It's Nice to Want
Atari 80s Nostalgia Arcade 5200 NES 7800 A8
I believe the saying that happiness is not always having what you want, but it is wanting what you have. With the Fall season taking hold, I find myself getting back into a nostalgic frame of mind. While I find it is not productive to live in the past, I find that some of the best memories actually help me appreciate what I have more. As I tossed the draw of nostalgia around in my head, I began to wonder if kids today will have the same opportunities. We live in the age of the microwave. We want things when we want them, and that is usually now. I guess one can argue that it has always been that way, but I it is truly a lot more attainable in today's age. Sometimes it makes me wonder if kids of today are missing out. Although I do not prefer them, the rough times in my life have been some of my best opportunities for growth. I am not going to go that deep. I am just talking about video games here, but I find it an interesting parallel, how many of times of want have become some of my most cherished memories.
When I was writing this the first time (I accidentally tabbed out and pressed backspace.. gone), "I'll Wait", by Van Halen started playing in my headphones. In my mind, I was thrust back into the late 80's. I was inside the arcade/corner shop, which many would stop by, on the way to our Junior High School. As much as I didn't care for cigarette smoke, it was a small price to pay, because games were 2 credits for a quarter! in fact, I met my longest friend there. We used to play Mario Bros. Sometimes we would play as a team; other times, we would play competitively. We still talk about those times to this day.
I was very fortunate to have my Atari 5200, because the Mario Bros version was better than other conversions of the time. In many ways, it even outshines the NES version in animation and competitive nuances. We would sit and play that game all night at times. As much fun as it was, it was still a treat to play the arcade version. Of course we wished we could have our own arcade machine, but that just wasn't realistic at the time. Those are some great memories. Who would have thought that wishing for arcade perfect (or even better than we had) would be just as great of a memory?
Pac-Man is probably the game that changed my life. Just as there are memories of actually enjoying the 2600 Pac-Man, I have just as many fond memories drooling over the Sear's catalog, because the Atari 400/800 computers had a version with the same maze layout. The sounds were closer than I ever imagined a home version could be. When the 5200 was released, I was finally able to obtain that version. It was even better than the computer version, because the high score racked up during gameplay, and it had the intermission cut scenes. I was so enamored with it. However, I still longed for that crunchy "whacka", when I dropped a quarter into the actual arcade machine. It wasn't the same.
Donkey Kong was another favorite. I had a friend with a ColecoVision. While I was very hung up on that version, it was very lacking. The graphics were very sharp, but it had very few on screen enemies, it was slow, and it was very glitchy. It was still fun. It was like an alternate. I couldn't afford to also own a ColecoVision, and I personally thought the 5200 conversions were more detail oriented. One day, I noticed Donkey Kong in an Atari Computer brochure. Could this be? The 5200 and A8s (Atari 8-bit computers) were just different arrangements of the same hardware. The version I saw had the missing "crazy barrels", "Springers", and the Conveyor level. I later found out that Atari had the computer rights, but they could not produce the video game system version. Now I had to pine after an Atari A8 if I wanted the best Donkey Kong home version. I can't count how much time I spent re-reading that catalog and looking at that still picture. It came to life in my imagination. One of the major retail catalogs later got another screen shot. It just all added to the image in my mind.
Just when the 5200 was getting some unique games, such as Pengo and Space Dungeon, Atari announced the 7800. I was a little disappointed, because I felt the 5200 was just starting to see its potential. I had two articles on the 7800. The first was announcing the new system. It touted virtually unlimited sprites, with virtually unlimited colors. The pictures were crude drawing, as screenshots were not common back in the day. I wasn't sure how the game would actually look. I assumed they would be higher resolution, since the current A8/5200 fell a little short on detail at times. The extra colors sounded nice. I assumed the sound would be just as good, if not better. it was also backward compatible with the Atari 2600, which didn't seem like such a big deal in this generation. I was thankful that there would be a module to allow my 5200 to play 7800 games. I was hopeful that my deluxe 5200 TrakBall would be compatible.
The second article I had stated that Atari had dropped the 7800. It was a sad article, stating what could have been. At that point, I figured I would never know what incredible capabilities this Atari system possessed. Even though, I can't even count the number of times I re-read those articles. I still fondly look back on how great I dreamed it would be. I still have the tattered magazines. When I look at them, I feel that same excitement, even though the actual system is in my current basement. I've seen how badly the 7800 missed the mark of my imagination, and I still enjoy the memory of wanting one.
Around 1985/1986, Mom and Dad said I could get a new video game system. It was a gift for some achievement in school. I heard the 7800 was finally released. I was anxious to get to see how amazing this Maria chip is. I would finally get to see the system that would blow away my beloved 5200. They took me to Children's Palace. There were no systems in stock. I looked at the back of the game boxes. The games didn't really look much better than my 5200 versions. Ms Pac-Man looked almost the same. There weren't many games, and I began to wonder if it was as good as I had heard. They did have the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in stock. I took a look, and I saw graphics that were arcade realistic. Super Mario Bros looked incredible, and I couldn't tell the difference from the version at the local arcade. The pictures of my favorite classics, Donkey Kong and Mario Bros, looked spot on too. I took a chance and grabbed an NES. Man, did I dodge a bullet!
