Life’s a Game

“I spent a year in the Atari Lounge living in a total ’80s time warp….”

San Diego Reader, September 14, 2006
  • San Diego Reader, September 14, 2006

'The Atari Lounge is there so you can take a break from the band or get away from someone you don't want to talk to," says Casbah owner Tim Mays of the club's back room full of vintage video games, pinball machines, and pool tables. "We've had games here since we first moved to this location in early 1994. The Jurassic Park and Guns N' Roses pinball machines were pretty popular for a long time. We also had a sit-down Pac-Man that was hugely popular. Someone actually bought it from the guys who own and maintain our machines."

Sandy Thomas, bassist for O.B.-based Xlent, says, "I spent a year in the Atari Lounge living in a total '80s time warp, going for the 'perfect Pac-Man.' That's surviving through 255 screens and eating every single dot, every ghost, every fruit and energizer, and never missing a single one. I reached the million-point mark five different times, but I only broke two million once. Believe it or not, that actually got me laid, and that score should add a million to my Pac-Man points." A perfect Pac-Man score is 3,333,360.

"For ten years I'd been telling people about a video game I loved as a kid called Star Castle," says Rookie Card singer/guitarist Adam Gimbel. "It was actually black and white, with colored plastic on the monitor to make the center rings red and yellow. No one believed me. When I moved back to San Diego ten years ago, there it was in the Atari Lounge."

As of this writing, the club's arcade games include Galaga, Off Road, Centipede, a Donkey Kong console that only works sporadically, and a tabletop Ms. Pac-Man nearly always stacked with the quarters of waiting players.

"I'm a Ms. Pac-Man snob," says singer-songwriter Marie Haddad. "Not just any machine will do. It has to be a sit-down table version, and it has to be fast. Sure, there are other Ms. Pac-Man's around town, but the joystick doesn't respond like the Casbah's, or it's a stand-up machine, or it's geriatric slow." She says her high score is "somewhere in the 95,000s," and her dot-gobbling prowess earns her occasional perks. "I was back there playing between sets, and a guy who'd been playing Galaga turned around to watch me...before I finished my game, he bought me a vodka tonic and called me 'the Eddie Van Halen of Ms. Pac-Man. '"

Grant Reinero of the Focus Group likes how the tabletop Ms. Pac-Man allows players to battle head-to-head. "One time I was in the Atari Lounge by myself, and I was sitting at the Ms. Pac-Man and searching my pockets for a quarter. Nothing. No change at all. In defeat, I resigned myself to just sitting there and watching the game's demo screen over and over.

"Just then, a girl's voice cut through the sludgy tones bellowing out of the main room. 'Are you gonna play?' I looked up to see a raven-like beauty in an antique dress. She pushed her hair back behind her ears and sat down at the other end of the game."

"'I don't have a quarter,' I said. She reached into the pocket of her dress and produced two quarters. 'Wanna play me?'"

"We took turns jamming the joystick in a mad frenzy. The flashing screen lit up her perfect pale features as we played. What began as a friendly game soon gave way to a ruthless power-pellet--eating contest. With my last turn I lost myself in the maze, becoming the insatiable yellow creature on the screen. The ghosts finally cornered and killed me, and I screamed out loud.

"I looked up to see her staring back at me, her chest heaving with excitement, her eyes wide with adrenaline. I told her, 'That's the best I've ever played,' and in one motion she grabbed the back of my neck, pulled my cheek to her lips, and whispered in my ear, 'Thanks for the game.' "

Two other Atari Lounge consoles are currently down, with the busted skateboarding game rumored to be replaced soon with either Space Invaders or Tempest. The Casbah's pool tables are always in good repair, and one cue-ball clash has become the stuff of local legend.

"Eddie Vedder and I played a game of pool many, many years ago," says owner Mays. "He bet his publishing deal versus my ownership of the Casbah. He thoroughly kicked my ass. Actually, he beat everyone he played against that night. This gave rise to a rumor many years back that Eddie Vedder secretly owned the Casbah.

"Luckily, he never claimed said ownership."

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