Video games have been through ups and downs, but the one constant is that there is always someone better than you at the game you're playing. Unless you were one of the guys in this film. These players were at the top of their game during the arcade craze, and Chasing Ghosts takes a look not only at the heyday of those players, but also finds them in the present day, and in the process you see how their brief stints as a "video game rock stars" affected their lives.
Get our review after the break, and be sure to check for interviews with director Lincoln Ruchti and producer Michael Verrechia.
The film does a remarkable job at really getting under the skin of the gamers, and finding out what makes them who they are now, and what drove them to gaming back in the day. In some cases, like Sam Blackburn, it was because his girlfriend broke up with him. It's a bit disparate at times, because you're not only seeing, for instance, the Ben Gold of 2006, but the Ben Gold of 1982 as well. You find out that a lot of these guys (sorry ladies, it really was a boy's club back then) haven't changed all that much, but some of them are almost unrecognizable, both in appearance and behavior. Oddly enough, most of them don't play any of the next-gen consoles or arcade games. In fact, there's a sequence in the film that shows some of the gamers struggling at a modern arcade. It's comical, but also a bit sad as you realize that they're part of an era that's long gone.
Keep in mind that this was before video games had the "insert quarter to continue" function, which arcade owners praised for the extra income, but true gamers hated and viewed as "cheating." They have a point, if you get the high score on a game after pumping eight bucks into it, should that count? It's all about what you can do on one coin. As Joel West says in the film, "You could go from shit to a god for a quarter." They had record high scores, marathon gaming sessions, and crowds watching them, all for that single quarter. When people started racking the scores up, they needed someone to keep track of everything. You were lucky if the managers kept your games plugged in overnight, so the high score on your machine wasn't erased, but otherwise there wasn't any centralized method for charting game scores. Remember, this was well before the internet made tasks like that a lot easier.
That's where Walter Day stepped in. He ran the Twin Galaxies Arcade in Ottumwa, Iowa (sadly, closed in the 1980s, but lives on via the web, and still tracks high scores for games), and went from the unofficial to the official scorekeeper for the entire video game industry, and added another dimension of competition the the arcade. You might know if you were the best kid on Asteroids at your local Putt-Putt, but now you could find out if you were the best in the world. Everyone wanted a high score, and back in the day when you could find a T-shirt printing shop in every town, these guys all had custom printed shirts touting their number. "If you didn't have a shirt, you were nobody." Walter's involvement his hard to overstate. He literally worked tirelessly recording all of these scores, keeping track of names, and he did it for the love of the games, not personal wealth. He also got Ottumwa named the "Video Game Capital of the World," which is why LIFE magazine chose to shoot a photo there in 1982 for an article about the arcade craze.
According to director Lincoln Ruchti, "It started when producer Mike Verrechia sent me an article on a guy named Bill Mitchell who played the world's first
While researching, I came across a LIFE magazine spread from 1982, detailing the accomplishments of a team of video game champions of which Bill was a part. This team of scraggly teenagers was strewn over a bunch of games on Main Street in tiny Ottumwa, Iowa. Who were these guys? Why were they there? Could they beat my Dad? The photo begged a lot of questions, and I knew I could use it to tell a very human story about a bunch of outdated machines."
Thankfully, the project isn't entirely focused on Billy Mitchell, because he's only one part of a whole in this group,. There are some wilder characters though; including Todd Rogers, who has had times rougher than most country-western songs and lives with snakes and tarantulas, and Roy Shildt, who as Mister Awesome really has to be seen to be believed. His Missile Command high score is still "under dispute." According to him, that's a real man's game, "I wouldn't play a candy-ass game like Pac-Man, that's for girls and chumps." Let's get him and Mitchell into the ring together at some point.
What the film does have is a revealing look at these players, a look back at the country's obsession with arcades, and a lot of attention to detail. According to Ruchti, "I'm convinced that every arcade in America smelled like mildew and burnt popcorn, and this type of detail is what I tried to fill the picture with." Mmm, burnt popcorn. It also has a great soundtrack that really drives the nail home as far as invoking the 1980s is concerned. When A Flock of Seagulls' "Space Age Love Song" starts playing, it's hard not to feel like you're right there in the arcade. Plus, you get the added bonus of Buckner and Garcia's video for "Pac-Man Fever,"including flashdance-clad gogo girls doing a sort of Pac-Man dance. Freaky.
Also providing a visual punch to this film are Peter Hirschberg's CGI arcade cabinets. Peter has recreated, in meticulous detail, arcade cabinets from Asteroids to Space Invaders, and these make for some really amazing shots. Check out these shots of a CGI Tron machine he's working on, then surf his site to find the pictures of his own arcade. That place would've been the ultimate dream for any teenager spending their time at local arcades. He even does CGI handhelds, and has an incredible eye for detail. Plus he knows the details on every arcade game known to man. We caught up with him at the Chasing Ghosts screening at Sundance and quizzed him about a game we'd played years ago, but had long since forgotten the name of. It took him about fifteen seconds to identify it as Warrior. Most impressive.
