When Joel West died quietly in his Lincolnton home in November, there were no breaking-news alerts.
In the week that followed, there was no obituary in the Lincoln Times-News. No funeral. No memorial. No wake, viewing or visitation.
West’s passing at the age of 58, in fact, was about to go almost completely unnoticed by the general public. Until... eight days later, a man named Walter Day called up the Observer and said something like: Hey, you probably don’t know it, but a legend died recently in Lincolnton, and he deserves a story.
Upon taking the bait, you realize that West really is a legend. He’s just not necessarily the type of legend you ever would have heard of — unless you were at a particular age in the early 1980s, had a particular proclivity for staring at pixels, and whiled away hours at a time in video-game arcades.
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If you were, then you might be aware that when West was a young man, he (and 15 others with similar talents) were elevated to cult-hero status by a magazine photo that celebrated arcades as the red-hot fad of the moment and this group of guys as the best at playing the machines populating them.
You might then also be aware that when West was a middle-aged man, both his legend and his gaming prowess grew after he figured prominently in a film documentary that served as a retrospective about that iconic photo.
And you might even be aware that right up until the day he died, West dreamed a dream that virtually everyone but him felt was impossible.
It’s a wonderful Life
“I was in a 1973 Ford LTD. When I went through Cincinnati, I went over that big bridge coming in from Kentucky, and it horrified me — poor little North Carolina boy never been anywhere.”
— West, in the 2007 documentary “Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade.”
He was 22 years old and living in Shelby when he received the invitation to appear in the Life magazine photo that would be published in its January 1983 “Year in Pictures” issue.
His claim to fame? In mid-1982, it was determined that West — a savant-like master of the shooting games “Berzerk” and “Frenzy” and the racing games “Rally X” and “Pole Position” — had become the first person to hold two national records on video games at the same time. (Though nobody seems to remember exactly which ones; after all, this was back when a lot of this stuff was being written down with pencil and paper.)
Life’s idea was to pose 16 of the top gamers in the country in the middle of Main Street in the tiny town of Ottumwa, Iowa, which had managed to become known as “the video game capital of the world” due to the fact that an arcade there — Twin Galaxies, founded by Walter Day — had taken it upon itself to start keeping records of verified high scores for gamers and video game publications.
At the time, arcades were a multi-billion dollar industry enjoying its heyday, and Life’s pictorial was a game-changer.
“Joel was a major star,” says Day, who today lives 25 miles east of Ottumwa. (Twin Galaxies’ arcade closed long ago, but continues to operate as an organization that tracks high scores and documents gaming competitions.)
“And a very nice person I really liked, too. Very whimsical. Almost like ... do you remember who Will Rogers was? He’s kind of a down-home, humorous, folksy sort of a guy. But also a really devout, staunch, fundamentalist Christian. You know, hell and brimstone. He was quite remarkable. Anyway, he was there for a picture, and then we didn’t see him again for decades.”
The “Chasing Ghosts” documentary — which ruminated on the brief but fervent popularity of arcade gaming and focused tightly on the boys-turned-middle-aged-men who found 15 minutes of fame thanks to Life magazine — drew West (who since had moved to Gastonia) back out of the shadows. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2007 and seemed, friends say, to rekindle his passion for arcade gaming in a big way.
And just as the movie reveled in nostalgia, West seemed to do the same, at least as it related to gaming.
“He always felt that the older games were the ones that actually set the tone for everything,” says his friend Eric Tessler of La Habra, Calif., who met West at a classic gaming competition in 2012. “And since the arcade at one time was the biggest thing on the planet, and he was directly involved in that, he kind of never left that.
“He was kind of maybe living in the past a little bit.”
Going berserk over ‘Berzerk’
“You can teach a monkey how to play a certain number of rooms, but you cannot teach a man how to play ‘Berzerk.’”
— West, in “Chasing Ghosts.”
