My true path in life, finally diagrammed

It’s my birthday. What better time to reflect upon where I’ve been, and what I’ve become? Thankfully, Curiosity Counts (formerly a Maria Popova joint) has today linked to a flowchart, courtesy of Fast Company, that may explain it all.

A few of the details miss the mark: I taught myself BASIC, not Pascal (although I did try to make sense of Pascal while tinkering with my uncle’s IBM 5150 when I was 8), and I specialize in PHP, not Perl (distant cousins). But the lower left corner pretty much covers that, and also explains away the fact that I am married, for good measure.

Going back earlier in time, it even captures (and I’m being quite serious here) what might be the ultimate pivot point in my life: being massively obsessed with Atari but not getting into the next-generation game systems that followed it. It wasn’t for lack of interest; my parents simply refused to buy me an NES, and got me a Tandy computer (not a TRS-80, but close enough) instead. So thanks, Mom and Dad, for making a decision 25 years ago that set me on the path of lucrative uses of computers, instead of fantasy baseball and MMORPGs.

Here’s my version of the flowchart, with my path highlighted in yellow. Click the image below to see the full version, and be sure to check out the source, Taschen’s massive tome of infographics, while your at it.

A childhood fantasy (almost) realized: 100 Atari games in my pocket

Owners of 1980s technology intellectual property are in an unenviable position. Their IP has very little value beyond historical significance or nostalgia. No one (well, I hope no one) is going to use an Apple IIe computer for serious productivity work these days, but that doesn’t diminish its importance in computing history, nor the strong positive memories its once loyal users may still hold onto.

There are few properties from the ’80s whose value is more purely historical and nostalgic than those bearing the brand of Atari. Sure, there’s still a company today named Atari, and it still makes modern video games for modern consoles, but this Atari shares only its name with the hallowed institution founded in Sunnyvale, California in 1972. The name and all of the properties that go with it have been sold and re-sold and re-re-sold so many times over the intervening years that any minute connection to the past, beyond the games themselves, has been lost.

So, what is a modern company that owns all of this (relatively speaking) useless IP to do? Trying to cash in on it is obvious, but doing it right is a huge challenge. The biggest hurdle is the very historical significance and nostalgia that give these games any lingering value in the first place. The only people who are really going to want to play Combat or Yars’ Revenge or — ah-hem — Math Gran Prix on an iPhone are people who either owned (and played the hell out of) these games as kids 30 years ago, or their kids, who harbor a morbid curiosity about this old crap their parents like for some reason. In order to satisfy these customers, the company that now calls itself Atari needs to achieve perfection in recreating the experience people remember. Not just the graphics and the sounds and the program mechanics of the games, but the feel… the essence of what it meant to play video games in the days when Ronald Reagan was president, pastels were popular in men’s fashion, and MTV still showed music videos.

Yesterday Atari released Atari’s Greatest Hits as a universal app for iOS devices. (To the non-nerd[s] in my audience: that means the same app works on iPhone/iPod touch and iPad.) The game comes free with arcade Pong, and 99 other classic (and not-so-classic, but… well… old) Atari games, both from the arcades and for the Atari 2600 VCS, available as in-app purchases. The games are sold in packs of four for 99 cents, or the entire set can be downloaded for $14.99. Let’s be serious: anyone who cares about this at all should just get it over with and download the works, immediately.

So did Atari live up to my unrealistic expectations? Read on after the screenshot gallery to find out.

First impressions

It’s clear from the moment you load Atari’s Greatest Hits on your iPhone or iPad that a great deal of attention and care went into putting this package together. And yet, it just doesn’t quite hit the mark. The graphic design of the menu interface bears plenty of superficial nods to the vintage Atari experience: plenty of use of Bauhaus font (the font Atari used with the original 7 cartridges released with the Atari VCS in 1977), lots of browns and oranges, and of course the carousel navigation that uses the original cabinet and/or game box art to help you select a game to play. But despite fonts and colors, this doesn’t look ’80s, and it certainly doesn’t sound ’80s. The entire time you’re on the menu, loud 21st century techno music booms from your speaker. To be fair, I like this kind of music, and the music they chose is decent. But it’s a distracting anachronism.

I compare this to the Williams Pinball Collection that came out a few years ago on the modern consoles. Its interface looks like an arcade, with the pinball tables lined up along the wall, and over the din of a dozen pinball machines blasts licensed ’80s popular music. (The song that stands out for me is the quite-possibly-perfect Loverboy hit “Workin’ for the Weekend.”) This is what I would have liked (if not downright expected) in a properly executed Atari collection.

