If Stanley D. Litwak knew what he was getting into when he bought his first arcade machine in 1977, he honestly couldn't say whether he would have done anything differently. (He might have bought Astro Race rather than Pong, but that was an easy mistake for a rookie to make.) When he first started out, his 'arcade' was just a couple of pinball machines, Pong, and Breakout that he managed to convince the old woman running the town's roller rink to keep in the sidelines, for when the skaters got tired and bored.
He wasn't sure what he was trying to accomplish- maybe he was trying to prove something to the boys from his high school who went on to college, leaving him in the dust after years of dunking his head in a toilet bowl. Maybe he was hoping it'd bring him some quick money so he could help his grandmother pay for things around the house. Maybe it was so she'd finally stop calling him 'cuckoo', a nickname he hated with a passion reserved for crying children and small dogs. Stanley Litwak had been raised by his Nana for as long as he could remember, and she was getting on in years. It was time he took the reins and helped them both, like she did when his parents died.
He wasn't expecting much from his business venture- ten dollars every couple of weeks, give or take a few quarters. He had been a kid that had loved video games- he got his first pinball machine when the gas station closed and the owner just gave it to him, he'd played it so much. But he couldn't think of anyone else who would enjoy video games as much as he did. Heck, Breakout wasn't even his to begin with, he just found someone who was willing to split the profit with him if he could find a place to put the damn thing. Arcades were for geeks and losers. That was all.
But he started noticing, during his long shifts at the concession stand, that his machines were getting more and more popular. Kids would come in and go straight to them- they wouldn't even skate at all. Pong was a hit. And at the end of the week, when he pulled the quarter tray out of the machine, he couldn't believe his eyes. He brought his revenue home and counted it all, three times, just to be sure.
One hundred and three dollars and twenty five cents.
1978 brought him his own building. 1980 moved him to a new one. Galaxian, Asteroids, and Pac Man were his biggest sellers before he plugged in Turbo Time, and then he realized that 'Litwak's Family Fun Center' (because arcade was, admittedly, a word that even the shrewdest of nerds shied away from) was going to be in it for a long haul.
Eventually he'd just put the word 'arcade' under his name, but in the beginning, he was certain that he'd fail. He had always failed- Gym, Biology, Spanish, even Home Economics. All his life he'd just been one big failure leading up to another. So he was tentative, at first. All his bills were paid on time; all his games were kept in the best condition. Every night he'd Windex fingerprints off of the screens, pull out the quarters, check the wires, and make sure everything was locked up tighter than a maximum security prison before he'd pedal home on his bike to count up his change and painstakingly etch it into his ledger.
If he had to sit and pick a year, his year would have been 1982. He was twenty-five years old and had already moved his Nana into a new house. He had a car- not a nice car, not a new car, but a car of his own. The paper interviewed him and put his picture on the front page. He still had it laminated in a frame above his desk- him leaning on the side of Turbo Time and smiling with a thumbs up, the main character scrolling across the screen and mirroring his gesture with a word balloon above his head that read, in loud, capital letters, 'TURBOTASTIC'.
Fix it Felix Jr. was a mistake; a happy mistake, but still a mistake nonetheless. The machine rolled in off of the big moving truck and was lined up between Dig Dug, Q*bert, and Pole Position. The men were just about to leave when he flagged them down.
"I only ordered three machines." He informed them, pointing to the second from the end.
The two men conferred over their clipboard for a moment before nodding to another, one of them tipping his hat. "Sorry about that. Last arcade didn't want it; it's not too popular. Had to refund 'em."
"Oh." Litwak muttered, looking at the machine. "What're you going to do with it?"
"Probably take it back to the factory. Came out at the beginning of the year, it's kind of a dud. Hence why it's so cheap. I suppose they'll pull it apart for replacement parts, send it off to the arcades that need them."
People told Litwak over the years, and would tell him for many more, that machines were just machines. They had no feelings, no life. You plugged them in and their code would go on and on, doing the same thing over and over until something broke. But Litwak felt a twinge of feeling for the poor machine, and he looked at the driver before jerking a thumb to it. "I'll take it then. It'd make nice space filler, between Pac Man and Turbo Time. Give the kids something to do while they're waiting."
