When Pac Man Ruled the World

The other day, I was at a friend's house watching her eight-year-old son play a video game on her cell phone. He was glued to the itty-bitty screen oblivious to his mom's insistence that he put the phone down and give the games a rest.

I thought about how lucky kids are these days that they have all these gaming systems not only in the comfort of their homes, but right there in the palm of their hands.

I felt so old. I could hear myself saying: "When I was your age, I had to walk two miles in the snow -- both ways -- to play video games!"

But then I really thought about how it was when I was their age, and I laughed with fond nostalgia about the days when my life revolved around Pac Man!

I grew up in the era of corner stores and one summer, one of the local corner stores put in a Pac Man machine. I remember standing in front of it with my friends drooling over the sleek controls, the full-color screen, and the sound effects. Of course, none of us had a quarter to play it, but we made it our mission to get a quarter and come back as soon as possible.

I ran home and took the house apart and when I found a quarter, I raced back to play the game. From that day forward, after just one game, the obsession was on!

If I found a quarter on the ground, I'd dance around like I had hit the lottery. I would run to the store, drop my quarter into the slot, and play until the little ghost guys killed me.

I started rationing my lunch money. I started volunteering for extra chores. I developed a permanent hunch on my back from walking the streets with my head down looking for loose change.

Once, in a state of total desperation, I took 25 pennies to the counter at the store and asked them for a quarter in exchange. I had a particularly promising game that day that I still recall as the most exciting six minutes of my life!

Before long, the quarters started drying up. Summer vacation had come upon us and that meant no more lunch money. It was the first time I could remember being disappointed for summer vacation. What cruelty that I now had time to play, but not the money.

My friend Michelle and I tried everything we could to preserve our quarters. We even tried the trick of taping a string to the quarter and easing it into the slot in the hope that we could slowly pull it back up after our game started, and reuse it again and again. By the way kids, don't bother, it doesn't work!

Playing the game less didn't mean that the obsession lessened. I found myself at home trying to visualize the screen and strategizing about how to beat those pesky ghosts. I would try to draw the screen by memory and create paths to beat the game.

Before long, my parents surprised me with an Atari game system. I was at last able to play Pac Man at home! No more quarters, no more waiting for the store to open up so I could get in; no more waiting in line for other kids to finish playing.

I loved playing at home, at first, but then I realized, something just wasn't the same.

Whenever my poor little Pac Man would get killed, I'd simply hit the reset button and start over. I found myself getting bored; the challenge (and thus the proverbial thrill) was gone!

Not agonizing over "getting my money's worth" had caused the game to lose its appeal. I found myself playing less and less. Around the time that the novelty of at-home play wore off, the store removed the Pac Man game as well.

After a few months of not playing with my Atari, I donated it to a lady in our neighborhood whose daughter had developmental disabilities, and could use the video game system to enhance her hand and eye coordination. I felt good about donating the system to her, knowing that it would get a good home and help someone else.

As I watched my friend's son play his game the other day, I felt a little sorry for him. He would never know the thrill of dropping that hard-earned quarter into the slot, hearing the theme music play, and then racing against the ghosts to keep the game alive as long as possible.

How sad that kids today will never know the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat that was the video arcade. Long live the arcade machines and all hail the mighty quarter!