How to be a winner. Even when you’re a loser.
Let me give you some insight on how to impress the hell out of your peers based on personal experience. It is NOT achieved by spending three and a half years of replaying the same video game over and over and freaking over again in a vain attempt at going for a world record. (That is, unless these are people who REALLY, REALLY enjoy games, possibly at some kind of insane sociopathic level above standard casual gamer fare.)
Today, I want to talk about the experience of how to get recognition for something that very few people will ever care about.
This is a happy story. Of the time that I kicked the motherloving ass out of Gradius, and how it has become an incredibly moot point in the development of my own personal character.
From it’s amazingly fun name to say, that reeks of some pseudo engrish misconstruction of things pertaining to the Roman Empire! You will not find a bigger, better, SHMUP than the granddaddy of them all.
I have found that if you mention Gradius to an average group, some people will have recollections of the game, and then, after asking one to two questions, found that they are confusing the game with Galaga. Or Galaxian. And then thoroughly admit that they don’t know what you’re talking about.
The game that started a legacy of games and is synonymous with scrolling right and shooting everything you see, the way that Super Mario Bros.…established the platformer, or The Legend of Zelda created the modern console adventure genre, or GTA III established the a Sandbox game in which soliciting and murdering prostitutes became a viable option of things to do whenever you’re not having to follow a mission in a video game.
The year was 1991, and the beginning of this sordid tale, like all amazing video game stories, starts in the underbelly of the local arcade (well, a Playchoice-10 in a Chuck E. Cheese). But when you’re 8, and you’re at some kid’s birthday party with a pocket full of Chuck E. Money, ready to spend on the four functioning Coin-Op games (or waste on Skeeball, I guess) in the place, it’s an experience akin to the most dangerous, divey-est bar you can ever submerge into.
That’s always how I’ve felt. I’ve mentioned the arcade experience in the past. But when I was here, I felt like I was a badass. (Yes. At ten. Even when I had to take a break from my cool guy motif to run to mom and beg for another five bucks in tokens to continue my rousing Rampage run…now in it’s desperate countdown to game over.)
This arcade experience stands out to me in vivid detail, because it was here that I was given the task of flying the Vic Viper against the Bacterion empire for the first time. (Yes, goddammit. I know the lore of Gradius. Sue me.) And not only that? I got to do it for free.
That’s right. I walked by the row of machines, waiting for the bigger, more dangerous twelve to thirteen year old’s to get through their turn on The Simpsons four player machine when I noticed the biggest arcade faux pas I’ve ever come to fall upon the fortune of.
Some dickhead put fifty cents in a machine, and walked away. And on it’s screen, Gradius’ (Since this was a Pay-to-Play Nintendo, essentially, I was playing the console port for like, five minutes) Title screen was telling me to hit start.
Friggin BONUS, right? I’m sure I took my aquamarine shirt with surfing Spuds Mackenzie (or whatever) on it and tufted out the collar, and sauntered on up to the machine, graciously accepting the boost in height from the provided footstool at the base of the machine. And I hit that start button with the determined force of a champion in the making.
Pupils dialated. “Oh, radical! I GET TO FLY A SPACESHIP!”
Fingers tap buttons. “Oh, and it’s got little guns that go pew-pew-pew!”
Quicker than I thought. Quicker than I anticipated. Some crackerjack hotshot took my plane down by unceremonious zero kamikaze fashion. Right into the hull of my ship, sending assumed pilot to an early explosive grave, his corpse lost into the endless fringes of space…all the while a family on some lush world, soon invariably conquered by this dangerous race of…floating space fans…., wondered what has become of their father and beloved husband, the gallant and lone space pilot who rose to the challenge of defending their peop—
“OH! Radical! I’ve got another life!”
Fingers tap buttons. I take down the same similar wave of space fans, not falling prey to their wily gamut once more. Take that, you astro bastards. You will never test the mettle of Joe Martin, Space Pi—
And then death again.
This was ten year old me, so I let out an auditory exclamation of “DARN IT! MAN! GAAAUGH” (which I’m sure inspired the fear and dread of those surrounding me), and sent my last pilot into what was sure to be a magnum opus of reflexes and visual acuity working in perfect concert, to flawlessly master the menagerie of space forces on their persistent, suicidal path to fly directly into my path, causing immediate, terminal repercussions, and ensure a total catastrophic loss in the form of a Game Over, followed by a dejected car ride home. (I had spent my last Charles E. Tokens probably on a game of RoadBlasters before going to this cabinet. And damned if my parents were going to give me more cash, for a second time, no matter how much of a little asshole I was going to act in public.)
