Tag Archives: Atari 2600

Further Mining of Console Nostalgia

One of the nostalgia stories of the year so far has been how deeply Nintendo underestimated the demand for their Classic Nintendo Entertainment System retro console.

NES Nostalgia… for the lucky few

This apparently bottomless pool of demand was bound to spark some sort of reaction.  Nintendo itself plans another jaunt into the retro-console pool with a SNES Classic Edition come the holiday season.

But there has been word of other attempts to cash in on this sort of rosy glasses wish for days more innocent.  And last week a company called AT Games announced two such ventures, one for the Atari 2600 and one for the Sega Genesis.

I actually owned both of those consoles… which is saying something since I have never really been a console gamer.  As I noted previously, I have no nostalgia for the NES because I already owned a PC before it ever saw the light of day.  But what about these two stand outs from an otherwise console avoiding past?

Let’s talk about the Atari 2600.

Flash Back to This

This was a breakthrough console, a success, and back in 1977 I wanted nothing so much for Christmas as to find one of these under the tree.  And I got one too, despite the steep price for the time of $144.

And I played the hell out of it.  Well, out of some of the games.  The sad but true story though is that a lot of the games for the 2600 really sucked.  And the marketing was shameless, promoting cartridges with 27 games when most of the games represented minor variations on a theme.

I’m looking at you Air-Sea Battle

And that wasn’t even the worst exaggeration.  I think Space Invaders might hold that title.

You lying sack of shit! There is ONE game here!

Not that there were not some good games out there.  We could play Adventure endlessly, and Surround and Raiders of the Lost Ark kept us going.  I even liked Space Invaders.

We could find fun in this!

But I also remember saving up birthday money and my two dollar a week allowance to walk up to Long’s Drugs to buy Slot Racers for $30 in 1978, only to be so horribly disappointed that I feel the shame of it to this day.

I knew that the time that the technology of the 2600 wasn’t up to the standard of the arcades, but there were still some games that were shockingly bad even for the low standards of the medium… and I never even had a copy of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

But the real problem here is that I don’t feel much nostalgia for the games.  Somebody wrote that the internet would eventually kill nostalgia because nothing would ever really go away.  You could always go back and read up about Quisp cereal or popular events or fads or video games any time you wanted.

And the Atari 2600 has been way ahead of the curve on this front.  While the unit was introduced about 40 years ago, it has come back in some new cheap-ass retro console form a few times already.

Furthermore, even if we leave hardware aside, emulated software packages featuring “Atari Classics” have been around for about 20 years on their own as well.  I own a couple of those, so I can play the half dozen games I want to remember any time I want.  And even if I were to lose those somehow, I can wander over to the Internet Archive and play them.

Basically, for me, this aquifer of nostalgia couldn’t have been pumped drier if a California almond grower lived on top of it.  So why would I want more clutter around the house?

Ah well.  So what about Sega then?

More Flashing back

My feeling about this is a bit different.  The Sega Gensis was never a console I sought out, and I have written the tale about how I ended up with one.

The games were not bad at the time.  Playing on the Sega Genesis back in the early 90s didn’t feel like a let down from the arcade, which probably helped speed along the demise of the arcades by the end of the decade.  But they still lacked the depth of what I could play on my PC.  I had friggin’ Civilization to play back then.

There are a couple of titles that might tempt me down nostalgia lane for the Sega Genesys.  NBA Jams or Desert Storm or Populous might fit the bill.  The problem is that none of the titles I would be interested in made the list for inclusion.  Instead the titles available are heavy with Sonic the Whorehog in his various forms, and the problem with Sonic is that Sega has already reproduced any of his titles on every platform possible.

All of which seems to go back to the point I referenced a few paragraphs back, nostalgia requires some absence, and Sonic, like the Atari 2600, never really left.  As an ex-girlfriend of mine used to say, “How can I miss you if you won’t go away!”

So neither of these retro consoles seem ripe for me, as both are attempting to mine nostalgia that just isn’t there.  But then again, I am probably an outlier in that regard.  I am sure there is somebody out there who remembers the 2600 or the Genesis fondly and hasn’t seen or played any of the games from them since back in the day.

