This is the first in a series of articles reminiscing about the early years of video games. Before Nintendo & Mario, Sega & Sonic, and Body & whatever that mascot/bandicoot thing is, there was ATARI, Mattel, Magnavox, Coleco, and a slew of others jockeying for time on your television screen. Jouney with me back to the glory days of home video game systems. Step into the...ARCHAIC ARCADE.
We will start with everyone's favorite machine, the Atari Video Computer System (VCS), affectionately known as "The 2600." Originally released in 1977, this is the Godfather of living room games. Sure there was pong and its many variations before it, but until this baby came along and unified the consciousness of the world's youth, there was notehing else like it. Everyone had one. If you didn't get one for your birthday, by Christmas there was one under your tree. Two joysticks, a set of paddles, and a console streaight out of the hit movie of the same year, StarWars--your "other" toys never saw the outside of the closet again! You could now play games by yourslef and when you wanted to. No need for friends when you've got Arari! What other toy offered such unified versatility?
Occasionally, the TV lost its grasp over you; you heard the phone ring and a REAL PERSON invited you to come over. Time to play with someone else's collection of cartidges! With close to a hundred games in Atari's catalog, no one had them all. Independent manufactures began springing up to add to the abundance of choices on toy store shelves. Activision, with Dragster, Boxing, and Checkers, and Imagic with Trick Shot and Demon Attack were two of the first on the scene. competition soon became stiff as the quality of third party software soon surpassed Atari's own programs. Things started to get real interesting. More and more improvements gave us classics like Activion's River Raid, which blew Atari's Combat off the map, and Activision's Pitfall, whose beautiful colors and smooth motion made us feel the same way about Atari's Adventure. Every day another designer found a new trick to take the game player's experience to another level.
With today's game systems, "secrets" and "cheats" consist of pounding an array of buttons in a manic sequence in hopes of getting unlimited lives or a special ability not allowed in standard game play. Not so with Atari's "Easter Eggs." These were little software surprises either thrown in by disgruntled programmers who never received credit for their work, or just little perks for the curious explorer in all of us. One of the most famous, the hidden phrase "created by Warren Robinett" popped up in Adventure when you pulled a dot from the black castle and placed it in the room just above the orange maze. Add two more objects, and you could walk through the line on the right of the screeen. Onto the screen came Warren's signature! Pretty harmless, huh? Atari didn't think so, and fired him. This action was one of the major incidents that caused programmers to leave Atari and start up Activision, where each author was given credit for his software.
Other types of glitches utilized the power switch to "fry" a game and throw it into a flipped-out frenzy. Almost every cartridge would act crazy using this method. Some of the results were unlimited play, invincibility, and wild color shifts. There is a complete listing of these quirks at http://www.sponsor.net/~gchance/2600Stuff/2600EasterEggs.
The Internet has a slew of old video game information. The aforementioned site has an extreme concentration of data. Greg Chance has collected data from all areas of the net concerning home video games, arcade games, collector's lists and catalogs, and my personal favorite: ROMs!!! That's right! Two downloadable zip files jam-packed with just about any 2600 game you can remember! He has broken down video game history by year, so if you really want to get picky about what games came out when...there's where you need to be. After downloading a batch of ROMs, you will need an emulator to play them. There is a very cool (check out that logo!) VCS emulator called "Stella" (http://www4.ncsu.edu/~bwmott/www/2600/) which looks and plays amazing. The only thing missing is the sound [ed: sound works now]. They also have a large ROM collection at this site, in case you have a problem getting ones on Greg's page to work.
With so much interest in the old games, as with all things nostalgic, there has emerged a collector's market for the machines and cartridges. My favoite hunting ground for this stuff is Keith's Computers (813) 935-7879. He has a great "starter kit" that includes a reconditioned Atari 2600, two joysticks, a power supply, a TV switch box and one cartridge for only $20.00! Tell Keith that Marshall sent you when you call. He has a great selection of games as well. A sweet mail order list is available by sending a self-addressed envelope to: FMH Games, Box 493, Chesterland, OH 44026. They have full systems and cartridges from almost every major manufacturer. Very friendly.
So now that you realize how much you miss the old games where you could sit down next to your kid sister and not have here whip your ass with a double-half-axle-reverse-kick-freeze move, go dig out that old system! It's probably up in the attic at your mom's house, but if not, throw a sawbuck at Keith's, move the Play Station aside and let the games begin!
And, if while digging around you find old cartridges you would like to part with, drop me a line. I am sure I can help them find a happy home!
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