My lips curled up into a serious and locked position, eyebrows down in determined “shit has just gotten real” phase. I had a set goal and determination. TO SEND. EVERY. Single. Motherfucker. That’s flying in from the right. STRAIGHT. TO. HELL.
And it must’ve been some kind of adrenaline based moxie, because let me tell you, I blazed past the introductory space space. I got into the first level, and STAYED alive, confused at the bizarre choice in rock face, trees in space, and then…met an untimely death when stopped and forced to contend with the million and a half bullshit lava rocks spewing from the dual volcanos that preempt what I would (much later) learn was a Boss Fight.
A countdown. I hoped by miracle the game would let me continue, even though I didn’t put any money in, and after the according amount of time, the screen flashed eight letters that burned into my skull.
Saving face, I collected myself, let out a sigh, inflated my Reebok “The Pump” shoes a couple of squeezes, jumped off the stool, and went home. I didn’t think about the game until more than seventeen years later.
So, I found out about King of Kong through random happenstance. It must’ve been 2008, because I had stumbled upon it through….well, illicit internet means. But questioned – would I enjoy watching a movie about two grown ass men compete over an old game (that I don’t even particularly enjoy) and the score and acclaim that went with it?
The short answer – Hell fucking yes, I did. In fact, it became a primary motivation to show almost every single human being I knew at the time the movie. (Years later, I realized a lot of it’s facts and truths were…polished…to make an entertaining film, but still, an entertaining film experience was had. And through it, a lot of my current friendly connections and associations were made. I’ll get to that.)
I was at this time, in the phases of completing my modifications to my former Operation Wolf cabinet, which then became a MAMEcabinet, meant to indulge and satisfy the eight year old “Wouldn’t it have been badass to have an arcade cabinet in my house like Ricky Schroeder in Silver Spoons?” feelings in me. And now, after watching this, and realizing that MAME scores were eligible, that, well, I had a chance to go for something.
I spent the better part of two months sorting through scores of games that I really wanted to play and possibly kick ass at (the first, and one I may still go back to, was Irem’s Kung Fu for the NES. Mainly because the idea of having a certificate on my wall that says “World Video Game Champion – Kung Fu” in my house, is somehow appealing), but finding that all of those scores to be catastrophically competitive, and also, through the goddamn roof – Learning that some people forsake going to the bathroom and staying awake for 90 hours plus at a time going for these.
It seemed that it wasn’t in the cards for me to be a self professed MASTER at SOMETHING. Until it popped in my head.
I played some game in an arcade that beat my ass once, and I never went back. Was it Galaxian?
I fired up Galaxian. That wasn’t it. And then I remembered, no…It was Gradius.
I check the online scoreboard vehemently to see if a listing exists. No. They don’t even have it registered, because officially, there wasn’t an official Gradius US Arcade release. However, there WAS one for Nemesis, being the UK’s version of Gradius, (which is basically the same thing, except I will note that it is way more more difficult than it’s Japanese counterpart with the bullets and the hey and all.)
And the last guy to set THIS score was back in 1985 – the release year of the game. A guy named Paul Ashworth in the UK set this score of 1,194,500 sometime back then, probably at some pub, to impress his mates, while they watched Are You Being Served, and eating Fish and Chips and Bob’s your Uncle and all of that British shit.
I read the number to myself. My top score that I just played in this game a few minutes ago was 26,000. But you know what? I had fun. I got way farther than I did as a kid, and felt, if there was a game to get that attention, this was going to be it.
I cracked my knuckles and tightened my headband. This was going to be the game that I broke apart, and would forever be known for taking down.
Valhalla was in my crosshairs. And warrior poets would sing my praises.
Reaping the rewards in Nemesis was an incredibly painstaking experience.
To give you an idea, to complete the entire game takes fifteen solid minutes of time. For the record, you must get this score in ONE virtual (or real, if I was on a real cabinet) quarter. There’s no continuing. If you fuck up, you gotta start it over. Since I was playing it through a variant version of MAME called Wolfmame, I was able to save my commands through an .input file, which was included with my game submission, in which a judge (a dude who I later became good Facebook friends with, named Matthew Timothy Walters, in light of his persistent and obnoxious New York Rangers fan status) would load up the game, and the .inp file, and make sure I wasn’t cheating as the game played itself using my key inputs recorded through out the playthrough.
