Tuesday, August 3, 2010

What I Learned from the Atari 2600

As I discussed in my recent post about how I got into gaming, my video game roots trace back to the Atari 2600, one of the grandpappys (arguably the grandpappy) of modern console game systems. In a time where graphics and sound served a strictly functional purpose rather than an aesthetic one, and where plot was absolutely nonexistent outside the instruction manual, gameplay was the central focus.

The Atari 2600 in general helped to shape my view of what video games should and should not be, but I learned a great many lessons and formed a great many opinions from the specific games I played. Allow me to share a bit about what I've learned from each game in the modest game library I grew up with. (Hooray for The Backloggery making my life easier by already having these games listed out.)


Good control is key.

For the first few seconds of every round of Asteroids I played, I really enjoyed the game. Flying around a spaceship, blasting big rocks--man, that was the life. Unfortunately, the moment I started moving, everything fell apart. Even with my astounding aim, spinning around in circles to shoot the targets could only work for so long; eventually, you had to get out of the way. With barely more than the tap of a button, your spaceship goes hurtling off into space, back to the other side of the screen (gotta love wraparound levels), and straight into the biggest rock you've ever seen.

I had fun shooting asteroids and hurling my spaceship around haphazardly, but when I was supposed to do these in conjunction with one another, the game quickly lost its appeal. I found myself fighting against my maneuvering thrusters at all times, which I understand is part of the challenge, but the hero should never have to fight the controls. When the greatest challenge is dodging asteroids that are flying away from you, there must be something wrong.

Asteroids taught me that no matter how much a game might be in theory, I've gotta be able to control my avatar adequately to enjoy it.


Lesson: Replayability is important.

Combat is a game I used to play with my father whenever I got the chance. There's another lesson in here--that games can be a great way to bond with friends and family--but from a strictly game-oriented standpoint, Combat showed me the value of replayability.

Combat boasts over two dozen different game modes, and while they're all variations of the theme of "use your tank/jet/biplane to destroy your opponent's tank/jet/biplane," the options ranged from having a small squadron of planes instead of just one to having invisible tanks. Any one of these games was fun enough on its own, but when you throw in different choices like invisible tanks, you've got a game that'll hold a player's interest long after the core gameplay mechanic has started to lose its luster.


Lesson: It doesn't matter if the game makes no sense as long as the box art is cool.

Demons to Diamonds is weird. You shoot...things. Then you try not to shoot...other things. The graphics make it extraordinarily difficult to know what anything is, but doggone it, I liked using the paddle controller (instead of the regular joystick) to shoot...things. See, I could almost use my imagination, because the box art was pretty awesome.

I learned from Demons to Diamonds that fun is fun, regardless of how confusing the fun may be, as long as you can come up with your own explanation for why everything works the way it does.


Lesson: It matters a great deal if the game makes no sense and the box art is creepy.

Anyone who's ever played or heard of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial will almost certainly tell you, in more colorful terms, that it is not a very good game. E.T. closely follows the plot of the movie, up until the point where E.T. gets stuck in a hole and can't escape because the game makes no sense. Chalk it up to not having an instruction manual, but anything that wasn't a terrifying lab coat man chasing after E.T. was utterly incomprehensible to me.

There were other games on the Atari that were equally complicated, but the whole E.T. experience was an unpleasant one because I had no clue whatsoever as to what I could or should do, and that box art was as creepy as all get-out. Ugh, I'm gonna have nightmares tonight just talking about it.


Lesson: Games should be easy to learn, yet challenging to master.

Frogger has no right to be as fun as it is. You can move in four directions. Maybe, if you've been good this year, a fly or a lady frog will appear on the map for you to pick up and do absolutely nothing with but score. Points. There is absolutely nothing to this game, yet it kept me entertained for hours, replaying the first two or three levels just for fun, knowing full well I was just wasting time because I didn't have what it took to reach level four more than once or twice.

The beauty of Frogger is only partially in its creative concept, that you are a "highway-crossing frog" who's trying to dodge traffic and hop over river logs to reach your frog's nest (or whatever frogs call a home). What makes Frogger a true gem is how such a supposedly simple game becomes so challenging so quickly. Different kinds of vehicles require different strategies to avoid. Each level adds another obstacle or two, such as a snake that's suddenly slithering about the safe zone halfway through the level. There's even a timer to keep you from overanalyzing your next move.

For me, Frogger was never about winning; it was about seeing just how far I could get by mastering these profoundly simple controls.


Lesson: Games can make an emotional impact.

