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Article


Remember the 80s?

Weíve seen the bellbottoms and lava lamps, That Seventies Show has become part of our consciousness, and all the new rap tunes have sampled everything in that era from the Bee Gees to Blondie. Retro is definitely in style. But that capitalistic machine always keep rolling, and the next trend is now in sight. As I was walking through the mall the other day, right next to the Punisher hoodies were T-shirts blazoned with images from my youth. There in a row were Inky, Blinky, Pinky, Clyde, and, you guessed it, Pac-man. I nearly swooned, and had to go drool over the shirts for a while before I tore myself away to head to the next stop, my neighborhood retail outlet.

As I drove, I thought about how my generation was finally coming into its own, both as a creative and consumer entity. I had already noticed how commercials for financial investment companies featured songs from Joan Jett and Billy Idol, and couldnít possibly have missed how Who Wants to be a Millionaire asked questions about Better Off Dead and the owner of that famous phone number, 867-5309. So I suppose I wasnít that surprised when, as I reached my destination, I was met with one of the latest retail crazes, retro videogame joysticks complete with my childhood favorites. For under twenty dollars, I was able to re-acquire Atari titles like Asteroids and Pong and Namco fan faves such as Pac-man and Galaxian. These great devices plugged into the A/V jacks on the front of my TV and required no other hardware. How cool is that? In no time whatsoever, all my friends owned at least two of these nifty gadgets.

After the eleventh hour straight of eating power pellets and swallowing blue ghosts, I had a major epiphany. In the back of my mind I had already been contemplating why some games were able to capture the nostalgia factor and stand the test of time while others, though of interest in a historical context, were completely left behind and unplayable. Yet it had taken a total immersion into the past to clarify the issues for me.


Most of the games that still hold our attention and are able to recruit new admirers blend great yet simplistic ideas with the elements of skill and obsession. This may sound obvious, but pause to think about it more deeply. Pac-man is a great concept, but is really only a fairly simplistic (and cute) game of tag where power pellets determine whoís ďit.Ē And tag is a timeless game. The mazes become somewhat more complex to navigate as the game progresses, but they repeat midway, just as the speed also increases but resets. When you have built up the skill to best the challenges, then your mind moves to high scores. With Space Invaders (a sci-fi shooting gallery), the whole goal of my young life was to flip the score back to zero. There wasnít anything new to see, but I was still testing my skill in a fairly repetitive arena. But that repetition engaged the next elementóobsession. I canít think of a game Iím more obsessed with than Tetris (which is playing blocks with points and adrenaline added) and that game functions in the same way as the aforementioned. All of these types of games donít rely on fabulous graphics, new discoveries, or complicated storyline, but are nonetheless compelling. Their universality and timelessness carry them.

Some of the titles that donít hold up may be repetitive, but donít require that much skill or donít have a point total to beat. This category is usually the one in which I place Pong (sorry, but Iím sticking to that, regardless of imminent hate mail). When none of the skill or obsession elements are engaged, we suddenly notice the graphics stink, and there are no elements of plot or discovery. And then we are just looking at an old game (even if it is a beloved ďclassicĒ) rather than a currently viable, nostalgic gaming experience.

This is not to say that games didnít evolve. In time, there were fabulous games of action, adventure, and mayhem, but I think the more complicated the game, the more likely we are now to compare it to our modern equivalent and find it lacking. In some ways I believe this may be because they were striving for something we now know can be improved upon. Also, the more diversified and complex the games, the more likely they are to become age/gender/genre exclusiveótherefore logically excluding some demographics.

There is some similarity to why I am now occasionally frustrated with the handheld games that donít fall into the obsessive/skill category. I look at what the games are trying to be, but I know that if I go home and play on my console, I can have better graphics, bigger levels, and (hopefully) more complicated gameplay. With games like Pac-Man and Tetris, the simplicity is elegant, addictive, and there really isnít much more that I want that would greatly improve the game. The new version of Tetris didnít really enhance the game any, and the 3D Pac-man never hit me like the good Ďole version. Perhaps the latter is because when the world became larger and had more possibilities, it cut down on the obsessive/repetitive nature embedded so firmly in the original.

In the end, it doesnít really matter precisely why I loved these games. I just didóand I still do. And it is that love that the money-making machine is using to get me to plunk down my hard earned dollars for one more taste of the 80s. But even knowing that, I still canít help but go for it. These were the games of my formative years, and even though I believe my adult critical eye detects games that stand up to the test of time, itís possible that Iím delusional. But if I am, itís a delusion I share with an entire age.

As my reverie came to a close, I thought back to that fateful Christmas when my brother and I opened our Atari and the world was irrevocable changed for me. I had never experienced something as compelling and addictive, nor ever felt so sure that the science fictions fantasies of my youth were able to come true. I think that somehow intuitively we knew that as well as having a kick-ass time, we were on the cusp of a technological shift. And I have to wonder, do young children today feel that same sense of awe when they first put on a headset and game with kids from around the world? And will I ever feel that way again? Deep in my animal heart, Iím sure of itóas sure as I am that from the first time I laid hands on a joystick, I was meant to be a gamer.

 

Monica Hafer (02/02/2004)