The Grumpy Old Gamer

Atari-2600-JoystickLike a lot of people of my generation, I played video games when I was a child; I still do some, though not in as large a quantity. I was born in 1979. Pong — technically not the first video game, but certainly the first notable one — debuted in 1972. The Atari 2600 brought video games to peoples’ homes in 1978. Space Invaders came out the year before I was born; Pac-Man, the year after I was born. In a way, my age group could be considered the first video game generation, the first to truly grow up with video games as a fact of life. The only older ones among the old school gamers are those who were already kids and teenagers when the arcades sprang into being.

I’m old enough to remember marveling at the difference in graphics between the home version and the arcade version. Old enough to remember not just joysticks, but paddles and trackballs as well. (I do consider the directional pad an improvement over joysticks as they’re less prone to breaking and easier on the wrist.) I’m old enough to remember when being a “hardcore” gamer meant you probably weren’t an antisocial little prick, because the only way to be “hardcore” was to spend a lot of time at the arcade, which was a social endeavor.

I’ve seen the landscape of video games and video game culture change a lot over the years. Sometimes it’s hardly recognizable.

iPad Pac-Man

And in some ways, it hasn’t changed at all.

My first video game console was an Atari 2600 purchased from a neighbor’s garage sale. My next was a Commodore-64 — ostensibly purchased for use as a computer, but mainly used for playing video games. And that was it for quite a while; I didn’t get another console until I was in high school and college and went on a retro-gaming kick for a while. Nintendo and Sega games were things I played when I was at friends’ houses. The C-64 had a vast library of games, but the overlap between it and other consoles was irregular at best. Donkey Kong and the original non-super Mario Bros. were available, but there was no chance that Nintendo was going to put out Super Mario Bros. on any system but their own. I’d play it sometimes when at friends, but it’s a bit of a long haul for a non-cooperative game. I probably played it just as often in the Vs. Super Mario Bros. form at a skating rink (yes, there was an arcade version, as little as people remember it.) As a consequence, I’ve never managed to rescue the princess; one of these days, I swear. I did better at Castlevania since it was available on the C-64 (something that often surprises my Nintendo-owning friends), eventually managing to beat it. I did best at those games that were cross-platform to the point where I could play them with friends at their house, and at the arcade, and at home.

Bad Dudes Opening

In point of fact, yes.

To me, there was always a distinction between “social” games and “solitaire” games, but it wasn’t the way social networking sites and online networks use the terms today. A social game was one where you play cooperatively with your friends (or just occasionally competitively; I wasn’t big on sports games) — and those friends would be sitting or standing right next to you. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice that I can play with a friend halfway across the world now, but it’s not the same as standing shoulder-to-shoulder with three of your best friends as you do your best to beat Shredder in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles before “Nickel Night” ends at the local arcade. (“Nickel Night” — so-called because that’s how much the mini-golf cost — was a special deal our local arcade, Putt & Video, ran once a week during the summer. Paid admission, but all video games were free. Started after the normal closing time, ended at midnight.) I have the Konami code memorized from childhood, even though I didn’t own a Nintendo until I was in my twenties, simply from playing Contra so often at a friend’s house. This cooperative play doesn’t seem to be present as often any more. Maybe I just don’t know where to look. Arcades — such as exist now — have a few competitive games in the form of Dance Dance Revolution and the ubiquitous Street Fighter clones, but I haven’t seen a cooperative game in an arcade in years (unless it was a Simpsons machine stashed in a corner somewhere that had simply never been moved out.) I can’t help but wonder if this — in addition to the obvious damage that the home console did — is part of why arcades went through such a decline. They’re no longer a place to go play with your friends. Against them, on occasion, but not with them.

TMNT Arcade Screenshot

Sorry, April, you’re on your own. I guess people aren’t as interested in saving Megan Fox.

