Palimpsest

Just two weeks ago, I wrote "Better to look for the shock of the new than the warm blanket and comfort food of what will never be like it was."

The words were written in haste, anger and with malaise. Looking back on that look-back to the 70s, at my pre-adolescent youth and my angst at having missed something big, I can see why I wrote them. With few exceptions, my experiences with retreads of old games have left a sour feeling on my fingertips, almost profane.

But I couldn't shake off the feeling that, those words now permanently etched onto the internet, there was no way to scrape the words off and try again. It's not simply that the "retro" game movement is strong and counts many of my friends, it's that, perhaps, I was wrong.

My only positive experience in real retrogaming was a brief year during the dotcom boom when I purchased a decent-condition stand-up Tempest arcade machine in 1996.

"Tempest!?" asked Jessica when she entered the living room. My post-divorce bachelor pad was full of toys in a desperate attempt to hang on to my 20s. "Does it work?"

She strolled to the front of the cabinet, not exhibiting enthusiasm as much as sensual excitement. She ran her fingers across the art panels on the side of the cabinet. She gave the spinner a twist. The left corner of her mouth raised a fraction of an inch. Date plans immediately evaporated. We ordered pizza and drank red wine. She beat the pants off me for the rest of the evening. Later, of course, I would marry her.

That Tempest cabinet stuck out in my head, as I re-read my piece on Jim Carroll. What is it about that cabinet that had made the retro not just a sad Frankenstein simulacrum, but a glorious golem? I came up with a theory -- it wasn't the software, it was the full experience. The feel of the heavy spinner, the big plastic buttons, the painfully bright vector graphics shining through clouded Plexiglas, the smell of dust burning off the high voltage transformer -- these were critical parts of the Tempest experience.

What I needed was a real test. My fondest console memories remain rooted in Nolan Bushnell's 1970's career -- Atari. It turns out, Atari hardware and Atari cartridges are ludicrously cheap and easy to acquire. With few moving parts and big, heavy circuit boards, it seems that first generation of consoles nearly refuses to die. Through a combination of eBay and The Goat Store I was able to acquire an Atari 7800, 2600-era joysticks, 4 paddles and dozens of games, including all of the classics I remembered: Combat, Pitfall, Robotron, Super Breakout, Street Racer, Warlords. My total expenditure was less than $100.

Opening the boxes, extracting the 30 year old plastic parts from their bubblewrap, I realize I can't just plug the console into the widescreen, 5.1-channel monstrosity in my comfortable living room. Instead, I scramble to the basement and I dig up an old 21-inch TV. I clear bottles of woodglue and boxes of drywall screws off the workbench and establish a home base. I arrange my college-era futon couch in front of the static-snow screen. I turn off the overhead fluorescent, insert the ancient Combat cartridge and hit the power switch on the console.

The nostalgia is overwhelming, a tangible, near-seizure experience. I run through the stack of cartridges, confirming they work, playing 3 minutes of this and 5 minutes of that, until my kids come home from school.

--

"Daddy, what are you doing?" asked Jen, as she enters the basement tentatively.

"Playing the first, and possibly best video game ever made," I say. Neither is true, of course, but at the moment, they both feel true for me. "It's called Tank Pong."

She drops her bag and sits down next to me, grabbing a joystick. "Can I play?" She asks.

Hours drifted past. We cycled through the stack of games, one after another. Eventually, my wife calls down for dinner. Reluctantly, we turn off the console.

"Well, what do you think of the games we had when I was your age?" I ask Jen as we plod back up the stairs to the age of Blu-Ray and Friends Lists, back into the light.

She thought for a minute. "I like them. They're simple. They're fast. And they feel good."

--

Hours later, the kids asleep, I return to the basement and put in Super Breakout again. Upstairs, the PS3 is loaded with Shatter, an extremely good evolution of the same basic design. And yet I stay in the basement, long after the novelty wears off. The bare-bones 2k-of-ROM nature of the games means that the gameplay has to be good, or the cartridge goes right back in the box. Warlords, a 4 player variant of breakout, remains one of the best 4 player games ever made, and I'm pleased to say it's just as much fun as it was 30 years ago, even alone with 3 predictable AI opponents.

