At the Video Game Hall of Fame, Where Past And Present Point, Perhaps, to the Future

Ben Gold's on a plane from Iowa back to Dallas at this very moment -- a newly burnished Hall of Famer ... like Emmitt Smith, let's just say. On the other side, his final installment from his return to Ottumwa, Iowa, where not all victories are in the distant past.

Return to Ottumwa, The Big Day
By Ben Gold

When I walked away from video games in 1983, that was that. Maybe I'd graze a Millipede machine on occasion, but I found out: You can't make a living tossing quarters into a machine, no matter how long you can make 'em last. But back here, among old friends and former teammates in Ottumwa, I made a bold proclamation Friday afternoon: I was going to set a new world record on Defender.

I believed it would only take, oh, 60 hours to get 55 million points -- that seemed about right, right? And so I assumed my position in front of the machine, and for the first time in as long as I can remember, I had that thrill again -- maneuvering my spaceship through the hostile terrain while saving humans from those evil aliens. And when they ticked me off, I shouted, "Take that!" and unloaded a smart bomb.

And I only came up 44,800,000 points short of the record.

Still, it was great to be a "player" again. That's sort of been the whole point of this weekend, in a way -- to flex old muscles and knock loose a few memories and share a few stories and stand on a stage or two and celebrate a golden age of gaming that ended in the year of The Terminator, Purple Rain and the debut of the Apple Macintosh. For most of us, anyway.

The best part was being able to once again enter my signature mark of conquest: "B-E-N."

Ottumwa's not the same town it was way back when -- the Twin Galaxies arcade has been closed for a long time. After a ceremony on Friday honoring Pac-Man, celebrating his 30th birthday this year, Walter Day, the man behind all of this, took us to where Twin Galaxies once stood tall. Today the Optical Shoppe has taken its place. Walter proudly told us that the doors are the same ones we walked through for the first time nearly 30 years ago.

But the Friday highlight was finally getting to finally meet Steve Wiebe, the other half of The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters -- the "good guy" who'd gone up against Billy Mitchell. I saw Steve Sanders talking to Wiebe, so I walked up next to Sanders and said, "Steve, are you going to introduce me to your friend?"

"Steve," he said to Wiebe, "have you met Ben Gold yet?"

Wiebe extended his hand and said, "Ben Gold, the legend." I was, to be honest, kind of embarrassed -- his notoriety is far beyond anything I ever achieved.

I said, "Steve Wiebe, the superstar!" We shook hands.

Steve's made a nice name for himself ever since King of Kong debuted. Even though I have many issues with the movie, I'll admit: The guy's a class act. Later in the day, we all hopped on a bus headed to a reception at a local country club. On the way, I asked him how he's been able to convert his fame into, you know, paid gigs -- something I was never able to do, which is a big part of why I walked away. He said he's been invited a few times to some gaming events, but he's still a science teacher -- art-house fame doesn't pay the bills.

There was a Italian film crew there doing a 12-hour doc about computing. Two hours of it will be devoted to gaming. They asked me some questions, and I told them if they needed anyone to show up for the premiere, I'd be happy to attend. As I was talking, in my best broken Italian, I noticed Steve had gone over to Billy's table. They had a friendly chat for 10 minutes or so, each second documented by every camera in the place.

I ran into Triforce, a top console gamer who, just this weekend, set a Tetris Party Deluxe world record. We spoke about the legacy of gaming and connecting us old-school arcade pioneers with the console junkies and PC players -- that too is what this weekend's about, finding room in the future for those of us From The Past.

And the past is around every corner here -- that's what Saturday was all about.

It began with us re-creating that day in 1982 when LIFE magazine came to town and took That Picture -- what more than one person's called the video-gaming Sgt. Pepper's album cover. City officials blocked off Main Street for the occasion. At first it was just the originals: Billy Mitchell, Mark Robichek, Steve Sanders, Matt Brass, Joel West, myself -- and even one of the original cheerleaders, Tracy Groy. Then we began to add players from the era who hadn't been in the shot. Then, finally, it was a free-for-all -- general public more than welcome.

That wasn't all -- after we re-took the photo, they wanted us to get on a stage and talk about that day. We took questions. Billy, the group's historian, offered many of the answers. I'd start answering, then he'd follow up: "Ben, let me remind of why we were doing ...," and then he'd recount some crazy story of us traveling around the country together in 1983.

