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.