Stepping into Free Play Richardson is a bit like having access to a time machine that can transport me to my childhood. The experience starts the instant you step in the front door. Pulsing, synth heavy New Wave blares through the building, playing songs like “Space Age Love Song” by A Flock of Seagulls and “Regret” by New Order. The arcade is dimly lit, with a bare concrete floor. Classic arcade cabinets from the 70s, 80s, and 90s pack the space: Burger Time, Tempest, Dig Dug, Ghosts n’ Goblins, Tappers, and more. Pinball machines line the back wall. A small refreshments area sits off to the side, where you can buy everything from a Duff “beer” (actually an orange flavored energy drink) to the neon green wonder that is Surge. It’s only a single-storey building but, outside of that fact, it’s probably the closest I’ll ever come to stepping into Flynn’s Arcade from Tron.
Among the myriad cabinets at Free Play, there sits one of the most profoundly strange arcade games I’ve ever played: Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker. On its surface, the game doesn’t seem that odd. You play as the King of Pop, decked out in his suit from Smooth Criminal. The game takes its “plot” from the music video, which was a riff on gangster films set in the 1930s. As with the video, the game’s antagonist is Mr. Big, a drug lord who is targeting children. It’s your job to defeat Big and his goons, while rescuing children.
The game a simple beat ‘em up. You move through each level fighting off waves of bad guys, with most levels containing a boss fight. Pretty standard stuff, but that’s where the normalcy ends. Rather than your standard melee attack, you defeat the baddies by shooting magic from MJ’s hands. If things get really bad, you can unleash your secret weapon: the power of dance. This special attack involves Michael performing some of his signature moves. All of the villains on screen try to dance along, but who are they kidding? They couldn’t possibly keep up with Michael, and the effort kills them.
As you move through each level, you’ll come across children held captive in glowing prisons of light. Rescue the children, and you’ll gain a little health. Occasionally you also come across Michael’s pet chimpanzee Bubbles. The helpful hominid transforms Michael into a giant robot who can shoot lasers from his arms.
You face a variety of different villains in the game. There are the gangsters and robots (including robot dogs), but there are also zombies, and a walking mech that has a weirdly phallic battering ram between its legs. You didn’t misread that. While we’re on the subject of weird villains, it’s worth pointing out that Mr. Big screams, “I love you Michael…to death!” during the game. Oh, and one more thing: when you finally defeat the game, Michael transforms into a spaceship and flies away.
As strange as the game is, it’s also weirdly addictive. Nearly a decade after his death, Jackson remains one of the most enigmatic and polarizing characters in music history, and Moonwalker is an appropriately bizarre monument to that legacy.