Difficult as this may be to believe, there was a time, far back in the mists of history, when neither I nor any of my friends had ever heard of “girls” or that mythical substance known as “beer” -- to say nothing of “drugs.” We inhabited a world blissfully unencumbered by such concerns.
In truth, we had but one mission in life, one all-consuming passion, and that was to play Asteroids. This was before personal computers -- I’m talking about the arcade game here, and we were hooked. The concept of “too many games of Asteroids” was meaningless. Every spare moment, every hour not under the direct supervision of our parents or teachers, was spent either playing Asteroids or hatching schemes for obtaining free games of Asteroids.
Because, you see, each game cost a quarter. Which doesn’t sound like much, but we could play for hours at a stretch, and those quarters could add up fast. Since we were only 13, none of us had jobs or anything like that. The only way we survived was by our wits -- and our allowances.
In our town there were three Asteroids machines. We had two bowling alleys (not coincidentally, a friend of mine from back then grew up to be a professional bowler on the PBA Tour. If only we’d had two libraries instead of two bowling alleys, maybe I’d be a genius today…), each with one Asteroids machine. A third machine was located in the Mayfair supermarket. This one was not as much fun. It was a supermarket, after all, brightly lit and frequented by housewives -- any of whom could be one of our moms, for god’s sake. No, the bowling alley was the place to be -- dark, a little seedy, and delightfully noisy.
The trouble was, the machines in the bowling alleys were often monopolized by older guys, 15, 16, maybe even 17 years old. Guys who shaved. Guys who probably HAD heard of girls and had at least some idea of what to do with them. Most importantly, they were guys who blew us away at Asteroids.
These were the guys who had perfected the so-called “lurking” technique that could produce ridiculously high scores. With each 10,000 points, you earned another ship, so it was not uncommon for these guys to have ships lined up in rows across the top of the screen. The simple graphics of the day meant that the ships were really just the letter A, so it looked like:
And so on.
You could place your quarter on the machine and call “next game,” but it didn’t matter. Their game effectively lasted forever. And so you’d hang around and blow your puny stash of quarters on Space Invaders or Missile Command, or Centipede -- they were OK, but they weren’t Asteroids, and Asteroids was the whole point. Your only hope of getting on the Asteroids machine was to wait for these older guys to get bored, and hope they’d let you finish their game for them. This always represented a major coup, as these scruffy 16-year-olds were basically our gods.
Short of this type of divine intervention, however, it was always the same. Sooner or later, we’d run out of quarters. From time to time, someone you knew got his hands on a supply of slugs, and there was always the occasional Canadian quarter, but it was never enough. We needed help.
I forget who first came up with the quarter-on-a-string technique, but I think it was my friend Bobby. He realized we’d been going about this all wrong. Why knock ourselves out trying to amass piles of quarters when all we really needed was one? Let the quarter work for us, he reasoned, not the other way around. And so, armed with a single quarter, a length of string and a bit of black electrical tape, we stepped into the promised land.
It was so simple. With a quarter on a string, you could trick the machine into relinquishing its precious games for free. Just drop the quarter into the slot, rattle it up and down and watch the credits appear as if by magic. When you had enough credits, you just pulled the quarter out of the machine and stuck it back in your pocket. Running low? Drop it back in and rattle it up and down for a bit and watch your credits multiply.
We fine-tuned this technique endlessly. Some kinds of tape were too thick, causing the quarter to jam. Same with certain kinds of string. Ordinary sewing thread seemed to have the best tensile properties, but was prone to breaking. Fishing line was stronger but had a tendency to work its way free of the tape. We experimented with Krazy-Gluing the string to the quarter instead of taping it, with passable results. One outside-the-box thinker among us even drilled a hole through a quarter in metal shop, allowing the string to be securely tied, but for some reason this didn’t work as well.
Of course, the quarter-on-a-string had the slight drawback of being technically illegal, meaning that on top of everything else, we now had to keep a watchful eye out for the Man at all times. But this only added to the deliciousness of it all. We were, at long last, utterly happy.
You'd think that given a now-endless supply of games, we'd soon grow tired of Asteroids, but, incredibly, we carried on this way for quite some time. Eventually, though, some of us began hearing talk of new machines being brought in, with coin boxes fiendishly designed to snap your string. I don’t know if they were real or just rumored. But slowly, inexorably, the fascination with Asteroids began to fade. In all likelihood what happened was that one of us discovered girls. Or beer. Probably both.
And of course, once that happens, nothing is ever the same.