“Thanks for coming along with us, Uncle.”
It was a rainy Sunday afternoon, and Stacy was visiting her Uncle Zhao. His family was out on their weekly shopping routine at the mall, and they decided to make a stop at the arcade.
“You kids,” mumbled Uncle, as grumpy as ever. “Can’t you play these games on your phone?”
“It’s about the experience, Dad!” cried out Ian. He and Stacy were huddled around the Pac-Man machine, excitedly watching his brother Nick maneuver through the maze.
“Just don’t spend too much time here,” he grunted impatiently. “We still got a lot of stuff to pick up today.”
Ian and Stacy were still glued to the screen behind Nick. The board was nearly clear, but the ghosts were rapidly closing in on Pac-Man.
“Aw man,” moaned Nick just as he lost his last life. “So close. We could have finally seen the third cutscene today.”
“You tried your best,” reassured Stacy.
“There’s always next time,” Ian added with a smile. “Say, Stacy, have you ever seen anyone get that far?”
“Um…maybe Uncle or one of his buddies?” Stacy replied.
The three of them turned towards Uncle, staring inquisitively.
“You think I’d remember something like that?” Uncle snapped. “That would have been a long time ago.”
Suddenly, Stacy turned her head elsewhere, to the sound of stomping feet and Europop music.
“Hey, they’ve got DDR in here!” she exclaimed. “Let’s do that next!”
“Oh heck no,” Nick responded. “I can’t dance to save my life.”
“And I don’t play games to burn off calories,” Ian added.
Stacy shrugged. “Suit yourself,” she said as she walked off to the Dance Dance Revolution machine.
Stacy stomped to the closing beats of a peppy J-pop song, and the screen revealed an A grade. In front of her family, she took a bow.
“And that is how it’s done!” she boasted.
Nick and Ian clapped in amazement, but Uncle was not impressed.
“Were you trying to break the board?” he complained. “You need to be light. Graceful. You may have passed the lower level, but you’ll never keep up with the faster beats this way!”
Stacy nervously giggled. “It’s not for a trophy or anything. I know I still need a lot more practice.”
She turned to the screen, noticing a recurring name in the high score table.
“LUNE,” she muttered. “That name again. Someone seems really dedicated….”
Stacy walked up to the counter, an itching question on her mind.
“Excuse me,” she asked the clerk. “Who’s the player that’s been getting all the high scores on DDR?”
“Beats me,” he responded. “I guess someone who just really likes the game. Or a cheater. You never know.”
“It’s probably just some nerd with too much free time on his hands,” Nick told her.
“What makes you so sure the player is a ‘he’?” Stacy retorted.
“It’s more likely, isn’t it?” he responded. “Girls aren’t as dedicated to these games.”
“Says who?” Stacy snapped. “Don’t you remember Lydia?”
“Oh, that girl with the pink hair from the Smash Bros tournament? Yeah, she’s pretty good, but she was one out, what, three girls there including you?”
Nick notices Stacy continuing to glare at him.
“Hey, it’s nothing personal,” he responded nervously. “I’m not saying girls can’t be good at games. I know there are a lot of great girl gamers out there. It’s just that the probability is in favour of this LUNE fellow being a guy.”
“I suppose,” Stacy sighed, disappointed. “Part of me just wishes she was a girl, that’s all. But boy or girl, I’d like to meet this master DDR player. See how the game’s really played. And maybe…even challenge him.”
“In your dreams,” Ian taunted. “You wouldn’t last a second.”
“I know,” Stacy smiled. “But it’s not about winning or losing. It’s about standing in the shadow of greatness. About seeing someone who can take the game to its fullest potential! And maybe, just maybe, I can learn his secrets to becoming a DDR master myself by following his footsteps!”
Nick and Ian silently stared at her. Their cousin had a penchant for saying cheesy things like that, but they sort of admired her optimism. Uncle, however, was less convinced.
