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Wednesday, August 27, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 76.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Reliving a misspent youth at the historical museum's classic video arcade
Madison museum moments
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Death Race is one of the lesser-known arcade games to be found at the Wisconsin Historical Museum's "The Joy of Sticks."
Credit:Kenneth Burns

No one was as frenzied as I during the video game frenzy of the early 1980s. I was 11 in 1982, the year "Pac-Man Fever" was a top-10 hit, and that was just the right age to appreciate the cartoonish graphics and repetitive play of the day's hit games. I spent many hours in my Nashville neighborhood's arcade, a disreputable place called Family Fun World that had booze and gambling for the adults, Dig Dug for the kiddies.

So I applaud Brad Van, the Madison musician who is drawing from his private collection of arcade consoles to mount the exhibit "The Joy of Sticks" at the Wisconsin Historical Museum. The exhibit opened this morning and gathers more than 20 machines from the classic era of arcade gaming, including titles both popular (BurgerTime, Space Invaders) and esoteric (Discs of Tron, Joust 2: Survival of the Fittest).

At 10:30, about six visitors were mashing buttons at "The Joy of Sticks." All looked to be in their 30s or older, and most had staked out one game or another. One woman played many rounds of Frogger, and a man put quarter after quarter into The Empire Strikes Back, an obscurity from 1985 that recapitulated 1983's much more famous Star Wars.

In these early hours of the exhibit, not every game was ready for playing. Battlezone sat dark, and so did Dragon's Lair, the laserdisc game that featured gorgeously drawn cartoon imagery. A klatch of T-shirted technicians moved among the machines and did some last-minute cleaning of finicky controls. They called to one another for Q-tips and canned air, and one was briefly preoccupied with a Canadian quarter stuck in the space game Galaga.

I happily played a round of Zaxxon, then one of Joust. I confess, though, that for me this was not a journey of rediscovery. The software for classic arcade games can be downloaded from the Internet, and I have long used the emulator program MAME to play old favorites.

But gaming at home can be such a solitary pursuit. What the arcades of yore offered was a profoundly social experience, and as I handled the ancient joysticks this morning I remembered the convivial pleasures of the game room. I used to meet friends at Family Fun World, and we swapped gossip and tips as we watched each other play. We boasted of our prowess at this or that game, and cajoled the attendants for free tokens.

"The Joy of Sticks" can't reproduce all of that, of course, but one thing it does very effectively is to recreate the old arcades' fabulously noisy ambience. The old machines pump out a lot of noise and music, and even with just a handful of players in the room today, the cacophony was glorious.

My favorite was the sound of The Empire Strikes Back, which blasted a tinny arrangement of John Williams' Star Wars score, as well as the digitized voice of the actor Mark Hamill. "We lost R2!" he cried, over and over.

"The Joy of Sticks" runs through March 18 at the Wisconsin Historical Museum.

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