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Atari at 40- 4k Memories

Last week, Atari turned 40. Like most gamers of my generation, the name conjures up a lot of great memories. I remember my parents taking me into a Rich’s department store in 1980 to buy me an “electronic game”. I thought I was going to get something like the Mattel handheld football game. What I got was one of the old wood panel Atari 2600 and a couple of games, including Asteroids and Missile Command. Paddle controllers. Warlords. Some math game, probably called “Math”. I was five years old. It made me a video gamer for life.

It was a very long time ago, but I can still feel the soft give of that orange button- a controller with X and Y buttons would have blown my mind. I still feel those rubber-booted controllers in my hand. And when that boot tore off, that meant that the controller would be used by the sleepover guest. When you were the sleepover guest, you could blame your terrible Combat performance on the busted controller. What was that rattling in the paddle after David Green turned it too far? The resistance of those metal switches. Having slide the switch from “TV” to “Game”. Sense memory.

I remember my parents taking me to Zayre and Service Merchandise to get Donkey Kong and Pac-Man on release, and I remember having to wait in a long line both times. The night I got Donkey Kong, I played it so long that my hand started to hurt. Yes, I had E.T. and I didn’t hate it at all. In fact, I loved it. I loved that bizarre Raiders of the Lost Ark game, and never realized that the part at the end where Indy is on that weird platform with the Ark was the “end”. Then there was Swordquest: Earthworld and Swordquest: Fireworld- never saw the other two. The G.I. Joe game with the giant Cobra that shot lasers from its eyes. All the Imagic games, with their silver boxes and all the Activision ones with their rainbow trails. Star Raiders, Space Jockey, Montezuma’s Revenge, Demon Attack, Pitfall, Barnstorming, Reactor, Spider-Man, Demons to Diamonds, Krull (!), Kaboom!

I remember so many particulars about those games- probably more than I remember about what I played last year. Indeliable, no-bit impressions of abstract shapes and the sound of bitcrushed crunches before bitcrushing ever existed. Ads in comic books, demo kiosks at K-Mart, “Yar’s Revenge, it’s new from Atari”, a TV jingle I never forgot. Have you played Atari today?

But I somehow never upgraded to the 5200 or the 7800, instead playing my 2600 until Christmas of 1985- in other words, the Christmas of Nintendo. I had friends that had the other Atari systems, and I was always jealous even though I hated the controllers. They seemed so sleek and modern at the time, especially compared to my old wood panel console. Then there were the Atari computers, which I never owned but always admired. This older kid called Eric that I knew had an Atari 800, and we played Temple of Apshai on it. He explained to me that the 400 had a membrane keyboard, which sounded very sci-fi, but you couldn’t feel the keys on it. I remember when his dad bought him a top-of-the-line 1200XL to replace it. I also never had a Lynx.

No, the last Atari console I ever actually owned was the Jaguar. Yep, I’m one of the few and the not-so-proud. I suspect that most Jaguar owners bought the console almost exclusively for Jeff Minter’s Tempest 2000, which at the time was not available anywhere else. And it was awesome, but then again Tempest is my all-time favorite arcade game. When KB Toys closed out their stock of the failed platform, I bought almost every game that was available for it at $1.99 a title. Very few were worth mentioning- Alien Vs. Predator and Defender 2000 were the only other titles worth owning. If you haven’t seen the Jaguar’s attempt at a 3D fighting game, you simply must get your hands on Fight For Life. It has to be the worst fighting game I’ve ever played in my entire life.

Of course, Atari has released games for other systems up through the current generation and their name- despite company sales, lawsuits bankruptcies, the Great Video Game Crash, dwindling reputation, and a general sense that this pioneering company got left in the dust- remains an important one. Whenever I see that logo with its retro-futurist font, it brings back so many memories from my life in games. I think of the great frontiersmen like David Crane and Larry Kitchen. I think of sitting in the living room floor wide-eyed in wonder that I could play video games in my living room. Yeah, they weren’t as good-looking as the games in the arcade and playing Robotron 2084 with only one stick sucked. But this was the company that, until Nintendo arrived in the US, was synonymous with video games on our living room TVs.

