Did you ever hear about Polybius?
It was an urban legend that used to travel the World Wide Web back when it wasn't all that world-wide and consisted almost entirely of discussion boards.
Basically the idea was that this strange arcade game, "Polybius", started showing up in arcades. Kids checked it out, its vector graphics and quiz sections kind of an odd mix, and eventually anyone who played it for any length of time started suffering side-effects.
An inability to be sad. That one sticks in my memory the most.
I'm not so sure it's just an urban legend.
When I used to live in New York in the 1980s, my Mom and I would make routine trips to the South Hills Mall in Dutchess County. While she went shopping, I'd get dropped off at the Dream Machine arcade.
It was everything you'd imagine. Loud music mingling with chimes and electronic gunfire from a hundred noisy, obnoxious arcade cabinets all begging for your attention and your money.
I was always more of a Skee-Ball kid. Well, I mean I'd played video games, I HAD a Nintendo. Still, something about rolling a ball for the promised reward of that boom box (10,000 tickets) or radio controlled car (25,000 tickets) always pulled me to that row of miniature bowling alleys.
I wasn't really GOOD at it, though I rarely rolled zeroes.
The last time I went to Dream Machine, a friend of mine from school had come along for the trip. Nicolas. He and I shared a lot of common interests, though we didn't realize EVERY kid our age did. Popular cartoons, toys, and yes, games.
We'd met when I first came to that school... He greeted me on the playground with a hearty pat on the back and a "How you doing?"
Soon after, I found out he'd had a bunch of wild berries from the school grounds in his hand. My parents made his parents pay for the shirt after the stain wouldn't come out. It had been brand new, you know... So I'd make a good impression and all.
So yeah, Nicolas was kind of a dick. I don't even know how we became friends, but eventually it happened.
As we went into the arcade together, he turned to me and held out his hand.
"What?" I studied his open palm.
"Quarters. Your mom said we're supposed to share."
She had given me a handful in the car, but I hadn't heard her say that. Still, I figured he wouldn't lie about something like that, so I handed over half.
With that, he was gone... Into the crowd of strange kids I didn't know.
As you already figured out, we WEREN'T supposed to share. Looking back, I figure his parents thought that if they had to pay for my shirt, why should he have to pay for games when we were the ones taking him out?
Seems like a hell of a thing to tell your kid, to lie if he wanted any coins, but hey.
Playing a game was 25 cents, if you can believe it. Theoretically, if you had some serious mojo, you could beat an entire game or rack up skee-ball tickets for a single coin. 50 cent games were the really fantastic ones, but I ignored them out of principle.
So I rolled, and I collected tickets. Game after game.
When I was almost finished - sooner than I should, since I was down half my gaming allowance - these other two kids approached.
"Yo, can I get a roll?" The larger of the two kids asked. He was still smaller than me, but he was at least a head taller than the other kid who was following.
I didn't want to say yes, but I did.
He rolled one ball up the track.
"My brother, too," the bigger little kid gestured to the smaller little kid. It was a way of saying, hey, it's only fair to include him.
The kid rolls, too.
"One more," the bigger little kid doesn't even wait for me to agree before he rolls another.
His little brother doesn't even ask before he does the same.
And that was it. I had no more rolls and no more quarters.
I went to collect the string of tickets, but the big brother beat me to it.
"I rolled some of these."
"But it was MY quarter."
He pulled off a couple tickets and they both disappeared into the crowd, dropping the rest on the floor for me scoop up.
Needless to say, I was getting very angry. Very sad. There's nothing quite like being alone in a crowd, you know?
I tried to find Nicolas, but had no luck. Either he was walking around the arcade too and I kept missing him, or he'd just left the arcade and went to buy ice cream with the quarters I "shared" with him.
I don't know how I even managed to hear it over the din.
"PLEASE PRESS START"
"PLEASE PRESS START"
It was a loop of the same sing-song phrase, uttered by some deep mechanical voice that sounded like Darth Vader or Worf or some sort of Sci-Fi tough guy.
