It's early night and already a good portion of Maggie's jean-clad clientele is queued up at Cosmic Alien, awaiting a chance to blow ghost ships out of an electronic sky. Judging from the hubbub at this bustling beer-drinkers' establishment, a computerized Buck Rogers is having it out with Darth Vader tonight.
Meanwhile, in still another part of town . . . .
Station Break on M Street in Georgetown is packed. The place echoes with the deafening beeps of cosmic beings shedding their fiery pellets, the constant swooping and humming of electronic legions and, always, the frenzied swooshing of lasers. The tension is high tonight: "Arrrgh!" growls a player from his Tail Gunner post as he reaches deep into his pocket for another quarter.
The nation has contracted electronic fever, and Washington has a severe case.
The games bear such space-age names as Space Invaders, Star Castle, Missile Command and Astro Fighter, and the principle behind them -- behind all video games -- is simply shoot or be shot.
Unlike their predecessor, the pinball machine, satisfaction comes not through winning another game by matching scores or accumulating a certain number of points, but by scoring enough points to enter the player's initials as the top scorer, thus setting a precedent for others to beat
And like potato chips and gambling, electronic games can be very addicting.
Videomaniacs can be found everywhere here: In singles bars, mingling around Asteroids; in arcades, spending the last quarter of their allowances to beat the high score on Space Invaders; in nightclubs, vying for a spot at Galaxian between acts, and in fast-food restaurants, grabbing a quick game of Astro Fighter before heading back to work. They're kids, businessmen in three-piece suits and unemployed writers. And, many of them will readily admit, playing electronic games is more than a mere passtime. It's a lifestyle.
"Some weeks are worse than others," says a local computer systems specialist whose recreational specialty is Asteroids, a game in which video rocks hurtle towards the player's rotating space ship across a starry video screen. "It's not rare to go out and get a roll of quarters -- that's about $10 -- and burn it all in an evening.
"If you satisfy your desire and still have quarters left," he concludes, "I call that a good evening."
But for most people, 25 cents buys the universe for a few interse minutes. Electronic games give the would-be star fighter a chance to be Luke Skywalker, or afford the gambler a chance to match wits against a computer's circuitry.
Over the past year, games have been popping up all over the city and suburbs, including such unlikely places as convenience stores, hair salons and carrepair shops. "The next thing you know they're going to have games in school afeterias," says Larry Hunt, branch manager of Banner Specialties Co., the largest wholesale distributor in the area. "No one envisioned two years ago that this business would be doing as well as it is."
Why the sudden surge in popularity? For one thing, electronic games are getting a lot more sophisticated and thus more challenging. They're also a vast source of cheap entertainment. For what is often the equivalent of the price of a movie ($4.00, an electronic-games player can get as many as 16 plays on most machines.
The key to full enjoyment of electronic games, however, is to gain some degree of expertise. To the novice, the confusing patterns, noise and control devices (rotation levers, fire buttons) are a deterrent. Many electronic-game enthusiasts remember giving up in disgust the first time out when blown off the screen immediately after pushing the start button. But with time, determination and quarters, a player can reaffirm his or her superiority over the most complex machine.
The technology that goes into the machines evolves so quickly that it is soon outmoded. The earliest games were sports and "shoot 'em up" games such as Boot Hill and Tank. Then the computerized game entered the space age with the launching of Space Invaders, a game that became so popular that its makers followed up with Deluxe Space Invaders.Then came the last draw, Asteroids, based on an entirely new technology and now commanding its own loyal following.
One of the more recent brainchildren of the industry to capture the hearts of videomaniacs is Star Castle, a game that goes one step beyond Asteroids in sophistication. The object is to destroy the video castle by blasting away its fortress of colorful rings. To aim and fire is easy enough, but the player must also be skillful enough to command the rotate and thrust buttons to outmaneuver seveal starry missiles that track the player's ship. Once hit, the player -- or the star castle -- smashes to smithereens with a convincing explosion.
The intriguing sounds these machines emit heightens the excitement of the play. Space Invader's electronic beep-beep-beeping that mimics a marching army gets faster as the fiends descend. If that doesn't get the adrenaline pumping, the sporadic "swoosh" of the player's laser will. Even more titillating is the electronic swooping and flashing explosions some games emit. The sound that accompanies Sea Wolf, a submarine game, is the realistic release of depth charges followed by anexplosion.
Although nearby diners may find the noise an unwelcome distraction from their pizzas or burgers, it's music to a videomaniac's ears.
"I guess I spend about $25 a week," said District resident John Weaver, 17, who plays Startovox during his lunch period at Duke Ellington School of the Performing Arts. Weaver prefers Startovox to other games because of the eerie "Help me!" the machine emits when spacemen are stolen from the video base. "I guess I just want to help the little guys," says Weaver.
"As soon as I get old enough to buy a house," he says, "I'm going to have a basement full of them."
For Larry Hunt, videomania has meant big money. He estimates Banner's business has tripled over the past four months. For the vending companies to which he sells the machines, and which get a percentage of the intake, the amount of money they reap from the machines has also grown dramatically. According to figures collected during an average week, a Missle Command machine averages about $244; Asteroids, $300; Star Castle, $388, and Battle Zone (a tank game), $500.
"This is the best video industry has ever done," Hunts says. "People have more leisure time and arcades are filling that need."
A major frustration for the beginning games player is that the pros make it look easy. But it's not. chances are the guy with 90,000 points spends nearly all of his allotted entertainment money trying to beat his previous score. So be careful. Remember The hallmark of a professional electronic games player is knowning when to quit.