Nearly every Saturday afternoon in the spring and summer of 2002, Jimmy’s parents drove him and his best friend Kyle out to Centre Mall in their old blue Chevy van that they used to deliver the Saturday papers around the city in the early mornings. Sometimes the boys would stay up late enough on Friday night playing video games or watching TV that they’d hear the telltale sounds of Jimmy’s mom and dad preparing for their pre-dawn route downstairs — the rumbling of the coffee maker, the heavy steps of Jimmy’s enormous father creaking the floorboards, the van cranking up and filling the twilight air with the chugging of engine noise. The boys would inevitably fall asleep and wake sometime in the late morning or early afternoon, by which time Jimmy’s parents had been up for hours. They would eat breakfast — juice and toast or some of the sugary cereal that Kyle’s parents never let him have at home — and drive out east to the mall.
They went to the mall not with the intention of shopping or even of just hanging out, but to visit the large arcade off the food court that was one of the last such places in the city. Standalone arcades had become less and less profitable as home game consoles had caught up in processing power to the big commercial boards, and some were even beginning to allow for online play with other people around the world. But arcade machines still proved enough of an attraction to carve out spaces in malls, movie theatres, and university student centers, and the devotees of interactive entertainment flocked to them for the purest renditions of one on one fighting games, light gun titles where players blew away hordes of zombies or criminals, and — in the case of Jimmy and Kyle — games like Dance Dance Revolution, which were difficult to reproduce at home.
The DDR machine was located just at the edge of the arcade and inevitably drew in fascinated shoppers who goggled at the players stepping to the beat of various techno, Eurodance, and Japanese pop tracks. On weekends, it also played host to a sizable crowd of players who placed quarters in a row on the cabinet to claim their next round. Jimmy and Kyle would each show up with five to ten dollars in bills in their pockets, which they’d take to the staff — matronly women wearing aprons with coin dispensers attached — and exchange for heavy stacks of quarters. On a busy day, they might get two or three rounds in each in a couple of hours as the amassed group of young people — mostly boys — took their turns on the machine.
On one particular Saturday in July, Jimmy and Kyle were dropped off at the mall around 1 PM and walked quickly across the food court, doing their best to restrain the impulse to simply run past the diners sipping their coffee and munching on fries and Chinese food. The arcade was a glittering lure to the two of them. Its flashing lights pulsed throughout the darkened storefront, illuminating the patterned carpet like a cave receding back beyond sight and promising limitless excitement and adventure. The usual crowd was gathered around the DDR machine, demonstrating the variety of subcultures which to which the game appealed. There were the early adopters of anime and Japanese cultural products — the term “weeaboo” was not yet in wide circulation — goths and techno fans, and even a few b-boys and other actual dancers. Jimmy and Kyle fell into the first category, having discovered the game through Jimmy’s purchases of illegally copied Japanese video games he ran on his modded PlayStation, following instructions he’d found on an online forum.
They’d found the mall arcade from another forum, one dedicated specifically to DDR. That was the case for many of the regulars, who used the message board to share machine locations, pricing, and details on how well they were maintained and supervised. Of the several different locations in the city, Centre Mall was particularly favored for its location, air conditioning in the summer months, convenient adjacent food court, and reliable audience of fellow players. Jimmy and Kyle recognized most of them that day, except for a shy-looking kid standing a little ways back. He was wearing a Slipknot tee over a long-sleeved white shirt with skater shoes and wide blue jeans, marking him out as a skater, an emo, or else just someone like so many other awkward young boys who glommed onto the style because it was easy enough to pull off and made them feel like a part of something.
The two boys ignored the newcomer and greeted the players they knew before flagging down one of the staff to exchange their small bills for coins. Neither carried a backpack, so they sloshed the piles of metal into the pockets of their cargo pants and jeans so that they bulged and sagged away from their legs. They waited until the current player had finished his second song — the high-energy techno-beat track B4U by Naoki — and placed their quarters on the small lip protruding just beneath the screen, indicating their place in the queue. While the machine could accomodate two players at once, most preferred to take their turns individually so that they could select their own songs.
DDR was a simple simple enough game, at least in principle. Arrows indicating the cardinal directions would flow upwards towards a target. Players had to step on each up, down, left, or right arrow in time with the music to score points. Miss enough steps, and your game was over. The difficulty came partly from being able to visually process the steps as they came and partly from the physical requirements of stamina and speed. You got to play up to three songs if you didn’t fail any of them, so the challenge for most players was to play not so far below your level that you’d be bored or incur jeers from spectators, nor so high that you’d fail and waste your money — but at that perfect level where you’d be kept on your figurative and literal toes until your time was up.
