A Mis-History: The ‘Human Joystick’
Editor’s note: Bishop’s Babbles “Mis-History” are often complete works of fiction. They are meant for the entertainment of the reader. Any names, characters and incidents portrayed in this work are fictitious, satirical interpretations of any real-life persons or events.
Theo Riddick was 6 years old when he was told he couldn’t play any more.
It was April 20, 1997 on a rainy day Riddick will never forget. It was the yearly Video Game and Pinball Masters Tournament being held in Voorhees, New Jersey, about 70 miles south of Riddick’s home of Somerville.
In an in-between age for video game consoles, Riddick was a master of the smash-hit Pac-Man. Because he was so young, people were calling him the Bobby Fischer of arcade games. People would cheer as he stepped upon a stool so he could reach the joystick. As soon as he inserted the quarters, though, the gallery was quiet. Riddick commanded that kind of respect.
His dominance changed the rules for registration in the tournament, which was historically reserved for 25-40 year-old men. Riddick’s inclusion would have garnered headlines if he was a master in anything but arcade games. The world was changing and names like PlayStation and Nintendo were introducing home consoles. In fact, the tournament in Voorhees was going to be the last hurrah for the giant arcade machines.
Riddick knew this. He thought it was unfair to have what he had worked for be taken away because of technology. Riddick wanted to go out on top before he was forced to leave and take up something else.
It was 1 p.m. inside Jason’s Arcade and the crowd of 30 people watched the little boy walk to the machine. The few people who followed the world leaders had heard tell of the child they called the Human Joystick, but had never seen him. The ones who drove from Philadelphia to watch were prepared for greatness.
The claps started rising as Riddick walked by, two quarters jingling in his left hand as he walked to the old, beat-up machine. “Ready Player One” the screen said, Riddick pushed the change in and watched the screen change to the map he had become so familiarized in.
Later in his life as a football star, people would say they think they saw Riddick play in a sort of pattern. He automatically knew where holes would be before the linemen opened them up. It was as if Riddick was reading a map and the linebackers and defensive backs were just ghosts blocking his never-ending path for touchdowns and glory.
What those people never knew was that Riddick honed his football skills inside the popcorn-laced arcades. In the arcades, he was God, hustling anybody and everybody to the point he could earn enough to take back home. It was a place where his age didn’t matter, only his skill on the joystick. The owners loved the kid. He was their best customer most of the time. In fact, his hometown arcade owner, Mike Botoni, sponsored Riddick’s trip to Voorhees.
Botoni was there when Riddick went level after level through the fruit-infested world of Pac-Man. He was there as the hours passed by and by, watching the Riddick kid from the south side of town work his way toward a world championship. Botoni was also there when the world stopped, though.
On April 20, 1997, a freak accident occurred. A rat had been gnawing on the cord to the Pac-man machine for weeks until it had met its death in a rat trap only a day before the tournament. The rodent was dead, but the damage was done. Riddick’s machine was getting to a point of extreme heat after being played for so long. Riddick was on the 247th level out of the 255 possible stages when the machine went dark.
With outrage he hit the screen until his hands were bloody. Riddick had come to say goodbye to the game he had loved and now it had been taken away from him before he was ready to say goodbye. Botoni had to console the child, but nothing worked.
For weeks, Riddick looked for something new to take his time, — something that he could excel in. Botoni introduced him to a game called Tecmo Bowl. Yes, it was from the despised Nintendo, which had taken away his beloved arcade games, but Riddick could work with it. It was like Pac-Man in many ways, and slowly but surely, he got better. However, it wasn’t the same.
The handheld controller couldn’t compare to the joystick. The rush of hustling neophytes had gone. Riddick had to walk away from video games.
It’s August 2016 and Riddick is a millionaire, but he isn’t happy.
Most people know him as an up-and-coming member of the Detroit Lions running back corps, which is a squad with a massive amount of turnover. Ameer Abdullah is the king of the mountain currently, but through the rough and tumble season, Riddick might find himself as the No. 1 back.
Before a preseason matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals, a reporter asked Riddick what he thought about the possibility, and Riddick nonchalantly shrugged it off.
“If it happens, it happens,” Riddick said.
Like another quiet Lions’ tailback two decades before, Riddick is an enigma. Abdullah is his closest friend on the team, and yet, he doesn’t know what goes through Riddick’s head.
“Theo’s just a reserved dude, man.” Abdullah said. “He never goes out clubbing or anything. I tell you one thing, though, he’s old school.”
Although it sounds like Abdullah is talking about Riddick’s playing style, which is reminiscent of Detroit legend Barry Sanders, he’s actually referencing Riddick’s aversity to technology. The former sixth-round pick out of Notre Dame doesn’t own a cell phone, or even a computer. His life consists of a pager beeping at him every now and then to inform him of the next meeting and a Sony Discman, which helps him during workouts.
Even college teammate talked about Riddick’s eccentrics. Instead of spending time at Mass and the school like every other Notre Dame player did, Riddick would go down to McCallahan’s Bar, home to a solitary Pac-Man machine. McCallahan’s is famous for being the setting of the bar scene in the film “Rudy,” but now it mostly sits empty as clubs and hipsters have started taking over.
