In an important personal development, I graduated from college this past Wednesday (hire me). Yes, this explains the slow pace of updates lately: I have been getting my affairs in order and preparing to make an overdue entrance into the adult world (please hire me). After suffering through a three-hour parade of insincere feel-good speeches, my contemporaries and I all needed to have a real celebration. I could have just boozed it up at another grad party, but it was at that 5-shots-for-$10 place. You know how packed that shit is on a Friday night? No thanks. Instead, I took a late suggestion: a trip to Eight on the Break, all the way out in Northern New Jersey. From my front door, the place takes me about two hours and change to get to. Worse than going to Staten Island! As a transitional ceremony, though, a night at the Break made sense.
I used to go to the Break, back when I was a more regular arcade rat. I was really into Bemani stuff, particularly Beatmania IIDX and Pop'n Music. Both of these games offered and continue to offer the absolute bleeding edge of difficulty, both in their genre and, indeed, in videogames period. I like to compare IIDX in particular to Cave's shooting games: here we have a game made specifically for people who are already genre experts, with the rest of the world dismissed as an afterthought. So of course they appealed to me. I'd already banged my head against Dodonpachi Daioujou for a month. At this point in my gaming life, just getting better was the best thing in the world to me.
I played little but IIDX and Pop'n for over two years, blowing my paychecks (hire me) on the ludicrous deluxe controllers, the sequels that came out every nine months. And then I'd spend weekends on IIDX and Pop'n machines in the basement of a Long Island strip mall, the only ones in the state, or I'd head even further out to the Break if I wanted IIDX and fighting games and a cheese steak. Eventually I reached a wall where the amount of effort it took me to get better was greater than the enjoyment I took from getting better. I've never had genre burnout before or since, but this was definitely it. This is a good time to stop on a silly pursuit like playing a videogame, unless you're a Korean Starcraft pro or something, in which case, get money get paid (hire me). I drifted away from the games, and now the giant controllers I used to be so excited about are collecting dust. The Break was an even more distant memory than the games themselves were. I couldn't escape the pull of nostalgia, so of course I agreed to go to the Break. Right after my usual Book-Off visit, of course.
The place itself is as authentic an arcade as you're ever going to see, probably more so than Chinatown Fair. You know why I say this? It's not really the games: in the back, they've got a snack bar, a couple of pool tables, wood-paneled walls. You sit at the bar-- which serves just about anything that can be dumped into a fryer, including deep-fried Oreos-- with your cheese steak and Dr. Pepper as the guy behind the bar tells you an off-color joke, and you look at the noisemakers just outside, and you're at home. For an arcade, the place is really cozy. At CF you can't even sit down, you know, unless you're one of those douchebags who lounge inside of the Sega Super GT machine.
Anyway, the first thing I did was get back to Bemani. For a double nostalgic shock, the very same Pop'n Music machine that I used to play back at the strip mall was standing here in front of me. There are a ton of reasons I never got as into Pop'n Music as I did IIDX: though I actually prefer the simpler interface, there's even less good music in Pop'n than in IIDX (ironically, the music has always been these games' weak point), and the home versions had some the most user-unfriendly unlock systems I've ever seen in a videogame. But unlike IIDX, I had never stopped having fun with Pop'n, because playing Pegasus Fantasy is never not fun. In that spirit, I played nothing but the anime theme songs on my runs at the Break, and I regret nothing.
I say my skill has deteriorated by one third because of Pop'n. The game has a difficulty system that goes from 1 on up to 40-something: I used to be able to do songs as far up as 36, but now I can only get away with 29 or less. That's not a third at all, but when I thought "from thirties to twenties" it made sense. At least on Pop'n I could still remember where the buttons were: over at Beatmania I'd found that my fingers had entirely forgotten where to go or even how to get there. I went from being able to do level 9 songs (IIDX operates on a different scale that tops out at 12) down to struggling with 7. Getting a little worse at Pop'n was fine: that game has some design safety nets where you can screw up and be okay. Screwing up in perfectionist IIDX, where you can easily lose in the final moments of a song, is just a totally demoralizing experience. Again, like a Cave game, IIDX isn't concerned with attracting players or even keeping them. If you want to play that game, you have to really want to play that game. I was on Pop'n a lot more.
Then I killed an hour at the bar with my buddy who'd invited me and his friends from work, who'd come up here from way out in Staten Island. I felt a little time warped: I hadn't sat here in a couple of years, circumstances were very different, and I had a bit less to worry about (hire me). With my hands up on the bar, I remembered another reason I was unlikely to come back to Bemani: the games were a recipe for carpal tunnel. Just after a couple of rounds, my fingers felt stretched out, twisted, and strained in a way that fingers should never have to feel. Then I went for those deep-fried Oreos. They taste how they look: kind of sickening and deadly, but anybody who says they aren't delicious is lying.
And of course, the experience just wasn't complete without waiting at a dark, empty railroad station at midnight for the last train back to New York. This is when you look at the trees and think things over. This is exactly the kind of trip I'm not going to be able to make so arbitrarily in my future, responsible-adult life (hire me). It's not like I'll never go to the Break again: it's just that coming by reminded me of a different time in my life, one that has long passed. I will just never make-- I'll never want to make-- that kind of time investment on a game again. It feels weird, knowing that.