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Kennebec Journal

Monday, September 2, 2002

Mainers join new video game craze

Copyright © 2001 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.


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OLD ORCHARD BEACH —The crowds have thinned out on the pier and beach, the T-shirt shops are advertising sales and there's no virtually no wait for a bucket of clam strips in the final days of the tourist season.

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But there's a buzz of activity inside an arcade.

Mike Lynch and Tom Schmidt are in stocking feet, stepping in unison to the bass beat as arrows flow up the video screen and curious onlookers gather around the Dance Dance Revolution.

They're among the latest converts to a video game craze that has now reached the farthest corners of the country.

Konami released the game in Japan in 1998 and it debuted a year later in the United States, first gaining popularity on the West Coast. Since then, DDR tournaments have sprouted up around the country.

Players hit tiles on a miniature dance floor in the sequence indicated by arrows on the screen. The machine reacts to each step and misstep by flashing comments like "Perfect!!" and "Boo!" on the screen and gives the player a letter grade at the end of the game.

For those who'd rather play in privacy, there's a PC version and several PlayStation music mixes — including one with Disney tunes.

It's a simple concept, but DDR devotees attest to the game's mysteriously addictive — and contagious — nature.

Lynch, 17, was lured in by a friend a month ago. Since then, he's bought the home version and has made nearly daily trips to the Dream Machine arcade from his home in Scarborough.

"I have a class at 3, but I had to come today," he said, during a quick break for a fruit smoothie.

Like other DDR enthusiasts, Lynch spends hours practicing. He also downloads songs used on the machines from the Internet, follows developments on fan Web sites and has exposed other people to the game.

"He's like the carrier of the disease, in a sense," Schmidt, 16, said.

There's no official count of DDR machines in the United States because many are unauthorized imports, industry observers say. But one Web site lists 1,227 locations.

It has appeared on TV on Fox's "King of the Hill," NBC's short-lived "Tucker," and more recently, a commercial for Skechers sneakers. It's also been in a music video of the dance-pop band Everything But The Girl.

Mandy Pincins, the arcade manager in Old Orchard Beach, got the machine in June after hearing about DDR's popularity at the chain's other locations. The game's cultlike following quickly became apparent as it drew in locals and tourists who needed a fix while away from home.

Some would play so intensely that arcade operators attached a couple of small box fans to its machine.

"We put in those to help cool them. Some of them will play for so long, they'll be dripping with sweat," she said.

Lynch noted that some of the best players are from places where DDR has been around longer. He and his buddies spoke in excited tones about a teenager from Chicopee, Mass., who successfully completed the most difficult songs and performed fancy tricks using the machine's guardrail.

The teen, who played for 374 consecutive days, had to miss a DDR tournament because of his family's vacation to Maine. But the blow was softened, they said, because he learned there was a machine in Old Orchard Beach. Now Lynch is planning a pilgrimage to a Massachusetts arcade filled with DDR machines.

Such trips apparently aren't all that rare.

Jesse Potter, 17, has befriended some Bethel teenagers who drive nearly two hours to Waterville to play DDR at Action Family Entertainment, where he works. They stay all day, he said, and once slept over at his home.

Sarah Hevey, 18, said she has never been so attached to a video game before but felt compelled to drive to New Hampshire or Waterville to get in some DDR time when the machine in Old Orchard Beach was temporarily on the blink. DDR is different, she explained, because it offers so many possibilities among the many songs, difficulty levels and the players' personal styles.

"Each day, your performance is different. You can do the same song 50 times, and do it 50 different ways," she said. "Dance Dance Revolution is kind of like your own personal club."

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Copyright © Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.