It took about a week to weed out the duds from my motley collection of a few dozen cartridges I'd obtained from bulk online purchases. First out were the games that were too screen-flickeringly ugly for me to even look at, no matter how hard I tried to accept them as "a product of a different time" (Pac-Man, Asteroids). Next out were the games that were too maddeningly abstract for me to understand how to play well, even after looking up instructions online (Star Raiders, Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark). Then there were titles I just found too painfully limited compared to the well-remembered arcade originals I couldn't help but wish I was playing instead (Donkey Kong, Pole Position).
The immediate appeal of all of these titles came down to the clear link between a death and an easily preventable mistake I knew I had made.
Some titles had little technical quirks that I found myself unable to forgive, like the way the ball went through the side of bricks in Breakout rather than bouncing off to the side, as in every other version of the title I'd ever played. Other titles, like Golf and Video Pinball, had physics engines that felt like they were trying to power a space shuttle with a single abacus - admirable for their effort, but doomed to failure.
With the duds out of the way, though, I was surprised to find I still had quite a few games that provided that just-right mix of simplicity, tight control, and subtle randomness to form a truly addictive high score challenge. Even more surprising, they weren't all just rehashing the same basic gameplay. There was pure, zen-like reflex testing in games like Enduro and Kaboom!; more deliberate, strategic path-finding in titles like Berzerk, Frogger, and Ms. Pac-Man; targeting and visual acuity challenges in Missile Command and Space Invaders; and battles of positioning in Joust, River Raid, and Yars' Revenge.
The immediate appeal of all of these titles came down to the clear link between a death and an easily preventable mistake I knew I had made. I found myself so obsessed with reviewing my actions and kicking myself for my errors that I barely cared that the games mostly looked and sounded like something the cat dragged in. In fact, the abstract blockiness of those graphics made it somewhat easier to relax my concentration and enter that rarefied zone where the next correct move seems to flow naturally without thought ... until it doesn't and you die yet again, of course.
On the one hand, the simplicity of these titles meant I wouldn't unearth many hidden strategic depths after hours of play, as I might in a modern real-time strategy game or even a first-person shooter. On the other hand, I never needed to wonder if a suboptimal mining strategy was the real reason for my loss or figure out where an unseen sniper's bullet actually came from. In a world of games where presentational cruft and needless complexity often gets in the way of simple comprehensibility, there's something to be said for titles where everything you need to know can be boiled down into one screen of blocky, brightly colored pixels.