“You can dream about being a dancing queen all you want,” Uncle replied drearily. “but your other work comes first. You want to be a programmer? Yes? Then you need discipline. And if you want to learn rhythm, you have the piano to do so!”
“I know, Uncle,” Stacy giggled, while her uncle frowned at her sternly. “I’m just having fun, that’s all.”
The Games for Everyone club was meeting after school in the library. As they had just finished putting up the posters advertising the art show, they decided to relax for a while. Tori was playing her DS in the corner.
“I still don’t get it,” Oliver told Stacy. “Why the Farmer’s Market? Why couldn’t we just sell stuff in the school commons area?”
“It’s not just about food, you know,” answered Stacy. “Lots of people sell artwork there. And there aren’t many vendors doing manga art in this town, so we’ve got a lot of potential customers right there. A lot more than we’ll be getting if we only sell to other students.”
“If you say so,” replied Oliver, still skeptical. “I still think most people are coming for the food, but we’ll try just this once. Anyway, how was the arcade?”
“Awesome,” Stacy beamed.
“I’m so jealous. Boss had me working all weekend. And my mom doesn’t want me spending too much.”
“Sorry about work, but I can pay for you,” Stacy offered. “Tori too. Next Sunday, you should both be free, right?”
“I sure hope so,” Oliver replied, uncertain. “I hate not having a set schedule.”
Tori looked up.
“I don’t know,” she answered. “My mother’s always worried about me staying out too late.”
“Aw, c’mon Tori,” Stacy responded in disbelief. “It’s just for the afternoon. It’s not like we’re going to a nightclub.”
“Yeah, well, I’ll see what she says,” Tori replied before returning to her game, seemingly uninterested in the idea of going the arcade.
“Anyway, you got to try out DDR?” Oliver asked.
“Sure did,” Stacy grinned. “A-rank on my first try!”
Oliver was clearly not buying her claim. “On Easy, right?”
“Normal,” corrected Stacy.
Oliver shrugged. “I guess that’s better than what I could do. Still not saying much, though.”
“I know. Just let me have my moment, okay?”
She then smiled mischievously. “But there’s something else I’m interested in. Get this. There’s this player that calls himself LUNE. He’s dominated the leaderboard for almost every song, even on the highest difficulties, and no one has even come close to reaching his scores. I don’t know if they’re legit or not, but if they are, I would like to find out just who he is. Got any ideas?”
Oliver drew a blank. “No clue. Perhaps someone in the Gamer Club?”
“Hmm…maybe Ren knows something about this guy. I guess we ought to pay our rivals a visit tomorrow.”
“Um…okay,” Oliver agreed reluctantly. “I guess I’m sort of curious, too.”
At that moment, Tori sighed in disappointment.
“Oh, how am I supposed to beat this thing?”
Stacy walked over to her. “I remember this boss!” she beamed, pleasantly surprised by the game she was playing. “Here, let me walk you through it….”
At noon the next day, Stacy and Oliver walked over to the Gamer Club office. Oliver nervously knocked at the door, expecting Lucas to come out, but luckily, it was just Ren.
“Oh hi, guys,” Ren greeted. “How’s your club going?”
“Hey Ren,” Oliver answered. “We haven’t got anyone new recently, but Tori’s done great work with the posters.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen those. Lucas thinks they’re stupid, but I think they’re pretty.”
“Say, Ren,” Stacy started inquiring. “How many people in the club play DDR?”
“A few,” Ren responded. “Why?”
“We’re looking for some fellow who’s been getting all the high scores at the arcade. He posts his scores under the alias LUNE. Do you know him?”
“Hmm…haven’t been paying that much attention, but I don’t know anyone in the club that could place on the leaderboard…”
Just then, Lucas arrived.
“Oh, it’s you losers again,” he smirked, facing Oliver’s direction. “What loony idea did your girlfriend come up with this time?”
Stacy did her best to conceal her annoyance and put on a smile.
“Hey Lucas,” she began. “We were just wondering, do you know anything about the top DDR player at the arcade?”
