Man vs Snake: The Long and Twisted Tale of Nibbler

I am too young to remember Nibbler from the arcade but it was on my computer at some point during university, along with Solitaire, Hearts, and Free Cell.  In Nibbler, the player controls a snake with the goal of eating all the dots on the board.  But every dot you eat makes your snake get longer (in a very non-sexual way), and if you let the snake run into itself then it dies (I guess because it is super poisonous?). All in all, a pretty simple concept, but like most 80s games, you can playmanvssnake-cartoon-billionpoints-700x374 the game forever doing the exact same thing over and over, just a little faster each time.

As a natural-born procrastinator, I played a few rounds of Nibbler while avoiding writing research papers.   Is it just me or has YouTube/Facebook/Twitter made all those games obsolete?  Anyway, back in the day I became quite good at Free Cell but mastery over Nibbler always eluded me.  Part of it was that I found the game extremely boring (possibly more boring than writing the paper I was trying to avoid), so I’d only last one or two games and then I’d move on to something else.

Unlike me, there are 40+ year olds who seem not to get bored by Nibbler, and who play that game for marathon sessions, 30 hours or more, in order to score a billion points.  Nibbler’s claim to fame is that the developer had the foresight to display a score nine digits long instead of the usual six, so Nibbler’s whirring numbers went that much higher than its contemporaries before flipping back to zero (which may be part of why we feared Y2K so much, because in all these games you could lose everything by playing just a bit too long).  Nibbler focuses primarily on the first player to hit a billion in the game, the unfortunately named Tim McVey.  He hit the high score back in 1983 and promptly moved on to other games because after playing the game for 40 hours straight he couldn’t bear to touch a Nibbler machine ever again, but hemanvssnake_1280-720x405 returns to the competitive Nibbler arena in his 40s when he learns he might not actually have held the world record all those years.

We’ve reviewed some very good documentaries on Netflix recently (like Ava DuVernay’s excellent 13th).  Man vs Snake does not come close to those heights.  It is unlikely to inspire you or educate you or show you anything worthwhile.  This lifelong quest for high scores in a dull, repetitive game is led by people who like dull, repetitive things and inevitably are stuck in the past due to their nature.  Certainly, the gameplay footage, which features prominently in a whodunit-type post-mortem of one marathon attempt, is going to hurt your eyes because it’s painfully archaic.  I don’t know how I ever stared at any of those screens.  It’s impossible for me to stare at them now or hear the incessant beeping that was a staple of the arcade experience back then, the equivalent of the bells on a slot machine, over and over and over.

While it is interesting to peek inside these people’s lives for a few minutes, my interest faded long before the movie wrapped up.  At its core, Man vs Snake is a dull, repetitive experience, much like Nibbler itself.  It’s a decent time-waster that you will likely get bored of before it ends, and you may want your quarter back.  There are much better documentaries to be found in the Netflix arcade.

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14 thoughts on “Man vs Snake: The Long and Twisted Tale of Nibbler

  1. Daniel Lackey

    Yeah, I suspect the market for documentaries about 40-somethings working to beat the world records on arcade games from the early ’80s has been saturated ever since THE KING OF KONG.

    It’s nice to know that the world of competitive arcade gaming has its own self-styled bad boy, though.

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  2. fragglerocking

    Nope me neither, heard of it that is. The only game I ever liked was that table tennis one where you hit a white blip one side of the screen and off it went till it came back at you then you had to hit it again. I was rubbish at it. Anyway, thanks for t he heads up and the nostalgia, won’t be doing the doc 🙂

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  3. J.

    So this is just the same game as the game Snake on the old Nokias, then?

    Anyhoo, I spotted this on Netflix, but didn’t really bother adding it to the ever growing list… doesn’t sound quite as interesting or as insightful as King Of King, which is about as incredible a documentary about gaming as you can find (even if it’s about arcade machines rather than PCs and consoles and suchlike).

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