Picking My 15 Most Influential Games

Jackie at Kitty Kitty Boom Boom, prompted by lvling life, put up a list of her top 15 video games.

There was a methodology by which you were supposed to generate that list.  It wasn’t supposed to be a big deal.  You were not supposed to spend a lot of time with it.  And, of course, I tossed that aside.  Rather than a quick list of 15 special games, I ended up with my list of the 15 most influential video games in my gaming career so far.

And what do I mean by “influential?”

I mean that they opened up new idea, new genres, or new points of view for me when it came to video games.

Influential does not mean that they were my favorites, the games I played the most in a given genre, or even all that good in a few cases.  So, for example, I have played a LOT more World of Warcraft than EverQuest at this point in my life, and I am not really all that keen to go back to EverQuest.  But EverQuest is the more influential of the two.  Without it, there would be no WoW, and without me playing it in 1999, I might not have made it to WoW.

Anyway, on to the list.

1. Star Trek (1971) – many platforms

Star Trek in vt52

Star Trek in vt52

I have covered this as the first computer video game I ever played.  While incredibly simple, this game showed me the way, let me know that computers were going to be an entertainment device

2. Tank (1974) – Arcade

Tank!

Tank! In Black and white!

This was the game AFTER Pong.  Not that Pong was bad.  Pong was new and fresh when it came out, but I must admit that it did become a little dull after the first pass or two.  And then Tank showed us that man need not entertain himself with virtual paddles alone.  I wouldn’t touch Pong after a while, but Tank was always good.  You just needed somebody to play with.

3. Adventure (1979)  – Atari 2600

This Castle is Timeless!

This Castle is Timeless!

Yes, I got that Atari 2600 for Christmas way back when, but then there was a matter of what to play.  It came with the Combat cartridge, which included Tank.  And I also had Air-Sea Battle and a few others. But the problem was that these games were all unfulfilling unless played with two people.  And then came Adventure.  Not only wasn’t it the usual 27 minor variations on three two-player themes, it was specifically, unashamedly single player only.  Here, loner, good luck storming the castle!  And it had odd behaviors and minor flaws.  I tried putting that magic bridge everywhere and ended up in some strange places.  It also had a random mode, that might just set you up with an unwinnable scenario.  And there was an Easter egg in it.

It was both different and a harbinger of things to come.

4. Castle Wolfenstein (1981) – Apple II

Graphics - 1981

Graphics – 1981

This was the first game that I saw that indicated that I really, really needed to get a computer.  An Apple II specifically, because that was what Gary had.  And he also had Castle Wolfenstein.

It was not an easy game.  You lost.  A lot.  The control system left something to be desired.  You really needed a joystick to play.  And there were so many quirks and strange behaviors that somebody created a utility program a couple years after it came out that basically “fixed” a lot of the worst annoyances.  I bought it gladly.

Achtung! Give me your uniform.

Achtung! Give me your uniform.

But this game was the prototype for many that followed.  You’re in a cell and you need to escape.  You need make your way through the castle, picking up guns, keys, ammunition, German uniforms, and grenades.   Oh, grenades were so much fun.  There were other, later games I considered for this list, but when I broke them down, I often found that Castle Wolfenstein had done it already, in its own primitive way.

5. Wizardry (1981) – Apple II

Apple ][+ The Upgrades Begin

Apple ][+ and Wizardry

Basically, the party based dungeon crawl in computer form.  Monsters, mazes, traps, treasure, combat, and death.  Oh, so much death.  NetHack was a potential for this list, but I realized that randomness and ASCII graphics aside, Wizardry had pretty much everything it did.

And I spent hours playing.  I mapped out the whole game on graph paper, including that one level with all the squares that would turn you around.  The one with the pits of insta-death.  It also taught me the word “apostate.”

6. Stellar Emperor (1985) – Apple II

The GEnie version of MegaWars III at its inception, it was my first foray into multiplayer online games.  I have written about the game, even about winning.