It’s sad that Atari is now more recognizable as a logo on a novelty T-shirt than as a significant part of the games industry. What they were doing in the late 1970s and early 1980s touched my life tremendously. Getting that “electronic game” when I was five years old is one of the reasons I’m here writing for a video games blog today.

Skills Eroded: My Trip to The Las Vegas Pinball Museum

Pinball Museum Las Vegas

I am not a connoisseur of pinball. I can’t recite the history of great tables from the 60s through to the present day or tell you why one table or another is particularly legendary. But that said, I’ve certainly played my share, be it the racing themed machine in the basement of my childhood home (I no longer remember its name), or the steady stream of tables at the bowling alley my dad took me to every Saturday morning, which ranged from Funhouse to Dr. Dude to T2, or the plethora of tables that put in an appearance at the local arcade – Pinbot, Elvira, Star Wars, Twilight Zone and several more I don’t really remember. My favorite pinball machine of them all was the one located in the basement of the student union where I attended Western Michigan University during the mid 90s – Star Trek: The Next Generation. I was good at it too. At least I think I was. I could plug in a quarter and knock that ball around for a good long while.

As I discovered during my trip to the Las Vegas Pinball Museum, if I ever really was good at that game, or pinball in general, I’m certainly not anymore…

I should blame my reflexes for the degradation of whatever skill I did have, or maybe the fact that I’ve not played pinball regularly for 15 years. It’s much more fun, however, to blame Zen Pinball. I’ve written favorably about Zen Pinball on more than one occasion over the past year – both the XBLA and iOS versions. In fact I dumped a good hour of my flight to Vegas into the Captain America table on my iPad. I knew it wasn’t a dead-on balls accurate simulation of the real thing, but I always gave it credit for being reasonably close. It’s amazing how easy it is to forget what real pinball is like. And just how far off the mark the iOS version of Zen Pinball actually is.

It’s been too long since I last played the XBLA version to say this fairly, but in the iOS version the ball is much too light. It’s far too stuck to the table. And the almost instantaneous power of the flippers are absolutely nothing like the unreliable, almost soft flipping, mechanics of the real thing. I’m not sure I’ll look at that game the same way again. In fact, I just picked up the much more authentic feeling Pinball Arcade from the App Store. I haven’t played around with it much so far, but it’s notably more authentic feeling than Zen (and not just because it re-creates actual tables).

Back to the museum.

When some friends and I walked into The Pinball Museum it was a unique feeling; the sort of feeling you get when you cross through the gates of an amusement park for the first time, or catch your first glimpse of the main floor at E3. This is the only approximation I can think of…

YouTube video

The mind reels as it contemplate the very notion that a place such as this could exist. 10,000 square feet loaded to the gills, almost exclusively, with pinball machines of every possible stripe. New. Old. Conventional. Experimental. There’s a machine there, called Pinball Circus, that’s one of only three in existence. It wasn’t my cup of tea, but it was cool to see nonetheless. I spent my first twenty minutes there just walking up and down every single aisle, taking it all in. There was nostalgia from seeing old favorites that I’d long forgotten playing, curiosity about an era of machines I’d never seen or played, wonder over some of the modern machines that have been produced over the last few years that you won’t find at the local arcade (because there aren’t any more local arcades of any consequence for pinball fans).

By the time I was finished touring I was ready to spend hours pumping quarters into as many machines as I could. Ten bucks in quarters ought to do the trick, especially if I stuck to the less expensive machines from before 2000 (the newer machines cost upwards of 75 cents a play depending on how many credits you put in for at a time; the “older” stuff was typically.50 or three plays for a buck). It’ll be the best value versus time bet I can make in Vegas! I played Pinbot. I tucked quarters into the slots of Black Knight 2000. Funhouse wasn’t working, but I got in time with T2 and Addam’s Family. All the while I eyed the Star Trek: TNG machine, which seemed to always have somebody there playing it already. About 45 minutes later I was down to my last dollar in quarters.

