Chasing Ghosts: One Quarter at a Time

This game really is everywhere: Tetris in the arcade

Tetris is ubiquitous. It surrounds us like oxygen, permeating every digital device we have. Got a gaming console? A PC? A phone? A credit card reader? Then you probably have Tetris.

Still, while visiting the local arcade to work out play DDR, I noticed a machine buried in the corner next to the bootleg Pac-Man machine (it had hearts instead of pellets), was a Tetris machine. Tetris in an arcade? Who would pay money for such a thing when you had a fantastic version on the Gameboy available? Still, curiosity got the better of me as I delayed my $5 binge on Japanese pop music to sample this odd machine.

Even in 1988, it looks as if the variety of games in the local arcade was lacking, as this flyer attacks the shooting and beat-em-up genres head on.

Even in 1988, it looks as if the variety of games in the local arcade was lacking, as this flyer attacks the shooting and beat-em-up genres head on.

It’s the 1988 Atari version. It’s actually pretty much the same as Tengen’s NES Tetris. Like so many of the games at Galactic Hurricane, it was a non-descript black cabinet, definitely not the original. I remember not doing well, but it’s not the game’s fault for that. Joysticks were responsive, the gameplay was a lot of fun. Nope, I wasn’t that great at the game back in 2004. Heck, I’m not even the best Tetris player in my home.

Having said that, I feel ….

My Wife hijacks this column plays Tetris

In an attempt to get my wife to play more video games, I’ve given her a space to talk about the games. This time, her love of Tetris inspired her to rip this column away from me. Oh, and find her on Twitter @alliwait.

Dustin is always getting me to try his video games.  I do love the arcade cabinet.  I’ll admit that it isn’s as ugly as I imagined it would be.  This week I had to play Tetris.  I say “had to” but really all my husband has to do is set it to any one of the number of versions of Tetris that we own and I will gladly play.  First thought: I love the Russian music when it starts up. I love the way different versions of Tetris offer different colors, this one was fun with a teal T-piece.  The arcade version is a lot less forgiving: Pieces stick when landing and I can’t hold a piece or ghost my placement.  While Tetris purists might scoff at that, they are added conveniences I’ll gladly take. When you’re playing at home, it’s more user friendly. Playing with a joystick is less forgiving. I need the control a D-pad gives me. Although even with a joystick, I could totally take out Eric Hunter! He said in a recent podcast that it was impossible to play on a joystick, and that there was no way to succeed. Grow a pair buddy. I laugh at his failure. MWAHAHAHAHA!

My goal is to play every version of Tetris, and always have a higher score than my husband. This one was difficult (my husband’s high score might last for a day or two) but I’m sure if I played it regularly, it wouldn’t be an issue. The biggest problem was the 8-way joystick. In the true arcade cabinet of this game, there was only left, right, and down. I think sometimes the joystick at home slips into a diagonal position, when you’re playing something that requires very precise movements in the higher levels, those slight missteps can really cost you (not the machine’s fault, as that joystick has to work on a variety of different games).  This version is also very unforgiving when a piece touches down.  Most of the modern versions give you a second or two to make any final adjustments.  This Atari 1988 version would only permit one last side movement and even then it had to be timed precisely.  I found that to be the other major stumbling block to my Tetris domination.

When I first started playing it on my husband’s MAME machine, I was just going to play one or two rounds since that’s the “standard” by which Dustin has been running these experiments. But just like every other version of Tetris, I couldn’t stop. I hit the quarter button what felt like a hundred times. Yes, I prefer the modern versions of the game, but my least favorite version of Tetris is better than 90 percent of other video games.

