I don't know why so many of these things have roots in childhood. It seems like a bad cliché at this point. "When I was a kid", there was this strange event... that odd creature... or the other thing that made me do something-or-other.
Yeah. I don't know WHY so many start like that.
For me, I can't explain this any other way than starting when I was little. It's the crux of the entire thing, and I apologize in advance if it seems like I'm just following in the footsteps of others.
This is real. This is awful. I feel like nobody's going to listen because of where the story begins...
When I was growing up, my parents would often take me out for pizza. It didn't have to be a special occasion, I didn't even have to be a good kid, it's more that they wanted a night out and I came along for the ride.
Julie was awesome. She'd put on cartoons for me whenever I showed up, or sometimes the old 60s Batman show in repeats. This was where I was first exposed to video games, as there was always a cabinet or pinball machine waiting by the entrance. If you jostled them just right, like Julie would show me, you could even get free games.
I spent a lot of time at the machines. Sometimes my folks would even bring me there for lunch, and let me play through while they'd go shopping or would undertake other boring parent tasks.
I got good. Real good. My favorite game was Spy Hunter, and after that was Rampage. The games would change just as suddenly and mysteriously as they'd arrive... just due to rotation... and whatever came in next was my new victim. I wouldn't stop until I beat them all, or at least came relatively close.
I knew the theme music by heart, and I could see the screens in my sleep. Sometimes I'd be somewhere else entirely when a flash of genius would pop into my head. Oh - THAT'S how you defeat the third boss! Of course!
As the years passed and I grew into my teens, I even started beating other kids in local gaming competitions. By this time I'd moved away from Julie's and into arcades... and I really feel terrible that I didn't think to go back at least once before the place closed and I could never see her again. She always seemed like she was crazy about me.
At one of these competitions, I hit my highest score on any game. Sure, scoring was different from game to game, and having a million points on one might not be as important as having the same total on another, but this was different. I actually made the numbers roll back to zero, which was something nobody there had witnessed before.
I played a few different games in different challenges that day. Funny thing is, I don't even remember which one it was.
I racked up prizes left and right, and though I felt bad when the other kids and teens would get dejected I felt it was only fair that the best man win. There were even a few adults participating, and most of them didn't get as far as the rest of us.
One guy, though... he didn't take it well. He was standing at a cabinet next to me, competing on a different game. I guess he didn't appreciate the little "pew pew" and "boosh" noises I was making under my breath. He asked me to knock it off twice.
The third time, when I started doing it again without even realizing it, he actually shoved me! Here I was, this lanky kid of about thirteen, getting pushed around by a fat, hairy dude with a cheese-smeared Night of the Living Dead t-shirt.
A couple men in dark t-shirts and pants quickly came up on either side of the bully and quickly escorted him out of the building through the back. I had never noticed these guys hanging around, but was thankful. I was then approached by a third man dressed in black suit, striped tie, and an ID badge that said "OFFICIAL".
"You alright, Son?" he adjusted my shirt roughly, pulled it back into place, and spun me around at the shoulders like he was inspecting me for contraband.
"Yeah... I think so," I stammered, actually trying not to cry, "What a lameoid..."
The man chuckled and patted me on the shoulder. Then, he gently turned me back to the game I had been toiling away on.
"Here. You're going to lose a life if you don't pay attention."
I put the incident behind me and continued through the game. All told, by the time they announced all the winners I had nearly swept all the prizes. Pretty much everyone there hated my guts, and the kids who didn't were kissing my ass for tips and tricks. Some were convinced I had figured out cheat codes that couldn't be spotted.
I didn't really want either group tagging after me at that point. I was tired, frazzled, and I could still see the faded ghost imprints of a hundred different enemies. Especially when I blinked.
"Hey, Son." The Official waved me down and approached from across the arcade. Behind him were the two bruisers who took that man out back.
I struggled to hold my awards... mostly stuffed animals and unopened toy boxes... it was like carrying groceries home without the bag.
"There's a tournament next week. You're invited to compete."
"Huh? I don't know, I'm kinda tired."