I eventually tackled and beat the top score for the MAME record, it was done when I had scored 424,000 points (this happened about two months after excessively practising in my home, wearing headband, playing at least twice a night. Every night).
But I wanted the “Nobody has gotten this many goddamn points in Nemesis record.” Record. And that would take a solid three playthroughs on one quarter. (I had determined that I was usually rounding out each game clear at 350,000 points.)
Did I mention this game, already balls hard, gets balls harder each time you beat it? Oh, because it does. Konami must’ve had some hi-larious programmer come up with the idea of having certain enemies, after death, send a single shot fixed on your last location your way, after you beat it once. And then when you do it twice – EVERY enemy does that. Bullet Hell hadn’t been invented in 1985, and while it’s no Mushihimefutari (mouthful), it’s still a right bastard to deal with.
It was the most motivated I’ve ever been to completing something. This game that I struggled with as an awkward youth was something I was blowing away as an even more awkward adult. This time figuring out patterns. Being able to shoot enemies before they appear on screen. Knowing safe spots to set up and space out my options/missiles for optimum effect. Hell, I found an entire point in the game where I could keep tapping a button, turn, and have a two minute conversation without even looking at the screen based on the sounds of the game music alone.
The kind of attention a human being would give important matters, such as getting in shape, breaking the grip of alcoholism, mastering a foreign language – I had accomplished in the form of pulverizing a video game that basically nobody has ever heard of.
I was a knife. And every day I was getting sharpened more and more.
In 2009, something…unprecedented happened. I had broken the ceiling of all my former scores (now ranking in at about 788,500, still short of endgame), and was feeling a bit dejected about accomplishing my goal.
I got an email. Well, rather, a message. Directly. On my former webcomic’s message board even. Not a big deal, except…it’s from someone I’ve never heard of.
And not only that, they were from the UK.
Martyn Carroll, of Retro Gamer magazine (if you haven’t read it, you really should. It’s aspensive in the US, but it’s easily the greatest video game magazine you can possibly get your hands on, especially for those of us who are old, crotchety, and abject to accepting new things and games) had sent me an inquiry. He was putting together a feature story on Gradius, and saw that I was actively going for the score (and had provided my website on my Twin Galaxies profile), and wanted to do an interview, and, get this, even get five tips I could give new people who are playing this game.
This would be printed IN the magazine. With my picture, even.
As I told many people upon delivery of this news, if I could go back in time, to tell kid me “yoyo, SOMETHING you do video game related is going to be PRINT WORTHY, and you’re gonna be published. IN A GAME MAGAZINE.”, I would have rocket-shit my pants with such violent force, you might be able to find my frozen corpse somewhere in high orbit of Mars right now.
It was just the thing I needed to reinvigorate myself, and validate the close to three years I’ve put into this.
(For those curious, the full interview can be found in Retro Gamer 72, and is available online at https://www.imagineshop.co.uk/magazines/retrogamer.html)
January 26th, 2010. I was at home. I’m 28 years old, in my cramped living conditions with my arduous beast of an arcade cabinet taking up the bulk of the teeny-tiny living space I was contending with. (I moved home with parents. Let’s not get into that stigma. The important thing is that, as a grown up, I’m not there now.)
My recent employment dilemma meant that I had a lot of time spent in this warm, unpleasant dungeon, and I spent the bulk of it not endeavouring to escape, but in the cradling arms of retro gaming entertainment. My Facebook was frequent reports of numbers achieved in daily attempts. I was running on caffeine alone and was depressed about a great many situations and circumstances at the moment.
Something had to improve. And that’s when I noticed I had broken a million.
I had grown to loathe Gradius at this point. I usually played it with headphones on, so it’s catchy, fun MIDI tracks would be awash out to various Drum and Bass tracks that seemed to increase my anxiety, and, through some bizarre self-assurance, made me a better gamer. But I was sick of doing the same goddamn thing to just fail at the end.
It became the thing I hated the most. Until this moment. When I realized I broke a million. And not only that. I had lives left. I was on my third playthrough, and something had kicked in.
