RF Generation.  The Classic and Modern Gaming Databases.RF Generation.  The Classic and Modern Gaming Databases.

Posted on Jul 3rd 2016 at 08:00:00 AM by (zophar53)
Posted under Fathers Day, Retro games, Barcades, Arcades, Star Wars Arcade

Even though this piece won't post until a couple weeks after Father's Day, as I type it up, I'm on a plane with my father and my stepmother this holiday weekend, off to sunny Arizona for a vacation with them and some family we have there. It got me thinking a lot about how my dad has influenced my favorite hobby over the years, especially since only a few months prior I was able to share with him what may be the most surreal and personally moving gaming experience I've ever had.

I wasn't exactly surprised when the retro barcade opened up in my hometown about a year or so ago. In fact, I was surprised it had taken so long. In the last decade or so, with the explosion of geek culture and the proliferation of nerdy being the new cool, barcades seem to have sprung up all over the country ready to pander to both the crowd looking to reconnect with their youth, as well as the college crowd riding the wave of gaming as the next "in thing." 

It was during my first trip to this barcade when I saw a machine that completely blew me away in a fit of unexpected nostalgia, even in the midst of so many arcade games I played growing up. Walking into the 16-Bit Bar+Arcade in Lakewood, OH, just west of Cleveland, most of what I saw there was welcome but unsurprising. Upon seeing a particular cabinet, however, everything else around me faded away like one of those flashback triggers in movies where the camera zooms in on the character and they get taken back to their childhood. In my case, I fell back to a memory of my dad, a long time ago and in a galaxy far, far away.

I don't remember exactly what age I was the first time I played Star Wars Arcade, but I couldn't have been older than five or six. My dad had taken me to the Aladdin's Castle arcade in our local mall, and the place instantly triggered all kinds of pleasure centers in my brain I didn't even know existed. The flashing lights, the bright, vibrant screens, the constant cacophony of bleeps and bloops of spaceships, and the grunts of world warriors beating the crap out of each other with fists and fireballs. I was entranced.

How can you see this and not want to play it!?

It was the Star Wars machine that mesmerized me most. It was the first time I'd seen a game based off a franchise I knew and loved. It looked like no other machine in the place, with its dual handles that tilted forward and back independently of a rotating central hub. It looked like the closest thing to a cockpit I'd ever seen in real life. The visuals consisted of nothing but simple vector graphics, and not even good ones at that. They depicted the Death Star as a misshapen globe, like a piece of fruit that had been mushed in on one side. But they were sufficient to convey TIE fighters easily, and the wireframe Death Star trench run, combined with the low-quality but instantly recognizable and exhilarating John Williams theme music, made this the coolest piece of electronics I'd ever seen. I had to play it.

And play it I did. My young mind bought into it completely. I didn't even care that there were only about three levels that kept repeating with increasingly more difficult enemy patterns. I was Luke Skywalker. I was so young and so little for my age that my dad had to lift me up to reach the controls and see the screen. When I got too heavy, he would prop me up on his knee so that I could keep blasting away. I can't say for sure if this was my first exposure to video games, but it's without a doubt my earliest actual memory of playing them, and it was the very seed that would one day grow into a lifelong hobby, shaping large parts of my life and personality.

Unlike some gamers I know, my parents rarely discouraged my gaming, and more often than not, actually enabled it. My dad got my brother and I a Vectrex and we played it for hours on end. He played text adventures with us on the earliest of computers. My mom got me both my NES and my SNES, as well as many games throughout my childhood. She would walk my brother and I to the video rental store up the street from our house almost every week to rent us a new game, back in the time when all you had to go on to judge a game you hadn't played was the box art, a couple vague screenshots, and whatever nondescript bullet point blurbs were on the back of the box. There were more than a few birthday parties that took place at Aladdin's Castle and Chuck E. Cheese, where tokens were coveted like gold and $20 worth of them made you feel rich, and this was far from the last time I would don a video game costume.

Me on the left, my brother on the right. Is it any wonder I'm obsessed with games to this day?

When I competed in the 1990 Nintendo World Championships, my dad gave me a NES copy of Tetris as an early birthday present, specifically so that I could practice, and in the process, got completely hooked on the game himself. And the year Super Mario Bros 3 was released, he got it for me for Christmas. We were on vacation with him and I spent the majority of the trip reading through the instruction booklet (boy do I miss those), feverish that I couldn't actually play it until we got back home. Even my extended family got in on enabling my growing obsession. Whenever my brother and I spent a weekend at my grandmother's house, she would send us up to Blockbuster with my uncle Scott and let us rent four or five games - more than we could ever play through in just a weekend - and she straight up paid for my Nintendo Power subscription for years, from the third issue well into the SNES era. My uncle Curtis owned a bar, and whenever we would go to visit him there, he would give my brother and I a huge stack of quarters and we would spend the entire time playing Commando and the Gorgar pinball machine he had.

As I got older, my brother's interest in games faded, but mine only grew stronger. My dad and I played lots of games together back then, including Doom, Dune, The 7th Guest, Space Quest, and so many LucasArts adventure games. He would spend hours setting up the software, tweaking the Soundblaster settings, and even went so far as to meticulously deduce the Dune screenshot security codes by trial and error when we lost the manual in which they were written. It's not an exaggeration to say I would not be the passionate gamer I am today if not for my parents' encouragement over the years, and I'm immensely grateful to them for that.