"It's a whole week from now, don't be silly. The top prize is five hundred dollars, and everyone who takes part is going to have their picture in Electronic Gaming Monthly."
"Yup. You get a bio and everything. They're thinking of coming up with special names for everyone, too... like 'The Destroyer'."
He gestured for the two other men to help me with my load. They each took handfuls of toys and tried to look as manly as possible while doing so.
"What's your name, kid?"
"Kyle the Destroyer. Wouldn't that be cool?"
The Official handed me a page that had been folded over twice. As I held onto it, the thing felt warm... like he had kept it in his chest pocket the entire night.
"Here's the information. Think about it."
As I walked out of the arcade and found my Mom in the parking lot, I unfolded the page. It was a flyer of sorts, touting the tournament. The printing seemed professional and kind of bland, but it was still kind of exciting.
"BE THE FIRST TO PLAY I-BOY PLUS
I-Boy is the rudest, crudest robo-kid on the block! Now he has to save his city from the invading forces of DUOSKULL, the meanest, greenest monster from the Planet Bogus! Be among the first to play I-Boy Plus and whoever gets top score walks away with the top prize!"
Details on the date, time, and location followed... but that might as well have been Greek since I was entirely focused on the previous text. A new game? I'd be the first? I would've paid THEM for that experience.
By the way, Mom was a bit surprised when my two new man-servants arrived with me. I told her what had happened, and she thanked each of them for watching out for me. The grunted out formalities and acted a bit shy about being thanked.
I begged my parents to let me go right up to the very night before the event. Their point of view was that I had JUST been in a competition, and it wasn't good for me to spend so much time obsessing about games. They were right, of course, and even though I knew it at the time I still insisted they were being cruel and unfair.
What finally turned everything my way was the absolute promise I would save the top prize, the $500, and put it into the bank. My Hail-Mary play worked, and the appearance of caring one lick about my future was enough to get what I wanted.
The tournament was held at a local venue that would rent rooms out to conventions, weddings, and so forth. There was a large, colorful banner out in front of the cold, metal and glass building that read "GAME TOURNAMENT! FREE ADMITTANCE!" That alone seemed enough to draw a reasonable crowd, unless everyone had gotten the same flyer I had.
The man I had already met, the "Official", met my family at the door with a smile.
"I knew I'd see you here, Kyle!" he patted me on the head.
"You must be one he told us about," my Dad shook hands with the Official and grasped his arm, "I really appreciate what you've done. Thanks for inviting him here."
"Where's I-Boy?" I stood on my toes and tried to pick the new game out amid the sea of cabinets and wandering passersby.
"Oh, that's a secret! We don't want the reporters spilling the beans before we release it." The Official smirked, "You'll have to work your way up to that. We have a gauntlet of fun games, and the top five players get to see I-Boy Plus. There's a special place at the back where the final championship will be held."
I sighed and slumped my shoulders.
Other games? I'd have to fight my way, tooth and nail, through a series of other boring, non-secret, non-exclusive titles before I could even LOOK at what I'd come to play? The whole process seemed ridiculously complicated.
"Alright. Where do I start?"
"Anywhere you want," the Official gestured across the entire room with a swoop of his hand, "There are only four games here that count toward the contest. Bottle Rock-It, Blob Lobber, Stamp Out!, and Lunch Counter Lunatics. You'll find multiple cabinets with those games scattered throughout the area. Just play your best, and our computer mainframe will let us know if you get one of the top five scores. Wait by the cabinet, and one of our people will give you a silver token."
I didn't really catch much of that at the time, but I heard the game names, and the bit about the token. I hadn't heard of any of these titles before, but I wasn't concerned about it.
While my Mom and Dad went off and left me to my own devices, I cut through the crowd in search of the correct games. I basically looked for anything with "Bottle", "Blob", Stamp", or "Lunch", on the logo.
Finding a "Blob Lobber" game, I stood about a foot in front of it and studied the screen. The map was maze-based, with the main character throwing blobs of various colors in order to stop an onslaught of different, clear blobs that threatened him. The overall premise seemed obvious enough, so I approached the machine.
