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One Big Pixel?! - The Atari Times

One Big Pixel?!

An Adventure in Imagination
by Steve Spatucci

April 13, 2009
When I was a young lad, my grandmother would wax nostalgic about the dawn of radio - the big invention of her time. She would talk about how much she and her family anticipated the weekly shows, how the neighborhood would discuss the events that took place in those early radio serials, and how exciting it was to be informed of national news via radio waves, and not the medium which she considered to be old-fangled - the newspaper.

With much the same sense of wonder, my parents would remember the invention of television. Tales of the neighborhood gathering at the home of that one early adopter who took the plunge and purchased a set - a few inches wide, in a cabinet three times its size - abounded. It was a heady time for them, and they spoke of it with an enthusiasm that was still fresh a few decades later.

But as a jaded young technophile, I was far from impressed by all of this. I was born in 1970, and came of age in the spacey-futuristic late 70's and early 80's. Like everyone else of my generation, Star Wars permanently altered my views. I wanted my future and I wanted it now - shiny metallic clothing, wrist communicators and moving sidewalks could not come too soon for me. I considered myself to be a man (okay - boy) on the edge, and old-fashioned things did not have a place in my world.

So radio was not amazing; it was a given. Television, similarly, was an entitlement. Video games, however - that was an invention of my time. Primitive arcades were around when I was little, but the first home consoles - specifically, the Atari 2600 - came a few years later. I was eleven when that magical device was delivered to the world - just old enough to remember a time before The Atari, and that made me appreciate its presence all the more.

My pre-teenage friends and I devoured all of those early games - Combat (of course - that one came with the system), Missile Command (straight from the arcades), Yar's Revenge, Dodge 'Em - and Adventure. Adventure was a very special game - it was one of the first visual adventure games, and it contained the very first Easter Egg - the secret dot that programmer Warren Robinett buried deep in a dark maze, which allowed intrepid adventurers to unlock a secret room and discover his name. Joy of joys.

Following detailed instructions in Atari Age magazine, I found the dot and beat Adventure on a day when I was home sick from school. That day was over twenty years ago, and yet I can still taste its delicious victory. Yumminess.

Don't Cry For Me, Nolan Bushnell: The Atari Ages

In the intervening decades, video games became more sophisticated. Resolution increased, sound improved, and then everything went all 3D (and eventually, MMPORPG) - good luck finding a simple, fun 2D game that you can beat in less than a three month expedition. I've purchased and played many of these games, and some I've really enjoyed - but in all honesty, I would have to admit that none of them are truly special to me - not like those old Atari cartridges.

Not long ago, my nephews and I were discussing video games - they'd discovered Atari through the Atari Classics - the joystick that sells for about the price of one of those early Atari cartridges, yet contains ten games (that's progress for you). After hearing much about these games, my nephews only noticed big pixels, minimal color pallettes, and crude sounds. Adventure was especially laughable to them - "You're just one big pixel!" they defamed. They were decidedly not impressed, and they couldn't understand why people of my generation spoke so highly of these games.

I took the defensive position and I told my nephews that they had to look at it from the point of view of a kid who didn't have video games in their home - and then suddenly did. For people my age, it was a thunderbolt in the middle of our collective childhood. We had to use our imaginations to bring those big pixels to life, and so we put ourselves into the games. That's why we love those old games so much - we were part of them, and they were part of us. Corny but true.

Though they endured speech with a reasonable amount of teenage respect, my nephews weren't won over. I did hear a certain familiarity in my own pleas, though - the irony of my defense of the dated technology was not lost on me. Grandma - I hear where you're coming from.

And my nephews - and all younger gamers today - please remember: someday you too will be fondly recalling today's technological innovations through magenta-colored glasses. Don't get cocky, kids.

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