Monday, June 8, 2009

The Pixel Years

There has been a disconcerting uptick in the number of visitors to this blog in the last few weeks, and I am determined to put a stop to that. Welcome therefore to week one of Bat Bean Beam's Readership Abatement Programme, in which I promise to discuss a series of topics that nobody could possibly be interested in and use irksome words such as 'uptick'. If that doesn't work, I might start talking about my dreams, or the children. It's your choice.

This week: arcade games I used to play as a kid. Seriously. Although part of the blame should be apportioned to my Tokyo bureau chief, who keeps sending annoyingly pertinent links and ideas, including a pointer to this article by John Lanchester on the video game industry, semi-provocatively entitled 'Is It Art?'. This in turn reminded me of some grand old Usenet discussions on it.cultura.fantascienza around the time when the first instalment of the Matrix trilogy was released and in which I dismissed the film as a glorified videogame, only to be taken to school by several posters on the kinds of philosophical not to mention socio-political speculations that contemporary videogames were known to engage in, and how they deserved equal treatment alongside other cultural products such as films or novels. Which, as Lanchester points out, is true to a point, seeing as, despite the massive turnover of the industry - which has surpassed cinema and publishing - and its equally large audience, 'from a broader cultural point of view, video games barely exist'. Whether as a result of self-segregation or culpable cultural myopia, you'll find no mainstream newspaper or magazine whose books and film reviews are matched by the attention paid to the latest video game titles. And no, the ritual article about how the new instalment of Grand Theft Auto is going turn your children into sociopaths doesn't count.

But then, that really says more about the politics of the mainstream than anything else. I actually have no doubt that games as old as this one - soon to be the subject of another readership-abating post - are complex texts deserving of proper consideration and broad cultural appreciation, and of course the burgeoning discipline of games studies, which is wholly absent from Lanchester's analysis, recognises just that. You could say that the piece is in fact more symptomatic of the time it took for the London Review of Books to catch on to this aspect of the culture than anything resembling a bold statement of critical re-orientation. Nor am I going to even pretend to be able to offer enlightening insights myself, having given up all meaningful gaming activities some time in the early nineties. But I have children now, so a new opportunity knocks, both to evaluate retroactively whether all the time spent in front of those particular screens as a young person was in any way formative or just a colossal time-sink, and to replay that particular time in my life with the excuse of spending quality time with said children and sharing their experiences.

In fact as it turns out I've gone the whole nostalgic retro hog, and initiated my oldest - now seven - to the very same games I used to play as a child. We don't need a Playstation to take over the lounge quite yet (we might not, ever), and it turns out these days you can get yourself an emulator, called Mame, and turn your old computer into an even older arcade machine. If you're not familiar with this phenomenon, a look at this particular shrine will give you an idea of the possibilities that are open in this area. And, in spite of the thing with the Pac-Man plushes, I don't want to knock or ridicule any of it. In all honesty when I first stumbled upon Mame, back in 1997, my first reaction upon recapturing those old sights, sounds and gestures, was of genuine exhilaration. It was pure memory in performance, with sound effects including, but not limited to, little gasps of pleasure when I discovered that I still knew how to swerve at the end of a particular stage of Vanguard, or where the best spots for ambushing the ghosts in Ms. Pacman are.

So in no particular order, and for no other reason that I feel like it, here's a little gallery of my favourite games from back then.

Asteroids (Atari Inc., 1979)

This wasn't my first videogame, but only just. I have never been able track down the first one, it was a very primitive naval battle affair I encountered during a summer holiday in - I believe - 1978. So Asteroids was probably the second. And what magnificent graphics! I distinctly recall the pure, giddy aesthetic pleasure of seeing the asteroid you had just hit burst into a cloud of vector geometries. In terms of playability, it still holds its own more than most later offerings in the classic era of arcade games.

Ms. Pacman (Midway, 1981)

Pac-Man is justly celebrated for the breakthrough that it was, but Ms. Pacman to me will always be the best title of the franchise. Plus, I believe I got to play it first, even if it came out a couple of years later, and again, I can almost recall, or perhaps creatively imagine, the shock of the new, as well as the feeling of inhabiting a virtual space made possible by the perfection of the gameplay and the transparency of the interface. For as long as you managed to stay alive, you really were that yellow globule gliding around labyrinths in search of nutrients. I also remember, or, again, imagine, how it felt the first time I went through the tunnel on the right and reappeared on the left side of the screen. That was me just then, teleporting! Nothing that I had experienced in life or play had ever come close to resembling that.

