Thursday, July 25, 2019

Perspectives: In Defense of the Atari 2600

Cosmic Ark is still one of my favorite 2600 games.
The Atari 2600 came out in 1977. I was all of five years old back then, and didn't play it at that time. I was still fiddling around with the APF TV Fun unit that my dad had brought home a year prior, and honestly... that's probably all that I could've grasped at the time. A dial was enough of a challenge for me, though (according to my mom), I was still good enough to beat my dad pretty consistently. 

My first Atari 2600 experience came in 1980. My mom wound up taking us to live with her parents after my mom could no longer live with my paternal grandparents, who had taken us in just after my mom an dad had split up. I wasn't a fan of this arrangement, but the purchase of an Atari 2600 by my maternal grandparents lessened the blow a bit. This thing was awesome. Combat was a bit simple, but playing Space Invaders without going to an arcade was really cool. Adventure tested my skills and patience as an eight year-old. Bowling was a lot of fun. All told, having video games like these in the house was mind-blowing. 

Yes, that's Donkey Kong. Really. 

"Okay," you're probably thinking, "but what's the point here?"

Perspective. 

I was fortunate enough to be alive when the Atari 2600 was the new thing, the in thing. We only had arcade games to compare the experience to. If you liked video games, as I did, the Atari 2600 was awesome at this time. The games were a mix of arcade-style games, traditional games (like sports or casino games), and experimental games. The arcade games were my favorites. Playing Berzerk at home wasn't that far from playing the coin-op, aside from the missing voices. Frogger was a decent approximation, even if the animation wasn't smooth like the game that I sunk a few quarters into. The experimental stuff, like Pitfall!, was neat to play because there was nothing else like it. Multiple screens and timed gameplay? Wow. 

Berzerk is still a lot of fun, and holds up well on the 2600.

What I find now is that some of today's content creators who cover retro video games tend to take a big ol' dump on the 2600. They wonder what the heck we were thinking back then. They criticize the graphics. They lament the simplicity. They tend to view these games and the platform on the whole through a narrow lens, missing a key layer of understanding... which revolves around comparing the games to what we had at the time. That perspective is important. 

I get that the graphics are simple. I know that the sound effects are limited. I understand that the games aren't that deep. Many games are unbeatable, as they revolve around scoring instead of an end goal. That's how things were. Arcade games were similar. You didn't "beat" Frogger or Gorf. You tested your endurance and skill, shooting for the highest score. There were some games you could beat, like Raiders of the Lost Ark, or even the unfairly-maligned E.T... but these games are hard to grasp for players who didn't grow up with them. 

So many people give E.T. a bad rap, and unfairly so.

I just played some E.T. prior to writing this. Memory and experience quickly kicked in, and I remembered what I learned when I played it originally. I'll grant that falling into pits is annoying, and happens a bit too much; however, the basics of the game are simple: Find the communicator parts, "phone" home, and wait to be picked up. The instruction manual (Remember those?) told us the "how"s and "why"s. I knew what the arrows and other symbols meant because I took a few moments to read the manual back then. I don't think many people in this day and age give a second thought to looking at an instruction manual, let alone take time to read it. 

I won't argue that the Atari 2600 is the best video game platform ever made. It's not even in my Top Five. As technology improved, so did the home video game experience. Having said that, I can also recognize why the Atari 2600 is so significant. It was the "in thing" for a few years, and that's due in no small part to the fact that it was-- for its time-- an impressive platform with a ton of games that delivered hours of fun to families everywhere. 

You don't have to like the console or its games, but I firmly believe that it deserves some respect and put into a proper perspective. 

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