I recently came to the very important decision that if I could own any coin-op arcade game, it would be 1980's Star Castle. It's not necessarily my most favorite game of all time, and Tron or especially Star Trek would probably fit in more with overall collecting instincts, but Star Castle holds a particular place in my memory, that certain way the phosphor of the attract screen (the one that plays on a loop before a coin inserted) glowed in the most pleasing away, tucked into the corner of my neighborhood Me & Ed's Pizza in Fresno.
Obviously, having either the money or the space to own an arcade is a ludicrous dream that could never happen in a million years -- and the people who live out that dream, sometimes to obsession and points beyond, is the subject of Pinole filmmaker Jeff Von Ward's excellent new documentary The Space Invaders: In Search of Lost Time.
The collectors are a very specific group of Generation Xers, those of us in our late 30s and 40s who spent an inordinate amount of time at arcades growing up, and have turned that childhood passion into an adult hobby. Very few buy just one machine (and those people aren't interviewed anyway), and typically the collectors gather enough to have their own functioning arcades. Those home arcades are given appropriately excellent names, like Evil Exidy's Hideout, Saurcade, Binary Starcade, Reaper's Den, and what my favorite due purely to audacious punctuation, the (G)arcade. (The Space Invaders also makes sure to establish that the majority of them also have wives and children and thus are not just nerds who need to get a life, plzkthxbai.)
Comparisons to Seth Gordon's 2007 documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters are inevitable, not just because both titles have unwieldy subtitles, and that's perfectly okay. They look at very different aspects of the same subject, King of Kong being specifically about the competitive aspect of classic gaming while Space Invaders is about collecting of the machines themselves, and more importantly, the emotional connection they generate with the players. To put it in King of Kong terms, the interviewees come across more like Steve Wiebe than Billy Mitchell, who never seemed to care about the games beyond a means of #Winning.
Another, somewhat overlooked documentary that could make great mini-festival with Space Invaders and King of Kong is Howard Scott Warshaw's 2003 Once Upon Atari, an insider's look at what went on behind-the-scenes at the most famous of the original video game companies. And there are plenty of other stories to tell from those days, I'm sure.
More than any of those previous documentaries, though, The Space Invaders aims to replicate the often immersive feeling of being in an arcade, not only with the sounds of games -- including a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo by the original and quite litigious Jungle King -- with occasional tone-poem segments to Jean Baudin's electronic score, itself often reminiscent of Wendy Carlos's Clockwork Orange score.
At the recent San Francisco premiere of The Space Invaders: In Search of Lost Time, as my girlfriend Marta played Pac-Man for the very first time, I spoke to director Von Ward and San Bruno-based collector Jonathan Koolpe about my Star Castle ruminations. Koolpe informed me that the circuitry for those kinds of games is rather tricky, and they have an unfortunate tendency to catch of fire. Details, details!
But I'll be keeping an eye out for one just to play in July at California Extreme, the annual arcade expo Koolpe helps to put on. And, after I let slip that I'm a fan of the 1983 Journey video game, Von Ward promised that there will be one waiting for me at the convention. Just goes to show that you really should not stop believin'.
The Space Invaders: In Search of Lost Time is available for rental or purchase at Amazon Instant Video, and will be on DVD and Blu-ray soon (with extras a-plenty, fingers crossed). It will also be showing for free California College of the Arts' Timken Auditorium at 1111 8th St. on Saturday, June 1 at 7pm, and it's very much worth seeing on the big screen. Check it out.