John Darnielle is Passionate About Classic Video Games

“Be honest with yourself and just turn it all into quarters.”

This conversation with John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats was intended to be part of our newly minted Three Great Things feature, but we couldn’t keep John’s love of classic video games from expanding beyond his original picks. Instead, here’s our long, fun chat about some classic — and some not-so-classic — games. The new Mountain Goats album, In League With Dragons, is out now, and though there is no direct reference to Quiz & Dragons, they do share at least one thing.  
—Josh Modell, Talkhouse Executive Editor

Josh Modell: Your first choice was Quiz & Dragons, which I had never even heard of.

John Darnielle: Quiz & Dragons was not a popular game. What were the big video games in ’92? Had Mortal Kombat happened yet? Street Fighter was the game in a lot of freestanding arcades and in college student unions. NBA Jam was ’92 or ’93. Quiz & Dragons enters the market in that time with a completely different idea of what people want from a video game. It has a question for the world: What about a board game where you answer trivia questions, only you push a button to roll the dice? [Laughs.] It’s literally Trivial Pursuit with not nearly as big a group of questions. If you pump a lot of quarters into it, you will answer the same question more than once.

You roll the dice. If I remember correctly, you pick whether you’re playing a wizard or a doctor or whatever. I could be confusing that with Golden Axe. So then the dice rolls and you go however many spaces. And then it cuts to a screen where you see the creature that you’re going to fight, and the creature says: “Huey Lewis and the News soared to the top of the charts…” It’s the best thing ever.

This is the best thing about it: They said, “What should we call this game? Well, we have a quiz and you fight the mythical beast.” And then after a long, long meeting and a lot of deliberation, they said, “What if we call it Quiz & Dragons?” Is there any video game ever with a better name?

I played the hell out of Quiz & Dragons at a place called the Mudd Hole, which was the Harvey Mudd student union, which was the less busy of the Claremont College student unions. They had a good pizza joint and they had a couple of pool tables and they had Quiz & Dragons and Crystal Castles. They had Aero Fighters, which is kind of funny. You could go down to the Mudd Hole and be by yourself with a video game console, which is how God intended me to be. I have a shtick about that, that video gaming is now largely about cooperative play over the Internet. Video games are meant to be played by yourself, not with other people, whether virtual or otherwise. It’s fun sometimes to mix it up like that, but no. The point is you and a screen.

Josh: That seems to be at odds with another game from your original list, Gauntlet, which encouraged up to four players on one machine.

John: Gauntlet is a four-player game, but I’ve played solo rounds. I wrote a song last year called “Lament of Red Warrior” or something like that. I didn’t finish it. I was working on a song about the one who’s about to die in one corner of the maze with all the ghouls swarming in, multiplying and multiplying. Everybody knows, “Warrior needs food badly.”

Back then, whether you got into a game was largely limited by whether it was in a place that you went to regularly. If you went to some other place and they had a game you didn’t normally have access to, you might really enjoy it but it wouldn’t become your regular thing. There was a game called Xenophobe that I used to play. It was a scrolling version of Alien but it took place on the deck of a ship that had three floors so you could see who was on a floor above and whether they were going to come down or not. And it was a pretty addictive game. Anyway, Gauntlet was not in any of my regular places, but I would play it when I would go to the Sega Center in Montclair Plaza.

There’s an arcade here in town that I hardly ever get to. At home we have a PS4 and a Switch and then downstairs, hooked up to the old TV, we have the GameCube and PS2. Oh, and also a Nintendo 64, an original that was bought when it was first released. It still works. I still play Tony Hawk on it. That’s what the 64 is mostly for, that and Yoshi’s Story. Then GameCube is for Luigi’s Mansion.

Josh: Does this stuff seep into your songs?

John: There are always influences of video games on my writing. I can remember recording Hot Garden Stomp and having to pause Ninja Gaiden III. I’d be playing, get a good idea for song, pause it, and then work on the song a little, unpause, go back to getting knocked off of this ladder by these big eagles that come through…. Ninja Gaiden III is a notoriously hard game. I never finished it. I don’t even know anybody who ever finished it, and I still get irritated thinking about that. There’s this thing where you’re climbing between two rock walls to get up to a bridge that’s over water and these things are attacking you to stop you from climbing. And that’s bad enough, but when you get to the water bridge it’s nothing but hawks coming at you. When they hit you, you are powerless to move or defend yourself for something like a second. But it’s always just long enough to find you over water.

Right now, we are playing Tetris Effect—or as my children call it, Tetris Effectment. If you’re like me, if you’re grown up and you’re a dad, most of the games that people get super into, you’re like, “Yeah. I do not have space in my life for a gigantic open world game that we play until three in the morning.” Unless you’re a dedicated video game dude, you don’t have time for Halo. You can’t sit down and play it for an hour and then come back to it. I have a game called The Witcher, a very good game that got a whole bunch of awards. And it’s good. But you have to sit with it for two or three hours to get anything done. I don’t have that time to give. Tetris Effect you can play for five minutes if you want. It’s Tetris, but on this incredibly gorgeous 3-D build with a sort of Goa Trance-like soundtrack. The Tetris field is in the middle of the screen. And it’s fairly richly textured—not 3D, it’s still just Tetris—but on the outside there’s animation going on, like computer-generated meditations. Some of them are this grainy black and white, and then some of them have what look like Ukrainian Christmas ornaments. There are some games like this where you go, “They designed this for people who are on drugs,” and that’s what Tetris Effect is: Tetris for people who like to get high. If you complete certain scores or certain grades then you get these little badges that are just icons, and if you’re the kind of person who plays video games, you want that badge. If you’re the kind of person who bought Pokémon cards or Monster In My Pocket toys, they get added this emblem thing which just makes it even worse.

