A knight rides a flying ostrich. His lance is sharp and true. But he's outnumbered. A half-dozen men swoop after him astride their own devouring buzzards. The knight feints left, then spurs his ostrich to flap its wings and fly him to safety on a lean island of rock suspended in the air. A buzzard dives after him. At the last possible instant, the knight turns and thrusts his weapon through the buzzard's rider. His victims freeze, dissolving into cubes of computer data.
With Steve Sanders at the controls, this could go on for hours. He knows exactly where his enemies are programmed to go. He knows how to make the buzzards commit suicide. Over more than two decades, he has squeezed the secrets out of Joust.
"There's a way to get all these guys to kill themselves if you line it up right. I just can't seem to get it right now," he says. It's a mid-December morning. Sanders has left his law firm to demonstrate his video-game prowess for a Pitch reporter.
In the first minutes of play, most classic arcade games establish at least the hint of a plot. In Donkey Kong, an ape has stolen your woman. In Missile Command, the country is under attack, and you're the only one who can save the cities. Joust is more arcane. You never really understand what you're after or why you need to kill the knights. Sanders doesn't even know if the enemies have names.
"Watch this," he says. He pivots his left foot and spins away from the console, his back now to the screen and his hand still on the joystick. He jerks the stick toward himself. He smiles when he hears the death rattle of the knight he just impaled.
Sanders spins back. He wants to do another trick. He covers his eyes with one hand and stands motionless. Onscreen, a buzzard hops toward his man. He nudges the stick. This one dies, too.
"I memorized the number of hops it takes. You hear it 14 times," he explains. Sanders knows that Joust is a game of self-control: It throws out wave after wave of enemies, and your inclination is to play faster. Smart gamers slow down and make their enemies come to them on their own terms.
Apart from these moments, there's nothing particularly flamboyant about Steve Sanders. He's a 45-year-old civil lawyer. In his office near Kansas City International Airport, a trophy case holds the Guinness World Records 2007, listing him as a world record holder for Joust in doubles. (He has remained unbeaten since scoring 600,750 points with a fellow gamer named Donald Hayes in June 2006.) There is also the book he published when he was a teenager and a DVD of The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters — a documentary, in which he appears, about his best friend's battle to retain the world's highest Donkey Kong score. Other than that, there are few clues that he's the type of man to keep a $2,000 arcade-game simulator in his master bedroom. He and his wife have four children and have talked of adopting a fifth. He's clean-shaven and tall, with good posture and a thickness that he carries well. He smiles easily.
What's not obvious is that Steve Sanders is a pioneer.
Sanders' bid at a unique sort of national fame began in 1982, when he was 18. Arcades were at their frenzied peak of popularity. Sanders seemed to have a preternatural understanding of the twirling geometric shapes, lasers and poorly animated beasts that made up the games now referred to as classics: Donkey Kong, Centipede, Pac-Man and Joust, among others. Sanders was so good that he got a publishing deal with Bantam for The Video Masters Guide to Donkey Kong, which advised readers on the best way to maneuver the plumber Mario through barrels, fireballs and ladders to nowhere, until they rescued the princess. The book is now a collector's item; a used copy on Amazon is listed for $199 at the time of this writing.