Because I spent the extra 5 bucks for a 7800, I'm also able to play a handful of games I remember more from college dorm rooms than living room couches. My very first experience with Robotron 2084, arguably the first and still one of the cleanest 2-stick-shooters, was on the 7800. Played with one hand each on two huge 7800 joysticks, the game is nearly a workout. The difference between playing with 1/4 inch of play on my thumbs and playing with my entire arm is inexplicably important to the experience.

Game after game, I keep playing just because it feels good. The paddle controls are big and clunky and meaty and smooth. The length of the joystick cords forces me to keep the futon close to the TV, and I feel an extraordinary sense of connection to the ludicrously simplistic graphics and 8-bit bleeps. Where my PS3 controller feels like porcelain, a delicate instrument of fine motor control that could break with the slightest abuse, the original Atari joystick feels like a power tool chiseled out of a solid slab of aggressive plastic and skid-proof rubber, something more likely to be controlling an industrial crane than a videogame.

And the games are wondrously short. The earliest Atari games featured (oddly) two minute and sixteen second timers. With such a short timer, and an instant reset, the games are repeatable, approachable and addictive, a lesson well learned by the developers of a few XBLA titles, such as Geometry Wars, but not many others.

Perhaps most importantly, the environment is right. Compared to the sterile technology shrine of my living room, the musty old basement is simply the right place to play these games. This is the true revelation: software is only a small piece of the gaming puzzle. In the age of the Wii, I guess this shouldn't have come as a surprise. Games aren't just things we look at, they're things we live with for a little while. We touch them and hear them and even smell them. It wasn't until I made the effort to create -- to re-create -- the whole experience that I understood that, perhaps, you can go home again.

Comments

Excellent. Pizza, red wine, and a Tempest cabinet..
The article brings back memories of gaming on the 2600 in a musty but furnished basement in New Jersey, sort of misty-eyed here. Cheers!

Great writeup!

Man, I've got to get my hands on an old 2600 console. I'm surprised they run so cheap. The first games I'd look for would be Adventure, Space Invaders, Superman, Pitfall, Defender & Indy 500.

Well, no one can claim you don't vary between the extremes, Rabbit. Next week you'll probably hate all games.

You're right, though. Environment (of all sorts) plays a part in reconnecting. Emulating C64 games in nowhere near as fun as holding those simple stick and button controllers. That's what made the Direct-to-TV controllers so great.

Palimpsest is a wonderfully orthogonal word.

Nice article, rabbit.

You're regressing as a gamer, rabbit! Next thing we know you'll be writing about those Tiger LCD handhelds.

I find the title of your article intriguing, for numerous reasons. Re: returning to old games... Can you ever go back to the first, 'original' inscribing without having your perceptions reconfigured by everything that's been inscribed, over top, since then?

Clemenstation wrote:
I find the title of your article intriguing, for numerous reasons.

Well, not only did I want to scrape the old words off my parchment from two weeks ago, but isn't that kind of what we're always doing? Scraping off the old ink and re-using the same gameplay over and over again?

Great article. I had so many great moments playing the 2600 and the article reminded me of them.

rabbit wrote:
Clemenstation wrote:
I find the title of your article intriguing, for numerous reasons.

Well, not only did I want to scrape the old words off my parchment from two weeks ago, but isn't that kind of what we're always doing? Scraping off the old ink and re-using the same gameplay over and over again?

Indeed! But (and maybe I'm alone in this) I often have trouble going back to experiencing older 'parchment ink' / technology after seeing the newer: rudimentary, PS1-era, platformers versus contemporary ones, for example. Of course, in the 1990s I thought nothing of the fact that game characters were openly polygonal but now, looking back, it's pretty much all I see.

Maybe there's some magic span of time where the disconnect between now-games and then-games is so great that the mind stops comparing them using the same criteria, I dunno.

