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Chasing Ghosts

Chasing Ghosts


A review of the video game-themed documentary from the 2007 Sundance Film Festival

If I told you there was a new film at Sundance called Chasing Ghosts , you'd probably assume--based on the title and the nature of the festival--that it was a dark, depressing drama. But if I told you that the ghosts in question had names like Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde, and you smiled in recognition, then this is the film for you: because Blinky and Co. are the ceaseless enemies in Pac-Man , and Chasing Ghosts is about the players who made their names hitting top scores on that and other arcade games in the early 80s. It's also the most pleasurable film I've seen at the festival thus far, a potential breakout documentary along the lines of Spellbound and Wordplay .

The focal point of the film is the Twin Galaxies arcade in Ottumwa, Iowa, where, in 1982, owner Walter Day used his gift for promotion to appoint himself the official scorekeeper of the video game industry. Top players from all across the country traveled to Twin Galaxies to beat each others' scores in games of Pac-Man , Centipede , and many, many other games. Along the way, these obsessive, ostracized personalities found a forum they could excel in, as well as a place where, as one puts it, "you could go from shit to God for only a quarter."

There's no discounting the nostalgia factor in Chasing Ghosts , but what really makes it sing are the colorful characters we meet along the way, like the glamorous, mullet-headed Billy Mitchell, who was the first player to rack up a "perfect game" in Pac-Man , or former best friends Ron Bailey and Joel West, who ended their friendship for 22 years after Ron beat Joel's world record in Berzerk . Some of these players have moved on and, in present-day interviews, recall their semi-fame with glee, but just as many others haven't let their narrow spotlight go, and engage in trash talk at the drop of a quarter. Of his fellow players, one man snorts that "they couldn't get laid in a whorehouse with a handful of hundred-dollar bills." What makes that assertion even funnier is that it's coming from a middle-aged bodybuilder (and disputed Missile Command champion) who's had his name changed to Mr. Awesome.

Characters like Mr. A provide some of the most deliriously deluded quotes I've seen in a documentary since DiG!, but they also prove that you need not be a video game aficionado to enjoy yourself here. The people who came of age in an arcade will find a lot to love (including a killer 80s soundtrack), but even novices will find, in Chasing Ghosts , a high that's simply unbeatable.

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Kyle Buchanan