Sunday, May 11, 2014

20 Questions with Steve Wagner

With world records on multiple classics, Steve Wagner is an arcade force of nature. A look at the scores from tournaments and contests will always find Steve's name high on the leader board. Whenever there is talk of top ten lists of the greatest competitive arcade players of all time, you will hear the name Steve Wagner come up time and again. Steve also has a reputation in the gaming community of being one of the nicest, most good humored and friendly people you could meet, and even his fiercest competitors will be the first to praise Steve's true sportsman-like conduct.

I caught up with Steve outside of Richie Knucklez Arcade for some good stories, good insights, good laughs, and good fun.

George Leutz: Ok, so here we are; Steve Wagner.

Steve Wagner: Yes.

GL: Twenty questions.

SW: Yes!

GL: Ok, so question number one, Everybody's curious; What's with the hat? As in, how did you become a Cards fan? This was the main question everybody wanted to know.

SW: I had an older brother who was a Yankees fan growing up, and in 1982 I started watching baseball, and I couldn't like the same team my brother liked. So I ended up liking a National League Team, and the Cardnials won the World Series that year in 1982, So I became a Cardinals fan. And that's kinda how it started, I've been a Cardinal's fan ever since.

GL: And now the hat's kinda become the signature hat.

SW: The hat is the symbol. I got offered a thousand dollars for this hat from someone.

GL: !

SW: I was offered a thousand dollars dollars cash for the hat, and didn't sell it.

GL: *laughs* Love it!

SW: My friend said, you know, "You should just sell it, buy another one!" But I said I can't, this is the source of my evil power. *laughs*

GL: Question number 2. You have many arcade records. What would you say is the secret to your success?

SW: Um... lots of luck.

GL: I knew you were gonna say that!

SW: I don't know.. I would guess I have to really enjoy the game. So, I think if I really get into it and I start enjoying the game, then I start to want to progress.. a lot of times I'll just plateau on a game, I'm like ah, that's good enough. Or it's good enough for a tournament, or it's good enough for an hour score, whatever. But certain games I just get really into, and I'm like, man, I want to see if I can you know, push this to the max. I think part of the reason too is I don't watch any videos of other players, so sometimes I like to think that maybe I've discovered something, maybe someone else doesn't know. I don't use save-states or anything, so I just play the game all the way through again and again and again, so maybe, I don't know, the practice kinda helps. But I really don't play a lot of hours. I guess I probably play about 4 or 5 hours a week I would say. So, I don't know, I guess I get lucky.

GL: Yeah, get lucky. *laughs*

SW: Just get lucky.

GL: What I find very impressive is the ability to improve on games at a very fast pace, and a wide range of games.

SW: I always liked a lot of different games growing up, too. So I never really just got stuck on one game. I got ADD very easily, so..

GL: *laughs* That's good! Ok, so question 3..

SW: Ya.

GL: It's been said that games with animals, have "moods." So we were wondering, is this true, in your experience, for Jungle King?

SW: *laughs* Absolutely, absolutely. There's this one specific 'gator in my 'gator board pattern that has a specific mood. And if he's ornery, you gotta react. Because that thing just flies up and down, x/y, left and right.. yeah, it definitely has moods. I actually talked to John Lexmark one time and he was telling me about moods in this game called Zoo Keeper, so once he told me about moods, I started looking up moods in other games: Millipede has moods, Pac-Man has moods. You know, most of the games that feature dots. And animals.

GL: And enemies.

SW: Hit-boxes.

GL: Right, and people who are very sceptical, about whether or not there are moods in these games, I guess they're..

SW: They just don't understand games.

GL: Yeah. They don't realize.. like this 'gator, he's tough, he's a moody 'gator.

SW: There's one 'gator.. But when you were watching, he reacts. I think you were able to tame the mood, that was the..

GL: That could've been it.

SW: Because when I was practicing on MAME that 'gator would get into a mood.

GL: Wow.

SW: Every five, ten loops.

GL: Very interesting!


GL: Ok so, question number four: What do you think about the "MAME vs Arcade" debate? Do you have a specific side? Anything you want to say about it.

