March Maniacs, part 1: Party like it’s 1979

April 9th, 2011

Jason: Those of you who follow video games closely know that Nintendo’s latest portable wonder, the 3DS, recently arrived on our shores. Portable games in glasses-free 3-D, yee-haw! I, for one, am looking forward to playing Super Street Fighter IV on that system, as well as … umm … err … Ridge Racer! You know, Riiiiiiiiiiidge RACER! Wooooooo!

This post isn’t about the 3DS, though. That’ll be a discussion saved for GameType, the new video game blog over on Honolulu Pulse, where we’ll be taking our gaming talk going forward. But today, in this, the final video game-related post in Otaku Ohana, we’re talking about another piece of cutting-edge technology.

… cutting-edge for 30-plus years ago, that is. What you see here is the Atari Flashback, a self-contained console that plays Atari 2600 games. And it’s a key player in the first post in the long-in-gestation “March Maniacs” trilogy, where we’ll be blogging about several events that happened one weekend in … umm … mid-March. (Hey, migrating a newspaper operation to a new computer system is really, really hard.) On March 12, as part of “Teen Tech Week,” Aiea Library hooked up a Flashback — and a Flashback 2 — and let visitors have at them.

Including, of course, a certain Star-Advertiser otaku tag-team.

Wilma and I are, by virtue of our being in our early-mid-30s, very much disciples of the old school. I’ll confess that, while I thought the 2600 was cool and all, my real dream consoles started emerging from the generation afterward — namely, the Atari 5200 and the Colecovision. (I never did get those. I think I’ve been compensating for it ever since. *glances over at stack of current-gen consoles*) But Wilma has some fond memories of the 2600.

Wilma: Fond memories they are. The 2600 was our family’s first game console and the games I most remember us playing to death were “Adventure,” “Air-Sea Battle,” “Video Pinball” and, admittedly, the really bad “Pac-Man” version, and to a lesser degree “Video Olympics,” “Asteroids,” “Combat” and “Freeway.”

People talk about video games numbing the mind, well, some of the 2600′s games were a real exercise in using one’s imagination. After all, compare the picture on the cover of the “Adventure” game box:

…with an example of a screen from the actual game:

And after seeing the above, you can probably understand how much of a novelty video games were for us if the sad, glaring discrepancy between picture and game didn’t completely turn us off for all time.

My sister, the oldest in our group of neighborhood kids, ended up being the Undisputed “Adventure” Heroine. To this day, I am scared to death to try level 3 or even level 2 of the game — there are only 3 difficulty levels, but level 2 is exponentially harder than level 1 — but my sister persevered and FINISHED THEM ALL. Despite the annoying bat that would make a beeline (batline?) for you and nab whatever important thing you happened to be carrying, despite the flickering that could cause an epileptic seizure, despite the limited view of the mazes in higher levels that made them such hell to navigate. We had to kowtow to her for that true feat of mental strength.

My sister was also the wizard at “Asteroids,” whose music still freaks me out. (Don’t laugh about getting forever traumatized as a child.) There was more of an equal playing arena in the other games. We had some pretty memorable competitions in “Combat,” in which you battle as either tanks or planes. The game has a lot of levels that each change a different aspect, whether visibility or number of obstacles or bullet attributes. Mix this with the generally horrible controls, and you have a recipe for hilarity and anger, depending on which end of the “win” spectrum you were on.

We tried out all the various game types, and memories of both plane and tank levels stuck with me for how they could be COMPLETELY UNFAIR. If you were patient enough as a tank or lucky enough as a plane, you could keep shooting your opponent without allowing the other person’s vehicle to recover from its spinning long enough to escape or shoot retaliatory fire.

We played both types equally, but I most remember the tanks.

For maximum humor, the best level to play in “Combat” is the one with the most obstacles, ricocheting bullets, and invisible tanks — the only way you could see your tank is if you shot a bullet or you got hit by one. Ohh yeah. We played that version for kicks, although me being the youngest in the group, I was probably more on the “mad” end of things than I was on the “win” side. It was always far funnier to watch other people try desperately to maneuver their tanks around the field than it was to try it myself.

Many, many years later, our 2600 got a kind of revival — long before the release of the Flashback and other accessories that relived 2600 games — when my esteemed sister, who is as much of a nostalgist as I am, nabbed a bunch of games from the swap meet. Games that we’d NEVER HAD, much less heard of! (Come on, I was only 5 years old or so in our 2600 heyday; I wouldn’t have had the chance to go to the store to ogle games on my own. I wonder how those store displays would have looked…)

Armed with a fresh stash of games, we happily brought out the well-aged but, with a few cable-line converters, still-working Atari 2600. My younger brother is now the real gamer in the house, and he willingly played them even though he has only fuzzy memories of the console from the first time around. Some of the games were pretty good — “Haunted House” and “Circus Atari” among them, that second one more for the silliness than anything — while others were absolute duds. I actually tried playing “Math Gran Prix” despite obviously being out of its target age group, but even factoring that in, it was still a horribly boring way to learn math. It was like experiencing the Mathman segments on “Square One TV” except without the wittily dumb banter. And I could never get the hang of “3-D Tic-Tac-Toe.” That second was probably more a fault of my brain’s incapability to see how exactly the X’s and O’s were spaced, but good god, WHO makes a tic-tac-toe VIDEO game? And who actually BUYS it?

