Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Grown Up Adventures of a Boy and his Atari

                Confessions of a Dork: I love my Atari.

                That’s right, my Atari.  In 2011. I don’t mean “my Atari” as a cutesy euphemism for my PS3, Xbox, or Wii, either.  Nope, I mean this beast right here:

                Those of you with sharp eyes, or thriving dork demons, will notice that it’s not even a garden variety 2600.  This, ladies and gentlemen with lives, is an Atari 7800: the company’s ill-fated competition for the Nintendo Entertainment System.  While it never exactly caught up to Mario and friends, it did introduce one important new feature to video game systems: backward compatibility.  Not only did the 7800 have its own modest library of NES-style games, it could also handle all of your old 2600 favorites like a champ.  If you’re looking to geek out like it’s 1986, this machine right here is what you want.
                But why?  In this day and age of HD graphics and internet connectivity, why on earth would anyone settle for a screen full of blocky, pixilated images that, if you’re lucky, might almost approximate what they’re supposed to represent?  Why Pitfall instead of Red Dead Redemption?  Why a one-button joystick instead of a tricked-out D-pad or Wii-mote?  Perhaps surprisingly, I’ve got several good answers for you.

                Nostalgia.  That much should be obvious: it’s what I grew up with.  I was an absolute Atari freak when I was a kid; even as whispers of this Nintendo thing with its better graphics and Italian plumbers began to spread through the neighborhood, I clung fast to my square balls and blocky aliens.  A couple of years ago, Rhea’s old Atari 2600 was unearthed from the dreaded “other room” in her folks’ house.  At first, I thought it would be a passing thing; two months later, still playing Berzerk daily, I decided to invest in a better-working machine that would let you move left with a bit less of a struggle.  Nostalgia started it, but the continuing fun of it made me want to dig a bit deeper.

                Simplicity.  It’s all a matter of personal preference, of course, but I’m a huge fan of games you can just pick up and play.  I use video games as a quick, 15-20 minute way to blow off steam here and there.  As such, I just don’t have the time to get as involved as many modern games require, and I often don’t have the patience to sit through tutorials, qualifying rounds, and endless back story.  Give me a laser gun and some aliens, or a frog trying to cross a highway, and let’s just get started.

                 Charm.  The best Atari games are timeless, a clear reminder that graphics alone do not make a good game.  The less good games offer an entirely different kind of fun: a game every intrepid Atari-centric retro-gamer has enjoyed at one time or another.  In some ways, it may be the most famous Atari game of all, a little number I like to call WHAT THE HELL IS THAT SUPPOSED TO BE?!

                In fact, I’m going to give you a chance to play at home, right now.  The rules are simple: boot a cartridge and try to figure out what’s being depicted on the screen, without looking at the game’s instruction manual.  So go ahead – try to guess what this is:

                If you guessed MINIATURE GOLF, then you are both insane and correct.  Your prize is ten – count ‘em, ten – prize coupons for the arcade at SportTime USA.  Sadly, they expired in 1982.  Win some, lose some, kid.

                Economics.  To hell with $50 for the latest video games; if you’re just into playing the games and not collecting NEW, COMPLETE IN BOX, 3rd LABEL VARIATION kinda stuff, the best Atari games are common as dirt and just as cheap.  The machines themselves are both plentiful and affordable, too: it seems that Atari didn’t mess around when it came to making the game systems, and a shocking number of them function just as well now as they did when they were new.  7800 systems will run you a bit more than 2600s, but I’d say it’s money well spent if you’re going to take the plunge anyway: it’s sort of like two systems in one, and a good amount of the dedicated 7800 titles are great fun.

                Aliens.  Really, you can never shoot too many aliens.  Trust me on that.  Now take your Nintendo DSs and get off Grandpa Dork’s lawn: it’s time for my daily Super Breakout.

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