Articles Irish Times Technology

A blast from the past – retro gaming

Monday, November 27, 1995

Nostalgia has arrived in the hi-tech world of computers. Normally so concerned with bigger, faster and newer, it now appears that the next big thing could be smaller, slower and older. Remember those Atari videogames from the eary 80s? Well, they’re back.

As part of the current taste for retro-chic, people who grew up with Defenders, Space Invaders and Pac Man are now looking to play these games again.

Old and new are coming together in a rewarding way, with the internet being used to help enthusiasts swap information on retrogaming. Now you can use your Pentium-driven PC to visit websites and newsgroups devoted to consoles and home computers that could only muster 48K of memory, 16 colours, blocky graphics and tinny sound.

But this is more than just the internet allowing nostalgic members of a minority group to talk to one another – the trend is entering the mainstream.  The System nightclub in South Anne St in Dublin has a selection of classic videogames, and Lily’s Bordello nightclub in Dublin has also recently installed an old Space invaders arcade game for their 80s night on Mondays. 

‘We were looking for three tabletop machines, so we could have competitions,’ said Patricia Roe from Lily’s. ‘We could only find the one stand-up machine, and it’s proved very popular.’ Especially as they’ve taken the coin slot out, so it’s free to play.

The Amusements videogame arcade on Eden Quay provided Lily’s with the machine, and it has other classics such as Hypersports, Gauntlet and Defender which continue to draw the punters.

The charm of playing these games is manifold. Firstly, if you’re of a certain age, playing Defender makes you suddenly 12 years old again. You remember spending summer days inside with the curtains closed so you could see the TV, your Mum bringing you and your friend orange squash and Penguin biscuits.

There is also a rewarding irony in being deliberately old-fashioned.  Home computers have now been around long enough to have a past worth mining, and reviving machines that were supposed to have died 10 years ago gives the lie to built-in obselescence.

However, perhaps the most persuasive reason for the renewed interest is that the games are excellent. Restricted by simple graphics, and slow processors, their programmers had to make the games themselves addictive.  Among gamers, this elusive quality is known as ‘playability’, and the classics have it in abundance.

While modern games are falling over themselves to render 3-D graphics more and more accurately, the old console and home computer games just make sure you’ll keep playing. As Philip Roe from the Amusements arcade points out, ‘Most of the modern games look great, but you can only play them so often before getting bored. And the new ones are mainly just versions of the old ones anyway.’

This is most true of the many ‘beat-em ups’ such as Mortal Kombat and Virtua Fighter. which are flashier but no more entertaining reworkings of 80s games such as Yie-ar Kung Fu and Way of the Exploding Fist.

Padraig Nallon, a reservations agent for a hotel company in Dublin, has recently started playing on an old Atari 520ST home computer. ‘Marble Madness is the hit at the moment,’ he said. ‘I wouldn’t mind a new console, but the games on this thing really get you hooked.’

Jason Browne, editor of the UK videogames magazine Edge, is sure this nostalgia kick could be the start of something much larger: ‘The growing interest in retrogaming is a poignant reminder of how many older games still outshine the latest releases,’ he says. ‘It has evolved from what has so far been little more than a niche interest into a bankable concept.’

Proof of this bankability is the interest shown by games manufacturers.  Classic Atari and Activision games are now available on CD-ROM for the PC, but so far they’re not proving popular in Ireland. ‘We had the Atari pack in, and sold maybe 1 in three months,’ said the manager of the games department in the Virgin Megastore in Dublin. ‘No-one wanted to know.’

Luke McBratney, a classic games enthusiast from Portadown, explains what could have been the problem. ‘Part of the attraction is using the old computers or consoles themselves. Sitting on the floor in front of the TV just feels much better than playing the games at your desk on your PC.’

But if you can’t get your old Spectrum to work, and playing on your PC doesn’t feel right, then the remakes for the new consoles might prove attractive. Retrogaming is proving to be a factor in the cut-throat battle between the Sony Playstation, Sega Saturn and 3DO consoles.

The Playstation driving game Ridge Racer starts up with a perfect version of the 80s game Galaxians – clear the screen and you’ll get more cars in the main game. Also in the production line for the Playstation from games giant Namco is a Museum Piece CD , containing a selection of its arcade classics.

This could prove to be a smart move. Parents can buy the machines, telling themselves that it’s for the children, while being secretly delighted that they get another chance to clock Pac Man. However, they’ll also have to make sure they buy some new games for the kids, as it seems people under the age of 20 are immune to the postmodern attraction of retrogaming. 

Alison Dinsmore, 14, from Co. Louth, was unimpressed with my offer of a classic Atari 2600 with 5 games (price $30 including shipping, from a US enthusiast advertising on a newsgroup). ‘No way,’ she said. ‘Those old games are rubbish. For Christmas I want a Sega Saturn with Sega Rally.’

How long before that game becomes a classic?

(first published in The Irish Times, Monday November 27th, 1995)