VIDEOVIEW: Journey Escape Data Age
THE COMING OF ARCADE ERIC
BY MARK S. MURLEY
MONDAY, 2:05 p.m.
Somewhere, indelibly hewn in stone, reads one of the great truisms: Know your limitations. Amen.
When the Hi-Res review editor tossed Data Age's Journey-Escape VCS cartridge across his desk, I was already formulating an angle to duck the assignment. The first rock group/arcade game fusion called for a different sort of reviewer. After all, the unpleasant facts had to be faced: At age twenty eight, I was beginning to feel that my rockin' days were rolling into the past.
A cursory examination of the game instructions confirmed my decision: Avoid groupies? Contact the Mighty Manager? And what was that business with the money? Sheesh. Whatever happened to plain ol' descending invaders?
Luckily, every puzzle has a solution. A single thought crackled through my mind like a neon beer sign: Find Arcade Eric.
Arcade Eric was half human and half wired, all mixmastered into an "Intense" teenage concoction and poured into Levi's, flip-flops and a catsup-specked AC/DC 1982 World Tour jersey. I discovered him one night at Arnold's Atomic Arcade, one of the local video hangouts; he had just passed the hundred-thousand mark on "Stargate" (ordinarily, no big deal, except that Arcade Eric used only the toes on his left foot).
TUESDAY, 7:51 p.m.
My 19-inch Hitachi color television screen was still glistening from a fast windex job, when a single rap at the front door announced that Arcade Eric, "have-thumb-will-travel," had arrived.
"I'm ready for some serious playing," he said without preamble as he brushed past me and plopped down in front of the Hitachi.
"Drink?" I offered. "Coke, root beer, Perrier?"
"No, man," he said dourly, "just a joystick. And a couple of 'AA' batteries for my Walkman."
Inwardly, I smiled. I'd definitely found the right guy for the job.
Simply put, Arcade Eric (no one knew his real name) was the Killer Elite of all things video. No one, but no one, had ever seen Arcade Eric lose an electronic game, be it on a home computer, a VCS machine, an arcade upright or a handheld.
But after Qix had been kicked, Defender defeated, and Jungle Hunt junked, Arcade Eric needed new challenges and more cash.
That's where I came in. He played, I paid. Strictly business. He earned a little change, and I got fodder for my reviews. Nice.
Arcade Eric stared intently at the blank but squeeky-clean television screen while I performed a battery-otomy on an old Polaroid camera. He installed the "AA's" in his Walkman and I hooked up the VCS. Pulling a warped spiral-bound pad from his jeans, he nodded: he was set.
I tucked the Journey-Escape cartridge firmly in place, toggled the power and the blank screen surged to life. I handed the joystick to my guest and settled into my favorite chair--a plaid recliner.
"Yeah!!!" exclaimed Arcade Eric, pointing at the screen and showing the first vestige of actual emotion since his arrival. "It's the Scarab ship from the Escape album!"
On the screen, all I could make out was a lop-sided figure-eight something moving diagonally against a backdrop of winking stars.
Arcade Eric tilted his head to match the angle of the Scarab ship. "Not baaad," he murmured, scribbling onto the small, worn out pad. "And check out that music . . . it's incredible!"
"That's your stereo," I corrected. I leaned over and pressed the STOP key on his walkman.
He looked perplexed for a moment and then grinned, revealing some orthodontia that sparkled like a chrome bumper on a '62 Cadillac.
"Man, I was wondering about that great separation. Anyway, let's have a view at the instructions." He shook the game package. A small pamphlet floated onto the carpet. For the next minute or so, Arcade Eric poured over the fold-out instruction sheet.
After digesting the information, he explained the scenario in his own colorful style.
"Aw, yeah," he said almost reverently, pulling his headphones down around his neck. "Here's what's goin' down. You gotta' lead all five guys in the band past reams of groupies, photographers, promoters and get'em to their Scarab Escape Vehicle before time runs out. Plus you gotta' protect 50,000 buckolas from all of those weirdos."
"Protect money?" I questioned. "How does that work?"
Arcade Eric traced a finger across the instruction sheet, searching. "Simple," he replied, tapping the relevant paragraph. "All of these guys, the groupies, promoters, photographers -- even the 'good guys' like the roadies and the Mighty Manager scroll downward from the top of the screen. If your guy touches a 'pesky character,' as the instructions call 'em, bucks are deducted from your initial stash. But if you move through these freaks quickly enough, you'll make it to the Scarab Escape Vehicle...
"The S.E.V.," I reasoned.
"No, man, the Scarab Escape Vehicle. Pay attention, willya'? Once you get to the Scarab Escape Vehicle, the next band member gets a crack at it. If all five dudes make it, you win. If even one doesn't make it in time, bad news -- the next concert's been missed and the game's blown."