Lucas scoffed. “Me, know anything about that girly game? You must be kidding me.”
“Girly?” Stacy replied sardonically. “That’s an interesting way of saying you suck at it.”
“I don’t suck,” snapped an annoyed Lucas. “I could easily beat you any day. I’d rather spend my time on real games, that’s all.”
“Whatever,” Stacy shrugged. “You’ll always be a DDR loser, then.”
As Lucas glared, preparing to snap back, Ren interrupted.
“Okay guys, settle down,” he mediated. “Lucas, everyone’s waiting for us. Let’s go.”
Ren whispered a final “Bye, guys” to Oliver as they walked into the room. Stacy turned to Oliver.
“Men,” she mumbled.
“Hey!” Oliver retorted indignantly.
“Not you, Olly, you’re fine,” she reassured him. “But I don’t get it. What’s his problem? We girls do guy things all the time.”
“Beats me,” Oliver responded. “But anyway, we now know he’s not a part of the Gamer Club.”
“Then I guess there’s only one way to find out. We’ll have to hang out at the arcade and spot him ourselves.”
“Well, you’re on your own there. I’d like to come, but, you know, work and other stuff.”
Just then, the school bell rang as the two of them walked briskly to get to class.
“Don’t worry, Oliver,” whispered Stacy. “This part, I can take care of myself. But I’ll let you in on it once I find out.”
For the rest of the week, Stacy went to the arcade right after school, watching the DDR machine closely while trying to act inconspicuous by bringing homework or playing other games. Most of the dancers she observed only showed up for a few rounds on the lower difficulties. Occasionally, she would catch a glimpse of players picking higher difficulty levels or sticking around longer, eagerly awaiting their performance, but she was always disappointed as they failed to place on the high score tables. Unfortunately for her, she couldn’t stay long, as she knew she’d never hear the end of it if she wasn’t home when her dad got back from work.
Days passed fruitlessly. But she was persistent. On Friday night, she lay in her bed planning out how to see him. Perhaps he just doesn’t come in the afternoon, she thought. She should try going there at a different time of day.
That Saturday morning, Stacy got out of bed early. Quickly rushing to the kitchen dressed in her usual grey shirt and blue jeans, she prepared herself a quick glass of milk. Suddenly, her dad arrived.
“You’re up awful early,” he remarked. “Can’t believe you got up by yourself for once.”
Stacy stood nervously for a few seconds, before thinking up an excuse.
“Uh…yeah…” she stammered. “It’s…for an important school project. Yeah, my group expects me to show up to the park bright and early.”
Dad looked at her for a few seconds.
“Project, eh?” he repeated, with suspicion. “What top-secret project are you keeping from me?”
She paused, anxiously thinking up a response. “It’s about…birds! A lot of birds only show up at this time of day, and this is our only chance to observe their behaviour!”
Dad paused for a while, thinking it over.
“Well, scram,” he said sternly, gesturing to the door. “I don’t know anything about birds, but it sounds awful important. Don’t stay out too late!”
“Thanks, Dad!” she exclaimed as she dashed off. She thought to herself, ‘Phew, it’s a good thing Dad barely ever checks my schoolwork.’
She finally arrived at the arcade, soon after the place opened. She was surprised to see how empty it was, as she had never gone there at this time. But, she thought, perhaps the master DDR player is a loner. She imagined what he might look like; in her head, she saw a tall, dark, and mysterious boy hitting the arrows with perfect clockwork precision. Sighing longingly, she snuck over to the DDR machine, and immediately, she did spot a figure clad in black, skillfully matching feet to a shower of arrows to the beat of a cheerful J-pop song. But it wasn’t who she expected.
“Tori?” she muttered incredulously.
She had never seen anything like it. Almost effortlessly, Tori’s feet rapidly glided along the pads, with all but a few steps being near-perfectly timed with the music. She moved as Uncle had described: light and graceful. Finally, the machine congratulated her on her high score, as Stacy quietly clapped in excitement, and prompted her to enter her name. She began to scroll for the letters to LUNE.
