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.


Christmas 1977...the greatest Christmas in recorded history because Santa brought me an Atari 2600.

Every year, when I came home for Christmas, the 2600 would be there gathering dust under my parent's TV, right next to the VCR flashing 12:00.

About 15 years ago, a ponderous tradition began. My niece, who had discovered the Atari a few months before and had my Dad hook it up, challenged me to Bowling. Every Christmas after that, no matter what new toys she got, we'd always end up playing Bowling and then running through the other games I had: Space Invaders, Asteroids, Combat, Pitfall, and more.

When my niece got a sister a few years later, we added Frogger to the list of games we played every Christmas. A few years later when my other sister had her sons, they joined in as well.

Last Christmas was the first time we broke that tradition. My parents had bought a shiny new plasma TV and there was no easy way to get the 2600 to work with it. Instead, we went over to my sister's house and played Wii Bowling.

Great article, rabbit! I suddenly have a huge urge to go on an Atari shopping spree, but I'll resist, and instead dust off the Atari Flashback 2 I bought a few years ago.

TempestBlayze wrote:

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?

If you've got an Xbox 360, there's two retro packages released for Xbox that are Backwards Compatible with 360.

Atari Anthology - 80+ Atari 2600 games on one disc plus extras like box/manual scans, etc.

Intellivision Lives! - 60+ Intellivision games with similar extras.

You could get both for under $20 total off of eBay if you want to dip your toes in the retro pool.

My two brothers and I saved our allowance for weeks and went in together to buy a used 2600. I must have been nine or so. We played until bed time, but I couldn't get to sleep and snuck out to the tv room and turned the tv on, the sound as low as possible, and plugged in cartridge after cartridge — Adventure, Pac Man, Pitfall — playing in the flickering light until well after midnight (an eternity for me, then).

Yep. That's when it started.

Oh, and "glorious golem" is fantastic. If only I'd read this before I chose a user name..

OG_slinger wrote:

My parents had bought a shiny new plasma TV and there was no easy way to get the 2600 to work with it.

Easy as in there's no Radioshack nearby?

RCA Female to F-Type Coax Male Adapter will get you Atari for under 3$

Now I'm out shopping for an old NES console from my childhood for my new office ( a co-worker is already bringing an Intellivision. Sweet! ). Thanks for the refresh on my memories rabbit.

I quite enjoyed the article, thanks Rabbit!

Nothing beats using the actual consoles themselves. Emulation just can't compare to the feel of the actual controller in your hands. This is why back when I was studying level design, I had brought my SNES to school to play during my breaks or work days when I was already finished my work. Along with one of my classmate's NES and another's Atari, we had quite the setup. Too bad almost no one else in there was actually a gamer of any sort.

beeporama wrote:

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.

The controller that would kill nostalgia would be that awful, awful Atari 5200 "things". But, of course, with emulation, it makes the 5200 much better. For those wondering about "what would it have been like to play a 2600 when I haven't", that's a loaded question. You may love it, you may hate it. You may play it with friends and laugh at it. It's hard to say.

I never had an atari but family friends did. I can still remember that sense of excitement when as my parents car entered the driveway and we ran into the house to play boxing and asteroids.

I went through my retro gaming fix around 8 years ago when I played all the old Capcom roms. What became apparent to me was that the gameplay was pretty boring. There is a period in arcade gaming between the late 80s to early 90s when it was all about the graphics. Going back now I would rather play asteroids pacman or missile defence than some late 80s beat em up.

The closest I have come to pure arcade type play is now Lumines. Other than that give me the big budget games!

You hooked up over Tempest? Really? I think I have been rendered speechless...

JohnnyMoJo wrote:

You hooked up over Tempest? Really? I think I have been rendered speechless...

There's nothing so odd about that! I hooked up over Joust.

There is a bar in Willaimsburg, Brooklyn called Barcade (I think its featured in a documentary about Twin Galaxies) that is always full up with people losing quarters to intense 80s arcade games. And, they have 25 beers on tap, not a bad deal at all.

egads wrote:

There is a bar in Willaimsburg, Brooklyn called Barcade (I think its featured in a documentary about Twin Galaxies) that is always full up with people losing quarters to intense 80s arcade games. And, they have 25 beers on tap, not a bad deal at all.

Went there last year, nice place, great beer selection.

Brings me to an obligatory Ground Kontrol link.

I grew up on this stuff too, and to whip it out with my 14 year old . . . I dunno. Some of it is great but when they are playing COD 5, Adventure doesn't grab you like it did in 81. If our kids weren't playing this new stuff and then they were exposed to the old stuff, it would blow their mind, but as they say, you can never go home. Now younger kids, yes, these work but again your milage may vary. I'm glad to hear your kids liked it, as like you say many of the old games are classic for a reason- great gameplay. Adventure, Combat, ET - jk, Pitfall, Haunted House, Breakout, Kaboom- the list goes on and on. One of the funnest 2 player sports games ever: Pele's Soccer for 2600- get it!!!

egads wrote:

There is a bar in Willaimsburg, Brooklyn called Barcade (I think its featured in a documentary about Twin Galaxies) that is always full up with people losing quarters to intense 80s arcade games. And, they have 25 beers on tap, not a bad deal at all.

I so want to visit one of these places some day. How come there can't be one somewhere I go all the time, like New York.

rabbit wrote:

I so want to visit one of these places some day. How come there can't be one somewhere I go all the time, like New York.


Great article and just shows that old-school still has that magical something that is often missing in todays games.