SW: No, I'm kind of split down the middle. Because I do play both. I play MAME on games that I don't own, or can't get a hold of, most of the time. If I own it obviously I'll play it downstairs in the arcade. Or at Richie's, or wherever. But I like to find games, too: You can find random games you never heard of that sound cool, have cool titles. Like I found this game called Intrepid the other day, that I thought looked cool. And it wasn't, but now I know that, so without MAME I wouldn't have even known it was bad.


SW: And where would the Crap Tournament be, and things like that, without MAME.

GL: That's true.

SW: I never never never disrespect MAME. I've never disrepected it, ever. I think it's certainly a valid platform, and a lot of great players only play in MAME, so that's what they have access to, and they're great contributors to the community whether it's arcade or MAME. I don't have a problem with it. And sometimes, I'm just too tired to even turn on my games, so I just go to the MAME.

GL: There you go. That's good, some kind words for MAME. Because the MAME gets beat up a lot, I know.

SW: Nah, it shouldn't get beat up a lot. Where would we be without MAME? You know, we have Phil Tudose and Dean Saglio, Matt Hall.. Just look at the Kong-Off. They come and.. was it Dean and Jeff, get on the joystick, and that was it.

GL: Question five: Do you play at a poser pace?

SW: All the time.

GL: In general.

SW: Life, I play life at a poser pace.

GL: *laughs*

SW: I really do. I love being a poser.

GL: Well I am a poser as well, and I haven't even gotten to the killscreen.

SW: Well there you go. You just gotta get your poser pace.

GL: I do. I'm in the poser boat, just need my poser pace.

SW: Love it.

GL: Question six: How do you feel about arcade teams?

SW: An arcade team is wonderful. Because think about the first Battle of the Arcades we had, right? So we had the first one, and you had these giant games in it; you had Frogger, Donkey Kong, Centipede, Pole Position, Track n Field. And you went to this Battle of the Arcades, and you had Ben (Falls) playing Frogger, you had Hank (Chien) playing Donkey Kong, you had Richie (Knucklez) playing Pole Position, and you could just go and say, "hey, how are you doing that"... and you're all pulling for each other, instead of like a very individualized sport or hobby, all of a sudden you're pulling for each other, and trying to help each other out. And it's great, I love it. Especially when you have a team full of your friends and stuff, and you can goof around, too. I mean it's for fun.

GL: It definitely gives the situation a very different dynamic.

SW: And the way the scoring works, too, you should be helping your teammates. So it encourages you to share your ideas, and any kind of idea sharing, and game theory sharing is wonderful.



GL: How did the Battle of the Arcades come about?

SW: A while back, Richie and I were talking about it.. well, someone had mentioned it on one of the forums once that they had, back in the 80's; video game teams, video game olympics. I was like man, we should carry that now, and Richie was like, yeah, go do it. So I posted on Alpiger's forum, and I got in trouble, because Mark didn't like me or something. Well, I don't think it was him, but somebody sent me a message saying kinda cease and desist...

GL: Why?

SW: I don't know, I don't know... anyways, I posted just basically here's our roster, and some funny comments about everything, you know just try and lighten the mood and stuff. Then it kind grew into Ken (House) getting a team together, and Funspot getting a team together, and it grew from that. And one day I was working out at my house, and we were trying to think of a good scoring mechanism. And I literally stopped a video and said to my wife I got it, and she said, "What?" And I said I got the scoring for this, this is going to be great. And she said "what do you mean?" And I was like just, ah, I gotta call Ken. *laughs* So I call Ken literally during the video, and I said Here's how the scoring's gonna work. Because we had gone back and forth, and Funspot didn't like the scoring that we came up with, with Ken, and then Ken didn't like it the way Funspot had, so I'm like I'm going to figure it out, I'm gonna figure out a way to get the two of them together, to a middle ground. Because they were going back and forth on the scoring. And I figured out a way and everyone kind of liked it. It got Hank's blessing, and he's smart. That was it. Like all of a sudden, it came to me. Like Walter's Twin Galaxies name.

