25 years ago today I knowingly, wantonly, became a classic gamer. It all began with finding E.T. and Asteroids for .99 cents in the clearance aisle at Kay-Bee. The moment I knowingly stepped into classic gaming, a hobby I thought I was alone in. These are the the actual cartridges I bought that day, the kernel of my collection.
The entire summer leading up to this moment something triggered in my brain that kept bringing me back to Atari. It was like waking up from a dream and remembering that you had left something behind that you truly loved but had forgotten about. These were the peak years of Mortal Combat and Street Fighter 2. Suddenly games seemed violent and aggressive. One day I was hit with a moment of clarity, going "wait wait wait, hold on a minute.. whatever happened to Centipede and Asteroids and Galaga and Pac-Man? Whatever happened to Atari? Where did that all go?" It seemed like secret knowledge or something. Like a lost civilization. The city of Atlantis and all of the advanced ancient technology lost with it. I had so many fun times playing Atari with my family when I was little, and then we moved on. It had been years. I had forgotten what a lot of this stuff even looked like. Suddenly I felt compelled to get my hands on an Atari 7800 and preserve and play as much Atari stuff as I could. I hadn’t been able to find anything in stores or in classified ads, and my mom suggested dialing the operator and asking for the phone number to Atari in California, calling them and seeing if I could order Atari items through mail order. I called Atari and spoke with Geraldine at the front desk for the first time. She said yes, Atari still had 2600 and 7800 systems and games brand new, and she offered to send out a packet of information to me with order forms for 2600, 7800 and Lynx stuff, along with a brochure. I waited days for that letter to come in the mail. It had been years since I had even seen an Atari game, all I wanted to do was flip through a catalog looking at games, seeing what the game systems looked like again and remembering all the games. Four days later I received my first letter from Atari. It contained black and white order forms for 2600 and 7800 systems, games and accessories, and a nice full color brochure for the Lynx. Unfortunately the brochure was only for the Lynx and didn’t have any pictures or descriptions of anything for the 2600 and 7800. I also realized that I was about to spend the next six months saving up about $300 to take advantage of a special they were running where I could buy a new 7800 with 25 games. I was going to have to wait.
I spent the next 45 days researching as much about Atari as I could find. I checked out all of the outdated video game books from the library (no good pictures!) I spoke with friends at camp and when school started, asking them if they had any old Atari systems or even remembered what it was. One guy had an Atari 2600 at his grandma's house and clued me in on Combat. Another friend, Adam, told me about this thing he bought at a garage sale called "ColecoVision" and that it came with Donkey Kong. "Oh yeah, I kind of remember that!" I called around to every Big Lots and Sears Outlet in the phone book to see if they had any Atari stock left over. All I could find were a few generic joysticks. Then one day it all began to happen.
It was a Saturday morning. September 18, 1993. I was with my parents at Dutch Square Shopping Mall in Columbia, SC. It was an older mall built in 1970 that we went to less frequently than the new modern mall. It was still a nice place to shop though and we would often go there for a hair cut on the "secret 3rd floor" or to shop around. My mom was making a payment on the phone bill at the AT&T store in the mall. This was back before the cell phone stores we see today. Back then it was all about landlines. You could buy a new landline phone, cordless phone for the home, answering machines and cassette tapes, and pay your phone bill. There was also a place at the mall to pay your electric bill too. I was 11, about to turn 12, and paying bills seemed like a boring idea to me. There was a "locally famous" place in the mall called Cromer's that sold old-timey popcorn and peanuts. My dad and I got a small bag of popcorn and sat on a bench in the mall while my mom did her thing. There was a Kay-Bee Toy Store right next to Cromer's and I asked my dad if it was okay if I went into Kay-Bee and looked around.
