Wednesday, October 10, 2018

I Dream of Dream Machine

"Hello. Unident. This is Barbara speaking."

"Hi, my name is Matt Burns and I'm due for a cleaning, so I wanted to, you know, schedule an appointment."

"Okay, let me just check here..."

The secretary went silent for a moment and this was when I heard the familiar sound. It was a drooping, whistle-type noise, kind of like something you would hear at a circus. It sounded so familiar to me. Why, it was the sound of a machine...coming from the Dream Machine video arcade located in The Walpole Mall...formerly known as The Mall at Walpole.

Wait, dentist? In a mall?

That's right. The office to my dentist is located in the middle of the Walpole Mall, just about two doors down from the Dream Machine video arcade. Yes, it's hard to take a dentist seriously when you call up their office and hear video games playing in the background, but you can't exactly be Mr. Picky when you don't have the greatest dental insurance in the world.

"We had a cancellation today. Can you do a 3:15?"

At first, I was hesitant to take the appointment. I dread the dentist and I thought I could postpone the cleaning for another week or two. However, thinking about it more, I thought it would be better to get the appointment over with. This would eliminate much of my dread.

"I'll take it," I told Barbara at Unident.

Smash cut to a couple hours later and I found myself sitting in the waiting room of Unident. This was when I heard the whistle drooping sound again. Oh, that sound! It pressed some major buttons in my brain. In my hippocampus, to be specific. Where memories are stored. Okay, what I'm trying to say is that it was a nostalgic sound. It made me remember how much fun I used to have at the Dream Machine video arcade when I was a kid.

After my appointment, I felt a little giddy and decided I HAD to—just HAD to—do a quick walk-by. Yes, I had to see the Dream Machine after so many years. So I did and...

Well, it wasn't quite how I remembered it. The arcade was completely empty and what-I-could-see-of the games didn't look very familiar. It was ghostly. Even the neon sign that said "Dream Machine" or technically "DREAMmachine" had seen better days. The "machine" part of the sign was burnt out completely while only DREA was lit in DREAM.

It was like the Dream was struggling to stay alive...

I stood outside the arcade for a moment, mostly looking at my phone because I didn't want to look like some weirdo staring into the place. But I stood there and absorbed the sounds with my ears. The noise was pandemonium but a fun-sounding pandemonium. To me, it sounded like the early-to-mid-1990s. Boy, the Dream Machine was in such a different state then. It was THE place to be.

At that time, the arcade was in a different location, at the northwest end of the mall, right across the way from a Papa Gino's pizza parlor and a store or two down from Auntie Anne's pretzel stand. I can remember walking my way to Dream Machine, starting from the Bradlees located at the most southern end of the mall. Record Town would be on your right. So wasn't a Gap, along with a Kay Bee Toys. Then, you would eventually round a corner with a Jo-Anne Fabrics and start heading west in the direction of Walden Books. This was when you heard the first sounds of the Dream Machine tickle your eardrums and they would grow...AND GROW...until you had finally arrived at the arcade.

Previous to the early-90s, I had been deprived of a proper video arcade in my life. There were a couple games at the local bowling alleys, either PJ's Bowling Lanes in Walpole or Norwood Bowling Lanes in Norwood. There would also be an occasional arcade game at a local restaurant, like The Rebel Restaurant or Papa Gino's. But there wasn't an actual video arcade anywhere in the vicinity of where I lived. In fact, the only arcade I ever remember going to was on vacation, way down on Cape Cod. There was a mini-golf place called the "Sea View Playland" and in this playland there was an awesome arcade called "The Barn of Fun".

Barn of Fun, however, was miles away from Walpole, almost a two-hour car ride. Other than that barn, there was no arcade anywhere close, at least none that I was aware of. So when the Dream Machine opened circa 1993 inside the Walpole Mall, it was A BIG DEAL.

And it was a very popular place.

Part of what made Dream Machine such a popular video arcade was that it had one of the most popular games in existence at the time. This was a very controversial game that ended up getting demonized by many politicians. It was blamed for such tragedies as Columbine and, even later, the Sandy Hook school shooting. The game is also the reason why the ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board) now exists and why games have ratings on them...

Of course, the game I'm referring to is Mortal Kombat (Midway 1992).

