Button mashing at the FunSpot

That’s not as dirty as it sounds.

The FunSpot bills itself as the world’s largest arcade, and was featured in the arcade game documentary The King of Kong. I’ve wanted to visit for years, but it’s just far enough into New Hampshire that a day trip makes for an unpleasant eleven hour round trip. To put it less diplomatically, it’s in the ass end of nowhere. BFE. East Ja-bip.

Hell, even the lovely couple we met at Novares Res beer bar in Portland a day later, who live nearby in Meredith, looked at us like we’d just said we liked to eat live snakes when we said that we’d spent the day there. They were trying to escape.

While were there, our GPS tried to kill us by sending us up a one-lane gravel road (no problem, all wheel drive, and I’ve driven all over Scotland) and then up a rutted mountain death hole with a cheeky sign warning that the road “is not maintained by the state or the town.” It looked like someone had attacked it with a steam shovel. I gingerly made a K turn in the pitch black with three foot drop-offs on either side–thankfully there was a bulge in the road a few yards back that I turned into–and we drove all the way back into town before asking a local how to get there without taking “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut.” (that’s a wonderful Stephen King story that I mentioned last week. You haven’t read it yet?)

We also watched one of the adolescent menfolk try to woo a woman working at a drive-thru grill by smoking out his F-150’s tires until her parking lot resembled a haunted house production at your local high school (overzealous use of dry ice machine).


We were in the boonies, and mind you, we’d just driven through Louisiana bayou country a few months back and saw nothing like this. Must be something in the mountain air…

The FunSpot is next to a mini-golf course and a water park and has a bowling alley and skee-ball lanes, so it is a lot like Lucky Leo’s and other Jersey Shore arcades where you need something to do when it rains. We bought a bucket of tokens and Firecracker went off to ply her skills at Skee while I hunted every arcade game cabinet I’d played as a child in the ’80s and had never been able to find again.

Oddly, there was no Donkey Kong. There was a sign mentioning the high scoreage, but they don’t play up their fame in The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, probably because the film pokes fun at arcade game junkies, especially Billy Mitchell, the mulleted, black jeaned maestro of the joystick:


My friend Milky wanted me to look for Mitchell’s toadie Brian Kuhn, but he was nowhere to be found. He had better things to do. And so did I, like playing RADICAL RADIAL!!! This terrible game was one of the few they had at Chestnut Grove lodge and resort, where we went for summer vacation a few times as a kid. My mom had to get away, and here she could sit by the pool or the lake while we cavorted with counselors and fished for monster bass stocked in the lake and flirted with the other hormone-crazed teens. And when it rained, we played Radical Radial, Night Driver, Joust, and Gyruss (3 warps to Uranus! bwahahaha).

No one had ever heard of Radical Radial, and I’ve only seen it again here. It could even be the same cabinet:


You play this tire who jumps around avoiding road obstacles and shooting lasers, as only the raddest of radials can do.

They also had the most disturbing arcade game of all time, Chiller, where you shoot at victims in a torture chamber to unlock treasures. No, I’m not kidding:


They also had a sit-down version of the vector Star Wars game which I played until I destroyed the Death Star, a bunch of weird ripoffs of other popular games, and some fun ones I remembered, like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Elevator Action, Tutankhamen, Congo Bongo, Dragon’s Lair, the awful Cliff Hanger which took Hayao Miayazaki’s delightful Castle of Cagliostro animated film and cut it into a terrible game, Joust 2, and a game I’m actually pretty good at, Road Blasters:


They didn’t have Tempest, my favorite of the oldies, as it was in for repair. No Donkey Kong, either. I’m not sure I’d recommend a long pilgrimage here but if you’re ever in the area, lost on Dana Hill road by Squam Lake (where On Golden Pond was filmed) and it’s too rainy to go trout fishing, go get a fistful of tokens and recall your misspent youth at the FunSpot.


8 on the Break – oldest video game arcade?

MJ on the DDR!

