After 20 years, master gamester finally honored

Posted: April 28, 2002

Way back in 1982, when Pac-Man Fever hit the airwaves and teenage boys knew little of carpal tunnel syndrome, the challenging video game Asteroids ruled the arcades - and Scott Safran was king.

The 15-year-old from Cherry Hill spent hours smashing boulders and racking up spaceships on a console at the local 7-Eleven store. That November, he set his sights on the world Asteroids record, choosing the All-American Billiard Arcade in Bucks County as his venue.

His mother lent him a quarter, Safran dropped it in the slot, and an endurance match between man and machine began. Safran played for 60 hours that weekend, entrusting the joystick to others for short restroom and food breaks. He quit when his score reached a stratospheric 41,336,440 - with several ships in reserve.

Almost 20 years later, Safran's Asteroids record still stands. That's partly because the game is considered too difficult for even the most die-hard players. And it's partly because Safran died in 1989 when he fell off a balcony of his Los Angeles apartment while trying to rescue his cat, Samson.

Yesterday, Safran and members of his family received a posthumous award for his achievement - one that stands akin to honors given to Babe Ruth or Willie Mays, scorekeeper Walter Day said.

"It's a very significant score that's not easy to match," said Day, who edits the Official Video Game & Pinball Book of World Records and acts as referee at gaming tournaments around the country. "No one is going after it."

The ceremony took place at the PhillyClassic conference at the Valley Forge Convention Center in King of Prussia, a don't-miss meeting for classic video-gaming fans.

Safran's aunt, Hana Safran Kramer, 74, and 58-year-old cousin, Marcia Blumenthal, seemed at home around the conference attendees.

"He would be jumping out of his shoes if he was here," Kramer said. "This was such a family gift when we found out."

They almost didn't. Day spent years trying to track down Safran, whose accomplishment had been recorded by Atari, the maker of Asteroids. When the game was rereleased in 1998, Day sponsored a manhunt to find the elusive champion.

Plans for a "wanted poster" along with a $1,000 reward were under way early this year, when Day received an e-mail from one of Safran's old friends telling him that Safran had died.

Day contacted Marci Billow, Safran's younger sister.

Billow, a 32-year-old Microsoft employee in Redmond, Wash., has only faint memories of that day in the arcade.

After setting the record, her brother turned his attention toward other interests, such as baseball, guitar and the Grateful Dead, she said.

Upon graduating from Cherry Hill High School West, Safran moved to California to attend Pierce Community College. There he adopted Samson, who was named for the Grateful Dead recording "Samson and Delilah."

Kramer and Blumenthal, who live in the Philadelphia area, planned to take Safran's award certificate out to a Cherry Hill cemetery where he is buried near his parents. They will then send it to Marci Billow, Safran's younger sister.

"It's like all of a sudden, Scott is alive again," Kramer said.

Contact Chris Gray at 610-313-8108 or cgray@phillynews.com.

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