Though he was good at all kinds of games and great at many, he was truly extraordinary when it came to the 1980 arcade game “Berzerk” and its sequel, 1982’s “Frenzy” — both of which look, by today’s video-game standards, insanely primitive.
Inspired by Fred Saberhagen’s “Berserker” sci-fi book series, the main character is a “humanoid,” but it might be more accurate to call it a stick figure. The player is charged with navigating this humanoid through a maze while fighting off robots using a joystick and a single “fire” button.
“Berzerk” starts players off with three lives and allows them to earn two more early on. After that, there are no more free lives. The maze never ends. The robots never stop coming. You move, you shoot. That’s the game, in a nutshell.
And those who knew him say that watching West play “Berzerk” was a wonder to behold.
“He just had a tremendous amount of intensity, a tremendous amount of intelligence and creativity. He was like a tank commander in World War II,” says Walter Day, “just working his way across France — that’s the only way to describe it.”
“It was mind-boggling to me how precise that man could play the game,” adds West’s friend Grant Thienemann, who currently holds the “Berzerk” world record at 199,860 points. “So, in both ‘Berzerk’ and ‘Frenzy,’ you’re this humanoid, but you have no neck — as odd as that sounds. Like, your head just floats above your shoulders. And there is something that we call a neck shot, which is if you get it pixel-perfect, an enemy bullet can fly between your head and your shoulders, and you won’t die.
“Now, I’ve done it by accident a handful of times. Joel was so good at the game, that if he was really in a pinch and couldn’t get out of the maze, he could make the neck shot happen 80 percent of the time. ... He had a way of looking at the game that I don’t think anyone else ever will.”
West famously boasted that he had mapped out each of the game’s 64,000 rooms, but loved that he never knew which one was going to be around the next corner.
The only thing he didn’t love about “Berzerk” was that it wasn’t a practical game for marathoning — because of its five-life max, there was no way he’d ever be able to play it nonstop for days. But its sequel “Frenzy” was perfect, because players could earn an extra life every 3,000 points in perpetuity. And with dozens of lives at his disposal, he could sprint to a toilet for a quick bathroom break and only lose a few.
On “Frenzy,” West went over 40 hours 14 times in his arcade-game-playing career. His longest streak was 55 hours, according to Day. (The world record, in case you’re wondering, belongs to John Salter, who lasted 85 hours and 16 minutes on a game called “Armor Attack” in April 2014.)
The day he (almost) died
“When you play a video game, there are days when you’re playing the game, and it’s fighting you. Then there are days when you and the game become one.”
— West, in “Chasing Ghosts.”
West died on Nov. 28 of a heart attack. But it’s probably not a stretch to imagine that he would have preferred to go out playing.
In fact, one time, he flirted rather closely with doing just that.
Though he’d been feeling ill for more than a day, West had cleared his schedule for the next five — for an attempt at a longtime (and, to many, ludicrous) dream of playing “Frenzy” for 100 consecutive hours on one quarter. Fifteen hours in, he was being forced to play with one hand — because he needed the other to hold onto a bucket.
“The further the marathon went, the worse he was getting, health-wise,” recalls Thienemann (then 27, now 33), who was there in the garage of West’s Lincolnton home that night to supervise the live webcast and chat activity. “But it was almost like the worse he felt, the better he played. At 3 in the morning, he was throwing up in a bucket, but playing the best ‘Frenzy’ I’ve ever seen him play. I mean, just he wanted it. Bad. ...
“It was the first time I’d met him in person, and I made the decision right there to turn off the game. I was like, I’m not gonna be the guy that gets a legend — who was in, you know, Life magazine in the ‘80s — killed. If he hates me for it, I don’t care. I remember looking at him, and I said, ‘Joel, I’m sorry.’ And I cut the game off.”
West spent the next six days in the hospital being treated for and recovering from dehydration, cellulitis, blood poisoning and a serious infection; it was eventually determined that he’d had an undiagnosed case of diabetes.
That was late in the summer of 2012. But as recently as mid-October — less than eight weeks before his death — West was still talking publicly about making another run at the 100-consecutive-hour milestone.
