Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade

Ever wonder what Napoleon Dynamite would look like at age 40? Or perhaps you are curious how that brainiac nerd from high school turned out.  You know, the one who had braces, glasses, wore velcro shoes, and lived for video games.  Well, Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade answers these questions and many others, by documenting how life turned out for the greatest gamers from the golden age of arcades, and it isn’t pretty.  These guys were the Dynamites of 1982 – they had mopped hair, hiked up jeans, and customized t-shirts to show off their high scores and nicknames.  But, it seems that in the early 80s, at the height of videogame mania, there was a genuinely special place for these guys within high school society.  I know it’s a bit Twilight Zone-ish, but for a moment in time, gaming skills were hot, sexy even, and these nerds were as desirable as it gets in the twisted world of videogame groupies.  Who knew players could be playas?
Welcome to Ottumwa, Iowa, the self-proclaimed Video Game Capital of the World.  The town’s title is not as random as it seems, as local entrepreneur Walter Day traveled the country recording high scores on machines in over one hundred arcades, before returning to Ottumwa to open Twin Galaxies arcade and begin the Twin Galaxies International Scoreboard, the official tracker of video game world records to this day.

By the mid-80s, the arcade boom was waning, as video consoles could be enjoyed at home for one fixed price, rather than for an endless amount of quarters. The gamers were getting older, but not necessarily growing up, and Chasing Ghosts, like so many great documentaries, is about people who became famous in a specialized field, then disappeared from the spotlight like they are supposed to really.  So, how did things turn out for the gamers? In many instances, pretty well. Some faded into obscurity and forgot their storied teenage glory days entirely, a few bitterly lost touch with one another, while one or two let fame go to their head (can you imagine?!). A few others lead quiet, some would say sad existences caught between the glories of arcade game elitism and the reality that the days of the arcade are long gone. Walter Day, the Iowa businessman who used the inertia of arcading to build a small empire, currently dreams of becoming a musical star in his late 50s (you can hear some of his songs in the movie – amazing).

Chances are you couldn’t identify most of these guys on the street – then or now – with the exception of Billy Mitchell, who is arguably one of the most gigantic douche bags on the planet. Rocking a jet black mullet-beard combo into his forties, Mitchell prominently features in another amazing arcade doc of 2007, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (if you haven’t seen this one it is a must!). Mitchell is an example of an extreme ego-maniac who believes his own hype and then some.

Chasing Ghosts is utterly entertaining; you’ll laugh, you’ll cry (most out of embarrassment for these guys), you’ll be shocked, and I guarantee that you will learn something new.  It’s just a win-win kind of thing.

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