“I’ve got Speedy on my tail, and I know it’s either him or me.”
–“Pac-Man Fever,” Buckner & Garcia
It’s Saturday night in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and I secure my place in line, which is already 50-people deep. The human overflow snakes down the sidewalk, many fighting off the bitter cold by dancing in line. I keep warm by complaining to Jeff, my boyfriend, about the two personal space invaders in front of me that keep dropping it like it’s hot within inches of me. The mild infraction is worth it. Rather than enter some trendy club, we are setting foot inside a time machine. Destination: 1981.
The era of the arcade–which inspired the early ’80s song, “Pac-Man Fever”–was something I had sadly missed. By the time my hand-eye coordination was developed enough for me to master video games, I had a Nintendo Entertainment System. I didn’t have to hightail it to the arcade to play Tetris, Double Dragon, or my greatest hits. I knew, however, that something was being sacrificed for this convenience. The arcade seemed as fun a getaway as the otherwordly worlds portrayed in its games. Where else, for instance, could you spend a couple fistful of quarters to experience a cornucopia of neon, pinball dings, and the ca-ching of coins while geeking out with others? My cramped, no-frills bedroom, where I played Nintendo mainly with my younger sister, Lisa, barely had the same effect.
On a deeper level, arcades are emblematic of simpler times, or perhaps a decade when the child me didn’t share as many worries as the thirtysoming-me. There were no concerns about having enough money saved for that first home, the realities of becoming someone a younger version of yourself wouldn’t grasp, lingering concerns about how I’m perceived by others. For a night, I’d like to have my worries, big and small, gobbled up like a Pac-Man pellet.
The arcade I’m waiting to enter isn’t a teenybopper hangout. It’s adults-only. We eventually work our way to the front of the line and acquire our 21-to-play wristbands. First passing the front counter at Roxy’s, selling some of Boston’s best grilled cheeses, a worker points to a door beyond the counter. Inside is another door resembling a metal meat locker. What’s inside is better than beef.
The sounds of a Ghostbusters pinball game first get my attention. Though eager to play, we take a loop around the place, which is big enough to hold maybe 50 or so arcade games and a few surrounding bars. Someone sipping a straw emerging out of a handheld R2-D2 entices us to beeline to one of its few bars. I order a Land Shark, a delicious concoction of passion fruit and booze served in a ceramic shark that resembles Jaws’ friendly brother. Drink in hand, I gasp at Super Mario Brothers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Mortal Kombat, and an AC/DC pinball game. I had assumed you simply insert dollars into the machines, but nearly die from excitement when told we need to purchase tokens. TOKENS!
I feed the gold coin into the Ghostbusters game. Since I’m hardly a pinball wizard, the game ends fairly quickly, but I can’t stop force-feeding it more tokens. I’m eventually lured to the pellet-eating vixen herself: Ms. Pac-Man. I feverishly manhandle the joystick to avoid the ghosts, but then realize that I can gobble up more pellets without the ghosts in my way. I eat the larger pellet, giving me the power to kill the ghosts. Without these things haunting me, constantly trying to chase me down, my path toward winning is clearer. The game is subtly trying to tell me something, and it has nothing to do with pellets or high scores.
I don’t win the game, but feel satisfied I found a tactic to conquer the game’s ghosts, and perhaps a way to silence a few of my own.