There was always something very peculiar about that vending machine to me.
There were vending machines all over this city, but nothing like this thing, and it had always occurred to me that it was odd, but I had never looked beyond that. It was the single vending machine in an alley between an apartment complex and some undefined Warehouse, and I must have passed it by almost every day. But I never further investigated, until a friend of mine pulled me into doing so.
That friend’s name was Thomas Merrill, who was, like me, a college student, but a single year younger than me, a sophomore. He had never really seemed to completely grow out of the “Class Clown” moniker that he likely had in high school. He still made inappropriate and terrible jokes and walked around with a grin far too large for his mouth. You’d think that he’d be the type of guy you’d want to punch in the face, with his punky blond hair and rail thin body, right? Well, with his immaturity, he brought a certain… fun energy with him. I don’t know how to explain what drew me to him, or vice versa, but he had a natural charm about him that made you want to hang around him.
Still, that day, it seemed he had something he wanted to show me, a secret he wanted to share, so he grabbed my arm from the cafeteria and pulled me to the machine without a word.
The machine was odd because of how it was built; it looked like it was a combination of various parts from other drink and arcade machines. Parts seemed to come from a crane game, though instead of being a game of challenge, all of the “prizes” were put into a straight row. It was a drink machine, because it was a crane game that was filled with several cans of soda and a few brands of beer. Finally, it also seemed to have the interface of an arcade game, with perhaps the interface of an old-school space game or a really simple fighter.
I looked over at Thomas, brushing my brown hair out of my eyes, dumbfounded as his overlarge smile remained.
“Why the hell did you bring me here?” I asked.
“There’s something secret about this arcade machine I want to show you,” he said, grabbing a pair of quarters out of his pocket and tossing them at me.
“Do the Konami Code. But instead of ‘Start’ just insert the coins.”
I raised my eyebrow, but either way, nodded and inputted the code, muttering it as I executed it.
“Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A, and…”
I reached under the drink machine and inserted the coins.
The hums of machinery were heard as the ground vibrated beneath us. I jumped back, landing my ass on the pavement in surprise as Thomas grabbed my hand and picked me up.
“Welcome, Neil, to the coolest place on Earth.”
The machine automatically moved out of the way, revealing an entrance to an elevator. Dazed, both Thomas and I stepped into it, and we began moving.
It took a couple minutes for us to finally reach the floor we were going, lowering down into the ground as I stood, quiet and confused, not wanting to speak a word as Thomas couldn’t seem to hold back his excitement.
And, in a way, I was sort of excited, though I didn’t know that this was the first step into a scary, amazing new world at the time, I’d soon find out.
This wasn’t something I had ever seen before. Well, I mean, I had, but nothing like this. Arcades were always something I enjoyed, but this was some strange kind of fusion of arcade and underground club. Pun not intended.
The room was huge, dense with roughly a hundred of people, and the walls covered in video game graffiti and eight bit art. Games ranged from ancient to brand-new, as they also covered the walls, surrounding a lounge-like area, where people with PCs and handheld game systems hung around and played their own games.
The audience of this place ranged from high school nerds to twenty-something punks to thirty year old salarymen. Clearly, men who weren’t interested in playing video games were dispersed within the crowd, wearing suits and sunglasses, leering over the players as if they could do wrong at any moment.
The aesthetic of the place was unique, and there were certainly larger arcades, even in this city, but there was simply something strange going on here, something that drew you in… but also intimidated you.
The spirit of competition filled the room, as battle cries, yells, the sound of button mashing and the vigorous movement of joysticks filled my ears along with chiptune music.
Finally, there was a single, gigantic neon sign leering over everyone. Two simple words.
“Bonus Round,” I said to myself, as Thomas nodded and smiled.
“Coolest place in the world, right?” he asked.
“Yeah, but I’m kind of broke, not sure if I can-”
“Not a problem at all,” he said, with a smirk, as he dragged my hand somewhere yet again.
We went through the gigantic crowd, pushing and rubbing against everyone as Thomas found his target, stopping for a moment in front of a fifty year old Japanese man in a suit.
“Mr. Sakagawa, I have a first-timer here.”
