Why A Life is Worth a Quarter (and Other Lessons from the Arcade)

I will always remember the arcade…

I get these odd, seemingly random flashbacks from childhood. I don’t remember any particular event, like a vacation or holiday. Instead, I tend to recall repeated activities, things I did repeatedly enough that I have a vivid, multi-sensory experience permanently sketched into my brain.

I can’t tell you what I did for my 8th birthday or anything special about our summer vacations in middle school. But I can recall weirdly concrete elements of my youth – things like wearing my favorite puffy silver jacket to school (don’t do that anymore) or reading the latest Animorphs book each month (don’t do that either, sadly).

And I will always remember the arcade.

The flashing lights and blips and bleeps of each machine…

A stack of quarters weighing heavy in my hand…

The pain in my fingers from my ferocious button-mashing…

I didn’t go weekly or even monthly, but I went often enough and the experience overly sensory that it’s a feeling I can recall even today.

Each time I went, I walked in as a casual consumer, browsing the buffet of arcade booths for a game that would fit my mood. PacMan would hold my attention for five minutes or $1 in quarters (whichever came first). The Stuffed Animal Crane Machine was a fun challenge and ultimately fruitless. The ticket counter with the assortment of cheap plastic prizes drew me in briefly.

But no matter what, I always ended up in the same place, the same shrine to videogame perfection: The Simpsons Arcade Game.

The Epic Struggle: Steph vs. The Simpsons

If you’ve never played, The Simpsons Arcade Game follows the classic and dangerously addicting gameplay template replicated by most moderately-successful arcade-style games of the 1990’s (see: Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles). Choose a character, follow a slightly unbelievable plot outlining your quest to save the world, and make your way through a scrolling adventure, bashing bad guys as you advance through each level.

I loved it for its simplicity and the change to interact with and control some of my favorite TV cartoon characters. More than anything, I loved it for the allure that one day, with enough practice, I’d make it to the end of the platform and battle the final boss: Mr. C. Montgomery Burns.

Yet despite my repetitive attempts to conquer the game, despite always choosing the best character in the game (Bart), I never beat it.

In fact, I never got passed the third level.

Even though I had $2, maybe $3 in quarters at my disposal, I just wasn’t skilled enough to make it beyond the Springfield Graveyard and the hoards of attacking zombies.

That is, until a few weeks ago.

My Long-Awaited Victory (Followed by Utter Disappointment)

There’s a treasure trove of old school, downloadable videogames on the Xbox and PlayStation systems. It was browsing through this collection games that I uncovered the gem from my childhood: for $4.99 and 7 minutes of download time, I would have unlimited access to the Simpsons in all of their 8-bit glory. Not only was this a chance to relive my childhood but I finally had the chance to conquer my childhood demon and beat the game once and for all.

Download Now… Installing… Play. And there it was.

Instead of putting a quarter into a slot, the system asked me to select the amount of lives I wanted to start with. Naturally anxious to finally make it to the end of the game, I chose to start with 20 lives in my arsenal – a number I felt would safely carry me through the end of the platform.

In no time, I made it beyond level three, the Graveyard. Then four. Then five. Anytime my character (Bart) died onscreen, I wasn’t frantically searching my pockets for a spare quarter; I simply tapped “X” to continue. My extra life count ticked down, but I was advancing far into the Simpson’s virtual world.

Finally, I reached the final boss, Mr. Burns himself. It was a moment I’d been waiting for quite literally all my life – and I still had a few lives to spare.

After 5 minutes of punches, electric shocks and atomic rockets, I flicked the joystick one final time, issuing the coup de grâce. Mr. Burns collapsed. I relaxed my fingers off my game controller.

I did it.

Credits rolled. And I felt… crappy.

How Free Cheapened a $.25 Experience

That’s it? Really?

What had seemed like an incredibly insurmountable task as a child, what I had once been limited to by a handful of quarters as a kid, I had conquered in half an hour sitting on my couch.  Incredulous, I couldn’t believe that I had only been 15 minutes away from beating this game the entire time. In the arcade, it would’ve taken just another handful of quarters instead to taste sweet, videogame victory.

Instead, I found myself feeling hollow, that I had somehow cheated the system by not paying for each life as they were needed.

I played it again later, with marginal returns on happiness. I had seen the end, and I knew it was conquerable. I’ve stopped playing it since.

The Value of a Quarter

It was a bitter-sweet experience – the victory of conquering the game felt like nothing to me, but I realized so much more about my childhood and why I fell in love with the arcade.

My love of the Simpsons Arcade Game had little to do with the then-state-of-the-art gameplay, my connection to the characters, or how far I advanced in each level.

It was the beauty of playing in an arcade environment, of challenging myself with a finite resource (a handful of change) and seeing how far I could take it.

It was the pain of parting with each individual quarter, knowing that it would propel me further in the virtual world but that I was intentionally making a decision to pay for another life and move forward.

It taught me to proceed with calculated caution and to value the limited (virtual) life that I had.

More than anything, I realized the power behind a hand-on, tangible transaction – how parting with something as inconsequential as a quarter heightened the value of my experience.

I can’t help but pause and reflect on other transactions in my life…

Would I get more satisfaction from my purchases if I stopped shopping with credit cards? Should I start paying for all of my restaurant bills in loose change so I can feel the (literal) weight of each purchase?

If anything, I think I need to grab a handful of quarters and take another trip back to the arcade.

Original Pictures and Game: Konami

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