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October is just dawning as Thor Fox and a buddy pile into Fox's tan-gold minivan and head north. They will ultimately put more than five hours of driving behind them, toward more friends and two days of serious hunting.
The weekend of October 1 is laced with gusts of cool wind, swigs of cooler beer and the contentment that comes with watching tons of meat fall to the ground. Fox alone will fell dozens of bucks over Friday and Saturday.
Of course, the breeze ruffles only the dead leaves on a Chicago sidewalk. And the tonnage exists only in a pixilated world, behind the glass of an arcade game's screen. Fox will do all of his shooting with a plastic rifle cocked against his shoulder, a cup of Jack Daniel's and Diet Pepsi close at hand. Still, he'll walk away with $400 in prize money and the satisfaction of knowing that he is the sixteenth best in the world at something.
For Fox, and thousands worldwide, Big Buck Hunter isn't just a bar game. It's an obsession.
Big Buck Hunter has been around in one incarnation or another for the last decade. The basic idea has been the same since developers at a Chicago arcade-game manufacturing company began testing the first prototypes in the spring of 2000. With apologies to Michael Pollan, the game's mantra could well be: Shoot animals. Not cows. Mostly bucks (and some critters).
If the concept is simple, however, the frenzied fan base it has inspired, and the almost cultish subculture that flocks to the 18,000 Big Buck Hunter cabinets around the world, is not. There's a complex amalgam of players and costumes, traditions and superstitions, with the cheap beer and potent mixed drinks served by the game's host bars fueling instant camaraderie. Somehow, this mishmash forges a worldwide bond between virtual hunters — a community.
You won't find Big Buck Hunter and its twin rifles at Dave & Buster's arcades, Chuck E. Cheese's or other traditional midways and arcades. More often, the games lurk in sports bars and hunting stores and in the dark, dusty corners of the dark, dusty strip-mall bars that cling to the border of the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County.
Though the game is most popular in the Midwest, it's still the bar arcade game of choice for most of the rest of the country. It has permeated the Zeitgeist: Ivanka Trump claims to love playing with her friends; Hayley Williams, singer for the chart-topping pop-punk band Paramore, shoulders the plastic rifle as often as she can; Florida Panthers defenseman Dennis Wideman has a machine in his bachelor pad. When Bernie Madoff's chief financial officer's belongings were auctioned off, among them was a Big Buck Hunter cabinet.
Peroxide-haired stars and pop-culture touchstones aside, Big Buck Hunter is part of a much older, now dying, breed. Manufactured by a company called Play Mechanix in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, Buck Hunter used to be just one of a herd of standup arcade cabinets made in the greater Chicago area. Pac-Man, played for a quarter a round, was a hit, the most successful coin-operated game in history, until its popularity was surpassed by the Golden Tee golfing games that took up residence in bars in the mid-'90s. Now, Big Buck, at $4 a round, is the industry's leading game, and it may be the last — and the biggest — of the bucks.
"Chicago was a huge, huge center for coin-operated games back in the day," says George Petro, president of Play Mechanix, "but, boy, I think we're pretty much — besides Golden Tee — the only ones around here. I think a Japanese company has an office around here. Our old company, Williams, only makes slot machines now."
Less than a decade ago, Chicago alone was home to four different pinball-machine manufacturers. Today, Stern Pinball is the only one left.
When computers were slow and monochrome, and early gaming systems unreliable, arcades were a mecca for gamers. Now, the advent of the Wii and other home gaming systems, which seem to do everything but change diapers — have kept many game aficionados at home, competing on online networks. These days, Americans aren't just bowling alone; often, we're playing nerdy video games alone, too.
The little boys who grew up playing Nintendo's Duck Hunt on their bedroom floors in the '80s are the men aiming their Technicolor rifles at bucks today. But instead of turning exclusively to the home and mobile-phone versions of the game (though those do exist, complete with tiny bucks trotting across touchscreens), Buck Hunters flock to bars. They like the lure of animated violence and the sharpshooting notoriety. Most of all, though, they like the community.
Big Buck Hunter is popular enough, in fact, that Play Mechanix created an online network to connect players and give them a place to record and boast about their scores. It later expanded that network to enable national online tournaments for cash prizes.
Three years ago, the company hosted the first Big Buck Hunter World Championship in a Chicago bar, bringing together Big Buck players from all over the country for a booze-soaked celebration of the game. The winner earned $10,000, a year's custody of the fake moonshine jug dubbed "Pappy's Jug" and, of course, the pride of being the big buck of Big Buck.