By AzHP 4 Comments
Over the weekend, I went to Milpitas Golfland for a DDR player reunion. I saw tons of old friends I haven’t seen in years, and was hit with wave after wave of nostalgia and emotion. After getting home after standing in front of a Tapioca Express with 20 other people until 2:30AM, I was compelled to write something detailing just how important DDR and music games were to me growing up.
I first learned of DDR in 1998, during a family vacation to Hawaii. I’ll never forget walking into that arcade a few blocks from my hotel and seeing two Japanese guys playing AM-3P on Trick difficulty. I was amazed at how good they had gotten at that game, and I needed to play it. I put in my dollar, picked the easiest song (Have You Never Been Mellow), and promptly failed the song. Undeterred, I asked my father for more money and proceeded to keep playing throughout the vacation (when we weren’t doing touristy things).
When we got back from our vacation, I convinced my parents to buy me a used soft DDR pad and a copy of the game for PlayStation off eBay, and played the game in my house every chance I got, between middle school, homework and judo lessons. I became decent enough at the game, but I eventually got bored of it and stored the pad behind my TV.
Fast forward to my birthday, a year later. My best friend at the time, Joey, was looking behind my TV to switch a game console input and asked me what the hell that crinkly pad behind my TV was. We took it out, I showed him how to play, and he was hooked. Joey and I proceeded to frequent the DDR Freak forums, watch freestyle videos at his house (freestyle is when you play not for score, but to dance while still hitting the arrows), play together after school at the Sony Metreon, and our parents took turns driving us to San Jose’s Nickel City arcade and Milpitas Golfland on the weekends. We saw people who were a lot better than us, and it motivated us to play harder and longer. We got pretty decent at it, and in 2001 we figured we were ready to join a “team.” Little did I know that a “team” really just meant a bunch of kids our age (a little bit older) playing DDR at Pier 39. We decided to join the only team in San Francisco, Team Forever Xero, or TFX. On the DDR Freak boards, Joey had introduced us as the tall Chinese guy who looks like a Mexican (him) and a much shorter kid who looks like an Asian Harry Potter (me). We decided to meet up at the Powell Street Bart Station to go to Castro Valley Golfland. When we got there, the first thing out of Will’s mouth (I knew him as Syn Zero on the forums) was “hey, he kinda DOES look like an Asian Harry Potter.”
This is kind of silly, but Team Forever Xero was the first group of people I truly felt I belonged with. I was (and still am) kind of an antisocial person, I was really tiny and not very good looking, and I was really smart. Unlike what Persona 4 might teach you, scoring well on exams will not make you more well known and popular amongst your classmates. But I digress. When I played DDR, I could tell that my teammates, no, friends respected me as both a DDR player and a friend. It was really the first time I could count on people I would hang out with every week, rain or shine. We went to the Metreon, the newly opened Riptide Arcade at Pier 39, and Milpitas Golfland at least two or three times a week. We all got pretty good at the game, but the two of us that were clearly ahead of the pack were Joey and I.
Over time, our group grew steadily, and we were being noticed by the Riptide Arcade (RTA) managers. We talked to them about buying more music games than just DDR. If you’re not familiar, Konami puts out a whole ton of music games besides just DDR: Guitar Freaks/Drum Mania were doing session style band play nearly a decade before Rock Band ever came out. Beatmania was sort of a DJ simulator, but it eventually just turned into a “push a lot of buttons really fast” simulator. Pop’n Music is like the ultimate Fisher Price toy: 9 giant red, white, green, blue and yellow buttons the size of your palm that light up when you press them. We weren’t able to convince the management to get anything particularly niche or obscure, but we did manage them to eventually pick up a Beatmania III 7 Mix and Guitar Freaks/Drum Mania. We also convinced them that they could make a ton of money if every Friday night, they closed the arcade to the public and charged $10 for free play from 7PM to Midnight. They agreed that they thought it was a great idea, and that lead to the formation of Bemani Nites.
As word spread of Bemani Nites across the Bay Area section of the DDR Freak forums, those nights became the best nights of our lives. Up to 40 or 50 people would show up just to play DDR. The lines became so ridiculous that we needed a clipboard to keep track: the traditional coin lines were cumbersome when there were 30 coins on the machine and no one knew whose was whose. When the arcade closed, we would all take a trek to either In-N-Out or IHOP down the wharf, bringing 20 to 30 people down on the unsuspecting waiters and cooks. We always waited forever for our food, but we didn’t give a single damn. We would have a great time, stay out until 3AM, then take the buses in whichever direction home was for us. Some people couldn’t get home; they stayed at my house. People would come from as far as Modesto or Richmond (two or three hours away by public transportation) to hang out with us. When we would get to my house, we wouldn’t sleep, oh hell no we didn’t. We stayed up making step charts for songs (DDR had an Edit Mode where you could save custom step charts to your PlayStation memory card and plug it into the arcade cabinet to show everyone your creation). I imported a Beatmania IIDX controller that we used to learn how to play IIDX, since the closest IIDX machine was Sunnyvale, a 45 minute drive away, and we didn’t have cars at the time. After passing out at 6 in the morning, we would all get up around noon, pile into my dad’s car, and head to Milpitas Golfland for more DDR action.
Of course, being high schoolers (for the most part), it wasn’t all fun and games. There was drama, and lots of it. We were lonely teenagers, and there were only so many girls that were into DDR. I think it’s a rule that every arcade with a scene had to have its own arcade whore who preyed on desperate young men. It got to the point where, a few years ago, my friends and I were drunk in a hotel room at an anime convention and we kind of had a round table where everyone in the circle told the story of how the same girl took their virginity. Oh, teen drama.
Anyway, I could write forever about all the stories and people I met and long lasting friendships that I formed playing DDR, but by now you pretty much get the idea. DDR wasn’t just a game for us. It was a way of life. Sadly, new DDR mixes stopped coming out after Extreme for about two years, and it all kind of fell off. We all went off to college and got on with our lives. However, the memories still remain, and influenced our lives. A lot of the people I met were really into anime, and so we still hang out at anime conventions and talk about the good old days, and have DDR tournaments where we all realize how washed up and out of practice we are. A lot of the freestylers went on to become professional dancers, and formed the nerdiest crew in the Bay Area: The DS Players. They’re actually a ridiculously amazingly talented group of dancers (win, show and place in major dance competitions), and I advise everyone to check them out on youtube if you have a chance. I started breakdancing when I went to college and found that the rhythm and stamina I gained from playing DDR really transitioned well into actual dancing.
I hope this blog post was entertaining and that someone actually made it to the bottom of this, but even if you didn’t, this was a blast to write. Have any of you played a game that changed your life? Leave a note in the comments, and I’ll see you all there!