The title bout against Piston Honda ends with a flurry of head shots; when he goes down, he goes down hard.

It takes me two rounds to drop Don Flamenco— “I dance so sweet for you,” he says in our between-round banter — while avoiding his devastating uppercut. And then I lay King Hippo to waste when a well-timed jab causes him to drop his pants and I just wail on his big, fat gut.

And then comes Great Tiger, in his turban and long pants, and dammit, for the life of me I cannot remember how to knock this bastard out.

I lose it in the third round. Twenty years on, muscle memory can only get you so far.

When I was a teenager, I could play Mike Tyson’s Punch Out on my Nintendo NES for hours, scrapping my way to the final bout with Iron Mike himself in the days before he did his time and got that face tattoo.

Loved that freakin’ Nintendo, which I got in high school and brought with me to college, where an old roommate almost failed out of school after the semester in which he tried to master Tecmo Bowl and the Bo Jackson/Marcus Allen split-back formation of the Los Angeles Raiders.

It all comes flooding back to me there in the Lost Ark, a genuine arcade and game room on Spring Garden Street.

They’ve got old-school cabinet games here — Golden Axe the Revenge of Death Adder, X-Men, Centipede — which occupy the boys and me for a good half hour on this Saturday afternoon while their sister pumps quarters into the Hello Kitty crap machine. And then I move on to the wall of pinball, 11 vintage machines, each one bringing back memories of the bowling alleys, shopping-mall arcades, pizza joints, movie theaters and amusement parks where I first learned to freeze the ball and make skill shots and hit combos and slam multiballs.

A couple quarters in on the Twilight Zone machine I am straightup jamming, and I get my first free credit on the second ball. The boys are mildly impressed.

Later I take them around the shop, which is also a functioning video-game store with titles for all of the new systems — Xbox, Wii and the like — and also a collection of classics that go way back to the early days of the home gaming industry.

“I was weaned on the [Atari] 2600,” says Daniel McMillan, who owns the place with Asa Cooney. “Berserker, Missile Command, Defender.”

When he was still a kid he traded in the old Atari and all of his cartridges for a Nintendo NES.

“At that point,” he says, “I was hooked. It was a done deal.” McMillan carried his interest into adulthood, and began collecting the old systems, now officially antiques: Intellivision, ColecoVision, Atari Jaguar, Sega Master System… he’s even got an Atari 800 home computer there under the glass. In another cabinet sits genuine relics of the last century like the Nintendo Power Glove, the Robotic Operating Buddy (ROB for short) and the Virtual Boy, an attempt on Nintendo’s part to cash in on the “virtual reality” craze of the ’90s that never quite panned out.

I hear he’s even got a Vectrex, so I ask him about it and he pulls it up from behind the counter. I haven’t seen one of these things since I was about 12 years old.

The Vectrex was different. It was the first — and only — home video gaming system to use vector graphics, basically the kind of line-drawing images used in games like Asteroids and Tempest. First manufactured by GE, it came with its own monitor and film overlays to add color and detail to the screen.

They only made these things for a couple years. The video game crash of 1983, which coincided roughly with the release of a truly horrible version of Pac Man for the Atari 2600 and many other mediocre games, basically wiped out the entire console and cartridge market and the business lay dormant until 1985, when the NES and a couple of brothers named Mario and Luigi saved the industry.

It just so happens that a tabletop version of Super Mario Brothers is running for free today, and I try to interest the boys by explaining some of the legacy, which goes all the way back to the original Donkey Kong cabinet and continues even today with new releases and characters for the modern home consoles.

They don’t care, not even when I tell them I know how to get unlimited 1ups by trapping the turtle’s shell on the big stairs at the end of World 3-1 and bouncing on it. Which I guess is just as well, because my game is over before I finish all of World 1.

After 20 years, muscle memory can only get you so far.