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Retro-Colored Glasses

Kyle Orland | 13 Jul 2011 15:30
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Not exactly the most encouraging words to launch my project, though other posters were more helpful in recommending favorite games to track down, and many tried to help me get in the right headspace to understand the Atari 2600. The most important suggestion may have been from a poster who recommended blasting '80s tunes to fill in the lack of background music in most Atari games (if Pandora's 'Journey' station doesn't make you want to grab a joystick, nothing will).

The fact that I had to make these adjustments at all highlighted the size of the generational gulf I was trying to cross.

A more common suggestion, though, was to first change the way I think about why I'm playing games in the first place. A poster going by the name Amstari spoke for many in summing up the Atari difference: "The objective in a lot of games on the NES was to finish the game, but many 2600 games don't have an end, the goal is to improve your high score."

Luckily this is something I've had experience with, both as a frequent childhood visitor to the arcade cabinets at my local Chuck E. Cheese and as a sometimes obsessive player of score-oriented NES games like Pinball and Balloon Fight. (I even briefly held the Twin Galaxies world record in one mode of the latter.) Learning to tolerate games that always end in player failure wasn't something I was going to have a problem with.

The most difficult, yet necessary, mental adjustment would surely be suppressing my natural urge to compare Atari 2600 titles to those that came afterwards. Game researcher and Georgia Tech professor Ian Bogost, who co-wrote the technically-focused Atari 2600 appreciation book Racing The Beam, urged me in an e-mail conversation to ignore the technical and design advancements that came after these classic games and instead try to appreciate them in the context of their time.

"You can't go back, and to judge [Atari 2600 games] based on today's standards is folly," he said. "The only way they will 'hold up' is given a more complex approach to evaluating them than just playing them without sentiment."

However, when I argued back that such sentiment would be practically impossible for me to manufacture without the benefits of nostalgia, Bogost grudgingly agreed.

"It has to be an intellectual experience, for better or worse," he conceded.

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My intellectual response to the first evening with the Atari 2600 was an aching wrist. Not only did the massive, rubberized block that is the system's standard joystick take ridiculous amounts of force to move a tiny amount, but the directional input it sent to the system was often not the one I had intended. The wrist pain would ease as I changed my grip and learned to moderate my movements, but the fact that I had to make these adjustments at all highlighted the size of the generational gulf I was trying to cross.

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