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. Wil, If you ever find yourself in the DC area (and we’d love it if you did!). It might be worth it to make a trek about an hour-ish out of town to check out Luna City Arcade.
    http://lunacityarcade.com/
    It looks great on the web but it’s even more exciting when you’re actually there (especially on a game day when you’re surrounded by many dozens of other nerds who are all incredibly excited to be there).

  2. So Wil, do you think games were simply BETTER 20-30 years ago (good lord, I typed that and cried a little), or are they so much fun because of the nostalgia factor?
    I personally prefer older games because they were simpler to pick up and play, for the most part. No strategy guides the size of Rhode Island necessary, no 30,000 different buttons on a joypad, no bazillion sidequests. You pressed B and shot things in the head till they died. And while it’s all fine and good to talk up the PSN or whatever, nothing beats sitting in the same room as your best friend playing, oh, Life Force or something together.
    I feel like I should be shaking a cane or something right now.

  3. I miss arcades for their pinball. No emulator in the world has come close to the feel of an actual machine. The Visual PinMAME and Virtual Pinball cabinet are good…but still not the same.

  4. I tried.
    I tried and tried but no amount of downloaded ROMs ever could recapture what had passed. It just feels hollow on a shiny CRT/LCD screen with a modern multi-button controller in your hand. It can be fun, but make no mistake, it’s not the same.
    This is the reason I go to garage sales and buy up old consoles and games on the cheap over weekends during the summer. I take them home, clean them up and add them to the collection. I Drag them out everyone once and a while and play with my boys. Preferably on an old mono TV I keep in the basement for such occasions.
    It’s the closest I’ve been able to get to 1982 thus far.

  5. “…I’ve recently realized that the father away I get from the times those things transport me, the more important they both become.”
    Please don’t edit the Freudian typo – or if it was intentional, it was genius.
    I stayed home from my “turning 40 and going to Vegas” weekend with the guys this week because my kids wanted me home over Easter. Father away indeed.
    P.S. Received super-snazzy HDOOL hardback recently – thank you.

  6. Wow, that’s one I’ve never heard of. I’ve played on an atari of course, but the Vectrex is five years before my time. I’d love to get my hands on one and play though, maybe they’ll have one at Phoenix Comicon, that would be exciting! If I had had one as a kid I could totally see myself playing the Star Wars theme song and blasting the death star. Thanks for that mental image.

  7. Stuff like this is awesome. I’m so amazed how well my 9-year old son plays my old Intellivision and NES. He loves it. He has the ability to play the Wii, Xbox 360, or his PC but most of the time he opts for some classic NES time.

  8. “…but the joy I feel when I get to play on an actual console just can’t be emulated.”
    What you did there… I see it.
    I was born in 1982, so I can only relate on a certain level; but I totally get what you mean, bud. My classic NES console is one of the staples of my entertainment center at home, and has been for ~20 years. :)

  9. I’ve watched your keynote on YouTube and read your last blogposts, and i feel just as nostalgic, but for whole other reasons. I never really could play video games when i was younger, even though i wanted to. Only later in life i’ve been introduced again to video games and every time i play or hear people talk about old games, i feel such a loss.
    I’ve tried picking up old games, to at least give me an idea, but i don’t think the feeling is the same as what it could have been.
    Don’t feel sad for what has been, be happy you got to enjoy the games as a child :-)
    And i had to laugh about the dream of having a room with your own arcade. I know so many people (including myself) with the same dream. Maybe we should stop dreaming and just do!

  10. Oh hells yeah. I miss my Vectrex. My favorite game was Star Castle and it got played a ton. Cool to see a Vectrex unit in such great condition. Free Play FTW!

  11. I’ve never read a more eloquent post about arcade games and memories. Although I do not share similar memories, because I was more of a Barbie and My Little Pony kid. . . I did play some Mario Brothers at one point. . . I know…just not the same as Frogger, etc. :-)

  12. Gorf. Gorf and Donkey Kong, those were my games. Had to get to the end of Gorf and blow the mothership to smithereens. Used to use my lunch time (half hour) at the mall I worked at to visit the arcade and come back to work jacked on adrenaline! I think they thought I was doing drugs or something.

  13. I don’t even need to play the games to find myself transported back to 1982/85/88/etc. Just hearing the opening beeps of the Legend of Zelda theme is enough to smell the musty orange shag carpet in our basement and to feel my feet starting to go numb from kneeling in front of the tv for too long.
    And I am right there with you, Wil. Emulators just don’t do it for me. The muscle memory still exists to carry me through the pre-game rituals of getting an older NES cartidge to work properly: 1. insert cartridge, push down and press power; 2. remove cartridge, bring the connectors to my lips and blow hard from bottom to top; 3. reinsert cartridge slowly with both hands to ensure that it is centered properly and gently press down; 4. Lather, rinse and repeat until the blue screen or strange pixelation goes away.
    That was part of the experience of playing these early console games, and no emulator can ever replace it.

