Taking classic ’80s videogames as seriously as the fanatics who played them, “Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade” profiles a handful of hardcore gamers who were among the record-setters. Visually arresting look at the dynamics of competition and camaraderie that animated a fascinating geek subculture will entertain just about anyone who’s ever tried their hand at “Pac-Man,” while paying affectionate tribute to a bygone era. Still, the docu will need an enterprising distrib to target mostly middle-aged male auds beyond fest and cable play.
The nondescript town of Ottumwa, Iowa, soon became known as the videogame capital of the world after the famous Twin Galaxies mega-arcade was built there in 1981. A year later, Iowa entrepreneur Walter Day made the unprecedented decision to compile an international list of all-time top game scores — a quest that brought together top players (all teenage boys, natch) from across the country to pose with Day for a spread in Life magazine.
Using the spread as a template, helmer Lincoln Ruchti and his co-editor Eddie Brega move between the ’80s and the present, fleshing out very amusing backstories for their subjects. These include Billy Mitchell, a mullet-wearing legend considered by many to be the greatest gamer of all time; Joel West, a “Berzerk” buff who cut off contact with a friend for more than 20 years after the latter beat his record; and Steve Sanders, who lied about his “Donkey Kong” world record but eventually came clean, became a Christian and now practices law.
Interviews debunk some of the standard gamer stereotypes (several of the interviewees are married and have put videogames behind them), while reinforcing others to a sometimes frightening degree. Twin Galaxies referee Robert Mruczek keeps a pornographic art collection worth thousands of dollars, while the creepiest customer by far is Roy Shildt (nicknamed “Mr. Awesome”), who has a smutty comicbook illustrating his life story and attacks his fellow gamers as amateurs and poseurs. Shildt also has the pic’s most unexpectedly honest moment: Asked why he still clings to his (widely disputed) “Missile Command” record, he answers, “It makes me special.”
Whether they’re explaining the various “cheat” techniques (using a pencil or knife, for example, to maximize one’s button-pressing speed) or waxing philosophical about their art (“It’s in your DNA; you either have it or you don’t,” says Mitchell), the players’ passion proves genuinely contagious, and “Chasing Ghosts” never seems less than wholly engaged with its subjects and their obsessions. By the end, the pic has taken on a genuinely wistful air — nostalgia for the days when kids spent hours (even days) on end at arcades, before the advent of home entertainment systems and flashier games like “Street Fighter.”
Ruchti has taken care to make the pic accessible even to viewers who’ve never before picked up a joystick, as Peter Hirschberg’s 3-D animations provide a visually engrossing primer on all the different games, from “Asteroids” to “Millipede.” Editing and music are fluid and propulsive. Other tech credits are excellent.