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This past week, ATARI turned 40. You remember ATARI, right? Pong? Space Invaders? Donkey Kong? That last one featured a then unknown plumber named Mario who, of course, still lives on in the Nintendo Wii world, whereas the ATARI’s Pitfall Harry is rasslin’ gators down south somewhere for beer money.

ATARI doesn’t do much anymore, I don’t think. After the blockbuster ATARI 2600 (I still have mine) became obsolete in the 80’s – Coleco Vision I suppose crippled it, PC gaming rendered it comatose, and the original Nintendo 64 pulled the (literal) plug – they tried some other consoles, some hand-held stuff. Nothing endurred. Now I suppose they just coast on fandom, licensing characters for the Wii and such. Ever increasing numbers of gamers just don’t remember.

But when ATARI was big, it was HUGE. I was a pre-teen/early teen then. I had never seen, nor ever expected again to see, something so cool. So did everyone, young and old. People would choose to stay home on Friday nights and crowd around the TV to play with these little bloops and blips on the TV. This was sci-fi made real in an era when no one had smartphones, and almost no one had personal computers.

And people loved it. “YOU MEAN I CAN PLAY PAC-MAN AT HOME?!?!?! WITHOUT PLUGGING THE MACHINE WITH QUARTERS?!?!?! OHMIGOD!?!?!” Thanks to the clunky “joystick” controller, you could get tennis elbow AND carpal tunnel without ever leaving the couch.

I was good at Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and Frogger. I was pretty good at Pitfall and Berserk and Combat. But my game was Megamania. It was an amped-up version of Space Invaders. But where Space Invaders had neat columns of relentless, but predictable, aliens marching from top of the screen to the bottom, Megamania was CHAOS. Aliens swarming from everywhere; or so it seemed until you figured out each invading fleet’s pattern. WHICH I DID. Muscle memory controlled the joystick and I went along for the ride. I routinely scored in the MILLIONS. Twelve-year-old me was saving the universe; better, I WAS SAVING THE UNVIVERSE. Man, I loved that game.

But now, to today’s gamers, ATARI games are antiques. I’ve had lots of PC computer games. A Playstation. A Wii. I appreciate the detailed graphics and intricate gameplay. The games back in ATARI’s day were crude and confined by the limits of the technology. But although they had simpler objectives, they weren’t necessarily less fun. They were easier to learn, but not necessarily less challenging.

If you wanted whimsical fun, there was Frogger (even the little guy getting squished was funny) and that one circus game where the little stick people would plummet comically if you weren’t careful. If you wanted to blow shit up, there was Combat, Megamania, Berserk, and others.

I don’t have a problem with today’s games. I’m just nostalgic, I guess. Today’s video games just aren’t the same.

You never forget your first.

Thank you for all the good times. Happy birthday, ATARI.


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