Atari made some sturdy controllers, but my brother and I abused the hell out of them back in the day. While trying to make our on-screen avatars move just a little bit faster, we'd force them in the directions we wanted until the plastic creaked. After some months of play the joysticks would start to issue a popping sound when they were pushed in the more commonly abused directions. Once-smooth screen movement was interrupted as the contacts in the PCB shorted. Eventually the dome switches and the PCB they were attached to began to fail completely and they'd become nearly unresponsive. In its final phase of life, we'd remove the rubber covering in an attempt to eke out the last bit of play. (If you thought they were painful on the thumbs as-is, try them without that cover!) It was a long wait 'til the next birthday or Christmas when we'd get replacements.

If I had known then what I do now, we'd probably have been kinder to them. Just because they felt indestructible didn't mean they could stand up to that kind of abuse.

Clemenstation wrote:
Maybe there's some magic span of time where the disconnect between now-games and then-games is so great that the mind stops comparing them using the same criteria, I dunno.

There definitely is for me - the SNES was the sweet spot in terms of nice, crisp 2D graphics. Everything before was too primitve, everything after was too polygonal and jaggy.

LouZiffer wrote:
In its final phase of life, we'd remove the rubber covering in an attempt to eke out the last bit of play. (If you thought they were painful on the thumbs as-is, try them without that cover!)

Were you one of those finger-push control-handlers? I tended to go whole-fist. Perhaps that's connected to preferring shotguns to sniping in FPS games now.

Stop with all the name dropping guys. Your making me blush.

Great article. Now I want to run out and see what I missed in those games. Do you think they will carry over well to someone who hasn't played old Atari games? Or do you think its all about nostalgia and they aren't that great of games?

wordsmythe wrote:
LouZiffer wrote:
In its final phase of life, we'd remove the rubber covering in an attempt to eke out the last bit of play. (If you thought they were painful on the thumbs as-is, try them without that cover!)

Were you one of those finger-push control-handlers? I tended to go whole-fist. Perhaps that's connected to preferring shotguns to sniping in FPS games now.

It depended on the controller. For the Atari controller I remember it was held in the web of the right thumb while my arm did most of the work, and my middle through pinky fingers on the right hand were mostly used for leverage. Eventually my dad got us one of these, which we fought over constantly. (Why the hell did he just get one?!)

Sniper rifles turned to shotguns as I aged from my 20's into my 30's. I still love to snipe from cover, but the ol' reaction time isn't what it used to be.

Clemenstation wrote:
You're regressing as a gamer, rabbit! Next thing we know you'll be writing about those Tiger LCD handhelds.

I, for one, would really appreciate that writeup.

Although going back and hooking up the old hardware does complete the nostalgic experience, that comes as no surprise to me. What was more surprising was your daughter's response to some of those classics. I wonder if she would find herself able to have the same positive response, "it's fast, it's simple, and it's fun," in an emulated environment. I bet she would, but unless the old game remained the best evolution of a particular gameplay style, or appealed to her directly for some reason, she would also just as likely find the same form of gameplay in something new, like Shatter or a flash game.

Though she would be lucky to have had a dad who would share with her the roots and history of these "oral traditions of gameplay." Gameplay types are like types of conflict in drama. Everybody likes to think they are inventing all new varieties but some quick reference against the past shows there are some basic archetypes set out by the Founders of the Medium, that are essentially iterated upon. "Man Vs. Nature" is to "Platformer" like "Man Vs. Man" is to "Shooter."

My point is that of course we enrich these old games with "the full experience" requirement, because that keeps the focus on the original experience as it was when we were young. You mention the smell of the transformer in the cabinet, and smell is the sense most tied to memory. This prerequisite also raises the value of the retro game experience, because all this hardware is eventually going to die, and thus the experience is more precious due to its built-in expiration date. Someday, all that will exist will be the ROMs and the gameplay archetypes.

You know, if you really want to get confused nostalgia-wise, a Genesis controller will control an Atari 2600 or 7800 just fine. One of the three buttons functions as "the big red button." Works for C64 too.

I think it is time to cue Bon Jovi "Who says you can't go home again"

Clemenstation wrote:
You're regressing as a gamer, rabbit! Next thing we know you'll be writing about those Tiger LCD handhelds.