The old man smiled, shaking hands with Thomas vigorously, as he then came over to me, grabbing my hand yet again and shaking it. Mr. Sakagawa was odd in this place; he felt like a cool grandfather, familiar and willing to give you cash behind your parent’s back. He was warm, in this strangely cold, intimidating atmosphere.
“It’s nice to see you again, Mr. Ona, and who is this young man?”
“Oh, I’m Neil Ellison,” I said, hesitantly, though politely.
“Well, Mr. Ellison,” he said with a partially toothless grin. “It’s fantastic to meet you, and you came just in time. We’re about to start this week’s Fighter R2 Rounds in about twenty minutes. You should have enough time to register your data into our R-Base system. Here’s your key to go to the competition floor, and what you’ll be using to hold your R-Base data.”
He handed me a USB Drive with a blank LCD display, as I took it hesitantly, wondering when he’d explain when he was going to explain what he just said.
“Good luck in your first fight, I hope you prove to be a promising fighter.”
The old man bowed, as I reached forward, completely confused as to what he had just said. “Wai-”
Thomas grabbed my wrist, and I stopped what I was saying as Mr. Ona disappeared into the crowd.
“I’ll explain. Here, let’s come to this machine.”
The machine wasn’t like the others, though still an arcade cabinet, it was more like a keyboard and PC, with a USB port just below the screen.
Thomas grabbed my USB stick and put it into the port, as the blank screen burst to life, with a single word on it.
After a moment of waiting, the scan was complete, as my name, age, and various other information read out onto the screen.
Finally, I was given a series of completely random questions, which I answered, and finally, the registration was complete.
“So, what’s all this about?” I asked, as I looked at my USB drive with curiosity, noticing my full name on the previously blank LCD screen.
“Basically, this is your R-Base system data, the information you’ll be using for the R2 Round today.”
“What’s the R2 Round,” I asked, sheepishly as we shifted through the crowds yet again.
“Basically, it’s the main attraction of the Bonus Round arcade. It’s a high stakes competition that’s held four times a week, each with a different genre; Shooter, Adventure, Fighter, and Wild Card.”
“It’s a secret game chosen by the people running the arcade.”
“I see,” I said, continuing to walk alongside Thomas. “How the hell did you find this place, anyway?”
“Friend told me about it, wanted to check it out. Turns out the R2 Rounds are the only competitions of their kinds, so Pro gamers tend to flock to it.”
“I’m pretty sure there are other gaming competitions…”
“Not like R2. For one, the games are entirely unique, and can only be played in this building, unless you’re high enough on the food chain where the Officiators will offer you a version of the game to bring home with you. For two, the games are bet upon by people over the internet, and for three, there’s a high risk and reward with every round.”
“Risk and reward? How so?”
Thomas gave me a smile like I hadn’t seen before, something dark and ominous, something strange.
“You’ll find out soon enough. Your round’s starting soon, I’ll be down here, cheering you on.”
Thomas took my key, putting it into a slot for it, and then throwing me into the elevator we had only just advanced to, throwing the thumb drive in there with me.
He waved, with that similar, unfamiliar smile.
I was brought up to a strange kind of arena, a circular room with a glass wall dividing the room in half, as I walked to my station; a good old fashioned single joystick, six button layout on a black steel table in front of me, and a gigantic LCD screen in front of it.
An announcer’s voice echoed through the sterile, blue in steel room as I saw my opponent enter on his own side of the thick glass wall, going to his control station with a stern look on his face. He looked to be a few years older than me, though was certainly… intense. His muscles were huge, his head was shaved, and a vein pulsed from his forehead.
A loud voice echoed throughout the room as I saw several plasma screens turn on around us, in a gigantic circle, showing off a crowd from the arcade under us, cheering and a variety of avatars with names attached to them, perhaps those who were betting on the game?
Before I could put the pieces together, an announcer’s voice echoed throughout the room.
“Gentlemen, please insert your R-Base Driver.”
So that’s what they’re calling it, I thought, as I did as I was told, putting my USB stick into the correct port at my station.
The screen changed, glowing to life with a loading bar and the words Generating Character.
