Ms. Pac-Man, Centipede and How Video Games Have Ruined My Life

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Ms. Pac-Man, Centipede and How Video Games Have Ruined My Life
Photo: stevegarufi.com

Video games have ruined my life.

Well, maybe not ruined, but certainly decreased the quality of it. I’ve always had a love for video games, but I didn’t realize until recently the damage that has occurred due to the existence of these pixilated monstrosities.

It all began when I was a wee youth in the late ‘70s. My parents had a console game that hooked up to the television which featured two paddles to move a few blips on the screen around. The game was Pong, or something very similar, and I was mesmerized.

I remember seeing my future as a world-class video game player. I don’t remember if I was even allowed to play the game, but I knew that it had a grip on me in a way I didn’t understand.

Video games became an obsession, more specifically, arcade games. There was a Laundromat around the corner from my house called Peggy’s Place. In this establishment, there were three arcade games, Ms. Pac-Man, Centipede and Asteroids.

My brother, sister and I would just go there and stare at the games and have an afternoon filled when someone would actually play. We didn’t have money to play the games, so we were relegated to watching, but watching was good enough for a while.

I can still remember a guy (a grown man actually) who used to play Centipede named Kool. He was named this because of his love of Kool cigarettes, but as children, we didn’t know this. We just thought he was a cool guy with a cool nickname.

Kool was the greatest Centipede player south of Ellis Street and east of Cedar Avenue. The entire game was filled with his high scores, which could only be displayed with three-character names, so the name “KOL” was shown up and down the leader board.

The Centipede leader board. Photo: ilovethe80s.com

As far as we were concerned, success in life could only be achieved by knocking down Kool’s name from the Centipede machine. I would study Kool’s playing style, but I was just a kid and couldn’t hope to take down any of his scores, at least without the needed funding to play such games.

It was at this junction that video games went from being an obsessive hobby to a full-time addiction. My brother and I would try to scrape together any lawn-mowing, leaf-raking or snow-shoveling money we could get our hands on and dump it into the games at Peggy’s place. Our work ethic was questionable, making money a quickly dwindling resource.

We decided to make the tragic turn to a life of crime—maybe not crime, but certainly unacceptable behavior for children, which was to steal money from our parents. This was usually in the form of change in a water jug or dollars here and there. In our most shameful of situations, we broke open mint coin sets just for the quarters, and also used a great many silver quarters from my dad’s collection.

I look back at those days as a terrible time for my parents. We weren’t bad kids, but at times, we were little thieves and while I know that I wouldn’t consider ever stealing from anyone today, it’s still an embarrassing thing and I deeply regret the anguish we put our parents through.

One particular bad moment was when Joe’s Sub Shop, which was across the street from Peggy’s Place, got the game Ten-Yard Fight. It was a football game in which a person could run and pass a football, and for as awful as the graphics look now, it looked real to us as kids. We were pumping silver quarters into Joe’s Sub Shop like we owned a silver mine. This came to an abrupt end when the owner, Joe, realized what we were doing and called my parents. I’ve forgotten the memory of the aftermath, but I’m certain it involved an ass whipping or two.

Through the following decade, the TRS-80, Commodore 64, Odyssey, Nintendo Entertainment System and Game Boy, along with several other systems, occupied my time as well as that of my siblings and friends. By the time I got to high school, I was a full-fledged gamer. This came to a head when my friend, Tommy, got a Sega Genesis.

The Genesis had a game called Tommy Lasorda’s Baseball. We couldn’t stop playing and missed countless hours of school due to cutting class to play the Sega. My sophomore year, I had a schedule that consisted of eight periods. My seventh-period class was Psychology and I had an eighth-period study hall. This meant that I could cut Psychology and make my school day only six periods.

I went to my first Psychology class on the first day of school and didn’t go to another the entire year. My parents got a progress report from the school   which read that I missed 21 of 22 days of class. Somehow, I convinced my mother that it was a mistake and that I was present for 21 of 22 days and that it was a typo.

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That entire school year was spent playing video games and gettin’ stupid.

As girls made their way into relevance, my love of video games dwindled, but only slightly. I would rediscover my passion in the form of Tecmo Super Bowl for the Super Nintendo. I had an apartment with two of my buddies, who also happened to be my co-workers at Ruby Tuesday at the Deptford Mall.

We were just dish washers and were fairly disgruntled at that, so one day we decided to play Tecmo all day in lieu of going to work. Needless to say, after the countless calls from management to our phone, we were relieved of our dish-washing duties. 

Once again, a video game fueled an unhealthy desire to go afoul of the rules.

Fast forward about 10 years, to my late 20s. I was living with my girlfriend at the time and she surprised me on my birthday with a brand new gaming system: XBOX. This was revolutionary in my life as I had almost forgotten how much I loved video games. All those old feelings came rushing back like the prodigal son returning.

Along with the system, she gave me the game Spider-Man. It became an all-day, all-night passion. I couldn’t stop playing the game and others soon would follow. What was once a nice romance became a competition for attention between my girlfriend and this cursed invention from the demons at Microsoft.

I won’t go as far as saying that we broke up because of the XBOX, but more than once I was told by her that the biggest regret she had was buying me that XBOX.

Moving on to the present day, I live with my girlfriend of a few years and she is fully aware of the escapades of my past as far as the XBOX went. This graduated to me having the newest XBOX, called XBOX360, but mine was broken, so I just didn’t play games that much.

I assume that she thought I wouldn’t have any future problems with my gaming obsession, because this past Christmas, she bought me a brand new XBOX360. I couldn’t believe it—she knew about my love of video games, but got it for me anyway.

Spider-Man would be a big mistake by my girlfriend. Photo: gamestop.com

I stayed mature and curtailed my gaming time. That is until Valentine’s Day when she got me the newest obsession in the gaming world at the time, Batman: Arkham City.

This Batman game was the single-most obsessive and fun game that I have ever played and I would be embarrassed to admit how much sleep I have lost, as a grown man in his 30s, playing this game. Besides the actual game, there are mini games included in which a person can compete with anyone else in the world for high scores in different “missions.”

I have already beaten the main part of the game, but those leaderboards seemed so out of reach unless I really put some time in to get better at the game. I contemplated practicing the game at night, after my girlfriend, who is a teacher and needs to go to sleep early, went to bed. I started thinking about that old Centipede high score list, filled with that name—“KOL.”

I never beat any of Kool’s scores in Centipede or any other games for that matter. I think I’ve been chasing those scores my whole life, but I’ve never reached that pinnacle. So the other night I opened up my XBOX360, took out the Batman game, put it back in the case and went up to bed.

Maybe there’s hope for me yet.

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