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Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade
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by Erik Childress

"I Still Play A Pretty Mean Galaga."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2007 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: Spelling bees, scrabble, crossword puzzles – what’s with all this using our brain stuff? Everything with the words and the letters. Where are all the number documentaries? I was once in an Illinois sponsored team math competition in grade school. I also scored over 145,000 in Pac-Man when I was eight and I felt like a king. It didn’t take me 82 hours to do it and people like Bill Mitchell would probably call me an amateur. Lincoln Ruchti & Michael Verrechia’s Chasing Ghosts hopefully is the first chapter of the proclaimed arcade revolution which came to fruition in the early ‘80s and has become a nine-headed beast in today’s marketplace. No matter if you’re in a position to mock or find a kinship with those who spent every waking hour in the underage version of Las Vegas in pursuit of high score immortality, this film is both entertaining and oddly poignant about the beginnings of a lost era.

Before the days of xBox Live and even the Atari 2600, you would have to leave home to play the latest in video game technology. The arcade was where it was at and it reigned in a new class of nerd. Don’t tell these players that though. Thanks to a man named Walter Day, these gamers now had a chance for immortality and it turned geeks into revered competitors. Day founded the Twin Galaxies International Scoreboard, documenting high scores for all games sent in from across the country. It may not be 755 home runs or a 56-game streak, but it was good enough for LIFE magazine to do a feature on the craze with a collection of the champions on the cover.

The mulleted and arrogant Bill Mitchell once scored a perfect game on Pac-Man and was named “player of the century” in 1999 for having world records on three other games including Burgertime and Donkey Kong. Ben Gold and Darren Olson (aka “Chris Steele”) parlayed their gaming into a competition on That’s Incredible! Ron Bailey and Joel West were the best of friends until Ron beat Joel’s world record on Berzerk. Competition reigns supreme in the hearts of men and so be it if it comes in the form of a joystick instead of a baseball bat. You don’t just get to name yourself "Captain Awesome" if you feel you haven’t earned it.

Chasing Ghosts has some fun on behalf of its participants as they talk straight-faced about their accomplishments like NASA scientists; practically immune to the “mother’s basement” stereotype they still carry with them today. A 90-minute mockfest would have grown irksome after a while. And since Ruchti & Verrechia have seen their share of personal point rankings over the years they know when to pull back from the more pathetic tales and concentrate on the nostalgic overview. Besides, any film that devotes time to a live performance of "Pac-Man Fever" deserves its props and then some. Long live Buckner and Garcia!

Mixing a wealth of reports devoting news time to the craze, a worthy 80s soundtrack and some fun computer rendering of the game’s rules, Chasing Ghosts is a true bit of cinematic time travel. Surprisingly not building up to some big modern competition, but rather to a reunion of the “rock stars” of the time, Ghosts develops an empathetic connection between their fade into an average existence and the simplistic plunk of a quarter being turned into a juggernaut. But its also a hopeful reminder that progress, both in technology and in life, is a positive and we have to roll with it. These guys were once living proof that the fantasy of Galagahead Matthew Broderick getting Ally Sheedy and Starfighter Lance Guest taking Catherine Mary Stewart out of this world was anything but. Maybe they’re not getting the cheerleaders anymore, but a new generation too young to remember getting up Saturday morning to watch Starcade with Geoff Edwards now gets to see Attack of the Show with Olivia Munn everyday. Maybe gaming is sexy after all. If you doubt it, my xBox Live handle is The Movieman. Game on!

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originally posted: 02/08/07 03:34:27
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2007 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

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