Sunday, April 20, 2014

Icons: Atari 2600

I like to paint the picture of my childhood as one spent outside, running free in the summer afternoon,  roaming far over the neighborhood, from sun up, to sun down, breathing the fresh air, exercising, getting dirty, wearing ourselves out in the living of the natural life.

That's an incomplete picture. 

There is a dark side. More precisely, there were dark basements, with a screen flashing the same image...over and over...and over...the same thing, day after day, night after night...for weeks on end.

The same sound resonated in our heads:


What was this? Some orwellian dystopia? Some post apocalyptic brainwashing by the Russians? Some tortuous exercise intended to break us of our free will? Some video loop of Fozzie Bear?

Nope. It was Pac-man.

And a hundred other games that we played at home, on the Atari 2600. 

There may be nothing more emblematic of the years we were raised in, than the home video game system. Video game themselves were a fairly new item, coming on the heels of pin ball machines, which had been around for decades, and they were confined to places grocery stores, and 7-11's, and, even better, the video arcade. 

Arcades were like casinos for kids. You went in with money, and left with none, and nothing to show for it. Once in a while there would be the odd video gamer virtuoso, who could play like Tommy --The Who's Pinball Wizard -- on one coin, until his mother and dinner called him home. But, mostly, you lost your allowance or lawn mowing or baby sitting money one quarter at a time. Someone was getting rich, twenty-five cents at a time, but it wasn't your typical American kid. We were mesmerized by the lights and sounds and smells of the arcade -- the sticky gum and pop on the floor, the feel of the round plastic joystick knob in our hands, and the firing button below our index fingers. We were willing to give away the bank, for one more shot -- just one more! -- at the chance to put our initials on the leader board.

It's for this reason that I suspect that the Atari was created by a father of video game playing children -- not because he was looking to fill a need in his children's lives, but because he wanted to stop them from giving away their college education one quarter at a time. 

There were game systems before Atari. The one we had was the Colecovision. This was a deck with two control knobs, and on the screen several different versions of the same basic game -- Pong. In our  minds Pong was tennis and racquetball and hockey and handball and volleyball and soccer, all rolled into one. In reality, it was two lines on either side of the screen, with a square pixel for a ball, bouncing between the two lines. It only made one noise:




It was like a very slow, erratic EKG meter. 

And yet, we played Pong for hours on end. 

So, you can only imagine our joy at the Atari 2600. Frankly, I have no idea where the name 2600 came from. With the Atari, home versions of our favorite arcade games, were plugged right into our television, never costing us another quarter. Some of these games were more like the originals than others, but such a game changer was the Atari 2600 that it was the home version of games that became the pop culture symbols, rather than their older brothers from the arcades. 

The Atari was simple to control. The were two controllers -- both had one joystick, and one reddish-orange button. All the magic happened right there. And if you were a typical right handed American kid, you developed the same malady from playing the Atari, as every other kid: tendinitis in your right wrist, from maneuvering the joystick, and a huge callous on your left thumb, from pressing that reddish-orange button. Sometimes that callous got so big that your thumb started to look like a big toe...

There were hundreds of games. Some were better than others, but it didn't matter -- if we had the good stuff we played that, otherwise we played what we had. Just so long as we played. But, even then I'm convinced that imagination played a role in the pleasure that we got from the Atari games. I say this because, looking back, there wasn't much to get excited about. Even with the best games, it was the same screen over and over and over again. It never got harder, it never got easier. It never changed. It just wore you down, and eventually the game won. But we played on. 

The best:


Actually, Asteroids was one of the few games you could change up -- your ship could go faster or slower, and the best way to play was just to go full throttle, blasting as many of those commie asteroids as you could -- just like Han Solo in the Empire Strikes Back. 


Pac-Man had a voracious appetite for glowing dots, and blue ghosts -- and the odd piece of fruit. 

Space Invaders.

Protecting Earth from a never ending parade of bug like aliens. Space Invaders was a game with a secret. If you held the Game Select switch down, as you turned the power switch on, you got a double firing missile. Twice the firepower, at half the price. I've never figured out if that was intentional, or just a quirk of the system. You never got a double missile with any other game. 


When you were playing Pitfall, you were Indiana Jones, and it was one adventure after another: swinging over mud holes, and quick sand, hopping across a crocodile infested lake (using the eyeballs of the crocodiles as stepping stones (don't stand on the mouth...if it opened it was one way trip to Death Roll City), jumping over snakes that looked like hissing piles of poop...all to get the gold, silver or copper bars, that someone just left laying around in the jungle. Then it was off to more adventure:

Swinging over mud holes, and quick sand, hopping across a crocodile infested lake (using the eyeballs of the crocodiles as stepping stones (don't stand on the mouth...if it opened it was one way trip to Death Roll City), jumping over snakes that looked like hissing piles of poop...

Well, you get the idea. 

There were a lot of other games that caught our attention: Breakout, Defender and Chopper Command (basically the same game), Combat, Raiders of the Lost Ark (you had to parachute into the side of the cliff...I had to finally call Atari to figure that one out), Donkey Kong (the beginning of all things Mario Brothers), but Pac-Man, Asteroids, Space Invaders and Pitfall, those were the big ones.

And there was an innocence to Atari. It hadn't occurred yet to anyone to create games where you steal cars, or beat up prostitutes, or kill indiscriminately for fun.

 We played until the controllers broke. We played day and night. We twisted and contorted our bodies trying to make the digital representation of ourselves on screen, do what we couldn't get it to do with the joystick. We threw the controllers, and sometimes the game cartridges -- and sometimes the console itself. We played, like unblinking zombies, until tears flowed from our eyeballs...until Pac-Man chomped his way through our brains, and our dreams, while our eyes were closed and we were trying to sleep. And then we got up and played again. 

The same screens. 

The same speed. 


And, despite what our mothers told us, there were no deleterious side effects. We weren't addicted.  Video games did not rot our brains, and we all grew up into normal, fully functioning adults. 


I'm positive that the fact that I can't go to sleep, these days, without playing a round of Wii Golf, is a complete coincidence.  

I can stop any time I want...

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