Tuesday, July 07, 2020

We used to go on holiday to Brighton, in the years before the oceans drank the West Pier.

It was already a memorial to itself, a relic of a fading age. There was an arcade—a "penny arcade" they still said—but all the games were mechanical. It still had those horrible shock tableaux, with figurines that someone years ago must have taken some trouble over, with titles like "the execution of Dr Crippen" or "beheading in a French Jail". You could literally put one old penny in the slot and push a button and chop the murderer's head off. The change-counter changed one modern five pence for two old pennies.
This sort of thing depends on you using your imagination. You have to be imagining that you are the puppet with the rope round its neck, or the puppet pulling the lever, or at any rate one of the puppets witnessing the procedure, or you don't get even a tiny 2.5 new pence worth of morbid thrill. No-one could possibly suppose that what they were looking at was real or realistic; but it represented something horrible. It presented a morbid idea and your imagination did the rest. In Madame Tussauds you could see a full sized waxwork of a murderer being hanged by a full size waxwork of Alfred Pierpoint. That was fairly realistic and gave me nightmares for a week. 
On the same pier there were shooting games. Dioramas created out of physical models, reflected in mirrors, toy soldiers and tanks and flying saucers; lights and flashes and bullets which whooshed across the mirror as you shot them down. There was one where you looked down a periscope and shot model ships as they moved at different speeds across your field of view, and a similar one in which you had to shoot down model flying saucers. There were some in which you played against a human opponent. Two players each controlled a small plastic figure of a cowboy, and the person who shot most accurately won. The loser's doll collapsed rather impressively. 
I do not know how any of these games determined hits and misses. Certainly the cowboy game wasn't tracking the trajectories of virtual bullets. I suppose it was based on something as simple as a reflex-timer: the person who pulled the trigger first was deemed to have hit his target. Or maybe it was all pre-programmed "for entertainment only" and when you pulled the trigger had no effect on when the other guy fell over. I have heard that most of those games where you try and grab a toy with a set of metal claws are really just lotteries. The grabber is programmed to give out a toy one time in twenty regardless of which buttons the human controller pushes. Hughie Green's clap-o-meter was also a scam; you know. A Thames Television staffer, just off-screen, manually twiddled a dial based on his impression of how much people were clapping; or his own opinion of how good the act had been. The Clap-o-meter was for fun only. It was my vote that counted. 
There was still an old News Cinema on Victoria Station. Mummy would sometimes take me and my little sister there if we had been to London to go shopping or go to the zoo or the museums. In the olden days, which I cannot imagine or remember, but which were really only a few years before I was born, most people did not have televisions. But it was possible to see the Queen opening parliament or the main goals in Saturday's football by watching weekly newsreels at small cinemas. There was a News Cinema on all the big railway stations. Remarkably, as late as the 1970s, a few of them survived. They had been rebranded as Cartoon Cinemas; it cost about a quid for a 45 minute show. I suppose that if I could go back now I would find it comically small: not much bigger than the widescreen TV in my front room; seating maybe 50 people; but in my memory it feels like a West End movie palace; with someone selling popcorn and ice cream and an usherette to show you to your seat with a torch. 
They cycled endlessly through a small number of Mickey Mouse and Tom and Jerry cartoons, along with that week's British Movietone News. (British Movietone News only finally came to an end in 1979: by this point a "newsreel" was likely to be a short documentary about the fascinating Sunderland cheese-making industry or how one man is preparing for next years caber-tossing tournament.) On one never-to-be-forgotten occasion they showed the old black and white Republic Captain Marvel serial. I only ever saw the first episode. The Adventures of Captain Marvel has very little to do with the Captain Marvel comic book. There is no wizard, and Billy Batson is an adult. But it is still quite visually impressive, given the limited technological resources of the time. The actor jumping off an off-screen trampoline; thunderflashes; a dummy being propelled through the air; a quick cut to the actor in the air on a wire with a wind machine blowing in his face: they were going to some trouble to make you believe a man could fly. I never saw any more episodes. Is it possible that the cartoon cinema carried on showing Episode 1 every week? Few kids could have gone to the cinema regularly and even fewer commuters cared about Captain Marvel. 
One year we tried to go to the Cartoon Cinema and found that the pictures of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and Tom & Jerry had been taken down and replaced with pictures of grown up ladies in their bathing costumes. Mummy didn't think we would find that so interesting. 