“A-ha!” Stacy yelled.
“Who’s there?” Tori cried out nervously. She turned around. “Stacy? What are you doing here?”
“I was wondering the same thing!” Stacy exclaimed.
Tori paused to catch her breath. She was not expecting anyone else to be at the DDR machine at this time, let alone someone noticing her playing, but she was relieved it was just Stacy.
“I come here every week while out shopping,” she explained. She sighed dreamily. “I love music games. When I become one with the melody, I don’t think of anything else. All my troubles seem to disappear like magic. But the people who come here make me nervous, so I try to get here when no one else is around and use a different name so that no one knows it’s me. Promise you won’t tell anyone!”
Stacy was still reeling in amazement at her skills. “I can’t believe you said you weren’t good at games. You totally owned that stage!”
“But I thought music games didn’t count!”
“Who said that? Of course they do! You’re really talented. Not everyone can get high scores like that, let alone on nearly every song.”
“Really? Thanks, Stacy!” Tori blushed, then her expression became nervous. “Again, promise you won’t tell anyone I’m here?”
Stacy shook her head and looked downward.
“Sorry, Tori. I can’t do that. For a whole week now, I’ve been searching for this legendary DDR player. And now she’s standing right in front of me. Now that I know who she really is…”
Her head snapped up. “I challenge you to a duel! Right here, tomorrow afternoon!”
Tori was shocked at her friend’s sudden aggressive attitude. “But…I’ve never played in public before!”
“What’s the matter, Tori,” Stacy taunted. “Scared?”
Stacy’s expression sunk, disappointed by her lack of competitive spirit. “Oh, c’mon Tori,” she pleaded. “Just one round?”
Tori was confused at Stacy’s sudden mood swing. “Could you at least…ask nicely?” she requested.
“Okay,” Stacy agreed, realizing how inappropriate her trash talk was for someone as shy as Tori. “Could you please play a round of DDR with me tomorrow afternoon? I’ve always wanted to see the game at its maximum potential, and I’d like to see just how I measure up. I know you’re nervous about playing in front of people, but trust me, it’ll be okay. All of our friends will be there to cheer you on. And the crowd will love it!”
“Well,” Tori paused for a while, dreading the prospect of playing in front of the arcade audience. “I guess if you really want to…but just one round, okay?”
“Sure thing, Tori,” Stacy responded, excited at the prospect of playing against the best DDR player in town. “2:00 pm tomorrow work for you?”
“Awesome! See you then!”
As Stacy exited the room, Tori sighed, returning to her DDR game. ‘I don’t understand her sometimes,’ she thought.
Word spread rapidly of the mysterious DDR player finally showing up. The arcade was packed at peak hours the next day as Stacy arrived with her friends and relatives, dressed in a tank top and sweatpants as if she was heading for the gym.
“Okay, make it quick,” Uncle demanded.
“But Dad, aren’t you excited for this?” inquired Nick.
“He is,” Aunt Zhao interjected, turning to Uncle. “You know you can’t resist a good game.”
Uncle stared at his wife, doing his best to restrain himself from smiling.
“So Ren,” Oliver whispered on another side of the crowd. “Stacy’s been telling me it’s Tori.”
“What?” Ren exclaimed incredulously as Oliver gestured at him to stay quiet. “But she doesn’t look like…I never expected…I don’t believe it! No offense, but she seems so…shy and awkward.”
“Well, we’ll have to see for ourselves when she comes in. Any time now….”
At the DDR stage, Stacy tapped her feet impatiently. Come on Tori, she thought. It’s been 5 minutes. What’s taking you so long?
“Hey Ren,” one of his Gamer Club buddies called out. “What makes you so sure Stacy isn’t just full of hot air again?”
“Wait another 5 minutes,” Ren retorted. “If the mystery gamer doesn’t show up…whoa!”
