Believe It or Not, Data Age and

TigerVision Can Lead to Philosophy

By Adam Trionfo and Chris Federico

(Originally Written 2006 and April 2011 / Updated July 14, 2011)

3-D Tic-Tac-Toe (Screenshot)

"I'm gonna beat 3-D Tic-Tac-Toe tonight, damn it," says Adam. He's made my rhetorical challenge into a literal one. I'd received his jovial derision after admitting that I'd never been able to beat the VCS in game 1, and suggested that he to try it himself if he thought it was so damn easy.

Of course, he beat it on the first try. That's his style. Of course, when neither of us can beat a game, we turn it over to his son Dominic.

One of the fun things about collecting Atari 2600 games, back in the '90s when they were actually priced as, you know, used items, was in getting to see what they were like, long after you had scrutinized them in the catalogues as a kid, wishing that you could somehow get your hands on all of them. As they ran thirty to forty bucks apiece in the '80s, you couldn't.

Now, nearly a decade after we began collaborating on articles, Adam and I use emulators. As the prices of obsolete games have come back up, one of the favorable aspects of emulation is that the player can see what all of those games are actually like, rather than merely those that can be found in thrift shops and front yards. There's no collection of objects to fetish and seek to "complete"; one can have fun exploring the games themselves, which is all that it's truly about.

Overhearing Adam as he now attempts to beat the computer in a more difficult 3-D Tic-Tac-Toe variation, I notice that the terrible SwordQuest: Earthworld uses the exact same set of sound effects as it does.

Even while trying out a bunch of never-played games, one feels the need to return now and again to those that he's engaged thousands of times, those games that guarantee to have it (as opposed to not having it; if you don't know what I'm talking about, you haven't played enough video games in your life. Get hoppin'). After we had tried our best to find something fun about Fatal Run, or at least to ascertain the reason for which it required 32K (we didn't locate one), Adam loaded up Beamrider. When he left the room to use the phone, I started game 3 of Adventure.

Beamrider (Screenshot)

Even though we finally have immediate access to hundreds of games we've wondered about since we were kids, it's hard to stay away from the good ones. - Chris F.

Chris is correct: It is hard to stay away from the good games. That's why many people get that collector's bug in the first place. Well, in the beginning, in the late eighties and early-to-mid-nineties, it was probably also because it was so damn cheap to purchase used video games (of any sort). Most thrift stores probably felt like you were doing them a favor by saving space in the dumpster.

So, besides being an inexpensive pastime, it was also fun to find those games that you used to love so much. Then, and this is what was always great for me, came finding cartridges that I'd never heard of before (this was before there were Internet lists). Would this new game be worth the quarter that I'd just spent on it?á Unless it caught my attention very quickly, it would be kept but not played.á

Sometimes, when I was feeling like a rich fool, I might spend ninety-five cents on an Atari 2600 game. Imagine a time when spending more than a buck on a classic game was unfathomable! I didn't feel cheap, though; I just felt like I was being ripped off if a game was marked over a dollar. Thinking back, I suppose I was a little na´ve, but I never did pass on a great game, or one that I didn't get later in my narrow price range.

Sky Jinks (Screenshot)

There were many inexpensive cartridges that I purchased and didn't like, but I was never disappointed with an Activision VCS game. Not ever. Well, okay, it did happen once. I purchased ten or fifteen games, most of which I'd heard of but didn't own (and wasn't really excited by). But in this bunch was an Activision game that I couldn't remember ever hearing about (this was about 1992). That game was Sky Jinks.

I had a roommate at the time, and I asked him about it, and he'd never heard of it either. So I went (quickly!) through the games that I'd bought, and I saved what I thought was the best for last. I put in Sky Jinks and was immediately taken by its great graphics. Now, those graphics probably did put everything else to shame that I'd bought that day, but the gameplay? Hell, it was BORING. Where was the action of Pitfall! or Kaboom!, or even, god help me, Bridge? - Adam T.

It's interesting that while playing a substandard game that you've merely launched as a lark, you don't really care about doing well until it inflicts an injustice upon you.

I can't help but think of TigerVision, whose games wildly fluctuate in quality -- according to as many different definitions of "quality" as I can think of. Marauder and Jawbreaker are among the most solid, playable titles available for the 2600, in spite of their repetitiousness; and Threshold, while ridiculously frustrating, certainly can't be accused of imprecise mechanics. But travesties like King Kong and the home version of the little-known arcade game Springer indicate that even within the same company, the motives could vary wildly -- from great pride in, and time taken on, one's own game, to mere cash-ins.

You could be playing something called Flicker Hell XIII (Now Without Collision Detection!TM), which is guilty of every kind of design badness in the VCS book, and if you've almost cleared the screen when a hitherto out-of-sight evil windshield wiper (for instance) zips out of the top border and kills you, you feel the blood of revenge flowing maniacally within you. "I just want to clear it once, and then I'll get on with my life! And laugh and laugh, pointing at that... well... fictional jerk!"

Adam is currently having a go at Miniature Golf (well, the Sears version, actually, which is called Arcade Golf - they couldn't think of anything else? Really?), and he's become rather overzealous about rescuing the ball from where it has somehow disappeared into the border. Talk about a good reason for a refund at Putt-Putt!

Miniature Golf (Screenshot)

This brings me to one of the chief transgressions committed by game programmers: Requiring your character to start from the beginning of a long level, at the very bottom of the screen, etc. when he dies. Now you have to take all that time getting to the place that you reached before, only to, in all likelihood, lose another life there. And you'd only clicked on the title to remind yourself why you didn't like the game! Now you have to get to the top just once, dammit...

Data Age's Airlock provides a great example. I haven't heard such language from Adam since Jaguar Cybermorph. My friend is sensible and articulate in everyday life. A professional, a great dad, and so forth. This simply wouldn't be the perfect moment to meet him for the first time, that's all. He's currently appealing to four inorganic kilobytes of computer memory: "I got all of them! What more do you want from me? WHAT DO YOU WANT ME TO DO?! HUH?! HUH?!"

So there's a case in point.

Then there's that kind of game that's very difficult at first; once you figure out what you're supposed to do, and you determine how it's best achieved, you can't die. Oh, you try, of course - without really admitting it to yourself. You leave your hero in the middle of, say, a cluster of ravenous oysters with laser guns for eyes (or at least that's what the instruction manual says they are), and you happen to start feeling hungry, so you visit the kitchen and make yourself a sandwich, taking care to butter the bread very slowly. Upon your return, you find that the oysters' trajectories have just happened to keep them from colliding with your guy, who's still alive and enjoying the pixilated underwater sunshine. In fact, somehow, you seem to have won an extra life.

When will we learn to reserve the moments of our limited lifespans for those things that actually bring us genuine pleasure? What's behind the stubbornness and persistence of the gamer's mind, regarding accomplishment in completely imaginary realms? - Chris F.

Then there are the games that you can just never make fun again. They were fun, once, long ago. Maybe it isn't even a halcyon vision, either. Maybe the game was fun, but that fun just won't come back. No matter what.

Take Pong, for instance. Let's just say that I was born the same year it was released in the arcade, so I could never have played it "back in the day." I do remember the pleasure of playing some generic (probably Radio Shack) rip-off of the game in 1978 or so. I was six. I thought it was fun. Hell, that's not just an excuse; back then, even adults thought Pong was fun. - Adam T.