As soon as my hand took the joystick, another teen wedged himself in front of me and pried my hand free. He was a tall kid with thick glasses that were scotch-taped at the middle.
"I saw it first," he snapped.
Since he had size on me, and this was only my first attempt, I moved on.
I eventually settled at a "Lunch Counter Lunatics" game. I was doing exceedingly well with this one, as the premise was just as simple as the other one. I guided a little waiter around, giving the right orders to the right tables in yet another maze area. Little customers would demand things and change orders or even tell me to send things back at random. It was no sweat though... once I got the general flow of the thing.
After each stage, the screen would shift to a top-down view of a plate and I would have to assemble some sort of meal. These were mostly simple, but every two or three levels, I would catch something odd.
I could've sworn that somewhere in there I was selecting and dragging a hairy flap of human skin onto the product... It took me about three to four seconds after I complied to even realize what I had done.
Then, after I got back into waiting tables, I couldn't even be sure it had happened.
When I was finished playing the game, after it had gotten faster and faster and I couldn't get anywhere without dropping trays, the screen went black. The words "GAME OVER" came onto the screen in block letters.
No failure animation, no "wah-waahhh" music, just "GAME OVER". There wasn't even an option to continue.
I wasn't sure if I had gotten the highest score, but I knew I had a lofty one nonetheless. For this reason, I stood by the machine a waited to see if anyone gave me a silver token. The whole process seemed so questionable that I wasn't even sure how long to wait.
Eventually, as others passed by and nothing seemed to be happening, I started to walk away.
I turned around when I heard the excited voice of some little kid. I figured someone else had won and wanted to see what score they'd gotten.
Instead, I saw two people standing at exactly the same "Lunch Counter Lunatics" game I had just finished with! The screen still read "GAME OVER" as a man in a black shirt and pants handed a gleaming silver token to a tiny little boy in a pink "Skate or Die" t-shirt.
The boy pumped his fist a few times and excitedly stuffed the token into his jeans pocket. As I ran back to the machine, I called out.
"That's mine! I did that!"
"I'm sorry?" the man in the black shirt looked confused.
"That's my high score. That's my token."
"I don't think so," the man shook his head and gave me the look you give when someone's telling you an absurd lie, "I just saw you run up here."
"Yeah!" the little kid sneered.
Before I could say anything else, the pink shirt boy disappeared into the crowd. The man was definitely in no mood to hear my complaints as he spoke into a walkie-talkie.
"Token three is out." he droned.
"Copy." came the crackling voice on the other end.
"Sir, that was MY high score. That kid wouldn't have even been able to reach the controls! Come on!"
The man gestured me away dismissively and turned to leave.
"If you want a token, go WIN one the honest way."
"Fucker!" the word escaped my lips before I even knew what I was saying. I'd never uttered any profanity in public before, and I was way more shocked than anyone else could have been.
Luckily, he either didn't hear me or just didn't care.
Now I was on a mission. I was pretty sure that I'd never be able to beat my own score... it was so high, and that really seemed like the peak of what I could accomplish there... so I set out to try another game.
After passing ten, twenty games with other teens and adults stuck on them like flypaper, I finally found myself standing at a "Stamp Out!" cabinet. At this point, I would've settled for trying the same game, but even the one I had been on was now claimed again.
Something struck me as odd, now. "Stamp Out!" was yet another maze-styled game. I took the role of a postal carrier, delivering mail and avoiding hazards like dogs and rogue children on bicycles.
I played for as long as I could on that machine, taking every available power-up and prize. I left no stone unturned in my quest to squeeze every last point out of this thing.
After a few rounds, the little mailman appeared at the center of the screen, facing me.
"RAGE ROUND!" the game boomed.
A tiny assault rifle appeared in the mailman's hands, and I let out a loud cheer. This was going to make the game a LOT simpler!
I delivered packages and letters all over the maze-town. Look out, a dog! BLAM. Dead. Here comes a kid on a bike! BLAM. Dead. They'd trouble me no longer, and the points just kept racking up like crazy.