Tori stumbled past the door into the arcade, dressed in a bright red dress with white leggings. Her hair was done in braided pigtails, decorated with a matching red band featuring a cherry blossom on its side, and on her feet were ruby red dancing heels. Her glasses were conspicuously absent, with her long black eyelashes on full display.
“Sorry I’m late,” she apologized. “It took me a while to get ready.”
Stacy was speechless, astonished at how much preparation she put in just to play a game of DDR.
“You…probably should put your glasses back on,” she suggested.
Tori, relieved, pulled her glasses from her pocket and put them on as she joined Stacy on the stage.
“You look good,” Stacy complimented under her breath.
Her face turned more competitive. “Ready, Tori?”
“Not really,” she replied nervously, trying to avoid the staring eyes of the crowd.
Stacy was disappointed in this response. “You’re the top DDR player,” she whispered. “You should be a lot more confident than that.”
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.
Stacy frowned. “We went over this. You’re not supposed to apologize…”
“Fellow geeks,” Oliver suddenly yelled out through a microphone. “The mysterious DDR player you’ve all been waiting for has finally arrived, and it’s time for some action! I, Oliver, will be your host for today.”
The crowd merely stared at him disapprovingly, whispering amongst themselves.
“On the left, we have our challenger, the lovely, Stacy. And on the right, we have the defending champion, the even more lovely, Tori!”
“Oliver…” Stacy muttered disapprovingly to him.
“Well it’s true,” he whispered back defensively. “I mean, look at your outfit, then look at hers.”
Stacy merely turned back towards the screen, unable to come up with a response.
“These girls have gathered for an epic battle of speed and precision,” Oliver continued. “A chance to show off their musicality and footwork…”
“Get on with it!” a crowd member jeered.
“Okay, fine,” Oliver muttered. “Stacy, Tori, do your thing.”
“Alright,” Stacy began haughtily. “I’ll let you pick the first song.”
Tori said nothing, her eyes inattentive to the people around her as she scrolled to I Love You, the opening theme of Full Moon o Sagashite, on Expert difficulty.
“Oh, crap….” Stacy’s eyes widened in dread as the song started up and the crowd cheered.
Tori stumbled a bit on the first few arrows, shaken by the roar of the crowd, but after a few seconds, she found her footing and entered some sort of trance. She looked as if she was suspended in a void as her feet glided across the pads in near-unison with the melody. Meanwhile, Stacy was frantically trying to follow the arrows. Left, right, up, down, no, left and right! Clumsily, she stomped on the pads while missing most of the beats, becoming increasingly exhausted.
The song finally ended, and those two minutes felt like the longest in Stacy’s life.
“Not even close!” Oliver announced. “The winner is…Tori!”
Finally snapping out of her trance, Tori was astonished to hear the crowd applauding and cheering for her. Even Uncle almost managed to crack a smile as he applauded her victory. She turned to Stacy, who was panting heavily.
“You okay, Stacy?” she asked.
Stacy turned to her with a big smile on her face. “That was fun, Tori! You were great up there!”
Tori was taken aback at her sudden cheerfulness.
“I know you were reluctant to play in public,” she explained. “But see? There’s no need to worry! You played just as well as you did yesterday, and everyone’s happy for you!” She extended her arm. “Good game, Tori.”
Tori paused before grasping her arm for a congratulatory handshake. She smiled.
“Thanks for playing with me, Stacy! We should do another game some time.”
“Sure thing! But next time, could we play on an easier difficulty?”
Tori giggled. “Sure. It doesn’t have to be a workout, you know.”
Stacy left the stage as Tori turned to face the crowd, who was clamouring for an encore. Emboldened by their support, she turned around to select the next song, this time with her playing solo.
That night, Stacy was in her room gazing at the moon. She stared for a while, fondly reminiscing over the DDR game with Tori. Then she took out her PSP and put in her copy of Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy.
“You may be the best now, Tori, but I’ll beat you someday. Just you wait!”