DP Royal Archives - The Classics Fascination

The "Classics" Fascination
by Joe Santulli

Even if you have more important things to think about, you still have to wonder why it is that, with all of the high-end gaming machines out there, certain pockets of gamers seem to gravitate toward those blocky "classics."

We can see high-res, texture-mapped, surprise-filled action fests at sixty frames-per-second, yet some people feel totally content trying to find their "man" amongst the flickering grids of yesteryear. Sounds pumping through digital surround-sound stereo speakers mean nothing to these gamers, who find audio satisfaction when a scratchy burst of white noise signals a big bonus. Who are they? Why are they here? Allow me to be your guide as we explore together the mind of the "classic" gamer, a breed which I have learned to understand through self-observation.

First off, calling these games crude, blocky, clunky dinosaurs, while technically correct, puts you right past the main reason why people still love 'em. To Mr. Pentium 166, the graphics and sound are awful. To people like us, they're "charming." You can take a look at an ancient Atari 2600 VCS game called Adventure and laugh at the hard lines and sometimes unrecognizable characters (your protagonist in this one is literally a tiny square), or you could pick up the joystick and have the time of your life. To this day, I spend a few hours a month with "Adventure." Sure, I've built my own scoring system (a stopwatch), but I've realized over the years that it's the game play that keeps me coming back, despite the fact that the "dragons" in "Adventure" look much more like ducks.

It's not just coincidence that many of the old-time faves are popping up on modern machines. If anyone had told me when the Sony PlayStation was released that the Williams coin-op classic Defender would be available for it inside of a year, I would have laughed right in their face - and then spit on them. But here I am, listening to "Defender" and its glorious crackling lasers somehow being simulated on a console system in 1996. The game's called Williams Arcade Classics. Ten years ago, Defender for the Atari VCS seemed old. Today it seems "venerable."

Oh, I was telling you that this resurgence is no coincidence. My theory is that many players are coming out of the closet and rediscovering video games. Many of the folks who played Defender as teens "grew up" thinking video games were a sign of their adolescence - or even worse - their childhood. Now that high-end platforms are luring adults into the realm of interactive, cutting-edge graphics and sounds, these "grown-ups" are finding that those games that challenged them in their youth can still kick their asses. Games such as Sinistar (also part of the Williams Arcade Classics package for the PlayStation) are like old ghosts to me. I tried so hard to beat this damn game when it was a popular coin-op, but it disappeared before I mastered it. It turns out that I was fooling myself into thinking that, if it had lasted a little longer in the arcade, I would have had it licked. When I play Sinistar now, I'm even worse than I was back then! Fortunately, the new version allows the player to also assume the role of the arcade operator, with complete access to the game's difficulty settings. Now I can simply outlast Sinistar with my many, many ships. "I live! Run, coward! Beware! I cheat!"

For those who do not own the newer systems (and by "newer," some fellow players mean 16-bit and up), there is still a charm to the original home games that will always keep us coming back. You don't have to have a PlayStation to play Defender. The Atari 2600 handles it just fine. There are some interesting glitches in the game that actually add to the game's appeal. For example, when you shoot, your ship momentarily disappears. Yes, it was too complicated to have the ship and the laser fire on the same horizontal plane at the same time. This creates a sort of protection, provided you can fire fast enough to keep yourself invisible long enough for the baddies to zip through you. The game designer even left a little easter egg behind. You can find his initials on the game screen if you score a specific number of points. Now that's what I call... finding initials on the game screen if you score a specific number of points!

The Vectrex home systemThere are still a few classics that have never been duplicated, and I hope someday to see them. The Vectrex was a vector-based "portable" (well, a whopping big ol' heavy, bulky portable anyway) well-suited to games like Asteroids and Tempest. Although neither of these games were ever available, a terrific little sleeper called Star Castle was. Star Castle pits you in an Asteroids-style ship and playfield against a central cannon surrounded by rotating walls. Break down enough of these spinning wall segments and you can find a hole into the cannon itself. You have to be fast, because the cannon's fire is faster than yours and can also fire through the hole you made. All the while, you're being pursued by little sparks, forcing you to stay on the move. The game's never been done on another home console.

I'd also flip if, someday, someone would put together a decent horse racing game like Mattel's improbably-named Horse Racing for the Intellivision. I don't mean a Japanese horse race stable-owner "sim," like Koei's Winning Post for the Saturn. I want a game where I can race head-to-head against another player, whip my horse into oblivion, and throw races when the stakes are high. That was the thrill of the Intellivision game, which - believe it or not - is one of the most competitive games I've ever played. Grab a friend, an Intellivision and a few free hours and you'll see what I mean.

Yes, there's a serious resurgence of classic titles either being redone or updated. Have you played Defender 2000, Tempest 2000, or Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure yet? Try 'em out! There's still no greater thrill than playing the games that started it all. For the price of admission for two to a movie theater, a couple of large buttery popcorns and soda pops, you can also own an Atari 2600 or Intellivision, a handful of great games, and a whole lot of history. It sure beats Tom Cruise's "Mission: Impossible" any day.

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Last updated Tuesday, February 13, 2007 06:01 PM