It’s been years since I’ve stormed this particular building. Decades, really.

Yet my grappling hook flies straight and true to the top of the elevator shaft. I zip-line in, drop and spin a quick 360 scan like a pro before catching the elevator on the roof and beginning my murderous descent.

My enemies are everywhere: Scurrying flocks of armed spies clad in black suits, sunglasses and hats, they pop randomly from the blue doors on each floor and start shooting. There’s no way I can kill them all but I do my best, ducking under their bullets or jumping over them, sometimes delivering my signature move — a flying, two-footed jump-kick that can take out two or three of the bastards at a time — and score an additional 50 points for the kill. As I ride the elevators down, I launch bullets that won’t find their mark until I’m a couple floors away. Sometimes I’ll shoot the lights out, which has no discernible effect on the enemy, but ups the scoring by another 50.

It’s an absolute bloodbath; I may have taken 50 of them out before I land in the basement and speed away in my little hatchback, collecting a 1,000-point bonus as I do, thank you very much. By the time I clear the second building, I’ve already hit the evening’s high score. After the sixth or seventh building, I start to get a little sloppy and the enemy spies quickly overwhelm me, eating up my extra guys in just a minute or so.

But whatever. I feel I’ve made my point.

I haven’t played Elevator Action, Taito’s 1983 downward-scrolling shooter, in maybe 30 years, but back in the golden age of the video arcade, Elevator Action was one of my games, along with Centipede, Q*bert, Tron, Tempest, Jungle Hunt and a few others. I played them all — relentlessly, obsessively, passionately — but those few games on the shortlist were ones at which I became quite adept. And as I demonstrated on this Elevator Action machine tucked against the back wall of Scott Leftwich’s basement arcade in Winston-Salem, I’ve still got the goods.

This basement is literally the stuff of dreams for an original gamer like me — the mall arcade where I cut my teeth back in the 1980s drifts up from my subconscious all the time. It’s Leftwich’s personal tribute to the virtual dawn of time, the late 1970s until about 1986, when all the classic home systems and arcade games were developed.

It’s safe to say he’s obsessed. He’s rescued and repaired each one of these arcade classics with his brother Blake, a game and app developer, over the last 20 years. Around the same time the brothers formed a band, which still exists today as Scott Leftwich & the Atarians.

He’s been in Winston-Salem for five years now, and his basement is already the stuff of legend.

He’s got everything from that early era — more than 90 cabinets, a larger inventory than the famous Time Out arcade during its heyday in the mid-1980s where I used to hang out, some of them quite rare.

He’s got Death Race, a 1976 driving game based on the movie in which the object is to run over little digital men on the track. It became the first banned video game — “60 Minutes” did a piece on it — and is also the spiritual predecessor to Grand Theft Auto and all its imitators.

There’s Phoenix, a Space Invaders clone from 1980 that featured the first appearance of a “boss,” or supervillain at the end of a level. There was one of these at my childhood movie theater for a while, and my old friend Joe DeSimone became proficient at it between repeated viewings of Flash Gordon.

He’s got that tabletop football game with the Xs and Os, which I believe is the first coin-operated video game I’ve ever laid eyes on. They had it at the bowling alley where, in the late 1970s, my parents played in a league.

He’s got Paperboy. He’s got Marble Madness. He’s got Dragon’s Lair. He’s got Gorf!

I nearly drowned in sense memory from the moment I walked through the door for this private event — the arcade is not open to the public — and Leftwich saw it on my face.

He gestured towards the soft glow rising from the room, the beeps and blinks.

“Tonight,” he said, “you’re 12 years old.”

For a short time in my life that seemed like forever, video games were everywhere. Then, for many years, they were nowhere. But they’ve been on the comeback for a few years now, even here in the Triad where sometimes trends have a little lag time.

Lost Ark Opened led the charge in Greensboro in 2011, with an initial dedication to pinball that has somewhat lapsed. Now the Spring Garden gameroom hosts a few tables and a slew of late-era American and Japanese fighting games.

Geeksboro has a Nintendo NES available along its TV wall  — I will tell you right now that I can destroy you at Tecmo Bowl, no matter who you are.

And bar/arcades like Boxcar in Greensboro and Camel City BBQ in Winston-Salem are bringing back some of the old cabinets, along with pinball and Skee-ball and a few of the old home consoles. A new concept, Reboot Arcade, is slated to open in downtown Winston-Salem on North Liberty Street literally any day now.

For a guy like me, who came in on the story at its earliest chapters, it’s a heady time of nostalgia, sense memory and those nearly forgotten hand-eye twitches that once again have meaning in dark rooms filled with blinking lights and the rattle of quarters in pockets.

I see others of similar vintage hunched over resurrected Asteroids machines and explaining to their sons the finer points of Punch Out.

We are original gamers. And it’s as exciting to us now as it was in the years between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

My own video-game story is the same as any other kid who was born at the right place at the right time.

