Big In The Eighties – Kevin Goes Retro

Big In The Eighties – Kevin Goes Retro

Okay, imagine for a moment that you’ve grown up in a trailer park, in a dystopian future (as if the trailer park alone wasn’t dystopian enough for you). One fateful day, upon the death of an all-powerful technology magnate, a worldwide challenge is issued, pitting men and women, young and old, in a hunt through the infinite dimensions of a limitless cyber realm. You find yourself thrown headlong into a battle of wits, cunning, logic and virtual combat, soon to discover that the fate of the entire planet rests on your abilities.

Blah blah blah, heard it all before? Okay, get this: what if these abilities the entire planet so depends on boil down to the Atari 2600 and quoting Matthew Broderick films?

Speaking as a dorky child of the 80s, Ready Player One is one of the most awesome books I’ve ever read (oh, sorry, did I not mention? This is a book). In fact, this book was so good that I’ve actually lost all interest in reading since; everything else seems so average by comparison.

Listen: if you were one of the first kids on the street with a Commodore 64, if you’ve ever rolled a die with more than six sides, if you ever thought 25 cents a fair price to help a frog cross a busy street, or if you ever secretly wished, as you typed your three-letter signature into the number one spot, that later that evening there was a chance you’d be recruited by the Star League to defend the Frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada… you must must must read this book.

Somehow, Ernest Cline (writer of Fanboys, btw) has managed to set a novel 30 years in the future, while simultaneously biting thirtysomethings like me with a major nostalgia bug. Since then (with all the extra time I have now that I no longer enjoy reading) I’ve been trawling the App Store for all the oldies but goldies I spent all my quarters on in my formative years. After all, I may need to save the world someday…

First stop on the Wayback machine: the arcade. Both Atari and Midway have recently done a complete core dump onto the App store. I must say, Midway’s done an amazing job, framing old games like Defender, Joust and Rampage in virtual consoles (with original art) in a 3d virtual arcade… they even throw in a pool table and Skee-ball. It’s all there but the cigarette-burned carpet and the smell of body odour.

In comparison, I have to applaud Atari’s temerity for its, shall we say, economical framework. While somebody at Midway said “Nobody’s going to buy a bunch of 8-bit junk, let’s throw in free Skee-ball,” the guys over at Atari have done the GUI equivalent of dumping a sack of cartridges over a wooden table and saying, “Here.”

(For a more in-depth review of Midway Arcade, here’s what AppAddict had to say about it a couple of weeks ago… as for me, I was just happy to have Spy Hunter Back.)

Bandai Namco has also graced us with PAC-MAN, Ms. PAC-MAN (you know, like Pacman but for girls), and 30th anniversary Galaga complete with swanky psychedelic new intro that makes hopped-up-Space-Invaders actually look exciting and cinematic (same old bug-baddies in the game though).

Ah, yes. Many an evening spent pumping paper delivery tips into gems like these as an impressionable youth in the back corner of Wheelie’s roller rink with the soothing synthesized strains of Rush blasting over the speakers. How I miss the feel of that fat, red, ball-topped joystick in my left hand and the telltale ‘shuck shuck shuck’ sound of the console button array under my right… And therein lies the problem.

I was really disappointed to find that I didn’t really enjoy any of these that much this time around on the iPad. Why? One word: Tactility. Actually, I’m not even sure that’s a real word. Ah good, it’s in spell check. Yep. Real word. Tactility.

Trying to play fat-pixeled arcade classics from 30+ years past on a touch sensitive Minority-Report-style handheld sheet of polished glass… it just ain’t right. Back in the day, you never just played these games, you felt them. The game knew when you were pounding the punch button or rocking the cabinet, and responded appropriately. Playing them now with taps and swipes on an iDevice is like… watching Rocky Horror Picture Show on Blu-Ray. At home. By yourself. At 2:30 in the afternoon.

But all is not lost; allow me to draw your attention to the iCade. I won’t go on about it, because (a) the picture speaks for itself and (b) I don’t actually own one. But Brett does. Lemme see if I can get Brett to pop his head in here a second. Brett, what are your thoughts on the iCade?

Brett: It’s neat.

There you go.

Now, keeping on the nostalgia line, here’s another word you all should learn about: Frotz. Yeah, I know, I hadn’t heard of it either. I had to look it up, and was very happy to find it. And so will you be…

Frotz is a free app containing a database of ‘Interactive Fiction’, also known as the ‘Text Adventure’. Inside Frotz were a number of unknown/little known titles that gave me faith that the genre was still very much alive, and right at the bottom of the list I was chuffed to pull back the heavy oriental rug to find yet another word, the word I was looking for, the last word in adventure gaming: Zork. Yes, friends; Zork is on the App Store.

If you’ve never played Zork, or any text adventure for that matter, let me describe the experience: think of a game like, say, Call of Duty – a fast-paced multiplayer cacophony of real-time strategic uncannily-rendered cinematic graphic bloody mayhem. Now, think of a game that is the complete opposite of that, but still somehow fun.

If you thought the Atari was primitive, sink your teeth into this: no visuals but the ones you conjure up in your mind, no sound but the chugging of your processor, and no interface but pseudo-plain-language keyboard requests – ‘Go North'; ‘Take Leaflet'; ‘Fight Troll With Garlic’. It didn’t even have colour, unless you counted monochrome-green-on-black, but that wasn’t really ‘colour’ per se; that was just ‘default’.

(By the way, here’s a handy tip: if you hit the info dot at the top of the Frotz screen, you’ll find options to change the background to black and the text to monochrome-green. Don’t know about you, but Zork and Helvetica-on-white don’t mix.)

At an age when computers were slow and processing power was extremely limited (remember, even Pong was a stretch back then), the only tools in the adventure programmer’s arsenal were prose and wit. Without dazzling graphics and gameplay and chainsaws and cinematic cutscenes to fall back on (as if I’m implying that these are the ruination of the games industry) all you had was a good story.

If you missed text adventures the first time around, I can imagine the absence of visuals to be a bit of a mental barricade, but undoubtedly if you poke around in biographies and interviews and such, you’ll find it was games like Zork that inspired lots of guys like me to go into game development. It was great fun to poke my head back into Zork and find that, decades later, a good, clever story still stands the test of time.

And speaking of good, clever stories – heh, see how I managed to bring it all back around like that? – do yourself a favour and experience the awesomeness of Ready Player One for yourself; it’s on iBooks and Audible – read by Wil Wheaton, no less. Oh please, don’t pretend you don’t know who Wil Wheaton is. You totally wanted to be him.

Alternately, you could always put down the iPad (god forbid) and visit your local library like I did… Hey, call me old fashioned.




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