Creative Nonfiction American

As far as I can work out from Mom and Dad’s stories, growing up in the 1980s was crazy. No one wore bike helmets or seat belts. Candy cost 25Β’. And pinball machines and upright console video games were everywhere. You could find them in any public space, from hotel lobbies to gas stations to Pizza Hut.Β 

In Dad's hometown alone, there was a Scramble in the Holiday gas station, Centipede at the bowling alley (now burned down), a handful of arcade games in a bar’s back room with a side door on the street, through which Dad and two of his friends entered; he remembers them being the only ones who were ever in there. Even the local ski hill lodge had a game room, which included a ski race game controlled by standing on a pair of skis. Some kid figured out a cheat and shared it with the rest: If you were running out of time to finish the level, start hitting the jump button, and keep jumping until you cross the finish line. Then the game would let you continue.Β 

Dad told us he always liked Centipede. Therefore, when we saw a mini-arcade version in the toys at the store, we bought it and gave it to him as a present. He was pleased, but complained that this little one wasn’t as good as the original. β€œThe trackball is better,” he informed us as he poked the tiny bright-red joystick protruding from the white plastic of the console.

β€œYou don’t have to play it,” one of us told him.Β 

β€œNo, no, I like it,” he said, still staring at the small black screen swarming with pixelated mushrooms and bug blaster darts, β€œit’s really cool. I’m just saying the original is better.”

I wished I could play the original, and that Dad could, too. But gone are the days of finding arcade games in random places. They’re a much rarer discovery now. The pizzeria downtown has a lumberjack game called Timber, but we don’t eat there often, and I don’t want to waste money on that game. At one hotel we’ve stayed at, there’s a little game room next door to the swimming pool that has a Ms. Pac-Man, for which Dad did give us some quarters to bust, one turn each. That was the extent of my arcade playing, until my wish concerning Centipede came true, at the Science Museum of Minnesota.

It’s a pretty cool museum. An old white-painted metal tugboat protrudes through the wall of the building in St. Paul, on the side overlooking the Mississippi River. You can even climb up into the boat’s pilot house from inside the top floor of the museum, or go out on the balcony and look at the tugboat’s exterior. Inside the building, there are dinosaur skeletons, a stuffed juvenile Bald Eagle, a cross-section from what once was an enormous tree, and plenty of other things that fit in a museum. Since it’s a museum of science, there are lots of displays explaining how this, that, and the other organic and inorganic thingamajig works, and even live mini-theater performances teaching about butterfly migration, dinosaurs, how fire works, and more.

There’s also a hall for traveling exhibits. One got my family very excited: Game Changers. It promised to be all about the history and development of video games. The Science Museum is set up to be child-friendly, so there are lots of hands-on interactive exhibits. This gaming history exhibit was apparently going to be no different. Video games would be available to play, for free, if you didn’t count the museum admission ticket cost. The games were being borrowed from private collections, and had been set up so pumping quarters in was not necessary to play.Β 

We stand in a slow-moving line to get into the Game Changers exhibit. I’ve never seen that at the Science Museum before.Β 

The traveling exhibit area has no windows, the walls are matte black, the carpet is gray, and the ceiling is high and dark, so my eyes aren’t drawn to the architecture around me. I see a few plaques on the walls lit up with little spotlights. But the things that really catch my attention are the big old arcade games, glowing and flashing in the dimness of the meandering hall.Β 

The movie Pixels taught me a very little bit about upright console games, mostly the mechanics of Pac-Man, Centipede, and Donkey Kong. There are lots more names here that I don’t know: GeeBee, Xevious, Shoot Out, Tower of Druaga, Space Invaders, and more. All of these games are clustered close together, so the six of us split up, trying any games that catch our fancy.