  14. One of the great losses I have suffered was that of my classic Galaga cabinet. My mom got it for me used one year for my birthday, and I played the crap out of it. When I moved into a dorm for college, it was given to my nieces without my knowledge and I have tried numerous times in the years to come to get it back from them without success. They don’t even play with it anymore, and I believe it may have a short in the display, which could easily be fixed. It’s a travesty, to be sure. I miss moving my left hand back and forth while smacking that little red button with my right hand as fast as it would possibly go.

  15. I had a “geek Norman Rockwell moment” a few weeks ago at Bird’s Barbershop here in Austin. They’ve got a few old arcade games that you can play for free (in fact, they list them on their web site: http://www.birdsbarbershop.com/south_congress.html). I played my 11 year old at Space Duel. It was funny how he floundered at first with the Asteroids-like controls, but I felt comfortable right away. Once he settled in, he definitely enjoyed himself. I had a hard time pulling myself away when it was my turn for a haircut. (I managed to suppress a whiny “Awwwww…Mooooom”, but just barely.)

  16. To this day, Ive never had a real gaming console. Meh.
    I am, however, reminded of when the student group I was apart of in college had a yard sale. While sorting the donated materials, we came across an old Atari and several games. It goes without saying that it didnt make it to the yard sale. At the time, someone also kept their xbox at the center. With only one TV, was fun when people debated on which console was getting played.

  17. The game I miss more than anything is Crystal Castles. I got totally hooked on that one in the late 80’s, and played it every chance I could get. I haven’t seen it in many years, and I would dearly love to get my hands on it again. You’re right Wil, there’s nothing like the feel of the actual original controls.

  18. Ah Dragon’s Lair…….so many memories playing the heck out of that one at the arcade. It was supposed to be the next great thing: Laser Disc, life-like animation, making choices on the screen to determine what happens next. My friends and I truly thought we were on the precipice of The Next Generation of arcade games. Well, it was fun while it lasted.
    And myself, not being a shoot-em-up kinda girl, I absolutely loved Burger Time, and that’s one I don’t see anymore, online or otherwise. :( Loooved the music. LOL

  19. I once heard that Star Castle arcade games are rare because they had a nasty habit of overheating inside and melting some of the solder on the motherboard. A lot of places apparently stopped buying or renting them, because they required constant repair.
    [citation needed], I know, but I think I heard this story from a repair guy when I worked at NewTek in the 90s.

  20. They have a Crystal Castles at Ground Kontrol in Portland. I played the HELL out of it last summer when I was there for Leverage.

  21. I’m looking over your shoulder, looking at Storm with the very familiar four-button controller, and I think “is that Clean Sweep? I bet I still have that!” The Vectrex was my first system, in my house even before I was born, and even looking at it is like a sudden portal back to a hundred summer days. Not just in front of that system, playing Fortress of Narzod or Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but every old gaming experience, from Arnie’s Place to the first time I saw Mega Man 2 and finally, hopelessly, became a gamer for life. You were right: games are important, and games do matter. If not for the community they foster, but also for the touchstones they become in our life.
    Thank you for this. Sometimes falling through time is the best way to spend a Monday evening.

  22. Wil, don’t worry about the Star Wars soundtrack. I used a belt to strap myself into my chair to play Mutant Herd on the VIC20.

  23. Dear Wil,
    I normally consider myself to be “geek-adjacent” rather than being a true geek. I love your writing, and enjoy your meanders down Geek Memory Lane. However, most of the time my response is more along the lines of, “oh… I remember when my friends did [insert blog topic].” This time, you’ve hit on my (possibly only) personal geek zone.
    My home console was the Colecovision, and my best game was Q*bert. I beat the game, and I have the console in the basement of my house (as it should be). My husband really prefers the Cabbage Patch Kids Adventures in Playland game, but that one doesn’t work so well unless your controllers are fully functional; it’s difficult to jump over moving obstacles if your “jump” buttons only work 33% of the time.
    Our house had a Colecovision before anyone else had any game system. For several years, our living room was the hang-out of choice, and a whole vocabulary for the computerized foes ont the screen was invented. One game that was a crowd-pleaser was BeamRider. That game was played so much that we broke the plastic casing and had to insert the chip without any protection (which took a certain amount of skill). Now, one of the kids from the neighborhood tours the world making music and has written a song based on the music of Beamrider (http://www.myspace.com/eliotlipp, if you’re interested).
    Anyway, I just wanted to say thank you for the trip down memory lane and for showing me that I’m not entirely adjacent – there’s some inhereng Geek in me, too. Also, let me know if you’re traveling through Tacoma, WA. I could make a Colecovision tournament happen. I’d even find some new(er) controllers so we’d have full functionality for the occasion.
    Kindest regards,
    Melissa