Woman with a stroller! BLAM. Dead.
Police officer! BLAM. Dead.
A tip appeared onscreen. "Go full automatic by holding down the B-Button."
I did as I was told as an entire group of what looked to be Boy Scouts headed my way in a great stampede. "I'll be crushed!" I thought.
As the tiny pixelated bodies dissolved with crude 8-bit animations, I went back to bringing packages to all the houses that were probably empty by now.
I wasn't even finished when a hand reached out in front of me. I looked down only for the briefest second and saw the silver token in the palm. Then I was back to blowing away suburban citizens.
"Keep going if you want... I'll leave this here. Don't lose it." The hand slapped the token down with a clatter.
When I completed the tasks set out by the game, when everyone was dead and I had no more letters to give, the little mailman just stood on the sidewalk, looking out of the screen at me.
"Commit suicide by holding the A and B buttons together."
I accommodated the game's wishes and mashed the buttons. The little mailman raised the barrel of the rifle and put it into his tiny mouth.
That was, without a doubt, the best and most fun game I had ever played.
"Welcome, Champions!" the Official stood at the door to a secret room and read from a clipboard, "You five skilled contestants have proven yourselves worthy of our biggest honor. Behind this door, you will find the unreleased prototype of I-Boy Plus, an all-new game that will soon be America's best-selling title. I-Boy is in trouble, and only YOU can save him from the vile Duoskull. You've shown that you have the fortitude and the moxie necessary to defeat this threat to us all... now let's see you use it!"
The crowd behind the five of us let out a deafening cheer as the Official unlocked and opened the door.
I looked at the others around me...
The little kid in the pink shirt who stole my first token turned to the crowd and flexed his imaginary muscles. People "aww"ed at the antics of this little blonde bastard, his buck teeth only adding to his deceptively adorable exterior.
The guy with the taped glasses, the one who edged me away from Blob Lobber, was there, too. He looked really disaffected and casual, as if all this was owed to him.
Next to that guy was this teenager with incredible, crippling acne. This guy looked like just being alive at all was painful. As he sweated under the pressure, he dabbed his forehead and cheeks with some sort of medical-grade tissue.
Lastly, standing a bit forward from everyone else, was a plain-looking young girl in a full orange and brown plaid dress that was outdated and weird even then. Her thick, dry brown hair traveled all the way down her back and the hem of her dress nearly touched the floor. I couldn't for the life of me figure out how a GIRL had accidentally starting playing an arcade game, but I was sure there must've been a mistake. I thought maybe she was holding her brother's place, perhaps.
The line into the room was anything but "single file". I was quickly jostled out of the way as the others went in. The little kid was the only one weak enough to go in after me, and regardless of what he had done I still felt bad for sweeping my body ahead of him.
The inside of the room was dark. Scary dark. It was cold, too. The silence of that nearly pitch black place felt like being in a movie theater before the show starts. The off-putting nature of this absolute quiet forced all within to refrain from speaking.
I looked toward the door I'd entered as the Official locked it. I could barely make out his black-clad form.
"What's going on?" the little kid piped up.
"Shh..." the rest of us scolded in unison. It was as if we found ourselves in some sort of Religious temple that required an observation of silence. We all felt it.
The Official passed by the five of us without a word and started turning on a row of arcade cabinets against the left wall. Each machine came to life with a click and the flickering screens nearly blinded us.
The room filled with the dim, pale blue light of the screens. I turned to the opposite wall, the right wall of the room, just to let my eyes adjust. There, I saw a long mirror the entire length of that surface.
It seemed like there was nowhere to look without seeing the light.
"This is a prototype version," the Official finally spoke, his voice booming like that of God within this confined, sound-proof space, "There are no sound effects yet, no music, so we'll be piping something in just to fill the void."
He gestured to the row of black cabinets, one for each winner.
"Pick a cabinet, and get to work! We'll monitor your scores to see who gets the ultimate prize... good luck!"
With that, the Official disappeared through a second door at the back of the room.
