He’s number one. Of all time. Space Invaders, Donkey Kong, Asteroids–none of them can match the sheer number of quarters this eyeless, pie-shaped glutton gobbled down during the heyday of video arcade gaming.
Maze games always did well, because life itself is a sort of maze, and these games give the people playing them a short-lived, but potent sense of control over their own existence. But Pac-Man was more than just a “successful maze game,” it was a phenomenon that eventually reached the point of epidemic. A national fever! Listen, if you can get two living legends–Bill Buckner of the Boston Red Sox and Jerry Garcia from the Grateful Dead, to come together in a studio over a long weekend to record a top ten hit you know you’ve attained some real cultural cachet.
Let’s put it another way. I never saw those nasty, annoying Centipedes get their own Hanna- Barbera TV show. I never saw Zaxxon lunch boxes. I never saw babies being named Tron. This guy was the king. He was Ali, he was George Steinbrenner, he was Justin Bieber and Elvis Presley combined.
Even today, some 30 years later, you still see people wearing Pac-Man costumes come late October. The retro gaming site Freepacman.com gets more hits than the Obamacare website does. Young girls you’d think were too young to have even heard of this yellow fellow turn out to have him tattooed on their hips or arms. The sampled sounds of Pac-Man hard at work are the source material for some of the 21st century’s most innovative electronic music. Geez Louise, in Norway, the home of black metal, half-insane Satan worshippers have been known to stage life-size games of this in huge mazes where the participants, ghosts and Pac-Man both, actually fight to the death during the course of play.
“Who will speak for the armless and the mouthless?” bellowed The Lorax.
And just like that, Q*bert hopped into view, answering the call and taking the mantle upon his non-existent shoulders. “Speaking” through his nose. Exclusively in alien swear words.
Was he merely a fuzzy orange tennis ball that had mutated into an anthropomorphic freak with feet and an oversized honker that wouldn’t be out of place serving duty as the air horn on a Kenworth or was he the mildly retarded second cousin of that famous prehistoric suzerain The Great Gazoo? We don’t know and we can’t know.
The game took John Travolta’s dance floor from Saturday Night Fever and expanded it into an M.C. Escher-like pyramid. Q*bert, who wasn’t in any physical condition to be involved in any sword fights, merely had to hop onto the squares of the pyramid and change their color in order to win the game. It sounds easy, but there were a few spanners in the works, namely Sam and Slick, two sub-moronic “friends” of Q*bert who meant him no harm but still randomly wandered about the place like Tenderloin crackheads, reversing all of our man’s good work by changing the colored squares back to their original color and thus hindering Q from getting to the next level.
Worse still was Coily, a villainous viper whose shape was the direct inspiration for those weird light bulbs our government has strong-armed all of us into using. This snake was a nasty piece of work, voraciously hungry and always ready to sink his fangs into Q*bert like he was some fresh-off-the-tree tangerine. Q*bert is only able to escape Coily’s grasp by hopping onto a colorful disc that is eerily similar to Apple’s notorious “Spinning Wheel of Death.” It’s like the makers of this game predicted the entire 21st Century!!
I’ve heard the Q-Dawg got some props in the 2012 movie Wreck-It Ralph, but I haven’t seen it!
My message to him, wherever he is now? Well, as The Mekons said on Side One, Track 4 of their Honky-Tonkin’ LP: “Keep on Hopping!”
Forgotten by most, beloved still among those who remember, Pooyan was one of the most unique and challenging video games ever created. Legend has it that Donkey Kong Champion Billy Mitchell once spit a huge mouthful of Sunkist Orange Soda on one of these machines when someone asked him to give it a spin, but he’s always been jerk, hasn’t he? It wasn’t “manly” enough for him, apparently. Who was he trying to kid? You play video games, dude—you’re not exactly a smokejumper!
I can proudly say that it is in my personal top five video games of all time. And honestly, Pooyan doesn’t need some blog entry by the likes of me to rehabilitate its image. Those who know, know. I have it on good authority that both the famous Japanese actor Pikachu and a certain red-hued Teletubby named Po, both consider this a favorite. Better company to be in, I am certain, than some 50 year old mullet-headed guy who still carries a comb in his back pocket. Yeah, that means you, Billy…
Pooyan featured pigs and wolves. The pigs were adorable and good, the wolves were kind of adorable but very bad. They kidnapped a few unlucky porkers but wanted more, so the pigs had to defend themselves by rigging up an ingenious gondola contraption, from which one of them could shoot arrows at the wolves, who used the more primitive method of hot air balloons to get at the pigs. An aerial battle royale! Pooyan was pretty much ignored by most arcade junkies of the day, which meant that if you did like it, you never had to wait around for the machine to clear. This was a good thing, because it was a lot of fun!
When you really stop to think about it, it’s pretty bizarre to glorify a lame-ass pre-teen job by making it into a video game, (what was next—Lawn Cutter? Dog-Washer? The Daring Adventures of a Burpee Seeds Salesman?) I mean, aren’t video games supposed to take the player away from the hum-drum realities of their daily life? In any case, this game used real handlebars as a controller and that was pretty unique. But it hardly seemed the kind of thing that was going to get the blood racing and eyes twitching in adrenalized bursts of excitement. The houses and cars and pets of the virtual world in Paperboy were like a modern-day Norman Rockwell version of Anytown, USA, but there were some real dangers lurking out there—radio-controlled toy tanks, break dancers, street brawlers, and a gang of mohawked punks on unicycles, although I may be remembering that last one wrong.
At least the parents of Paperboy fanatics could rest easy knowing their children were living out their “fantasies” by benignly chucking around rolled-up newspapers instead of mowing down people with fully automatic weaponry or blowing up planets. The nicest touch of all was the epilogue to this game when the player would get immortalized in the very publication he had been hired to distribute. If you were a good paperboy, you got your picture on the front page holding a trophy. If you were a reckless paperboy who had been mowed down by one too many Stutz Bearcats and thus died before your knapsack had been properly emptied, the banner headline would read “Paperboy Call it Quits.” If you were an incompetent buffoon of a paperboy who had managed to stay alive but lost all his subscribers due to bad aim, the headline read “You’re Fired”–always accompanied by a few choice quotes from querulous ex-customers: “Worst Ever” “Scum on Wheels” “Total Shit.” Fun stuff!