The games would change out of course- Pong's screen failed and he had to take the poor console away, Asteroid had a massive circuit failure and almost caught fire. But he'd never forget the day where two teenage boys shrieked and claimed one of his games was possessed. He'd walk up to the console and find himself staring at a glitch of Turbo, right in the middle of his 'TURBOTASTIC!' yell- but he was in a console that wasn't his. He stared at it for a long, long time. Five minutes, he'd estimate. The kids gathered around him and stared too, enraptured, before a little girl finally took his hand, pulling on it to get his attention.
"Mr. Litwak, why is Turbo being so scary?" He unplugged that machine in a heartbeat. Both of them.
"Dud game." His friends would tell him over the phone. "Sometimes you get them. Suppliers are cheap scam artists, they don't check their own games and then when you complain they'll say it's your fault. I swear, some of them make them that way on purpose. Pray it doesn't happen to you again, Litwak."
And it didn't. He played it safe with Whack-A-Mole for a few months before finally buying Tapper, and while a few games would sometimes go out of order for a day or two, they never stayed that way for longer than a day.
If he had to pinpoint a time when he was certain that he was going insane, it'd have to be around 1992. He installed video cameras in the arcade after he'd found that Q*bert had been vandalized to the point of having to be unplugged, and while he wouldn't check them until it was necessary, there was a time when he was watching a tape to see who started a fight when he noticed something odd. There, in the corner of the screen, he could catch the screen of Street Fighter II.
He didn't really suspect anything until he noticed the characters stop what they were doing and begin watching the kids that gathered around the fight. He blinked and paused the tape, wiping off his glasses, before rewinding and looking it over again. He found he could pinpoint the time that the two of them stopped what they were doing and began to wave enthusiastically at the crowd of kids, as if urging them on.
For a while Litwak thought he was going crazy, but he still found himself sitting and watching- the night footage from the arcade showed characters sitting at the bar of Tapper, having a cold one after a long day of work. He found them sitting in the background of Street Fighter, cheering on matches. There he was, thirty five years old, and he was going insane. But it gave him a whole new perspective on his arcade, and a whole new set of problems to keep him up at night.
What happened to the games when they were unplugged? What happened to the characters when he moved the consoles from one port to the other? He toyed with the thought before he fell asleep that night, dreaming of the day when 'TURBOTASTIC' became a nightmarish word.
Suddenly he was doing strange things- announcing loudly the day before a game was moving positions that he'd be moving it. In 1998 he had to buy a new surge protector, and he systematically moved games to it one at a time. He didn't know what he was doing, only that he felt a strange sense of... Obligation? Was that it? His games were his life. His games were the reason his Nana didn't have to live in a retirement home before the age of 80. His games were the reason his old classmates came back to apologize to him. His games were the reason he got up in the morning. The least he could do was protect them.
He would never unplug a game straight out. He'd always give them a day, so at least when they were out of order, they could... Go somewhere. Anywhere. If they did. It sounded stupid, but after seeing Q*bert and his friends in Tapper one night in 2001, he wondered if any of them really ever left. And he wondered, God did he wonder, what exactly happened to Turbo.
"Must be some kind of bonus character? Maybe a glitch." That was what his friends said about King Candy, the character that never seemed to leave the Sugar Rush screen. No one else who had the game had ever unlocked him. He even went so far as to contact the company, who had a representative call him.
"No Mr. Litwak, the only 'royal' character in the game is Vanellope Von Schweetz."
"No, see, that's the thing. I've never seen that racer, just King Candy."
"Have you tried unplugging the machine and plugging it back in?"
He was silent for a moment. "No. I... Suppose I could."
"Give it a try. If it doesn't work, we'd be happy to supply you with an upgrade to your machine."
He wasn't sure how many days it took for Mr. Litwak to decide to just leave Sugar Rush alone. But he was getting old- 2004 marked his 47th birthday- and he just didn't have the heart to try it. Maybe if he was younger, rasher, he'd have given it the old college try. But he knew the things he knew, and so he didn't. He just locked up at the end of the day and moved on.
He had other things to worry about. 2006 marked the first time that Mr. Litwak didn't open for three days straight, after his Nana finally passed away at the age of ninety five.
"I love you, Nana. I'm sorry that... I never amounted to anything great. Like you hoped I would." He mumbled, holding her hand tightly. The old bird just smiled at him and patted his hand, quiet as a mouse.