And in the end...
“My grandson Jason inspired me to double down on video gaming some years back — when he was 5 years old, and now he’s 16 ... and I told him about what had happened here in the early ‘80s with myself and ... some of the things I accomplished. ... He set me straight pretty quick. He said, ‘Papa, that’s great. ... But what have you done lately?’”
— West, at his induction into the International Video Game Hall of Fame.
In his 50s, he stayed extremely busy on the gaming convention circuit, often traveling and doing appearances with Day and another Life magazine legend named Billy Mitchell. He also continued playing — hard: West’s logged most of the longest marathon sessions of his career in the past decade.
And right up to about the end of his life, he seemed determined to push himself to his limits as a player.
“I’ve had some health problems recently. Some severe ones,” he said at his induction into the International Video Game Hall of Fame this past Oct. 6 in Ottumwa, Iowa. “But I’m gonna recover, and I’m going to still go for that hundred-hour-continuous-video-game-without-a-break marathon. OK, and it’s gonna be relatively soon. But not right now — I’m still recovering.”
With his gaming friends, West could talk about games as tirelessly as he could play them, and he was equally passionate about religion and food (not necessarily in that order), they say. But otherwise, he was a bit of an enigma.
Some say they think he was a paralegal. Others say he might have been an insurance agent. He did mission work that took him to Europe, the Middle East, South America, Africa, Russia. Or... hold on — maybe he never went to Africa. Maybe it was India. Actually, maybe it wasn’t mission work he was doing. Maybe it was for his job as an insurance agent. But wait, that doesn’t sound right.
Toward the end of “Chasing Ghosts,” as the aging gamers are rattling off the jobs they went on to after the Life photo shoot, West says, simply: “I got a job traveling,” as a picture of him sitting on a camel flashes on the screen. Though he didn’t seem to have a steady income in recent years, friends say, he was known to sometimes sell gaming memorabilia at conventions.
At any rate, it’s not easy to get definitive answers about his life outside of gaming.
His father died when West was 11 (also of a heart attack, West says in the film), and his mother died several years back, according to friends. When West died in November, it was his sister who found him. They were living together at the time — he was taking care of her because she was in even poorer health — and in a terrible twist of fate, she had a stroke not long after his death; she died just over a week later.
Attempts to reach West’s older brother Tony — whom he reportedly hadn’t seen in years — were unsuccessful, and efforts to track down his ex-wife also came up empty. (West was a stepfather to her children, who went on to have kids he referred to as his grandchildren.) Calls to the Lincoln County government offices were not returned.
But according to his friend Mike Payne, who owns a video-game store in Lincolnton called GameSwap, West’s body went unclaimed: When Payne tried to find an obituary, or information about funeral arrangements, he discovered that West was essentially being treated as a “John Doe” and would be cremated by the state, with the cremains then simply being disposed of.
“I didn’t feel that that was something that I could allow to happen,” he says.
So Payne launched an online campaign and raised more than $1,600 — enough for him to take possession of the ashes — just barely beating the deadline for claiming West’s body. Payne hopes to organize a celebration of life for West in Lincolnton soon, and dreams of another at a later date in Ottumwa, site of the Life photo shoot.
When that time comes, Thienemann’s answer to the question “What is ‘Berzerk’ about?” could be molded into a fitting eulogy for West:
“He would probably say and agree with me that, in a way, you’re running the maze of life. Because at the beginning of the game, the robots are very easy, the game’s very easy, and as you go, the game gets harder, and at 5,000 points is where everything changes. Then Evil Otto — the main bad guy that can just absolutely destroy you — he doubles in speed.
“So, in a way, it is a lot like life, because when you first are born, you don’t have all these worries in the world. You still have to get through it, but it’s not as hard. But the longer you play, the harder it gets and the more difficult it becomes to win. So I think that’s how I would kind of describe ‘Berzerk’ to people, because in the end, you die. I mean, that’s just it. Game over.”