Sunday, 15 April 2012

Introduction Part 1: The Making of a Retro Gamer

My renewed interest in old video games is a fairly recent phenomenon, and as you’ll see in this article, it kind of came out of nowhere.  In fact, as recent as a few years ago, I probably would have laughed if somebody would have told me that I’d eventually become so interested in such a thing.  You’re probably wondering why you should care enough about my experiences to slog through a verbose and at times effusive article on the topic; the answer is, well, you probably shouldn’t.  Still, I thought I’d lay it out anyway, in hopes that somebody might happen upon my story and be inspired to reflect upon their own experiences in a similar way.  Let’s get down to it.    

Like most males my age, I played lots of video games in the 80’s.  I mean lots of them—mostly Atari and Nintendo.  My gusto for the manipulation of sprites went strong into the early 90’s; a time period that corresponded to the beginnings of the 16-bit era.  Then, at the age of 14 or so, I moved away from video games in favour of growing my hair long and playing guitar.  The Sega Genesis in the basement started to collect dust, and I quit the arcades cold turkey (by then, they were shutting down left and right anyway). 

I take my screen name from the custom guitar I built.
By 1992, video games had gone from being one of my favourite things in the world to being a take-it-or-leave-it footnote on the list of things I did for fun.  The next few years were spent playing rock and roll, discovering girls, learning to respect the wrath of Sunday morning hangovers, and generally evading the law.  In fact, during those years, I probably mocked kids my age who openly declared their love of video games.  Shame on me, I guess. 

In 1996 I enrolled in the engineering program at the local University, and in the summer of 1997, I landed a nice summer internship at a major automotive OEM.  It was a paid gig, and I was getting paychecks unlike I had ever seen.  Mind you, that’s not saying much; my previous jobs included delivering junk mail (that sometimes contained product samples like apple sauce and tampons), slicing potatoes, and placing packing materials on car seats.  Anyway, with the new-found riches burning a hole in my pocket, I decided one day that I’d just go out and grab myself one of those Sony Playstations that I’d heard some friends talking about.  I was completely aloof from the gaming world at that time, and the purchase was very spontaneous; it probably had more to do with my desire to buy something expensive than it did with any resurgence in my enthusiasm for gaming.  Still, the system ended up getting a fair bit of use, especially when I moved in to a rental property with three fellow engineering students in my second year of school.  The little Sony-that-could would sit in the middle of the nasty, stained carpet of our common area, and—with the requisite accompaniment of excessive booze—games like Tekken 2, Twisted Metal 2, and Rally Cross would go on to occupy innumerable hours of our carefree lives.  It was wonderful.    

I broke down and bought myself a Playstation 2 in 2003 or so.  Up front, it saw a fair bit of use—mostly with the Star Wars Battlefront series—but it spent the lion’s share of the next half decade either collecting dust, playing DVD’s, or serving as a bed for my cat Stu.  For the purposes of discussion, I pretty much consider myself to be a bystander in the PS2/XBOX era of gaming.
Where's that damn PS2?  I'm tired.
As we all know, the economy imploded in 2008.  Shortly after the crash of all those big financial institutions, things got really slow at work, and they started cutting jobs.  I survived the first several rounds of cuts, but I was eventually hit in mid-2009. 

Laid off.   

I would spend the next 10 months unemployed and alone (my marriage had also crumbled in a big hurtful mess that year, but that’s a whole other story).  Most of my free time was spent applying for jobs, writing and recording music, and surprisingly, playing my Playstation 2.  From friends, I borrowed copies of some very memorable titles such as Black, Medal of Honour, and the original God of War.  I also dusted off my own copy of Gran Turismo 4, which I had purchased a few years prior but hardly ever played.  It was a dark period of my life, so I’m very thankful I had those games at my disposal to sedate my mind and beguile my spirit. 

By early 2010, I was back to work.  My PS2 returned to cat-bed duties, and it was back to the rat race.  Video games quickly faded out of my consciousness once again.  I remember telling a gamer friend of mine around that time that I didn’t see myself ever getting back into it.   

But then, I was forced to rethink my position when that same friend brought home a Playstation 3 and I saw everything it could do.  Not only were the games gorgeous, but it was a BluRay player, it played simple pick-up-and-play downloadable games, and had some cool media center capabilities.  Eager to treat myself to some toys with my recently re-established income stream, I bought myself a new guitar amp and an 80GB “fat” Playstation 3, the latter of which I picked up used from the local classifieds at a very reasonable price. 

