Ready Player One (Page 48)
The museum’s bottom level, located in the planet core, was a spherical room containing a shrine to the very first videogame, Tennis for Two, invented by William Higinbotham in 1958. The game ran on an ancient analog computer and was played on a tiny oscilloscope screen about five inches in diameter. Next to it was a replica of an ancient PDP-1 computer running a copy of Spacewar!, the second videogame ever made, created by a bunch of students at MIT in 1962.
Like most gunters, I’d already visited Archaide a few times. I’d been to the core and had played both Tennis for Two and Spacewar! until I’d mastered them. Then I’d wandered around the museums’ many levels, playing games and looking for clues Halliday might have left behind. But I’d never found anything.
I kept running, farther and farther down, until I reached the Gregarious Simulation Systems Museum, which was located just a few levels above the planet core. I’d been here once before too, so I knew my way around. There were exhibits devoted to all of GSS’s most popular games, including several arcade ports of titles they’d originally released for home computers and consoles. It didn’t take me long to find the exhibit where Halliday’s five Game Designer of the Year trophies were displayed, next to a bronze statue of the man himself.
Within a few minutes, I knew I was wasting my time here. The GSS Museum exhibit was coded so that it was impossible to remove any of the items on display, so the trophies could not be “collected.” I spent a few minutes trying in vain to cut one of them free of its pedestal with a laser welding torch before calling it quits.
Another dead end. This whole trip had been a waste of time. I took one last look around and headed for the exit, trying not to let my frustration get the best of me.
I decided to take a different route on my way back up to the surface, through a section of the museum I’d never fully explored on my previous visits. I wandered through a series of tunnels that led me into a giant, cavernous chamber. It contained a kind of underground city comprised entirely of pizza joints, bowling alleys, convenience stores, and, of course, video arcades. I wandered through the maze of empty streets, then down a winding back alley that dead-ended by the entrance of a small pizza shop.
I froze in my tracks when I saw the name of the place.
It was called Happytime Pizza, and it was a replica of a small family-run pizza joint that had existed in Halliday’s hometown in the mid-1980s. Halliday appeared to have copied the code for Happytime Pizza from his Middletown simulation and hidden a duplicate of it here in the Archaide museum.
What the hell was it doing here? I’d never seen its existence mentioned on any of the gunter message boards or strategy guides. Was it possible no one had ever spotted it before now?
Halliday mentioned Happytime Pizza several times in the Almanac, so I knew he had fond memories of this place. He’d often come here after school, to avoid going home.
The interior re-created the atmosphere of a classic ’80s pizza parlor and video arcade in loving detail. Several NPC employees stood behind the counter, tossing dough and slicing pies. (I turned on my Olfatrix tower and discovered that I could actually smell the tomato sauce.) The shop was divided into two halves, the game room and the dining room. The dining room had videogames in it as well—all of the glass-top tables were actually sit-down arcade games known as “cocktail cabinets.” You could sit and play Donkey Kong on the table while you ate your pizza.
If I’d been hungry, I could have ordered a real slice of pizza at the counter. The order would have been forwarded to a pizza vendor near my apartment complex, the one I’d specified in my OASIS account’s food service preference settings. Then a slice would have been delivered to my door in a matter of minutes, and the cost (including tip) would have been deducted from my OASIS account balance.
As I walked into the game room, I heard a Bryan Adams song blasting out of the speakers mounted on the carpeted walls. Bryan was singing about how, everywhere he went, the kids wanted to rock. I pressed my thumb to a plate on the change machine and bought a single quarter. I scooped it out of the stainless-steel tray and headed to the back of the game room, taking in all of the simulation’s little details. I spotted a handwritten note taped to the marquee of a Defender game. It read BEAT THE OWNER’S HIGH SCORE AND WIN A FREE LARGE PIZZA!
A Robotron game was currently displaying its high-score list. Robotron allowed its all-time best player to enter an entire sentence of text beside their score instead of just their initials, and this machine’s top dog had used his precious victory space to announce that Vice-Principal Rundberg is a total douchebag!
I continued farther into the dark electronic cave and walked up to a Pac-Man machine at the very back of the room, wedged between a Galaga and a Dig Dug. The black-and-yellow cabinet was covered with chips and scratches, and the garish side-art was peeling.