I came from a puzzle family. We loved playing Scrabble, word games, and putting together puzzles.I don’t have any particular Tetris memories, but my childhood memories are rather faint anyways.  My husband remembers all sorts of random nonsense: ‘The Simpsons machine ate my quarter when I was seven!” “I remember having pizza in the hotel room when I was 10!” “I urinated on that tree in 1992!”  I’m like, “Did that even happen? Are you sure you remember that?” And while I can’t remember any Tetris ghosts from my childhood, I do remember a two-hour marathon Tetris session on the Wii when my husband and I were dating. It was the “beginner” mode, but don’t let that term fool you: You are limited to 3 shapes and the pieces eventually fall so fast that they just appear on the screen, and you have a split second to flip or move them. Years later, I’m pretty sure that’s his favorite gaming memory of me.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a high score to kill*

*Editor’s note: While proofreading this column, my wife did indeed top my high score. I cannot win

Playing in Mame

Simple. Although I had a hard time finding the ROM of the Atari version for upright cabinets. I could only find the kind for a cocktail cabinet. Which I have, so it’s not a huge deal. There are a handful of Tetris arcade ports that will work in MAME, but this is my favorite just for the retro wayback feeling when I play it.

Random bits of knowledge

I do apologize first and foremost for the janky release schedule of this column. If I can completely level with you on something, I was working a third shift job during the time that this column ran. I hated it. Sure, I was grateful that I could provide for my family, but the schedule barely left me any time to see the family I was providing for. And it was the most mindless job ever. It really bummed me out, knowing I could do so much more with my skills and talents, but was stuck in a dead-end job, so that it ruined my enjoyment of other things in life. Didn’t want to go to church. Didn’t want to do anything creative outside of a podcast or two. Didn’t want to watch movies and sports I normally loved. And I didn’t want to fiddle with this stupid arcade machine whose wires kept coming loose.

And you know what kept me sane? Well, family for sure. But you. This 1 More Castle community has been such a blessing. I am so grateful to Eric Bailey for introducing me to this web site and to all the wonderful people involved in it. You are some of my dearest friends. And I can’t thank you enough for being there for me when I need it the most.


Other random bits of Arcade knowledge

– Putting together a MAME cabinet isn’t difficult, but it’s a lot more work than I anticipated. Specifically the wiring part. The one thing I’d do differently is spend an extra $15 or so and get all the wires to be a foot longer. It would have made wiring to the control panel much easier, as I wouldn’t have to stick my head all the way inside the machine to connect them when they come loose.

– I bought my cabinet kit from The cabinet kit they sent over was really nice, but they can be REALLY hard to get a hold of. I’m still waiting to hear back from them about getting a trackball control panel. Most of the time my phone calls and emails go unanswered. Still, if you buy from them, they are really good at sending things on time. Perhaps they need a new phone answering person.

– Donkey Kong is much more difficult in the arcade than it is on the NES.

– Despite wanting as authentic an experience as possible, I don’t miss having an operational coin door. I had difficulty wiring the coin door, so I just made a button function as the credit button. I don’t feel I lose any authenticity. If I was so deadset on authenticity, I wouldn’t have a MAME cab: I’d have each game in it’s own dedicated machine.

– Speaking of credits, you can really see just how much beat-em-ups were designed as quarter munchers. When you give yourself unlimited credits, they’re much easier to get through. If you do start playing these games, limit yourself to about 4-5 credits. Makes it much more challenging (I try to imagine how many quarters my mom would have given me as a kid and stick with that number. It’s usually a few bucks).

– Even though a low powered computer will work great for your MAME needs, I’d install the most powerful PC you can muster into your cabinet for a few reasons. One, some of the later arcade games need a high-powered machine to run. Donkey Kong and Qix will run fantastic on hardware from 1999. Rampage World Tour, NFL Blitz, Gauntlet Legends, those will need something much better. I have a 1.87 ghz Windows 7 64-bit Pentium dual core laptop with 3 gig of ram powering my machine, and everything but NFL Blitz runs smoothly.

Two, there might be some games in Steam that you might want to install on the machine (If you love fighting games, why wouldn’t you want Mortal Kombat X, Skull Girls or Street Fighter V in your MAME cabinet with all those nice joysticks and buttons?). I wanted to get Pinball Arcade on there, because playing the Twilight Zone table sounded fantastic on the MAME cab. But, while the PC can technically run it, we’re talking 19-25 frames per second during playthrough, an amount too low to enjoy it properly. Hopefully someday I’ll be able to swap out that laptop and put in a desktop PC with my leftover GTX 660 card.

Three, speaking of resource hogging things, some of the good front ends (I use GameEX because it looks really pretty and has a lot of customization options) take up a lot of memory. There’s another reason to get a good PC in there.