I'll let you explore where people have taken that iconic notion of virtuality through projects such as Human Pacman and Pacmanhattan all by your very pretty selves.

Vanguard (TOSE, 1981)

Unique in this personal gallery, Vanguard really, really sucks, and always has. But it makes the list anyway because I played it an awful lot. It was one of the very first videogames to reach my grandparents' village, but there must have been something wrong with the lease because it stayed there for years. So if it was raining and my grandfather headed for the pub to play cards, I'd go with him and a coin or two would guarantee a solid half hour of entertainment at least. The owner, possibly at the instigation of some of the octogenarians in attendance, kept the volume to a minimum, so it was only much later that I discovered that the game's soundtrack didn't consist solely of the crisp slaps of the cards on the table and my grandfather complaining that his partner ought to have played the three of clubs much earlier in the game, since obviously nobody had picked up the ace yet.

Over the years I racked up a ludicrous high score, several orders of magnitude greater than the one published as the semi-official national record in our first videogame magazine. Barring some further accomplishment or international honour, I plan to have this fact engraved on my tombstone.

Galaga (Namco, 1981)

You could take your pick between Galaga, the much earlier Space Invaders or Phoenix. At the end of the day, they were all very enjoyable to play and taught you a valuable lesson: when the aliens invade, we're all doomed. They're going to come in waves and there's always going to be another wave after the one you just destroyed. Which is also a lesson in capitalism, if you think about it.

Pengo (Sega, 1982)

It might not have been the absolute peak of originality, but Pengo was just a stupid amount of fun. Although it did completely spoil Gershon Kingsley's Popcorn for me.

I also played this at my grandparents', but I could last far less then on Vanguard, and my grandfather wasn't the most eager person in the world to part with his money, even in spare-change form. Thus the cost-benefit analysis involved in choosing between the two games was sophisticated, once you factored in the queue behind each machine and other externalities. People who believe that videogames don't teach kids stuff should think about that.

Gyruss (Konami, 1983)

My favourite space shooter ever, tipping Xevious to the post. Clever game dynamics, and an inspired J.S. Bach soundtrack. I never quite worked out if you were flushing an invading alien force out of the solar system, or in fact invading the solar system yourself. Not that it mattered a jot.

Q*Bert (Gottlieb, 1982)

Q*Bert is a little gem or pure quirk, a precursor of Tetris but with enemies. The eponymous creature, a red nose on legs prone to cursing, has to change the colours of cubes stacked in a pyramid by hopping around on them, first once, then twice, then three times per cube, as the game advances, whilst dealing with a variety of obstacles and foes. Think you hate that purple snake? Wait until you come across the guy who changes the colours of the cubes back. And in spite of all that, I'm still not sure if I loved Q*Bert more for itself or for the pleasure it gave to my best friend.

Here's an interesting promotional poster aimed at would be lessees.

And check out this Q*Bert quilt. Genius.

Marble Madness (Atari, 1984)

Hush now, people, we're moving into the sublime. Marble Madness to me was the pinnacle of the classic arcade era, and there's no other game I've loved as much before or since. It was, quite simply, a work of art, and it was art that you could inhabit and discover, that made you eager to reach the next stage not in order to better your score, but rather to see some more. The objective, as in all of these early games, is extremely simple: navigating a marble by means of a trackball through a series of mazes within the allotted timeframe; and the mazes themselves are little masterpieces of imagination and guile populated by an inspired array of enemies, none more so than those dastardly moving puddles of acid.

But description will only get you so far: nothing matches the feeling of being there, moving in that mental space, gliding through that architecture of sound and colour, in a perfect little act of machinic gestalt consummated through the sacrifice of a little metal disc, and the occasional bit of flesh pinched by the trackball when the going got especially tough.

I've discovered with a certain amount of delight that optical mice do a passing job of emulating the original trackball (minus the flesh-pinching), but I don't expect to recapture the experience of playing Marble Madness way back then. Early forays into the virtual, be they literary or cinematic or computer-mediated, are part of a personal history of perception and experience - it's how we learn to live outside of ourselves, and each act is by definition unrepeatable. I have little doubt that these experiences are formative, even profoundly so.

And yes, of course it is art. What a silly question.

(With thanks to Marco for helping me get re-started on Mame on my current PC.)