We watched 20 minutes of footage of us taken back in '82 and '83, some of which I've never seen. The original videographer is actually doing his own documentary. All the video-game docs -- Frag, King of Kong, Chasing Ghosts -- have used his footage from 1982. Unfortunately, he actually had eight hours of footage from the LIFE shoot and the That's Incredible! qualifying competition. But he needed the tapes -- they were expensive back then. So he taped over all but an hour's worth of footage. What I wouldn't do to recover those memories.

But in some ways, Saturday was like every yesterday from 1983: Before the hall of fame induction ceremony, there was Billy, one more time, calling a press conference to announce that he'd set two world records last Saturday. In typical Billy Mitchell fashion, he walked into an arcade with two Twin Galaxies referees an a video set-up to show off his achievement: He'd scored 1,100 points above the current Donkey Kong record ... only to then commit virtual suicide. Sure, he said, he could have added 70,000 more points before hitting the kill screen, but, of course, his signature style is about simply beating the score and not putting it out of reach. More impressive: He then put a quarter in the Donkey Kong Junior machine and proceeded to set a world record there too.

Wiebe missed the first part of the press conference but came in toward the end and watched the video. At which point things got interesting.

Because if you've seen Chasing Ghosts or King of Kong, you know who Roy Schildt is: "Mr. Awesome." I'd never met the guy -- he certainly wasn't part of our group, and he wasn't invited to the weekend's festivities. He's vulgar and mean with a grudge against Billy and Walter -- he's obsessed with some score he'd racked up in 1985! The man I saw this weekend hardly looked awesome -- he'd feeble now, walks with a cane.

But still he rages against the machine and the man who plays it: He started yelling about Billy's score, kept insisting he'd cheated. He was asked to leave. I approached him, curious: "Why are you so obsessed with the past? We're talking video game high scores. This is not life and death. We are here to have fun and celebrate." He wasn't in the mood. He rambled on about Billy, about the past, about old grudges only he remembers. Time to move on. For all of us.

And so, around the same time a teary Emmitt Smith was being ushered into the hall of fame in Canton, so too were we being brought home to Ottumwa -- the first class of the International Video Game Hall of Fame.

The ceremony itself was simple. Some of us had a lot to say -- Billy, for instance, spoke about his family. Others said only "thank you." I spoke for a few minutes about the brotherhood of the early '80s; I said a few words about how Walter was able to bring us all together. Ironically, all the media had left by then -- they'd been interested in the fact Ottumwa was hosting the first-ever video game hall of fame, but forgot to stick around for the actual ceremony. And so maybe two, three cameras recorded the event.

Afterward, I said my goodbyes to my old friends. Billy has a policy of bringing posters and cases of his famous hot sauce to the events. He doesn't sell the stuff, but instead gives out one bottle per person. But he had some leftover -- I got a case. My wife'll be happy. Maybe we can give away a few bottles. I'll see what I can do.

Steve Sanders and his son and I had dinner -- and we realized that in the 30 years we've known each other, this was the first time we actually sat down to a dinner. We then went to grab a drink with Wiebe and Fatal1ty, the guy. who's managed to make a living playing video games. As it happens, Fatal1ty is coming to Dallas this week -- he'll be among the estimated 8,000 on hand for QuakeCon 2010 at the Anatole starting Thursday.

"You are living the lifestyle that Ben, Billy and I dreamed of," Sanders told him. "Traveling the world, meeting enthusiastic players and making a secure living in this industry." I'm so glad he attended the hall of fame event. He understands both the worlds of modern professional gaming and the heritage of the old arcade games -- maybe it's time to explain that to everyone else. As I sit here in Des Moines airport, waiting for my plane to take off, I'm encouraged by the weekend's event -- maybe it wasn't the end of our story after all, but the start of something special. Ottumwa wants to be the Video Game Capital of the World again -- no reason why it couldn't.

Tomorrow I will be returning to my job as a sales rep. I will need to review reports and follow up on leads and get people on the phone to attract new business. If you happen to receive a phone call, "Hi, this Ben with Paychex, One Source Solutions. Did I catch you in the middle of something or do you have a quick minute?," well, please don't hang the phone up on me. Maybe I'll tell you about the time I cracked Q*Bert.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky