There's no time for a trip to the bathroom or a sip of water. Brandon Erickson has just steered his X-Wing into the belly of the most powerful space station in the galaxy. Wall-mounted cannons spew fireballs at his head as he ducks and weaves towards his final target.
"Hey, what are you doing?" asks a long-haired kid, pointing at a video camera. Erickson has no time to respond. He's just destroyed his fifth Death Star of the day, and another phalanx of Tie Fighters is already hot on his trail.
Every Saturday, Erickson heads down to Ground Kontrol, the classic video arcade that moved to Chinatown last fall. After downing a tiny bottle of ginseng, he sets up a camera to record and later prove his efforts. This could be the day he sets the world record on Star Wars, an arcade game originally released in 1983.
Erickson is hardly alone. Over the past year, Ground Kontrol has played host to more and more customers bent on breaking world gaming records. In March 2004, a regular named William Carlton achieved one of the world's Top 10 scores in Asteroids ever. Players at Ground Kontrol have also broken records on classic titles like Spy Hunter, Missile Command and Astro Fighter.
What, exactly, is the point of setting a record on an antique game? Unlike flying an experimental plane around the world, becoming a retro video warrior is a down-to-earth goal. You don't have to be a millionaire to drop a quarter in a machine. While they aren't risking their lives, these weekend pixel warriors have a shot at catapulting themselves into fame-within the gaming community, at least. "It's The Challenge," Carlton explains. "It's hard to do this, and it makes history."
Erickson's goal is to surpass 31 million points. The highest he's managed so far is 21.5 million. If he's going to beat the world record, he'll be spending the next six hours or more on his feet, locked in the matrix of nonstop, low-res combat.
"It's the most intense thing I've ever done," he says. "Star Wars only gives you a seven-second break between levels. The game is relentless."
Erickson isn't your typical geek. He is a Yale graduate, doesn't live with his parents and is even "seeing someone." His significant other doesn't know about his weekly trips to Ground Kontrol, but he has told his parents.
"The Force has always been strong with that one since he was an infant," his father, Ken Erickson, recalls. "He's always been focused and determined, no matter what he pursues. I'm optimistic that he'll beat the record."
Players stop by Ground Kontrol regularly to train on everything from Robotron to Q*bert. Chris Magee, who is getting close to topping the world record on Galaga, comes in every Monday and Tuesday at noon. While playing a video game for hours on end may not sound taxing, the level of unwavering concentration required is astounding.
"Magee starts one game at noon and plays until it ends," says Ground Kontrol co-owner Anthony Ramos. "This typically isn't until 7 or 8 at night."
Carlton's record run on Asteroids took him 27 hours. "Orange juice, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches kept me going," Carlton says. "And Prince. Lots of very loud, early-era Prince."
Setting marathon records on arcade games isn't a new phenomenon. In 1982, a 15-year-old named Scott Safran spent 60 hours in front of an Asteroids machine in Newton, Penn., achieving that game's all-time top score of 41.3 million points. Twin Galaxies, a Guinness Book of World Records for gamers, has been tracking high scores since 1981. Its website (www.twingalaxies.com) contains tens of thousands of scores on everything from ancient pinball machines to more recent Xbox titles.
More names from the Pacific Northwest are popping up on the site. In July, Perry Rogers, a game designer from Redmond, set out to beat the record on Galaxian and his all-time top score for Mario Brothers at Ground Kontrol. He's been setting records on arcade games since 1981 and even owns a few machines.
"I remember kids getting a lot of notoriety back in the day," he recalls. "In the '80s, players were winning vacations and making the pages of Life magazine. As for me, I found this was something I was good at and I enjoyed it. The records are just gravy."
Erickson offers a different reason for what drives him to spend his Saturday afternoons staring at a 22-year-old arcade game. "I know it sounds weird, but if I win it'll be like I'm a Jedi master. I'd be the best in the world at Star Wars: The Arcade Game."
If he breaks the record on Star Wars, Erickson also hopes it will help establish Ground Kontrol, and Portland, as the biggest spot in the world for classic arcade games. "Portland would wear that title pretty well," he says. "It's a quirky town."
511 NW Couch St., 796-9364, www.groundkontrol.com