Beercade, and the Legend of ZED

Could a legend be born at Beercade?

The new bar-arcade had its grand opening Friday night. Judging by the crowd, it was a crushing success. Located on the corner of 61st and Maple streets in the heart of Benson, Beercade is an achievement in building rehab and design. The facade has been brought back to its original brick grandeur capped with an ingenious neon sign that glows like a giant nerd beacon, its logo festooned with a line of smiling Pac Men. Classic.

The new club's target demographic is: Me. I grew up playing arcade games in the '80s. In fact, I wasted so much time playing them during the Reagan Era, I should be part owner of Williams Electronics, the makers of the best arcade games of all time. At the very least, I should have been a chief consultant for Beercade.

My initial impression: The place is classy. You can hear the video games before you enter the door. Once inside, there they are, lined up along the west wall, one standup after another, including some real gems like Asteroids, Mario Bros., Street Fighter 2, Missile Command, Joust and Area 51.

Across from the stand-ups is a small row of four pinball machines. On opening night Friday, two were shut off -- a disaster. When we came back to Beercade Monday after work, three were operating and all three were being played. People love pinball as much -- or more -- than video games.

But I digress.

Every piece of artwork in Beercade, from the mosaic tile mural behind the bar to the graffiti art above the stand-ups, is an homage to video game culture. There is no doubt that the bar's owners are huge videogame fans from way back. Which makes what I'm about to say all the more curious.

If you're going to run a video arcade, there are a few games you absolutely, positively must have. The short list: Pac-Man (duh), Ms. Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Defender, Centipede, Frogger, Pole Position and (of course) Tron (no matter how lame the game actually was). Beercade has none of them.

But let me also add to the list Robotron (my all-time favorite), Elevator Action, Tapper, Star Wars (also lame, but part of the videogame canon) and last but not least, Spy Hunter, with its classic digitized "Peter Gunn" theme music. All are missing.

The only classic '80s game I wanted to play at Beercade was Joust. And Galaga. But when we played doubles on Galaga -- after I had a wicked first ship and was about to take my second -- THE GAME RESET ITSELF. The screen went white, then digital, then back to the start screen. My game was gone.

I told the arcade guy what happened. I'm not sure he believed me, but he gave me a quarter anyway. And after I started playing again, I noticed that the impressive high score of 70,000 -- there moments earlier -- had been reset to 20,000. THAT CANNOT HAPPEN. When a player gets a high score, he expects to see it when he comes back the next day, or at least see the initials of the guy who conquered his score. Those initials, carved with electrons, are what legends are made of.

Case in point: When I was wasting a good part of my early 20s playing video games in the basement at Crossroads, my gang of friends and I spent hours (and dollars) trying to do one thing -- knock off ZED.

ZED. Who was he? Obviously he was some sort of wizard -- a savant -- but how could he possibly claim every high score on every game down there?

In my mind, I had a vision of what he looked like. ZED was a tough little guy with a cigarette permanently sticking out of his mouth (because you could smoke in arcades back then) wearing Ray Bans and a black Members Only jacket over a Polo shirt with the collar up. Strike that. ZED was too cool to wear a Polo shirt. It had to be something even cooler, like an REO Speedwagen T-shirt.

ZED. Half smiling. Smirking. Cool. He always knew what was coming next.

Look, when you played Defender or Robotron, you didn't just play the game, you felt the game. You moved with it, you became.... part of the machine. ZED became the machine. He was a machine. And every day we skipped our trig or chemistry or sociology classes at UNO to ruin our lives at Crossroads, the name of the mysterious god we worshipped was ZED.

As good as I was at Defender (and I was the best among my friends), I never knocked ZED off the leader board. Never. The only one to do it was my pal Ross Fisicaro.  He did it on Robotron, a game just like Defender and every other video game of that era, where the goal was to save the planet from aliens. It was a game you could never win. And that day Ross didn't win either, but he knocked ZED off the top of the screen.

I was there. I saw it happen. I saw ZED fall.

Ross is long gone now. As for Zed? We never saw his face. Never knew who he was. But maybe someday, after all these years, ZED will walk into Beercade. And his legend will be reborn.

Beyond Lazy-i is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on arts, culture, society and the media. Email Tim at tim@timmcmahan.com

posted at 03:31 pm
on Tuesday, April 17th, 2012

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