  24. I have such a clear memory of playing (and watching other kids playing) a Vectrex at a summer fair in Dugald Manitoba in, oh, ’82 or ’83, not that long after it came out. What was awesome was playing it, then going over to the arcade area (!!!!) and playing the console of ‘Battlezone’, and marveling at how the two were virtually identical in graphics and gameplay. Well, except you didn’t use two joysticks in the Vectrex…
    This has always been my favourite game system. Damn. I gotta hunt down one of these as well as a TI-99/4a (my very first computer).

  25. I know exactly where you’re coming from on this one. About three weeks ago, I cleaned out a closet and found my Atari 2600 and a handful of games in a (very) dusty box buried under 4 suitcases, an air purifier, and about 30 pairs of sandals, sneakers, and shoes that really need to get dropped off at the local Salvation Army, but have not yet.
    Conveniently enough, the “TV Scoreboard” still had a “very” old coax converter screwed to it.
    I hooked it up and taught my 5 year old son and 4 year old daughter how to play Pitfall and Combat. My daughter really could have cared less, but I spent the next hour sharing something with my son that was a part of my life when I was five years old.
    When I was a kid, my dad use to tell me all about the things he did when he was a kid. It was really great to be able to not only tell my son, but to put the controller in his hand and let him have a turn.

  26. This post made me break out my old Atari 2600 and 7800 and show my 4 year old son. We tried Crystal Castles but that was a little tough for him. He loved Enduro. I have a whole box of games for him to try. Even at 4, he is used to playing my Wii or the computer but it made me happy to see him enjoying the old Atari as much as I did when I was not much older than him. Or even as much as I still do at 31.
    Great article. I admit I got something in my eyes when I saw the picture of the father showing his son the Vectrex.

  27. When Ryan and Nolan were 6 and 4, I introduced them to Atari 2600. A friend of our had about 15 games, like Combat, Cosmic Ark, Journey, Pitfall!, and some others.
    The kids had been playing around a little bit with my Sega Genesis, but the instant I showed them Atari, they only wanted to play those games. I think a lot of it had to do with the simplicity and the way they engaged their imaginations.

  28. Wil, the 80’s and arcade games always make my day. My son and I recently went to a car wash near our house and it had the sit down Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Dig-Dug and Frogger. We had a blast. I would love to open something like Ground Kontrol out here in the L.A. area. Maybe someday I will do it.

  29. I was never as into the games as my brothers, but I remember the many days playing Mario Bros on the Nintendo. I was also extremely proud to be one of the first kids in school to own a GameBoy :D Eventually I got into the Final Fantasy series, and RPGs like that have been my mainstay. Then I got into computers, and do most of my gaming on that (Dragon Age, Torchlight, WoW, etc). Some days though, there’s nothing like picking up a controller and playing a console game.
    My husband was very into the Atari (I started late with the Nintendo), and if anyone has a copy of Spy vs. Spy for it, let’s talk.
    While games do bring me back, books do more so, but I can understand you guys completely. If/when I ever do have kids of my own, I hope to show them what you’ve been lucky enough to show yours, and have them appreciate it as much. My dad passed on books to me, I’m just gonna add on some games to pass on to my kids ;)

  30. Dude…
    That just brings back memories. I too have felt a little nostalgic recently. Being laid off makes your whole world change focus. I remember the Vectrex mainly because it was the only console I got as a kid. Didn’t have many games. But I was too busy programming on my TRS-80 CoCo. I never did refer to it as a Trash-80.
    As usual, you so perfectly state those thoughts which I cannot give voice.
    Thanks
    Tim “Texas1st” Mahoney

  31. I remember in my youth at the softball fields where my father’s company had a weekend softball league team, collecting the empty glass bottles of soft drinks and beer (I lived in a state which used to pay you for returned bottles) and going to the field’s snack shop to get quarters to play the pinball machines. One week, they had a strange cabinet next to the pinball machines entitled simply “Pong”. I fell in love with video games then as I pumped quarter after quarter into that game. A while later, my father bought me a Sears brand home Pong game for Christmas. Shortly thereafter, a little machine known as the Atari 2600 appeared, and we got a hold of one.
    I have played or owned every game system that has ever been created, except one… the Vectrex. To me, that is the Holy Grail of video gaming. If you ever seen the film “The Bucket List” you will understand this, but playing or owning a Vectrex is on my own personal Bucket List.
    When I saw the picture of the man and his son playing the Vectrex, it brought a tear to my eye because I thought of my father (who passed on years ago) and how he would sit and play that Sears Pong TV game with me.
    If and when I do get to play a Vectrex, it would be more than a gamer geek moment, but an honor to even have that opportunity, and in my heart my father would be sitting next to me playing it with me.
    Ashes to ashes,
    DJ Pheonyx
    The Cape Radio
    http://www.thecaperadio.com

