Yay, it’s the 80s! – Nuclear War, AIDS, Porn, and The Casio Vintage x Pac-Man Watch

The Skinny

  • Size: kinda small
  • Functions: illegible, but many
  • Color: Pac-Man
  • Price: $99 but we paid $149 to an eBay profiteer

Horologically Insignificant

If you’ve come here to find out if this watch is any good, then let’s cut to the chase: it’s not very good. It’s a cheap-seeming thing that’s practically illegible unless you hit the orange backlight. The bracelet looks cool but rattles like plastic. Clasp is difficult. Buttons wiggly. I expect that if I wore it daily I’d destroy it within a year. If you like to pretend that $99 watches have redeeming horological qualities, I’m sure you can find a review with clever lifestyle pictures to support that fantasy. This isn’t it.

Non-Violence & Bubble Gum

The Casio Pac-Man unit under scrutiny here glorifies the 1980s by isolating one playful pop-cult phenom for nostalgic Gen-Xers like me to consume like so much medical-grade cocaine. Pure, powerful, and fun as hell. However, if you were a conscious American kid during the 1980s, you, like me, probably harbor mixed feelings about Reagan’s decade.

I ran with a neighborhood crew who dropped countless quarters into the Pac-Man machine at Pizza Hut in Kenmore, NY, a suburb just north of the then fast-dying snow capital of the world, Buffalo. Global warming and gentrification are now kind of reversing Buffalo’s fate, but in 1982 in the dead of a post-industrial winter there wasn’t shit to do on a Saturday, so we played Pac-Man until the mean teenaged hostess pulled the enormous wad of Bubble Yum out of her yapper and told us to get the hell out. We all had a crush on her, and we all hoped she’d eventually earn a place in The Guinness Book of World Records for the largest bubble ever blown, which appeared to be her life’s purpose. Alas, only men have claimed that title. A Gen-Xer named Chad Fell set the current record in 2004 with a 20″ no-hands bubble, claiming that three pieces of Double Bubble is the ticket to really big bubbles. Good to know.

I liked that Pac-Man wasn’t a very violent game. Your yellow munching disc wandered a maze eating dots, fruit, and ghosts. Given the presumed immateriality of ghosts, I suppose we can conclude that Pac-Man was a vegan, which is pretty wimpy for an 80s video game. I never did like blowing shit up with lasers. I found Space Invaders, Galaga, Tron, Defender, Missile Command, Asteroids and other weaponized games jarring. The more abstract the scenario, the more I enjoyed the game. Break Out, in which a ball bounces around knocking a rainbow of rectangles out of the way until you “break out,” was a high-concept game I loved. Pac-Man was more like an 8-bit surrealist novel by Nikolai Gogol. It’s premise could elicit an audible “Huh?” if you put logic anywhere near it. I liked Pac-Man a lot.

Puck-Man, The Christian Right & Porn

Japan’s Namco released Pac-Man to the world in 1980. The original name translated to Puck-Man in English, but market research suggested that most English-speaking adolescents within reach of a magic marker would swiftly convert all examples to Fuck Man. I know I would have.

Pin on characters
Image from shirtoid.com.

Here is the underbelly of the 1980s revealing itself. For many, the 80s in the USA were a cocaine-fueled afterparty to the sexual free-for-all of the 1970s, and the Conservative Christians wanted to run a large-scale bust. Ronnie Reagan’s bizarre wife Nancy turned smoking weed into a felony for black and brown people, while Ronnie’s moralizing 2nd term Attorney General Ed Meese was attempting to scrub America of pornography. Both were Sisyphysian goals and flat-out infringements of the 1st Amendment and about 500 other laws, but you already know that.

A small battalion of Meese’s Conservative Christians exercised their 1st Amendment rights by protesting the smut shop across from Pizza Hut. Rumor said there were peep shows in the back, handjobs through holes in the wall, and so on, but I’m pretty sure the smutters just sold dirty magazines to newly unemployed former Union members waiting for The Great Trickle Down. The Christians were very angry that evidence of male auto-eroticism should be visible to us tender children, so they wanted the smut shop closed down. So much for free-markets and separation of church and state and, well, Freedom.

Edwin Meese - Wikiwand
Ed Meese gets a medal. Oh, the irony. (Image: Wikipedia)

If these Christian activists really wanted to get porn out of the hood, they’d have considered confronting the crew of 10-year-old boys playing Pac-Man across the street. The crew I rambled with ran The Free Porn Library of Kenmore, NY. This library housed hundreds of well-thumbed copies of Playboy, Penthouse, and OUI that we’d garbage picked and/or otherwise acquired. We boys didn’t need a smut shop. We had a neighborhood full of Dads with subscriptions underwriting The Free Porn Library of Kenmore, NY.

When Casio watches started to show up on our adolescent wrists, we immediately figured out how to write BOOBS with the calculator versions. For those who care, just type 58008 and flip it over. If you were really clever you’d find a way to type a girl’s name, do a little addition, and come up with BOOBLESS (55E78008). Boys being boys eventually gets outed as early signs of Toxic Masculinity, but this was the 1980s. Harvey Weinstein was still booking rock shows in Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium and raping college interns from SUNY Buffalo. “Harvey and Corky presents KISS at the Buffalo Auditorium this Friday!” I’d hear on 97 Rock, Rock 102, and 103.3 WPHD. What I understood about KISS at age ten was that their music sucked and Gene Simons had a cow’s tongue sewn onto his own so he could perform more adept cunninlinguis on thousands of willing groupies lined up at his hotel room door. These were the kind of things we talked about while playing Pac-Man at Pizza Hut.

Beyond Nostalgia

If you move past nostalgia toward actual memories, shit gets complicated, right? When I strap on this new Casio Pac-Man watch, I experience a strange mixture of nostalgic warm fuzzies and existential nausea, which, as I spell it out, sounds like a rather balanced and reasonable emotional reaction to the 80s as I remember it.

I also associate Pac-Man with a school full of sexual predators that I hated, my parents’ rather turbulent marriage, my powerful anxiety over the threat of nuclear war, the rise of the AIDS pandemic, Duran Duran being Hungry Like a Wolf for Girls on Film and other traumas.

But I also remember Pac-Man as a safe and simple imaginary realm in which I found refuge. That’s no small thing. Early video games may have looked like 2D shit, but they were portals into other worlds where wonderful things happened in real time. You could fly, jump over alligator-filled swamps, drive a car as fast as you wanted, kick ass in tennis without breaking a sweat, catch bombs in a barrel, or remove rainbow colored bricks until you “broke out.” These games could absorb your whole mind and body if you let them, which I did.

Most importantly, video games were safe. There were no evil porn mongers or mean trashy girls failing to break world records. No predatory teachers. No divorce-grade parental arguments. Pac-Man did wonders in terms of providing an environment, however lamely virtual, in which I could strive and compete and sometimes win. A wonderful escape.

Those who know my horological proclivities can tell you that I have often sought comfort in my watches, and I’ve even bought watches knowing full well that their sole function was to sooth my shaky soul. It’s a tall order for a $99 watch, but I have taken some comfort in remembering the good times I eked out of that twisted decade by escaping into the surreal world of Japan’s most famous video game. That’s not horological value, but it’s value nonetheless.