Arcade Eric tossed the game instructions over his left shoulder and flicked the reset switch on the VCS. Instantly the figure-eight something and star field yielded to a carnival of figures and faces drifting toward, and disappearing at, the bottom of the screen. Also at the bottom of the screen was a pretty solid -- if totally anonymous -- representation of one of the journey band members. Arcade Eric summoned all of his playing savvy and focused it at the screen.
"Let's go for it." He punched the red START button on the joystick.
Instantly, the musical score shifted and the anonymous band member sprang to life, his arms swinging wildly and his feet working against the tide of strange objects that streamed his way. Weird hearts with legs sprinted into the scene; mustachioed promoters with darting eyes floated down from the blackness and vanished; bars of pulsing flashbulbs winked on and off; solid walls--stage barriers--cleared swaths a full third the size of the screen. In fact, one was bearing down on the anonymous journeyman at this very moment. I yelled for him to watch out.
Nonplussed, Arcade Eric produced his best Chef Tell impression. "No problem, no problem."
With a deft push-pull on the joystick the sprinting band member dropped back, cut hard to the left and bypassed the stage barrier in a wink. The flow of objects continued as did the sounds of play.
"Well," I asked, mopping perspiration from my forehead with the back of my hand, "what do you think?"
"Sssshh. Waitaminit. I think the Scarab Escape Vehicle is about to come up." Sure enough, a miniaturized version of the figure-eight something appeared just to the right of center screen. Arcade Eric slapped the joystick; in response, the journeyman followed suit. The screen erupted, flashed. A second or two later, the scrolling objects reappeared, this time their movements appearing more erratic than before.
"Ah, ha," I guessed with growing interest. "You touched the Scarab Escape Vehicle "
"--and now I've got to beat the buck buzzards with the other four journey dudes. Very good, Sherlock."
Arcade Eric poked the start button again and returned to the challenge of dodging the old dangers that were now moving in new patterns. About twenty seconds into the game, the grinning visage of a new but somehow familiar object caught my attention.
"Did you see it?" I shouted, jumping from my chair and running over to the screen for a closer look. "I'd know that mug anywhere -- it was the Kool-Aid pitcher! "
Arcade Eric stared at the screen, working the joystick handle to and fro. With condescension bubbling from his lips he said, "Nah ... that was the Mighty Manager. Check the docs, man."
Sure enough, there it was, right under the Helpful Characters section. Seems that by touching the Mighty Manager a journey band member can dash through the crowd full tilt straight to the waiting S.E.V.--er, Scarab Escape Vehicle, that is. Sort of a supercharge against the riff-raff.
"Kind of a lightweight game," Arcade Eric observed as he penciled something onto his note pad with a free hand. "But then again, I'm such a hotshot." He handed me the joystick and tapped the START button. "You try it, man."
Before I could even get my bearings, a brace of groupies had descended on my hapless band member, forcing him down to the bottom of the screen. (This is kid stuff?!) In direct response, my "money meter" at the top of the screen took a nosedive.
With a motion that would've driven Rudolf Nureyev nuts with jealousy, I sidestepped their advances and returned to my mission.
Arcade Eric shrugged, "Luck."
No way. I had the hang of it now. Stay as close as possible to the top of the screen (for maximum speed), but not so close as to blunder into everything that pops up. Where's that cussed Scarab Escape Vehicle? Only ten seconds left ... five ... three ... one. Abruptly, my turn was over.
"That's it, Jack," Arcade Eric sniggered callously. You took too long -- you blew it." He snatched the joystick from my sweaty hand. "Now, watch how a real man plays."
True to his boast, all five band members were led to their objective in what must have been record time. The ultimate reward was duly bestowed: a reprise of the opening scene of the S.E.V. (I'll call it that if I want to) warping its way through the galaxy.
"Well, that's that. Total time to conquer this game--" he checked his watch--"seven minutes, thirty-seven seconds."
TUESDAY, 7:59 p.m.
Arcade Eric jotted down a few final notes and headed for the door. I pressed payment into his outstretched palm -- a bag of tokens good at Arnold's Atomic Arcade. He tore a page from his note pad and handed it to me.
"Well, man. It's like journey sez in one of their tunes, 'some will lose."
"What do you mean 'some will lose'?" I asked. Behind me the mantle clock chimed eight times. "You won, didn't you?"
He smiled as he snapped his headphones on and stepped into the night. "Yeah, but I didn't put down good bread to buy the game."
Mark S. Murley writes documentation and ad copy for Adventure International. Among his credits are the story lines for Preppie! I and Preppie! II.