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Bringing back the age of Atari

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How ironic: As a society we consistently become lazier, but our video game controllers keep adding buttons. And joysticks. And vibrating packs that are supposed to make your hands feel like you've actually been shot, or hit by a car, or snuck by a gargoyle, or something. Playing today's popular video game systems is less a fun time and more like an entrance exam into some super society of cyberpeople.

I played that Matrix game once on a PlayStation 2, and didn't really do anything; I pushed one button and ended up destroying everything on the screen. Sure it looked cool, but deep down, I pined for the days when real skill was measured by traversing lagoons via alligator heads.

The Atari 2600: Look at its sleek lines, its faux-wood grain. Marvel at its joystick, with one button. Look at the graphics, a triumph of cubism shaking hands with minimalism. You can keep your Vice City EA Renegade Starfighters Sports, or whatever you call it, for your fancy schmancy Play Cube X. Let terms like "first-person shooter" or "3-D environments" roll through your head while you involve yourself in "online play." 2600 games like Pitfall, Yars' Revenge, Kaboom, Asteroids, Pole Position, Dig Dug, and Pac-Man only need one term for definition: kick-ass.

"It's just the simplicity of the older games," says Phil Frye, a Rochesterian who programs games for the 2600 and actively waves the system's proverbial flag. "The pick-up-and-play aspect. There are very few Atari 2600 games that you can't just pick it up and play without reading the instruction booklet. If you have to read the instruction booklet to play a video game, that's a bit too much for some people. Like, 'I have to remember 75 different things to do, and button combos in order to do stuff,' whereas I can pick up Adventure, and you know, I got a dot and I got an arrow... I'm all set to go."

The resurgence of the Atari 2600 was inevitable, really; its popularity was strongly underground. In my younger friends' college rooms, a 2600 was often nestled in amongst PS2s and Game Cubes. It gave them the same sort of novelty that I might have gotten with a record player in the early '90s. And to hell with your Drowning Pool- and MXPX-laden game soundtracks. All you need is to hear Golden Shower's "Video Computer System" (www.goldenshower.gs) to realize that the bleeps and bloops of the 2600 are the definition of Old School.

But more recently, the Atari Joystick itself has been re-released by Jakks TV Games, this time with a number of the 2600's games already inside it. The thing just plugs into the television, saving people countless minutes of blowing into cartridges to make them work.

"That sold so well that they're going to do another one where they put all paddle games into a paddle," Frye says. Jakks has released other systems' joysticks as well, including Namco and Activision controls.

www.atariage.com has been online since 1998 and has been a hub for Atari fans, giving them news about their various systems including the 5200 and 7800. It's the 2600, though, that always wins the popularity contests. Programmers like Frye still take joy in making games for the already-antiquated system, creating their own games by taking the cartridges and circuit boards from other games and replacing them with their own special creations.

"You could end up with a dead cartridge. 'Bit rot' does set in," Frye says, telling of how the circuit boards can deteriorate over time, paving the way for new circuit boards to be created. "One of the reasons [programmers] can make these homebrews and these 'hack' cartridges is that they'll take a dead cartridge and... just use the case."

It's easy for programmers to make new games, which keeps the popularity of the 2600's low-tech adventures so high. After replacing the old circuit board with a new, "homebrewed" game, programmers stick on a homemade label with artwork. Then it's off to the World Wide Web for trade.

But there are serious releases still coming out for the 2600. The biggest news of late: the impending release of the Paul Slocum's Homestar Runner RPG (that's "Role Playing Game") for the 2600. Based on the Chapman Brothers' popular www.homestarrunner.com, the game will feature many of the website's characters, enemies from other 2600 games, and in-game text.

"It's going to be a full-blown production," Frye says. "It's going to have nice-looking cartridges, labels, boxes, everything."

The 2600's popularity can also be attributed to the ease with which you can get your hands on a used system, usually online. So if your folks tossed yours out, no need to fret.

"[The 2600] was... at the time, the most common video game system in this country," Frye says. "They're all over the place. I get them and sell them all the time."

But what to do when you do find yours lurking at the back of the closet? What happens if the PS2 and Game Cubes just get too easy? Frye gives a couple tips on resurrecting your old system.

"It's often cheaper to just find another [2600] rather than getting it fixed," he says. "But there are places that will fix it. There's a place in Greece called Video Awareness [2670 Dewey Avenue, 663-1400]. They'll fix anything. If it's fixable, they'll fix it and they're usually very reasonable. Like 10, 15 bucks.

"Joysticks can be more of a problem. If they're not working, they're usually shot, you probably have to replace them. But you can get those on the Web all over the place. If the games don't work, nine times out of 10 they just need to be cleaned. Use some alcohol and clean the contacts."


This joy sticks

It still ranks as one of my life's greatest aesthetic moments: watching a brave little plumber as he smashed the ceiling, jumped above it, and discovered a warp zone.

Released stateside in 1985, Super Mario Bros. took the whole pick-up-and-play concept and added a serious touch of magic to the circuitry. It was the first game to reward its players for breaking boundaries, for exploring beyond the physical confines of their environment. Invisible treasures and secret glitches allowed the game to become much larger than its 8-bit architecture.

Super Mario is the first game cartridge released for the Nintendo Entertainment System. And if you grew up during the '80s, you've either played it or seen it being played. It's also the game that set the course for Nintendo's adventurous spirit to this day.

The game was developed by Nintendo General Manager Shigeru Miyamoto, who's become something of a folk hero among Nintendo loyalists. And Miyamoto's Mario inspiration is telling: growing up humbled by the natural surroundings of Sonebe, Japan, Miyamoto spent most of his time exploring rice fields, grassy hills, canyons, and waterways. One day, he discovered a cave. After building up enough courage, he took a lantern into the cave and discovered, to his amazement, an entrance to yet another cave.

This experience basically set the tone for the sense of adventure found in countless NES games. And there are tons of them, each with their own unique and delightfully flawed architecture.

If you've still got an NES lurking in the back of your attic, it probably doesn't work. We recommend dropping close to $100 on eBay for a "top loading" NES that won't give you the frustrating flashing start-up screens you grew up with. Clean the top-loader's contacts with a de-cottoned Q-Tip that's been dipped in rubbing alcohol or ethanol. Then use an unmolested Q-Tip, again dipped in the solvent, to clean all your games' contacts. You'll notice a ton of dirt and corrosion, and you really shouldn't stop cleaning until your Q-Tips come clean. (This approach may also work on the side-loading NES you grew up with, but we make no promises.)

Sure, $100 is a lot to spend on an old-school console. But used NES games come cheap, averaging $4 on eBay and slightly more in local game shops. To us, it's a no-brainer: all this virtual folk art can once again be at your fingertips.

--- Chad Oliveiri

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