My place and time was suburban Long Island in the 1970s and ’80s, a bastion of popular culture and an epicenter of the mall movement that dominated the zeitgeist. My mall, Roosevelt Field, was across the street from my house. You could play games at the Time Out arcade there and, in the evenings, at the movie theater, where they would rotate out a few games in the lobby.

The double helix of home and arcade video games began in this cradle, capturing the rapt attention of every boy I knew between 1978 and 1984, at which point it tapered off but only slightly.

I remember seeing the old Atari trackball football game at the bowling alley in 1977, over by the pinball machines, and then later, Space Invaders. I was already a solid pinball shooter and, like everyone else in my cohort, I was fascinated by these new amusements. I began hoarding quarters for my parents’ bowling nights.

I would spend hours at Time Out at the mall, and in the summertime at the beach we would sneak into the Sands Beach Club to play Space Invaders or walk into Long Beach to play Donkey Kong at Angelo’s soda fountain. If we could convince a parent to take us, we could go to Nathan’s on Old Country Road, with Skee-ball, dozens of pinball tables and whole walls filled with cabinets holding all the popular video games of the day.

Nathan’s had Joust; they were the first to get Donkey Kong, the arrival of which was preceded by hyperbolic rumors on the school playground. But there were a lot of older kids there, a lot of bikers. It wasn’t uncommon to see a full-on grownup holding down a Pac Man machine, taking on all comers in 2-player mode like a pool shark dominating a table in the back of a bar.

My friends and I talked strategy about these games, made pilgrimages to play them, told lies on the playground about arcade successes we had witnessed or achieved. And the games themselves became more ubiquitous.

They had a Popeye machine at the Garden City Pool. There was a Dig Dug at the neighborhood pizza place. My friend Dug McGuirk had a Tempest cabinet in his basement.

My parents took us on a skiing vacation to Vernon Valley, Pa. in 1983 and by the time we had left, my trademark initials, “BRI,” graced the high score of every single Centipede machine in the place.

Like any regular kid I had mastered Space Invaders because it was the thing to do, and quickly became proficient at the games it inspired like Galaga and Centipede. Vector-graphic games like Space Invaders gave way to 8-bit pixelated characters like Pac Man, and though I never loved Pac Man like others professed to, I became good enough not to embarrass myself after school at the pizza place downtown. Donkey Kong intimidated me when it first came out, and it took me a couple years to finally get through the first couple levels. To this day I still can’t finish the elevator level, though my 16-year-old son can.

On a good day at the mall, my friends and I would line about $5 worth of quarters atop the Track & Field machine, a four-player Olympics-style competition in which tapping buttons determines speed and a launch button tests timing and accuracy. We’d play the whole fiver until we were sweaty and red-faced, leaving Time Out only for quick bites of hot pretzels and Cokes, because they wouldn’t let you bring food in there.

There’s a Track & Field machine in Leftwich’s basement, and also one at Boxcar in downtown Greensboro. I bring my teenage sons to play there all the time. I’m still pretty good — I can usually nab a high score on the 100-yard dash, the javelin and, if I get that far, the hurdles. When I was 13 I could nail the hammer throw, but for the life of me I just cannot do it anymore.

Through my teenage years I worked at the mall, and would redistribute my earnings to the bookstore, the poster shop and the arcade, picking up skills at Punch-Out and Q*Bert and Joust and Spy Hunter that could sometimes draw a small crowd of younger kids around my machine. I became good enough at Dig-Dug that I could play until I simply lost interest. Elevator Action was the game for which I saved my last quarter. My performance in Leftwich’s basement convinces me that I can still do a solid 20 minutes on that machine if I had a mind to.

Leftwich approaches me after Level 7, when things start to get interesting with the mobs of black-clad gangsters scurrying like ants between me and my getaway car. He wants to show me something, so I let my last guy lapse.

In a room off the main arcade floor, he’s got a set of shelves jammed with every home video-game console I’ve ever played or even heard of: Vectrex, the vector-graphics game with its own screen and overlays for different games; the Magnavox Odyssey, that my friend William Goss was the first to get; ColecoVision, just like the one at at Dave Typermass’ house in 1983. Leftwich has the pistol grip for the ColecoVision, the track-ball for his Atari 2600, the Nintendo robot, every module for every home video-game system I’ve ever seen or heard of, and a few I haven’t. The RCA pushbutton Pong player, ca. 1977, is completely new to me and I haven’t even thought of the Bally Astrocade since 1980.

He’s also got a few Commodore 64s, Atari and 800 home computers and a Radio Shack TRS -80 tucked in there.

And in my head, there’s a church organ playing the theme from Super Mario Brothers.

Right around the time I spotted the Xs and Os tabletop football game at the bowling alley, around 1977, my father brought into the house one of the first home video games on the market. I cannot for the life of me remember the brand name, but it was a knock-off of Pong with a couple of variations and a rifle module that didn’t work. My father was concerned that the game would ruin his TV in the den, so we hooked it up to the small, black-and-white kitchen set, which we’d often move to the floor of the living room to play in the dark.