Jimmy was, strictly speaking, a better player than Kyle. He focused on the technical aspect of the game, memorizing the step charts for each song and demonstrating an ability to move his tall and somewhat ungainly frame at surprising speeds when he needed to, so that his long, straight black hair which ordinarily hung like a curtain down over his pale face swung around wildly. Kyle, on the other hand, was more interested in the stylistic aspects of the game. He practiced a type of gameplay called “freestyle,” where players attempted to not only pass a song, but enact a performance that resembled dancing more than the crude stomping which, despite its name, DDR often looked like in practice. This typically meant more of a focus on smooth movements and elaborate gestures like catapulting yourself over the support bar on the back of the dance platform, though those sorts of antics at the Centre Mall arcade were likely to get one a stern talking to from one of the old women working there.
Kyle, at nearly a foot shorter than Jimmy, wore flashier clothes — short-sleeved button ups with flame graphics — and pasted his bleached hair up into a dozen or so twisted spikes with strong hair gel. An awkward, quiet boy, he had little interest in athletics or performance until he discovered DDR. It being a video game placed him on comfortable ground, as he’d been a devout button-pushing screen addict since his parents first bought him and his brother a Super Nintendo when he was seven years old. The downside of the arcade was that you had to wait your turn and cough up some change every time you wanted to play. But it made up for it with experiences you couldn’t get on consoles.
Jimmy and Kyle waited impatiently until their turn finally came up. When their quarters got to the front of the line, the unfamiliar boy they’d spotted earlier approached them.
“Which of you is next?” He asked, eyes downcast. “If whoever’s next can beat me, I’ll give them a copy of Super Mario Sunshine.”
The two boys looked at the kid askance. He had a nervous presence to him that made them uncomfortable.
“Yeah right, weirdo,” Kyle said, having long ago grown skeptical of the extravagant bets and wild claims his peers often made. “Prove it.” He remembered a friend in primary school who had once claimed to have been on the Nickeleon show Guts, where kids competed in physical challenges to earn a piece of the “Aggro Crag.” He’d asked to see it, but his friend insisted that her parents wouldn’t let her bring it to school and kept it in a safe at home, refusing to take it out.
“Alright,” the boy mumbled, opening up one of the pockets on the side of his jeans and pulling out a new copy of the game, still in its film packaging. Kyle boggled at it for a second. “I just bought it from the EB over there,” the boy added, gesturing to the Electronics Boutique across the foot court, which prominently displayed a cardboard cutout of Nintendo’s plumber mascot. The game had just come out and neither Kyle nor Jimmy had yet to play it.
“What’s in it for you? What do you get if you win?” Kyle asked, folding his arms. Jimmy towered over his friend, looking down apprehensively at the stranger. The boy smirked and crossed his arms, seemingly doing his best to look like an edgy anime protagonist.
“Oh, not much. Just your soul.” He laughed then, something evidently intended to sound cool and mocking but that came out as a meek, sad little series of snorts. Jimmy shook his head then, turning away. Kyle rolled his eyes — his friend had a babyish kind of superstitiousness about him. He wasn’t raised in a religious household like some other people he knew, Jimmy was just kind of an oaf who thought of certain things as inherently “spooky” and refused to go near them no matter how many times Kyle explained them to him rationally.
Kyle knew that souls weren’t real. As far as he was concerned, you had a brain and that was it. His grandmother on his father’s side had been vaguely religious and had sent his dad and uncle to Catholic school, but the tradition had ended there. Nobody in his family spoke about spiritual matters and they seemed like hoary relics of a hopelessly befuddled time to him.
“You’re on. But no take backs,” Kyle said, adding, under his breath, “sucker.”
As the current player — a skinny, pimply guy in a long leather coat — failed out of his last track, Kyle and his opponent stepped up onto the dance platform of the machine.
“I’ll let you pick the songs,” the boy said, gesturing to the controls.
“Your funeral,” Kyle replied. He pumped his quarters into the machine and the other boy did the same, each then hitting the respective rectangular buttons that started a new game. Kyle scrolled through the available tracks and picked out “stomp to my beat,” a big beat track by Finnish producer JS16. Both picked the medium level of difficulty and waited for the song to begin. Kyle glanced over at the boy, who was grinning now. As the arrows flew up the screen, both boys began stepping in time to the beat. The other boy seemed mechanical in his steps, using the least amount of movement necessary to hit them. Kyle, meanwhile, performed little flourishes at key moments, putting on a much better show for the crowd. By the time the song was over a minute and a half later, Kyle had scored an A while the other boy was only at a B.
“You can choose next,” Kyle said, magnanimous. If the boy kept up his end of the deal, and who knew if he would, he would have scored a new GameCube game for a dollar. It was almost too good to believe. Probably the kid would cry then get his parents to show up and make Kyle give it back, but maybe he’d actually get away with it.
In the second song, though, his opponent started to catch up. Kyle had gotten overconfident and the kid had picked a track he wasn’t familiar with, leading him to finish with a C versus the other kid’s B. It was down to the final pick and the boy let Kyle choose once again. Kyle was sweating, and it wasn’t just from the exertion. He took a breath and reminded himself that the stakes were all in his favor. If he won, he got a free game — if he lost, well, it wasn’t like this kid could actually take his soul, which probably didn’t even exist. He selected “Breakdown,” a J-Pop track, and steeled himself. As the song started up, he gripped the support bar behind him firmly, a practice known and looked down upon by many players as “bar holding” — or, more crudely, “bar raping.” He didn’t care, though — he was determined to win.
