Filed under: Features | Tags: 1942, A Youth Well Wasted, Afterburner, Altered Beast, Bitmob, castlevania, contra, Dance Dance Revolution, Double Dragon, Double Dribble, Final Fight, frogger, Golden Axe, Ninja Gaiden, Outrun, Punch Out!, r-type, Shinobi, Space Harrier, Track and Field
In the dark, cigarette-scarred bowling alley arcades in which I spent my youth, there was a community of sorts. A group of boys, aged 9-13, left to our own devices by bowling obsessed parents and seduced by the flashing lights and fantasy worlds of the arcade.
We spent our childhood together battling the undead, scorching down Californian highways and locked in dogfights with swarms of enemy fighters; anywhere, basically, but the beer, burger fat and lane oil whiff of the bowl.
But of all the bonds forged in those days, there is one friendship I remember most fondly. Played out against a backdrop of videogames’ golden age, the early console wars and the dawn of the 16-bit era, my friendship with Damian was at once familiar to anyone who grew up at the time and utterly unique.
For Damian wasn’t a normal boy, and my friendship with him put me nearer than any child could dream of being to the heart of that seminal period.
Damian was an awkward child, all limbs and thumbs. Older and taller than me, with a thatch of curly black hair perched on his head, Damian was possibly the clumsiest person I have ever met.
Like he hadn’t yet learned to control his lengthening limbs, there seemed to be no situation that didn’t result in a spill, trip or drop. He was a walking disaster. But stood in front of an arcade cabinet Damian was a god.
He could complete the entirety of Outrun without crashing once, he reached levels in Space Harrier we had never seen, and could gather crowds with his prowess at Afterburner. That he would do all this and then trip over his shoelaces as he walked away from the machine only made him more likable. To me anyway.
But not everybody felt the same. Damian wasn’t like the rest of us. Most of the boys that spent their time in the arcade were from the neighboring school.
Pretty much right next to the runways of Heathrow Airport, the parents of the kids we hung out with were just like mine, employed as baggage handlers, truck drivers and warehouse operatives.
Damian, however, was not local. He was from affluent borough of North-West London. He went to a posh private school. He was the polite, well-spoken Jewish boy whose Mum drove a Jaguar. The other kids did not take to him.
That he was named after the Devil’s son didn’t help, of course. In short, he was different, and different isn’t a popular quality among 10 year-old boys.
I spent more time with Damian than the rest of the group because my Dad and his step-father were in the same bowling team. This meant that we spent most weekends at tournaments up and down the country, shut away in the arcade together with time, coins and enemies to kill. Naturally, a close friendship blossomed.
This was the golden age of arcades. Far from the wasteland of Dance Dance Revolution and air hockey that makes up the current scene, new games would arrive almost weekly at the best spots. The two short years between 1987 and 1989 saw the release of Double Dragon, 1942, Contra, Final Fight, Double Dribble, Ninja Gaiden, Track and Field, Shinobi and Castlevania to name just a few, many of which remain classics to this day.
We didn’t have the internet back then, we didn’t even really have access to magazines, so each new tournament location, and therefore each new arcade, brought the promise of undiscovered wonders and experiences.
Each Saturday morning I would pile out of the car and head into whatever town’s bowling alley we were at, straight past the lanes and towards the arcade.
During the preceding week, while my Dad and Damian’s step-dad predicted the lane conditions, the opposition and the endless boring minutiae of the upcoming tournament, Damian and I would plan our weekend’s entertainment. By the time I finally arrived at the venue, I was bursting with feverish anticipation.
Often, Damian would arrive at tournaments before me. Dad and I were always late, an unwanted habit that has stuck with me in later life. As I burst through the front doors, Damian would invariably be waiting, a simple smile or shake of the head communicating whether or not we had struck gaming gold.
Dusty old Frogger cabinets would just not do it, we were connoisseurs. We expected the best.
In this way bowling alleys across the country became ranked according to quality. As 9 or 10 year-old boys faced with hours and hours trapped in a building with dodgy-shirted, weird shoed grown-ups, the arcades had the ability to make or break our weekends.
Of course, not every bowl had an arcade, something Damian and I discovered one day with highly vocal disgust. Even now, aged 30, I have an irrational hatred of Nottingham. Not just the bowling alley, but the City, it’s people, it’s sports teams – everything about the place.
Nottingham bowl only had fruit machines. I’ll take that disappointment with me to the grave.
So there we would be, lost in those rooms for hours and days, pumping coin after precious coin into the machines. At single-player games we patiently take it in turns, equally happy offering advice and abuse to each other as we were playing the game ourselves.
At 2-player games (this is before the term co-op caught on) we were a finely tuned team, working in unison to destroy scores of enemies, bosses and foes. It was heaven.
It was at these tournaments that I began to see the flaws in Damian’s superheroic skills. At some games, he was truly was a master, with reflexes that verged on precognition, even on titles we hadn’t seen in the arcades before. But inexplicably, at others Damian was a mere mortal.
While he was godly at Golden Axe, he was pathetic at Punch Out!!, awesome at Altered Beast, rubbish at R-Type. I never understood the wild fluctuations in Damian’s abilities and I certainly never questioned him about it. I just reveled in the opportunity to redress the balance.
It wasn’t until some time into our friendship that I discovered Damian’s astonishing secret and the truth behind this little mystery. The answer was enough to make him just about the coolest 10 year old in the world and the best friend you could ever wish to have. And it all started with an invitation.
> [Chapter Two]
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