The concession where they sold bags of malteasers and peanuts had a slot machine in the corner. It didn't contain models or mirrors or dials: it was like a television set. The television screen only showed one colour, green; but there were levers on the console. And here is the amazing thing. The levers affected what was taking place on the screen. Little blocks moved up and down at your command. TV, which had always been entirely passive was now in the palm of my hand. The third wall had truthfully and permenantly been breached. I think the game was called Pong. I was not very good at it.
The next year at the seaside every arcade was full of screen-based computer games. I think it took a while for Space Invaders to take over: there was an interim year of slightly more primitive games. I remember one that was very probably called Space Wars. Big spaceships which looked suspiciously like the Starship Enterprise zig-zagged unpredictably across a black and white screen. Your blaster had a fixed set of cross-hairs in the middle of that screen, so the skill was to hit the "fire" button when one of the randomly moving craft moved into the cross-hairs; or perhaps a split second before. You also had a small number of photon torpedoes that destroyed everything on the screen. It was unwieldy and uncool compared with Space Invaders. Once you had lost all three lives a message would appear on the screen which said "Sensor Detects Another Dime In Your Pocket. Try Again." The aliens couldn't tell English 10p pieces from American dimes. 
These games were very basic exercises in hand/eye coordination but they were fun and they worked. I think the reason we get frequent reboots and releases of "classic" era arcade games is because there were no bells and whistles available. They only worked as games if they worked as games. 
But it was never just about the games. I was as bad at Space Invaders and Space War and that complicated one with eggs and space birds as I was at every other game or sport I have ever tried to play. But the machines had weird, cool imagery on the side, pictures that could have come off rock albums, images which have since become iconic. It didn't matter if I achieved a high score in Space Invaders or had been shot to pieces in Space Wars. What mattered was that I had saved the earth from aliens; that I had given my life nobly in a futile attempt to hold off the Martian hoards. I had worked out a fantasy in my head that when I, Andrew Rilstone, put a coin in the slot I, Andrew Rilstone, was plugging myself into an actual space ship somewhere and somehow contributing to the very real struggle against the evil empire. (This was before The Last Starfighter.) 
I remember a comic that came out around the same time as 2000AD.
British Comics in those days had peculiar editorial backstories: each issue of Warlord came with a letter from Lord Peter Flint, somewhere on the front-line, postmarked 1942. 2000AD was edited by an alien named Tharg and written and drawn by a team of robots. Tornado was edited by Dave Gibbons in a superhero costume. 
The editorial material in Star Lord was based around the conceit that the comic was a recruiting paper for the Earth Defence League and that the comic strips were training briefings to help human agents understand some of the things which they might have to face when they were eventually out there in the field fighting the Evil Interstellar Federation. This was joy and bliss and exhilaration for me. 
It wasn't real. I needed it to be real. I didn't need it to be real but I wanted to act as if I needed it to be real. Real and not-real are false categorisations. What mattered was the story about Andrew Rilstone fighting the Space Invaders on behalf of Star Lord which I knew and no-one else knew. 

Cutthroats, the pirate game, bombed. It very probably brought the company down. It was very probably my fault, although some one should have spotted earlier that they had bought a board gamer to a knife fight. 
But for the first three months after the game had come out, there was a very active online forum written by people who were very committed to the game. They were alive to its flaws more than anyone: they were cross about the bugs. ("Making people pay to be Beta Testers" was a common refrain.) But they got it. They saw what the game was trying to do much better than the programmers and management had. They sailed their ships around the hopelessly confused map and encountered confusing icons of traders and pirate hunters and warships and other pirates. And they reported their adventures in the forum. As if it had all happened to them personally. "I am on the Spanish Main now....I think I have outrun the Pirate Hunters...I have found the Spanish Treasure Fleet and am chasing it." 
There was no Spanish Treasure Fleet. That's the best sort of game: the one where the players' find things which aren't actually there. Whether it is Star Lord or Space Invaders or grotesque models of hangings, your own imagination does two thirds of the work. The people on the forum were getting out of the game exactly what I wanted them to get out of it.

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