To be accurate, my own personal introduction to Mortal Kombat wasn't at the Dream Machine. I first witnessed the game played at the aforementioned "Rebel", which was a very townie-type-of restaurant named after Walpole's high school football team The Rebels. I was at The Rebel for either a birthday party or maybe a CYO basketball banquet, but this was when I first saw the game and I was absolutely, completely blown away by it. This was way before it had become a pop culture sensation. I had never heard anything about it before but, boy, I remember thinking to myself that this game was revolutionary!

What struck me the most about Mortal Kombat was how "real" the graphix (i.e. graphics) were, particularly the characters who looked like real, "mortal" people. I thought to myself, "Wow, they've finally done it. They've created characters that look like real-life human beings, not cartoony versions of human beings." And there were "real" sounding voices, too, saying full sentences like "Come here!" and "Get over here!" and "Excellent" and "Finish him!" There was also "real-looking" blood. And intense gore. I thought to myself, "This game will change everything." It was exactly what I wanted in a video game: something that looked more like real life.

I ran to the Rebel's bar and handed the bartender five dollars that my parents gave me for spending money. In return, the bartender gave me a whole shit-load of Rebel quarters. Now, Rebel quarters were very unique because they were painted red, though much of the paint had worn away from being fed in and out of video game coin slots. Red was part of the Rebel football team's uniform at the time, hence the red quarters. Even to this day, you sometimes stumble upon a red quarter that has somehow survived from the days of The Rebel, even though the restaurant has been closed for at least a couple decades.

From the bar, I took the red quarters and proceeded to play game after game after game of Mortal Kombat. There may have been an exception here and there, but I almost always played as the character Scorpion. I was drawn to his yellow, ninja-like apparel, which was so aesthetically attractive to the eye. Sub-Zero had a great look, too (same ninja apparel except blue in color) but his moves were a bit more difficult to pull off. Yes, I must confess I was one of those weasels who used Scorpion's rope spear over and over again. It was a simple down-right movement with the joystick quickly followed by a tap of the top punch button. Scorpion would say either "Get over here!" or "Come here!", drag his opponent over to him by the jugular, then I would do a simple uppercut, which took away a decent amount of energy. This was an incredibly cheap "combo" (i.e. combination of moves) because it was very difficult for your opponent to escape the spear and you could basically do it over and over again until all your opponent's energy drained and you won the round.

Indeed, Scorpion was my go-to guy, I always won with him, I basically thought I was a Mortal Kombat master, so when Dream Machine opened in the Walpole Mall circa 1993 and I heard there was a Mortal Kombat there, I thought I would waltz into that arcade, become the king of the Mortal Kombat machine and everybody would be in awe at how good I was at the game. Heck, maybe I would even become a bit of a local celebrity. Perhaps a band like The Who would get wind of my skills and they'd write a song about me called "Mortal Kombat Wizard".

This didn't quite happen.

I was quickly humbled. Teenagers from all surrounding towns—probably from as far north as Boston, as far south as Brockton, and maybe even as far west as Worcester—came to Dream Machine, and they all came to the Machine with the intention of playing one game and one game only: Mortal Kombat.

There was almost always a line you had to wait in if you desired to play the game. Proper arcade etiquette also called for you to place your quarters on the little lip that was just below the game screen but just above the joystick panel. This let the current players know that somebody was on deck waiting to play. The winner of the match would keep playing but the loser had to allow the next person in line to play and he or she would return to the back of the line. Oh, who are we kidding? It was always a 'he'. I don't ever remember a girl playing Mortal Kombat. If a girl ever played Mortal Kombat, I'd remember because I would have crushed on her hard.

The first time I played Mortal Kombat at Dream Machine, I thought I was pretty fricken cool stepping up to the joystick. I predictably chose Scorpion as my character and planned on doing a shit-load of "get over here's" followed by the cowardly uppercut. But there was one little problem. The teenaged dude I played, with the greezy pepperoni zits and peach-fuzz mustache, was good. Like, really good. And he absolutely destroyed my ass. He played as the character Raiden and was shooting lightning bolts at me and doing these flying Superman-type-moves where Raiden shouts out a gibberish war cry that sounded something like "Your mother's from LA!"

That one ass-kicking was not an exception, either. In fact, I rarely won any matches. The only time I did win was when a little pipsqueak kid came in with his grandmother, played me in a match and had no clue what he was doing. But there were some nasty players and I always wondered how they knew all the moves, especially the finishing "fatality" moves that required complex joystick/button combos that had to be executed quickly and at a certain distance from your opponent. Scorpion's finishing move involved him removing his mask, which revealed he was a skeleton that breathed fire, and he burnt his opponent to a toasty crisp. Sub-Zero pulled his opponent's head off and held it up high with the spine dangling beneath it. The character Kano punched through his opponent's chest and pulled the heart out, Temple-of-Doom-style. There were many, many more nasty fatalities...