I try my hand at Xevious first, maneuvering a little silver spaceship over a lush green landscape lined with blue streams and rivers and speckled with flowers. Using the joystick and two buttons, I pilot my ship to avoid enemy ships, shoot them down, and bomb ground cannons. But I keep missing one of those anti-spaceship nests. After getting shot down five or six times in the same spot, I decide I would rather give all the games at least one go than spend all my time trying to beat just one.Β 

Shoot Out I do not find fun, for the simple reason that the goal is to make your gunman shoot another gunman. No, thank you. I quickly give up on purple-and-black maze-like Tower of Druaga because I don’t know what the point of the game is, and though I’m sure someone in this room knows how to play it and would teach me, I’m frankly not very interested in learning. Space Invaders is fun, but not one I want to play over and over, since I lose so quickly and have to give the next person a turn; the same goes for Donkey Kong. Reactor proves to be beyond my hyped-up buzzy-brained patience and understanding.

I find games that involve spaceships attractive, and so end up playing Scramble, Defender, and Asteroids a few times; that last one has very simplistic but fascinating graphics: a pure black screen with bright white flashes of light. Tempest puzzles me for a minute, so much so that I scoff at using only a dial to play a game, but experience is the best teacher, and as the monsters crawl towards the center, I experiment with the strategy of β€œspin the dial wildly” and then quit for Pac-Man.Β 

Two men in gray suits stand in front of me and my sister in the line to play Pac-Man. There’s been a constant line for this game since we came in, and while it doesn’t grow, it doesn’t shrink, either. Whenever someone finishes their turn and surrenders the console, someone else joins the waiting line. I mentally award Pac-Man β€œMost Popular Arcade Game.”

I’ve been reading all the information plaques on the walls, and I’ve learned quite a few interesting bits, such as the fact that the little person character in Donkey Kong was originally just called Jump Man by the producers, but they renamed him after their landlord, Mario, who had a large mustache. My mom told me she learned that the pulsing sound in Space Invaders mimics a heartbeat speeding up, but she also learned that she actually enjoys playing Space Invaders. As a kid, because of having to pay to play, she never got a chance to find out which games she liked. Here, all we need to do is press play to startβ€”no quarters required.Β 

There are so many different kinds of people here. The men in suits chat quietly in front of me and my sister. My little brother is playing Scramble; he thinks he’s doing great, but he’s not, and he won't listen to me when I try to help him do it better. He just wants to have fun, even if his turn is short. Mom is waiting in line for Space Invaders, behind a bunch of boys.Β 

We’re all so different, but we’re all here for the same thing: To play some video games, and maybe learn a thing or two.Β 

Dad snaps a picture of me playing Pac-Man as my brother huddles close, watching. He posts it on Instagram with the caption "No school like the old school." His childhood friend comments, "Where is this magical place?" Dad replies, "St. Paul, Minnesota."

A ghost catches up with my Pac-Man, and he dies with a sad blip. I notice Dad getting in line for Centipede, and I follow him to watch. Instead of the joystick, there’s a white ball that Dad rests his palm on. He moves his hand slightly, and the little white bug blaster on the screen moves left and right, up and back down again. β€œSee?” he asks, shooting a glance at me. β€œThe trackball is better.”

February 10, 2024 02:51

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Angela M
09:58 Feb 16, 2024

This story really unlocked some memories for me. I haven’t thought about Centipede since middle school!


Haha! Centipede is very fun. I’m so glad you enjoyed this, Angela. Thanks for reading.


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Viga Boland
00:32 Feb 15, 2024

Delightful reflections Guadalupe. And congrats on having a story shortlisted. Thanks for visiting my page. Much appreciated.


Thank you for reading, Viga! I enjoyed these reflections, and I’m happy that someone else can enjoy them, too.


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Michelle Oliver
14:50 Feb 12, 2024

Well now I feel old! I remember some of these arcade games. Great walk down memory lane this week.


Thanks for reading, Michelle! I appreciate it. Honestly, I liked the β€œold” games much better than the new games. If I got a chance to visit that exhibit somewhere again, I think I would just play the old arcade games the whole time. Maybe I’d finally beat that tricky spot in Xevious!


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Thank you for reading. Critiques, feedback, and comments are greatly appreciated. The title is courtesy of my dad.


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