After a few moments, a man appeared with a bug-eyed mask, a readied stance and a simple white, green and red color scheme. It looked curiously like a knock-off of a childhood hero, a superhero, which immediately creeped me out. How much data did they gather on me for the Driver? What kind of information did they get? Did they have my terrible Deviantart scribblings and my Kamen Rider fan fiction?
My thoughts were yet again disrupted by the announcer.
“In this corner, we have a man who’s been on a seemingly never ending streak! Kicking ass after ass and not knowing the meaning of a loss! You know him, you love him, the almighty Strongman Bull!”
Heavy metal music played as the man let out a roar, voices from the crowd cheering him on loudly.
“And in this corner, we have a brand spankin’ new competitor! Perhaps just another kid after glory, or perhaps a man with the potential for greatness! I proudly present to you, the Rookie Hero, Blazing Impact!”
I got an earful of boos from the crowd, as I groaned. I was the underdog, of course; I didn’t have a chance against this guy. The screen displayed both our faces and our records; he had 10 wins to 1 loss, and I had nothing. When the odds are stacked against you, it sucks.
“Okay, fighters! GET READY!”
I panted, putting my hands on the familiar joystick and readying my fingers for combos.
I took a deep breath, exhaling after a good few moments.
My eyes met the screen, blazing with intensity.
No, I wasn’t going to lose.
I was gonna destroy this guy.
The screen finally flared up, as I looked at my opponent’s avatar, a gigantic muscle-bound bull-man with a battle axe, twice the girth of my character and one and a half times the height. However, as my fingers graced the six-button setup and my hand gripped the joystick, I made a realization.
My character was really fucking quick.
Strongman Bull’s initial punches were danced around as Blazing Impact jumped and sidestepped around, as if the wasteland arena they were fighting in were his personal ballet.
I quickly found that by pushing the joystick in, like a button, I could activate a menu of combos. Because I knew that my luck wouldn’t last, and that Strongman Bull would most likely pack a gigantic punch.
And so he did, the gigantic bull punching my hero into a brick wall. Shit.
I began tapping buttons as finally, Blazing Impact made it out of the wall, but it was too late, the fight was over. Strongman Bull charged into my character, making him falling to the ground, defeated.
“AND STRONGMAN BULL DEFEATS BLAZING IMPACT WITH TWO MOVES!”
I had certainly proven myself, hadn’t I? I had certainly proved that I was worthy of this competition, of this fight. No, I wasn’t even worthy of playing any game, let alone the R2 Rou-
Oh, right. Round two, how could I have forgotten?
I focused back into the screen, trying to remember the first combo I had seen on that list, as I heard a voice come from the streamed audience.
“KICK HIS ASS, NEIL!”
Immediately, I activated the combo, my character jumping as I pushed the buttons carefully, and intensely. Blazing Impact’s fist rocketed forward in a blazing hook, making Strongman Bull’s face a mess of Cinders, before I activated a combo, Impact’s hands glowing with an awesome power as it precisely hit various spots on the monster’s body, the monster paralyzed, as after a few seconds, the attack was complete, Strongman Bull standing there for a second, and then dropping to the ground.
“And with an AMAZING combo, Strongman Bull goes out like a light! Let’s take a moment to let the players talk to each other before the final, conclusive battle!”
The crowd screamed with joy, as the communication channels seemed to open, the other man’s face along the circle of LCD panels.
“I let you down easy kid, but no more! Next round, I’m going to destroy you and your prancy faggot character, you hear me?”
The crowd cheered, booing me as he spoke. The vein in his forehead seemed to almost explode as the gravelly voice echoed through the chamber, and quickly, I prepared my argument.
“What is hell this? WWE? Listen, all I’m going to say is that… your mother. That is all.”
Genius. Unfortunately, only a single familiar voice gave me a cheer, as it seemed as if the others were simply shocked by my revolutionary insult ability.
“All right, ladies and gentlemen, let’s begin the final round!”
I smirked, my self-confidence rising after that last round, as I finally felt as if I was beginning to get a feel for my character’s move.
