Adventures In Vintage Gaming 

By Mikey Shake


Growing up, Atari home video game consoles ("Ataris"? "Atarii"?) were in many of my friends’ houses, but by the time we were in grade school, most of them had been moved to the bottom shelf in favor of newer machines.  I’m definitely of the Nintendo Generation (first-wave NES, that is), but my earliest gaming memories are all based around those single-button CX-40 joysticks and the flickering of the blocky colors on an Atari 2600.

My dad’s Aunt Helen had a whole bunch of kids, and the younger ones were just teenagers when I was little.  Most of them had already gone off to college, but like many kids of that age, they’d left their crap at mom and dad’s house.  Whenever my enormous, Irish-Catholic family would meet for holidays, we’d head over there.  My similarly-aged cousins and I would all hang out and do whatever it is a half-dozen little boys do at big family gatherings.  Eventually, we’d end up in the basement rec room.  As we sat on the thick shag carpet of that wood-paneled sanctuary, we huddled in front a rabbit-eared cathode TV, and in front of us was… an Atari.  None of us called it a "2600" or anything like that yet – it was just "an Atari".  Because there were no real alternatives.  The Nintendo console was right around the corner, but it was a pretty sharp corner.  While there had been other consoles on the home market, to us little kids in ’84-’86, this was all we’d ever known of home gaming.

And it was really all we needed to know.  Thanks to our older cousins, there was a decent bank of games scattered around the TV stand – and watching/playing them was as transfixing to our impressionable little brains as any cartoon or movie or other visual media.  Maybe more, since it was interactive. By today’s standards, the graphics are unthinkably primitive.  The gameplay could be accused of being repetitive and simple (not "easy"… simple).  That’s because we’re 30 years in the future.  These things were amazing at the time.  And we let our imaginations do the heavy lifting.  We understood that it was a street full of cars the frog was trying to cross.  The rest was easy to fill in if you were willing to let it sweep you away.  And were we ever.

I wish one of our aunts or uncles had taken a photo of us.  I’ll have to hunt around.  A web search tells me that there are whole webpages devoted to this kind of picture, but a personal one would be cool.  This one I found online (RIGHT) isn’t far off…

About 6-10 of us, arranged two deep in a semicircle around the TV – eyes wide, mouths open.  The back line would probably be yelling advice to the ones in front who had the controllers, "Roman forum"-style.  Communal console gaming in its infancy.  Breakout was one of my favorites, but I definitely remember playing Kaboom!, Frogger, Video Olympics (AKA Pong), Asteroids, and one that it took me years to remember the name of – Megamania.  I almost fell over when the dusty synapses fired up memories of that one, because I hadn’t though about it in decades.  I’m sure there were others around (like the Pac-Man port that none of us knew was abysmal), but the ones on that list were the ones that I remember getting the highest rotation.  I was just a little kid, but these things were like magic to kids – as easily burned into our brains as The Wizard Of Oz or the Disney classics had been for generations before ours.  Most of my cousins and I have gone pretty different ways in life.  Not a lot in common, and we rarely see each other.  But every once in a while, in the rare times we’re together, we all have the same good memories of that fuzzy basement.

Like I said, a few years later, the Nintendo Entertainment System came along and pretty much changed everything.  The video game industry crash of 1983 sounds like a pretty funny concept when I think of how Mario-and-Link obsessed my friends and I were just three or four years later.  Kaboom! and Pitfall! weren’t quite as interesting to a 7-year old boy when The Legend Of Zelda or Double Dragon were on the table.  But those Atari consoles that every third friend of yours owned didn’t disappear, they just sort of faded away.  First to the bottom shelf, then to the cabinet, then to storage in the garage once nobody played them anymore.  But some of us, of just the right age, never forgot those formative experiences.  The games have a certain longevity because of their charming gameplay.  Good gameplay always trumps anything else (even today), and because there really WASN’T anything else at the time, the simple, addictive controls of the "golden age" classic games make up for their (relative) lack of graphical and musical sophistication.  It’s no surprise that downloads of classic/vintage games on modern consoles (Xbox, PS, Wii) are big business.  Or that "all-in-one" retro systems are available at almost any Walmart or Target.  They’re good games, and people still want to play them.

For a variety of reasons, my family never bought a Nintendo.  Which was a real drag at the time, always having to play at friends’ houses and therefore never being any good at most games.  Which is probably why I’m not really any kind of "gamer" even though I enjoy playing.  We got a Super Nintendo in late ’92, but by that point I was a edging toward junior high and high school, and my attention was shifting even as gaming trends shifted toward the "extreme" era.

But through high school, college, and young adulthood, whatever other consoles I’d pick up, I’d never lost my interest in getting an Atari.  My wife bought one with a friend while she was in another city on a student summer program about a decade ago.  She sold her interest in it ($20) to her friend at the end of the session and the friend took it home.  She says she still regrets that.  The consoles I’d see always seemed to be out of my price range considering I wasn’t hardcore about it, and didn’t know enough to determine a good one from a bad one.  I bought one of those "all-in-one" joysticks at Best Buy that had 7 games pre-loaded, and it was alright, but a couple of them (Breakout, Pong) just weren’t fun without the cool rotator paddle controller the games were designed for.  A swing and a miss.  But that itch never went away.

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