Thursday, December 20, 2018

VHS Time Capsule

VHS. The video medium that time forgot. Well, it's not exactly forgotten. I mean, if I were to bring up VHS in a conversation, people would know what I was talking about. So it's not completely forgotten but it sounds more dramatic saying "time forgot it" even though it's not exactly true. Know what, let's just start this blog over again, ok?

VHS. The video medium that time didn't quite forget because most people still remember it and some people may even have dusty VCRs in their attics or garages.

There. That's better.

Remember how friggin' fun VHS was? You could record programs off your television and make your own VHS tapes filled with your favorite shows, cartoons and MTV music videos, kind of like making a mix tape only with TV shows. Then you could put stickers on these tapes, label them in any way you wanted, with colorful hearts or menacing skulls. Then there were other stickers that had all sorts of boxes that said LP, SP, Mono, Stereo, and you would check all the boxes even though you had no idea what any of them meant. So much fun! 

If you were skilled enough, you could press pause during commercials and you would end up with a full two hours of your favorite shows, commercial-free. 

If you were even more skilled, you could program your VCR to start taping at certain hours of the day, when you were at school or when you were sleeping or when you had to do homework.

And, if you were the most skilled VCR operator in the world, you could program your VCR to tape shows that were on a different channel from the one you were currently watching. This meant you could watch Alf on NBC and tape You Can't Do That on Television on Nickelodeon. What a fantastic piece of technology!

It should be noted that I personally never graduated to the upper skill levels of VCR operation. I could pause during the commercials just fine, no problem there. But as far as programing the VCR to start taping at different times of the day or taping on a different channel from what I was watching? Never happened. I tried but I failed. It never worked. I mean, I was young during the VCR era so give me a friggin' break.

In fact, now that I look back on it, I don't think I was ever really successful in taping anything that required much skill. I was lucky to get an episode of Saved By the Bell on half-inch (half-inch is your in-the-know term for VHS tape). As far as a mix tape or, to use a more sophisticated term, a collection went? I don't think I ever successfully created a self-made VHS collection of shows, unless maybe one year when there was a Mr. Bean marathon on PBS but that doesn't really count since it was a marathon all on one channel. All I had to do was pop a tape in, press record and then I just didn't touch the freggen VCR for the next two hours.

My brother, however, was a much more skilled VCR operator than I was (he was five years older than me) and, exactly 30 years ago, in the special year of 1988, he created the ultimate VCR mix tape...collection...whatever you would like to call it. It was a Christmas-special collection featuring all the best XMAS specials you could possibly find on television. Each special was from a different channel, at different times, on different other words, the creation of this tape wasn't a simple matter of just popping a tape into the deck and pressing record. This required skill and he possessed this skill.

Actual VHS from 1988

The VHS had all the XMAS-special greats. We're talking The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. We're talking Frosty the Snowman. How about a little Mickey's Christmas Carol? Yep. It was on there. Or how about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer? Of course that was there. But you're probably saying right now that there's no way A Very Brady Christmas was on there, right? Wrong. It was. The two-hour 1988 Brady Bunch reunion special was there in all its glory. 

The VHS even had the most classic of all classic XMAS specials. Obviously I'm referring to none other than A Merry Mirthworm Christmas.

Wait, what?

Yes, A Merry Mirthworm Christmas. It's a little known XMAS special about a clumsy Earthworm named Burt who has just moved to the town of Wormingham and he's having difficulty making friends. He tries to make friends at the Town Hall where he helps decorate for the upcoming Wormingham Christmas party but he knocks over a table of ornaments and everything's broken. The town chairworm Wormaline Wiggler tells him to leave and get lost. Burt's heart is broken because he has no friends but (spoiler alert) he's eventually invited back in time for the party and all is well for Burt. Merry Christmas.

No? Not ringing a bell? Well, you're missing out if you haven't seen that one.

The full Merry Mirthworm Christmas Special

Now, you would think my brother would've cut the commercials on this XMAS-special VHS tape since he was so skilled in the ways of the VCR. Nope. The commercials were left in, clearly because he knew that this tape wouldn't just be a collection of XMAS-specials but would actually function as a time capsule, capturing the late-1980s in its rawest form. What foresight.

To heck with history books. The best way to study a certain time period is by watching a TV-recorded VHS tape from the year you want to study. The recorded shows and cartoons and music videos say a lot about the era but it's the COMMERCIAL BREAKS that say the most about the time. The COMMERCIALS capture reality in its purest form. 

So Christmas 1988. What was happening?