Lamentations about “what could have been” aside, it is truly great to see the original game box art and arcade cabinets on the menu, and the menu itself is intuitive and fun to navigate. And it’s great that each game also includes a full high-resolution scan of the original instruction manual, which also explains why a collection of 100 games, most of which were only about 4 KB each on the original cartridges, could add up to a 68 MB download on iOS.

The sound and the fury

There was almost no question for me which game I would try first: Yars’ Revenge. I logged hundreds of hours (sometimes in a single game, it seemed) playing this game in the ’80s, long past the date when I should have moved on to the NES or PC games. Any true Atari retro experience needs to deliver a perfect rendition of Yars’ Revenge for me to consider it a success.

I started the game, picked my favorite game variation (Game 6), and then… WHAAAAA!!! Playing the game on my iPad, I was assaulted by hideous distorted grinding noises. I tried a few other games and confirmed that all of the 2600 games had horribly distorted sound. (It also didn’t help that Yars’ Revenge gets most of its intensity from a constant droning buzz, making this quite possibly the worst game I could begin this experience with.)

Fortunately, later in the evening I loaded the game onto my iPhone 3GS, and found absolutely no sound issues with the 2600 games, even Yars’ Revenge. So I’m not sure if this is a general issue with the game on the iPad, or if it was an isolated problem that could have been resolved with a reboot. I’ll follow up on that when I know more.

Playing the game

With my worries about sound allayed, I was able to focus my attention on the quality of the game experience. All of the games are presented in a relatively small area of the screen, with ample space above and below devoted to on-screen controls. There have been some complaints in App Store reviews about the games not using the full display, but I think those complaints are misguided. These Atari games in their original form were so low-res that even when shrunk down to a little less than half the size of an iPhone screen, they’re still easily viewable. Plus, displaying the games in full-screen mode would mean you’d need to obscure part of the display with your fingers in order to control the game. Unacceptable.

The developers and designers who worked on this collection put considerable thought into translating the original game controls to on-screen counterparts that do not necessarily mimic the original feel, but that usually (but not always) contribute to a satisfying game experience.

A good pair of games to consider in reviewing the merits of these control systems are the arcade versions of Asteroids and Tempest. Both games translate quite well to the iOS experience. They look fantastic (all of the vector games, in particular, come through well here), and are just as fun to play as ever. With Tempest, the original control mechanism was a flywheel-like spinner. That is replaced with a thumbwheel that reminds me of the volume controls on old transistor radios. It’s way different from the original control, but it feels surprisingly natural and it’s very easy to adapt to this type of play.

Asteroids, on the other hand, does not benefit from this new alternate control mechanism, at least for the way I like to play the game. (I should probably note that I own an actual Asteroids cocktail table, so I’m very accustomed to the arcade controls.) The default control mechanism is a combination rotate/thrust “disc,” not unlike the disc controller on an old Intellivision. (Intellivision controls on an Atari game? Blasphemy!) Some people may prefer this, but I found it absolutely unusable, mainly because of my preferred Asteroids playing style: I don’t thrust all over the screen. I stay in one spot and just rotate, and I move around only when absolutely necessary. The disc control makes it nearly impossible, for me at least, to rotate without thrusting. Luckily, Asteroids (and apparently most of the arcade games, though I haven’t tried them all yet) offers multiple control schemes, including the original arcade-style five-button configuration. This worked well for me on the iPad, but I didn’t try it yet on the iPhone, and I imagine size could be an issue there, not to mention just holding the iPhone while fiddling with five on-screen buttons at the bottom of the display.

A few other miscellaneous game notes:

No licensed games. This was a no-brainer for me, but apparently (based on reviews on the App Store) it’s confusing to some users. This collection only consists of games Atari owns the rights to. That means games that were licensed for the original Atari 2600 won’t show up here, not even if Atari developed those games. You won’t find arcade classics like Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Defender or Berzerk, and you won’t find licensed movie properties like Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark or E.T. And you definitely won’t find games that were originally released by other game companies like Activision, Imagic or Parker Brothers. Although… one wonders. Atari licensed Pitfall! and River Raid from Activision for inclusion on the plug-and-play Atari Flashback 2 console a few years back. Maybe a similar license could be in the works. It wouldn’t be difficult for Atari to offer additional in-app purchases of more games in the future.

