DJ Shadow became a household name on the strength of his debut studio album, Endtroducing. That was all the way back in 1996, but the record is still considered influential for being comprised almost entirely of samples from other works. Here, he reminisces about how being a regular at his local arcades made him the man he is today.
What’s your earliest gaming memory?
I guess my earliest memory is stuff like Battlezone because I couldn’t reach the little viewfinder. It was all vector-graphics stuff. It was mostly simple lines.
How old were you back then?
I was probably about six or seven, so ’78 or ’79, right about the time Tempest and Defender came out – I was really into those really quick-paced games. All Williams games like Robotron and Defender seemed really hyper-kinetic. I remember only real gamers could be good at those kinds of games, whereas Pac-Man and games like that seemed too cute and slow for me. Although I gained respect for them later.
So you became a ‘real’ gamer, then?
Well, ironically, I was never all that good at Defender or Robotron, but I remember being in awe of those who were, watching their fingers move. I didn’t end up playing them a lot, because when you’re a kid you get your parents to give you a quarter or 50 cents, so you wanted to play whatever was going to stretch that the longest. I ended up playing Moon Patrol. It seemed really easy to master, to me. I was pretty good at Donkey Kong Jr. I was an obsessive arcade gamer from about ’80 to early ’85. Towards the tail-end of playing, to me, it was the second wave of great games: Paperboy, Mappy and I, Robot. [I, Robot] has a bit of notoriety for being a massive flop. It was an Atari game, named after the book, and it had these amazing, ahead-of-its-time graphics. It was really conceptual. I was the only one who seemed to care about the game, and nobody wanted to compete to play it. It was amazing. I was happy to play it. I was always going to get a good five minutes out of my quarter, and it was really good to me.
Has no other arcade game caught your attention since then?
Smash TV was one of the last games I obsessively pumped money into. It was funny because I grew up with arcades looking a certain way, and I remember going to Japan and walking into an arcade and going, “I don’t get it. There are only six games in this giant room, and they all cost $5 to play.” It seemed like within a year of going to Japan, every arcade I go into is modelled after that. I don’t understand why it evolved into that, or who asked it to be that way.
Did you feel like you’d rather be better at games you respected than brilliant at ones you didn’t?
There were a lot of games like Defender and Stargate which I could never, ever master. I really respected people who were good at those games but for whatever reason I couldn’t do it. There were games that were similar I was able to be good at – well, Joust isn’t similar, but nobody was excellent at that.
We don’t know too many people who are even half-decent at it.
Yeah, I just remember you get to level eight or nine and all the platforms would go away and it was just this free-for-all. That was another Williams game, and I liked the types of games that they developed, and their sound design was what was amazing to me. I think that’s what drew me to them.
I remember when Super Punch-Out!! came out, this older kid had all this attention because the game had been in a day and a half, and there was a line of people wanting to play and watching him, gathering around it. Somehow he was already better than everybody else. You know how there are those kids, when a game would come in and they’ve already mastered it somehow? He got knocked out and was angry, and I happened to be standing right behind him, so he shoved me to the ground. That’s all normal arcade shit. But for boys at that time, it was a place where you learned how to behave, how to carry yourself, and stick up for yourself.
What’s your all-time favourite game?
Tempest, which I actually own. To me, it was the ultimate game at the peak of my interest in arcade games.