Wait. There was a time when that kind of money (even at 50 cents a play) would have lasted me an entire afternoon. I flailed wildly as the balls went down the middle. I inadvertently set off the tilt trying to keep balls out of the gutters. I would fire off flippers too soon for the shot I was aiming to hit or stare helplessly as a ball rocketed with unexpected speed down a flipper and would already be in the drain by the time I snapped free from paralysis long enough to actually press the flipper button.

What happened to me? I used to be able to do this, dammit! I glanced at the four quarters in my hand and then up where the TNG machine rested, no one in front of it. If there was any pinball game for which I could get my money’s worth in this place it would be that one. I remember taking on its “quests” by the bushel, usually knocking out a couple of them on one ball. Sometimes more if I had a good run. Warp Factor 4. Shuttle rescue challenge. We have engaged the Borg.

Bring it on.

In went the quarters. Three plays of three balls each.

That first game may have lasted a grand total of five minutes. The second one was better. It might have been ten. Maybe I was getting my feel back. The third game was shorter than the first. And just like that, it was over.

I’d love to blame the crappy physics of Zen Pinball, for warping my idea of what that shiny sphere can do as it jets from bumper to flipper to ramp to gutter, and I’m sure there’s an elements of that to it, but the truth is the harmony that once existed between my hands and eyes and brain isn’t what it was. Hello, my name is Todd. I’m 38 and my reflexes are shot. Thanks so much, Pinball Museum, for making that fact plain. Oh, also for being so amazingly awesome and bringing back so many cherished memories. As the T2 machine said as I walked away from it, “I’ll be back.” Next time with more cash in my wallet. It’s still a far better value than anything else you can do in Vegas.


Amazon Game Round Up

A few readers have emailed me asking why we don’t post weekly sales. Well, see, we do. Brandon’s Calender Man column posted every Monday usually contains weekly deals.

But I realize not everyone wants new stuff and they’d like to know about older games that can be found on the cheap and since we are part of the Amazon referral program…sounds like a win-win to me.

The deals here aren’t all necessarily “sales” (some are) but just some heavily discounted games that we tend to think are still worth the money. Funny how fast the prices drop on videogames.

I want to start off with a PC game on Steam — Tropico 4 is free until Sunday and after that will be slashed 66% to a $13.59 price tag.

Dark Souls. $39. That sort of sells itself.

One of Brandon’s favorites over the past year, Driver: San Francisco is now at $18.90, and even though I didn’t play it Brandon swears it’s great. If not, yell at him.

One of the best games of all time, Batman: Arkham City is now $38. If you didn’t play this — you kind of need to.

I still haven’t played Mass Effect 3 and really don’t feel like playing Mass Effect 3 but everyone else here seemed to like it well enough. It’s down to $43 on the PS3.

Yeah, BioShock: Infinite was delayed. Sucks. But BioShock 2 for $9.69 is pretty awesome.

Finally, Uncharted 3 has dipped to $36 and change. While most were letdown a tad by this third chapter, $36 is a pretty good bargain.

If you stumble upon any crazy good deals let us know. I’ll add them as I see them.

Various News Musings

Technically, as a blogger, you aren’t supposed to do this. The idea is to post a lot of quick hitter stories and build up your post count and content rate.

But I feel like hell today so I figured I’d shoot off a rapid fire article with some news industry blurbs in one catch-all post! Convenient, eh?

Truth is, some of this stuff doesn’t need its own story so let’s do some conglomerating.

Leading things off Sony continues to lose money hand over Yen. Its shares have sunk to a 32 year low, and the latest fiscal report points to the reasons why it continues to lose money.

“…the unfavorable impact of foreign exchange rates, the impact of the Great East Japan Earthquake and the floods in Thailand, and deterioration in market conditions in developed countries.”

Translated: not our fault.

Atari is also losing money hand over sawbuck. The company has now officially closed off the Eden Games studio (the Test Drive guys) and is going to refocus its energy on the mobile games market. So going forward you are going to see more mobile and freemium games from the company and fewer retail products.

In better news (well depending on who you are I suppose), the Xbox 360 continues to be the #1 selling console in the US. This has been the case for the past 16 months, which includes the launch of the PS Vita and the Nintendo 3DS. Although NPD analyst Anita Frazier says it’s too early to count the handhelds out:

“One thing to keep in mind is that the 3DS has outsold the DS by about one million units in their respective first 14 months in the market, and the DS went on to become the best-selling gaming hardware system ever.”