I think the funniest instance of licensing issues popping up here though is the matter of Pong Sports. Back in the ’80s Atari manufactured the 2600 and a number of its games under special branding for sale at Sears stores, and there were three Sears exclusive titles (Steeplechase, Submarine Commander and Stellar Track), all of which are included here. And then there’s Pong Sports. Atari released this game as Video Olympics, and sold it as Pong Sports in Sears stores. But here it’s called Pong Sports, presumably because they couldn’t get the rights to use the word “Olympics” this time around.

Unreleased and homebrew games. If you’re not a hardcore Atari fanatic, you probably don’t realize that in recent years a number of unreleased prototype games have come to light as downloadable ROMs to play in computer-based Atari 2600 emulation software. And a rabid homebrew community has developed as well, creating brand new games for the system. This collection includes a few of these prototype and homebrew games, such as the Atari 2600 version of Tempest and an unreleased game called Save Mary. I find it funny that Atari had to, of course, come up with box art for these games for the menu interface, and they went with some really low-quality homemade art for most of them. But Save Mary is the weirdest… it uses the cover art that originally went with the Atari 2600 BASIC Programming cartridge.

It’s also funny… and probably an intentional joke… that for these games, the manual scans that are displayed are not for the games (since they don’t have instruction manuals) but for the Atari 2600 console itself. Somewhat of an Easter egg, I think.

God (or is it the devil?) is in the details

Atari got a lot of things right with this collection, but there is definitely room for improvement. Here are a few things that come to mind, some of which I’ve already mentioned.

License some great ’80s music for the menu. The aforementioned Loverboy hit would certainly be great, but really just about any music that was in heavy rotation on MTV circa 1983 would work. Personally I’d love to hear plenty of Duran Duran and Men at Work.

Alternate control schemes for the 2600 titles. Here’s the one thing that I think would make the biggest difference in creating an authentic Atari 2600 experience: position the on-screen controls to better mimic the feeling of holding an old CX-40 joystick. The space is already there; they’d just need to rearrange the controls. Move the fire button to the upper left where the pause button is; move the d-pad to the lower right where the fire button is; and move the pause button to the lower right where the d-pad is. Holding a square-ish device in the left hand and pressing a button with one’s left thumb while using one’s right hand to control movement is the natural way of the Atari 2600 experience. Ideally the d-pad would be tweaked a bit as well… it’s a little too restrictive feeling. A lot of iOS games with a virtual d-pad allow you to place your thumb anywhere in a general region of the screen and that instantly becomes the “zero” position of the d-pad. I suspect (or at least hope) that, given the nature of iOS apps, Atari will continue to refine the controls in future updates.

Better “cabinet art.” I have to be honest… I can live with the graphic design of the main menus, but the graphics framing the game itself while in play are downright ugly. Better to have it look like an actual vintage TV set like VH1’s (yes, VH1’s) Intellivision collection for iOS. And I’d prefer that the on-screen buttons look exactly like the real buttons on the arcade cabinets and console controllers, without the unnecessary added visual junk. It also seems like they phoned in the design of the on-screen slider for the paddle-based games. (Why doesn’t it at least look like the control they developed for Tempest?)

Final thoughts

I could nitpick details only an OCD Atari junkie will notice, much less care about, but in the end there’s only one thing I can say about this collection. Back in the early days of the App Store, Atari released a few of its classic arcade games as standalone apps, each consisting of both the original and a new version with modernized graphics and sound: Centipede, Super Breakout, Missile Command. Then they disappeared, and were gone for ages. A month or two ago, they reappeared, but with only the modernized portions. For ages I’ve been speculating that Atari had a massive collection app in the works, and finally yesterday it arrived. I was absolutely giddy. And while it will probably never fully live up to my expectations, it’s damn close. I’ve dreamed ever since I first got my Atari 2600 console in 1982, when I was 8 years old, that one day I’d be able to carry the experience around in my pocket. And now I can… almost. It’s not perfect, and it couldn’t be. But I’ll take it anyway.

Private Eyes are watching you!

I don’t normally post links to music videos on this blog… that’s typically reserved for one of my other blogs. But… well… any way you slice it, Hall and Oates are not prog rock, so it just didn’t fit.

But I got this video in my head (yes, I can get a video in my head) and I felt compelled to share it. It’s a cool song, and a humorously low-budget video, but the main reason I remember this video so well and love it so much is that it’s intricately woven into the fabric of my early childhood memories. This song was huge right when we first got MTV in 1982, and it was on heavy rotation. I was at a critical age—8 years old—where a lot of things seem to start to gel in your mind. You understand the world in new ways… your horizons expand… and those things you enjoy most at that time seem to leave a permanent impression on who you are.

