Updated 2/18/07


From Digital Press (www.digitpress.com):

Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade - A Review

Last Friday, I went to a screening at the Sundance film festival of the movie Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade.

The movie is a documentary focuses on Twin Galaxies, an arcade located in the small town of Ottumwa Iowa, and the video game champions that came there in 1982. The men and boys that arrived were the best of Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Berzerk, and many other classic arcade games. The movie follows their lives from the Life Magazine feature on them in 1982 to the present.

The movie mixes the historical and the personal. It briefly touches on how video games became popular and then focuses on the bigger games of the early 80s. It has interviews with the players that had high scores in those games and why they played them and what their strategies were. It also follows the huge events of the time, including Buckner and Garcia's "Pac-Man Fever", the 1982 Video Game world championship filmed by ABC's "That's Incredible", to the attempt to create a league of professional video game players, to the mass closing of arcades just a few years later.

The movie then focuses on several of the video game champions who were at Twin Galaxies in 1982. These people are asked what happened to them, how did being great at video games affect their lives, and what lessons did they learn. These characters are extremely colorful, such as Billy Mitchell, Rob Mruczek, and Roy Shildt. Perhaps most interesting is Walter Day, founder of Twin Galaxies. He definitely comes from the 1960s Berkeley culture, has had a variety of interests in hobbies in his life, and most impressively, after establishing Twin Galaxies as the authority in video game high scores has a keen insight into the importance of video game history and how it should be preserved.

Chasing Ghosts decides to take a very light approach to the subject matter. It plays up the fun, funny, and wacky side of video games and video gamers. It really takes you back to your childhood when you felt anything was possible and you could be an astronaut, or president, or a world famous video game player. This approach really works, because even though there are serious storylines touched on, the people in this film were doing it for their love of the game and that comes through. At one point in the movie, I was worried that the movie was focus too much on the bizarreness and social awkwardness of the characters, just playing on the easy stereotype that video game players are hopeless nerds. This feeling was soon allayed by showing that these people, despite any quirks, still have families that they love, friends that they cherish, and ideals they pursue.

The film was very well done and very well put together. The film mixed interviews, news footage, old photos, and computer-created rendering of the old video games to always have something on screen to catch your eye. The documentary created its stories well, did a good job of showing the impact of video games on these people and the world, and left you a little sad at the death of arcades.

While I consider myself fairly knowledgeable about the history of video games, I was born in 1979 and so I missed quite a lot of the arcade culture, only hitting the tail end of the classic arcade culture in my childhood before the tournament fighting games took over. Thus, I learned a lot about what arcades were like during the early 80s and gained a better appreciations for the video games I already loved like Ms. Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. I saw seven different movies at the Sundance Film Festival this year and, unlike most years, I enjoyed all of them. This one, though, is probably my favorite. No other movie kept me as rapt or as entertained as Chasing Ghosts and I would rate it a 4.5 out of 5. Anyone who appreciates a good historical and personal documentary will enjoy this film and for anyone who is interested in the history of video games it is a must see.

What made the experience even better is that the producer, director, editor, cinematographer, and Twin Galaxies founder Walter Day were there at the screening and stayed around afterwards to answer questions about the film. The people who made the film, while not hardcore gamers, really showed that they were eager to make this film. Mr. Day was a mini-celebrity and fielded many questions and handled them all well.

[Previous] | [Next]
[Return to Mark's Sundance Page]
[Return to Mark's Page]