After spending a fortnight or two devoting a little time each day to the Atari 2600, I began to see what made the system such a success in its time. Though the general reaction to the technology has slowly morphed from "Oh my God, that's amazing!" to "Oh my God, people thought that was amazing?" over the decades, game design that lets players ride that fine line between success and failure has held up surprisingly well for those that want to take the time to find it.
I began to see what made the system such a success in its time.
But Bogost and the AtariAge posters were also right in that you can't truly recreate the context that established these games - that of childhood. Had I been around during the Atari 2600's heyday, battling friends in a Combat tournament or trying to post the highest Berzerk score on the block would have likely been my all-consuming passions. Today, my friends are too busy playing Starcraft 2 or League of Legends to really indulge me in any such battles (though I did attract some interest when I busted out competitive snake-game Surround at a recent party). I could capture some of that feeling competing with unseen strangers online, but it wouldn't be the same.
And my own circumstances have changed just as much as my environment. When I was 8, I'm sure I'd have been happy to spend an entire after-school afternoon mastering the precise timing and positioning needed to hop on those damned crocodile heads in Pitfall!. These days, I find myself crankily blaming the game's touchy jumping controls after becoming a few dozen crocodile meals and worrying about the errands and deadlines that would suffer if I stayed up too late improving my performance.
This gets into why I feel my beloved NES games have aged better than the Atari 2600 titles that are, to me, just a few weeks old. The classics of the NES library retain the simplicity of form and function of the previous generation, but add a technologically enabled internal variety that lets players move through a slowly evolving experience over many nights. Squeezing an hour of Metroid into a busy work week might get me a new item and one step closer to the eventual goal of Mother Brain. Squeezing in a similar hour of Space Invaders might get me a new high score - if I'm lucky - and no closer to any kind of novelty in the experience.
I'd like to say that these differences are independent of my nostalgic memories, but it's impossible to say for sure. What I can say is that while it seems I've missed my chance to love the Atari 2600 with the fervor of the nostalgic generation that grew up with it, at least I no longer find that generation quite so bewildering.
Kyle Orland has somehow spun a hobby web site about Super Mario Bros. into a 10+ year career writing about video games professionally. His goal in life is to one day recapture the Twin Galaxies Balloon Fight Game C record.