The Pac-Man game’s monitor was dark, and there was an OUT OF ORDER sign taped to it. Why would Halliday include a broken game in this simulation? Was this just another atmospheric detail? Intrigued, I decided to investigate further.
I pulled the game cabinet out from the wall and saw that the power cord was unplugged. I plugged it back into the wall socket and waited for the game to boot up. It seemed to work fine.
As I was shoving the cabinet back into place, I spotted something. At the top of the game, resting on the metal brace that held the glass marquee in place, was a single quarter. The date on the coin was 1981—the year Pac-Man had been released.
I knew that back in the ’80s, placing your quarter on a game’s marquee was how you reserved the next turn on the machine. But when I tried to remove the quarter, it wouldn’t budge. Like it was welded in place.
I slapped the OUT OF ORDER sign on the neighboring Galaga cabinet and looked at the start-up screen, which was listing off the game’s villainous ghosts: Inky, Blinky, Pinky, and Clyde. The high score at the top of the screen was 3,333,350 points.
Several things were strange about this. In the real world, Pac-Man machines didn’t save their high score if they were unplugged. And the high-score counter was supposed to flip over at 1,000,000 points. But this machine displayed a high score of 3,333,350 points—just 10 points shy of the highest Pac-Man score possible.
The only way to beat that score would be to play a perfect game.
I felt my pulse quicken. I’d uncovered something here. Some sort of Easter egg, hidden inside this old coin-op videogame. It wasn’t the Easter egg. Just an Easter egg. Some sort of challenge or puzzle, one I was almost certain had been created and placed here by Halliday. I didn’t know if it had anything to do with the Jade Key. It might not be related to the egg at all. But there was only one way to find out.
I would have to play a perfect game of Pac-Man.
This was no easy feat. You had to play all 256 levels perfectly, all the way up to the final split-screen. And you had to eat every single dot, energizer, fruit, and ghost possible along the way, without ever losing a single life. Less than twenty perfect games had been documented in the game’s sixty-year history. One of them, the fastest perfect game ever played, had been accomplished by James Halliday in just under four hours. He’d done it on an original Pac-Man machine located in the Gregarious Games break room.
Because I knew Halliday loved the game, I’d already done a fair amount of research on Pac-Man. But I’d never managed to play a perfect game. Of course, I’d never really made a serious attempt. Up until now, I’d never had a reason to.
I opened my grail diary and pulled up all of the Pac-Man–related data I’d ever collected. The original game code. The unabridged biography of the designer, Toru Iwatani. Every Pac-Man strategy guide ever written. Every episode of the Pac-Man cartoon series. The ingredients for Pac-Man cereal. And, of course, patterns. I had Pac-Man pattern diagrams out the wazoo, along with hundreds of hours of archived video of the best Pac-Man players in history. I’d already studied a lot of this stuff, but I skimmed over it again now to refresh my memory. Then I closed my grail diary and studied the Pac-Man machine in front of me, like a gunfighter sizing up an opponent.
I stretched my arms, rolled my head and neck around on my shoulders, and cracked my knuckles.
When I dropped a quarter into the left coin slot, the game emitted a familiar electronic bea-wup! sound. I tapped the Player One button, and the first maze appeared on the screen.
I wrapped my right hand around the joystick and began to play, guiding my pizza-shaped protagonist through one maze after another. Wakka-wakka-wakka-wakka.
My synthetic surroundings faded away as I focused on the game and lost myself in its ancient two-dimensional reality. Just as with Dungeons of Daggorath, I was now playing a simulation within a simulation. A game within a game.
I had several false starts. I would play for an hour, or even two; then I’d make one tiny mistake and I’d have to reboot the machine and start all over. But I was now on my eighth attempt, and I’d been playing for six hours straight. I was rockin’ like Dokken. This game had been Iceman-perfect so far. Two-hundred and fifty-five screens in and I still hadn’t made a single mistake. I’d managed to nail all four ghosts with every single power pill (until the eighteenth maze, when they stop turning blue altogether), and I’d snagged every bonus fruit, bird, bell, and key that had appeared, without dying once.