Editor's Choice

Editor's Choice
Eight-Bit Antiquities

Greg Tito | 24 Nov 2009 08:25
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Finding the ancient rig was like discovering a long buried treasure. At the bottom of my friend Dan's closet, under the box of Transformers and silly putty, was a small package marked with his mother's simple block lettering. "No way," he said out loud. He reached in slowly, making sure not to disturb the heap of worthless cardboard and linens. Once both hands were securely around the prized box, he tugged mercilessly. It didn't budge at first, only slightly moving under the weight of all the crap above it. He grunted, cursed, tensed even more until finally, he yanked free the arcane brown box. A brisk motion of his hand swept the last of the crypt dust away, and the magic word scribed on its side seemed to glow: Atari.


Inside was the family's Atari 2600, reverently packed with its joysticks and paddle controllers. The joysticks, which featured the revolutionary design of a single button and directional input, were lovingly worn, with some of the painted plastic nubs around the soft rubber base scratched off. The homey charm of the console's wood paneling, faded and peeling in one corner, concealed a wonder of 1977 engineering: a hardware microprocessor that ran games from individual software cartridges. Perhaps it wouldn't have had such a huge impact on the consoles to follow if its Good Housekeeping aesthetic hadn't persuaded women like Dan's mother to let the device reside in their living rooms.

Dan remembered when his family brought the Atari home from Sears. It immediately held a place of honor beneath the television. This was during the pre-VCR era, and the Atari was arguably the first add-on appliance that the TV had. He and his brothers played the crap out of that Atari, first with standbys like Pac-Man and then branching out into lesser known but equally fun titles like Parachute and Adventure.

But time wore on, technology increased sevenfold and Nintendo released its 8-bit NES in 1985. The Atari 2600, once the focal point of his gaming world, was put in a box and placed in a closet, where it remained undisturbed until that afternoon in August 2009. The console probably hadn't been exposed to light since the '80s, and he wanted to see if it still had life. He brought it to his Brooklyn apartment and hooked it into his state-of-the-art HDTV. The screen jumped to life with bits and bleeps. It had a pulse.

The picture, however, was horribly distorted. He had forgotten an important fact: Atari 2600s were made long before the concepts of "high definition" or "widescreen" existed. Dan's new TV did what it could to accurately show a portly Mario jumping over barrels, but the sprite looked more like a potato pancake than an Italian plumber. Even without conversion problems, the graphics of the Atari wrought large on a 46-inch screen betrayed just how primitive they were.

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