The April NPD numbers are out and Prototype 2 leads the way in the US. The mutating, smash ’em up sequel edged out Kinect Star Wars, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, and Tiger Woods. (Witcher 2 was #6). The report also shared that overall sales (software, hardware) are down 32% over the same period last year. This is no shock at all because as someone who watches new releases with a pretty close eye the past few months have been painfully slow — I have never seen anything like it. So a drop in sales is no surprise. I’m going to guess that May with its “Diablo 3” will be different.

Capcom has released a report that is putting a whole mess of eggs into the Resident Evil 6 basket. The company is counting on shipping seven million units of the survival horror sextuplet. As Eurogamer puts it:

To put that into perspective, the expectations put on DmC Devil May Cry (ship 2 million copies) and Dragon’s Dogma (ship 1.5 million units) and Lost Planet 3 (ship 1.4 million units) are much lower.

I think that is definitely safe to say. RE5 to date has sold 5.8 million units so Capcom feels there’s over a million units of meat left on that bone.

And wow that’s a lot of DmC Devil May Cry.

And, finally, Minecraft is popular.

The Wow Factor

The Witcher 2 - widely acclaimed as one of the most graphically advanced games of the current generation

The Witcher 2 seems to be everywhere at the moment. It sounds like a hell of a game, and I wish I had the hardware to play it. But alongside how great everyone is saying the game is to play, I keep hearing also how good it looks. And that makes me at once strangely wistful and nostalgic, and yet filled with excitement and anticipation. Because I remember that feeling, way back down in the dim, distant, murky parts of my gaming history, that feeling of being blown away by the visual impact of a game. And I really thought it had gone forever.

I was never a console boy. My first encounters with video games was on the 8-bit computing platforms of the ’80s, from the awful graphics of the ZX Spectrum with its eight shade palette and colour bleed to the much more advanced Commodore 64, the graphical powerhouse of its day. The games were new, thrilling, breathlessly exciting things to my virgin generation, unused to technological toys, and for the most part they looked like shit. But we didn’t care: this was the birth of the home gaming movement, and we were too busy being joyously carried along on the crest of a new wave to think about the future.

But the future came, nevertheless. It came in the form of 16-bit computing. I can remember still, with extraordinary vividness for a day more than 20 years ago, coming home from school and having my parents ask me to quickly run an important errand in a forced manner that seemed odd and noticing behind them on the kitchen table a large box swathed with towels in a futile attempt at disguise and knowing, knowing for certain that my Amiga had arrived. I ran my errand as quickly as I could and spent the rest of the day totally absorbed in video games, barely pausing even to eat, as they knew I would. It was on the Amiga that I first discovered the extraordinary potential shock value of updated graphics and sound, the day I shoved Shadow of the Beast into the hungry maw of my machine’s disc drive.

Shadow of the Beast on the Commodore Amiga

By most objective standards Shadow of the Beast was an awful game. A side-scrolling beat-’em-up/platformer hybrid it was tediously derivative, stupidly difficult, repetitive and driven by an incomprehensible, meaningless plot. But in spite of this, and an eye-wateringly high price tag for the time of £35, the game received critical acclaim and sold by the bucket load. It managed this feat purely because of its graphics and sound. With an enormous colour palette, crisp, fluid sprites and an unheard of 12levels of parallax scrolling powering a stunning piece of visual and audio design Shadow of the Beast looked better than anything else in home computing, like something that should be running on a Cray supercomputer and not the little gray box in your living room. Like almost every other gamer I broke my teeth on its difficulty level and resorted to cheat codes, enduring the dull gameplay for hour after hour just to feast my eyes and ears on the smorgasbord of delights that the game offered. It was wonderful, the attainment of a nirvana that my fifteen-year old self had never dreamed existed.