In Haunted House, you play as a pair of eyeballs. Really, that's it. You roam around a dark house (hence the cartoon-inspired eyeballs moving around), trying to collected pieces of a broken urn before the various spooks and monsters get you.

When I was a kid, Haunted House was scary. Whether it was the thunderous sound effects or the enemies that started to close in on you the moment you entered a room, the fear and tension were palpable. Haunted House showed me that even the simplest graphics and sounds can captivate the player and make him feel something with the right techniques.


Lesson: Variety is critical.

Of any game to qualify as a "time-waster" in my Atari library, Pac-Man is the one. I've never been very good at Pac-Man, in large part because there was never any value in practicing enough to become good at the game in the first place.

While Frogger offered new challenges with each level, and E.T. at least offered different locations, Pac-Man was the same ol' maze over and over, with the same ol' ghosts and the same ol' power pellets. If the promise of a brand-new fruit powerup in each level was enough to entice me to keep playing, I'd be getting my kicks at the grocery store instead. Waitaminute--the Atari version didn't even have fruit!

Pac-Man could never hold my interest for very long because a high point score just wasn't enough for me. I needed layers of complexity in the challenges, or at least a little more variation in the visuals. At least I liked the sound effects.


Lesson: Puzzles can be fun, especially when worked into other genres I like.

The oddly titled Q*Bert is ostensibly a platformer of sorts, but really, it's a puzzle game. The aim of the game is to hop around a block pyramid until the entire structure has changed its color, with the color of a block changing when you hop on it. The only problem is that enemies abound, and some of them change the colors back to the way they were. Your reflexes help to keep lil' Q*Bert alive, while your puzzle-solving skills help you to plan out a course of attack to actually win the level.

Q*Bert blurred the line between platformer and puzzler, before I was even terribly aware that games even had genres. I found enjoyment in a game that, like Haunted House, was all about avoiding enemies instead of blowing them up with a Zorlon cannon, but in this case it took more than sustained evasion to save the day. Other games had an element of thinkery to them, but Q*Bert made you think on the fly, and I embraced it.

Plus, it was really fun to hop off the edge of the pyramid into oblivion.


Lesson: Don't play harder; play smarter.

Here's another game my father and I played together, except this time, as a team. Raiders of the Lost Ark is a single-player game, but it's an adventure game that requires a fair bit of problem-solving. One such problem is staying alive for more than five seconds. Our pixeltastic hero, Indiana Jones, moves slowly, is easily robbed, and picks up ambiguously drawn items that could be anything from a gift-wrapped box to a stylish rug. It took a long, long time for us to make any kind of progress--but we felt a great sense of accomplishment every time we got anywhere.

Raiders wasn't about quick reflexes as much as it was about good planing, solid strategy, and trial-and-error. To beat the game, you had to learn how to beat the game--practice was only part of it. Raiders taught me to look for creative solutions to impossible gaming problems.


Lesson: When defeat is inevitable, so is shutting off the game prematurely.

I like Space Invaders. I really do. But I can't play it for very long. Constantly dodging ghosts in Pac-Man is one thing, but trying to stay alive against an ever-advancing army of invaders (from space) is another thing entirely. There's a subtle difference in the core gameplay philosophy: Pac-Man's is "stay alive"; Space Invaders' is "don't die." The aliens just keep getting faster, and there are no reinforcements in sight, so it's just a war of attrition--a war the player is destined to lose.

Space Invaders got it into my head that there's not much point in playing a game very long when defeat seems inevitable. Especially when there isn't any fruit in the next level.


Lesson: Patience is a girl's name. Erm, virtue. Patience is a virtue.

I am not a very patient gamer. I like to be playing a game at all times, and if I have to wait around too long, I get antsy. Yars' Revenge helped to slow down my pace and help me to be a little more careful and methodical.

It takes time to destroy your enemy's barrier shield, and it's important to know when to hide and when to strike. Rushing in Yars' Revenge won't get you very far, but patience pays off, and you're rarely doing nothing while you're waiting to make your next move. Yars' Revenge showed me that patience can be a component of strategy rather than a precursor to boredom.


The Atari 2600 helped to shape the way I look at video games, and though there have been several more games over the years that have made as big an impact (if not bigger), these games are where everything first started to take root.

We'll be sticking with the topic of video games for the remainder of this week, and perhaps you'll see some connections between my early exposure to these Atari games and the things I choose to write about.


Anonymous said...

Someone just made a version of Halo 3 for the Atari 2600:


Flashman85 said...

Very nice. And I like the fake picture I once saw of Avatar as an Atari game.