Our Secret Code Part 2 - By Michael Palisano









In Memory
Sean Pettibone




Our Secret Code
(Part two)

Standing tantalizingly across the road, there was an entertainment complex with a small building beside it. We ran there and found it was finally open, after lying dormant all morning. The sun had reached its apex, dominating the day from the middle of the sky. It was only getting hotter and the heat was bearing down heavily at this point, the ground literally felt like it was on fire, seeming to melt the cheap sandals under our feet. Going right past the lame mini-golf course, we walked into another world. The beach had opened its own arcade a few years before, and visiting it was usually the best part of the day. Once we entered the door, it was like entering a different place. Walking up, you could almost immediately hear the chaotic clashing of electronic sounds coming from dozens of machines competing for your attention. It might have sounded like computerized noise to some, but it was beautiful to us and it grew louder and more inviting with every step. Enclosed under a shiny roof with a star on top, it offered a respite from the searing heat, allowing us to escape the summer sun for a brief hour or two. As we waked in the door, the fans cooled things down and there were seemingly endless options in front of us. We quickly exchanged our dollar bills for the far more valuable quarters from the attendant and the arcade opened up. Along each wall were rows of pinball machines, while the arcade machines took up the center section stretching into the back, almost to the little-used skee-ball games. It was very small in comparison to some of the larger arcades, and wasnít as polished or clean, but this didnít matter once the quarters dropped and the games began. Each one seemed to create a different world, set of rules, giving you a unique challenge. The sun and beach and water seemed a world away, our attention held with a selection of pinball and arcade games. It seems strange now, probably impossibly naÔve, but the feeling you had was a connection to a new world that was still being invented, where the doors were wide open and the welcome mat was laid out just for you. The best part of all this was that it was within reach of even small kids like us, who didnít have much in the way of money or status. It was within reach and inviting; it seemed like the future was ours for a quarter.

I started playing most of the simpler games, gradually wading in with titles like Space Invaders, Pac Man and Galaxian, slowly building up my skills and going deeper with games like
Star Castle and Asteroids, which gave you more freedom of movement, but challenged you to think ahead and anticipate things that werenít on the screen. This was a new world that was opening up to me, and to all of us. We were the first generation of gamers and didnít have any precedent to rely on. We developed our own codes and rules, like putting quarters on the machines to reserve our place in line, and discovering hidden tricks in the games. I didnít hesitate to play most of the games in the arcade. They didnít seem to change around much, but they were designed to be played in short bursts, which made them eat quarters relentlessly. When I first walked into the arcade, I decided to play two of my favorites in order to warm up a little bit. I always loved Tempest, a game where you rode on vector wires and shot enemies as they came up them, like spiders on a series of electronic webs. It was a bit faster than the other shooting games, and its manic pace made it quite challenging. This one took awhile to master, since I needed to figure out how to avoid the spikes at then end of each round, which was a bit tricky. The other game was Robotron. You stood alone and faced endless waves of attackers while trying to save the last remnants of humanity from their destruction. The first waves were slow, but quickened as new enemies came on, and hundreds of them would appear, making for a kinetic battle where you couldnít let your reflexes rest for a minute. Both titles were more challenging than the earlier titles but still placed most of the action on a single screen. These were relatively easy to master, with their predictable patterns and relatively simple controls, which made them accessible to a small kid like me. I was pretty good for a kid my age, though there were a couple of games that seemed a little above my skill level.

