Film packs in memories of arcade superstars

Sundance documentary reflects on a previous era of gaming--back when it was all about the arcade and its mullet-adorned top scorers. Photos: Scenes from the arcade

Michelle Meyers
Michelle Meyers wrote and edited CNET News stories from 2005 to 2020 and is now a contributor to CNET.
Michelle Meyers
3 min read
Chasing Ghosts, a documentary set to screen next week at the Sundance Film Festival, takes a nostalgic look at the golden age of the arcade.

Those were the days when video game play began with the drop of a quarter amid the smell of adolescent bodies and the sound of electronica gunfire.

Chasing Ghosts

Out of this 1980s scene emerged a class of player that gained fame and a following as top scorers of popular games such as Pac-Man, Space Invaders and Donkey Kong Jr.

These arcade warriors--who predated today's sophisticated home gaming systems--might have been forgotten were it not for a friendship and a photo, which together laid the foundation for director Lincoln Ruchti and producer Michael Verrechia's first feature-length project.

Ruchti, 29, of Los Angeles, and Verrechia, 30, of New York, met at the University of Florida, where they both aspired to become filmmakers. Recognizing the importance of business savvy in the filmmaking world, the close friends and 1999 graduates made a deal: Ruchti would go on to study film at graduate school; Verrechia would get business experience; and then later, with their complementary skill sets, they would make a movie.

Verrechia, in fact, became a consultant to publicly traded companies on matters of mergers, acquisitions and corporate governance, while producing short films on the side. Ruchti got his master's in film production from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and directed shorts on the side.

"It's about their stories. But it's also about the '80s, the fashion, the arcade."
--Lincoln Ruchti,
film director

About two and a half years ago, following through on their deal, Verrechia sent Ruchti an idea for their first project. It was an article on Bill Mitchell, who had played the world's first perfect game of Pac-Man, meaning that every dot, energizer and ghost gets eaten up until the game runs out of memory.

"The guy had this wicked mullet. It was beautiful. He was immediately compelling," Ruchti said.

Ruchti did some more research and found a 1982 Life magazine spread with a photo of "scraggly teenagers" who were recognized as video-game world champions. The photo was set in Ottumwa, Iowa, where Walter Day, the self-proclaimed keeper of high arcade game scores, had launched his Twin Galaxies International Scoreboard. (The scoreboard was later relaunched on the Web, long after the arcade doors were shut.)

Ruchti and Verrechia knew immediately there was a film to be made about the story behind that photo. They just had to track down the cast.

"Most were really happy to talk to us," Ruchti said, adding that for some of the players, these were truly their glory days.

The good times were also often ego-fueled, especially in the case of Ron Bailey and Joel West, who were best friends in 1983 but stopped talking to each other after Bailey beat West's Berzerk world record. Despite presently living 30 miles apart, they haven't spoken in 22 years, according to film materials.

Ruchti added that the goal, all along, was to get people to connect to the film on a personal and emotional level, if for no other reason than to reminisce. They apparently achieved that goal: their film was one of 16 selected from 856 submissions in the festival's U.S. documentary competition.

"It's about their stories. But it's also about the '80s, the fashion, the arcade. It's about what you were doing. Nostalgia is one of the key factors," Ruchti said.

As for their own interest in gaming, both filmmakers admit that they were the 6- and 7-year-olds in the arcade admiring the likes of the players featured in their film.

"The guy who could play this all day long on one quarter, he was awesome," Ruchti said. "We looked up to him."

And while they don't sport mullets, Verrechia is currently the world's 20th ranked player for the arcade classic, Wheels, with a score 29 points higher than that of Ruchti, who is ranked 25th in the world.

And they are still friends.