8 on the Break is “the oldest continually open arcade” according to its website, running since 1973. Located in Dunellen, New Jersey just off Route 22- for my money, the most annoying highway in America- it’s open late and serves cheap food like $2.25 cheese steaks and deep fried Oreos so yo can burn off the calories stomping to Dance Dance Revolution.
Sadly their classic game stable is pretty slim. They have Bubble Bobble, and I saw a few dead cabinets of Mr.Do! and Ms. Pac-Man. But they have a great selection of music, shooting, fighting games, and head to head racing games, as well as pinball.
Here’s Milky playing as Jack Bauer on the 24 pinball. I played the Universal Monsters one. I wish they had Terminator 2, but they do have a Simpsons machine. Unfortunately for real classic games you still have to hit the Shore. We were hoping for Turtles in Time, which we played on Xbox Live a few nights ago. Or the Simpsons arcade game, haven’t played that in ages. It’s a nice night spot and the food looks good- hard to go wrong with a $2 sandwich! They were out of fried Oreos. Next time I’ll sneak a food review in, but it will be a while for me. The late ’90s arcade games weren’t my faves, and I suck at Bubble Bobble.

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The King of Kong – A Fistful of Quarters and Chasing Ghosts – Beyond the Arcade

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters was the sleeper documentary of 2007, and it remains a hilarious and engaging story about who holds the championship score in Donkey Kong. While some of accused the director of chicanery to make a better story, it remains as entertaining as hell. I watched it again with Milky the other day, and now we’re planing a pilgrimage to The Funspot, up in New Hampshire.

Steve Wiebe, the challenger.

Listening to the old champs talk about the golden age of arcade games in the ’80s made me wax nostalgic. I always liked the vector games- the line drawn ones- such as Tempest, the classic Star Wars, Asteroids, and so on. Dig Dug, a ridiculous game with a guy in a spacesuit digging in gardens and fighting dragons and pookas- who looked like tomatoes with Velma glasses on- using an air pump to explode them, was another favorite. I was too impatient for Frogger and Donkey Kong, which take a bit of strategy- you can’t just charge forward.

It’s on like Donkey Kong, in this excellent documentary.

The basic story involves Billy Mitchell- the mullet-sporting record holder of Donkey Kong since the ’80s, and Steve Weibe, a challenger who bought a Donkey Kong cabinet and practiced in his garage. He submits a tape of breaking 1 million points to Twin Galaxies, the home of the 1982 Video Game Championship and the recognized repository of authenticated high scores, and causes enormous controversy due to what I like to call fandom drama. The score is validated by Robert Mruczek, a guy who watches high score videos for much of his life, and the battle begins. Billy Mitchell is no longer the King of Kong.
Immediately he begins damage control. 3 guys go to Steve Wiebe’s house when he’s not home, and ask to see the arcade game, to verify it. Steve’s wife says they have to wait for him to come home, and she goes to work- so they ask her mother, and get to see the machine without Steve present. For sabotage? Who knows? They find a box linked to a man called Mr. Awesome, and the drama explodes. See, Steve’s Donkey Kong board died and he got a new one from Roy Schildt- a guy who likes to be called Mr. Awesome – a Missile Command top player who has a rivalry with Billy Mitchell, and apparently a restraining order against him. This taints Steve’s score, and brings his honesty into question.

Not doctored.

So Steve travels to a neutral zone- The Fun Spot in New Hampshire, and publicly beats Billy Mitchell’s score, though not topping one million. Billy’s fanboys are present, most notably the annoying as hell Brian Kuh- and they try to psych him out. But he still succeeds, getting a kill screen and a record score in front of witnesses. The glove has been thrown.

Brian Kuh, who comes off as Billy’s lackey.

