Orphaned Computers & Game Systems

Vol. II, Issue 5    August 1998

What Exactly Is It About Old Games Vs. New, Anyway?

by Chris Federico

I sit here in a room containing a Sony PlayStation, capable of handling complex 3-D landscapes that spin around the player at incredible speeds, decorated with realistic lighting effects. Not far from that is an Atari Jaguar, able to fill the eyes with wondrously colorful explosions and impossibly drawn playfields in front of an otherwordly soundtrack. There's a Commodore Amiga in here that can hurl me around dream-worlds at inhuman velocities.

So what am I doing? I'm bouncing stick-men with square heads off a line representing a see-saw to make the squares high above disappear. They're supposed to be balloons, but they could be other guys' heads, for all I truly know.

Then I'm sitting in front of a screen on which I'm attempting to guide a square through mazes made up of featureless lines to find a castle made of blocks, all the while looking for a sword that looks like the left-arrow symbol on a keyboard with which to thwart dragons that look like Lego ducks.

Now I'm shooting lines at a blocky camel that's supposed to be an ominous vehicle in a Star Wars movie. Bits of metal don't fly off when I shoot it. It just gradually changes color. When I blow it up, it won't explode. It will flash.

It's not that I don't like certain newer games. Iron Soldier, any of the Dooms...I plug one in, I'm there for hours. Fantastic stuff. But I return over and over again to the 2600 or 7800. I get excited constantly about plugging in the Commodore 64 or Atari 8-bit. I often crave igniting the ColecoVision. The fascination for classics, the pure enjoyment and coordinational release I get from playing them, will never fade. At least I assume it won't; it hasn't in sixteen years!

Is it all nostalgia? Do I solely retain an obsession initialized by the novelty of newness I experienced as a kid?

Nope. There's something about a classic game that appeals to the player on a primal level; nothing aesthetic in his mind has to be satisfied except the expected old-game aesthetics of minimalism. Older contests used graphics merely as a vehicle for communicating the action. Therefore, they didn't have to be decorative. A good game directly addresses the player's synapses instead of appealing to his sense of fashion.

Having said that, really good graphics in an old game could add atmosphere and intrigue, but the only reason meticulous visuals were fun was that, in the case of an inherently good game, they weren't needed. It was an almost entirely separate thing to be impressed by. I'm much more impressed by witnessing amazing things done with limited resources than seeing pictures scanned into an obviously capable machine. What Activision's programmers did with 4K proportionally beat the hell out of any 10-meg backdrop I can see on the back of the latest best-selling game's carton.

Take away the multicolored, jagged platforms in Joust and replace them with straight, single-hued lines. Replace the pretty lava with solid red filling, and make the birds one color apiece, stripping them of their detailed wings. Do you still have a good game? Yup. The 2600 version proves it. The basic rules and mechanics of the game appeal to a human to the point of panic; his mind is being addressed on a raw, direct level, and the game is fun in and of itself. But replace the scenery and cute animation in Crash Bandicoot with single-colored, basic shapes, and you have a dull, driving-type game with no visceral appeal.

The glow of the razor-sharp vector display on a Star Castle or Tempest coin-op screen excites and frightens me on levels untouched by the artistically complex castle in Super Mario 64. The older approach to graphics and direct game mechanics engages one's emotions. The original Asteroids graphics are mean, merciless and deadly. The cold bluish-white challenges one's psychological strengths.

The only reason a raster screen like that in Pac-Man was considered decorative was that it worked around the perceived technological reality of the machine. The cute characters existed despite the scientific, computed world in which they lived. But the approach to most any modern game begins with the graphics, and as a result, you're not engaged on a primal level that directly depends on whether or not you're gradually able to handle the play mechanics. You're wrapped up in the cartoons.

If I want to be encompassed by a world in which a microprocessor fills in all of the imaginative details for me, I have plenty of modern options. Hell, some days are like that. But today I want to feel like I'm playing, dammit, sweaty palms and all. So unwrap the cord from around the 2600 power supply. I have a craving to fulfill. -- CF