the fountain of youth

I spend a lot of time remembering and writing about the video games I played while growing up, mostly because it's the closest I can come to actually playing them, until the magical day arrives when I have an entire room in my house dedicated to housing a classic arcade and console collection.

I've written before about books and games as time machines and portals, but I've recently realized that the father away I get from the times those things transport me, the more important they both become. Maybe it's a geek's midlife crisis, or something, but I've really missed arcades recently.

Whenever I play any classic arcade or console game, it's like I'm flipping very rapidly through a book with different places and years on each page; I see just enough to make an emotional connection, but it never enough to capture any details. I don't know what it's like for anyone else, but for me, when I pick up a joystick controller today, I pick it up in 1979, 1980, 1983, 1985. When I played Pitfall! at PAX, I played it in my living room in Sunland, my bedroom in La Crescenta, at Joey's house, at Josh's house, at Bobby's house. 

It's awesome that I can play every Atari game ever written using Stella, and it's a lot of fun to plug in an Atari Flashback for a quick Combat battle (I'm still training for our Thunderdome showdown, Shawn Powers), but those experiences aren't quite the same as playing an actual vintage Atari. It's pretty easy to walk into a Target or a Best Buy these days and get one of those joysticks that has a dozen or so games in it, and being able to play them in some form is always better than not being able to play them at all, but the joy I feel when I get to play on an actual console just can't be emulated. There's something about searching a box for exactly the right game, flipping the switches, and picking up an actual joystick to play Yar's Revenge or Keystone Kapers or Air Sea Battle that emulation just can't capture.

It will be unsurprising, then, to learn that my favorite rooms at PAX were the Classic Arcade room, and the Classic Console Freeplay room. They were exactly what they sound like: the Arcade room had about a dozen games, including Sinistar, Dragon's Lair, Frogger, and a prototype game called Crazy Otto that eventually became Ms. Pac Man. The Classic Console Freeplay room had everything from Atari to Colecovision to NES to PSX to Intellivision to Sega Genesis.

They also had one of my favorite consoles of all time, Vectrex, which I played with Storm. BEHOLD:

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Photo credit to Enforcer David Johnson, who took many awesome pictures of PAX East.

While we played, Storm and I channeled our inner 12 year-olds with such classic phrases as, "No way! I shot him!" and "It cheated! The computer cheated!" and "MMMMOOOOOOOMMMMM!!!!"

I remember when I got my Vectrex in 1982 or 1983; it felt like I had a miniature arcade game, because – unlike even the best Atari versions – it recreated games like Scramble, Armor Attack, and Star Castle almost perfectly. Minestorm was like Advanced Asteroids, and Starhawk was pretty much Luke Skywalker's attack on the Death Star, brought directly into my bedroom, under my control. I may have played the Star Wars soundtrack on my record player while I assumed the role of Red Five. Many times. I'm just saying.

Storm and I got a little misty-eyed when we watched a father teach his son how to play, and I noticed that both of them were having an incredibly fun time, for entirely different reasons. Storm said that the picture I took of them was like a geek's version of the Norman Rockwell painting where the dad is teaching his son to fish. I thought that was awesome.

But I think the best thing Storm said was in reply to an e-mail I sent him and Paul with a link to those pictures: "Ponce de Leon was completely wrong about the fountain of youth."

67 thoughts on “the fountain of youth”

  1. What Wil was playing is called a Multi-cart and it is a single Vectrex cartridge that has many, many of the games on it, including some homebrew games. If you search a little you should be able to find one for about $20. But it doesn’t come with any overlays.

  2. Check that Bird’s Barbershop URL I posted earlier (after removing the extra characters that somehow got added to the end). The other two games they’ve got currently besides Space Duel are Crystal Castles and Space Invaders.
    That particular Birds is just up the street from Magnolia Cafe and the old Future Protocol building. Both places I believe you documented with photos when you were in Austin, Wil (for Linucon, maybe?).

  3. I would love to be able to dedicate an entire room to classic games. From arcade, to console, to computer. I still have an Atari 2600, a SNES and a handful of NES controllers, but I don’t have any idea where most of my old games are or the NES console. The only thing I still have games for is the Atari 2600. There’s also a Tandy 1000 in my basement, external disk drive, original monitor and a HomeWorld floppy disk.
    I’ll boot up an Atari or NES emulator, but it’s a very different experience than playing them on the old boxes. I wouldn’t mind seeing the equivalent of the Stelladaptor available for NES and SNES controllers. I still kick myself in the foot for getting rid of a lot of SNES games, prior to finding my SNES console again.
    Someone needs to open up classic gaming arcades.

  4. I have a Vectrex in an unopened box, mint. Want it? Also all the associated extras like the 3-D imager, but those have been used.
    Vectrex always seemed to me like the right way to do graphics, because I’d started out on the IBM 2250 vector display and then the ARDS/Tektronix storage tube display (used on the bridge in the original Battlestar Galactica series). Kids these days are using something called a “raster.”
    Never liked the attempt at 3-D; we did it with a viewer with mirrors and prisms. A guy named Tom Banchof wrote a program that displayed a tesseract projected into 3-D and then rotated it in four dimensions. My brain is still tied in a square knot.

  5. How on Earth do you have such a magnificent item?!

    Strenuous resistance to my wife’s efforts to throw out all my stuff! She finally got the Interdata Mod 3, probably while I was fighting a PHP bug, but I’ve still got the RS Color Computer, the nameplate from my first IBM/360 mainframe, and my 10,000 SF paperbacks. And she’s a geek too; she was a student in the first programming course I taught at Brown, has run DARPA projects.
    I’m serious about the offer. Just you; all others pay cash. I get email at acm.org, username my last name.

  6. I thought we must be the last people on Earth who know what a Vectrex is, much less own one that still works! The irony is that all my friends had Ataris, and I wished I had one because there were more games on the Atari that I liked but I liked the extra buttons on the Vectrex. Ah, childhood…

  7. Broke my son into playing video games on a SNES my wife and I bought to play some of the old Mario games on.
    My “Rockwell” moment comes from teaching my son (7) how to play chess. He decided to make his own chess set.
    Next step – role playing games. Probably go with Swords and Wizardry since all of my old school books are gone.
    Which brings me to a question for Wil – have you ever looked at the Swords and Wizardry stuff? I just read their “Quick Primer for Old School Gaming” and had a few “Zen moments.”

  8. Yeah, I think I got it from the DrivethruRPG Haiti benefit, or at least around that time. It's a fantastic set of rules, that I think Mike Krahulik is currently using for his campaign.

  9. Wil,
    Recently, I dug through all of my old stuff and found a few old computers. And by old computers I mean one of them is a TI99/4A. Mine is a tan color, making it a 1983 model. This thing had something like 16K memory meaning that the Commodore 64 was FOUR TIMES the computer that this thing was …
    Anyways … I still had it and cleaned it up and it WORKS and I have two games for it – one is called Hunt The Wumpus. So, my kids who have an XBox 360 with super graphics at their mom’s are now fighting over playing Hunt the Wumpus, because it is not simply retro … it’s the real thing.

  10. Oh, I almost forgot about Vectrex. It had the built in Asteroids game, if I remember correctly. I can’t remember, but weren’t there plastic films to put over the screen to make each game seem like it was in color?

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