Ground Zero

Tucked-in near downtown Portland is a lawless saloon where thin-skinned nerds do battle with demon lords, alien hordes, mini-bosses, final bosses, and routinely try and save universes, quarters and skill permitting. This is the video arcade Ground Kontrol, the roughest arcade in town. They specialize in the white-knuckle “golden era” of video games. This era can be summarized as:

Grand Masters of The Button Mash

Humans of a certain age raised with these machines know the solid-state of anxiety and steady dripping of sweat that come with the territory. Our story begins at this arcade.

Spurs on the Ground

The Sound of the Ground


Sometimes folks take notice of other folks.

She entered Ground Kontrol alone, striding with the air of one returning to a familiar home after years on the road. She scrutinized the dimly lit parlor, the light trailing in around her feet, afraid to greet her too boldly. It felt like a lifetime had gone by, she thought. Musta been a lifetime, the way folks die ’round here.

Weak, grey daylight filtered into the crowd, suggesting silence like a vegan suggests their friends eat more beets. A slow hush worked it’s way through the room. Two Street Fighting men, Ryu and M. Bison, fell silent. Fathers and sons cast their eyes downward as an entire arcade of quarters were lost to a wave of “game-overs”. The bartenders whispered to one another, their heads and eyes tracking her. Approaching the bar, she took water and a seat.

“Can I get you anything else to drink?” Asked the nervous bartender. She was wearing a Hocus Pocus T-shirt.

“No.” she responded, her voice gravelly with the weight, friction, and balance of a hard life of lost-lives and 1-ups. “I’m just waiting for a game to open up.”

She moved her head toward Bubble Bobble, indicating.

“Yes, of course, of course, Gail.” She said, backing away quietly.

Bubble Bobble is a where kings are forged and hearts are broken. It’s a game where dreams find purchase in the lofty peaks of those who can ascend. It’s a game where folks control a dinosaur and blow bubbles to trap robots and whales. Additional points are awarded for trapping and popping the enemies in greater numbers.

Gail stared steadily into her water. In her periphery, she saw a crowd had gathered. Like an axe had fallen, they split down the middle, revealing a path to approach her trusty machine. She tipped an imaginary hat at the bartender, leaving her a fifty dollar bill.

“Well.” she said quietly, rising from her stool.

She approached the machine, resting a hand on the the top like she was soothing a horse. A rat-faced kid backed away from the console.

“I’m, I’m s-s-sorry.” he said, stumbling over his words. “We didn’t know you was back.”

“It’s fine.” Gail said. “It ain’t no big deal; who knows how long this cowboy’ll stick around anyhow.”

She paused, sensing the crowd’s anxiety.

“I’m just here for one round. One quarter.” she said, pulling a single quarter from her pocket.

“She only plays with quarters from 1986, I heard.” Said a young kid who’s dust-bowl mustache did not look long for this world.

The surrounding machines of the arcade rattled and played their mechanical themes as she turned, stepping toward Bubble Bobble. No one spoke. She rested her right hand on the green, bulbous joystick, testing out the two buttons with her left hand.

“I never was one for ceremony.” she said, trailing off.

She lowered the quarter to the player one coin slot, which had gone dark from over-use. A deep breath in, the clack of the coin entering the machine. A rough hand hovered over the start button only briefly before initiating the game.

Player One Start

They say a musician forms a kind of mutual bond with her instrument, allowing it to be an extension of their body. A sort of quiet came over her, at last, holding the joystick with the familiarity of an old friend’s hand. There was a unifying bond between joystick and player. The crowd stared dumbly as she moved the Bubble Dragon, Bub, around the first several stages of the game with nothing beyond reflex and impulse. She easily accrued a perfect score as the opening stages blew by. More people began to add to the crowd, text-messages were being fired off, hushed conversations cropped up, and the front door jangled over-and-over as more folks filtered in to catch a glimpse of Gail.

By level 9, she had collected most of the letters needed for the bonus round and had several candy-upgrades to her bubble speed and frequency. She was riding at a full gallop, wind blowing through her rusty hair. She looked like something else.

The Best Laid Plans

The pace and zen she had risen to dazzled the crowd. But with a head in the clouds, she lost sight of the ground. She overlooked the change to her jumping physics when she picked up a speed power-up. She read the game wrong. She lost a life on level 12 to a hooded-witch rolling a molten boulder.

The murmurs start to develop almost immediately.

“…not going to get the high score?”

“Maybe she’s lost her touch.”

