It was a very rare sequence of events that brought me to my first contact with the world of video games and in fact, looking back now I guess it played out exactly like something you might see in a movie. A wise elderly man meets a young boy and says “I have something I want to show you!”
He dusts off a colour television, a set that was clearly old even for 1989, and jams a switch on an awkward looking plastic unit sitting atop a shelf underneath. The screen pops to life with a screech of audio feedback and the grainy, washed out image of a distasteful yellow and blue maze sits flashing uncomfortably before the young lad’s eyes. Flickering outlines of what appear to be ghosts glide about a screen filled with little blocks.
The boy was too young to read the faded label on the game cartridge (not that he would have known to look for one in the first place) but eventually he would learn the name of this thing he was experiencing for the first time; Pac-Man.
The old man’s name was Bill, he was a friend of my family and he soon became one of the best friends I’ve ever had. As a kid I thought Bill’s house was the greatest place on Earth. It was only a small bungalow sitting in a secluded part of the neighbourhood but it was filled with everything that a young and mischievous mind at the time could ask for.
Whether it was garden tools, draws full of old matchboxes, medals, hosepipes, the most ancient video player known to man (standard VHS tapes didn’t fit inside it!) or a rusty old bicycle sitting in the yard, there was always something that I could find to keep me amused for hours.
But aside from the overwhelming smell of tomato plants and well-watched Looney Tunes tapes, the thing I remember most about Bill’s house was his Atari 2600 video game console. This small ugly plastic box had previously been marketed as the Atari Video Computer System (Atari VCS) but after the 1982 release of the more current Atari 5200, the VCS was later dubbed the Atari 2600.
The version Bill had sitting in his front room however was a redesigned model called the 2600 Jr. Unlike today’s standards, the release of a redesigned console back in the early days usually meant that the manufacturer had simply found ways to reduce production costs, so other than a slightly sleeker look (bye-bye wooden components), there were no particular improvements on the original hardware. And in spite of the many superior models available, the Atari 2600 Jr. found huge success due to a competitive price tag (under £50) and a large library of available software (something that to this day has remained vital to any platform’s success).
Bill would set the games up for me, selecting the ‘level 7’ setting every time. Why level 7? I have no idea… I think it was his favourite number!
I often think it strange nowadays that an elderly, old-fashioned man like Bill would own a video games machine. Back then, video games were a lot less widely accepted than they are today. But I guess that was what made Bill such a genuine soul; he was old but at the same time bursting with a youthful enthusiasm for life.
It was Bill taught me the basic language of video games. The console (“unit” as he called it) was what “put” everything onto the screen and the joystick (“stick”) is what controlled your movements in the game. The Atari joystick was a tough piece of equipment with its abrasive rubber coating and plastic base. I can still vividly recall the clicking sound it makes when moved in a new direction; a far cry from the control pads of today.
My favourite game Pac-Man was pure simplicity; guide the little circular shaped man around the maze to gobble as many wafers (yes, you read me correctly) as you can. Space Invaders required more finesse, meaning you had to actually press the button (wow!) in order to shoot down the ever descending aliens from up high. And finally, the aptly titled Tennis which would become my first foray into “2 player” games, would see Bill and myself having a blast trying to see who could be the first to smash the dot, which represented a tennis ball, into the other player’s court. Amidst the basic graphics and the “bleeps” which constituted sound, I had found something special in the Atari; something I found remarkably fun.
Years later I would hold that special little Atari machine as my primer to a more enjoyable lifestyle, before all of those routine disappointments and lessons have a chance to leave a man jaded. Sound a bit dramatic?
Well, consider this: I would later grow up to find the Atari 2600 version of Pac-Man is actually considered one of the worst and most derided of arcade ports ever created; a botched version of a classic that is so technically poor, ugly and borderline unplayable, it drove its publishing company’s image through the dirt and kick-started the beginning of one of the darkest recorded times in video game history: the North American video game crash of 1983. So numerous were the unsold copies of this overhyped and maligned piece of software, Atari was forced to bury the excess cartridges inside a huge landfill in El Paso, Texas and there they would remain rightly entombed for over 30 years…
Okay, so maybe a little dramatic.
Before he died, Bill gave me his Atari to keep. I’ll never forget that incredible man or the games he introduced me to. Just talking about it makes me want to load up that terrible 2600 version of Pac-Man again, on level 7 of course…