Social games today are the MMOs, where you play with dozens of people out of groups of thousands. As nice as it is to play with a friend who you can’t visit, it’s still a bit strange to play with someone and not see their face or hear their voice. And this social networking aspect has started to affect even what I used to consider solitaire games. My friend Alex mentioned the other day that the new Sim City game now has social networking built-in — and requires the player to be online to play it. While I can see how some social aspects can be brought into it, the Sim series always struck me as the epitome of solitaire; you spend hours hunkered down planning out your little world. The notion that I have to be online to play it is more than a little strange, and somewhat discouraging. If it’s a one-player game, I should be able to play it whenever I want… but if I have to be online, it’s interacting with the publisher’s server, which means my ability to play is dependent on that being up. And sooner or later, it won’t be. I’m not just talking about outages, but the inevitable point when the ongoing sales revenue no longer warrants the ongoing costs of supporting the game. My ability to play this essentially-single-player game is directly dependent on other people continuing to enjoy it — which seems downright perverse to me. Meanwhile, I’ll be able to play Pac-Man and Frogger until the day I die. They keep getting re-released as cheap little apps on all sorts of systems (as shown near the top of this article), and that’s if I don’t have an original system to play it on. Aside from the NES’s spring-loaded system, cartridge based systems are pretty durable; disc-era systems are prone to mechanical breakdown, but with a retro console, all I’ve ever had to worry about is the external (replaceable) power supply.

Atari-2600-Jr-Console

I once bought an Atari 2600 Jr. at a garage sale with a pile of other stuff for $5. It had spent the last fifteen or twenty years literally half-buried in the ground in a rundown outdoor shed. It still worked.

Of course, it’s not just the games themselves that have changed. Somehow over the course of a little more than thirty years, I became a person in my thirties. My reflexes aren’t what they used to be; President Ronnie would have to wait a bit longer for his rescue nowadays. I’ve gained an appreciation for more thoughtful puzzle games, and less of an appreciation for fast-paced games that call for “twitch” reflexes. Though as I no longer have infinite free time or patience, I do greatly appreciate the advent of game saves. But, with the acknowledgement that this may just be due to the fact that I am (relatively speaking) an old fart now, I also find the newer games don’t seem as impressive as they once did. I’ve played games in the Halo series a little bit at friends’ houses… I don’t really see the point in devoting time to them. I’ve already played Doom, and Halo just seems like the same, but prettier. Games in the old days were simple by necessity — memory was measured in kilos, not gigs — but games today don’t actually seem any more complex for all the hardware behind them. They’ve just added a lot of story. This can certainly be entertaining — I’ve logged a lot of hours playing Final Fantasy and of course my love for City of Heroes is well-documented — but it’s not the same as bringing in innovative gameplay. And not to put too fine a point on it, but the stories are usually on the very low-end of B-grade fiction. There’s a reason why those stories notoriously adapt poorly to other media.

Lara Croft Tomb Raider Movie Poster

The most successful video game movie.

But to a certain extent, it’s not my business. I’m part of the first video game generation… but most definitely not the last one. If these games are successful, and many of them are, then the manufacturers have found their audience even if it’s not me. I haven’t bought a console since the PlayStation 2, and I haven’t missed it. Halo and Call of Duty will get by without me. I’ll keep trying to rescue the princess, keep chasing ghosts around mazes, and keep swearing at Arkanoid (probably the “twitchiest” of my vices). I introduced my ten-year-old nephew to Frogger a few weeks ago and inadvertently created an addict. The nice thing about being a fan of the old games is that the old games are still around and always will be. I can be a perfectly content gamer with what I already have.

But I do sometimes wonder if today’s gamers realize, with all they’ve gained, that progress hasn’t come without its casualties.

About Morgan R. Lewis

Fan of movies and other media
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27 Responses to The Grumpy Old Gamer

  1. Spikor says:

    That Atari 2600 Jr was my first console. Dad brought it home for me when I had the Chicken Pox in Grade 3. It also has the distinction of being one of two consoles I’ve ever given away. (The other being my original Playstation, which I either sold or gave to my brother after getting the backwards compatible PS2.) My mother had talked me into giving it to the daughter of a friend of hers, because I had just gotten an NES. I regretted it instantly.

    I picked up an original 2600 at at Thrift Shop with about 25 games 3 years ago, and just hooked it up again recently, as you already know from my Asteroids review.

    • Funny. My first Atari 2600 was one of the usual “woodgrain” models, sold sometime during the early 90s and just as regretted. I’m currently using the Jr. that I mentioned picking up in the article.

      Asteroids is one of the best for the system. Probably the only case where the Atari 2600 version looks better than the arcade version.

      • Spikor says:

        That’s arguable, though. I never saw Asteroids in an arcade. My arcading was done almost entirely during the Street Fighter 2/Mortal Kombat boom of the 90s, and the oldest machine anyone ever had around was Championship Bowling… or Tengen’s Tetris.

