PC & Console Game Week: 2 of 6

by Chris McGinty (According To Whim .com)

Last week, Nathan and I were talking on the phone. He told me that he was writing about video gaming over the years. This started a discussion about everything from memory to memories, with a few stops along the way about disks to discs. He told me that he had enough material to write two or three parts, which was happy for him because he’s been struggling for topics. Realizing that I could jump on the topic train with this one, I suggested a theme week. I’ll probably write later about the untapped resource of theme weeks, but for now, I’ll stick to the theme at hand: PC and Console Games.

I turned age 23 this year, so I was 9 in 1982 when my parents bought an Atari 2600. As Nathan discussed yesterday, the Atari 2600 came with Combat. I think that when we bought it, they were also including Pac-Man. I know for a fact that we had Pac-man. I’m just not sure if we paid for it. We had games such as Asteroids, Missile Command, and Video Pinball.

I recently talked to a guy who is actually closer to age 23 than I really am (though I’m still claiming that I turned 23 this year). The discussion centered on video games. His first console was the original Nintendo. I told him that there was a time when in-game tutorials didn’t exist, and that even with the Nintendo era, if you wanted a walkthrough, you had to plop down $10 for a strategy guide at the store. The difference being that with an Atari 2600 game, it was usually pretty self-explanatory… usually.

I remember reading the booklets that came with Asteroids, Missile Command, and later when I borrowed Defender from a friend, Defender. There was a section with a brief, paragraph long story that set the tone of the non-narrative graphics you saw on screen. I wanted to write actual stories based on these summaries. Yep, I could have invented fan fiction. But instead, I spent hours upon hours playing the game instead. Yep, that’s a tradition that goes all the way back. I will never be able to be judgmental of the folks who spend a quarter of their lives playing World of Warcraft, because I have a pretty misspent youth that revolved around Pac Man, Yar’s Revenge, Adventure, and countless others.

In fact, that’s one of my memories of that time of my life, trading Atari games with my friends for a week here and a week there. This was our way of discovering whether or not it was worth our time and effort to buy the game for ourselves. I’m sure somewhere in the world this kind of thing happened and people found themselves being ripped off by people who borrowed their games and moved, but with my group of friends it was legit. We borrowed the games for a while and then we gave them back. The irony was that usually by the time we loaned a game out, we were impartial to whether we got it back, because hours and hours of game play tended to remove the challenge from any given game.

Then I saw “Tron” at the movie theater…

The idea of creating my own video games became a passion for me. Unfortunately, it was one that I didn’t really follow through on. The problem was that I bought the greatest computer ever created, the Commodore 64, and by the time I would be entering into the job market, BASIC programming would be in the mostly obsolete category.

But for the time being, I was happy. I never created any great games on the Commodore, but I did what I could. The biggest problem I had was the tedious nature of going line by line, and worse, I had trouble with the idea of mapping out big projects. To me outlines were a waste of time that could be spent actually doing the project. The problem is that with something as exact as programming, you have to.

Furthermore, I started buying games for the Commodore, and who has time to write games when they’re busy playing games. Yes, I realize that I could have been playing the game I was working on, but my games weren’t quite as exciting as the ones I was acquiring.

The difference between the Commodore 64 and the Atari 2600 was pretty striking in truth. While I realize now that there was a homebrew market for the Atari 2600, I was unaware of it at that time. The idea of people just like me (but with better programming talent) sitting around and making games and applications was a whole new world to me. With an Atari 2600, Atari 5200, and eventually Atari 7800 (which I still have never played) all you had was a game cartridge. Here is an overview of the kinds of games one could play on the Commodore 64.

Cartridge – Yep, the Commodore 64 had it all. While most of us played games on floppy disk, there was still the ability to just slide a cartridge into the side of the machine and turn it on. I owned Frogger, which was given to me, but otherwise, I was a disk user.

Disks and Datasettes – All the other types of games I would like to discuss were played on one of these or the other. A datasette was a cassette, but you used a special recorder to record these horrible noises. Those noises were readable by the computer. Datasettes were a pain in the ass though. I’m blessed that my parents went in for a 1541 disk drive for a few hundred dollars more. Keep in mind that the disks we used initially were the 5 ¼ inch floppy disks.

Professional – Or maybe I should just say packaged, as there were some crappy games that were sold in the early days. I realize that there are crappy games sold now too, but they would seem fantastic comparatively. There were some great games too, some that would hold up even today in spite of typically being sold on one single-sided, or double-sided 5 ¼ floppy.

Homebrew – These came in a couple of forms. One was shareware that you got from others. You simply copied the BASIC file from one disk to another. If you were me, this involved swapping discs in the middle of the procedure. If you had two disk drives though, you could go from one to the other easily. The other form was smaller programs that were printed in magazines. You would have to devote some time to transcribing the program line for line from the magazine, and save it to a disk. Usually, these weren’t great, so I didn’t do them too often, but there was the occasional gem. At least one magazine got smart and had an order form to get a disk with all the programs already saved. The best homebrew game that I played on the Commodore was a Star Trek game written in BASIC. The Enterprise was represented by an E, the Klingons were represented by a K, stars were represented by an *, and so forth. It was a simple strategy game that was loads and loads of fun. My brother had no interest in the game until I made a copy of it, and altered it to be a Robotech themed game with M for Mospeada, I for Invid, and those * things, were now trees, and so forth. Suddenly, my brother wanted to play it practically everyday.

Cracked – Yes, even back then there was a need in the gaming community to pirate games. Before you go looking down your nose at me though, I was a teenager, and I had no steady source of income of my own. In spite of this, I bought quite a few games. Mastertronic got a decent amount of business from me. The unfortunate fact is that I could afford the $10 specials. Saving up to get a $40 game wasn’t going to happen too often. Teenagers have more time than money (technically, I think I still do) so I would get lots and lots of use out of a game and still be ready for something new.

The point is that there were a lot more options available than just popping in a cartridge, and I’m just talking about gaming here. Nevermind that I had word processing and any number of other uses from the Commodore.

So here I am, I’ve written about 1,400 words and I’m still stuck in the 80s… well, that was an unintentionally loaded statement. The lucky thing is that my video game consumption slowed down over the years, so the next two parts I write won’t be so much a system by system account as much as a discussion about games evolving. Some of what I write will be similar to what Nathan writes, but I’ll do my best to find areas he doesn’t discuss whether it’s because he just doesn’t bring them up, or because they’re my own personal experiences.

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