I found the source of the voice, and saw it belonged to a jet black arcade cabinet in the back corner of the place, right by a door that read "OFFICE".
The sides of the cabinet, or at least the one I could see since it wasn't against a wall, displayed a typical overdone airbrush-like painting. It was a kid, like me, but dressed in some sort of youth scout outfit. His clothes were torn, and he had a look of resolve on his face. He held a crossbow as strange, alien skeletons swarmed from tombstones behind him.
The name above the machine's blinding, strobing screen read "SKULL & CROSSBOW".
I focused on the screen.
It was black, like the cabinet, except for the source of the brilliant flashes. It was the same phrase the machine kept spouting, its heavy bass pulsing through me in waves...
"PLEASE PRESS START"
"PLEASE PRESS START"
"PLEASE PRESS START"
I watched it for a few seconds, then looked around. Someone, somewhere, had put a quarter in and left... or they had gotten a free game and didn't know it.
This wasn't the first time I'd seen this happen, and I always DREADED it would happen to me - that I'd miss the free game I'd earned.
Nobody was around.
The voice from the machine, seemingly frustrated, became more insistent as if time was running out.
"PLEASE PRESS START - PLEASE PRESS START - PLEASE PRESS START"
I lined myself up in front of the controls, a simple joystick and a couple red buttons... and I pressed start.
Instantly, an elongated, pointy-headed skull filled the screen. Its hollow eyes staring directly at my face.
It was the briefest moment, and my mind barely registered it, but it WAS there.
The game shook me with another heavy bass exclamation as the screen went completely black as quickly as the skull had appeared.
I thought about stopping right then. There was no short supply of gory monster-themed games in the arcade, and I'd never chosen to play any of them. I'd seen one called "Chiller" that made you shoot people and objects just to torture them.
It was filled with blood and violence and torture... I had nightmares about it on and off for weeks after I'd seen it - and I was only watching someone ELSE play. I couldn't leave because I was surrounded by a half-circle of other kids who were laughing and cheering every vomit-inducing scene.
In the end, however, the need to make sure the game wasn't "wasted" overruled my fears about its content.
The words I saw on the screen seemed odd. The only time I'd heard "phase" was on Star Trek. You know, "Phaser", whatever that meant.
Before I could think about it too much, I was under attack. Onscreen, that is. My character, the aforementioned "youth scout", was at the bottom of the screen. At the top, the sprite of an elongated, pointy skull followed by a series of rib cages. The first rib cage had skeletal arms, and at the end of this bone monstrosity was a pelvis with skeletal legs.
Relief washed over me. It was a sequel to or clone of "Centipede", and I'd played that hundreds of times on my cousin's old Atari. He'd given it to me as soon as he noticed girls.
The setting was a graveyard. Tombstones blocked my arrows, but would crumble with each hit. There were also several open graves that didn't seem to do anything. They certainly didn't stop or slow the crazy skeleton that was turning and hurrying downward.
Each arrow fired gave a satisfying "THRUMMM" of the bowstring and made a nice "KRAKK" when it hit a stone. However, when the big skeleton was hit, it would make this awful screech. The sound was distorted by the speakers or something. It was amped up too loud and had too high a pitch to be smoothly projected.
It sounded like a cassette tape being eaten by the player. This drawn out and shrill "EEIIIAAAAAAAHH".
I fired arrows willy-nilly, just getting a feel for the controls and such. Since it seemed to be the first level, or at least an early one, I dispatched the skeletal thing with relative ease.
The screen went black again, with these words in white:
"OAD IS FIGHTING MAD NOW!"
Oad? Must be the skeleton thing. Oad... Like Toad or Odor. Seemed fitting.
I was very ready for it to increase in difficulty. This was only to be expected.