The comp copy of Retro Gamer magazine 72 had come in a week beforehand, and the enthusiasm of explaining “Yeah, I got in here, because I am ultimately the second best there ever was at this game” to people had washed out to commentary of “Oh. So you haven’t done it yet.”
I had accomplished so much, and yet, it had escaped me all. UNTIL now.
1,193,500. 1,194,200. Holy dogshit. I was about to do it. The reality of the situation that all of these moments invested in pattern recognition, lightning fast hand eye coordination, and fury at the Japanese Shoot’ Em Up industry, were about to pay off. I felt my blood turn to ice, and the weight of the world came down on the inset candy-like shoot button on the console. The discovery of fire. The exploration of the new world. The ushering in of the atomic era. This was a turning point in time that could only compare to the majesty of such similar events.
It was moments after that I completely fucked up, and slammed into one of the game’s teeny-tiny bullets….at this point, the momentum of picking up where I left out was shot. My final score?
I had beaten that motherfucker by 900 points. I blinked. And I think a Ric Flair “Whoooooooo!” actually escaped my lungs.
Time to buy an empty frame.
It was verified weeks later. My persistent checking of the scoreboard was accompanied by more self-reverence and acclaim to the disinterest of others. And I shelled out the seventeen bucks to get my OFFICIALLY recognized certificate.
And here it is.
Since I’m using a a low resolution image (in one of my less flattering personal appearance in public moments.), I’ll transcribe my fortune and glory for you, the reader.
VIDEO GAME WORLD CHAMPION.
By the authority invested in Twin Galaxies since 1982, as the official scorekeeper for the world of electronic game playing, we have verified this player’s scored and hereby recognize the player’s claims as being true and valid. To commemorate the important of this historical contribution to the long tradition of electronic game playing, this player will be recorded in the historical archives published in Twin Galaxies’ Official Video Game & Pinball Book of World Records and will be forever honored for the following accomplishment.
World Champion on Nemesis.
Proclaimed the World Champion on Nemesis for the MAME platform for achieving the World’s Highest Score of 1,196,400 points on January 28, 2010 as verified by INP submission. As the historical scorekeeper of the world, Twin Galaies confirms that Joe Martin, of Sebring, FL, will be listed in any forthcoming Arcade edition of Twin Galaxies’ Official Video Game & Pinball Book of World Records as well as in the Twin Galaxies Online Database. Issued in Fairfield, Iowa, USA, on February 10, 2010.
–Signed. Walter Day, Chief Scorekeeper.
There you have it.
It sat on my desk for almost a year before anyone noticed it, and other people assumed it was some kind of certificate for something retarded like “College” (or whatever.) And very rarely do people have anything to say other than “Oh.” Whenever I’ve mentioned that I hold (even currently, I might add) a Guinness authorized World Record in a video game. And I can personally verify that it has gotten me laid approximately ZERO times since the issuing of said certificate.
That being said, I’d like to close out my story with a few key points to being a badass.
1) Never give up. Never surrender. I lifted this from Galaxy Quest, but found it to be an apt feeling if you’re going for any goal, no matter how ridiculous others make it seem. It doesn’t matter if five people out of 100 knew what Gradius (or Nemesis) is. I still went for it, and wanted it. I wanted that personal satisfaction. And would have been willing to put another three years into it, ultimately, even in the face of dejection to do it.
2) If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything. I lifted this from Back to the Future. I went into this game knowing absolute dick. And trained myself into being some kind of retarded badass with gameplay burned into my subconscious. There’s days I’ll sit idly at my desk, and will remember exact patterns that bad guys fly in and even inadvertently twitch to respond out of some kind of muscle memory. Practice is everything. And that’s not just with any game. It’s with anything. Serious.
If you think you can’t draw, draw until you can. This is a universal rule.
If you think you can’t punch the shit out of rapist Biff Tannen so hard that you knock him completely loopy fruity in the year 1985, just go ahead and punch the shit out of rapist Biff Tannen so hard that you knock him completely loopy fruity in the year 1985 until it happens.
3) I ain’t your pal, dickface. I lifted this from Bloodsport. Which you should see. It’s a pretty great movie, especially because it isn’t. But it does have Bolo Yeung in it. And it did inspire Mortal Kombat. And as far as movies goes, it does have a pretty badass training montage that basically is what I’ve been talking about in the previous paragraphs.
And this is how you become a winner. Even when you’re a loser.
Excuse me. I think I might actually see if I can break 1,000.