Friday, November 25, 2005

The Slippery Slope to Old Age

The more time passes, the closer I get to becoming that grouchy old man who stands on the porch yelling at the damn kids to get off my lawn. I'm only 38 years old, but that's three years beyond the magic 18-35 demographic that seems to carry the most relevancy, at least according to the experts on Madison Avenue.

The most recent I-just-don't-get-it moment came by way of the hype surrounding the release of the new Xbox 360 game console. Apparently, it is the latest must-have toy on all the Christmas lists this year, and the national news services have done a yeomanlike job of reporting the consumer stampede on retailers as demand is far outstripping supply. As a red-state borgeoisie imperialistic capitalist-dog investor, I offer a hearty congrats to Microsoft for the billions of dollars they are going to earn for providing the latest Better Mousetrap to the Ritalin-addled minds of today's yoots. But on the other hand, I ask myself, what's the big deal?

As far as I'm concerned, video game greatness peaked with the 2-D simplicity of Asteroids. Of course, having spent my formative years trying to convince my parents that the new MTV channel was not a Tool of the Devil, Hobie shirts were absolutely not the same thing as OP, and black nylon pants with zippers all over them were the pinnacle of coolness, it's unsurprising that a person like me would have such an affinity for a game that today's kids would consider downright lame.

Today's Xbox runs about $400 retail, if you're lucky enough to find one. But a quick glance at Ebay shows that some have gone for over TWELVE HUNDRED FRICKIN DOLLARS in the secondary market! Good grief. When I saw that, the first thing that came to mind were Gunnery Sergeant Hartmann's immortal words--You've gotta be shittin' me Pyle! Yeah, good luck getting my folks to spend that kind of jack back in the eighties. Especially for a video game. Hell, my parents wouldn't even get me the electronic Battleship for Christmas--the original version was perfectly adequate, I was told. But $1200 for a video game system? Are you nuts? That doesn't even include the cost of the actual games! I don't have kids, but even if I did, I know I wouldn't love them that much. For twelve Benjamins, I'm sure as hell not wasting money on a video game--even for myself. Maybe a box of Cuban cigars, a couple bottles of rum, another tattoo, dinner at Delmonico, and perhaps a new subscription to Girls Gone Wild. Clearly I've become a more responsible consumer as I've matured.

For the Ebay price of an Xbox, you could get almost five thousand chances to enter your initials as one of the Top Ten players. (And who among us never had a temporary alias that looked like A.S.S. after cracking that list???) Even the most uncoordinated buffoon could get to level ten and beyond with that kind of investment, and no 'cheats' would be needed. And with the Xbox, you're just sitting around on your ass in the basement for days on end. At least Asteroids had some social aspect involved--there were always other players around, and like a saloon pool table, your quarter sitting in line meant that 'you got next'.

My favorite machine was located at La Jolla Skate Village in Harvester, Missouri--the Saturday night social center of the universe when I was in junior high. All that was needed (besides parents willing to provide transportation) were three bucks for admission and skate rental (if you owned your own skates, you were clearly gay), a couple more bucks to cover pizza and cokes, and a few quarters for the Asteroids machine for when that inevitable awkward moment arrived and the lights would dim, a Journey ballad would start playing, and the DJ would make the dreaded announcement-- Couple skate, couples only... Since I never wanted to suffer the humiliation of Pam Epperly rejecting my offer to take a few laps around the rink holding hands, that was always the time I practiced making the cosmos safe from large electronic rocks and small ufo's.

I remember another time my buddy Brad Bateman and I had made $20 apiece doing some sort of odd job or another, and talked his mom into dropping us off at the arcade for the afternoon. We played Asteroids the whole time. Several hours later the money was gone and we had to endure a lecture for the entire ride home about wasting all of our money playing video games. Telling her that we spent some of the money on a box of donuts and a couple of cokes--so technically we didn't waste it *all* on video games--didn't seem to make a difference in her eyes. Damn kids--we didn't have any idea how long it took to make twenty bucks back in the fifties when she was a teenager...

Even after we got driver's licenses, going to the video arcade was still a favorite after-school pastime. And when one of my buddies actually got a job at the arcade, well, it was Free Game City! Somewhere around that time, we stopped going to the skating rink and the arcade and just started hanging out at the mall, able to shop at Chess King and buy zipper pants with our own money, without the parental disapproval.

Atari even released a home version of Asteroids to play on your tv (well, not the tv at my house--we still had Pong), and a buddy of mine was one of the first to get it. Unfortunately, it was such a horrible spinoff of the arcade original (what the hell was up with all the squares?) that a week later it met it's demise in the back yard courtesy of a pack of firecrackers after we'd run out of model airplanes to destroy.

Anyhow, the world is changing, and it's leaving people like me behind. I've tried playing video games with my nieces, but they all seem pretty senseless. Case in point--the snowboarding game, Tricky--you don't have to do anything, the game does it all. If you didn't touch a button after you've started down the hill, you'd still get to the bottom of the hill eventually. Speaking as someone who's actually tried to make it to the bottom of a hill on a real snowboard, that's not how it works in real life. There's a little more effort involved. I'm not saying there's no effort to become proficient with today's video games, but I'm pretty sure that asteroids don't split up on their own out in space, that's all.

Even after Asteroids popularity started to wane, I dabbled with the other classic video games for a few years. I was a sucker for Galaga and Tempest, and was infuriated with the difficulty of Defender/Stargate. Donkey Kong and Pac Man were fun in mixed company, and I even thought Joust was pretty cool, but I could see the handwriting on the wall because it was so popular with the Dungeons & Dragons geeks. I just knew that if I ever started playing that game on a regular basis, Pam Epperly would never skate with me.

Turns out, she never did. She moved to Florida before then end of eighth grade. But once that distraction was gone, I was unbeatable.

Looking back, I'd gladly trade a couple of those top-ten scores for a few laps around La Jolla holding her hand and listening to Who's Cryin' Now. I'm sure she's an uber-milf now, and I've discovered that there are much better ways to score than just with video games.


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