Well, McDonalds still used Ronald McDonald as its commercial mascot (he's rarely used today because focus groups determined that McDonalds' key demographic had "coulrophobia", a fear of clowns). McDonalds also had a licensing deal with Disney for its new movie Oliver and Company.

Cheese had a commercial all its own. No specific brand. Just cheese. Paid for by the American dairy farmers. It was part of the "Don't forget the cheese" campaign.

A new hot TV show called TV101 was all the buzz. This show had several recognizable faces, including a young Matt LeBlanc (Joey from Friends).

Campbell's soup was heavily marketed to children.

The Swedish Chef had a new cereal called "Croonchy Stars".

The Halls of Medicine was the best place to go to cure your pesky cough.

The only cool way to brush your teeth was by using new Colgate Junior Superstar Toothpaste.

"Northwest Airlines" was the first commercial airline to prohibit smoking on all flights. Also, Northwest Airlines existed.

Pizza Hut was a favorite restaurant for kids and had a licensing deal with Universal Pictures for their new hot animated movie Land Before Time.

Huggies diapers kept your babies the driest.

Dinosaurs were big in the late-80s and Playskool dinosaurs were what all the kids wanted.

Playskool was cool if you were, like, a Toddler, but all the older kids wanted toys made by Tyco. Like these Radio control Turbo Trucks.

Lego's new mascot Zak the Lego Maniac gave the Lego brand more of a badass edge.

The new "Footnotes" toy capitalized on the success of Big, the hit movie of the previous summer.

Kids liked their pizza pie; they also liked their macaroni. But what they really wanted was their first Sony...Walkman and stereo, that is.

Dino-Riders was both a hit animated TV series AND a hit toy brand. By the way, these were the days when the toy commercials took place on the sickest-looking sets (i.e. miniature jungle or desert models etc.) that were definitely NOT included with the toys.

The New England Telephone company made it easy to call Dad on a landline, even if he didn't approve of your boyfriend Jeff.

Thanks to New England Telephone, you could also call a 900 number and get your horoscope read to you by self-proclaimed psychic Jeane Dixon. All it cost was 95 cents a minute.

Pat Petersen (best known from Knot's Landing) was doing anti-drinking PSA's for CBS. Be smart. Don't start.

There was still much confusion surrounding the relatively new Aids virus.

Sprite was the favorite soda of snowmen.

And the "Win by a Nose" board game was released but apparently not very popular because it's practically erased from existence. No commercial for it can be found on YouTube. Sorry.

RIP Win by a Nose Game

Of course, I could go on and on but I think you get a pretty good idea of what was happening in 1988 by now.

Unfortunately, with the VHS medium now obsolete, we will never have accurate time capsules ever again unless we make the conscious effort to make time capsules but nobody ever does and, even if they do, they won't be as accurate. Self-made VHS tapes were unintentional time capsules and were, thus, a much more accurate record of a time period than an intentional time capsule where people carefully pick and choose what they include, therefore manipulating the history of the time in a way that they desire. 

Who knew that Video Cassette Recorders (VCRs) would become the ultimate recorders of history? DVDs can't do this kind of thing. Nor can Blu-rays. Or DVRs on our cable boxes. YouTube is nice to look up random commercials and all sorts of nonsense but there is no context to what you're looking at. It's just a big, cluttered virtual dimension filled with every video from every time period, all at once. What a mess. 

With a VHS tape, you literally captured a moment in time and froze it forever...or at least until the tape withered away into snow. This is why I propose that a movement should be started to keep the VHS medium alive. Once we respect the fact that it serves as the ultimate time capsule, we will understand that it's imperative for the medium to live on forever.

As for me, I don't plan on making much of an effort to start this "VHS awareness" movement. But I think somebody else should get on this immediately.


MATT BURNS is the author of several eBooks on Amazon, including such nostalgic greats as I USED TO BE A GAMER: THE 8-BIT NINTENDO YEARS and I DREAM OF DREAM MACHINE. Also, his new "screen novel" WEIRD MONSTER is a fun love letter to the 1980s VHS era. Find more of his books at his Amazon Author Page:

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.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Weird Times en la Weirdioteca

It's very rare that you're able to experience something so fascinatingly bizarre but I believe it's also inevitable for each and every one of us. You can't force this experience. Rather, it will happen when you least expect it. Tonight, it happened for me. Tonight was my lucky night...

Monday night. 8:55pm. Local library. Second floor.

I've been quietly working on my laptop for the past hour or so. The announcement that the library's closing came on the loudspeaker just a few minutes ago. "The library will be closing in ten minutes. Please bring any checkout items to the front desk."

I'm packing up my laptop now. Wrapping the cord around my mouse. Removing my computer glasses and replacing them with my regular glasses.

