Saturday afternoons with an old-school trifecta

Once upon a time, there was a young girl who had a computer. It was big computer, a beige computer, a computer that had a cassette player attached to it, which was used to access “boring” things that her parents used, like documents and spreadsheets. But this computer also had not one but two disk drives (A: and B:) into which comfortably slid 5.25-inch floppy disks. And oh! What a selection of floppy disks were available to this young girl. They filled up two whole storage containers! And when quiet Saturday afternoons rolled around, after morning cartoons and a peanut butter and jelly lunch, before it was maybe time to start thinking about the possibility of doing homework, she flipped through those disks looking for something to play. No one in the house really used the discs, or so it seemed that way as they were rarely ever out of order – an order that she had long since memorized. Her parents didn’t play computer games (or didn’t in the daylight), and her siblings were too young for such taupe-colored technological PC wizardry.

On that Saturday, any Saturday, she sat patiently at the computer and flipped through those disks knowing exactly what she’d find there. Though she briefly thought that maybe today she’d find something new, she knew she wouldn’t. But that didn’t matter. She was on the hunt for one disk in particular. Her favorite disk that contained her three favorite games: Frogger, Centipede, and Q*Bert.  She located said disk at the back of the first storage container and removed it, being careful not to let its protective paper sleeve catch on anything.

She placed the disk on the table and turned on the PC. It hummed, whirred, and clunked as its innards warmed up and DOS booted.  As the screen flashed through its normal sequence of whatever it was that it needed to do, she waited until the familiar “C>” prompt appeared. Once it did, she popped the disk into the first drive and headed to the “A” prompt. Upon locating and loading the right files from the right directory (a path she knew by heart), and after sitting through the perfunctory loading times, she finally got to the first game. She always started out her PC time with Frogger.

The number nine was a death knell for the young girl and Frogger. The farthest she had ever gotten with one life in the game was level nine. The farthest she had ever gotten using all three lives was level twelve, but the whole point of the game was to not die. Duh. So what if the game tossed you two extra lives, what really mattered was getting as far as you could on a single life. Or, that’s what the young girl believed. So she set about, as she did every Saturday, to get to level nine in Frogger on one life. As the first level started, she carefully timed her frog’s forward, backwards, and sideways movement as it traversed a busy highway full of motor vehicles. The first level was slow and easy, so she breezed through the traffic without a hit and made it to the water portion. Again, with focused precision, she moved her frog from one log to one turtle and onto the next log and so on in order to make it across the river. Whew. The frog was safe and it was on to the next round.

Around level five things started to speed up. The cars and trucks and logs moved quicker, and their specific movements within the “lanes” of the road/river became more erratic.  In level seven, the traffic became more plentiful and the logs and turtles became scarcer.  Level seven was usually where she met her match. Her impatience usually got the better of her, and she’d end up either getting squished on the road or stuck on a log to nowhere in the river. Upon dying, that upsetting feeling set in, but she would continue, get as far as she could, and try again. Over and over she did just that, but level eight would be her nemesis today. This Saturday was not her day to beat her Frogger record. So she moved onto the next game in the sequence, Centipede.

Like Frogger , Centipede was also all about timing. Though she didn’t realize it at the time, Centipede proved incredibly effective at improving the young girl’s hand-eye coordination, a skill that would serve her well for many gaming years to come. She had all the high scores in Centipede (never mind that she was the only one who played it), and she smiled big when the ten sets of her initials next to all the high scores flashed on the screen while the game loaded. She glanced at the top score and knew what her goal was today. The game started and she started moving the little shooter at the bottom of the screen up and down, left and right, using the spacebar to shoot up at the sectioned life form that slunk and slid its way down the screen, hitting mushrooms, and bouncing back the other way. Shooting out the creature’s middle section sent two centipedes scrambling, making the young girl think hard about her strategy in eliminating the two (the three, then four!) creatures before they reached the bottom of the screen.  Oh, but don’t forget about the things other than the centipede! Hitting those mushrooms not only gave you a few points, but they also made it easier/harder for the centipede to pass. Tag a few spiders along the way for more points.

The further along the young girl got in Centipede, the faster the game moved.  Soon the centipede coursed from top to bottom in no time at all, and there was nothing the girl could do. She simply hadn’t been quick enough with the spacebar and hadn’t formulated enough of a plan to stop it. The game was over, and the young girl’s dejected face was altered upon seeing that she had beaten her fourth highest score! She happily entered in her initials like always and played a few more times before moving on to the third and final game: that confounded mess of fun(?) called Q*Bert.

The young girl didn’t know why she played Q*Bert; she really didn’t. She had seen cartoons that contained the funny looking Q*Bert and his friends as they did things that cartoons characters were wont to do. But in the game, Q*Bert was hardly so entertaining. The goal of the game was pretty simple, that much she knew – make Q*Bert “claim” all the platforms in a pyramid by jumping on them. Avoid the bouncy snake that was in pursuit and other obstacles, like falling, bouncing balls, along the way. Climb the pyramid up, down, and sideways to claim all the platforms.

Q*Bert was only fun for a few games before the young girl got frustrated enough to sit there in wonderment at all the time she was wasting. It was so unfair, after all, because that stupid snake always trapped her along the edge of the pyramid with the only option left being to commit suicide. (The little safety discs never seemed to be in the right place at the right time.) How the heck was she supposed to get to all the squares if the game didn’t allow for even the slightest chance of that happening? And why oh why did she keep coming back to this silly, stupid game every weekend? There was just no way to beat it!

Okay Q*Bert, one more time, she thought on that fateful day. She was going to own that stupid pyramid and that stupid snake this time. She was going to make some sort of meaningful progress in this game, enough to justify her compulsion to play. Yet…her whirlwind of will was simply not as strong as she thought it was. After just a few moves, the snake cornered her and she jumped…off the edge…just like always.

“DAMMIT!” the young girl yelled as she picked up the keyboard and bashed it on the table. She sat in a moment of shock, her face flushed with heat at the realization of what she had just said and done.

“What is the world is going on up there?!” came the cry from her mother downstairs.

“Um…nothing, I was just…” The young girl’s words trailed off feebly. She was quite thankful that her utterance hadn’t registered over the clanging keyboard.

And that was the end of PC playtime that Saturday. Feeling the embarrassing warmth still in her cheeks, she turned off the computer and removed the floppy disk from the drive. She carefully placed the disk back into its paper sleeve and returned it to the back of the first storage container. The computer powered down and stood lifeless once again. She turned out the lights to the computer room and closed the door, but she knew that she’d be back. A new Saturday was only a week away, and with it came new attempts at Frogger, Centipede, and that dastardly Q*Bert.

The end
(Or maybe, the beginning?)

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