Riddick was allowed into the establishment before he was 21 only because of his kindness and patronage to the institution. The machine purred to life under his watch and he could spend hours reliving that moment in 1997. One time, over Spring Break, Riddick claims to have broken the 255 record, but his claims were unproven.
“Yeah, one time Theo had me come with him to that old dingy bar,” Notre Dame teammate Manti Te’o said. “He said the owners had left for Spring Break because they knew they wouldn’t get any business anyway. They left Theo a key and he would go in and play Pac-Man. One time, while I was there on a Skype date with my girlfriend Lennay (Kekua), he even beat it.
“I had never seen it done before, someone beating an arcade game.”
Riddick would call the gaming institutions from his landline to tell them, but they wouldn’t believe him. Te’o wouldn’t be a witness for him because he didn’t want to be thought of as a nerd. Kekua couldn’t be reached for her side of the story.
And so it was that Riddick thought he was done with the game once again.
Getting drafted by Detroit was hard on Riddick, but he dealt with it anyway.
After all, what was a man to do who was good at a sport he didn’t care about? The hours became days, and the days became weeks in Detroit with Riddick continuing his lifeless existence.
Riddick began to think that maybe he should have listened to all the people who told him video games would ruin his life. He had to put it in the past and move forward.
In the Auburn Hills Mall one Monday, Riddick was standing at a kiosk, ready to start a new life. A man was selling iPhones and Riddick was about to take a leap of faith. Right before it was his turn to get a phone, Riddick got a beep from New Jersey. It was his old mentor, Botoni.
Riddick’s high school had just named its football stadium after him and needed him to show up at the unveiling ceremony. Riddick hopped on a plane home.
Botoni saw the sadness in Riddick’s eyes. Detroit had done things to the formerly happy kid. It had turned him into a soulless adult, bestowing bleakness upon his once bright outlook. In an attempt to bring some joy back to the Human Joystick, Botoni gave Riddick a card for an arcade on S Street in Detroit. Riddick took it and threw it in his wallet, saying he would check it out, but secretly knowing he would never venture down there.
When Riddick returned to Ford Field, he decided against getting a phone and thought he would hold off before making such a big, life-changing decision. In his third season now, Riddick started improving on the field to where his fantasy stock rose. The shy Riddick was in the limelight once again, but he still didn’t care. Pac-Man haunted his dreams.
After the aforementioned Bengals’ preseason game, coach Jim Caldwell pulls Riddick aside and tells him some disheartening news. Botoni had died.
After attending his funeral and giving his condolences, Riddick went to the address of the arcade on S Street in Detroit, just to give the video game world one last shot.
On S street, formerly named Spruce Street before the rest of the word “Spruce” was shot off in a 1997-turf war, time stands still.
The shootout that had claimed the street sign also gave the area a bad reputation. Nobody would come near it aside from the occasional lost tourist. Because of this, nobody new had moved or stayed long in the area since ’97. Cable providers and phone salesmen avoided the place like the plague, so the residents still lived by the standards they had 19 years before.
In other words, it was heaven for Riddick when he walked over to O’Reilly’s Arcade and saw everyone living like he did. Flynn, the owner of the Arcade, recognized Riddick as soon as he walked in the door. Not as the running back for the Lions, but instead as the kid on his cover of 1996’s Twin Galaxies yearly preview.
When Riddick saw this, his eyes filled with elation. It was a place that recognized him for his true self, not his adopted life. For the next week, he went back to O’Reilly’s every day after practice, falling in love again with Pac-Man. By using his salary, Riddick bought a vintage Pac-Man machine with brand new wiring.
It was time. All his life had led up to this moment. One Monday, after the Lions’ final preseason game on the road at Buffalo, Riddick invited his entire team to O’Reilly’s. He was going to break 255.
Nineteen-and-a-half years after his life had changed, Riddick embraced his birthright once again. No longer would he limit himself to Tecmo Bowl or hiding in small, college dive bars. It was time to take control.
Members of the Lions crammed into the arcade, eating popcorn and licorice as Riddick started cruising through the levels. Nothing was going to stop him. At level 253, Flynn found the gaming commissions number in his old phone book and got ready to call them from his arcade’s landline.
Two rounds later, the game stopped after Pac-Man got the last piece of fruit. The Kill Screen had been initiated and Riddick stood triumphant. Tears running down his face, the world would finally know. The Human Joystick had returned, and his name was Theo Riddick.
It’s a week later and Riddick has rushed for 256 yards against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 1. He’s overtaken the starting position because for the first time in years, he’s driven by something. Now the verified world-record holder for the game, the memory of losing in Pac-Man because of a freak accident is behind him.
Lions fans all know him as the Human Joystick because of his handles in the arcade and on the field. All is finally right in Riddick’s world. As for what to do now that the world is in the palm of his hand, a smiling Riddick has three words to say.
“Beating Ms. Pac-Man.”