I recently read Ready Player One, the best-selling first novel by author Ernest Cline. This book became somewhat of a phenomenon a few years back, particularly in the geek world. Building on the current coolness of all nerd pop culture thanks to shows like The Big Bang Theory and Community, Ready Player One tapped into a lively vein of society that is thriving on Gen X and Millennial gamer culture and their love of Eighties nostalgia.
As such, this book should have been right up my alley. I’m the same age as the author so when he’s writing about stuff from his youth he’s theoretically writing about stuff from my youth. Like many kids my age, I played video games, watched Star Trek: The Next Generation, and listened to AC/DC. By rights, I should have loved this book just as much or more than the myriad fans expounding its greatness online.
I Wasn’t As Nerdy As I Thought
Somehow, I didn’t. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t love it. Despite being a blue blood member of the target demographic for this tale of futuristic nostalgic love for the geek culture of my childhood, a lot of this book was simply lost on me. I realized quickly that I wasn’t anywhere near the nerd I thought I was. I suppose I knew that to some degree. Sure, I spent lunch hours a couple years in high school playing a rudimentary role playing game in the computer lab that was programmed by some fellow students, actual nerds apparently, but otherwise I was on the periphery of this clique. I had a little too much jock in my blood. Not enough to be cool, mind you, but enough not to be true geek.
This reality became abundantly clear as the book picked up speed in the hunt for the hidden easter egg left by a deceased computer wunderkind in a virtual world he had created and addicted the entire planet to. A great many references were made to Dungeons and Dragons and Japanese Anime, neither of which I had any interest in as a kid. Or now.
I was gifted a Dungeons and Dragons game, once. By one of my grandparents, I think. They likely went into a store and asked the clerk what was hot for early teen boys and were told D&D was all the rage. I opened the box, looked at the contents, and spent a few hours trying to figure out how you played a game with no board and peculiarly shaped extra sided dice before putting everything back in the box which I tossed into my bedroom closet to be forgotten until I moved out many years later. And the only anime I’ve ever seen was in my adulthood, on the internet for only a brief moment, and would have made Hugh Hefner blush.
The music mentioned in the book I knew and enjoyed, though admittedly I didn’t listen to Rush as a kid. That gave me a little comfort that my youth wasn’t completely out of sync with the fans of this book, but by the time video games were being mentioned, I was back to questioning my entire adolescence again.
The Atari 2600 Video Game System
This is where bewilderment truly overcame me and I had to acknowledge I definitely wasn’t of the same ilk as the characters in this book, the writer of this book, or my peers who loved this book. Two integral plot points in Ready Player One involve classic arcade games, including one that was available on the Atari 2600 Video Gaming System, the beloved wood-grained godfather of home gaming consoles. This was something I felt surely I could relate to since we actually had an Atari 2600 when I was young.
Of course, we didn’t own it when Atari was actually the “in thing”. My rich, cool, single uncle did, though, and when the next generation of gaming systems came along, he happily gifted his old Atari system to me and my sister. So we were a few years late to the party. Atari was quite likely bankrupt by then, but still I played these games for many hours once I finally gained access to them. No, I didn’t spend endless hours in arcades, but that Atari system got worked hard and I became rather skilled at many of the games.
Sadly, none of the games I knew and loved were mentioned in this book. Worse yet, all the Atari and arcade games that were mentioned, I had never heard of before. Seriously. I had to look a couple of them up on the internet just to see what they were. So the one nostalgic subject I felt I had the best chance of relating to and thus appreciating in this book turned out to be a giant black hole of ignorance for me anyway. That pissed me off. So, in hopes of redeeming myself just a little bit, I am going to share with you the video games I loved to play the most on our beloved Atari 2600 which, I might add, I still have. Okay, my sister has it because my bro-in-law is even crazier about vintage games than I am, or was, but the point is it remains a functioning artifact in the possession of my family. That’s at least nerdy cool I hope!
Here then are the seven games I loved and played the most on our Atari 2600. The greatest of the great according to a wannabe geek.
1) Dig Dug
Without a doubt, this is the game I mastered beyond all others. Our entire family got hooked on this one, each taking our turn chewing up the earth in our attempts to earn top score. I eventually achieved a score multiples beyond what anyone else in the family scored. I remember that day still.
It was a sunny afternoon at our trailer at Sauble Beach. I sat down for a quick game before I would head outside to play. Only this day, that quick game would last several hours as I dominated Dig Dug like a never before! I made it through endless levels, each getting harder and faster. Eventually they started repeating but I still kept going. I was thrilled but ultimately left to bask in my glory alone as everyone else was outside and I couldn’t stop to go get them so they could see the myth I was creating.