Acne was the first to walk up to a machine. It was the one on the far left. As soon as he made that move for it, Glasses wedged him out of the way in a manner I'd already experienced.
"I get machine number one." He snapped.
Acne silently settled on the second machine, and was followed by the kid on the third. Lucky me, I was on the fifth and had to stand next to the Girl on number four. I didn't like the fact that she smelled like fruit and kept letting out these little angsty high-pitched sighs.
Classical music began playing from an unseen source above. The entire room suddenly felt like an elevator.
Within seconds, we were all playing "I-Boy Plus".
The screen flashed a single phrase at me.
"CAN YOU MAKE IT TO THE BONUS ROOM?"
Not surprisingly, the map was maze-based... but on a much larger scale. I could barely see the dot at the center of the screen that represented me. Was that I-Boy? Who was to know?
I shook my head with a snort. This was the first disappointment in what was sure to be a lame game I'd wasted my time fighting for.
Suddenly, the maze began to expand... the screen zoomed in at incredible speed with the vector walls whizzing past in a dizzying volley of light and darkness. My head felt like it was spinning, and I actually felt as if my feet might float off of the floor.
When the image stopped zooming, there was I-Boy. The best way I can think of to describe him is as a cross between Bart Simpson and Tron. He was a slick-looking little robot-guy with illuminated grooves along his body and a pair of brightly glowing eyes. His demeanor... his stance... it was the epitome of "radical", which so permeated the era. He stood there as if waiting for me to move him, silently defying me to prove I was a bad dude.
I can't tell you much more about the game from that point forward.
It's not a matter of keeping secret the details of an unreleased product, and I'm not trying to give everybody blue balls... I just don't remember much of what happened from there forward. It's not a cop-out, it's a blank, blurry smear on my brain.
What I can say is that there was danger everywhere. I distinctly recall feeling scared out of my mind, a feeling fed by repeated shock moments where... something... would pop out from around a corner.
I know that at one point the game switched to first person.
The only reason I remember this is... I don't even want to say it... I was... or... I-Boy was walking down a corridor, and this tall, slow-moving shadow with long limbs and no visible head just kind of passed by in the distance. It walked across the opening at the end of that corridor in one smooth motion and didn't regard me at all.
When I got up the courage to proceed, there was nothing there.
Looking back at my life before then, I know I've seen that thing before. When I was camping, that thing passed through the trees, lit by campfire. When I had my fourth birthday party at McDonald's, that thing walked by behind the counter. I remember the lanky shademan constantly wandering around me on the fringes of existence...
..and I'm pretty sure it never really happened.
Other than that, all I can recall is the much-touted DUOSKULL. That's how he would be announced before his arrival, each time. The screen would flash with such intensity that it made my eyes hurt, and the entire time the screen would just read "DUOSKULL".
It was hard to concentrate when he would appear and ask questions... especially since the Girl was constantly moaning "Ohh my gawwwd" and "Oh, nooooowah!
Each question had two possible answers. One for each of Duoskull's skeletal heads.
WHICH DO YOU LIKE BETTER? A: VANILLA - B: CHOCOLATE
Hitting the corresponding button would give your answer, at which point the head that belonged to that selection would suddenly turn and grin at me.
WHICH IS BETTER? A: WINNING - B: FRIENDSHIP
WHICH IS MORE VALUABLE? A: LIFE - B: PEACE
Some of the questions didn't make sense like that. How could "Life" and "Peace" be opposing answers?? It seemed to have no real effect on gameplay, yet I felt as if something... SOME unknown thing... would go incredibly wrong unless I was truthful.
The little kid started screaming at some point, and I could hear a wet sound. It didn't quite sound like he was peeing himself, but I could hear moisture and figured that's what it was.
WHO DO YOU THINK IS BETTER? A: SOLDIER - B: DOCTOR
Solider, of course. I might've answered differently before, but now it seemed obvious.
Acne started kicking his machine. He must've lost. Two down, two left between me and the big prize!
WHO WOULD YOU KILL? A: MOTHER - B: FATHER
I answered quickly.
I wasn't the least bit distracted by the Girl as she started making weird guttural noises, almost right in my ear.