Hey wait a minute Mattel football and Football II totaly rocked the world when I was like 11 or 12.

TempestBlayze wrote:
Stop with all the name dropping guys. Your making me blush.

Great article. Now I want to run out and see what I missed in those games. Do you think they will carry over well to someone who hasn't played old Atari games? Or do you think its all about nostalgia and they aren't that great of games?

That was my first reaction, but I think your reaction would match Rabbit's feeling in his first essay; you're playing something that is meant to be nostalgic and not something that give you nostalgia.

The thought of buying an Atari console and play hours on end, enjoying every minute of it seems fake to me. I'm not talking about Rabbit's experience, I mean what I would feel, trying to walk down someone else's memory lane. When I apply Rabbit's lesson and saw my Wife enjoy the original Bubble Bobble downloaded to the Wii, I just played for about 45 minutes before looking at the store and see what else we could buy.

I never played the first Zelda game, but it's one of the few games my wife truly enjoys. I sat next to her for a full weekend and just marveled at a classic I never enjoyed and enjoyed watching Cecilia grab every item, tri-fore piece, etc.

cmitts wrote:
I think it is time to cue Bon Jovi "Who says you can't go home again"

Clemenstation wrote:
You're regressing as a gamer, rabbit! Next thing we know you'll be writing about those Tiger LCD handhelds.

Hey wait a minute Mattel football and Football II totaly rocked the world when I was like 11 or 12.

Maybe, but I had Tiger's hallucinatory version of Megaman 2. It was a sad and pale imitation of the game I so longed to break into my neighbour's house to play.

Hate this article. Yes I do. Going to be surfing for an Atari 7800 or 2.

Huzzah! I had a wonderful return to Zelda on a functioning NES last summer and really enjoyed the trek. Blowing the dust out of the cartridge between play sessions when the game wouldn't start, sweat crusting up in the concave red buttons of the decidedly non-ergo controller and even the familiar 8-bit sounds of the theme song (or that dungeon music and the "you found something important" sound effect) all resulted in a much more immersive trip down memory lane. There are many games that I wouldn't even consider spending time with at this point, but there are a few Atari titles that will be making a special trip out of the basement after reading this article. Now if I can just find a tv that will let me hook up my 7800...

This article made me feel more than slightly homesick. But you know me: I'm always a sucker for a good Atari story. Nicely done.

Simple is really the key thing here. It's why many iPhone games feel so right.

Dude. Seriously. Get out of my head.

I've been on a retrogame challenge of my own lately, fueled by Retronauts and ebay, and now i'm looking into reliving my 2600 days too. Less is more.

I grew up with an Intellivision, I don't think I could go back to that terrible disk controller. And Atari may be possible, luckily I have no money, so won't be hitting ebay.

Surprised no one has commented about this yet:

"She beat the pants off me for the rest of the evening. Later, of course, I would marry her."

Seems like an expected progression of events.

Nice article; I wholly agree, which is why I've kept all my old hardware (back to the 2600) and never gotten into emulation.

I also picked up some "retro" controllers, like the lovely controller Hori made for the GameCube which is designed just like a SNES controller. (It was meant for the Gameboy Player attachment, but retro collections are better with it.) I've seen USB NES controllers for those looking to better emulate the original experiences, but frankly, I think playing on a big standard def TV is a vital part of the experience too.

Good on ya' for re-examining your position. Glad you found a way to wrangle some fun out of the classics.

I've got $40 in my pocket. That would barely cover a FF3 SNES game... but man, that and an SNES and I'd be set. Forget my 360 & Plasma screen, as nice as they are, I think I could be overwhelmed with a totally rad SNES setup.

Timely article - I popped Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection into my 360 for the first time yesterday.

On the one hand, I was struck by how primitive everything is compared to a contemporary game. On the other hand, there's something 'purer' about the experience - no narrative fluff, no nonsense cutscenes, just a you, a D-pad and 3 buttons.

Oh, and Flicky is still a cruel, cruel mistress.