For me, in 1982, it was MTV and Atari. So hearing this song—and, even more, seeing its video—triggers a flood of memories. Maybe it does for you too. Maybe not. Anyway, enjoy…

There are so many things I remember vividly about this video. Daryl Hall’s green jacket. The trench coats. John Oates and his bug eyes. The white flashes when the hand claps come in. The list of minute details permanently stored in my brain goes on.

But there is no way I can let this pass without commenting on the one thing that drives me mad: that the video of the drummer’s hands at the beginning is “off.” He’s shown hitting the snare drum when you hear the bass drum. I’m not sure if that was a deliberate joke or if the director of the video was just too clueless and/or lazy and/or in a big damn hurry to get the video finished before they burned through the $200 budget.

Anyway, this was something I was acutely aware of and bothered by as an 8 year old, watching this video. At the time I had a tendency to point out any minuscule error anyone around me made, as if the universe assigned me the job of trying to fix all of the small faults within it. So, yes… oh yes.. I noticed this.

21 years gone: remembering life as a 15-year-old Rush fan

For much of the past decade I’ve been systematically reliving my childhood. I’m not totally sure what stirred up this extended wave of nostalgia, but it may have something to do with the simple fact that I have vivid memories of things I did 20-plus years ago.

It started in 2002, on the 20th anniversary of my acquisition (as an 8-year-old second grader) of an Atari 2600. I went crazy back in that summer of 2002, buying up lots (as in, auction lots, on eBay) of the games I never managed to convince my parents to buy me as a child. In the end I wound up with over 350 games in my collection, counting duplicates, including a dozen copies each of Combat and Pac-Man.

This year I’ve been rekindling my middle school obsession with baseball. (Good timing, with the Twins in a new stadium and playing exceptionally well.) I went so far as to bid on a complete Topps 1985 baseball card set, but lost in the final bidding war I didn’t expect would happen. Back in the day I owned thousands of baseball cards, mostly from the 1984-1988 Topps sets, but ironically I sold the entire collection on eBay back in 2002 to fund my Atari collection. I should have had more foresight.

And then there’s Rush. My long-dormant obsession with the band I spent so much of high school listening to (when I wasn’t — ugh — reading Ayn Rand) had been renewed back around 2002 as well, when I played briefly in a Rush cover band in Atlanta, and then in 2007 with the release of their outstanding Snakes and Arrows album. But now I’m really beginning to relive the summer of 1989, when I was 15 and first immersing myself in the band’s already extensive back catalog.

I’m not sure what prompted the latest resurgence. It might have something to do with the great new documentary about the band, which I saw at the Riverview Theater last week. But as with my Atari fixation in 2002, it’s more like there’s just something in the air.

A friend introduced me to Rush during our freshman year of high school, right around the time A Show of Hands was released. That was my first exposure to their music. Or so I thought, until the Replay x3 DVD boxed set was released a few years ago and I suddenly remembered having seen the Grace Under Pressure concert special on MTV back in fifth grade. I know that concert video had a big impact on me (probably because with his New Wave hairstyle Alex Lifeson looked so much like Simon LeBon), but for some reason I never pursued the band further.

Anyway, back to 1989: I had just gotten my first job, bagging groceries for $3.69 an hour (minimum wage), and, flush with cash, I made frequent trips to the local ShopKo store. The store’s electronics and entertainment section was well stocked both with cheap Rush cassettes and cheap (probably bootlegged) PC games. I bought a lot of both that summer.

My first two Rush cassettes were A Farewell to Kings and Signals. Even all these years later, those are probably my two favorite Rush albums, because they had such an impact on my young ears. They were so different, it was hard to believe they were produced by the same band, just five years apart. And yet they were both so good, so unlike anything else I was accustomed to hearing on the radio or on MTV in the late ’80s. (You see, there was once a time when MTV played something called “music videos,” which were just popular songs set to music. They played them 24 hours a day. And it was good. But not as good as a then-12-year-old Rush album.)

Whenever summer comes along, I start to reminisce about the summers of my youth, especially the summer of 1989. I can see, hear, almost smell my bedroom back then, window open, cool breeze wafting in, “Xanadu” blasting out of my Panasonic boombox on a hissy cassette tape I purchased at ShopKo in the $3.99 cutout bin. (Hey, that was more than an hour’s wages!)