As I'd thought, Oad moved faster now, whipping his head around and following with his snake-like "body" in rapid order. Every time I blew off his head, it would just move back and replace one of the ribcages. If I blew off any other part of him, he'd grow shorter at the end.
So it seemed like targeting his head was a good idea, because it essentially set him back a bit while shortening his rear end did little good.
I fired rapidly. Took out his head when I could, and the rest of him when I didn't have that prime opportunity.
Then Oad did something weird.
He stopped. Just froze and let me pick off his ribs.
He opened his jaws and coughed up a bone with one sharpened end pointed right at my character. It descended so quickly that I could barely move out of the way in time.
The worst part was that the bone spear was belched forth with the most disturbing sound yet, this puke-like "HUAAHH" that made me feel sick to my stomach. The heavy bass of this game didn't help, thrusting the gross audio straight into the core of my body.
It was a bit harder to beat this level, as you'd assume with any "Phase Two". Still, I was triumphant in spite of how close Oad had come to the bottom of the screen - which surely meant a loss.
The screen went black.
"WATCH YOUR STEP."
The game started again, and nothing seemed different. Oad didn't move any faster, and while he still barfed the occasional spear it wasn't shaping up to be very difficult.
I'd say I had about half of his twisted, grim little body gone before anything changed.
Then, out of the open graves...
Little skeletons crawled out periodically and continued to crawl through the graveyard, all the way to the bottom in a straight line.
I specifically remember that the skeletons were generally the same size, but had small variations in height and the like. Some had little bits of rotten clothes, while others were missing limbs or even heads.
No two were alike, which seemed very ambitious for an arcade game at a time when it was common to battle hundreds of identical thugs.
Between watching Oad, keeping track of the crawlers, and avoiding the damned bone spears Oad endlessly spewed at me, I was overwhelmed.
One of the crawlers touched me... touched the sprite, I mean... and I was dead.
He was dead.
My heart sank, but it always did whenever I lost a game like this. It was nothing to get THAT upset about, but you know that feels.
"LIFE 2 OF 3"
The screen drew me back in again, informing me that I'd only lost one of three lives the quarter had paid for.
I don't know why it had slipped my mind, that games rarely ended after one try, but I'd completely bought into the idea that if I died, if the character died, that was it.Death was final. At least that's how I'd been thinking.
I barely got my hands back on the controls before the round started over again. This time I focused on killing the crawlers the second their little heads poked out over the soil. Destroying Oad's body took a back seat the second I saw a crawler stirring.
Fire, fire, fire, fire - crawler! take it out - fire, fire, fire, fire.
I was getting into the groove of it, now, and all I heard was the sound of the machine. The music that filled the place... all the clicks and hoots of the other games... that was all gone, and all I remember hearing was the strange off-kilter music of Skull & Crossbow.
Every thrum, every thwak, every shriek of the villain filled my ears. I wanted to hear his speaker-rattling death scream forever.
Die, Oad. Die, and die, and die, and die. Keep dying! I hate you and I want to beat your game. I want you to cry about it, because you're disgusting!
"I DON'T LIKE YOU EITHER."
My heart raced. My jaw dropped. I'd beaten the level, and THAT was the next message to great me. In a childlike way, I reasoned that it couldn't have been specifically saying that to ME, because I'd only THOUGHT how much I hated Oad. I hadn't said anything, so it clearly couldn't have heard me.
This was it - the final level. It seemed odd that the game was so short, but...
"THERE you are."
Nicolas called out to me, as if I had been hiding instead of searching the whole place for him. He was carrying a shopping bag from a comic store.
"Not now!" I snapped.
"What're you playing? ... Skull & Crossbow?" he said the game's name as if it were an insult. The same way a kid would say "You play Barbies?!"
"What? Is it good?"
"Stop it! I'm on the last level. Be quiet!"
Nicolas came up next to me, stared into the screen, and started to push me out of the way.
"HEY! HEY!" I screamed as loud as I could.
"C'mon, give me a turn."