Walter Day gets a laugh out of Ben Falls and Steve
during an on-camera interview at a trading card event in Allentown, PA

GL: Right, that's the way it is, something just pops into your head, while you're doing something else. And here we are, with the Battle of the Arcades set to have six teams around the country next time, and maybe some international teams coming soon as well.

SW: Get yer game up.

GL: And everyone seems to love it. That's right, I've got work to do. Ok. So: What got you started playing at Richie's?

SW: I went up to Funspot in 2008 or 9 after seeing.. well I saw King of Kong at an independent theatre in Princeton, and I turned to my wife and I said, "you know, I used to be pretty decent at these" and she was like "yeah?" So, after the movie, she got me a trip to Funspot for my birthday. This was in November, and it happened to be during Robert (Mruczek)'s trip, so I met Robert there, and I knew him, remembered him from the movie. And I was like "oh, can you take a score down?" because I had never been on the scoreboard, and I thought it was cool. So he's like "I can't, but Dave Nelson can, he's in charge now." And I said, "Alright." So I played Berzerk for Dave, and I got like, I don't know 5th place or 6th place or whatever it was on the scoreboard but I was all excited. And he said, "You're from NJ, right? You ever been to Richie Knucklez place?" And I said No, what are you talking about? And he said there's a classic arcade in Flemington, NJ. So I got home and looked it up and said man, that's only an hour away. So one Friday night, me and wife left work and we got to Richie's place around 8 so there were only a couple hours left. And I walked in and saw all these old games, and I couldn't believe it. And I saw Richie sitting down at a desk, he had the big white board, remember the board with all the names on it?

GL: yer!

SW: And it was all low scores, you know, Donald (Hayes) and Jason (Cram) weren't there. So it was all pretty average scores at the time. So Richie says Hi, I'm Richie, first time here? And I say yeah. And then I looked at the scoreboard and I started laughing. And he goes, "what's so funny?" And I said "You're gonna need a new scoreboard man, because I'm gonna be here, and I'm bringing all these people from up north. Well you know how Richie is, he kind of liked the cockiness about it, and the joking back and forth. And I said "you don't even know what's gonna to hit you." And from then on we became friends, it was great. And every time you go there, there was a new game coming in, he'd bring in some random game that you never heard of. And we'd see in four hours who could get the best score at the end of the night. That's how I learned about Donkey kong 3. I didn't even know that game existed until I came to Richie's and he wheeled it in one night and we're like Donkey Kong 3? And he's like "Yeah, you spray shit!" And I'm like, "What?" On the third or fourth game I got a million points on that. Shit game.

GL: (laughs)

SW: Because the first game I didn't know you could move up. Zach (Lubow) had to tell me. I'm like so how can you spray him? And he's like you jump up. Oh, there's an up? Yeah.

GL: What's next? What's next for Steve Wagner?

SW: You mean what game?

GL: Yer, sure.

SW: I'm trying to get as many Taito records as possible. That's my goal. So Crazy Climber; hurts the shit out of my hands and it's frustrating, but I'd like to do that one, that's still up for me. I like to get records set back the 80s. A lot of people are like, "ah, it's an 80s score, it's not possible" or whatever, sometimes. But that only feuls your desire to play those games. It's a shame that some of those are not... like the Taito games, like Alpine Ski's not really a world record I don't think, from what we've examined. So that's tough. But Crazy Climber. Front Line I'd like to do, when I get a machine. Super Breakout I'd like to do.

GL: Question to go with that then: I saw you playing Super Breakout earlier.

SW: Yer. Love it.

GL: Going for the record right now. Is it a hard game?

SW: (doing Robert Mruczek impression) I once saw, Steve Wagner, play, Super Breakout Progressive, on a New York City subway vs Zack Hample. That's a hard game. Really, I mean, progressive's a hard mode. The other modes, they have endings, but progressive keeps going, further and further. It just doesn't stop!

GL: That was a very satisfying answer. Ok.. What score are you most proud of?