The people were losing faith. The high-score was still a solid 100,000 points away, and she had two lives left to live. She tried to rally. But on the next level, she was slow to start, and the “Hurry Up!” warning appeared on the screen, sending the crowd into a frenzy. The “Hurry Up” is the the death knell for the gamer. It’s a sign that control of the ship has been lost, that the engine is on fire, the wing has snapped off, and a tailspin has begun. If a stage is incomplete after 90 seconds, the game music doubles in tempo, and after 30 seconds, if the level is still incomplete, an evil whale is generated to seek and kill Bub. He cannot be stopped.

She hustled through the level, just trying to wrap it up, forgoing the fancy footwork she demonstrated in previous skirmishes. A collective rise of heart rate circulated in the arcade. The levels were increasingly circuitous, enemies were more numerous, faster, and less predictable, and paths to victory were no longer clear.Her fingers tightened, her stance became less fluid.

On level 15, she misjudged the trajectory of a robot, colliding with it. Her error stripped her to her last life. She had secured my place on the high-score board, for sure, but the top-slot was still thousands of points away.

“Mommy, maybe there’s no God.” said a little girl, clutching her mom’s dress.

There was a focusing.
There was a stilling of water.
There was presence.

Sometimes, all one can do is seek a higher power. She reached level 19, a level she’d played hundreds of times. In life, the element of “play” is whittled away through the carving out of patterns. The world is no longer a field to run in without direction, it’s a ditch that we are funneled through. A cowboy has to play.

Gail rejected her normal approach, which would be allow the whales to come one by one, slowly securing a safe victory. A lightning-bolt bubble bobbed overhead, but accessing it would leave her vulnerable, and the odds of the screen-cleaving bolt lining up with even one whale was unlikely. But fuck it if a lightning bolt isn’t a way more radical and awesome weapon, so she leapt out from her safe corner.

People immediately saw this amateur move. It was a total loss of command of the game and folks began to gather up and put on their coats, a lamentable signal of the loss of faith.

As Bub’s spine popped the bubble, the longitudinal bolt was sent outward, and it made contact with the first of six whales. At the sound of collision, the crowd went quiet, coats half-on, half-off the baffled bodies. In the once rowdy and rough arcade, a shared moment of zen bloomed in the dark as the bolt connected six dots, reflected in hundreds of eyes. The stage was completely leveled.

An arcade don’t get no quieter. The anticipation coulda kept a zeppelin afloat. The crowd waited to see where the bonus points of their discarded bodies would land. If the loot was near Bub, a high-score was assured. If not, she would automatically be whisked away to the next level without the reward for her high-stakes maneuver.

Like the first snow of the winter the hopeful faces watched the dancing jewels flutter about, deciding where to take their rest. In a moment that only has equal measure in the bible, all the loot pooled just over Bub’s head, easily accessible. She casually tapped the jump button, just before the level ended. The screen blurred just a bit with the impact of the cheering crowd. Cries of joy rose up, celebrations and sighs of relief rose echoed off the pinball machines upstairs. Camera flashes in the dim joint were like galaxies of hope being born. Fathers beamed, strangers found themselves hugging and laughing.

Lasso the Moon

The next four levels were victory laps of showboating. She continued her Bubble Bobble stunt-pilotry of multi-tier bubble pops, needless and over-the-top use of fire-balloons, and signing autographs with one hand as she continued to steamroll the levels with her left hand. Drinks flowed thoroughly, and laughter worked it’s way through every little crack in the walls.

Eventually, her final life was lost to a helicopter bad-guy who turned rogue without warning. She was taken to the high-score screen and chants of “Gail! Gail” rose up as she entered her name, easily knocking out the previous first-place guardian. “GAL” had it locked up.

The crowd cried out for another round, but Gail brought one quarter for a reason.

She turned to face the crowd.

“I think we’ve had enough for today, friends.”

The red mists began to form in their eyes. They looked to her to dispel the un-coming weather of their hearts. Their eyes reflect the light within, and the light of the arcade. She wasn’t one for ceremony.

“I’m not one for ceremony.” she said. “I’m leaving now.”

“But I’ll always be around. I’ll be ever’where — wherever you look. Wherever they’s a guy button-mashing in Street Fighter Turbo, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ Mario Brothers 3 without using the whistle, I’ll be there. If y’all knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they lose they last quarter,’ — I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they they on their last level on Super Ghouls and Ghosts. An’ when our folks stop using cheats an’ just learn the danged combos— why, I’ll be there. See?”

She tipped an imaginary hat at us, walked through the parted people, and out to door to wherever folks like Gail go.

I didn’t see her after that. I heard she found some place in the mountains, and she don’t even play games anymore. Seems like a shame to me, to keep a thing like that all squirreled away, but I guess it ain’t a party if it happens every night, huh?


One thought on “The Weight of One-Ups

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