Donkey Kong

Nothing quite matches the nuclear meltdown that follows on after taking my kids’ iPads away for a day.  Well, maybe telling my oldest son he can’t play Xbox…

Any responsible parent witnesses how kids react emotionally – and sometimes, physically – when we take their electronics away, and wonders if they’re in the grips of some awful addiction.  It’s hard to come reasonably to any conclusion other than yes, they are addicted to their screens and the windows those devices provide into other worlds.  While parents my age are mindful and cautious, we also deal with kiddie addicts by taking a step back and remembering that we’ve seen all of this before.

Ask any child of the 1980s what video game started their craving for on-screen action and most will say Pac-Man.  Not me.  Donkey Kong was the first video game that made me start to think that video gaming wasn’t merely a fun thing I did, but was also a bona fide addiction.

I had a free-range childhood growing up.  It didn’t take me long after I got my first bicycle to discover that my parents didn’t want to know exactly where I was all of the time.  Rather, they’d get by with an approximate understanding of where I was – down the block, over by the elementary school, across town at a friend’s, or whatever – as long as I made an appearance for dinner.

As kids, we all took advantage, using our BMX bikes to get wherever we wanted to go, from the old General Store downtown where we’d buy rack packs of baseball cards, to friends’ houses where we’d play pickup games of wiffle ball.  Kids also kept track of the neighborhood stores, and which had standup arcade games in them.  The Chinese Food place uptown always had a game or two in the front.  So did the deli.  And while we didn’t have a proper arcade in town, we did have something close – Roscoe’s Candy Store.

Although Roscoe’s was stocked with big glass jars of penny candy and had all the sweets a young boy could ever crave, kids rarely went there to buy candy.  In a nook across from the counter, there was a little area just big enough to hold a small stable of standup arcade cabinets.  The games frequently rotated, and whoever was responsible for the game selection at Roscoe’s had an odd penchant for weird Japanese video games that we couldn’t find in the arcade at the mall.

True to form, the first game I remember playing there was Donkey Kong.  Only, this machine was a bit… weirder than other Donkey Kong machines I had encountered.  For one, the first splash screen didn’t greet players with the all-familiar “How High Can You Get?”  Instead, it said “How High Can You Try?”

On top of that, the machine seemed to be chock full of odd glitches and strange quirks.  Through the blunt force of sheer repetitive play, we discovered all of them.

Looking at Roscoe’s some 35 years later, I realize it wasn’t in what you might term an “ideal retail location.”  It was in a little strip of odd stores with Gull’s Fish Market and the town butcher, and the strip was turned perpendicular to the main road, such that you’d breeze right by it without realizing it was there.  Kids could also get to it by following a pothole-strewn dirt road across the street from Wading River Elementary School.  I’d follow that dirt road on my bike almost daily, with a pocket full of scrounged quarters found in couch cushions and junk drawers.

Donkey Kong was a strange game to begin with.  Climbing up a tower made of steel girders with an odd-looking cartoon plumber, hoping to rescue a girl from an oversized gorilla who threw barrels at you – that’s off the beaten path.  But the quirks of the version of the game on this particular machine made the merely bizarre skate off into insanely weird territory.

At certain points on the board, Mario could pick up a hammer and start swinging it at barrels and fireballs.  At certain other points, you could waggle the joystick in just the right way and the hammer Mario picked up would come loose, floating in space and annihilating any barrels or fireballs that happened to wander into it.  We used to do this routinely when we were kids, but I haven’t been able to replicate that move on any other Donkey Kong machine since.

There were also times and places when you could jump Mario and score points, as if he had jumped over a barrel, but without there being an actual barrel to jump over.  Like I said, the machine was weird.

There were also patterns.  Other Donkey Kong machines seemed to have a degree of randomness built into them, so that just when you started getting into a groove, the game’s behavior would switch up and you’d have to start from scratch.  Not so with this machine – kids had found certain paths they could take throughout the various stages and win every time.  We termed the successive progression of moves the “Undefeatable Pattern” and used it to play longer and longer every time we put a quarter in, undoubtedly putting a damper on Roscoe’s gaming revenue.  That’s probably why the titles used to switch up fairly quickly.

I have happy memories of much of my time spent gaming at Roscoe’s, until certain kids started hanging out there.  I mentioned I was a free-range kid, but these kids who started hanging out there were the truly unsupervised – the kids whose parents didn’t care if they didn’t make it home for dinner or even if they didn’t show up at school.  The kinds of kids who got more kicks out of starting trouble than pumping quarters into arcade games.

It started out with some of them hassling me when I was playing – distracting me enough to throw me off a pattern.  It progressed to cutting the line.  (Everybody who played arcade games back then knew the inviolable contract presented by someone who would wander up while you were playing and place a quarter on the edge of the glass.  That person had “next game” and nobody messed with the quarter they placed up there.  Yeah, these kids broke that contract.)  Then it evolved into stealing quarters outright, which used to almost invariably result in a fistfight.

After a few of these fistfights, I began to think about avoiding Roscoe’s altogether.  Problem was, I liked Donkey Kong too much.  I’d find myself taking a break from Roscoe’s, and then ending up there again after a few days, only to have my money stolen again and end up in another fight.

Then she showed up.

To this day, I have no idea who she was.  I was maybe 10 or 11.  She was clearly 15 or 16.  Very rough around the edges with a thick Long Island accent with perhaps some hints of Brooklyn.  Lots of denim.  She wandered into Roscoe’s one day when two kids were bugging me and trying to take my money.