I got the NES home, and I couldn't believe what I was seeing and hearing. The graphics were arcade perfect. The sound was incredible. It was unlike anything I ever thought would play on my television. I couldn't wait to get Donkey Kong and Mario Bros. I didn't see a 7800 in person until about a year later. The sprites were multi color, but the resolution was low, the colors were washed out, and the game play was choppy. I was so disappointed. Worse than any of that was the sound. Unlike some, I can't enjoy a game fully without sound. With the 7800, it's hard for me to enjoy the games because of the sound. I already had an almost arcade mirror of Galaga for my NES. Here was a 7800 version that looked like a colorful 2600 version. It sounded like it too. Apparently, Maria takes up so much processing time, it's hard for the system to draw smooth curves. Similar issues were seen in Mario Bros, where Mario leaps off the ground, ending in a crude arch.
In fairness to the 7800, I have seen some redeeming homebrews. Although the 320 mode is limited, it exists. One of my favorite redeeming games is Donkey Kong Pokey. Even with the lower resolution, it would have blown me away back in the day and justified the 7800 as a successor to the A8. My point here is that I own a 7800 now, and I think I sometimes enjoy the memory of WANTING a 7800 more than I do the system itself. I think I enjoy homebrews, because they kind validate the expectations of my fond memories. As for the NES, I was blown away by Super Mario Bros, Ghost & Goblins, and Galaga. However, I was not impressed with Donkey Kong, Mario Bros, Pac-Man, or even DK Jr. While they looked better than previous versions, but they lacked the charm and challenge of the arcade counterparts. Pac-Man didn't fit in the maze, the whacka was off, and it was sluggish. Donkey Kong was missing game elements, a whole level, and it was too easy. As much as I felt the NES could have handled a perfect conversion, I am kind of thankful that I still had something to want.
The 16-bit generation changed it up a little. I actually started to get into fighters. I wasn't a big fan of the 16-bit era. Sonic was fun. The only thing I cared about was that they could handle almost arcade-perfect versions of SF2, MK, MK2, SF2 Turbo, etc... This was a very fun period, because arcades were still chugging along. I have played games online with friends. It's fun, but it's not like meeting strangers at the arcade fun. It was great to be able to go to the arcade with a few close friends. They were in your corner, you played, and you went home with your close friends. At home, you practiced with your close friends. The home versions were not arcade perfect, but they were great. There's a great memory to still having that superior version to look forward to. I have great memories of wishing I had the arcade version at home.
When PS1 came out, I saw the writing on the wall. Ridge Racer, Tekken, and Namco Classics were all about as close to the arcade as I could tell. Memory restrictions were an obstacle for games like MK3, as were loading times, but they were still pretty good. I think this was the crossing point. After this, games at home were pretty much arcade quality. The arcade was dying.
Fast forward to today. I caught myself in a nostalgic mood. I now own about every system I have ever owned or wanted. Every system has some sort of SD card to play ROMs, except the 7800, for which I made my own EPROM carts. I can play most games on my PC, phone, PSP, GP2X, etc., via emulation. I even bought a few of my favorite arcade cabinets. When it comes to video games, there's not much that I badly want, but yet I still felt something was missing. That didn't make sense to me. One day, I realized that I think I enjoy wanting as much as having. Some of my fondest memories are wanting. They were looking at still magazine pictures and imagining what it would be like to have all of those games at my disposal. It was using my imagination to dream about the day that I would have arcade quality games at home. Back then, it was only reserved for the elite, like Rick Shroeder. Could some of my fondest memories be of reading video game magazines and "wishbooks"? I think they might be. That explains why it's sometimes fun to just turn the arcade machines on and watch the attract mode. It's almost as fun to think back to the times I wished I had a quarter, as it is to actually play the game. Is that why I enjoy classic game shows so much? One of my friends once made a point that classic game shows don't really change; if you've seen one, you've seen them all. Aside from the fact that "classic" is relative and does change, there's something great about going back and remembering what it was like to WANT those childhood gems. Sometimes, it's seeing something in person that we only saw in a magazine.
I then got to wondering if today's generation is missing out. Sure, they want the latest video game, but they are going to have that game when it's released. They do not have to use their imagination to make it fit the arcade counterpart. They don't have to worry about making their quarter last. There's nothing to lose. Maybe that's why I still prefer retro games. I downloaded Rayman3 the other day. The first part of the game was flying through a 3D environment. I needed to steer my character into the gems. It really felt like a lame combination of Pole Position and Pac-Man. It was lame, because there was no challenge. If I missed, I looped back through. if I am going to collect dots on a screen, I am fine doing that on my Pac-Man machine. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the modern games, even though they are just putting lipstick on a combination of our childhood pigs. It's just that I prefer the real thing!
Strangely, my XBoxOne gets more Mortal Kombat X play than anything else. lol.