WHAT WE LEAVE BEHIND
I didn't expect to find anything amazing that day. I headed into Kay-Bee and browsed around. After checking out the goods up front, and in the video game cabinet, I walked down the left-most aisle and headed towards the back of the store. The whole left side of the aisle was marked "Clearance" with various unloved toys half-open and sprawled across a few shelves that came up to my chest. In the distance, on the left sitting in top of an open shelf was a messy pile of half-crushed boxes, they were a mix of rust orange and silver. Papers were falling out and down onto the floor and I could see a few little black plastic cubes. I can still remember the shock of adrenaline through my system. One of the boxes in the distance stood out. It said "ATARI 2600" in the bright red logotype. It was my first time ever seeing this. My jaw dropped. I think I yelled something out. I ran up to the pile of boxes, they were an equal mix of Asteroids and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. I COULDN'T BELIEVE IT! It seemed so incomprehensible that these games could be sitting in this store after what up to that point had been almost my entire lifetime. These were little time capsules. Many of the boxes were half-crushed and open with manuals, game catalogs, and warranty cards spewing out. The internet as we know it barely existed in 1993 and I didn't have access to it. I hadn't seen an Atari game in years, what amounted to nearly half a lifetime. There were green "illustrated" 1981 Atari catalogs that came with Asteroids, and the red 1982 catalogs that came with E.T. I picked up a red one, opened it, and for the first time in years saw Atari games. The first image I saw when I turned the page was the ad with the Atari 2600 4-switch floating in space above the blue grid, with the games reaching out to either side, centering in on a TV screen in the middle that showed Pac-Man. To the right was a boy and girl playing Atari with the caption “The Adventure Begins”. The moment I saw that image, it triggered something in my mind and all of the memories came rushing back. I had grown up with the 7800 but I knew exactly what the 2600 was and remembered all of my friends older brothers having it in the house. Vague memories of Atari commercials and the 4-switch 2600 being a cultural icon. Everything came flying back to me all at once, so many good memories and the drive to discover more. My use of that photo as the first image that comes up on Atari I/O’s home page is intentional, in hopes that the photo will have the same affect on other people rediscovering Atari for the first time as it did on me. The home page graphic is heavily edited, but it started life as a scan from that page from the very same Atari catalog I picked up that day on September 18, 1993.
THE ADVENTURE BEGINS
Some of the boxes were in decent shape, and I took one of each for myself. I realized that I wasn't carrying my wallet that day (I was 11) and hid my two games behind some stuffed animals. I ran out to my dad, breathlessly explained to him what I had found and that I needed to borrow $1.98 to make all of my dreams come true. I ran up to the Kay-Bee counter with $2 in my hand and had never been so excited to buy something in a toy store. I stood there waiting in line for what felt like forever. I was processing all the little Atari idiosyncrasies for the first time. “Asteroids 66 Video Games” and what that even means. It seemed so beyond the pale that I would randomly find anything Atari-related in a toy store outside of Lynx games and an occasional off-brand Joystick. A few minutes later the games were mine, and “The Adventure Begins”.
This was an exciting time. My family had been somewhat poor for a few years but we were just about to move into a new home. Times were so hopeful. When we left the mall I remember doing some other errands. Fall was setting in and it was the beginning of brisk weather. "Kenny Rogers Roasters" was a new thing at the time, so my family stopped there to pick up dinner and bring it to the new house that we hadn't moved into yet, and ate dinner on the back porch/deck at the new house. I spent the entire car ride examining E.T. and Asteroids. I remember how unreal it felt to hold actual Atari products in my hand, as if they were some major discovery at an archeological expedition.
That night we returned home and I spent my entire Saturday night "playing" with my new games even though I didn't have a system to play them on yet. I clearly remember it was the night of the Miss America pageant, Regis & Kathy Lee were hosting, and the girl who won "Miss America" that night, Kimberly Aiken, was from the town I lived in and came to visit my school, so it became a memorable event. We didn't have cable so I only had 4 TV channels (on a good day!) and usually I was pretty annoyed if something like a Miss America pageant came on and interrupted my Saturday night tv schedule of Deep Space Nine and who knows what else. But this night I wasn't annoyed. I was completely drawn to these games. Having to wait to play them left my imagination to wander. Spending so much time focusing on the boxes, cartridge labels and catalogs gave me an immense appreciation for the art and level of detail that went into everything to do with these games. I dove into the E.T. manual like it was a new comic book and marveled at how detailed it was, full color with the shiny printed silver. (They did a very nice job with the printing of that game, for sure). I remember the Atari hologram on top of the box and thinking that was so cool, even for 1993. I spent at least an hour flipping through the two Atari catalogs that came with my games that night, discovering all these wonderful long lost games.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN NOSTALGIA AND CLASSIC GAMING
This is the event horizon where I crossed over from simple nostalgia into being a classic gamer. It's the difference between nostalgia for the games you grew up with, and forming an appreciation for the games that came before you. Games outside your experience. Seeing all of these early 2600 titles for the first time with screenshots and descriptions clicked with me. Many of them looked ancient. But I saw the play value in them and they appealed to me. I thought about whoever these people were out there whose job it was to sit there and create these games out of 1s and 0s. I didn't know Howard Scott Washaw or Hiro Kimura's names yet, but I appreciated their work. Some games stood out to me as genius, like Warlords. I knew there would be many great Saturday nights with my family and friends gathered around the TV playing games like Warlords and loving them despite their obsolescence. There was play value in these games that transcended graphics, and my appreciation for them transcended my own experience and personal nostalgia of having grown up playing them. Now I was determined not only to acquire the games I used to play growing up, but to collect the ones that came before me, the ones I never got a chance to play. Suddenly I understood there was an art form to these classic games, and it was going to be a lot of fun.