Why am I drawn back so strongly to that summer of 1989? I’m not sure, but I do know something about it that is strongly compelling. Even though I was working at the grocery store, that was still the last summer of my childhood. The next summer, I had my driver’s license, and everything changed. But back in 1989, I was carefree, virtually no responsibilities, and I could just sit in my room and listen to Rush and play Adventure Construction Set on my Tandy 1000 computer.

Maybe part of what reminds me of then is that in some ways, my experience during the summer now is more like 1989 than it has been at any point in my life since. I have plenty of obligations and responsibilities now — I’m married with two kids, mortgage, car payments, etc. But I’m a freelancer, working mostly from home. And like in 1989, I can sit at my computer in my bedroom, cool breeze wafting through the open window, and crank “Xanadu” up to 11. Only now it’s an MP3.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Oh wait, that’s from Hemispheres.

Limitations inspire design

What makes great design? Why did design seem to take such a wrong turn in the ’80s and ’90s? What has prompted a partial resurgence of “great” design in recent years? And why am I asking all of these highly subjective questions?

My fascination with design first took hold in the early ’80s, and was largely attributable (along with my love of technology) to my experiences with the Atari 2600. I became obsessed with package design and logos, and I also became obsessed with the art of low-resolution, pixilated on-screen graphics.

My interest in “current” video games tapered off as the ’90s wore on, especially when the 3D polygon-based era began. All the new games just seemed ugly and stupid, even though, in an obvious way, they were more complex and more graphically detailed than the Atari games I loved as a child. Simultaneously, my fascination with logos and package design waned as both seemed to just get more obnoxious and overloaded with swooshes and swirls and gradients and shadows and beveled edges and all of the other excesses technological advances made possible.

I’ve wondered for a while what it was about blocky, bitmapped video game graphics that I found so aesthetically appealing. And, in much the same way, what it was about package design from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s that just seemed so right to me, even though they were a lot simpler, and made using much cruder technology, than what was happening in the “now.”

Finally, I realized it was limitations that were the key to the great designs I admired so much. The designers were up against strict limits to what was possible. Mastering these earlier, more difficult techniques required years of practice and experience. And butting up against those limits to produce something of quality required real creativity. This realization led me to the axiom:

Great design happens when designers’ creativity exceeds the limitations of the technologies they use.

Once I understood this, suddenly it made sense to me why so many of the low-budget shareware games I’d seen for the Mac over the years looked and felt like crap to me, even though on a surface level they were clearly more advanced than those old Atari games: it’s easy to create a game on a modern computer, using modern graphics software and object-oriented programming languages. You don’t have to have any particular skill or knowledge to do so. But, because it’s so easy to do passably, it’s much harder to do really well.

Pitfall! and Super Mario 64: Yes, strangely, I really do prefer the one on the left.

Atari 2600 programmers needed an immense amount of knowledge of the intricacies of the system, and the tricks to exploit its extremely limited, but quirky, technical capabilities. You didn’t get into programming games for the Atari 2600 unless you knew what you were doing. Well, OK… there was plenty of shovelware in the system’s later years, but the ratio of good to crap was much higher among the 700 or so games released during that system’s lifetime than it is for the tens of thousands of mostly worthless games currently available for the iPhone.

So then, what is it that has caused — to some extent — “great” design to re-emerge in recent years, even as technology has advanced even faster than before? I suspect it’s due to a reawakening among designers to the merits of the earlier ways of doing things. Letterpress, for instance, has experienced a massive resurgence of popularity lately. “Retro” design is popping up everywhere. Perhaps it’s just that the hipsters are taking over the world, but I think this renewed awareness of what made mid-century design so great has led to designers re-imposing those limitations on themselves. Technology has advanced far enough now that there’s almost nothing that can’t be done, including recreating the limitations of earlier analog technologies in the digital realm. Think of things like Hipstamatic for the iPhone: it takes your iPhone’s digital photos and makes them look like something from an old point-and-shoot camera from the ’60s. Or look at the background design on Web Designer Wall, a visual style that saw a surge in popularity about a year ago but that’s inspired by watercolor and ink techniques that were especially popular in the ’60s. Or look at video games like The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker (among others) that brought a cel-shaded animation style to 3D polygon-based video game design.

These are just a few examples off the top of my head of modern designers imposing limitations on themselves to inspire their designs, now that technology no longer forces those limits directly. If you can do anything, it’s hard to do anything well. It’s too easy to get lazy or to simply lack direction and focus. In the past, technological barriers forced designers to focus. Now, they have to do it for themselves. Fortunately, that’s starting to happen.