Billy Mitchell- the former kid video game star- now runs a couple of chicken wing joints in Florida. Immaculately styled hair, full beard, black jeans and a dress shirt with an American flag tie- make him hard to miss. He’s the kind of guy you immediately peg as douche, full of childlike bravado and self-promotion. The film does play a little fast and loose to make Steve an underdog and Billy a has-been who won’t defend his title in public, but certain things are undeniable- Billy’s tape has suspicious “tracking problems” that got overlooked by the judges. In fact, the judge retired after the debacle.

If you watch the documentary Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade, you get some more insight into these bizarre characters. It’s not that entertaining by itself, but if The King of Kong leaves you wondering about these guys, this has a lot more footage. For example, in KoK, we see some images
of Mr. Awesome’s bodybuilding days and his “how to pick up girls” videos. In Chasing Ghosts, you get a lot more detail, so much you’ll be averting your eyes. Trust me. It verges on “things you can’t unsee.” King of Kong may be a bit creative but all documentaries have agendas, and it makes for an incredibly entertaining look at an obsessive subculture.

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Monster Camp: Attack of the Living Nerds

“Oh boy, sleep! that’s where I’m a Viking!”
–Ralph Wiggum

If you want to jump around in the woods with a toy sword and whack people dressed up as lizard men, have I got the film for you. Or if you want to laugh at the people who spend weekends doing this, you will also be entertained beyond belief. The true story of that Cheeto-encrusted World of Warcraft player from South Park and his descend into madness, and the life-affirming tale of a young girl who escapes the event horizon of a life of nerdery.

“Careful! He has obviously eaten someone already!”

If you’re not familiar with the Geek Hierarchy, please click the link and take a gander. LARPers, which stands for Live Action Role Players, are people who dress up in costumes and play RPGs, role-playing games. The most famous is Dungeons & Dragons, but take any nerdy genre like science fiction, horror, or zombie hunting and you’ll find a LARP for it. I first heard about them from a ‘net friend back in the day, who acted in a mystery-style one at a hotel during a science fiction convention. In fact, it’s not much different than one of those “Murder Mystery Dinners” except the dinner will be cheetos and Mountain Dew, and your ‘actors’ will be pimply, pasty fat nerds straight from momma’s basement. For the record, I have never played or even observed one. I consign my nerdery to occasional die-rolling drinkathons with a small group of high school friends for fun and nostalgia’s sake.

The old arrow through the eyebrows gag

Monster Camp is a documentary about a group in Seattle who run frequent games of a fantasy LARP called Nero, and the players who flock to live the Dungeons & Dragons dream. Much like my preamble to the Chiller Theatre Expo invasion, if you ever feel like you live a wasted life, this documentary will cheer you up better than a handful of happy pills. While Cullen Hoback’s film does focus on the unapologetic nerditude of its subjects, by the end there is a glimmer of hope, and even some sympathy.

What, you’ve never seen a guy with scales before?

We’re introduced to the concept when a gaggle of guys dressed in shabby costumes cavorts out of the woods to harass a small group of people dressed in ramshackle Rennaissance Fest gear. Cowboy drover coats and frilly pirate shirts a la Seinfeld mingle to create the fashion of an imaginary fantasy land culled from their imaginations. A state park becomes peopled with Lesser Fin Folk, or merman type critters, darklings and other creatures from fantasy classics with new names, to appease the copyright laws. Our intrepid heroes put up a good fight, swinging their padded toy swords and calling out “4 normal!” or “2 magic!” as they mimic casting spells by throwing little tied-up bundles of birdseed at their targets. LARPing in Seattle is biodegradable, at least. If they miss any “spell bags” during cleanup, a squirrel will feast on their playthings.

Attack of the Dream Moth

The group sadly does look like a Hogan’s Alley of nerd stereotypes. There’s a corpulent, bushy-bearded fellow who, like most of the LARP gang, is obsessed with the World of Warcraft online video game when he’s at home. There’s a fellow who has no job and plays video games all day in Mom’s Basement. There’s a lonely, homely girl without many friends. And the long-haired guy who looks in shape and out of place here, but who’s just so into fantasy that he’s still an outsider. If you took a Renn Faire and shook it, this is what would fall out, minus the odd Ye Olde Turkey Legge and Dixie cup of mead. Their social skills are lacking, but only a few incite that bully gene to cock your fist and inflame the desire to inflict a swirlie. They are no more obsessed than the pet lovers of Erroll Morris’s Gates of Heaven, or the film make in Chris Smith’s American Movie, and they’re a lot less dangerous to themselves than Timothy Treadwell in Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man.