Kyle’s feet struck out from under him rapidly, hitting each step in near-perfect sequence. His chest was heaving and his teeth were rattling from the effort, but he knew that he only had to hold on a little longer. He didn’t dare glance at his opponent’s score for fear that he’d screw things up. They’d made it to the final stretch, when the song’s high-energy beat gave way to a drawn-out talking section. Kyle was sure he’d win — it was one of his favorite songs in the game and even though he was wheezing and the muscles in his legs were screaming he was already thinking about how sweet it would be to go home and play a new Mario game alone in his room.
But then the unthinkable happened: the laces on one of his Vans came undone, tangling themselves up around his feet. They caught on the steel platform and he stumbled, falling out of the rhythm and missing several steps in a row. The gauge at the top of the screen representing his performance dipped dangerously low, and he nearly failed out of the song. He just barely recovered, but he knew the incident would cost him. Why hadn’t he double tied his laces? He cursed his bad luck, and when the song finally ended and the results screen appeared, he felt his heart sink. He had lost enough points to allow his opponent to overtake him. He had lost.
Kyle shuffled off the platform and barely noticed as Jimmy stepped up to replace him. When he turned around, his opponent was grinning at him.
“I’ll be taking your soul now!” He announced, cackling theatrically. A few of the assembled crowd glanced at him but most simply rolled their eyes. With that, the kid shoved his hands back into his deep pockets and walked away. Kyle stared into the middle distance, watching as the boy got further and further away and finally disappeared around the corner, deeper into the mall. Eventually he felt a tap on his shoulder — it was Jimmy, who’d finished his round. He must have been standing there, just staring, for a couple of minutes.
“Hey, bad break there,” Jimmy said. “How do you feel? Are you worried?”
Kyle suddenly snapped out of his crestfallen daze. He’d lost, sure, but it wasn’t like he’d wagered anything real. All he’d missed out on was the chance to win a free game. And besides, it probably wouldn’t have been that simple. The kid would have weaseled out of the bet anyway. He’d get Super Mario Sunshine for his birthday, or for Christmas later that year. And he didn’t feel any different. Why should he? Souls weren’t real. Even if they were, could some random kid really have the power to take his?
As they sat in the food court drinking their cups of free ice water from the New York Fries to cool off, Jimmy tried to draw Kyle into a conversation about a movie he’d recently seen where dragons had destroyed most of the world and humans had to fight back using jets and guns, but Kyle barely heard it. He was staring at the arcade, wondering how he could have lost. Eventually, Jimmy realized his friend wasn’t listening and gave up, draining his cup and heading back over to the DDR crowd. Kyle joined him, but he didn’t play again that day.
He slept uneasily that night, but was eventually able to put the incident behind him. After that summer, though, he more or less stopped playing DDR and hanging out with Jimmy. The mounting pressures of high school and a growing desire to fit in with broader groups of people led Kyle to drop some of his interests that he felt contributed to his image as a nerd, instead borrowing a guitar from his uncle and trying to reinvent himself as a musician.
At the same time, the forces that had been weighing on American arcades intensified. Young people were spending more time playing games at home, especially with the rapid growth of high-speed internet. As rents rose, many arcades closed down, including the Centre Mall location where Jimmy and Kyle had spent so many Saturdays. Malls, too, became less central to the life of young people in the country as online shopping displaced traditional retailers. As Kyle grew older, he began to long for those vanished places. Of course there were still malls, but they weren’t malls like he remembered — quasi-mystical places with an indescribable allure to them. And arcades were all but dead. He became fixated on the aesthetics of the era, collecting images and videos of storefronts and arcade cabinets. As his peers looked forward, anticipating new game consoles, movies, and life experiences, he found himself glued to the rear view.
Kyle and Jimmy fell out of touch in their later years of high school as Kyle tried to fit into more popular social circles. They hadn’t spoken for several years when, as Facebook began to take off, Jimmy found Kyle on the social networking site. His page was full of pictures of dead malls, old arcade machines, and regional stores that had gone out of business years ago. The memory of their time at the Centre Mall arcade came back to Jimmy, and he shook his head as he recalled his old friend’s bravado. Maybe Kyle really had lost his soul that day, and the absence of that animating spark had left him frozen in time. His guitar playing back in high school, Jimmy recalled, always had been a little mechanical, as if missing something on a level beyond technical skill.
But then, Kyle was hardly alone in his obsession. Maybe all that had happened that day was a childish wager neither party ever intended on making good on. Maybe that strange kid neither of them ever saw again had simply been a bored teen with an overactive imagination. And maybe Kyle was just one of the countless members of his generation who were far ahead of schedule in yearning for the way things were when they were younger, spurred on by sharing memories and images over the vastly-expanding internet — the very same thing which had swiftly and irrevocably changed the world they’d known when they were growing up, and which they desperately clung to as the traditional promises of adulthood slipped further and further out of reach.
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