why i like classic games
This essay dates from mid-2001

I've been playing video games for a long time, since the times when Froggers and PacMen roamed the Earth.

My video game career started with a clone of an Atari 2600, "The Columbia Home Arcade" when I was in fourth grade- just around the time of the "Great Video Game Crash." Thanks to a few lucky breaks (most revolving around my parents being ministers in the Salvation Army and companies liquidating their inventory of Atari) I've collected hundreds of games for this system. Over the years, I've also had (in order) an Atari 800XL (Atari Logo!), a Commodore 64 (Archon! Skate or Die! Raid on Bungeling Bay! Crossroads from Compute's Gazette!), an NES (Metroid! Blaster Master! Mega Men! Bionic Commando!), a GameBoy (More Metroid! More Bionic Commando! Speedball 2!) several PCs (Wing Commanders! Rampart! Star Control 1-3!), a Vectrex, (every game on a multicart!), an N64 (Star Fox 64! Diddy Kong Racing! Blast Corps! Zelda! NFL Blitz! BattleTanx!) and an SNES (Super Punch Out! Star Fox!)

I've been reading and posting to the Usenet Group Rec.Games.Video.Classic since early 1993, when 2400 baud modems were considered zippy. This is a group dedicated to the playing and collecting of classic video games. (What "classic" means is a matter of debate: some hold it to be a specific era, roughly everything before the NES. Others believe that classic is a more dynamic, living term, which will always mean "old but good". I hold with the latter group, especially seeing as how no other group really wants to discuss defunct systems such as the NES.) Over time, I've noticed two extremes of RGVCers: collectors, who love to pour over thrift stores and flea markets, looking for a find. They focus on classic games because they're cheap and interesting. The other extreme consists of the players, who think that the classic era of games hold gameplay essences that have been lost in the glitz and polygons of today's games. They thrill in the zen like repetion of the old games, where you strived for high scores, not to reach some lame cinematic ending.

I used to assume I was one of the players, since I "thrift" only rarely. (Though I did find my $40 Vectrex at a Slavation Army thrift in NYC.) But then I realized that I don't play the older games all that much. With the exception of a few gems, I find older games to be dull and repetitive. Yet I'm loathe to give up my collection of over 150 Atari games. I wasn't going to be able to be satisfied until I figured out what the appeal was.

And now I know: I play games for the microcosms they create. I love the idea of each cartridge holding a small virtual universe, establishing its rules and laws of physics, populated with artificial beings. Video Games are one of the few forms of Artifical Life that we might encounter on a daily basis.

Classic games, then, appeal to me for two reasons: one is that they're cheap. You can get stacks and stacks of these little universes for just a little money. The second reason is how the graphical and memory constraints of these games forced the designers to be very created in the universes they set up. The NES was plagued by a series of not-very-different side-scrollers, where only the graphics and music varied from game to game. Atari designers didn't have the luxury: they created new universes from the ground up. Game innovation came in the form of new interactions with these electronic microcosms.

A lot of people only half understand this philosophy when I mention it to them. They would think that a game like Myst or Ultima would appeal to me, since the universe they present are huge and creative. But they don't, because despite the variations of terrain and images, everything is about the same everywhere in the game. With Ultima, you wander around and maneuver in a static, 2D world. With Myst, you click through a cleverly arranged slide show. Neither do a thing for me.

So that's it. I like games that create a new universe. Not necessarily a realistic one, but one that seems as if it could exist even where you're not looking.