“Why dontch yez leave ‘im alone?” she asked.  It was not a suggestion.  It was an order.

The two kids harassing me instantly stopped.  I was dumbfounded.  She even placed her quarter on the glass of the machine and hopped in the queue, playing a decent game while we stood next to her and watched.  When her turns were over, though, she would step outside and light up a cigarette.

I couldn’t believe it.  The two kids hassling me had successfully made off with my quarters on more than a few occasions, and had given me bloody noses a handful of other times.  And in waltzed somebody who they were afraid of.  And it was a girl.

In the subsequent weeks, I dialed up my Donkey Kong addiction.  Now that I wasn’t being hit up by bullies, gaming got a lot more enjoyable.  This new girl made it evident that she was intent on keeping the peace at Roscoe’s.  There wasn’t any particular fondness she had for me, but if she saw me getting picked on or shaken down for quarters, she’d put a stop to it.

Until one day.  I had seen her plenty of times up at Roscoe’s, but never in my neighborhood.  That changed.  My buddy John and I were hanging out near the bus stop at the end of his driveway, and she came wandering by on her way somewhere else, smoking a cigarette.  As she passed, I said something to her.  Inexplicably, it was something mean.  Perhaps it was a remark about the chain smoking.  It’s unimportant.  What is important is what happened next.

She pulled the front of my t-shirt into a knot at my chest and picked me up off the ground, then threw me down.  Casually, she flicked an ash from her cigarette, which landed inside my shirt and sent me into a panic trying to avoid being burned.

“Y’know, I stuck up fer you when Andy and dem kids was fucking witchoo up at da candy store,” she lectured.  “What wouldja think if I had a little tawk witcher parents?”

“Ha!” I retorted.  “You don’t know where I live.”

She leveled her gaze at John.

“Where duz dis guy live?” she sneered.

Despite my protestations, John instantly ratted me out.  Probably out of fear.

And off she walked, continuing on her path, but in a direction that suggested she might actually go knock on my door and speak to my folks.

I decided to call her bluff, and go play a game of wiffle ball in John’s back yard.  It wasn’t long until John’s mom called out to the back yard to let me know that she had indeed fielded a call from my mother, and that my mom wanted me home, pronto.

Wouldn’t you know it, this crazy girl had actually walked up to my front door, knocked, and then talked to my mom about everything - The fights, the stolen money, the time I was spending at Roscoe’s pumping quarters into Donkey Kong.

“I don’t want you hanging out at that candy store anymore,” was the verdict from my mom.  “You shouldn’t be hanging out like that with nothing to do.”

One thing became clear.  If my mom caught me hanging out at Roscoe’s anymore, I’d be in serious trouble.

Did that put a stop to my Donkey Kong addiction?  Nope.  Not even close. 

I’d sneak over to Roscoe’s from time to time, keeping a careful watch for my mom and her car.  One time, I came out of Roscoe’s to find my mom’s car in the lot.  Clearly she had stopped by either the butcher or the fish market.  I booked it home on my bike, on the dirt road and then the power line trails, hoping she didn’t spot me.  But I got busted.  She must have recognized my bike sitting outside the store.  I got grounded, and had to explain myself to my Dad when he got home from work.

My visits to Roscoe’s didn’t end until after Donkey Kong rotated out of the store.  One day, there was a Satan’s Hollow machine in there, and some weird wrestling game.  I’d still stop by Roscoe’s here and there, but when Donkey Kong left, it simply wasn’t the same.  I stopped going altogether after a particularly embarrassing incident I’ll describe in another post.

But while Donkey Kong was a resident at Roscoe’s Candy Store, I was there as often as I could be, bullies or not. After fistfights, having my money stolen and my mom’s forbidding me to go there, I often wondered what it was about Donkey Kong that kept me going to Roscoe’s, and it’s when I first came to grips with the notion that video games can be a strong addiction.

Since the coin-op version, it took many, many years for anyone to develop a compelling version of Donkey Kong that could be played at home.  The Atari 2600 version was notoriously awful, and came out long after that console hit its peak. The version I played on my Commodore 64 was awful as well.   We had to wait until the Nintendo Entertainment System came out to see a version of Donkey Kong that could compete with the original arcade version.  Still, that version didn’t have any of the gameplay quirks or odd bugs that the machine in Roscoe’s had.

It really wasn’t until the emulation era that I was able to play the same version of Donkey Kong I played in Roscoe’s.  Indeed, Roscoe’s somehow got a version of the game ROMs that differed from the ones normally distributed in the U.S.  I played it on an arcade emulator and it’s just as quirky as I remember it.  I keep that version of the ROMs (JP03) on the arcade table in my basement, just for old times’ sake.

But the version you typically see in arcades tends to be US01.  All of my old patterns don’t work on that version of the game.  I know because on one of my first dates with my now-wife, Lauren, we went to Dave & Buster’s and played a two-player game.  The machine destroyed me, and I don’t think I made it past the third board.  Still, it was good to play on an upright cabinet and old-school joystick again, and it was cool that Donkey Kong was one of the old games that Lauren remembered how to play, too.

My kids will occasionally commit an offense that merits a one-day suspension from electronics.  If you’re a parent of young kids, you know how this can result in an instant kid meltdown.  I’m almost always struck by the severity of how they react to that punishment, but in a strange way, I’m also reassured.  Because while I realize how strong the pull toward video gaming can be, I also know that I lived through it myself, and came through no worse for wear in the end.