This game, way better than the new TMNT movie

Sometime after my first trip to 16-Bit, I was able to go back, this time with my dad in tow. I was excited to capture not just my nostalgia for the games I loved as a kid, but something that I hadn't experienced in years, playing games with my dad. Standing in that arcade, sharing a beer with him, was magical and emotional. We played TMNT and The Simpsons together. We played Galaga and I instantly went back to the place I always go every time I play it, where I feel like David Lightman in War Games, who was the coolest high schooler ever until Marty McFly came along. I even competed in a Mario Kart 64 tournament they happened to be hosting that night, and my dad was in the crowd cheering me on just like he did when I was ten at the Nintendo World Championships. And of course, we played Star Wars. It didn't matter that it was a Star Wars arcade board inside an Empire Strikes Back cabinet. At that moment, as we took turns blasting wireframe TIE fighters until we heard that old familiar "this is Red Five, I'm goin' in," my entire gaming life came full circle. It was unreal.

I almost didn't know how to process it. I told my dad my reasons for wanting to play it with him, and shared my Aladdin's Castle memories with him and how near and dear they are to me. As he smiled back at me, I could tell that the experience didn't hold as much nostalgia for him as it did for me. I'm not even sure how well he remembers those first few trips to the arcade when I could barely reach any of the controls. But it meant a lot to me to look back on it with him, and made me immeasurably happy being able to share that moment with him so many years later and tell him how I felt, and I know he was glad to hear it.

No better games to play when you're livin' in the shade of a video arcade

While my dad hasn't been a serious gamer for years now, lately he's found a few mobile games he and his wife enjoy together on their tablet, and I was even able to recommend Monument Valley to him on our trip. I showed him a first draft of this post and he told me he was just doing what a father should, taking his son to do fun things, with no idea how much of an affect it would have on me. Over the years, I've helped him and my mom - who I don't think has ever held a controller other than to give me one as a gift - to understand the joy games have brought me, how much they've grown as a medium and a form of story telling, and the opportunities I've had because of them.

I've shared with them the writing, podcasts, and reviews I've produced over the years, skills I learned mostly by reading other well-written and thought-provoking games writing. They were excited for me when I told them about going to E3 and what a dream it was for me to be there, even if they didn't fully understand what the event was like. And it gave me great pride to tell them of my participation in the Extra Life for Kids charity event, where I shared the story of my own medical history and was able to use the hobby they helped instill to give back to the hospital that treated me so well so many years prior. The males in my family have never been the most comfortable letting their emotional sides show, but it warmed my heart to hear my dad tell me that he's learned to see how games have benefitted me.

In the spirit of Father's Day, I'd be interested in hearing if anyone else out there has any fond memories of gaming with their parents. Did they help you with certain games that were too difficult for you as a kid? Did they encourage you by getting you games for birthdays or holidays? Do they still game with you to this day? Feel free to share your experiences in the comments below, and if you haven't lately, let your parents know how much you appreciate the gaming moments you've shared with them.

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I really love the story with this article.  I wish I could say that I had a similar experience with my parents, but alas, they were a part of the "that stuff will rot your brain" generation.  I had to sell my grandmother's Christmas gift (a telescope) behind their back to fund my first NES....my parents were not happy.  Anyway, I'm not bitter about this and once I got my NES, they were happy to buy me games for it on my birthdays and at Christmas.  The good news is that my kids have a father who will be overly supportive and joyous regarding their video game endeavors.  Smiley
Well written and remembered, Zophar.  I absolutely love 'lore' stories such as this, especially concerning family and friends.  Thanks for writing!

Since you asked, I will reference this piece I wrote concerning my own dad.

Happy Father's Day! Smiley

My son is a big gamer with an amazing memory for detail, which he surprises me with on a weekly basis.  I can imagine something similar happening to me as to your father in your article (though with my kid it would be about Minecraft or Lego games), and I will be standing there next to him, smiling (something like your father) while I try to sort through the last fifteen or so years of memory trying to remember what he is talking about.  But, this article, in an unexpected way (I imagine), has set me up for the day that it will happen.  Maybe I'll keep notes or something.  The only challenge then is to remember where I put the note.

To be serious for a brief moment, my old man wasn't too much of a gamer, though he was always supportive of my entertainment choices.  I learned later that he just wasn't impressed by the tech behind video games back in the day (late 70's to early 90's).  About ten years ago I told my dad how much I enjoyed having the old Odyssey^2 around.  To my surprise, my own father, who has a memory similar to my own (i.e., not good), recounted his tales of how horrible the golf game (Computer Golf!) was, and how he vowed not to play games again until it looked better.  He didn't touch games again until around 2014, when he got a phone and started to play Solitaire.  Go figure.

Thanks for sharing, Zophar.  Like slackur, I love reading these personal memories.
Dude, great article.  I love reading backstory stuff, people sharing childhood gaming memories, and how much of it is both similar and totally different than my own experiences.  Seeing that 4-player TMNT cabinet brought back instant memories of it, and hearing about you playing Galaga reminded me of dumping quarter after quarter into the cocktail machine that was at the Pizza Hut when I was a kid.  Unfortunately, though my dad didn't discourage my gaming, other than puzzle games and Sierra style adventure stuff, he didn't really encourage my hobby.  That said, I plan to be "that dad" and share my love of gaming with my kid, if and when my wife and I are ever blessed with one.  I've tried to share it with my foster kids over the years, as much as I've been able or allowed to, and I always enjoy seeing that "aha!" moment on their faces when they're playing something and it finally clicks as to what they're supposed to do.

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