SW: Elevator Action. Because that's my favorite game of all time. And I kind of got in for it, for a while. And I actually killed my game off, I had two guys left. Well, I was worried about the reset. Because when I was filming it, you couldn't quite see the digits like really clearly, and I was nervous that if it reset it would be invalidated. So on my second man I got the world record, on the tenth building. And I just, I had to kill it off, you know. And I still catch shit for it because there's a score for it on MARP that's like five hundred points higher. But I did, I killed it off with two guys left. I sent the tape to Dave Nelson, and he called me when I was at work, he called me one day. And he was like "I can't believe you got out of some of those spots." Because he plays it to. So I'm really proud of that one. I pulled off some pretty sick moves. I wish I'd saved the tape, I don't have it any more.

GL: Love it. Does Donkey Kong Junior really suck?

SW: No, it doesn't suck.

GL: I agree with you. But don't tell anybody.

SW: I won't tell anybody. In fact, when I did the Jungle Hunt recently, they asked me where I started playing Jungle Hunt and I said at a bowling alley, they had Elevator Action, they had Jungle Hunt and they had Donkey Kong jr. So I got pretty good at those three. My brother would bowl, and I'd play video games. So it's hard for me to say it's not a good game, becuase I played it alot growing up. I do like to tease the DKjr fanclub, but no it is not a shit game. It's a pretty decent game, and I don't want Marky d (Kiehl) to come after me.

GL: He might. One of these days he's going to come after everybody, he's got a list.

SW: Or Brian Allen Staal to come after me. So no, it's a good game. It's a little bit tedious to point press, obviously. It's fun to just play through it. Which is what I do when I go to a new arcade that has one.

GL: You don't play the leech-fest on the spark board unless you have to.

SW: Yeah. Unless I have to. I was at an arcade a while back, and they had a contest for Donkey Kong jr. And I got to the sparks right before the killscreen on my first guy, and I killed my game off at 999,800. Because I wanted Brian Allen who was playing in the same contest to get 999,900, I think I mine held though.

GL: So DKjr's not a shit game.

SW: No, I like to tease the people involved with that game... they're kind of their own cult.

GL: Right.

SW: It's not quite as pronounced a cult, but they're still a cult.

GL: They're very fanatic.

SW: They'll come with pitchforks and torches.

GL: They're not happy with any criticism.

SW: You ever see Wicker Man? It's a 70s kind of horror movie, and you should watch it. Because it reminds me of the Donkey Kong jr cult.

GL: So everybody keep that in mind: Go check out the Wicker Man.

SW: Check out the Wicker Man. Not the Nick Cage recent version that was from like 2008 or something, but the good 70s one. It's very reminiscent of Donkey Kong jr's scoring.

GL: So one of the guys had a question: On any game, could you share an advanced tip or trick with us.

[Answer Redacted]

GL: Maybe I'll leave this question out. I'll say this question, has an omitted answer.

SW: I'll look tonight and see a new article: Hey, Don Hayes, new Elevator Action ..

GL: I might have to keep that one secret. You could have just said, "On Swimmer, on the third board, just stay down and to the left." I might just put that in instead.

SW: The Elevator Action secret was too top secret. Well he is carrying plans, man, so. Secret agent.

GL: That's what he's got in the plans...

SW: That's right he's got my tip, and then he drives off in the car.

GL: So, speaking of spys and spy games, another game you have a record on is Cliff Hanger. How did that come about?

SW: When I was seven, I went to a place in the mall in Jersey called gadgets, it was a sort of a Chuck E Cheese, but it had Looney Tunes characters in it. It was a great place, and I had a birthday party there. And Cliff hanger came out that year, and they actually wheeled it -much like just like Richie just wheeled his Metallica pinball out- they wheeled it out to the floor. And I had only seen Dragon's Lair before as a laser disc, and they wheel this out and I was like, "Man, it's like Dragon's Lair with spies!" So me being a young kid, I'm playing this game and I'm trying to figure it out and burning through tokens, because it's laser disc and I'm seven and have no idea what to do. So I finally got to the second board in the game after like a few hours.

GL: ..the car, you're driving up on the wall..