I see the librarian making the rounds. She checks the tables. Pushes in chairs. Picks up any scraps of paper or other litter. It's obvious I'm packing up so she doesn't feel there's any need to tell me they're closing soon.

However, there is a man about four or five tables down from me. Also working on his laptop. Little bit on the older side, maybe in his 60s or so. Looks normal as far as I can tell. In fact, I had determined about 30 minutes ago that he looked so normal that it was safe for me to leave my laptop alone at my table while I ran to the bathroom to do a pee. So that's pretty normal. That's I-feel-it's-safe-to-leave-my-laptop-alone-with-this-guy-nearby normal.

The man, however, is not "packing up shop", so to speak. He continues to work on his laptop while the librarian is pushing in chairs left and right, dropping hint after hint that it's closing time. But this guy's not budging.

By this time, the librarian has determined that this man needs a friendly reminder that the library is closing in less than five minutes.

"Sir, just so you know, we're closing in five minutes..."

But the man does not respond. Nor does he acknowledge her. All he does is stare into his laptop and (seemingly) continue to do his work.

"Sir," she says louder. "We're closing soon."

The man still doesn't budge and doesn't look at her or even acknowledge he heard her in the least.

"Excuse me...Sir! We're closing."

Still, no response or acknowledgment of any kind.

I hear what's going on and grow concerned. What the fuck is happening down there?

"Excuse me! Hello! Sir! We're closing!"

Still, not even a flinch on his part. Not even a raise of the eyebrow or any other subtle gesture. Utterly nothing.

I take a more careful look and see that this man is not wearing headphones. And he does not appear to be a foreigner who may speak another language. But even if he does speak a different language, he would still acknowledge the librarian who's now standing smack-dab in front of him with her hands on her hips, practically shouting into his face.

"Hello! Sir! We're closing! Hello!"

And this bizarre exchange proceeds for the next minute or even two.

"Sir! Closing time! Hello!"

I stand at my table for a moment. Dumbfounded. This is happening, I tell myself. This is really happening right now. I look around to see if anybody else is witnessing this. But, no, it's only the three of us alone on the second floor.

I determine that this man must either be insane or he must be the most gigantic asshole who ever lived on the planet. My instincts tell me it's the latter that's true.

I swing my laptop bag over my shoulder, pretend like I'm leaving but then sneak down an aisle of books that allows me to get closer to the alleged asshole without being seen. I'm not sure if this librarian will need my help. My heart starts racing. Is the shit about to go down right now? Maybe every day of my life has been leading to this very moment. Maybe this guy IS a psycho and I'm supposed to save the librarian from him. Maybe this is why I'm living. Maybe this is why I exist.

I'm about to take my glasses off so I can fight without them being on my mind. They cost 300 bucks, after all. I don't want them damaged.

"Sir! Hello! Sir! Hello!!!"

I post myself behind a shelf of books. About as close as I can get without being seen. I'm ready to pounce if needed.

"Closing time!!! Hello!!!"

And, then, there is nothing but silence.

I creep around the bookshelf and see that the man is finally starting to pack up shop. He's putting his laptop away. And his mouse. There's also a half-drunken bottle of Pepsi Zero, which I hadn't seen from my previous vantage point. As for the librarian, I don't see where she went.

I figure it's safe to leave now.

As I'm about to descend the stairs, down to the first floor, I see the librarian circling back towards me. We lock eyes and I say...

"What was that all about?"

She shakes her head and says: "I don't know."

And that is that. No further discussion. No further questions.

I exit the library, emerge into the dark parking lot and realize I had just witnessed something very bizarre, perhaps one of the most bizarre things I had ever witnessed. 

What was that man's deal? Was he so narcissistic that he thought the library should only close when he's ready to leave? What did he think he could accomplish by ignoring the librarian? Maybe he got off on being the biggest asshole on the planet, to women, or just in general. Maybe that was his only motive: being an asshole and enjoying it.

I want to wait for this man to come out of the library and study his habits. Maybe follow him home. To see if he lives alone somewhere or with a family. I want to know what makes this gigantic asshole tick. I want to observe him for a week. I figure an asshole so gigantic must live in a miserable world of hell. I want to see this hell. I'm curious. 

More importantly, I want to know how often he drinks Pepsi Zero. Perhaps the sugar substitutes could be causing toxicity of the brain, which would account for him being the most gigantic of assholes.

I end up driving off, however, without waiting. Because I'm still not sure if what I had witnessed even happened. I'm still shaking a bit from the adrenaline as I pull out of the parking lot. I realize that I may never witness something so bizarre ever again. And that makes me kind of sad, that the weirdness of this human experience has peaked.