Sunday, December 26, 2010

Culture: Pole Position II

Gunnar Stenseth continued a holiday tradition of playing Pole Position II in Bellevue, Washington on 26-December-2010

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - It's hard to claim anything other than a spoiled childhood when there was a full-size arcade video game in your room. Granted, my mother won it in an Atari contest in 1983, but it's still not normal to have such an expensive and physically large toy completely at one's disposal.

When she won the contest, there was a choice of three games--one was a Star Wars game of some kind and I don't recall the third, and I remember going to a local video game parlor to try them out. There wasn't much question that Pole Position II was going to be the choice. Not only did both my father and I prefer racing games, but it was pretty clear that there was a timelessness to a driving game, while the other games would be somewhat dated.

Fortunately, I do not know how many hours of my life have been spent playing the game, because the number would be scary. It rains in the Puget Sound region, and many a rainy summer day was spent driving the four virtual race courses--Fuji (from the original Pole Position game, with a mountain in the background), Test (a basic oval), Seaside (with an amusement park background), and Suzuka (in many ways the most twisting, challenging track). After many years of trying, I would earn the Pole Position on all four courses in qualifying, and would earn over 64,000 points on each course after the four-lap race.

While driving might be a universal game theme, some of the details of Pole Position are quite strange. In what kind of real race are all the other cars so slow that you pass them going more than twice their speed? How can be that all the sets of cars on the course take on the same lane configurations, so that if one remembers what the last set of cars looked like, the ones around the next corner can be anticipated? And how is it that when driving the Suzuka course, which crosses over itself, there is no sign of this crossing in the scenery at all? Never mind the fact that one immediately receives a new car in the same track position after having a catastrophic, explosive wreck with another car or a roadside sign, at least until time expires!

Three complete races led the leaderboard on the Pole Position Fuji racetrack on 26-December-2010

Over the years, the game has fallen largely into disuse, and it has spent many years with its accelerator pedal in disrepair. Today, though, the game proved to be in mint condition when younger members of the family decided to give it a try. When it was idle for a moment, I decided to jump on, and was shocked to manage a 60,000-point race on Fuji in my first attempt. A couple races later, I not only had driven from the Pole Position on Fuji, but I had broken 63,000 points, which would have been respectable even in my prime gaming days. At the other end of the score board, a five-year old "nephew" had a score well under 10,000. If the game lasts, he might be beating me someday.

A quarter-century later, Pole Position II is still providing the same entertainment it did on day one.

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