When the Atari 2600 came to town in 1977, it made my little Telstar knockoff look like a joke. And in the next couple of years it had infiltrated every single household in Nassau County with adolescent boys… except mine. My parents stubbornly refused to shell out $200, the cost of the console through 1980, and so I won my Atari from a box of Captain Crunch in 1982, which I viewed at the time as an act of cosmic justice.

Most of us had the Atari, but there were a few outliers. Typermass made the ColecoVision upgrade in 1982, right when it came out. McGuirk had a Vectrex, the only one I knew of. DeSimone, along with a few others, went with the Intellivision, a direct competitor to the Atari that was endorsed in TV ads by George Plimpton. The games were pretty good, but I didn’t like the disc controller.

When we weren’t at the mall or the bowling alley, we spent our time in each other’s basements and rec rooms mastering Atari games. At the time, arcade games were much more sophisticated, such as they were, than home games. Amid the peak of what we now call “Pac Man Fever” in 1982, Atari released its home version of the game, a honking insult to the cabinet original. Similar efforts to replicate Centipede, Q*Bert and Donkey Kong on the home screen produced laughable results.

A few games had legs. We could play Warlords, a four-person version of Breakout, all night at a sleepover. We spent so much time in John Grupp’s basement playing Decathalon — an Activision knockoff of Track & Field released in 1983 that relied on a left-right wiggle of the controller instead of alternating buttons for speed —that we broke his joysticks.

But then, it seemed almost overnight, it all ground to a halt.

The Nintendo NES came out late in 1983, and didn’t saturate the market until a year or so later. By then were in high school, and other evening activities supplanted nights in front of the Atari in someone’s basement.

In the arcades, Mortal Kombat had inspired a slew of head-to-head combat games that fed an entire genre. Old-school gamers like me appreciated the novelty of different characters and abilities, and skill level necessary to master them. But it was an entirely different sort of gameplay, more a sport than a puzzle, and a lot of arcade gamers never made the transition. And yet at the same time, those classic cabinets on which we had cut our teeth just seemed so… old.

The market split the moment that home consoles, which still sold for a couple hundred dollars, and their game titles which could still run as high as $60 — the same price point as the Atari Pac Man when it first came out in 1981 — began to out-earn their arcade counterparts, which still made money one or two quarters at a time.

Super Mario Bros. sealed whatever deal was left, a far superior version of the arcade game that rewarded repeat play and, if you knew how to exploit a few key “easter eggs,” an unlimited supply of lives. I could — and can — work a single play of Super Mario Bros. on the NES for an hour.

A line of demarcation had been crossed. It, whatever it was, was over.

In Leftwich’s basement, after I murder all my would-be assassins in Elevator Action, I take a few moments to nab the high score on the Centipede machine and put on a clinic at the Tempest cabinet. I also put my gamer initials, “BRI” at the top of the high-score list for that vector-graphic Star Wars game, the one where you shoot the tops off the towers and blow up the Death Star. They had that one at the movie theater forever.

I revisit a few of the classics that I had forgotten I loved so much back in the day: Tron, Spy Hunter, Jungle Hunt, Krull.

I’ve still got game. Leftwich is right there with me.

He tells me he played his first video game in an arcade at the beach in the summer of 1980; he was 8 years old. The game was Space Zap, new that year, a four-direction shooter made by Midway that came in a cabinet, as a tabletop and a tall cocktail table. After that, he says, he was hooked.

“Maybe you just had to be there,” he writes in a follow-up email, “but I’ll say this without hesitation: The video-game scene of the early ’80s was magic. These games are a part of me. I still get a rush when I bring a game back to life after 30 years of silence.”

By 9 p.m. it’s time to go, so I look for my teenage sons, who had been off on their own for a couple hours. I find my 16-year-old at the Kick Man machine, a genuine, wood-paneled classic that I remember playing at my grandparents’ bowling alley the year it came out: 1981.

It’s a circus theme wherein the player is a clown on a unicycle. The clown catches balloons that drop from above, which stack up on his head; if he misses one, he can wheel over and kick it back into play. Among the balloons is the occasional Pac Man, who if caught will drop down and eat all the balloons stacked on the clown’s head.

It has taken him about nine tries, he says, but he is just about to lodge the high score here at the end of the night. With a small crowd peering into the cabinet, he passes the high score and let his next couple plays die out.

Before the Game Over screen, he’s offered the chance to enter his initials into the screen. He has his own three-letter gamer tag, “BEC,” that he registers with a slap of the button.

Join the First Amendment Society, a membership that goes directly to funding TCB‘s newsroom.

We believe that reporting can save the world.

The TCB First Amendment Society recognizes the vital role of a free, unfettered press with a bundling of local experiences designed to build community, and unique engagements with our newsroom that will help you understand, and shape, local journalism’s critical role in uplifting the people in our cities.

All revenue goes directly into the newsroom as reporters’ salaries and freelance commissions.

⚡ Join The Society ⚡