I can also vividly remember, for entirely different reasons, a conversation I had with some friends around this time about the quality of graphics in video games. We discussed, and agreed, that further advancement in graphical technology would be nice, but was hardly necessary, because 16-bit games looked so good and that it wouldn’t be much longer before we had video quality graphics beyond which any improvement was impossible. I remember that because of the way that later years demonstrated it was a grandiose, naive, ignorant and stupidly arrogant and statement to make. But if you can’t make statements like that when you’re 15, when else can you do it?

And over the coming years, as hardware was upgraded and replaced, it was proved hollow time and time again. On my first PC the game that floored me with its visual was Ultima Underworld. On the next rig, a 486, it was Doom. On my first Pentium machine it was Quake. But each time there was something of a law of diminishing returns. Each time the impact was a little bit less, my reaction a little bit more jaded with experience and weighted with the cynicism of the passing years.

All that changed with the next upgrade though. When Quake II came out I bought myself a brand new PC with a hot graphics card just so I could play that particular game. The guy that built it for me slung a copy of a game I’d never heard of, Unreal, into the box for me to boot up when I’d got the machine installed. And this I duly did, and such was my astonishment that I called my non-gaming wife in from the living room to share the moment with me and she, normally totally disinterested in my hobby, sat in open-mouthed wonder, desultorily poking at the mouse from time to time just to make the viewpoint change. I was so overawed by this, my first ever experience of a game properly rendered in 3D polygons with full lighting effects, that I spent that whole first evening just wandering in circles round the lake in the opening scene of the game, looking at the crystals on the ground, the water in the pool, the stars in the sky, discharging my weapon into the distance just to watch the bolts fade into obscurity.

Of course, I eventually got round to doing the proper thing and venturing deeper into the environs of the game to kick some scaly alien buttock, but there were repeated occasions when I’d be absorbed so totally by the visual design that some enemy or other would walk right up and blow me away without my noticing until it was too late. It was wonderful to have that feeling again, dragging me right back to those first moments in front of Shadow of the Beast, the ultimate digital nostalgia trip.

Unreal - the most graphically impressive game of its generation

But that was the last time.

Bigger PCs with beefier graphics cards didn’t reproduce it, nor did the first console I ever owned, the Xbox. Halo and Half-Life 2 are probably the most graphically advanced games I’ve played extensively and even though I took the time to sit back and note the resolution and the detail in those games and nod in satisfaction, appreciating the effort that went into the design and development, that wow factor seemed to have gone forever. Why? Partly, and in danger of replicating my teenage hubris, I feel that while photorealistic graphics are still a ways away in video games, once you’ve got to the point of realistic physics and lighting effects, all there is to do is to increase the resolution and add detail. And while that helps things look pretty, it’s not the sort of earth-shattering advance in visuals that we’ve seen in older iterations of hardware development.

I suspect this may also be part of the reason why Sony got trumped in the current generation by the Xbox 360. The previous console generation may well have been the last one where there was a genuine quantum leap in terms of graphical processing power, and because of that gamers were still drawn towards the superior hardware of the original Xbox and some people bought one over the PS2 on that, and that alone. Sony must have known this, so for the next generation they pulled out all the stops to deliver the beast of a machine that is the PS3, not realising that in this generation, graphical power was no longer going to be the hot selling point it had been in the past, because we’re in a place now where all designers and developers can do is tweak the resolution and the details that’s on offer.

Another culprit in decreasing appreciation for video game graphics might have been the advent of genuine photorealistic computer graphics in films. We’re still a step away from genuine lifelike movement and expressions, but it’s hard to admire the visuals of a computer game when computer effects in Hollywood products you can see every day on your TV have become so common and so detailed that you barely notice them anymore.

It made me sad to think that those moments, those few precious moments of wonder that I’d shared with my computer games as we’d grown up together, were something that nascent gamers, born into a world where visualising dreams had become commonplace, might never experience with their own PCs and consoles. And now we have The Witcher 2, and that’s the first time in a long, long time that I’ve really noticed games journalists writing about the graphics in a game with anything like that childish tinge of astonishment and appreciation. It’ll be awhile before I get the chance to play Witcher 2, and then there’s a new hardware generation to think about, but it seems as though there’s a little spark of hope that I, and millions of others, might not have seen our last “wow” moments after all.