Emperor of the Galaxy

Emperor of the Galaxy

But it was the online, playing with other people, usually the same people, making friends and enemies and having ongoing relationships that sold the game.  Again, it was primitive, even in its day, with ASCII based terminal graphics.  But there was magic in the mixture.

7. Civilization (1991) – Mac/Windows

The flat world of original Civ

The flat world of original Civ

Sid Meier was already something of a star by the time Civilization came out, but this cemented things as far as I was concerned.  I was considering putting Civilization II on the list rather than this.  Once I got Civ II, I never went back and played the original.

But that wasn’t because the original was crap.  That was because the sequel built on what was great in the original.  It was purely an evolutionary move.  But it was the original that hooked me, so that has to get the nod for influential.

8. Marathon (1994) – Mac

Spooky

Spooky

For me, this was the defining first person shooter.  There was a single player campaign.  There was a multiplayer deathmatch mode.  There were a variety of weapons.  There was a map editor and some mods and an online community that built up around it.  Everything after Marathon was just an incremental improvement for me.

Marathon on my iPad

Marathon on my iPad

There have been better graphics, better rendering engines, different weapons, plenty of variety on arena options, all sorts of updates on match making and connectivity, but in the end those are just updates to what Marathon already did.  To this day, I still sometimes say “I’ll gather” when creating a game or match for other people to join.  That was the terminology from 1994.  I wonder what Bungie has done since this?

9. TacOps  (1994) – Mac/Windows

Before video games I played a lot of Avalon Hill war games.  Those sorts of games made the natural transition to the computer, which was ideal for handling much of the housekeeping chores.  However, in the transition, some old conventions got dragged along as well, like hexes.  And I hate hexes.  Yes, on a board game you need to use that hexgrid for movement.  I could accept that for Tobruk set up on the kitchen table.  But a computer was fully capable of handling movement without such an arbitrary overlay.  A couple of games tried it, but they tended to fall into the more arcade-ish vein, which wasn’t what I wanted.

And then I picked up a copy of TacOps.

Giving orders on an open map

Giving orders on an open map

I bought it on a complete whim, picking up the very rare initial boxed version off the shelf at ComputerWare before it went completely to online sales.  And it was a revelation.  Hey, terrain governs movement.  And cover.  And visibility.  That plus simultaneous movement phases rather than turn based combat meant wonderful chaos on the field.  The game was good enough that the military of several countries contracted for special versions of the game to use as a training tool.

I originally had Combat Mission: Barbarossa to Berlin on my list.  That is where Battlefront.com really came into their own with the Combat Mission series.  But aside from 3D graphics, TacOps had done it all already.

10. TorilMUD (1993) – various platforms

Have I not written enough about the last 20 years of TorilMUDPrecursor to the MMORPG genre for me.  Without it I might not have understood that camping mobs for hours at a stretch was “fun.”

11. Diablo (1996) – Windows

A simpler time... in HELL

A simpler time… in HELL

I have written quite a bit about my fondness for Diablo II, while I haven’t gone back to play the original Diablo since the sequel came out.  But I wouldn’t be still talking about Diablo II or comparing the merits of Diablo III, Torchlight II, and Path of Exile had the original not been something very, very special.

12. Total Annihilation (1997) – Windows

Total Annihilation

Total Annihilation

Total Annihilation was not the first RTS game I played.  I am pretty sure I played Dune II and Warcraft before it.  It is not the RTS game I have played the most.  I am sure I have more hours in both StarCraft and Age of Kings.  But it was the first RTS game that showed me that the genre could be about something more than a very specific winning build order.  All the units, on ground, in the air, on the water, were amazing.  The player maps were amazing, and player created AIs were even better.  The 3D terrain and line of sight and all that was wonderful.  And new units kept getting released.  And you could nuke things.  I still find the game amazing.

13. EverQuest (1999) – Windows

Fifteen years later and nothing has made my mouth hang open like it did on the first day I logged into Norrath.  I can grouse about SOE and the decisions they have made and the state of the genre, but that day back in 1999 sunk the hook into me good and hard and it hasn’t worked itself loose since.  Pretty much what this whole blog is about.