"Stanley Daniel Litwak." She whispered, and he looked up at her face. She smiled, her thin lips stretched tight. "You have made me so proud."
"Really?" He asked, tears forming in his eyes.
"You kept children off the streets, Stanley. You gave them a home. A home away from home. You kept them safe, dry, and warm. You kept them from getting hit by cars, or joining gangs, or from being bullied. And that makes me so proud of you."
"I always thought I was cuckoo, Nana." He laughed, and she laughed too, her voice hoarse.
"I'm cuckoo too, Stanley. We're all just a little cuckoo." Those were the last words she ever said to him. She'd pass away later that night, and he would hold her hand until the very end.
"Have you ever thought of retiring Fix It Felix Jr., Stan?" One of the old timers asked him as Mr. Litwak served him a coke a few years later. He had kept things in order until then. People would ask him 'How are things' and he'd chime 'Same as it ever was!' in return. He liked running things as smooth as possible. Getting Hero's Duty wedged in was his bit of excitement for the year. "I mean, how long have you had that old thing?"
"Thirty years on Friday." Litwak said, without a hint of hesitation. "And can't say that I've ever thought of it. I love old Felix. Always gets the job done." He chuckled, polishing off the counter. "Bought them as a spacer in 1982, can you believe it? Him and Ralph have been doing the same old thing every day for nigh on thirty years."
"Ralph?" The man asked, eyebrows knitting together.
"Yeah, you know. 'I'm gonna wreck it!' Without him there's no game."
"Oh. The red guy. Well, let me know if you ever consider it. I might buy it off you. You've got my number."
Litwak watched him go with a slight frown. "Yeah. 'The Red Guy'." He huffed, going back to polishing his counter with fervor.
He figured that he wouldn't think about Felix and Ralph again until a month or so down the line, when it came time to switch game console positions again. (He couldn't remember if he ever moved the console, actually. He supposed the floor under it could use a good vacuuming.) But it was Saturday when he heard the faithful call.
"Mr. Litwak..." He knew that sigh. That was the 'my game is screwing up and I'm sorry to bother you but today just isn't my day' sigh. He looked over and that was when he saw it- the blonde girl standing in front of Fix It Felix Jr., a sad look on her face.
He didn't want Ralph to go away. And as he taped that sign up on the console, he felt like something was wrong. He hadn't seen a game act like that in years. Broken screens, yes. Gum in the quarter slots? Not a problem. But the characters running around and screaming? That was new, even for him. He hadn't seen a game act anything nearly as crazy as that since...
He'd look at the footage. There was Ralph the night before, leaving Pac Man. There he was again in Tapper. But then he just disappeared. He wondered if the little blonde girl could've done something to the machine, maybe shaken it too hard and stirred them up. He zoomed forward and caught her walking in, getting brushed off from Sugar Rush (Those boys again? He'd have a word with them later) and then going to Hero's Duty. But then he stopped, paused, and rewound. There, looking into her screen. What was that? He zoomed in and blinked, adjusting his glasses.
"Ralph? What're you DOING?" He asked, sitting back and trying to think.
Grabbing his coat, he hopped in his old car (waste not want not, it was the same old bird from the 80's) and putted on down to the arcade, locking it as the semis blew by on the overpass. He unlocked the door and stepped in, giving the games time to 'hide' as he pretended to get confounded by the lock. The sign on Fix It Felix Jr. had tape on the corner that had come loose, and he moved to fix it, passing Sugar Rush to do so.
At first he thought it was some sort of nightmare, a lucid dream that snuck up on him in his sleep. But he stopped and turned, and realized that every single game screen had frozen in place.
He didn't want to know. He didn't want to know what had happened. He just took his keys and left again, locking the door behind him. He was awake until four in the morning before he finally passed out, where he had dreams about glitches and candy and falling bricks and giant bugs.
He'd wake up in the morning and open up the arcade. Everything was quiet. All the screens were running. It was as if nothing had happened. And as he ushered the kids in for the day, along with the mechanic he'd called to see if Felix's circuitry was shot, he heard a marvelous sound.
"I'M GONNA WRECK IT."
And he smiled.