There's a lot of footage that was shot in the present day; closeups of game screens, quarters, being inserted, flashing 80s lights and decor, and both Ruchti and producer Michael Verrechia chalk that up to director of photography Lisa Wiegand. The editing, by Eddie Brega and Ruchti, is solid and doesn't linger too long on any subject, thankfully. As video game players, we have a short enough attention span as it is, and the filmmakers seem to realize that. We doubt you'll be glancing at your watch or wincing as you try to concentrate on not peeing your pants. Honestly, we already want to see it again.
Finally, it's hard to mention Chasing Ghosts without at least mentioning The King of Kong in passing. It's like the days when Deep Impact and Armageddon or Antz and A Bug's Life come out within months of each other. There's the similar subject of video games in both, but they have very different areas of focus. Kong concentrates on Billy Mitchell vs. Steve Wiebe as they compete for the Donkey Kong high score, while Ghosts takes a bigger overall look at the entire era, through the lives of several different gamers. There's definitely room for two in this arena, just be sure to bring a roll of quarters to the theater.
Walter founded Twin Galaxies, the official electronic scoreboard of arcade gaming, on February 9, 1982. The self proclaimed "Patron Saint of the Video Game World", Walter kept track of world records on virtually every arcade game ever made. His status as the authority on high scores served as a lightning rod for teenaged video game superstars across the country. In addition to monitoring high scores, he also refereed and organized many of the high score tournaments of the early 1980's, including the first ever Video Game Olympics. Walter, also a talented gamer, held a world record of his own on the title Make Trax.
"Some people play video games to have fun. I used to play a game, to destroy the game."
In 1983, Ben was one of three finalists in the first ever video game world championship held in Los Angeles for the popular, That's Incredible TV program. His scores appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers around the country. He currently sells 401K plans.
Satan's Hollow: 908,885
"There was a point when I was playing that I know no one could touch me. No one."
Darren was a premiere player with numerous high scores. He was also a finalist in the That's Incredible competition. Darren changed his name to "Chris Steele" after watching an episode of Remington Steele.
Pac-Man: 3,333,360 (Perfect Game)
Donkey Kong: 1,047,200
"It's in your DNA. You have it or you don't."
Billy Mitchell, thought by many to be the greatest classic gamer of all time, was the first person to play a perfect game of Pac-Man. He has current world records on Burgertime, Donkey Kong, and Donkey Kong Jr. and in 1999 was awarded the title "Player of the Century." Today he runs a chicken wing restaurant in Florida. You can buy hot sauce from Bill by calling 1-800-HOTSAUCE.
"Leo was a gaming genius." -Walter Day
Leo was a regional legend with appearances in the Guiness Book of World Records and countless local trades. Every Wednesday night, he can be found at the Crazy Horse Gentlemen's Club where he holds VIP status.
Star Wars: 300,007,894
Zoo Keeper: 323,600
Robert is the Chief referee for Twin Galaxies, with records of his own including the highest Star Wars score ever recorded. Robert is also a passionate art collector.
"I'm an arcade owner's worst nightmare."
Todd has many nicknames: Toddzilla, The King of Video Games, Mr. Activision. He has thousands of high scores on arcade and home games and has mastered the art of "marathoning." His most respected marathon was on Journey Escape, when he played for 82 hours straight. Todd also collects spiders.
Donkey Kong Jr.: 948,000
Kent was a member of the Canadian gaming team "Reflections" along with friend and teammate Darren Olson. They are close friends to this day.
Super Pac-Man: 315,380
Donkey Kong: 290,300
Kansas City, MO.
"What I should have said was, 'I'll believe it when I see it.' What I did instead was, I lied."
Steve shocked the gaming world when he admitted that his world record score on Donkey Kong was a lie. A major turning point, Steve went on to graduate from a Christian University and now practices law.
Joel and Ron were the best of friends, and also the two best Berzerk players in the world. When Ron announced at the local "Pancake House" that he'd eclipsed Joel's record, they stopped speaking and have not seen each other in twenty years.
Super Pac-Man: 271,580
Congo Bongo: 230,960
Donkey Kong Jr.: 147,000
Todd was considered the best player in the world going into the 1982 Video Game Championship. Unexpectedly, he stopped playing to become a plumber's apprentice.
San Francisco, CA
"He had a cool hand, almost like a Clint Eastwood character" -Walter Day
Mark's calm, confident play in the eighties reflects his current personality as a patient organized professional. He likes lists including his top 50 songs of all time, which he can recite from memory.
"All that time you were out there playing with your girlfriend...I was playing video games."
Sam's girlfriend broke up with him and created a video game legend. His score on Battlezone was untouched for years. Today Sam is trying to hack a Furby to say naughty words.
Missile Command: In dispute