Iqbal lives just down the road from me. He’s a kinda groovy guy; a bohemian who likes to travel. You probably know the type, drives a VW Camper has an affinity with tie-dye clothing and burns many-a joss stick.
“Hey Man.” He greeted me one afternoon after I’d not seen him for an age. Expecting tales of surf and acoustic sessions on a beach somewhere in Devon, I enquired to where he’d been this time. “I’ve done it man!” he exclaimed and on my puzzled look, explained, “Hajj! My pilgrimage to Mecca...”
He told me of his journey. Not just the physical travel (light and long) but the sense of brotherhood and belonging he experienced. “It’s a game changer man.” He grinned.
Inspired but not being of the faith myself, plans for my own pilgrimage would have to take a different turn. The answer for me was simple, replace religion with retrogaming… or at least, that’s what I thought at the time.
My own personal Mecca was situated in the North East, my own Hajj to be the North Eastern Retrogaming (NERG) event.
With the day of my pilgrimage here, my buddy and I travelled north (light and long). With traffic greater than the plagues of Egypt, the drive was a test of faith. But after what seemed more like 40 days and 40 nights than the actual 4 hours in the car, we eventually arrived. And, tucked just behind Gateshead central library, in the leisure centre was our gaming church, NERG.
We made our way through to the inner sanctum, joining the main congregation with aisles filled with any number of electronic cabinets, tables and machines each chiming their own heavenly chorus to an enraptured audience.
As with the machines, the flock was a mix of young and old with every denomination catered for. As if waiting for confession, hundreds of visitor huddled the cabinets. Heads bowed towards their neon gods, they played and prayed for high scores that eluded some but elated others.
The NERG parishioners played their part. If you visited this church of arcade alone, by the time you were heading on home, you’d made new friends, learned tricks and tips and battled joyously together through trials from Gauntlet to Time Crisis.
Completing ‘Blasteroids’ was my own epiphany. That twirling joystick demon had been tormenting me for 20 years. But that day, karma flowed through the hall. With my buddy acting as my shaman, we blasted through the game in one sitting. Nothing short of a miracle.
And it seemed as if these little miracles were happening throughout the day. People were high fiving and rejoicing as more than 100 classic arcade machines high scores got tested. For the quieter in the community, seeking solace; an alter of vintage consoles was available. Many a penitent person was seated in front of classics they’d long since relinquished. From Spectrum to Amiga, NES to Neo Geo, the alter provided a font of eternal youth.
I left the Church of arcade with a spring in my step hymming themes of arcade classics I’d long forgotten. Unlike the arduous drive there, going home was more reflective. I felt renewed from the old. As if the gospel of gaming code that was poured lovingly into these cabinets some decades ago had seeped into my very being as I engrossed the arcade.
I met Iqbal again a few days later. “Hey Man,” I called and recounted my own pilgrimage. “Game changer?” he asked. “Quite literally. A game changer in every sense.”
Written by Andrew Nicholson - @OlHungers