"No!!!" I mustered everything within me and boomed out the most threatening sound I could manage, "NO."
Nicolas stepped away.
I didn't reply. I was busy killing Oad and his family.
"BABY," he repeated, "FINE, BABY."
He wasn't getting a response from me. Not now, not when I was so close to winning this game. I'd never actually beaten an arcade game before, and never would after.
Next thing I knew, I was on the ground.
Nicolas had shoved me, and I didn't even know what was happening until I was on the rock-hard red carpet. Old soda and grime stuck to my arms as I lay sideways on the floor.
I - my character - died again.
Without me there to guide the little scout and tell him where to fire, he just stood there... frozen... and Oad slithered down, bones rattling, claws clacking. The game made an awful sound... the perfect likeness of a little boy screaming as he was slowly eaten alive.
The tearing of flesh, the spurting of blood, the gurgle from the boy's throat after he couldn't scream anymore... it was all there.
"Coooool!" Nicolas took my place at the controls as I rolled over and got to my feet.
"Stop it right now!" I screamed.
"Drop dead," Nicolas replied cooly, "It's my turn now."
I tried to push him away from the game, shove him down like he'd done to me, but I was... weak... my hands were shaking, my head and eyes were so hot, and I could barely stand much less force an able-bodied kid out of that space.
Nicolas jerked the controls, mashed the buttons hard with his palm. He didn't know how to play at all, wasn't in the swing of it, and he was starting on the hardest level!
"Die, die, die, die," he chanted excitedly, "This is cool. I'm playing it out, you can get next."
"I don't have any quarters!" I whined, now basically crumpled in a heap and grasping at his knee as if I could pull it from under him.
"Oh. Darn." He kept playing, eyes on the screen.
I started to build up my strength, to attempt one final lunge at my former friend, but before I could get to that point, that sound was projected from the cabinet once again.
A scream, eating, a gurgle of air bubbling through blood.
"HA HA HA HA HA"
The game sounded pretty happy about it.
"Oh, well. That was too hard. This game sucks."
Nicolas didn't get it. Oad needed to die, and I was just about to kill him.
He walked around the arcade cabinet and peered into the half inch of space between the back of the machine and the wall. Then, he tried to move it.
"What are you doing?" I was on my feet again, barely, and the last thing I wanted at this point was for this idiot to get us into trouble.
"If you unplug these..." Nicolas tried to squeeze his hand behind the machine, but it wouldn't fit, "They give you free games, sometimes."
I was onboard now. Anything to finish what I'd started.
Without a second thought, I was beside Nicolas, trying to pull the cabinet away from the wall just enough to find the plug and remove it. The two of us jostled and rocked the heavy machine until we slid it away from the wall a couple feet.
Nicolas looked behind the machine again and froze.
"What?" I was getting frustrated. I wanted another free game.
"H-help..." Nicolas stammered.
I stormed over close to him and looked over his shoulder.
The arcade cabinet, the Skull & Crossbow game, it had no back. There was just an open space, into infinite darkness. There, at the threshold of this impossible void, was the elongated skull, the rib cage, the skeletal arms and taloned hands.
Here lived Oad.
Behind him an endless string of ribs and vertebrae lead in a spiral into absolute darkness.
It seized Nicolas in its hands. He let out a soft cry, a whimper, and it retracted into the darkness with him.
The cabinet, of its own volition, slammed back against the wall like a door caught by the wind.
Slowly, unthinking, I backed away.
After a moment of complete silence, the echoing din of the arcade returned to me. I could hear it all, the music, the games, the other kids... and I heard Skull & Crossbow once again singing its song...
"PLEASE PRESS START"
"PLEASE PRESS START"
"PLEASE PRESS START"
"PLEASE PRESS START"
When I stopped staring at the back of the machine, because my eyes burned and not due to any regaining of sense, I turned my gaze to the screen, where Oad rested at the top of the empty graveyard.
I swear he had an extra set of ribs.