The real lord of the rings

Those are all better documentaries than this, but this is a solid effort from Cullen Hoback. I hope he continues making films. He manages to engender empathy for these outcasts, even as they bicker over rules or other ephemera. Each of the players gets a small cameo interview, where we learn some of their background. One woman is wheelchair bound and loves that when roleplaying in this way, no one sees her as just another handicapped person. She also craves the human contact, for otherwise she has one good friend and a dog for company. While home alone, she can escape in fantasy novels, but at “Monster Camp” she meets new people with common interests. And gets some fresh air.

Together we will rule the forest as father and son

This particular Seattle LARP costs $60 per play for a weekend. The “story” must be written; people must be recruited to dress in monster costumes, for the players to whack with nerf swords; and I’m sure they have to pay the state park to reserve it. The game itself is sold in book form, but that is the rules; the “Dungeon Master” as they’ve been called since D&D days, does the story-writing. And it takes its toll; this game seems to involve well over a dozen people, and they’re all depending on him for their enjoyment. The looks of shock and disappointment on the players’ faces when the folks who run the game say they want to give it up are real. In the end, our WoW-obsessed redbeard ends up buying the storyline for an undisclosed amount, so the game can go on.

The true fate of Violet from Willy Wonka.

So the story has a happy ending; what touched me most was the afterword, when one of the socially crippled young women says she finally is going out, with friends she met here, to do something as mundane as bowling. That was a huge accomplishment for her, and if you imagine how sheltered your life must be to be so excited about bowling with a few friends, you can feel a glimpse of the loneliness in these people’s lives. Having grown up a bit extroverted but also interested in some classic nerdy pastimes, I’ve always wondered if the socially maladroit are more easily lured toward escapism, or if obsessing on escapism is what makes us socially inept. I think it can be either or a bit of both. So whether you’re a nerd or not, Monster Camp can be entertaining; either to mock and laugh at those who take fantasy and escapism one step beyond, or to relate to the strange things they do to escape lonely reality. When the one girl escapes the obsession and makes that one small step for man, but a giant step for nerd-kind- in going out with friends to go bowling- it’s hard not to crack a smile, and hope that she won’t be that crazy lady upstairs who dies alone with 40 cats feasting on her corpse someday.

Indiana Jones and the Broken Joystick

With the 4th and most likely final installment in the Indiana Jones series opening next week, I reminisced about just how popular this series was even before it was a series. Back in ’82, when the Atari 2600 was king of the console games, they released a Raiders of the Lost Ark video game for the system, but not for arcades. Otherwise I’d have been begging my mom to go to The Great Escape on Route 17, next to a Tex-Mex place imaginatively named The Mexican Place. Tacos and videogames are a dangerous mix… but they made me the man I am today.

Instead of whining to her about that, I probably asked for the Raiders game for Christmas or my birthday, I can’t remember which. I still remember when I solved it, after many days of frustration. Back in the ancient days before the internets, we would call each other up for hints. The phone cord would be tangled with our joystick cables on the shaggy rust-colored rug, as we cradled it against our shoulder and tried to talk and play at the same time. Bluetooth headsets? Wireless controllers? Those were as unknown as walkie-talkies in the E.T. movie, or Greedo shooting first. And we liked it.

Who needs a Wii when you can have this?

It was an adventure game, sort of like that even more infamous pixel puzzle Adventure, in which you killed dragons shaped like ampersands in search of a gold dot. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy at least looked like a little guy in a fedora somewhat. You began in the desert, avoiding snakes (why did it have to be snakes) and grabbing your whip. No interlude in the jungle here, it won’t fit on the cartridge.

Alright which is the snake and which is the whip?

Then there was the marketplace, where you could hide in the baskets from the snakes, as you patiently waited for the headpiece to the Staff of Ra to appear. It sort of looked like a God’s Eye you made in catechism or Catholic Youth Group.

The headpiece is the second item in the inventory.

Once you had that, there was a desert full of tse-tse flies that would paralyze you so the Thief could steal all your shit. Then you’d have to get it again. You had a gun and sometimes a grenade, but the Thief was immune, the fucker. You could blow up the snakes, though. The grenade was necessary, so have fun shooting and whipping the snakes instead.

Look at those sneaky thieves with their sneaky hats.

Then you had to go to the Map Room and re-enact the famous scene where the sun burns a spot in the replica of the city, represented by a blinking dot. As stupid as it sounds, I believe we whooped with joy the first time that lone pixel beamed our way.

The scintillating colors of the map room

My favorite part was jumping off the cliff, hopefully with the parachute. If you remembered to deploy it, and then swung over avoiding the branch, you could end up in the treasure room where the Ark resides. Actually it was a lump of dirt you had to dig with a shovel. Oh, God help you if you forgot the shovel. An archaeologist can’t possibly dig it up with his hands! And you only have one parachute. I don’t even think you could walk out and plummet to your shameful death. You had to turn the machine off and start over.

Okay, now click the parachute open and swing under that branch…

I still remember the first time I solved the game, and the surge of endorphins that rushed through me as the famous Indiana Jones theme played… and the opening screen repeated itself. What the FUCK, Atari? At least it gave you a time ranking, judged by how high Indy was on the ladder or whatever that was. But most of the time we just goofed around shooting snakes and trying to get the parachute hooked on the tree branch so he’d fall to his death. I recently learned that you could use both joysticks to make things easier. Motherfucker.

The glory of finishing the game.

Then we’d move on to the Indiana Jones action figures with his whip action. I wish I still had those. It’s rare you get a toy set with a whip, and a guy with a brand on his palm. Next week I’ll be re-watching the trilogy and defending Temple of Doom against naysayers. Watch something like Gunga Din and Lost Horizon, and you’ll enjoy it more.

How to solve the game in 10 minutes.

80’s Trash of the Week: Joy Sticks

Joy Sticks!

I’d put a quarter in those slots.

If you didn’t live during the late 70’s and early 80’s when Video Arcades ruled the land, perhaps you watched The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, which has re-ignited the spark of arcade game nostalgia. Maybe you laughed at the obsessed game nerds, or thought that it was a little unbelievable that grown men would remain slaves to quarter-eating machines over 20 years later. Well, things were a bit different then…

Let’s go back in time via this documentary called Joysticks, about daring young men trying to run a Video Arcade, only to have a blustery local businessman try to shut them down. This happened in the 80’s all the time, and in fact happened in my hometown of Nutley. Yes, the town is in fact nuts, and our little 12-year-old minds were overjoyed when something as cool as a Video Arcade opened up on the main drag. We flocked in little nerdy droves, until the blustery businessmen of our town decided to shut it down by having the council pass an ordinance that required 2 parking spaces for every arcade game in an establishment. Even if it only had one controller! Imagine the outrage. Well, there was none. Loitering kids are the bane of every small town, and having us glue our faces to a video screen was somehow considered a crime against humanity. So we had to mope our way back to Rocky’s Pizza or Artie’s Drug Store, places which had one or two machines (Ms. Pac-Man, Rygar, and a few others if I recall) because they had parking lots.

So this film touched a nerve with me. The movie opens with us meeting Eugene, your typical nerd driving to his first day of work at the arcade. Two cute girls pull alongside him, and to let us know we’re in an 80’s teen fantasy, they show him their boobs, to lure him into their car. This is an ingenious prank, one of many in the film, to get a Polaroid of Eugene with his trousers down. Needless to say he drops trou in front of a cop, and all that is missing is the wah-wah-wah sound.

