“You don’t go in there, it’s a rough place”
They weren’t wrong, the local arcade really was a rough place. It was small, dank, smelt of cigarette smoke and was filled with older boys on fruit machines. Older boys clearly too young to be playing fruit machines at that.
For years, I wouldn’t go in. I didn’t need warning, I didn’t need threatening. I took one look at the place and thought nah.
I’ve only preordered a handful of games over the years. A couple of Valve games and a cheap copy of Saints Row III that came with the season pass. At sixteen quid before the game came out, it seemed like a fairly safe bet.
I was put off preordering fairly early on in my videogame life with the furore over long delayed home computer versions of Knight Rider and Streethawk for the Speccy. There was a whole mess of a thing what with two different versions of one of the games, one for preorders, one for release and neither version any good. At least the release version looked like a Street Hawk game, I guess. Joust with a motorbike, not so much.
It helped that I had very little money too but nothing helped put me off preordering a game than Kev.
Kev was one of those kids that you sort of forget how you got to be associated with him. Most of my friends then were a year or two older than me anyway and Kevin was no different but he wasn’t attached to any of the usual friend of a friend or whatever. He did, however, live right at the end of my street and had a Speccy too.
Looking back, its odd how many of us came together solely because we had a computer. Somehow we’d managed to build a small network of folks of all different ages to share, discuss and ssssh copy games between us. Kev had somehow drifted into this network and we hung around.
It probably helped that Kev was a regular at the arcade and could walk us in.
Then, I sorta assumed he could waltz in there because he was tall and spindly, cheeky to a tee. Lads nodded as he’d stride past the fruit machines with us to the games at the back. A beleaguered looking woman sat in a glass cabinet, a cigarette seemingly always in her hand. Folks would take a break from pumping money into the one-armed bandits and try to bum cigarettes from her, always met with a stony glare. Everyone knew they wouldn’t get one, of course. That was the game.
They’d rob the place every few days, the stories went. There’s always some kid in need of the money for something else, to pay someone else. If true, no surprise she wore the same expression on her face day in, day out. I’m not sure I could tolerate a single day of it yet years later when I worked a few doors down, she was still working there. Still with a mound of cigarettes and the same stare.
Past the kiosk, it was often just us. Kev really liked it down there. It was better than being stuck at home with just his mum and no-one ever asked about his dad. Everyone else in the room sat on bar stools, moving rarely. Kev was animated, excited, alive. Hopping from machine to machine. He’d cheer his own high scores, be visibly angry if he lost, wasting another ten pence. The games swapped often but one summer, he’d run up to us outside as we walked past.
You have to see this game, have to, have to. Shifty faces. I’ll go in.
I didn’t see the fuss, personally. For Kev though, it was love. And day in, day out he’d find the money to play. Forget every other machine in there. For months, Kev didn’t go to the arcade to play games, he went to play Nemesis.
Then one day, as with all machines in there, it was gone. It’d stuck around longer than most machines, presumably because every day would end, somehow, with K E V at the top of the high scores. I dread to think how many ten pence pieces went into that.
The story of how the home computer versions of Nemesis went so wrong is one we’ll maybe never hear.
Sinclair User had ran screenshots from the game that made it look chunky, as close to the arcade version as you could want a Speccy to get. They’d ran playing tips for a version of the game no-one else seemed to have played. Konami, only just stepping into UK home computer territory, seemed to have got it very right.
The version released was, so very clearly, not the version Sinclair User wrote about. It certainly wasn’t the version Kev was expecting.
With the machine gone, Kev had plumped down the cash on a preorder of the home computer version of Nemesis. Weeks and months passed and the wait seemed to weigh heavy on him. Alternating between excitement and frustration, often only sentences apart, Kev talked impatiently of how it’d be here soon, it had to be here soon, it’d be fantastic.
Then the letter arrived. In a few days Kev would have Nemesis and the wait was over.
“Did you hear about Kev?”
I hadn’t spoken to him since the morning the game arrived and he seemed great then, ridiculously excited but I could understand that after all those months of wanting the game. He’d pulled out the small white box from the envelope, gawped at the instructions and been told no playing until later. His mum had things to do. Dutifully, he put it away.
I’d seen his mum in tears later that day. She was crying in the street as I walked past.
It wasn’t unusual round there to see mums in the street screaming or crying though so I thought little of it. If only I’d have looked up.
If I’d have looked up I’d have seen the smashed window in Kev’s room. If I’d have paid more attention, I’d have noticed what his mum was crying over but you sort of don’t pay attention. You skip on by, go where you’re going, stay out it all. That’s how you get by.
“Why, what happened?”, I asked. Suddenly worried after the sight of his mum in tears.
“He threw his TV out the window”, my mate said, laughing in disbelief.
I’d known him kick arcade machines, I’d heard he’d gone through plenty of joysticks too but a TV out the window? What possessed him to do that?
“You know that game he ordered?”
“His mum said he lost it. Threw the TV out the window after playing it. Took him a few tries to get it loaded then when it did finally load, it was crap. Off went the TV. Out the window, into the road. Bits of it, everywhere”.
“I take it he won’t be out later then?”
We never really knew what else to do but laugh.
Kev and I drifted after that. It was weeks before he was allowed to answer the door himself, longer before allowed to go further than the shop across the road. With that, we drifted from the local arcade too, preferring the sunny riverside one in the nearest city. Without Kev to walk us in, no chance.
Near 30 years on now, I can’t think of preorders without thinking of Kev. How after months of waiting, his belief in a videogame turning out good ended, improbably, with a TV out the window.
I know, of course, that the bad port of Nemesis was really only the smallest part of the story. The rest never mentioned, never discussed because you sort of don’t pay attention. You just skip on, keep going, that’s how you get by.
I know, of course, I’ll never be the kind of person who throws a TV out the window in frustration too.
I don’t preorder just in case.