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.
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.
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.
It took about a week to weed out the duds from my motley collection of a few dozen cartridges I’d obtained from bulk online purchases. First out were the games that were too screen-flickeringly ugly for me to even look at, no matter how hard I tried to accept them as “a product of a different time” (Pac-Man, Asteroids). Next out were the games that were too maddeningly abstract for me to understand how to play well, even after looking up instructions online (Star Raiders, Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark). Then there were titles I just found too painfully limited compared to the well-remembered arcade originals I couldn’t help but wish I was playing instead (Donkey Kong, Pole Position).
The immediate appeal of all of these titles came down to the clear link between a death and an easily preventable mistake I knew I had made.
Some titles had little technical quirks that I found myself unable to forgive, like the way the ball went through the side of bricks in Breakout rather than bouncing off to the side, as in every other version of the title I’d ever played. Other titles, like Golf and Video Pinball, had physics engines that felt like they were trying to power a space shuttle with a single abacus – admirable for their effort, but doomed to failure.
With the duds out of the way, though, I was surprised to find I still had quite a few games that provided that just-right mix of simplicity, tight control, and subtle randomness to form a truly addictive high score challenge. Even more surprising, they weren’t all just rehashing the same basic gameplay. There was pure, zen-like reflex testing in games like Enduro and Kaboom!; more deliberate, strategic path-finding in titles like Berzerk, Frogger, and Ms. Pac-Man; targeting and visual acuity challenges in Missile Command and Space Invaders; and battles of positioning in Joust, River Raid, and Yars’ Revenge.
The immediate appeal of all of these titles came down to the clear link between a death and an easily preventable mistake I knew I had made. I found myself so obsessed with reviewing my actions and kicking myself for my errors that I barely cared that the games mostly looked and sounded like something the cat dragged in. In fact, the abstract blockiness of those graphics made it somewhat easier to relax my concentration and enter that rarefied zone where the next correct move seems to flow naturally without thought … until it doesn’t and you die yet again, of course.
On the one hand, the simplicity of these titles meant I wouldn’t unearth many hidden strategic depths after hours of play, as I might in a modern real-time strategy game or even a first-person shooter. On the other hand, I never needed to wonder if a suboptimal mining strategy was the real reason for my loss or figure out where an unseen sniper’s bullet actually came from. In a world of games where presentational cruft and needless complexity often gets in the way of simple comprehensibility, there’s something to be said for titles where everything you need to know can be boiled down into one screen of blocky, brightly colored pixels.
After spending a fortnight or two devoting a little time each day to the Atari 2600, I began to see what made the system such a success in its time. Though the general reaction to the technology has slowly morphed from “Oh my God, that’s amazing!” to “Oh my God, people thought that was amazing?” over the decades, game design that lets players ride that fine line between success and failure has held up surprisingly well for those that want to take the time to find it.
I began to see what made the system such a success in its time.
But Bogost and the AtariAge posters were also right in that you can’t truly recreate the context that established these games – that of childhood. Had I been around during the Atari 2600’s heyday, battling friends in a Combat tournament or trying to post the highest Berzerk score on the block would have likely been my all-consuming passions. Today, my friends are too busy playing Starcraft 2 or League of Legends to really indulge me in any such battles (though I did attract some interest when I busted out competitive snake-game Surround at a recent party). I could capture some of that feeling competing with unseen strangers online, but it wouldn’t be the same.
And my own circumstances have changed just as much as my environment. When I was 8, I’m sure I’d have been happy to spend an entire after-school afternoon mastering the precise timing and positioning needed to hop on those damned crocodile heads in Pitfall!. These days, I find myself crankily blaming the game’s touchy jumping controls after becoming a few dozen crocodile meals and worrying about the errands and deadlines that would suffer if I stayed up too late improving my performance.
This gets into why I feel my beloved NES games have aged better than the Atari 2600 titles that are, to me, just a few weeks old. The classics of the NES library retain the simplicity of form and function of the previous generation, but add a technologically enabled internal variety that lets players move through a slowly evolving experience over many nights. Squeezing an hour of Metroid into a busy work week might get me a new item and one step closer to the eventual goal of Mother Brain. Squeezing in a similar hour of Space Invaders might get me a new high score – if I’m lucky – and no closer to any kind of novelty in the experience.
I’d like to say that these differences are independent of my nostalgic memories, but it’s impossible to say for sure. What I can say is that while it seems I’ve missed my chance to love the Atari 2600 with the fervor of the nostalgic generation that grew up with it, at least I no longer find that generation quite so bewildering.
Kyle Orland has somehow spun a hobby web site about Super Mario Bros. into a 10+ year career writing about video games professionally. His goal in life is to one day recapture the Twin Galaxies Balloon Fight Game C record.