Monday, May 9, 2011

Coming Up Amidst the Crash

I came into a videogame player at an opportune if not optimal time. I turned 5 in the summer of 1983 and right about that time I became obsessed with my Neighbors' Atari 2600. They were a young married couple in their early 30's and my parents were friendly with them, playing Trivial Pursuit, playing Pac-Man on the VCS (as the 2600 is also know if you're a layman) and playing "let's pretend we are yuppies." Although my parents were decidedly anti-yuppie (especially living in a town overrun with them), our nice upwardly mobile VCS owning friends made the lifestyle a little more palatable. And of course, I was down cuz I got to play Donkey Kong!
I had whet my appetite for Arcade mania via a few trips to Salem Willows, the local arcade/boardwalky type place (no actual boardwalk, just the stuff you'd find on a boardwalk minus the sleaze) and the VG related stuff coming through the Saturday Morning Cartoon ritual and the endless ads in the comic books that I couldn't really read, but poured over endlessly. I clipped those ads thinking they were coupons and saved them hoping that my parents could use them to buy me all this stuff that was so exciting and new/unknown to me.
I spent a lot of time at the young couple's house, until that Christmas I received my very own 2600 and a big sack of games! Now, here's where the opportune timing comes into play. If you know VG history at all, you know that this is the era of the 2nd generation of consoles. At this point anyone really into gaming was probably more concerned with whether the Intellivision still had any life in it as the ColecoVision and Atari 5200 were coming to market. I only had the vaguest notions of what these machines were from advertisements and the one bachelor in town who had a wide-screen TV and an Intellivision and wouldn't let any of us play it? Oh, I forgot to mention that I lived in a weird close-nit neighborhood where all the kids were semi-welcomed into a lot of the houses in a half-mile radius. One guy would give us all Capri Suns. Umm, I don't know why us little hellions had this arrangement, but I don't think any of us were molested or anything.
Anyhowwwwwww, this sack of games I received for Xmas was a bunch of used games my dad got from a fellow worker at the post office, and I do believe the 2600 was marked down. The sack of games were a big hit around the house, primarily my mom and gram dug Crackpots and my dad really liked Crash Dive. Maybe the Cashmans like games that started with "cr" for some reason.
And speaking of "Crash Dive," why was it so easy for my Dad to score like 20+ games for dirt cheap? The Great Videogame Crash of 1983, that's why! As an industry squandered to maintain any footing, I was happily playing their bargain bin close-out wares. As Atari essentially gave up and turned their hopes to home computers as the 5200 failed, the Atari 2600 was still synonymous with "video games" in my mind. And as various companies went out of business, and the media and the fans declared "the trend is over" I was blissfully unaware and quite content with my glut of inferior product.
"Glut of inferior product" could probably be the catchphrase of the Great Video Game Crash of 1983, as 3rd party VCS publishers pushed any dreck they could out onto the market promptly pissing off the buying public. Of course the 2 most notorious pieces of dreck were created in-house at Atari for a premium. Of course I'm referring the rush jobs Pac-Man and E.T. Surely you know the tales of unbridled hubris that resulted in these games essentially taking down Atari. If you do not, I point you directly to this essential (and riveting) reading The Ultimate History of Video Games by Stephen L. Kent. And for the gist of the tale, look Here .

Well, here's the funny thing being 5 years old, I loved all this garbage! First off, my few trips to the arcade at this point had been overwhelming and completely dizzying. I had not the age or the time to get familiar with all the revered titles. I mostly played Pole Position because I could sit down and play, and it seemed relatively simple. I was not biting my nails off waiting for a faithful port of Pac-man to play on my home console, I was waiting for any means for me to play any kind of Pac-man related thing possible! I was swept up in Pac-mania and I was a sucker for it (still am), but I couldn't just waddle off on my own to play at the local 7-11...and come to think of it, I think my suck-ass town had a "no arcade games" ordinance...fucking yuppies.
E.T. has had some apologists emerge from the woodwork in recent years, but beyond that, it's a universally hated game. Aimed at kids, but complex, baffling and dogged by a difficult (and frequent) "get out of the well" segment; people were pissed. Not me though! I actually didn't have as much trouble as most with getting out of the well over and over, and I found the play scheme mysterious as opposed to baffling. The VCS had many games that were relatively complex, some requiring information in the Manuals, and in the case of the SwordQuest games and Riddle of the Sphinx solving the games was part of a contest. In essence the contest was "are you nerdy/clever/insane enough at decoding our head scratching games to win fabulous prizes?"

I got to play my fair share of these games, and being so young and inexperienced, I was happy just to make ANYTHING happen, I didn't need to really advance far. And this being the age of graphic simplicity, seeing anything colorful or funny, or cute, or weird was often enough to merit playing the game. I mean I fucking played that Strawberry Shortcake game to death, and that consisted of matching up 3 segments of bodies to created dancing figures. I guess I liked mixing up the bodies and hearing weird variations of the music? Maybe my standards were just absurdly low? I don't know what do you think?

Also, I don't think a lot of the maligned 3rd party games were bad at all, in fact I liked them more than the atari classics! Frogs and Flies by M-network is still one of my favorite 2 player games and listen to what the programmer had to say about it in an in-house joke set of instructions:

Basically, VCS Frogs and Flies is a stupid game directed at stupid kids who come from stupid families which are headed by slothful parents who were too ignorant and cheap to buy the Intellivision Master Component, so they bought the indescribably bad Atari VCS unit instead. Most Atari games are so moronic that, as the Atari commercials delight in pointing out, they can be mastered in a number of minutes by the family pooch. The VCS unit itself is so worthless that it has been personally denounced by Richard Nixon and hailed by Carl Sagan as "the greatest boon to mankind since the scratch 'n' sniff bicycle seat."

Oh well, what can you do? Crash Dive, the aforementioned favorite for father/son bonding around the house got some pretty lousy reviews in Videogaming and Computergaming Illustrated Nov 83:

And lastly, I wasn't paying for this stuff. I was getting my own glut of inferior glut of product as my family raided the bargain bins and I loved it. At this point Video Games as a whole fell out of fashion for most in favor of home computing or "reality," I never stopped playing that damned Atari 2600/VCS. Sure, once videogame fever came back full force with the NES a few years later I was abuzz with the excitement of this new mysterious system from Japan. No matter how euphoric the early experiences of playing Super Mario Brothers or Metroid were, to me "Atari" meant "videogames" and "Atari" meant the "2600" and it all meant good times playing "inferior product."

You may recall that the NES was branded an "Entertainment System" rather than a videogame, to distance itself from the great crash. This is why their is such a strong emphasis on the Zapper and R.O.B. in early advertising. These peripherals linked the NES to two of the biggest toys of 1986, Lazer Tag and Teddy Ruxpin...that is if you wanna see a similarity in a furry boombox playing story tapes and a slowrobot spinning gyros.

Hot tip:
Leave your Atari 2600 or 7800 at your Grammy's house. It might get her into videogames and it also adds a nice flavor to your visit. If you spend most of your videogame time playing the hot new systems at home, think of how much fun it would be to go drink some pink lemonade, eat a grilled cheese and Galaga in the Pahhhhlah (that's Parlor as my Grammy would say it).

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