Vanellope Von Schweetz was suddenly a playable character on Sugar Rush. King Candy was gone. Ralph and Felix were back and better than ever, with a new 'bonus level' he couldn't explain. For a few months, Mr. Litwak would ignore the sudden shouts in his head of 'TURBOTASTIC' that would linger too long. He took down the picture of him and the game in his office, placing it face down on his desk.
One day he finally sat down and sighed, looking at his computer. He searched through the old files of the camera footage, and, even though he only kept the footage for only a couple of weeks back, he clicked the file he never could bring himself to delete- the camera trained on Sugar Rush, the summer of 2012.
He watched everything. It was a bit strange at first, but he sorted it out. He tried to connect the pieces as best as he could. He saw himself walk in, and that's when he looked at the screen rather than himself, catching the footage of a 'race' going on.
There were two cars latched together in one of the tunnels through the ice cream mountains. It looked like Vanellope and King Candy. But then Vanellope did something, and King Candy changed- suddenly he was Turbo. Litwak sat and watched the rest of it, mouth half open, for some time. Then the next morning he went to work and couldn't help but find himself staring at Sugar Rush, then to Fix It Felix Jr., then to Hero's Duty. He wasn't sure what to do.
Well, he was. But he didn't want to do it.
That night he locked up, same as ever. Ushered the kids out, told them to get their homework done, set out the snacks and drinks for the next day, and emptied out all the quarter bins. But when he was done, he took a chair from one of the tables in the corner, picked it up, and sat it down in the middle of the center alley of the arcade, and sat down in it backwards, resting his chin on the back. The games continued to play their title screens- all except one. There, directly in front of him, was Felix and Ralph. Staring right at him. They knew.
"Alright everyone. I'm just going to talk to you real quick, then you can go on doing whatever you please. If you want to run your title screens that's fine. But don't keep any pretenses for my sake. I know." He paused. "I've known for a while now. About a lot of things." The game screens continued to play, but he noticed that the moves on Street Fighter II seemed sluggish and disconnected. He sighed. "I know about Turbo."
All the screens froze again. Vanellope's face froze next to him, in the middle of her victory smile. "You guys don't get to see much. But you've all seen more than me, that's for sure. I remember a day when I thought that unplugging a game was no big deal. It was standard, even, to unplug things. You know, to move them around. But you all have probably seen a lot of people- a lot of your friends- go away for a long time because of it." He paused to let it sink in. The title screens weren't playing anymore. There was no sound from any of them. Even Pac Man had nothing to say.
"I am sorry." He mumbled, looking at the chair in front of him. "I remember being so... unsure of myself. I never wanted to unplug Turbo Time. Turbo was... One of my first games. He's the reason many of you are here, together. Say what you want, but he could pull in quarters." He laughed, recalling the old days. "But... I saw. I was here that night, wondering what happened. And I saw the security footage later."
A murmur went up around the games. Someone said- he was pretty sure it was Doctor Robotnik- "I told you those cameras wouldn't reflect off of the screens, you fools."
"I just want you all to know that I'll never let that happen to you again. I'll never let... Anything like that happen to you. And I'll try to find someone to fix it."
"No offense, sir." Mr. Litwak looked up, and saw Ralph had shifted from his game to Sugar Rush. Vanellope was sitting on his shoulder, watching the old man. "You've done a great job here, Mister. But we've got the best mechanic right in here. He's always cleaning up my messes." He pointed to Fix It Felix Jr. and smiled. "So you just keep on doing your thing, and we'll do ours."
"And make sure you never get rid of Tapper's!" Someone yelled, and a chorus of laughs came around.
"Yeah, if he gets unplugged we'll riot!"
"Go on strike!"
"It's hard enough around here as it is!"
"You get your head crushed between Zangeif's thighs and tell me you don't want a cold one after that!"
Mr. Litwak smiled and stood, taking the chair back to the table and straightening it. "Well, I'm glad we had this talk." He said, and he pulled on his coat. "I'll be here tomorrow morning, so I expect everyone in-" He turned around and realized all the machines were back in start screens, totally oblivious. "Positions." He finished, closing the door behind him.
If Stanley D. Litwak knew what he was getting into when he bought his first arcade machine in 1977, he honestly couldn't say whether he would have done anything differently.
Except that he would've put Sugar Rush next to Fix It Felix Jr., to save Ralph a bit of a trip.