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I'd always found people who love the Atari 2600 a little bewildering. Sure, I could understand the power of nostalgia, and on a purely intellectual level I could see their rose-tinted love for Atari's first home console mirrored my equally rose-tinted love of the Nintendo Entertainment System, which I played obsessively while growing up in the late '80s and early '90s. But looking at things as objectively as I could, I just couldn't see what Atari lovers saw in their system. I recognized that genre-spawning games like Pitfall! and Adventure were revolutionary for their time, but their limited, one-button gameplay and blocky graphics seemed decidedly worse than the likes of Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, not to mention the countless, fully realized 3D worlds they eventually spawned. Much as the iPhone 4 is better in every way than the original iPhone, I felt that Atari 2600 games had been rendered obsolete by subsequent titles that were strictly superior in every way.
Why couldn't I appreciate the value of a console that died off just a few years before I started playing videogames?
This phenomenon was a bit troublesome to me as a supporter of the inherent, artistic value of games. After all, plenty of people still love classic novels, classic rock, and black-and-white movies made decades before they were born. Shakespeare and opera and Renaissance painting and classical music have all survived as celebrated works that can move people centuries later, so why couldn't I appreciate the value of a console that died off just a few years before I started playing videogames? Would kids growing up today see my beloved NES as a similar anachronism that can't hold a candle to the Wii titles they grew up with? Did the force of nostalgia make anything that came before my first videogame experience defunct by definition?
That's what I wanted to find out. So, with as open a mindset as I could muster, I decided to track down an old Atari 2600 system and some games, hook them up to my old, unused cathode ray tube TV, and immerse myself in a generation of home gaming that I had previously given only the most cursory and dismissive of glances.
The Escapist's Susan Arendt recently wrote about the simple, magical joy she found as a child, learning she could control what happened on her TV for the first time. I was going to find out if a 28-year-old - with a lifetime of gaming experience but without the benefit of such Atari-related childhood memories - could capture that same magic roughly three decades later.
"I think it's one of those 'you had to be there' things," said Gozillajoe, a poster on the fan community forums at AtariAge.com, when I asked for help learning to love the Atari 2600. "For those of us who lived through this period of history I think there's a kind of innate understanding that we have that may be difficult to communicate [to] the generations who came after," agreed poster almightytodd. "In much the same way that some people can't appreciate certain art movements because they can't broaden their horizon of what art is, some people will simply be unable to appreciate the 2600 experience," wrote a poster by the handle RevEng.