– A few games are a lot more fun with groups of people than by yourself. I have Space Invaders. It’s really basic, and I’m not sure why you’d want to play that when you have access to Galaga and even Galaxian. But a few weekends ago, my parents came to visit us, and my Mom wanted to play Ms. Pac-man and challenged my dad, who claimed to have never played it (she scored around 5,300 to his 3210). He said the game he always played while working at a convenience store was Space Invaders, showing up an hour before his shift started to play. I don’t think he realized I had it in the MAME cab, but I pulled the game up, and I think a little of my dad’s childhood returned that night. He soundly defeated my mom, and bested me by 10 points, 960 to 950, along with my wife, brother-in-law and nephew. By the end of the night, his high score was 1,450. That my friends is the reason I wanted to build a MAME cab. Not just to play the arcade games with authentic controls, but for that social aspect.

As far as gaming is concerned, that’s right up there with my first playthrough of Ori and the Blind Forest as best moments. Here are some photos of my family playing.

– Growl is the worst, most awful arcade game ever. It’s an unimaginative beat-em-up that exploits a good message. POACHING IS BAD SO WE KILL EVERYTHING IN SIGHT. It’s that preachy 90 politically correct mindset shoved into a game. Mindlessly killing people because you care about animals? Go screw yourself Growl. You’re a pile of filth and I hope you take a long walk off a short pier.

– Ms. Pac-Man is harder on the home machine than it is the arcade. Don’t discount how important that authentic joystick is. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a way to install the real Ms. Pacman stick onto my machine, as it mounts to metal and I’m wood. My Sanwa sticks are really nice, even though the ball on top of the stick keeps coming unscrewed.

-Game I play the most? Probably Vs. Super Mario Brothers and Galaga. Galaga might be the most perfect arcade game ever created. Surprisingly, I don’t play nearly as much NBA Jam or Virtua Fighter, two games I thought I’d be playing the most when I was building the machine.

– Not an arcade title at all, but Ori and the Blind Forest is the absolute greatest game I’ve ever played. The presentation is breathtaking. Graphics, music, story, they all seamlessly combine with some challenging/rewarding platforming gameplay. Please, buy this game. I get no money from telling you that, but it’s an experience everyone should have.

– I’ve learned one nice lesson from writing this regular series: Write a few articles all at the same time! It should help give me a more regular release schedule. The next series I am writing is tentatively called “You Must Clear This Shelf.”Basically, I have too much clutter in my life and many retro games that I don’t play. Even ones I don’t like, I’m going to replay for at least an hour or so, write it, and then decide if I should keep it, or sell/donate.

– Even if you have a MAME cabinet, it’s no excuse to not support your local arcade. These classic games are becoming, literally, a thing of the past. We went on a family outing to a restaurant in Destin, Florida, and it had a giant “arcade” next to it. So I took my niece-in-law and daughter over, and it was legitimately depressing. The kids had fun I guess, but just about everything was one of those scam machines with tickets. Mario Kart GP and the Batman driving game were the only things I had any interest in. And even when we go to other restaurants, if they do have a game, it’s that stupid deer hunting game. HOLY F*** why is this game so popular??? You’ll see that, and you’ll see 3 or 4 of those claw machine games.

Restaurant owners, would it kill you to throw in a Ms. Pac-Man machine? I guarantee that they’d make more money from a Ms. Pacman machine than that claw thing that I never see anyone playing.

So when you do see a classic arcade title, even if it is something you hate, give it a quarter or two and play it. I hate Growl but if some shop owner has it sitting there, I’m definitely giving them my money. It’s always a joy to walk into a place with real machines like the Pizza Hut in Annandale, VA (outside of Washington D.C. and the inspiration for Andale in Fallout 3), which has a Neo Geo cabinet, and the bowling alley on Langley Air Force Base, which has a Street Fighter 2 and Mortal Kombat machine side by side. We need more of these. Maybe I should open up a laundromat just as a front for an arcade.

– I’m looking forward to my children growing up with this machine. So far, we’ve had a blast.

Lucy plays Pac-Man

– Thank you so much for reading. God bless you.