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Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Deli and Destruction

It sat almost on a corner, across a wide parking lot from Mr. Quik and Kiamie Bowling Lanes and across the road from Pizza Inn. I once spent a solitary summer in its second room apartment. It had the publicity-oriented name of Rebel Deli and it was a den of destruction.

Rebel Deli served—-as expected—-deli-style sandwiches, with thin-cut meats and steamed goodness. A simple menu meant quality and service could be high and with about 12 tables, you always had a bit of a crowd. But to the rear of the Deli, standing like a stack of weapons, were the true engines of destruction: video games.

This was 1980. Pong had shown that a game played on a screen could foster addiction and the first wave of great video games emerged. For a generation raised on Half Life and Doom, Space Invaders seems throbbingly dull. But for us, the first generation of video gamers, the drumming metronome of descending aliens that gained aggressiveness as time ran out, was a shot of mental crack. Quarter after quarter was dropped into the console, techniques were debated, tested and approved and the early game wizards, guys who could play for an hour on just one quarter, were as close to demi-gods as we ever saw.

The gobbling munchies of Pac-Man, with its maze-running/escape skills, burst on the scene and added a new—disturbing—element to video games: women. Lacking in any true violence (eating meat on the hoof without caloric penalty being less violence than wish-fulfillment for the anorexic and bulimic corps, I guess), Pac-Man often had us guys waiting in line behind a girl to play a game. Some of the guys took advantage of the situation to play “video Lothario,” but the efforts (at least those in my presence) were as comfortable as using someone else’s dirty hanky.

But the Rebel Deli quarter-muncher, destroyer of budgets and savings, was Asteroids. Deceptively simple, with only lines to demark boulders, rocks and ships, Asteroids introduced full-screen movement in a circular universe: fly left, emerge on the right; fly up, emerge at the bottom. In a burst of genius, inertia was also a part of the formula, as your ability to maneuver was limited by your speed. Blast an asteroid, get two boulders; blast a boulder, get two rocks. Clear the screen of debris, shoot the trigger-happy little alien ship and move on.

Asteroids, boulders and rocks broke in reaction to speed and angle, so that sometimes debris would fly by as happy whales or at warp speeds. As your skills developed—-quarter after quarter—-you could anticipate how a shot would create a reaction and plan your moves. Like any challenging activity, focused effort and lots of practice gave you appreciable growth. But in the end, your little ships would find themselves overwhelmed and the death-phrase “Game Over” would shut down the flow to your pleasure centers.

Bill and I often spent hours at Rebel Deli, eating sporadically and practically living on a stool in front of Asteroids. One memorable day, we arrived at 11 AM, ate about 8 sandwiches apiece and left shortly after 6, our stomachs a bit fuller than our pockets. Near the end, I was playing mechanically, the way a lifeboat survivor continues to bail even as the rescue ship looms above. We walked out and parted ways.

Next morning, at 11 AM, we were back on the stool, blasting rocks, eating sandwiches, lost in the Deli and the Destruction.


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