        I’ve seen the graphics since, and though they may be monochrome, I like the defined edges present because of the vector system much better than the seizure inducing 2600 version. I’ve only seen it emulated though, so I have no idea if the shitty lines flashed just as bad in arcades as the shitty coloured blobs did at home.

        I still remember it being among the greats, and always will… but it hasn’t aged well with me at all.

        I did let Charlotte give it a try, and she loves it, but is still too young to “try”. It’s mostly pewpewpewpewbpkugh over and over again.

        • Granted, it is arguable. But I never had a problem with the flickering graphics on the Atari. And I find the use of color and solid shapes makes the asteroids easier to keep track of. But yes, it’s up for debate.

          I think all kids start out going “pew pew pew” with Asteroids. I think it took me a year to realize I could even move my ship.

        • Spikor says:

          Or finally figuring out why you blinked and ended up in a different spot on the screen.

          Definitely a great game from that era.

        • Yup. Down and fire together. Amazing how they worked around that one-button limitation sometimes.

  2. Bubbawheat says:

    I’m in the same generation and I totally agree. Though there are still some cooperative games in the arcades nowadays. Most arcade shooters that are still around are cooperative, like Time Crisis, Let’s Go Jungle, Johnny Nero, and Terminator Salvation. But the days of the 4 player arcade games like X-Men, TMNT, or my favorite the Simpsons are long gone. It’s also a shame that pinball games are slowly going away from most arcades and moving into homes of pinball collectors.

    • Geez, yes, pinball machines. I probably put as many quarters into those as I did the video games, and you just don’t see them at all any more. What’s worse, there isn’t really a “home version” of those. I’m afraid they’re going to be gone for good one of these days.

  3. alloogs says:

    The only really co-op games I see these days are at places like Dave & Busters, and all have guns attached. I have an app version of the X-Men game, and found out its available on the Xbox store, so you could download some of those classics and still play side by side. Personally, my other fav co-op was always Guantlet. Someone always shot the food.

    • Bubbawheat mentioned the co-op shooter games as well. Those do seem to be the only ones still around.

      Didn’t realize the co-op X-Men game was available that way. I suppose that might be a reason for me to finally pick up an X-Box.

      Gauntlet was a lot of fun. Hard though. And you’re right, somebody always shot the food.

      • Spikor says:

        It’s a fun reminder, especially when a bunch of people were playing it on live… but the X-Men game’s port isn’t as fun, because they didn’t limit the number of continues you can use. As long as you’re willing to continue, you can just hit start.

        There’s no challenge, and it’s just a matter of spamming your mutant power repeatedly to get through each level. It hasn’t got the staying power (or the OMG TWO SCREENS novelty factor) the arcade version did since a continue was another quarter or two.

        Personal opinion, of course. Obviously, it was great hearing “X-men… Welcome TO DIE!” again.

        • I have mixed feelings on the whole “free continue” thing. On the one hand, I can definitely appreciate getting to complete the game no matter what (hence my love of “Nickel Night” above). On the other hand, it’s such a feeling of accomplishment when you win without it.

  4. Tyson Carter says:

    Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was one of my favourite games. I was a terrible gamer back then, I struggled with Turtles, now my skills have been honed as I try compete with the kids of Call of Duty 🙂

  5. TIGER HELI: SO FUN YOUR CAT WILL EXPLODE

  6. For me, the most exciting aspect of today’s gaming scene isn’t Halo or Call of Duty or any of the big name games — it’s the rapidly developing indie movement. So many indie games today are pushing the boundaries of what NES/SNES titles aspired to be while still maintaining the best characteristics of the old days. If you get a chance, I would recommend watching Indie Game: the Movie, an excellent documentary about the development process of a few recent (and excellent) titles. It’s a really fascinating watch, and the digital version of it goes on sale often.

    • The indie games do seem to generally be more in line with my preferences as a gamer. Of course, the problem with indie games is the same as with indie anything… finding out about the darned things.

      • Good point. I’ll have to work on writing about indie games more often then. 🙂

        One thing to keep an eye out for is the Humble Indie Bundle. They are released every few months or so, usually comprised of high quality indie games, on a pay-what-you-want basis. It’s a great way to try out new games at a price anyone can afford.

  7. I adore my Nintendo 64. Real Life tends to get in the way (pesky thing that it is), and I’ll go months — years — without touching it. Then, out of the blue, I get a hankering to rescue the princess, or throw green turtleshells at other drivers, or demolish buildings under some poor semblance of plot, and out its comes. “Hello, old friend.” 😉

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