SW: Even before that, when he's trying to get into the car to drive away, the guy hanging on the hood. So I get there, and a bigger kid sees that I'm on the second board and pushes me off the game literally, and plays the second board. And of course I'm seven, I'm crying or whatever, my brother is thirteen or fourteen at the time, so he comes over and he out-muscles the kid and gets my game back, and the people at the place game me all these tokens. So that was my first experience of the game, and then it's funny, Funspot didn't have it at the time I went up there in 2008, and so I had not seen this game since 1983. So one day I'm searching around ebay and I see someone selling a Cliff hanger machine. And I call the guy up and said, "what's the deal with this?" and he goes, " Well, I inherited a house, and it was in the barn of the house." No joke. He says he replaced a fuse and the game fired right up. He said it's got all the original manuals taped to the back, whatever. I was like man, I'm gonna bid on it. Because it was in Maryland, and my wife had a baby shower in Maryland that week when it was gonna end on ebay. I said, "this is fate."

So I end up winning the game and I'm gonna come pick it up, and I rent an Enterprise rent-a-van, because I was actually going to pick up an Elevator Action in Virginia that day, too. So we have a one bedroom apartment at the time, and I had the Berzerk already, and I'm gonna put two more games in this one bedroom apartment. So I drop my wife off at the shower and I go to get the game. And I'm driving on some rural farm road in Maryland, I don't know where I'm going, a guy stops my van, stands in front of my van and says are you the guy coming for the game? Overalls on, no shirt... and I was like "yeah." And he goes alright, get out of the car, I'm gonna take the car, drive it to the back, so that you don't drive over the septic. I was like, ok. You're not gonna just steal the van, right? And he's like "No, no, no." So he drives the van and goes, you can walk with my brother down to the barn. And I'm thinking I'm gonna get killed. I don't know this place. So he drives the van down to the barn, I get into the barn, and another guy is playing the laser disc game. And my eyes just lit up, I hadn't seen one since 1983, back that time I was physically harmed. And I'm thinking this is amazing. So we take the laser disc player out and we transfer it, I put it in the van. And I already had the EA in the back of the van. And I get the two games in the van and go to pick up my wife from the baby shower, and all her friends are there going, "Why do you have two games in the back?" They hadn't seen arcade games in twenty years. So we get it back and get them into my one bedroom, three games in a one bedroom apartment. Cliff Hanger, Elevator Action, and Berzerk. And I have the record on all three.

GL: And the game still works.

SW: Yeah, it's wonderful. In fact, to get the record, I read, I think it was Robert Mruczek had an account of the record, someone did at CAX or one of the shows. And the guy said "I had a perfect game." One point three million something... ten. One point three one oh. And I'm playing one day, and I accidently die. I was trying to finish the game for someone to show them the end of the game, and I accidentally die in the game. And it starts the next guy up, and it gives me a whole bunch of moves and I'm like that's wierd. So I play through, and I end up on three man TG settings I had One point three five million. And I was like, "That dude didn't play a perfect game." I had eight extra moves for three men or whatever it was. So I filmed it, I did the same thing and I found the right spot to die and that was the perfect game, you can only tie it now.

GL: And that was just fate again.

SW: That was fate again. I died because I forgot the move, and I was just showing someone and they saw my eyes light up and were like, what. And I was like I think I just figured out something that no one knew about.

GL: An accident helped discover. There's the luck playing in again.

SW: Again, I'm a lucky dude. What can I say, I'm not good, I'm just.. I'd rather be lucky than good. Just get really lucky.

GL: Or I guess a combination.

SW: No, no combination. It's like ninety-nine percent luck, one percent just paying attention. Reflex. I like reflex games. Even though Cliff Hanger's not one of them. Well, it kind of is.

GL: You gotta be quick, right? Ok, so what was the first arcade competition you competed in, and how'd you do, do you remember?