Mortal Kombat was undoubtedly an incredibly violent video game for its time and there was much debate over whether it had gone too far. When Nintendo released a version of the game in 1993, it took out all the blood and many of the more violent finishing moves as well. Sega kept the blood in but, due to the limits of the system's 16-bit computer chip, the graphics were less real-looking, so it didn't seem as intense as the arcade game. Politicians, parent groups and religious figures were convinced the "real-looking" violence in Mortal Kombat was too intense for young eyes, which is laughable today, since all you have to do to see "real-looking" violence is turn on the evening news where there is raw cell phone video from mass shootings on almost a weekly basis. Did games like Mortal Kombat help create this violent culture we have today where there is hardly any regard for human life? Maybe. Maybe not. Who knows. I guess an argument could be made either way. But I tend to think our violence is more rooted in an epidemic of narcissism than in violence found within video games or other entertainment for that matter, like movies or TV. If Hollywood deserves any blame, I would focus more on its narcissistic movies, where there is a central character known as "the one" (e.g. Luke Skywalker or Neo or John Connor or friggin' Pumbaa etc.), while the rest of the world is merely comprised of "supporting characters" that revolve around them. I feel this world where there is "the one" and then "the rest" creates a culture of narcissists where nobody cares about each other. But I digress. Sorry.

As for me, I don't think Mortal Kombat made me a violent person, at least not yet (there's still time). And, trust me, I made SEVERAL frequent visits to the Dream Machine to play the MK cabinet (that's gamer-speak for playing Mortal Kombat), even though I wasn't very good at it. Heck, much of the time, I mostly enjoyed watching the other players; you know, the wizards who never lost so they played for what-seemed-like hours off of only one quarter. Talk about getting your money's worth. In hindsight, they really needed to get a friggin' life. If only they spent as much time applying Clearasil to their faces as they did looking up secret Mortal Kombat combos in gamer mags like GamePro...

Speaking of GamePro magazine, I was a subscriber for many years during the early-to-mid-90s. I memorized a few finishing moves that the magazine was kind enough to divulge, but I by no means possessed the ambition to memorize as many moves as the wizards at Dream Machine did. These wizards eventually kind of took over the Mortal Kombat cabinet and, soon, it wasn't even worth attempting to play the game. The wizards were just too good. It was a waste of quarters and it wasn't even fun.

It was around this time that I moved on to the other games the Dream Machine had to offer. And there were PLENTY of them. Good ones, too.

One of my favorites was a shoot 'em up game called Terminator 2: The Arcade Game (Midway 1991). This game, of course, was based on the movie Terminator 2: Judgement Day, which was very popular at the time. An Uzi-like gun was mounted on the T2 cabinet, you held this gun, started shooting the hell out of everything and it would vibrate in your hands as you shot. As you moved the gun, crosshairs moved along the side-scrolling screen and this helped you aim. You apparently played as Arnold Schwarzenegger's character and Arnie would say encouraging things like "Awesome" and "Excellent" as you shot everything up.

Unfortunately, I never made it past the first level of this game, which took place in dark, post-nuclear-apocalyptic Los Angeles. You had to shoot T-800 robots and other machines, but you also had to be careful to avoid friendly human freedom fighters. If you shot these fighters by accident, they would grunt and scream, "No!" I would accidentally shoot at least a couple human casualties while getting my ass kicked in by the machines and I'd be "Terminated" after only a few minutes into the game. If you wanted to continue, you could feed another quarter into the slot, but I don't remember ever coughing up more than maybe two or three quarters for this particular game. It was all my limited paperboy budget would allow.

T2: The Arcade Game was so fun to play, and I was psyched when I learned it was coming out for both the Sega Genesis and the Sega Game Gear. I didn't have a Sega Genesis at the time (I was more of a Nintendo guy), but I DID happen to have a Sega Game Gear so T2: The Arcade Game was number-one on my birthday wish list for January 1994. My parents were kind enough to gift me with the game and I was thrilled. What I didn't anticipate, however, was that the graphics were significantly worse than what I was used to with the arcade version. Plus, you didn't shoot with a real gun that vibrated in your hands and made you feel like a badass. All you did was press the A button and aim with the cross pad, which was awkward and difficult, by the way. Don't get me wrong: I still played the crap out of the Game Gear game, but it was nowhere close to being as good as the arcade version.