Super Stardust HD: bad-ass arcade action on PS3.
I had a lot of fun with the PS3, at least initially.  I liked how it was so heavily integrated in the home network and the internet.  Online multiplayer was everywhere, and low-priced games were brought right in to my living room via the Playstation Network.  I played some so-so “big title” games like Resistance 2 and the like, but I found I was most interested in the more simple downloadable titles—not because they were downloadable, mind you, but because they were simple.  Games like 1942: Joint Strike, Super Stardust HD, and the absolutely amazing Pac-Man Championship Edition DX were (and still are) favourites of mine.   I loved how they combined classic gameplay mechanics with thoroughly modern and dazzling sights and sounds.  I also liked how they were well-suited for short play sessions as desired, which was in stark contrast to the commitment of 40-hour long cut-scene-fests that used CGI and abysmal voice acting to tell me a “story” that I didn’t give a shit about.  In retrospect, my partiality to those classically inspired games was probably a harbinger of what was to come in my gaming world.    

By the fall of that year, after several months of PS3 ownership, the glut of first person shooters and shallow audiovisual wankfests like Uncharted 2 had taken a toll on me.  I tried to like those games—I really did—but I eventually noticed that I’d always get to a point where I couldn’t wait for the stupid game to end.  I’d finish a “mission”, hoping it was the end of the game, then let out an audible gasp of disappointment when I was greeted with yet another frivolous cut-scene informing me that the tedium was not yet over.  Eventually, something that should have been obvious from the get-go dawned on me: I didn’t care about “finishing” these games, and I most certainly did not care about amassing collections of trophies for such arbitrary accomplishments as being a “sharp shooter” or a “treasure hunter”.  So, from that point on, I vowed to just ditch a game as soon as it stopped being fun, regardless of whether I was 10% or 90% of the way through it.  It was quite liberating, actually. 

I was becoming more and more disillusioned with the modern games I was playing; I felt like they more or less played themselves, and there didn’t seem to be any meaningful way for me to measure my performance or skill.  I think the latter concern was what caused me to look back in time to my gaming roots.  I recalled the evenings sitting in my basement with my older brother playing Atari 2600—games like Joust, and Astroblast, and Frostbite.  They were primitive, sure, but they were games of skill.  The promise of setting a new high score gave me a goal to shoot for, not to mention an objective means of comparing my abilities to those of others.  The gratification to be had from winning a down-and-dirty contest of skill in a classic video game is very hard to replicate in modern titles that are all too often marred by dull cut-scenes, intrusive on-screen tutorials, and a lopsided emphasis on pretty looking graphics. 

Clockwise from upper left: 4-switch woody, Vader, and Jr.
So, on a whim in late September 2010, I headed down to a local used game store in search of an Atari 2600.  I walked in, and within a few seconds of scanning the inventory, I saw it: an Atari VCS CX2600A—known as a “4-switch woody” in retro geek parlance—in its dilapidated original box, sitting high up on a shelf above some surplus N64 peripherals that were still in bubble-wrap.  I felt like Yukon Cornelius from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer arriving in the Land of Misfit Toys, ready and willing to adopt some long lost object of neglect.  I eagerly brought my find up to the counter to buy it, but not before stopping at a bin that contained dozens of crusty old cartridges that were selling for a buck or two apiece.  I grabbed a starter batch of old standbys, including (but not limited to) Missile Command, Asteroids, Dodge ‘Em, and Breakout—ah, the memories.  At the front of the store, locked away under glass, were some other games—not necessarily rare, but perhaps a tad too elite to be slumming it alongside the likes of E.T. and Combat in the bargain bin.  I quickly discerned the unmistakable form factor of several Activision cartridges.  Among them were Kaboom!, Frostbite, and Enduro; adorned with slightly stained and fading labels of pink, blue, and green respectively.  Sold.  

I brought the Atari home and, while most of the cartridges required a good cleaning, the console worked like new.  I would spend the next few months looking through the classifieds and chasing down all of my old Atari 2600 favorites that I was unable to grab up front, like Frogger, Pressure Cooker, and The Empire Strikes Back.  It occurred to me that this system was a relic that might not always be readily available in good working order, so I decided to grab a few extra units to tuck away: an Atari 2600 “Vader” that a local kid sold me for $10, and a 2600 Jr. that my previously mentioned PS3 friend had discovered in his crawl-space.  The Jr. didn’t work at first, but luckily I was able to isolate the problem to a bad power switch and repair it.    
Make no mistake, I buy games to play, not display; I’m not a collector, retro or otherwise.  In fact, I don’t understand the collector mentality at all.  To me, spending absurd amounts of money on 30+ year-old video games that often aren’t even any good or fun to play seems more than a little bit silly.  Anyway, I don’t judge, whatever yanks one’s crank I guess.  I’ve got a nice little collection of Atari 2600 games—all games I genuinely like—and it’s nice to know they’re in my basement ready to go whenever I get the urge to play them.  I also have a NES with a small collection of games, but I don’t enjoy it as much as the Atari.  Both systems are hooked up to crappy old 14” CRT televisions from the early-mid 80’s, just like they were meant to be.        

This seems like a convenient spot to pause, because the next step on my journey of rediscovery involves the classics of the arcade, and how they live on for me in the new millennium. 

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