SW: I played in (Mark) Alpiger's tournament in 2009, I want to say. So I show up to Alpiger's competition, and Ben (Falls) is there, Dave Nelson, Jason Cram, Donald Hayes, Dwayne Richards, all these great players. Eric Ahlers... And I was good at Richie's a lot, now this is my first chance to see, you know. And of course, you know how it is now, everyone preps for Alpiger's tournamnents, they play the games, they know ahead of time. I came in just not even knowing... it's kind of like when you first get your first college exam, and you'r like ah, this was easy in high school. It's no big deal, i'm just gonna ace this, no problem. And then I saw Donald playing something and I'm like oh, fuck. So, I did not good, I finished thirteenth I think, in the first one. And then I went up to, I want to say sixth in 2010, and I started doing better, because I started realizing that for Alpiger's tournamnets you did have to prepare for the games that were gonna be in it. And you had to choose your games wisely that you're gonna pick. You better choose a game that you're gonna get first on.

GL: Ok next question: Do you love it?

SW: Love it more than anyone Loves it. I've loved it much longer than Allen (Staal)'s even loved it. I think.

GL: I hear you are going for the Granny and the Gators record. What do you think about the Granny and the Gators?

SW: I don't know if I'm going for the record, I just started it today, but it's a hard game. It's fun. I wonder... I don't know what the record is, I imagine it's something crazy. But it's fun. I like it better than the Baby Pac. You know, if you want to compare similar games.

GL: We'll probably go back and play some of that after this.

SW: Oh yer, we'll play some Granny. We call it Granny. I don't know if you abbreviate, but I call it Granny.

GL: That's what they called it BITD.

SW: That's right. Rick Carter told me that back in the BITD days.

GL: He killed a lot of gators, back in the day.

SW: Gator marathon, BITD.

GL: Here's a two part question: I know Mark Alpiger is not a fan of the Legend of Zelda...

SW: He's also not a fan of me. I don't know why, I'm pretty lovable.

GL: I wonder if it's because...

SW: Snackson Jackson. I think it all came back to Snackson Jackson. Yep.

GL: It comes down to the Snackson Jackson. But he doesn't like Zelda, I know.

SW: No.

GL: But what do you think of Zelda? And I guess the larger question is: anything beyond the classics, are you into, are you a fan?

SW: It's one of the greatest series of games of all time, without question.

GL: I'd have to agree with you there.

SW: It's amazing. In fact, when i was growing up, and we had the NES obviously, I don't know if you remember this, but Kid Icarus and Zelda came out the same day. I think they game out the same day, I'm pretty sure, or the same week or something, but right around the same time. And we went, a friend of mine and I, our parents went to the electronics store, and we each got one of them. And I chose Kid Icarus, I don't know why I did... Because Zelda's a weird name, I was like "you get that, I'll get Kid icarus." So we each went home, and we played our games and stuff. And he's like "how's Kid Icarus." And I'm like, "it's fun." It's a good platformer whatever. And he's like "This game is amazing." And I'm like, "You're full of shit." You know? It's called Legend of Zelda, right? And he's like No, it's amazing! So I rode my skateboard over to his house the next day, and fuck if we didn't play that game for the next ten hours that day. And from then on, I was hooked. I got Adventure of Link the day it came out. I think Ocarina of Time is the best console game ever made. I can remember, you know, christmas is happening, and I'm playing Ocarina of Time in my room. It's a masterpiece of a game. So yeah. Mark Alpiger's full of it if he doesn't like Zelda.

GL: Well he doesn't like it. He'd rather play Tetris. [long story for another time-giv]

SW: The Glob's a good game though, I gotta admit. You like The Glob?

GL: I do like The Glob. I enjoyed it. Where do you go after that? Alright, I guess we're done. So there we go: Twenty Questions with Steve Wagner.

SW: There it is.


1 comment:

s T e V e said...

I'm trying to reach out to this dude Steve. I saw an old post somewhere where he mentioned this old arcade/restaurant in Ocean NJ called Gadgets. Turns out recently I found some old Gadgets tokens I had still stashed away in my old childhood things. It's from that same Ocean NJ spot. Wanted to try getting a hold of him and seeing if he wanted it (for free I'm not trying to sell it.) Thought you might help. Thanks.