About 12 years ago, my wife and I pulled her original Atari 2600 out of storage and hooked it up to our television. We set it on the floor, next to my Sega Genesis, and showed it to our kids.
“What's that?” One of them asked.
“This is how we started playing video games at home when we were kids,” I told them.
“Yeah, your uncle and I got this for Christmas in 1977,” Anne said.
“Boy, you guys are so old,” Nolan – who was 5 at the time – said.
“We are totally old,” I said, not knowing that, ten years later, he and I would have to stop playing Frisbee in front of our house because I had “hurt my Old,” when I tripped over the curb trying to catch up with one of his more powerful throws.
We looked at it together: Once-shiny silver switches jutted from the top of a sleek black body that was wrapped in faux woodgrain. Black rubber cords snaked around it, ending in the iconic joystick controllers that are woven tightly into the fabric of my youth. A cardboard box, its edges revealing the passage of time as clearly as its contents, sat on the floor beside it. Inside it, 20 game cartridges waited, keys to a time machine waited: Combat, Pitfall, Yars' Revenge, Space Invaders, Centipede, Missile Command, and Cosmic Ark among them.
I pulled Combat out of the box and gently pressed it into the appropriate slot, just like I had hundreds (if not thousands) of times between 1979 and 1985. I felt a surge of excitement well up inside me as I turned on the television, and slid a tiny black switch from TV to GAME.
I should have predicted the response I got from both of my kids. They'd grown up in a world where the Genesis was state of the art, and my original Gameboy was “lame” because it wasn't in color.
“That's it?” Ryan said. He looked at the screen as it cycled through colors that, even in the '70s, weren't exactly attractive.
I flashed what I hoped was an enigmatic smile at him as I dramatically prepared to blow his 7-year-old mind.
I held a joystick in one hand, enjoying the familiarity as it settled into my I grabbed the GAME RESET switch, and gently pulled it down. The familiar sound of tank engines rumbled into life, and I was shot through time to the shag carpeted living room of the house I grew up in, playing against my younger brother on our black and white television set. I prepared myself for a trip through the wormhole, but before I could get swept away by a wave of nostalgia, I was jarred back into the present by the equally-familiar sound of a tank firing its cannon and blasting its opponent. I looked at the screen and saw my tank spinning against the wall. I glanced to one side and saw that Nolan had picked up one of the controllers and was grinning.
“So you push up to -“
He shot me again. While my tank spun around, he began to giggle.
“Okay, give me a chance to -“
He shot me a third time.
“Okay,” I said, “it's on.”
For the next half hour or so, we blasted each other in all the permutations of tank combat, from an empty field with straight shots, to my personal favorite, invisible tank pong with maximum walls. We tried airplane combat, but my kids grew tired of that variation as quickly as I did when I was slightly older than they were.
When we finished playing Combat, we moved on to some of the other games in the box. Without any assistance from me, both my kids figured out Missile Command, Space Invaders, Air Sea Battle, and even Pitfall. In fact, the only game that gave them real trouble was Raiders of the Lost Ark, a game that I don't think I ever beat when I was a kid, and one of the few Atari 2600 titles which I recall needing the manual to fully understand. Thankfully for us all, the nearest copy of E.T. was in a landfill somewhere in Arizona, where it belonged.
For the next several weeks, my wife and I noticed that the small video game “time budget” we gave the kids was invested almost exclusively into the Atari games, while the state of the art Sega Genesis sat unused in a cabinet beneath our television set.
“Why do you think the kids are playing Atari so much?” I asked her one night after they'd gone to bed. “I mean, beside it being awesome, of course.”
“I think the simplicity of the whole thing makes the games more accessible to them,” she said. “Remember when we were kids how we used our imagination to add details to the games? Remember how easy it was to just start playing and figure it out in just a couple of minutes? I think they're doing the same thing.”
I agreed with her. The 2600, with its simple 8-direction joystick and 8-bit graphics was easy for our kids – then ages 5 and 7 – to pick up and start playing immediately. After awhile, it couldn't compete with the console systems their friends had, and they gradually lost interest.
We kept the 2600 in the house, though, long enough for me to rack up high scores on Pitfall that I never would have been able to achieve when I was 10, and for Anne to eliminate any doubts about her ability to utterly destroy anyone who is foolish enough to challenge her to Air-Sea Battle.
Eventually, we put the 2600 back into the garage, where it remains to this day, on a shelf next to an Atari 800 and a TI-99/4A. I kept them because understanding our past is fundamental to un- Oh, who am I kidding? I kept them because I love them, and that's all the reason I need.
Read more about Atari in Wheaton's Geek in Review column.