Jason: I can think of a target audience. Overpriced tic-tac-toe? There’s an app for that.

Wilma: In any case, with such a colorful family history of the Atari 2600 behind me, I jumped at the chance to experience it again when Aiea Library had its Teen Tech Week.

Jason: And so it passed that on a gorgeous sunny Saturday afternoon, a perfect day to go to the beach, we … shut ourselves in a nice, air-conditioned library. (Hey. We’re totally otaku. Plus the sun, it buuuuuurns.)  Totally missed seeing this on the way in — partly because the door was open — but this was posted on the entrance door.

It was, admittedly, a bit empty when we got there. Take a good look at the picture below.

What you see there is pretty much everyone in the room at the time we arrived — me (behind the camera), Wilma, an enthusiastic boy (with impeccable taste in retro-gaming), and interim young adult librarian Tina Arakawa. (Small-world alert: Tina and Wilma were actually classmates back in the day.) They started off playing something that, even for the 2600, was rather simple but devilishly addictive for two players: “Maze Craze.”

How enthusiastic was that boy? About as enthusiastic as kids can be at a young age — namely, give him a tiny opening to ply his craft, and he’ll happily grab a controller and play all day … and all night … and the next day … and Sunday comes afterwards … all the while partyin’, partyin’, yeah, fun, fun, fun, fun, fun, fun, fun. (This has been your obligatory one-time reference to Rebecca Black’s “Friday.” Let us not speak of this again.)

So when Tina suggested that he and I play a game together, I wholeheartedly agreed, thinking hey, maybe a few games with this kid would be fun and make for some good photo opportunities!

Naturally, he picked “Haunted House.” Which is a single-player game.

Followed by “Adventure.” Another single-player game.

While this was going on a few more people showed to play. Here we see a girl playing “Asteroids.” Wonder if Wilma was imagining the soundtrack. (The sound was a bit low. Library, after all.)

Wilma: Hey, I didn’t NEED to “imagine” the so-called soundtrack; I could hear it quite clearly. The “music” consists of low-pitched, thumping, staccato, UTTERLY FREAKY sounds that you don’t HEAR so much as FEEL VIBRATING IN THE MARROW OF YOUR BONES. Sounds that could very well have been based on the “Jaws” theme and constantly remind you that there are big horkin’ unforgiving boulders whizzing around you, ready to pound you into space dust unless you frantically reduce them to such first. And that’s even BEFORE the alien spaceships come at you with their death-ray lasers!

…Hey, I’m not panicking. Who’s panicking?! NOBODY’S PANICKING!!…

Jason: And here we have “Centipede.”

Back over at our station, the boy finally relinquished the controls. And which game did I pick to play?

That’s right, kids. Super Breakout. Super. Freakin’. Breakout. You know, Pong for people who can’t find another person to play Pong with them. Or, perhaps for those of you who are a bit newer old-school than us, the poor man’s Arkanoid.

Fortunately, Wilma jumped in to save me from myself. We eventually settled on “Air-Sea Battle.”

Wilma: “Air-Sea Battle,” which again has many different levels changing various aspects of the game, stayed in my memory for a few reasons:

  1. The weird angles that you could make your cannons point in certain stages.
  2. The way we would wiggle those cannons after firing a bullet in order to make the bullet wiggle in the same way, to try to hit the target.
  3. What we referred to “those &%$# spiders,” which were these strange, well, spider-looking things in higher levels that floated serenely along, were worth zero points, and served no purpose other than to block your shots. (The zero-point targets actually had different appearences in some levels, but the form we remember the best is the spider version.)

“Air-Sea Battle” also had the dubious distinction of being one of two games that we actually tried to recreate in real life with the rest of the neighborhood gang. The other was, naturally, “Adventure.”

Jason: Unfortunately, I needed to read up a little bit on how to get the unit to start up a two-player game. And if something as simple as this can confuse me … well, you can probably figure out why I haven’t touched the Madden series in years.

But we did finally get to playing. I’m happy to say that I won the first game. She won the second. I have to say we were pretty evenly matched. We went on to play “Combat” — she did much better than me in that — and our own rounds of “Maze Craze” — again, evenly matched.

But alas, our time there was too short, and we had to dash off to work.

Wilma: We were able to stay only about half an hour, at the end of which my hand was hurting like nothing. The controllers were far harder to handle than I remember, but then again, I also don’t have 5-year-old-sized hands anymore. I’d love more time to try out the many other games available on the Flashbacks, with “Adventure II” at the top of that list.

Yeah, I know.

Jason: Yeeeaaaah. Umm. About trying out some of those other games …

… but that’s another time for another blog. See you over at GameType for that, folks.

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