There was a frozen yogurt store in Claremont called 21 Choices. You’d go in there for your frozen yogurt on a Friday night in 1990, and there would be TV screens, two or three of them, showing computer generated animation. It was really weird, freaky sort of fractal type stuff, like the animation didn’t tell any kind of story. There’d be a duck going down a river and then the river would sort of give way and suddenly you’re looking at snow falling on trees and that was it. This place is trying to make you feel like you’re in a dream. Tetris Effect has a very similar vibe to it, like “What if we had Tetris with the inside of your skull as a background?”

Josh: You also mentioned Crystal Castles, which if I remember is sort of trippy as well.

John: Crystal Castles was in the Mudd Hole. Crystal Castles was a sit-down, what they call a cocktail machine. You sit down to play it and presumably you have a gin and tonic and some peanuts. I always had beer. But you sit and play Crystal Castles, which is good because it takes a lot of focus. The graphics for their time were pretty advanced. Compared to what I’m talking about with Tetris Effect, they’re not much, but it was clearly designed by people who had looked at M.C. Escher stuff and said, “What if what if we had a bear and he’s trying to eat a lot of jam off of a cube. But on the cube there is a tree who’s chasing him. And if the tree touches him, the bear dies?” And then all the other designers said that’s a fantastic idea, here, take this money and develop this idea. And the tree that comes out and chases you after stage five is called Nasty Tree, and I think we can agree there’s never been a video game villain with a better name than Nasty Tree.

So Bentley Bear runs around these cube-like structures that have tunnels. And half of becoming adept at it is just beginning to think in 3D space, because Crystal Castles came out when most things I think were still side-scrolling. Bentley Bear is technically still side scrolling but they made it look 3D. You go to these tunnels or you go in elevator things that would carry you up and he’d be missing for a half second as he ascended.

Josh: That was one of those games where if you played enough, you could actually win, right?

John: Crystal Castles you can win, but I never did. I think you can win Mortal Kombat. You can win Street Fighter. Smash TV was at the Mount SAC arcade next to a Subway. I’d go get a sandwich for lunch and then go in and then change a 20 into quarters, which was very indulgent. I remember that was the first arcade I ever did that, like, “Be honest with yourself and just turn it all into quarters. I would show up early or night class would get out. I was 20, 21, 22, nothing to do. I had a good job at this point, so if I wanted to spend twenty bucks I could. And I would say, “Smash TV? We’re gonna get good.” I did finish one time; you get all the prizes and the credits roll and that’s an accomplishment.

There was a German techno act in the late ’90s called Smash TV and I bought their music on principle. If you want to get 10 or 15 bucks from me, name yourself after a video game I like. I will buy it. I just bought the new 33 1/3 book about the Super Mario soundtrack. I think the Yoshi games are severely underrated, especially Yoshi’s Story. Those are great games with totally interesting, if repetitive, soundtracks and beautiful scrolling design.

Josh: The Wikipedia page for Quiz & Dragons has a little section that says that many of the answers were wrong.

John: I would like to see evidence of that. That sounds a little like an urban legend.

Josh: One of them you’ll appreciate. The question is, “Who is the lead singer for the band Devo?” Mark Mothersbaugh is the correct answer is but apparently the game says it’s Bob.

John: That’s especially great because Devo fans will be the ones who will be angriest about that.

Let me share one more game. So it would have been probably summer, ‘80 or ‘81, but it was summer, and you know how summer is when you’re 12 or 13. You go out walking and see what’s going on. I would walk to a corner store that was about a block away that had candy. A lot of those stores had been doing Asteroids. Asteroids like was a massive moneymaker a while. But this one had Asteroids and it had Star Castle. There was a ship you had to destroy at the center of the screen, it’s there like the absence of God: just there all the time.

There were three colored transparencies or one color transparency of three rings literally taped over the glass. You could see this thing is not colored. They have put a sticker over the screen so that the inside of it will look like it’s color. It was a mechanical element to a game in an age where people were starting to wonder, “What if there are no mechanical moving parts and things?” So you’d just fly in trying to shoot his shield away and shoot the ship that’s inside. It was like Asteroids in that if you exit the right side of the screen you come in on the left, which as we know is how it is in real life, right? It was one of those floating-through-space shooting games, but instead of shooting at rocks that are sailing past you, it’s this thing in the middle. There was something very lizard-brain awesome about playing that: There’s a thing. It’s the middle of the screen. Kill it.

If you went to a place where you didn’t know any of the games, you’d want to play them all. But you’re also gonna go broke a lot faster. I remember when they came out with NES, it was like, wait you can really just keep playing. There’s nothing to stop you. That’s wild. That’s like having an uncle who owns the arcade.I wish there was some awesome analog for that in your adult life, in terms of time off or something. Bonus round.

John Darnielle is a novelist and the primary member of the Mountain Goats. The band’s latest album, In League With Dragons, is out April 26 via Merge Records.

(Photo Credit: Lalitree Darnielle)