Christmas twenty nine years ago was the last time I really wanted something for Christmas.
I was twelve years old and, while I did not believe in Santa any more, I still believed that happiness could be found in the form of a present under the tree.
I knew what I wanted to find under the tree. I knew and I wanted it so bad it hurt! It hurt worse than any puppy love crush of my youth. If I did not get this for Christmas, only blackness and despair would follow.
I wanted an Atari 2600.
The coveted box I saw in so many stores
Oh yes I did. It was the dawn of the video game age. Pong, Space Wars, Tank, Lunar Lander, were around and I was hooked. And then, in the fall of 1977, the Atari 2600 was released. Video games at home! It even came with Tank!
I cannot stress this enough. As only a young boy can, I knew I just had to have an Atari 2600.
As Christmas approached, I watched the ads. Everybody had the Atari 2600. Do you hear that Sony? Atari had enough units for everybody who wanted one!
There was one problem. One big problem. The price.
I remember vividly the standard retail price of an Atari 2600 in Santa Clara county at Christmas 1977.
It was $144.
Time for a moment of perspective with help from our friends at Measuring Worth.
How much was $144 to me?
In 2005, $144.00 from 1977 is worth:
$464.00 using the Consumer Price Index
$379.76 using the GDP deflator
$439.54 using the unskilled wage
$655.69 using the nominal GDP per capita
$883.17 using the relative share of GDP
So, somewhere between $380 and $900 in today’s dollars.
Not a killer. Not enough to break the bank, but a lot more than my dad was going to spend on a Christmas present.
It would be like my daughter asking for an Xbox 360 or a PlayStation 3, but that would only play, say, My Little Pony games. I would not buy that for her. My father loves football, and there was no football game for the 2600, so I knew there would be no deal there.
Still, I had hope.
I grew up with the luxury of being the first child in my generation on both sides of my family. The first grandchild. The first nephew. And I remained in that position for a number of years. It is an enviable position, being the first child. Even when siblings and cousins come along, for a while you have no competition when it comes to Christmas presents.
So I went to work. I was subtle at first, or what passes for subtle in a twelve year old boy. I mentioned, A LOT, the Atari 2600, where it was for sale, and all of the games that came with it. It said right on the box that Combat included 27 games! (I was to drink that bitter draft later. I did not know it really meant 3 games with 9 very small variations.)
As Christmas approached, I made a greater effort to ensure there was no doubt in the mind of any living relative that what I really wanted for Christmas was an Atari 2600.
I began to annoy my father. Realizing that ground was fallow, I stopped all action on that front.
Soon it was mid December. The days crept by. Worry and doubt were in my mind. Would I get this for Christmas?
I concentrated my effort on my grandparents. That was where the money was. Those were the happy adults who were always so nice, who were always so indulgent compared to my mother or father. (And boy, doesn’t that one sting now that I am a parent.)
I cut all pretense. I laid out what I wanted. I made brazen offers. Get me just this and do not worry about anything else. Get together as a group and buy it. I was willing to mortgage next years birthday presents to get one. Whatever it took, I was willing to go there.
Soon it was Christmas Eve. We went out to visit relatives and friends, ending up at my father’s parents. This was the first opportunity.
The evening wore on. I tried to play it cool. The die was cast. There was no point in any more brokering. I just had to wait.
But it was hard to wait. And there were a lot of presents over there at my grandparents house. Too many there for me to discreetly measure boxes and check tags.
Finally, dinner was over, dessert was done, the table was cleared, dishes clean, and the time for presents was at hand.
I politely opened up the smaller presents, knowing they were not what I was looking for. I played it cool on the outside while inside was a turmoil of doubt and desire. Then we were down to the last few boxes, the best presents saved for last, and there was one there for me. A big box. Just big enough I thought.
But not quite the right dimensions. I opened it up. It was not an Atari 2600. It was a competitor, a video game consol from Coleco.
I stifled my pain.
In hindsight, I wish I still had this system. It is so rare that no fellow nerd has put up a Wikipedia article about it. It was in the shape of a triangle. On one side it had a steering wheel, for driving games. On the next side it had a pistol hooked in for shooting games, and on the final side it had two controller for the Pong knock-off that came with it. It had a triangular cartridge on the top so you could play different gun, pong, or driving related games on it.
This system is so rare that I have never seen another one nor have I ever met anybody who ever had one. It got completely swamped by the 2600, so I never saw another game cartridge for it. (Addendum: It was the Colect Telstar Arcade)
I could see my grandparents decision process later. To them, this looked like a much better game. It was much more accessible to them, with a steering wheel and a gun. So much better than those two funny little stick controllers on that Atari. It even cost more than the 2600. They went up market for me!
I remember this lesson as well, now that I am a parent. Don’t try to buy an item that is comparable to what your child wants and tell them it is just as good or better. Either get what they asked for or avoid it altogether. Your idea of what is comparable will never fly with your child.
So home we went that night, no 2600 in hand yet. But I still had one more chance. I knew it would not show up at home the next morning, but that afternoon we were spending with the other side of the family. Grandma’s house.
Grandma had come through for me in the past. This was the woman who took me to see “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” in the theater when I was 9 years old. This was the woman who had both The New Yorker and MAD Magazine delivered to her home. I still had hope!
And the hope was well founded. It was a much smaller group at her house than the previous night. The minute we walked in the door I could see a present of exactly the right dimensions under the tree.
I knew it was there.
We got through dinner. We got through dessert. We made our way over to the presents. I let the smaller presents go past, letting that box linger in the corner of my eye. I went with that. I knew it was a big present. I knew what it was. I could play it cool until we got to that one. Soon, it was the last thing under the tree.
And then I got to open it. And there it was, an Atari 2600.
I cannot say I heard “Ode to Joy” in my head at that moment, like Alex in “Clockwork Orange,” but I might as well have. It was that sort of moment for a 12 year old boy.
And I played that thing to death. It wasn’t until I bought a second hand Apple II+ six years later that the 2600 got any rest.
I saved up and bought cartridges, some great (Adventure!) and some not so great (Pac-Man). I broke half a dozen joysticks in that time, but my grandmother would always drive me over to the Atari offices off of Borregas Avenue in Sunnyvale where they had an unofficial replacement policy for kids who showed up on their doorstep. (Nobody wants to send a kid away unhappy.)
In 1985 I gave my whole Atari 2600 setup to a friend. Games like Wizardy, Castle Wolfenstein, and Ultima III had lured me away, but I still remember the 2600 fondly.
The Atari 2600 was the gateway to computer gaming for me and made me the noob I am today.