Eventually, I started to wish the game would end. I was tired and you could actually get bored in those days as the games became very repetitive but I kept going. I eventually lost, of course, but racked up almost 700,000 points if I recall correctly, an impressive record for the Schmidt clan at the very least, and quite possibly world beating at the time, or so I naively thought.
I just looked it up and the current world record is 5,225,260 points and took over eleven hours to play. Sooooo, I guess I had a ways to go yet. Still, for the Schmidt family my record was literally unbreakable.
This was the first game I “mastered” and my favourite prior to Dig Dug captivating my attention. I put quotes around that because I use the term “mastered” relative to my game personal game playing abilities and that of my family. In the grand whole of gaming geeks, it is quite apparent I haven’t “mastered” anything in my life. But in my own little Atari world, I mastered Phoenix. This was the first video game I purposefully took the time to perfect. I didn’t simply become skilled at winning the game, I strove to win with the least number of shots possible.
In the first four levels, I could kill each of the birds with a single shot. If you missed the body and took out a wing instead, a replacement quickly regrew in its place. Single shot kills were a sign of talent in my mind and I was dead set on being exceptionally talented.
Alas, the game quickly became repetitive as there was limited variation in levels and difficulty so I never achieved any remarkable high scores to boast about here, but it remained a favourite. A reliable, old friend I could also come back to when I needed a simple, comforting game playing experience.
I didn’t so much love Barnstorming as I despised it. I never became exceptionally good at this game but I damn well tried for hours to master it. This is especially true of the first level. When originally released, the Barnstorming playbook stated that players scoring a time better than 33.3 seconds on game 1, 51.0 seconds on game 2, or 54.0 seconds on game 3 could send Activision a picture of their screen and receive membership in the Activision Flying Aces and receive a Flying Aces patch. By the time I was playing Barnstorming I am pretty sure the offer was no longer valid, but I was damn intent on achieving those milestones.
Oh, but they were bloody hard to beat! The first three levels were not randomized so you could memorize the course easy enough, but you still had to fly a perfect path often just slipping past birds or under barns by a pixel width. I struggled mightily to do this. I did eventually break the 33.3 seconds on game 1 a couple times but the others remained out of reach. A protégé, I was not. Still, the challenge of this game, frustrating though it may have been, kept me fixated for hours.
4) Spider Fighter
Another shooter game, this was perhaps my favourite Activision title. It never seemed to get the recognition that other, inferior shooting games got in my opinion, but I loved it and spent many hours blasting the spiders and saving the fruit. Like Barnstorming, Spider Fighter offered players a chance to earn a badge if they scored 40,000 points but I never cared about that milestone. I just found this game to be an enjoyable stress release. Even the graphics struck me as better than most though I’m admittedly no expert when making such proclamations. Perhaps I found its similarities to Phoenix appealing.
5) Missile Command
This game is a classic. It remains a legend even now, and certainly was a milestone for the Atari 2600 system. I understood its popularity though to look at its graphics now you’d be hard pressed not to laugh and wonder why. It was a wildly addictive game as the increasing difficulty within levels and with successive levels was masterful, easily luring in and frustrating avid gamers. I couldn’t tell you if I ever got very good at this game, but I played it enough that some sort of high score reward was warranted.
6) Yars’ Revenge
Here’s a game that was kind of a dud in the greater pantheon of Atari games, but I found it intoxicating nonetheless. Ironically, despite poor reviews it was the highest selling Atari game for the original 2600 system. Gameplay was ridiculously simple and repetitive, but I still found myself lured into playing it many times over. A game with minimal purpose or story line, there was no progression or finish to it. You just kind of played until you got bored and stopped. Maybe this was my game of choice for brain dead time consumption or something. I played it lots for no apparent reason.
The best accessory to the Atari 2600 was the paddle controller. It was also the most frustrating because it inevitably wore out quickly and made gameplay difficult or impossible. This reality sucked because some of the better games utilized the paddle controller like the infamous Breakout and another favourite of mine, Kaboom! This was a fun, addictive, and challenging game where you had to catch dropped bombs in buckets of water. Again, I doubt I ever came close to truly exceptional scoring in this game, but I certainly spent many hours trying. As did my sister. The difficulty of levels and speed at which the bombs dropped increased rapidly making high scores all but impossible, in my opinion. Perhaps this is simply more proof that I was not a true gamer.
I couldn’t resist myself and had to look it up online and I again reality strikes a humbling blow to my gamer cred. Apparently high scores are quite possible in Kaboom! In fact, you can actually break the game at 999,999 points. Unreal.
And there you have it. The seven games I played relentlessly on our Atari 2600 gaming system. We had lots of others, of course, and I certainly played them too. Some of those titles are famous, like Berserk and Defender and Dolphin, while others were virtually unheard of knockoffs. But no others ever seemed to addict me like these did.