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.)


Grunt said...

I am somewhat concerned that there are no comments yet. I think you may have actually succeeded in driving away people.

On the otherhand I think hours of reading about your kids would be awesome! But that's just me.

I adored Q*bert and Ms. PacMan but my absolute favorite was Frogger. I was Frogger champion of Pismo Beach California in 1982. It's the best game ever:

kylejits said...

I fail to see much difference between Mrs Pacman, and Pacman, other than the red ribbon in her hair.

Which does raise questions about what led you to like it better than the original...

Amanda said...

My daughter keeps having dreams about the popcap game Zombies vs Plants :P

Giovanni Tiso said...

I am somewhat concerned that there are no comments yet. I think you may have actually succeeded in driving away people.

I am unfurling the Mission Accomplished banner as we speak. It's never hurt anybody, right?

And yes, Frogger is also a very worthy honouree, if only for having inspired the Seinfeld episode. So now I know you have something in common with George Costanza.

I liked the message, too: modern life is dangerous, but then so is nature.

I fail to see much difference between Mrs Pacman, and Pacman, other than the red ribbon in her hair.

Oh, no, lots of differences: for one thing, the four different mazes make it a little less Kafkaesque in its repetitiveness, but more importantly, the ghosts' movements are no longer patterned, so you cannot just memorise how to win. Big difference there.

If you got good enough at Pac-Man you could reach level 256, and we all know what that entailed. In Ms. Pacman I don't think you could.

Anonymous said...

If you got good enough at Pac-Man you could reach level 256, and we all know what that entailed

No, I don't.

If this is your idea of driving readers away, it's not working, at least for our generation: it brought back memories.


Giovanni Tiso said...

What if I told you I have an entire post based on the 256th screen of Pac-Man?

(Spoiler: this is what the screen looks like.)

My daughter keeps having dreams about the popcap game Zombies vs Plants.

Hands up who hasn't had the experience of their brain spontaneously playing Tetris sans the need of a computer? Scientists even came up with a name for that, the Tetris effect.

DPF:TLDR said...

I have a fond memory of playing an ancient Pengu machine at the Hermitage outside Mt Cook in 1989. My father was thoroughly disgusted that kids those days were more interested in little neon blue ice blocks than the magnificent spectacle of nature in its majesty piercing the cold blue sky etc etc.

Don't you find Asteroid's utterly unforgiving difficulty curve makes it a bit hard to praise it as highly as you have? This is my main bugbear with the classic games community - they tend to see punishing difficulty as a good thing. From the perspective of a 30 years retrospective, maybe, if only because playability is ensured. But at the time it was probably just a way to bilk people out of more coins.

Paul said...

I quite agree about the beauty of Asteroids, which leads to one of the many respects in which I disagree with Lanchester (I have been intending to write about that essay for some weeks, but I too easily distracted by other -ooh look shiny thing); Lanchester's notions of beauty in a game are of the pretty scenery kind; I say the backgrounds are relevant only to establishing verisimilitude: the beauty of a game is in the play and the appearance being essential for each other. Thus Asteroids is the most beautiful game made, ever. QED.


PFB said...

Since this is a blog on memories, I feel compelled to share one of mine about me, mame and you (cryptic pun intended).

I have a very clear recollection of me and you installing mame on your computer at your place in Corso di Porta Romana. I think it was late 1996 or early 1997.
So I guess your first encounter with mame should be moved back a few years.
Yes, I know, you wrote "2000 or thereabouts". In fact I did not bring this up to exercise my pedantry.

It's only I have this very vivid recollection about our reaction when we tried out our very first mame game. I think it was Time Pilot (great game, by the way), but that's not the important thing.

So we launched it, and it did not start right away. For quite a few seconds the screen was filled with geometric patterns changing in an apparently random sequence, and we thought that something was not right.
When the game eventually started we had a simultaneously epiphany: that was exactly the same routine the videogame went through when you were the first to enter in the pub and had to switch it on!

That brought me back some 15 years!



Danielle said...

I'm not quite sure why you were so concerned about this post on FB...

Giovanni Tiso said...

@Hugh: I don't recall Asteroids being that difficult, once you mastered the thrust and when to use the hyperspace, and it really was quite perfect in its simplicity, allowing you to use the whole screen (in that it was quite unique). More generally, the issue of time versus money is far from straightforward: I recall blowing a lot of my budget on games that were hard to master simply because they were more interesting than others where you could spend longer. Marble Madness is a pretty good example - clearing stage 3 seemed to take forever.

Conversely, I don’t have time to play non-arcade games on the computer because they take too long, I just don't have that kind of time.

(Lanchester talks about how in some cases gaming can resemble work; but then so can reading Ulysses.)

@Danielle: These things don't write themselves, you know. So that was my gripe - why can't they start writing themselves?

@PFB: Ah! Yes, you're right, we installed it shortly before I left Italy. And those warm-up screens (which greatly baffle young Joseph) are still one of my favourite parts of the experience, they bring back such sharp memories.

Speaking of memory, I recall you trying to explain to me how to design games in Basic, some time in 1986 it must have been, and how I couldn't work it out at all. Still can't, deep down I remain convinced there must be homunculi in there.

Anonymous said...

197....8? and space invaders has been installed in the local movie theatre.

we thought it was the strangest and most wonderful thing ever.

except that it only cost 16c to see a film (for minors), and was 20c a game. we got 50c each from mum for a matinee, and used to have 30-odd cents to spend on chips and a drink.

but never again. and i've considered video-games to be expensive ever since!

Megan Clayton said...


"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."

Racing thoughts, panic attacks, the return of the repressed.

Vomiting-viruses, Chemo-nausea, Parkinson's tremor.

Midges, labour pains, children after sports matches.

Evil aliens, sinful deeds, the giggles.

Giovanni Tiso said...

And space bees!

Unknown said...

You didn't mention the New Rocky. How could you forget?

It would have lowered the signal to noise ratio in the post but the memories... oh, the sweet memories. :)

Cheers dear friend. I still remember fondly the very first time that, on the phone, you described to me Marble Madness, played near via Monterosa or somewhere close.

llew said...

asteroids rocked. Years after its heyday I was fascinated to discover there was a version for Macs, and I was delighted to find that it included comments from (presumably) the occupants in the ship, such as "You eediot!" when you inadvertently fragged yourself.