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The Disappearing Asteroids Ace  
Our columnist revisits the story of Scott Safran, a video game master who went missing  
   

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    April 22 —  Almost twenty years ago, on Nov. 13, 1982, a 15-year-old named Scott Safran slid a quarter into an “Asteroids” machine at the All-American Billiard arcade in Newtown, PA., and proceeded to make history.  

     
     
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  FOR THE NEXT 60 hours, Safran stood at the game, zapping alien ships, pulverizing asteroids and sparingly using his “Hyperspace” button en route to ringing up a new world record score: 41,336,440.
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        To put that score in perspective, imagine Barry Bonds hitting 90 home runs this season, breaking his own record by 17. Imagine Takeru Kobayashi eating 75 hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes on July 4 in the Nathan’s contest in Coney Island, besting his prior mark by 25. Imagine Stephen King publishing 10 books this year, instead of just the usual five.
        “Everyone always talks about records that will never be broken, well this is the one that really won’t,” said Walter Day, official scorekeeper of the video and arcade game world and the founder of http://www.twingalaxies.com.
        From almost the very moment that Safran’s historic Asteroids game ended more than two days after it began, Day searched for Safran in hopes of honoring him and his achievement. Safran, however, disappeared into the ether after his phenomenal feat and was essentially never heard from again.
        Over the years, Day would get leads about Safran’s whereabouts, but they’d never pan out. The trail of the pinball wizard with the supple wrist had gone cold. Sixteen years later, when Asteroids was re-released in 1998, Day made yet another effort to track down Safran. Even with the help of the Web, he still could not find him. Newspapers ran stories. Radio stations tried to locate Safran. Arcade fanatics cranked out e-mails. “Wanted” posters were hung in video game parlors nationwide, offering a $1,000 reward. But there was no sign of the champion.
        Finally, earlier this year, Day got a call that officially ended the search: Scott Safran, the greatest Asteroids player the world has ever known, has been dead since March, 1989, when he fell from his roof trying to save his cat, Samson.
        “I must say, I was crushed,” Day said. “Here I was thinking that we’d be able to have a great ceremony with him smiling and accepting all the accolades that he so richly deserved. And then I find out that he’s no longer with us.”
        Day found out more bad news: Safran’s parents, Mitch and Frann, had also died two years ago and never understood the magnitude of their son’s achievement.
        “His Asteroids record was a thing of the distant past that most of his surviving family members had completely forgotten about,” said Marci Billow, Scott’s younger sister, who was there that day in 1982 and still cherishes a picture of Frann Safran handing her son the quarter that allowed him to make history (a different photo of Safran is at http://www.twingalaxies.com/cgi-perl/breaking_news.pl).
        History—at least video game history—is Walter Day’s life. For two decades, Day has chronicled, verified and recognized top scores on arcade machines all over the world. (Day also administers drug tests; nothing stronger than caffeine is allowed, even though top players must stay awake for days.)
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        Day’s mission requires more than just reading through e-mails from excited players who are convinced their 15-hour run on Joust will earn them a place in the history books.
        “Every day I get an e-mail from someone who thinks he has a top score,” said Day, based in Fairfield, Iowa, a town that is to video games what Indianapolis is to driving.
        “They send me e-mails and I write back, ‘Oh, yeah? Send me the tape,’” Day said.
        Tape? I guess I don’t get out much anymore, but apparently top arcade players now actually videotape themselves playing so they’ll have documentation in the event that history comes a-callin’.
        “There was a guy who kept telling us that he was going to break the Wizard of Wor record and we kept telling him to tape himself,” Day said. “Sure enough, he put his camcorder on a tripod and taped every game. Finally, he breaks the record and sends us the tape. It all checked out.”
        Any skepticism of Day’s commitment to video game veracity should sit and watch tapes with this man. Watching paint dry is a Hollywood blockbuster compared to that.
        But not for Day. “I actually enjoy it,” he said. “You’re watching the best players in the world do what they do best. It’s terribly exciting. But it’s a lot of work. And I do it without pay because it’s so much fun. Plus, I get to wear a referee uniform.”
        This Saturday in Philadelphia, Day will don the black-and-white stripes again to officiate at Philly Classic 3, the East Coast’s biggest video game event. Also on the program, Day will finally present Safran’s achievement award to the late, great Asteroid whiz’s cousin and aunt.
        For people in the video game world, it’s going to be Peter Finch’s posthumous Oscar, John Kennedy Toole’s post-death Pulitzer and Aaliyah’s post-crash R&B Grammy all rolled into one.
       

Gersh Kuntzman is also a columnist for The New York Post. His Web site is at http://www.gersh.tv
       © 2002 Newsweek, Inc.
       
       
   
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