I remember hi-scores.
I remember the smell of pizza. Not like baking dough, tangy marinara, or that warm, barely noticeable hint of smoke and spices. No, I mean like a pizza that was manufactured in a lab and sent all over the country to a colorful spectrum of birthdays and parties hosted within an arcade. That special mouthwatering scent of what is probably pepperoni, but definitely meat, and molten layers of baked cheese sitting in a sweltering, cardboard box.
There’s a hum, an unruly din, that comes from everywhere but the carpeted floor. Black lights make the neon colors woven into the floor burst with nauseating enthusiasm. Occasionally you might come across something more valuable than diamonds sitting on the floor, barely illuminated by the pulsing screens, flickering neon, and buzzing marquees: a token. You can jump into another arcade cabinet, play some pinball, or just pluck a token into that one booth that plays old “Mighty Mouse” cartoons. People are yelling and shouting, trying to communicate over the cloud of blips, bloops, and music. Maybe it’s the Eurythmics playing somewhere in the mix, maybe Queen or Journey. Maybe all of it is just a big raucous symphony that is the current soundtrack to your life.
I remember sore thumbs. I was mashing buttons so hard that I could hardly move my fingers properly during the ride home. My ears still ringing in the suddenly vast silence, I would try to recall every detail of what had just happened within the seemingly infinite number of alternative realities I had just visited: The way my elbows jerked and danced around as I tried to achieve a K.O. in “Street Fighter II,” or defeat a boss in “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” That insane rush of dopamine after clearing a level and knowing you had done it, by yourself, with the perfect balance of skill, luck, perhaps some glitchy programming, but definitely skill.
By the time I had learned Aladdin’s Castle – a popular chain of arcades – had closed in the mall, and the bowling alley next to it shortly after, I was at least still able to turn to my Super Nintendo or Sega for solace. Though the games you’d find at home weren’t the games you’d find in an arcade, they were still just as fulfilling and beautiful in their own right. Where there was the loss of the physical, and sometimes downright exhausting, experience in an arcade, console games offered you more time to perfect your craft. Sometimes they even helped you build community, even family.
Gaming, as I have spoken of in previous columns, can bring strangers together. It’s a precious thing to bond with someone over the shared experiences gaming can offer. For the most part, I rarely get the chance to spend some quality game time with my dear ones, so it was a lovely surprise to get a text from one of those friends the other day, “Exe.” It read, “Sup bro? Wanna “Cuphead” marathon?” a question I could only respond to with a thundering gesture in the approval.
“Cuphead” is a recently released game. You might not notice that at first blush because it’s entirely stylized after cartoons from the 1930s. The designers of “Cuphead” created such a beautiful game, not just through good design, but through their method of production. Everything is animated by hand using the same techniques used in the ’30s. They even hired a composer to write and record with a live band jazzy, ragtime music you could have heard in those early cartoons. In addition to its beautiful presentation, the game is also insanely challenging.
After acting like adults for a solid hour, catching up over a healthy breakfast and coffee, we booted up “Cuphead” and sat down on the couch. And then it happened. The game encouraged us in like a sweet, old lady in the forest, generously offering us candies and sweet rolls. To continue with the metaphor, she then promptly booted us head-over-heels into her impossibly fiery oven, our bodies acting only as food to the flame and fury. The shouting and screaming began and did not end until nearly eight hours later when the sun was already long gone.
It’s difficult to describe exactly why “Cuphead” is done so well, too well, even. Critics have had a lot to say about it, but sometimes turns into a picking apart of what works and why, or how this thing is a reference to that thing and so on. The game is full of things to analyze and examine, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes I feel that the point is lost somewhere in the mix. To me, it feels like enough that it got me on the couch for hours with a dear friend. It is enough that it held my undivided, enthusiastic attention for hours and hours. It is enough that it gave me sore thumbs. It is enough that it got me thinking about hi-scores.