Eugene’s encounter with breasts.


At the Video Arcade (that’s the clever name of this video arcade) the girls show off Eugene’s underwear and we meet this ragtag band of misfits who have all the fun in town. There’s Jefferson Bailey, the guy who runs the place for his old grandfather, but he’s just the boring lead, a Scott Baio look-alike for the girls to look at. The real hero is McDorfus, the slob who looks like what obsessed video gamers really look like. Here he is in all his glory, after his battle with King Vidiot (who we’ll meet shortly).

The aptly named McDorfus.

King Vidiot is what they came up with to make nerds like McDorfus and Eugene feel good about themselves. Punks were the lowest form of life in 80’s movies, and King Vidiot is no exception. He storms into the arcade with his gaggle of punk rock girls who mimic Pac-Man eating dots. I assure you we did not do this back then, even if we have a spiked leather jacket in storage from the days when we had blue hair and listened to the Dead Kennedys.


He doesn’t like how they run the arcade, they aren’t worshipful of his greatness, or quite as obsessed as he is. So when Joe Don Baker shows up looking for his Valley Girl daughter, and sees Jefferson cavorting licentiously with two scantily clad ladies in a game of strip Pac-Man. Actually it’s a Pac-Man clone that I can’t remember, so here’s a screenshot.

The Pac-Man rip-off.


Cavorting licentiously.

Joe Don Baker and King Vidiot team up against our friends, who just want to share their love of video games. Vidiot and McDorfus go head to head in a battle of Satan’s Hollow, which is a spaceship game where you battle Satan, in his hollow. Following that link will let you experience it firsthand.

King Vidiot.

Vidiot loses this round, but as you know, the villains never stop in their battle against Fun. Joe Don Baker’s clumsy henchmen try to steal all the arcade games, but are foiled in a rather unexciting manner. In the meanwhile, Eugene and McDorfus break into his house and get assaulted by his undersexed wife. Eugene’s virginity will not go unchecked in this film, that is a given. And this foreshadowing should not go unnoticed by the more watchful viewers. Here’s another hint, when Eugene is serving hotdogs at the arcade’s lunch counter, one flies out of the tongs and lands here:

Joysticks will not stoop for laughs, but it will put a hot dog in your cleavage.


If all the drama isn’t enough, the battle moves to the courtroom, where they produce a photo of Baker with the topless girls from the licentious cavorting, so they go into arbitration. Meaning they bet each other that if Jefferson can beat Vidiot at Super Pac-Man, they will stop trying to shut down the arcade. But if he loses, they have to move out of town. If more lawsuits were settled this way, we might have a fairer legal system. But enough wistful thinking about lawyers battling it out over Mousetrap or Crystal Castles, we soon learn that Jefferson can’t play video games! He used to be a champ, but after his ex-girlfriend’s Dad caught them together, he beat her up, scarring our hero’s fragile psyche. If only video games could be used to improve psychiatry as well as the legal system.

Joe Don Baker in the highlight of his career.


But wait, they can! If only Jefferson can overcome his fear, he can be whole again. After a lovely training montage, our hero is ready for battle. I won’t tell you if he wins, that’s for you to learn.  I had to suffer through this film, and I’m not going to deny you the experience. I will leave you with one of the best parts of the movie, the fact that director Greydon Clark (who’d go on to gift us with Lambada: The Forbidden Dance) splits up scenes with Pac-Man waka-wakaing across the screen, like so:



As far as video game movies go, this is far behind The Last Starfighter and just ahead of that trilogy movie where Alex Winter gets eaten by a video game. It’s a great example of why Porky’s is remembered so fondly. It was a good teen romp, where this was the median. Porky’s was directed by the same talented director who brought us A Christmas Story, and Black Christmas (but also Baby Geniuses). Joysticks is not something you’ll watch for pleasure, but pain.