Overall, T2 was a great game, but it was hard, and you would probably have to spend several-dollars-worth of quarters if you ever wanted to beat the game, even if you were, as Arnold would say, "Excellent" at it. Like I said, I usually only coughed up a few quarters at a time and therefore only made it a few minutes into the game. Once I'd had enough, I moved a few games to my left and played my next favorite of the aforementioned "other games":

Lethal Enforcers (Konami 1992).

This was another super-fun shoot-'em-up game where you played as a cop and had to shoot a bunch of bank robbers. You held a salmon-colored revolver-like gun that you removed from a holster and you had about six bullets to shoot before a voice from the game told you to "reload". You reloaded by aiming away from the screen and pulling the trigger and you would then proceed to shoot up more bank robber ass.

Like with T2, I rarely made it past the first level of Lethal Enforcers, which took place in a bank. The bank robbers were dressed in black with those scary stocking ski masks. They yelled things like "Eat lead, copper!" and "You can't kill me, copper!" and "You missed me, pig!" As you went through the level, you had to be careful not to shoot innocent bank tellers and civilians. Everybody popped up so quickly that it was hard not to be trigger-happy and shoot the innocent. But they would yell things like, "Don't shoot!" or "No!" or "Help me!" to let you know not to shoot them. As you went further into the level, however, things would just get cuuuurazy and it would be extremely difficult NOT to shoot an innocent casualty here and there.

Once I'd had enough of Lethal Enforcers, I made my way over to the opposite side of the arcade where I found my next go-to game: X-Men (Konami 1992). This was a more PG-friendly side-scrolling beat 'em up game where you played as one of six X-Men and must save civilization from the evil villain Magneto. Up to six players could play this game at a time and this was possible because the game console was friggin' huge with two separate screens housed in a "deluxe cabinet".

I always chose to play the game as the character Colossus; in fact, most people did, because he had a special move (technically called "mutant power") that killed multiple bad guys (technically named "sentinels") but also, unfortunately, drained your energy about three points every time you used it. Anybody who's ever played the game knows what I'm talking about: Colossus' mutant power was preceded by a constipated-sounding grunt and then a wave of what-may-have-been atomic flatulence would emanate from his body and clear the screen of (most) bad guys. Every once in a while, I would play as Wolverine or maybe Cyclops, but I usually tried to be Colossus if I could.

After I got bored with X-Men, I would likely wander over to The Simpsons Arcade Game (Konami 1991), which was another side-scrolling beat 'em up game, very similar to X-Men, only you would play as one of four Simpsons characters—Marge, Homer, Bart, or Lisa—in the world of Springfield. The strange plot involved baby Maggie being kidnapped by Waylon Smithers after he robs a jewelry store. Marge, Homer, Bart and Lisa must save the baby and beat up Waylon's nasty henchmen in the process. I think maybe Mr. Burns was one of the bosses you had to beat near the end of the game, perhaps even the final boss? I'm not sure because I never made it that far.

I usually played as Marge because she had the best weapon of all (a vacuum cleaner), Bart probably had the second-best weapon (a skateboard), while Lisa had third-best (a jump rope) and Homer, had, well...nothing. That's right: I don't think anybody in their right mind EVER chose Homer for their character, unless, of course, all three of the other characters were already chosen by three other players. Marge was always my go-to character, but, I must admit, playing as her almost felt like cheating because her vacuum cleaner made it SO MUCH easier to kill Waylon's evil minions.

Once playing The Simpsons got old, all I had to do was take a step to my left and there was NBA Jam (Midway 1993), a game that, at the time, impressed me in a similar way to how Mortal Kombat impressed me. The players kind of looked like "real" people! Amazing! The game commentator sounded like a real person, too. He said things like "Boom Shaka laka!" when a player slam-dunked, "He's heating up!" when the player started making multiple shots in a row and "From downtown!" when a player sunk a three-pointer. It's no coincidence that both NBA Jam and Mortal Kombat were made by the same company: Midway. It seemed like their company goal was to make games more "real-looking" and "real-sounding", like they wanted to take a few more steps closer to a virtual reality.