Froon!

Froon!

14. Pokemon Diamond (2006) – Nintendo DS

Before we got my daughter a DS lite and a copy of Pokemon Diamond, Pokemon was pretty much just a cartoon on TV and a card game somebody’s kid at work played.  Sure, I knew who Pikachu was, but I had no real clue about the video game.

And then in watching my daughter play, I had to have my own DS and copy of the game.  Make no mistake, despite its reputation as a kids game, Pokemon can be deep and satisfying.  It tickles any number of gamer needs.  My peak was in HeartGold/SoulSilver, where I finally caught them all.

Back when 493 was all

Back when 493 was all

While I have stopped playing, that doesn’t mean I don’t think about buying a 3DS XL and a copy of Pokemon X or Y and diving back into the game.  It is that good.

15. LEGO Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy (2006) – many platforms

Filling this last slot… tough to do.  There are lots of potential games out there.  For example, I like tower defense games, but which one sold me on the idea?  But for a game that launched me into a lot of play time over a series of titles, I have to go with LEGO Star Wars II.

LEGO Star Wars II

LEGO Star Wars II

That is where Travelers Tales really hit their stride.  The original LEGO Star Wars tried to hard to be a serious and difficult game.  With this second entry, they realized the power of simply being fun and irreverent.  That was the magic.

And I only have to look at the shelf of console games we have to see that LEGO games dominate as a result of this one title. They have evolved, and in some ways I think they have lost a bit of their charm by trying to do too much.  We got the LEGO Movie Game for the PS3 and it didn’t have the joy of LEGO Star Wars II.  Still, 8 years down the road, the influence of LEGO Star Wars II got us to try it.

Fools Errand?

Of course, putting limits like an arbitrary number on a list like this means it must ring false in some way.  And what does influential really mean?  I know what I said, but I can look back at that list and nitpick that, say, Castle Wolfenstein might not belong.  And what about genres I missed, like tower defense?  I could make the case that Defense Grid: The Awakening belongs on the list.  What about games like EVE Online?  Actually, I explained that one away to myself, seeing EVE as sort of the bastard child of Stellar Emperor and EverQuest or some such.  And while TorilMUD is so powerful in my consciousness, would I have played it had it not been for Gemstone? Where does NBA Jams fit?  And what other Apple II games did I miss?  Should Ultima III be on there?  Lode Runner Karateka?

And somehow this all ties into my post about platforms and connectivity options I have had over the years.

Anyway, there is my list, and I stand firm behind it today.  Tomorrow I might change my mind.  You are welcome to consider this a meme and take up the challenge of figuring out your 15 most influential games.

Others who have attempted to pick their 15, each with their own history:

Rejected Secrets of Faydwer Packaging

This from a source in San Diego: 

When it came to the packaging for Secrets of Faydwer, the EverQuest team wanted to continue with the retro theme and create a look that would feed the nostalgia for the original EverQuest release.

They borrowed the WayBack machine that the EverQuest II team used so successfully with Echoes of Faydwer, but had some problems with the settings.  Instead of 1999, they went all the way back to 1979 and ended up with this:

1807929889-main.jpg

1807929889-top.jpg

Only having limited access to the WayBack machine (as part of the Sigil buyout, Brad gets to use the machine whenever he wants to go back to 1997-2000 and relive his glory days) the EverQuest team tried to go with what they had. 

However, Smed himself ended up dismissing the design with only the terse comment “something a little more contemporary perhaps?”

The rumored side-effect of the whole affair is that, after you have installed the expansion, you can go to Hogcaller’s in West Freeport at the right time of the night on specific dates and see the floor light up and hear the BeeGees‘ classic “Stayin’ Alive” (now the unofficial EverQuest anthem) play.

It was however categorically denied that an NPC named Tony Manero would show up in a white suit and dance… at least not every time.

(Thanks to Bob at Darkness Bound for the link to the Atari 2600 cartridge label maker.)

Christmas 1977

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.