The combination bull-man swung it’s battle axe for it’s first move, however, my reflexes managed to save my character from the blow. I began to prepare a combo, the superhero’s fist beginning to charge with a blue glow, however, I immediately had to change to a defensive stance, changing the second half of the combo to make a gigantic shield out of the Aura, another swing of the axe being countered. However, it seemed as if the Strongman Bull abandoned it’s weaponry, the axe dropping into the ground as it’s fist came forth instead.
The girth of Strongman Bull was it’s greatest strength and it’s greatest weakness. After all, the bigger they are… well, you all know the cliché.
Instead of getting punched by the fist, instead the elegant and ninja-like Blazing Impact stood on it’s furry arm, as, for a moment, there was no screen, there was no joystick, there was no buttons. There was just me and the game.
Me and the character screamed out, another flaming aura appearing around it’s feet, as it ran up the monster’s arm, and at the attempt of the bull punching him, countering the attack, Impact merely dodged it, appearing on the monster’s shoulder. Finally, with a single jump, Impact and I finished our scream, and attack, the blazing feet both shooting down like a rocket into Strongman Bull’s face, pushing him down to the ground as Blazing Impact stood on the beast, victorious.
“WITH A FINAL BLOW, BLAZING IMPACT WINS HIS FIRST FIGHT!”
The crowd cheered, as I panted, sweat going down my brow as finally, I won, grabbing my R-Base Driver and planning on leaving… until I realized what was happening to my opponent.
He was being taken away by a pair of burly men in suits, like the ones down in the regular arcade, and he was struggling as they took both of his arms, his legs dragging against the floor. He let out a scream, a wail I hadn’t heard in my entire life, as everything on his face said fear; especially his eyes, those steel blue eyes I wouldn’t forget for the rest of my life.
“Congratulations, Mr. Ellison.”
My head darted to see who was behind me, and it was Mr. Sagawa… at least, I thought it was. He didn’t seem warm anymore, instead he felt… deceiving. The smile on his face felt like a lie, as he handed me an envelope.
“Here is your prize money, I hope you have a good day. Please, let me show you back to the ground floor.”
Both he and I went back into the elevator, as he pressed the button to go down, and I said farewell to the arena… at least, for now.
“So, what did you think about your first R2 Round?” asked Thomas as he bit into a ketchup-covered fry. We sat in a near-empty fast food place, but I didn’t really feel hungry, despite ordering a meal.
I had lost my appetite after seeing the fear in that man’s eyes, as I simply held the envelope in my hands, not opening it. At least, not yet.
“It was… well, the round itself was great,” I said, as I drowned my french fry in ketchup, as I had been doing for the past ten minutes. “But the aftermath… What did you mean by risk and reward?”
Thomas stopped eating for a moment, wiping away ketchup from his mouth.
“Open the envelope.”
“Just do it.”
I did as he said, as I realized that there was over five thousand dollars in cash there.
“What the hell is that?”
“A small cut of what they got off of you.”
“What do you mean by ‘they’? You were so friendly with Mr. Sakagawa-”
“That’s just how you play the game outside of the rounds. I know that look, it’s the look of a lot of people that come from their first round winning. The second-time losers… well, I’d hate to be them.”
“You get one free loss, and then they start trying to motivate you, the old fashioned way. By punishing you. However, they don’t want any goods that are TOO damaged, so they just start by cutting off your fingers. You get to choose, at first, but then you don’t get that luxury. Eventually, you’ll just… disappear.”
“What the hell are you talking about?! What kind of people are we dealing with?”
“Listen,” said Thomas, looking me in the eye with a complete seriousness I hadn’t ever seen him with. “You can quit, but you can’t tell anyone. They’ll find you, but the reason why I brought you to this place is because the reward is worth the risk. And I’m not just talking about the money, either. You had the thrill, didn’t you? That thrill of competition, that’s unlike anything anywhere else?”
I didn’t want to admit it, but I nodded, hesitantly. That thrill wasn’t like anything I had felt before, with the odds stacked against me, with the crowd cheering and booing.
“Well, it’s much more when there’s something on the line.”
“Right. I understand that.”
Thomas stood up, taking his tray as he looked down at me.
“So, will I see you on Tuesday for the next round?”
I hesitated, but looked up, and nodded.
“You can bet your life on it.”
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