Now, it's important to mention that, so far, all the games I've discussed have been games you paid a quarter (or two) to play, and then you would play the game, have some fun and that would be it. I would be remiss, however, if I didn't mention all the games at the Dream Machine that you played, not just for the fun, but more importantly...

For the tickets.

Exhibit A: There was a basketball game where you shot deflated basketballs into a net with a circumference just about the size of the ball itself and a rim bouncier than...well, bouncier than something very bouncy. What I'm getting at here is it was difficult to make the shots.

Exhibit B: There was the "Feed Big Bertha" game where you tossed plastic balls into the mouth of an obese woman named Bertha. Her mouth would open wide and then get narrow and, every 30 seconds or so, a fan would blow up Bertha's skirt, Marilyn-Monroe-style. The point was to get as many balls into the mouth as possible and you got even more points if you hit her tonsils that dangled in the way back.

Exhibit C: There was also a game called "Wheel'm In" where you dropped a quarter down a short ramp that you could aim and you would try to get the quarter to land on a series of moving strips, each of which was worth a certain amount of tickets. Obviously, you tried to aim for the strip worth the most tickets.

And who could forget Skee-ball?

And Whac-a-mole???

Oh, and I would be even more remiss if I didn't mention the plethora of pinball machines that the Dream Machine had to offer. The only pinball machine I remember is the Addams Family game, which was based on the popular 1991 Addams Family movie. The machine was super-noisy and I had no idea what to aim the pinball at but the game seemed like it would be fun for somebody who knew what they were doing. If memory serves me correctly, I think there was a Jurassic Park pinball game as well. No, that may not be true. I think the Jurassic Park game I'm thinking of was NOT a pinball machine but a shoot 'em up game where you sat in a booth, pulled curtains over this booth so you were in relative darkness and shot at dinosaurs. In hindsight, this may have been a good place to make out with a girl, not that I was really making out with anybody back then, at least not in the early-90s. Ok, same deal for the mid-90s. But the late-90s? Shit, man, it was make-out CITY for me. All right, I'm kind of lying. It was more like a make-out town, population several. Fine, maybe it would be more accurate to say make-out village a handful of inhabitants...handful meaning one or two...or, well...oh shut up, leave me alone.

Now that I think of it, I don't think the pinball games dispensed any tickets. In fact, I just checked on this and I'm one-hundred-percent sure they didn't. They were all about getting points and beating high scores. No tickets. Sorry.

Anyway, my point is that there were several Dream Machine games that spat out tickets if you were successful sinking baskets or tossing balls or clubbing moles or what-have-you. When you were all done gaming, you would head right to the ticket counter and "cash in" these tickets, which really meant trading them in for a prize on display in a glass counter.

3oo tickets might get you a Tootsie Roll.

500 tickets might get you a roll of Bubble Tape gum.

Then you would go home, retire for the night and Dream...Dream of going to the Dream Machine, maybe the next weekend, or maybe sooner if you were lucky. Some kids got their parents to drive them there all the time. Other kids lived so close to the mall that they could walk. I was always jealous of those kids. I thought my life would be much happier if only I lived within walking distance of the Dream Machine.

Damn, I miss that Dream Machine. Maybe someday I'll muster up the courage to actually go back to the current incarnation of the Dream Machine in The Walpole Mall and play a game or two without worrying about looking like a creepy 36-year-old man who is extremely out of place. Maybe if I bring a date along with me I won't look as creepy. I'll at least make sure there's no birthday party happening with lots of kiddies running around. I mean, then I'd REALLY look like a creep, even if I brought a date with me, not that I've thought this out too much or anything.

Heck, maybe it's just as well if I never go back to the Dream Machine, because what if it's sad and depressing? I mean, what if it's as bad inside the place as it looks from the outside? Maybe it's best to keep the memories of the Dream Machine's heyday fresh in my mind and not taint them with today's sad reality and broken dreams.

Maybe the Dream is better than the reality.

Or maybe, just maybe, I'm using way too many puns with the word 'dream' and should stop immediately.

Oh, by the way, my dentist appointment went great. No cavities. I got a free toothbrush. Soft bristles. Not my preferred bristle strength but I can't complain.


ATTENTION: If you liked this article, you'll also like my podcast episode "I'm Dreaming of Dream Machine" available on Spotify below or Apple podcasts!


Matt Burns is the author of the hit Kindle Single I USED TO BE A GAMER: THE 8-BIT NINTENDO YEARS. If you enjoyed reading this blog, then you will love the Kindle single. Get it for only 99 cents HERE.