During those many warm summers, as countless hot days unfolded, I had familiarized myself with most of the games, and had been able to conquer, or at least become proficient in most of them. However, one of them always seemed elusive in my attempts to beat it. It had the most beautiful graphics, pulsating multi-colored animations that lit up the screen like fireworks on the Fourth of July. It sounded intimidating as well, its soundtrack had huge blasts of electronic waves, crashing into each other. Even its game ending noise was epic, ominously coaxing players to try again when they failed. Its primal sound effects blasted through the speakers, stirring up an immediately unforgettable digital maelstrom to create an almost immediately over-powering environment, amplifying its chaos with nearly apocalyptic glee. It moved much faster than other shooting games and had a complex array of different enemies that you needed to keep track of at once. In addition to shooting down enemies, you also had to keep track of little people at the bottom of the screen, and keep them from getting taken away by these hordes of attackers. It was clearly designed to be harder than the others. Most of the other games had simple controls where you only needed to worry about a single joystick and a button. This one had many buttons you needed to master, and instead of moving in all directions, the joystick only let you move your ship vertically, up and down. In order to move left or right, you needed to use the thrust and reverse modes. Another button let you fire off the laser cannon, and there was also a smart bomb that allowed you to clear the screen of your foes. The game itself was also more complicated in its design. Instead of the predictable patterns of enemies youíd see in games like Space Invaders or Galaxian, the enemies would appear seemingly at random on the screen. As you can imagine, it seemed impossibly complicated next to the other games, and my attempts to play it were always thwarted by my own lack of coordination and its intimidating interface. Despite this, Iíd always try and shot a few quarters its way, trying to discover its secrets. Defender, with its catastrophic screen-filling explosions had already been out for a year, but remained a distant, out of reach challenge even through I had mastered other games without much trouble. This would be a different challenge requiring me to build up an entirely different set of skills. Iíd need plenty of practice and persistence in order to conquer it.

Gradually, I learned the little tricks and systems that allowed me to gain a little mastery of it. I memorized the button locations and what each one did, which allowed me to surf through its waves with more confidence, flying through the first few levels, which revealed their previously hidden patterns to me over time. I also began to use the radar system that allowed me to see what was going on off the sides of the screen, allowing me to anticipate problems that I couldnít see. Some of the most difficult opponents were the small pod aliens who were released when you shot their container ship. They were much smaller than the other enemies and harder to shoot, making them one of the most intractable foes. You could wipe them out using a smart bomb, but they would still usually have one or two left, dangling on the edge of the screen, a dangerous obstacle to your ship. Beating them was extremely difficult at first and mastering them required you to understand their patterns within its chaotic flow. It was hard to do this with only your instincts but using the radar, I was able to see where they were before my ship arrived in their area. This allowed me to time my approach so I could dive out of their way and avoid getting caught in their knotty clumps. After awhile, Defender won me over, and playing it became second nature to me. The struggles I encountered early on changed into a triumph, its complicated systems had become less intimidating as I mastered each of these smaller challenges and defeated them one by one. Once I had gained a little mastery of the game, I found myself trying to challenge the high scores on the machine. It wasnít an easy task, since other players were much better than I was. During those first few weeks of summer, I worked my way up the rankings and tried to win one of the top ten positions. I played it over and over in those couple of days, trying to improve my skills and position. This would almost always end up with me falling a little bit short of my mis

This might have been frustrating, but I saw myself getting better and better with each attempt and could track my progress on the high score table, keeping me going. I had a few rounds behind me when I looked in my pocket and found myself running low on quarters. I hadnít made much progress in the past few days and was determined to play even more. Instead of asking my brother for more quarters, which I wouldnít do because of our unspoken agreement, I decided to go back to the blanket and ask for more money from my mother. Leaving the arcade, I found myself back under the sun which had become even hotter, as impossible as it might have seemed. I walked on the now-boiling concrete, once again passing the decrepit miniature golf course and towards the beach once again. As I walked towards the nearest traffic lane, an unexpected sight caught my eye. I might have missed it if I wasnít paying attention. At the time, I didnít understand why I looked toward the trees on the left side of the beach.

Underneath their shade, I saw a strange, solitary figure standing. Ever since we got to the beach, I had a feeling that someone was looking for me, It persisted all day but I couldnít quite understand it. I felt that an unknown set of eyes had been watching me and my brother the entire day. She had been there from the time when we were swimming out past the buoys into deep water. She saw my big jump off the life raft, watching as we paddled back to shore. She was there when we dried ourselves off and ran across the street to the arcade. She seemed much older than me, wiser and stronger and certainly didnít seem dressed for a day at the beach.
She seemed oblivious to the sun, making her impervious to its blistering radiation that seemed to permeate everything else. Her long black dress was covered in dozens of small dots, these resembled thousands of tiny glittering stars. She had been watching us all day. She had peered over my shoulder at the arcade as I submerged myself into the world of Defender. and the other games that became obsessions during that summer. She knew who I was, and knew much more about me, than I realized. On this hot summer day, she finally let me see her after watching me silently.

In that moment, when our eyes first met, I knew exactly who she was.

- Michael Palisano