After I answered that last question, the screen went completely blank. It was as if someone had pulled the plug right out of the wall. I could only blink in confusion as I saw my own reflection peering out at me from the machine's glass.
I turned my head to the second door as the Official entered once more.
"Come with me," he pointed at me, "You. Kyle. Follow me."
Regretting that I wouldn't be able to finish the game and see Duoskull get what he deserved, I begrudgingly followed the Official through the door. We weaved around, through another door after the Official sealed the play room once more.
"What happened? Did I win? Please tell me!" I was eager, yet hesitant to draw the man's ire.
We ended up in another room after making what seemed like a U-turn. There was a large span of dark black glass on the wall, and a few folding chairs sat around a bulky video camera.
A woman, dressed in black like the Official, seemed to be waiting there for us. She took a folding chair, faced it away from the glass, and gestured for me to sit.
"Here. Stay still and be quiet."
I watched the bare wall I had been told to face and tried to make sense of the situation. Had I done something wrong?
"Well," the Official chuckled nervously, "I'm pretty sure THAT wasn't supposed to happen."
The room was flooded with light.
The Woman drew in a heavy sigh.
As curiosity got the better of me, I cautiously turned and peered over my shoulder. The two adults were looking at the glass, which now revealed itself to be a one-way mirror into the play room.
At one I-Boy cabinet, the Kid in the pink shirt was huddled on the floor, peeling away strips of his face as his eyes flicked left to right over and over again like he was watching a tennis match. His shirt was more red than pink, now.
Acne was still kicking his cabinet... over and over and over again... He was working through the wood and metal, to the electronics within. His foot seemed to hang loose and shattered at the end of his leg.
Worst of all, though, the Girl was desperately reaching for the controls of her cabinet, trying to continue playing as the guy in the Glasses stood behind her. He had one hand on her throat, and the other was repeatedly moving back and forth from her mouth, drawing out blood-soaked teeth.
"I really don't understand it." the Woman clucked her tongue.
"Don't worry. We'll try again." the Official consoled her.
The Official then moved to a large red button next to the mirror and struck it with his open palm. In a split second, I heard a strange hiss followed by the flash of flames as the contestants... the game cabinets... the entire room started burning.
Not long after, the only thing visible behind the glass was a wall of fire.
"Parents?" the Official asked plainly.
"Traffic pile-up, I suppose." the woman replied just as cooly.
I had barely turned to face the blank wall once more when I heard the Official turn on his heels and walk toward me. I stared forward, too terrified to look at him.
"He was on level forty. Complete saturation. Maybe he's the exception that proves the rule?" the Official cleared his throat and stood next to me.
"Codeword: Shademan. Stand, Kyle."
"Touch your nose, Kyle."
Despite the fact I knew I could choose not to... and even though I had no idea what was going on... I did as I was told.
"Kyle, punch yourself in the face as hard as you can."
That was when it clicked for me. I had seen any number of movies, comics, and cartoons where the villain uses some object to take control of the hero's mind.
Now, I understood... I had gotten to the bonus room. This was it, and my real prize was continuing to live.
I struck myself in the face as hard as possible, breaking my nose and drawing copious amounts of blood. My eyes filled with tears... my knees buckled... but I did not flinch, and I refused to cry out.
They bandaged my nose and let me go back to my Parents soon after, and I knew better than to tell anyone what had happened. I told them I didn't win, and that someone had elbowed me in the face while they played one of those punching-bag games.
For decades, I've kept this completely to myself. Judging by web searches I've done, this is the first time anyone has publicly mentioned "I-Boy Plus" or these strange events.
Why would I divulge this, knowing full well that it may result in my own death or... worse yet... unending torture?
It's because of the last thing I heard the Official say before I ran back to my Mother's arms, not caring who saw a teenager clutch to his Mommy like an infant.
"Well..." he opened the room up and ushered me out ahead of him, "We should follow protocol nonetheless. Monitor, then take a look at that brain in a decade or two."
I can tell that time is drawing close. The shademan keeps crossing my door...