  32. I’m picking up what you’re putting down, Wil. I have my video game museum. The seed of my collection is my Atari 2600. I still have the same one that my dad bought as a family Christmas gift back in 1979. I can’t give up that past.
    I miss the old arcades. I will never forget going to a birthday party at Chuck-E-Cheese and standing in front of the Gaunlet machine the whole time with a 5 quart ice cream bucket full of tokens at our feet.
    My collection continues to grow to add to these memories and because of the most important part:
    He who dies with the most toys has the happiest grandchildren.

  33. Hey Wil,
    You’re post made me think of several things at once.
    1) Still have the Donkey Kong Cabinet on my wish list
    2) I’ve enjoyed the games you can buy for PC like Asteroids, Dig Dug and Dragons Lair.
    3) We had Intellivison which was fun to play at home but never as fun as Arcade Games.
    BTW – I just remembered I had a Star Wars “video game” which is a really loose use of the term. More like a bunch of blips ala Mattels hand held games at the time.
    I wonder if its worth anything now? LOL

  34. OMG! Wil, I loved the Vectrex. I played Scramble, Armor Attack, The Star Trek game (aka Star Ship), and a game that was built into the console itself called Space Wars. But, hands down my favorite game was Cosmic Chasm. I played that game for hours at a time. I’ll never forget the plastic films you had to put on the screen and clunky cartridges that plugged into the side. Me and my brother continued to play the Vectrex games until the machine simply gave out and stopped working in 1992. My parents had purchased the Vectrex for us as a Christmas gift in 1983. There are times I still wish I had it. That little console was a huge part of my childhood that I will never forget. Thank you for jogging some awesome memories.

  35. As a sophomore in HS, I won the local video arcade contest…a ten week contest on 5 different games (Scramble, Vanguard, Millipede, Rock-n-Rope, Stargate), with a ladder tourney at the end on Millipede. I won a 13″ B&W TV. :)
    I always like Star Wars, Star Trek in the console…but the best game for me was always Discs of Tron.

  36. Just another geek chiming in to thank you for this post (and the comments). It totally made my day. I completely loved my Vectrex and had it set it up on top on my dresser so I had to stand up while playing. Like most of those units, it burned out after 10 years or so, so it’s nice to see one intact. I remember a completely dreadful platformer called “Spike” which I played obsessively (as I did most games…both then and since) which had an early use of voice synthesis in it. Terrible. But I have nothing but reverent memories of it nonetheless.
    It really is destined to be all our geek mid-life crises that we attempt to recreate those memories by building out a room in the house for this stuff. I, for one, look forward to it.

  37. What great memories! I have a working Vectrex unit, and my four kids really enjoy playing it when I bring it out every so often.
    I had always wanted a Vectrex and was finally able to buy one in the mid-90’s, but I need to get more cartridges for it. I just wish I hadn’t sold my Atari 800. My kids think it’s so cool to hook a new computer up to the TV – back then you always hooked it to the TV!
    I want to hook one up to my big screen TV and see how tall the characters are.

  38. Remember that game show on Nickelodeon where the kids would answer questions about and play video games? http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0198244/
    And – Oh yeah. Discs of Tron had such unique controls, that emulation will never capture even the slightest hint of adequacy. We have to wait until the nanobots can assemble these consoles for us on demand.

  39. Wil,
    I have no idea how good you are with woodworking…but even if you suck there are groups dedicated to restoring old cabs and even building ones from scratch with little or no woodworking experience required.
    I could barely hang a painting on a wall straight before I joined the BYOAC forum and now im on my 3rd arcade cabinet project:
    http://forum.arcadecontrols.com/index.php?topic=96465.0
    If you want it, you can make it happen…i hit the same nostalgia/midlife barrier as you and this has been a great remedy for me.

  40. Wil,
    I spent way too much time in arcades as a kid. Usually Ikari Warriors with my friend Chris, but Tempest was also a big favorite. Why don’t you get the kids together and have a man-building-things weekend and set up a MAME cabinet? They can be done cheaply to extravagant depending on what you like. I’ve built two in the past, one lives in a coworkers basement in VA now. One of these days I’d love to build a cocktail cabinet.

  41. I have a few classic systems I wouldn’t mind donating for the cause. Might need a little work. Any idea where to send them?

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