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By Jeremy Mathews | January 31, 2007

2007 SUNDANCE DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION FEATURE! There was a time when people played videogames in arcades more than in their homes, and without the Internet, gamers couldn’t go online to trade tips with like-minded geeks around the world. “Chasing Ghosts” tells the story of the best gamers from that period and the man who kept track of them.

Lincoln Ruchti’s documentary looks back with nostalgia and humor on the life of Walter Day, who started the Twin Galaxies International Scoreboard in 1981 when he discovered that no one was keeping track of the high scores of games like “Beserk,” “Donkey Kong,” “Frogger” and “Pac Man.” Day started keeping track of them himself, and his small town of Ottumwa, Iowa soon declared itself the videogame capital of the world.

The film centers around the reunion of the subjects of a famous photo taken in 1982 for Life Magazine featuring the stars of videogaming. At the pinacle of the gaming scene’s hype, there was talk of professional careers for the best players, and the kids in the picture had all the hope in the world. They had gone from nerds who couldn’t catch a ball to hyper-coordinated superstars.

A couple decades later, Ruchti’s camera finds that most of the men have settled into more normal lives, but still fondly remember their time as masters of the joystick. A few people, however, still devote their lives for the game. The biggest—in his own mind, anyway—participant is Billy Mitchell, the mullet-sporting, self-proclaimed most famous gamer alive. Mitchell’s most remarkable accomplishment may be the perfect game of “Pac Man,” during which he ate every blue ghost and every piece of fruit.

Ruchti and editor Eddie Brega let the various subjects tell their own stories, cohesively sequencing the interviews into a compelling and easy-to-follow structure without voice-over. The stories are amusing and sometimes surprising as the documentary touches on issues like cheating and controversy over exploiting flaws in the game design versus playing by the original rules. The film’s main flaw is that it sometimes focuses on too many people when it would be more effective to focus on a few key stories.

Videogames have evolved dramatically since their invention in the late 1960s and rise to popularity in the early ’80s. And while the graphics were rudimentary and the concepts simplistic, the games were easy to learn and fun. Ruchti models some of the games with 3-D animation to explain their simple and, in the case of games like “Beserk,” silly objectives. “Chasing Ghosts” reminds us of the time when the basics were plenty fun and the kings of the arcade could rule for several hours (or days) on one quarter.

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