The Arcades Of New York

Woke up early by the post delivering my contributor’s copy of 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die (US link), which has me flicking and checking my copy and all the usual things you do when you’re a writer. It’s – as the name suggests – a book in the line of those hefty 1001 films or books or albums or whatever books which people buy you for Christmas. If you’re a gamer, someone will probably think about buying you this for Christmas – and if you get it, you’ll quite enjoy it. Clearly, you’ll disagree with huge swathes of it, but flicking through provokes the correct levels of anger, recognition and intrigue (i.e. “NO FUCKING WAY!?!? THAT’S SHIT!”, “Ah, awesome. I’d half forgot that” and “Ooh – never heard of that. I’ll check it out”.)

(I had nowt to do with the list, it’s worth stressing. Except when having a rant at one game being included on stuff I was asked to write about, which doesn’t appear to be on the final list, so Tony may have listened to me. Crikey. Oh – and I also only wrote eight pieces, so I’m not exactly a major contributor to it. Jim and Alec both wrote stuff, plus a whole bunch of other people whose names you’ll recognise if you’re the sort to recognise games journalist’s names)

Anyway, reading the oft-splendid Christian Donolan’s pieces on Robotron and Defender made me remember something I wanted to write about from my trip to New York. What’s set me off is specifically a couple of comments about its looks – “It may not look like much nowadays” on Robotron 2084 and “at the time of release, the sharp laser-etched vector visuals… made it quite the looker” on Defender. And they both struck me that Christian probably haven’t played either in a while, and is actually writing about screenshots rather than the games as they are. Because Defender and Robotron remain Games You Should Play Before You Die, not just for pure historical or mechanic reasons – but also because of their sizeable aesthetic kick.

I know this, because I spent my Monday night sheltering from a ferocious hail-storm in Williamsburg in the confines of Barcade, taken there by my friend Sarah Jaffe as she thought it would be my sort of thing. Yes. Perhaps more than she expected. It’s basically a large bar lined with retro arcade games – nothing later than Smash TV, not fighting games whatsoever – running at a quarter a shot. I immediately went somewhat native, and arranged a playing list for my basically non-gaming friends. It ended up a little like a wine-tasting. “Play Robotron 2084. Got it? Now – go play Smash TV, from a decade later. See the difference on what’s basically the same game? Well, now play Gauntlet, the missing link between the two, etc”. I suspected I was being unbearable, but everyone continued to ask me what to play next well past the point of politeness. They seemed to dig the critic’s eye thing – as in, showing what was important, the context they came from and all that.

They also dug the games. Robotron 2084 physically hurt them, and was about the one moment where it was kinda clear that I’d been playing games for a long time. Compared to its peers, Robotron stood out amongst its peers for its sheer intensity – and managing to burn through a few levels surrounded by the screaming strobes seemed impossible (and after a few drinks, when I lost my ability to react to the extreme periphery, it just was). Anne eventually decided to play, and lasted literally seconds. And their response was… well, it wasn’t to a game which was a little tame and quaint. It’s a game which looks brutal. Not just in the low detail sprites, but with the high power visuals. It doesn’t look impressive, per se. It looks scary, with the hyperactive barrage of flashes and lights. Yes, it looks primitive. But it looks fierce, violent and headache provoking as anything since. It looks perf…

Actually, no, I can’t use the word “perfect”, because that’s reserved for Asteroids.

As Christian references, the chunk of Asteroid’s appear at the time was its vector-based graphic display. What he misses is that it’s still just as devastating today. Asteroids, played in its natural habit of the arcade, simply looks like nothing else. If you’ve continued to play Asteroids on the home system, seeing it those lines burn so painfully bright is a revelation. If you’ve never seen Asteroids at all, it looks like some kind of modernist masterwork dropped in from another dimension. The vector screen is technology which was never followed significantly further, meaning that all its power remains novel even to the 21st century eye. It looks like a dream of a videogame, this pure idea of a thing, the light as bright as your imagination, lines as sharp as the gasp torn from your chest.

So, yes, give it a shot if you’re ever near a cabinet.

On Tuesday I had a chance to pop into the Babycastles indie game arcade in Manhattan. It wasn’t actually meant to be open, but the hosts had graciously opened it up to us for a half hour or so. It’s a brilliant installation space, right in the heart of the town. We chatted about the fascinating random through traffic, just the ever-random city streets offering the widest selection of folk, popping in and having a prod. And that’s how it should be. Everyone should have a chance to play Nidhogg, as we did until tears streamed down our faces. If you’re anywhere near it, do pop in. It’s an arcade from an alternate dimension.

The pair of them made me think about Joel Johnson’s recent piece over at Gizmodo about Geek Vs Hipster, specifically about his problem about clearly being both and having to deal it. Specifically, the ever-growing ever-expressed geek hatred of hipsters. In-short: it’s knee-jerk, it’s ugly, it’s hypocrisy and it doesn’t even make any fucking sense. I’m clearly far less hipster than Joel – not that happily painting Skaven stops anyone accusing me of it – but going to both these arcades made me think… well, fuck it. These are two amazing places which wouldn’t exist if something definitely leaning hipster had got involved. And I refuse to believe that anyone who raised the amount of money and put the amount of time that Babycastles did are in any way less committed than the average geek. In fact, they’re clearly far more committed that the average geek. THEY DID THIS. YOU DIDN’T.

If it makes brilliant things like an awesome bar full of awesome games come into existence, you should be willing to deal with someone who likes records made of fuzz and string. And if you’re not, you should get over yourself and stop being such a judgemental prick. You’re being everything you claim to hate.

*****

New York was lovely, by the way. Thanks to everyone who stopped by to say Hi, which seemed to be just about everyone. Can’t wait until I’m in town again.

I was always partial to Space Duel over Asteroids, but you’re right – there’s something magical about seeing those blindingly bright vector lines against the empty blackness of the CRT.

I don’t think most geeks have anything against hipsters who are actually geeks. It’s the ones who pass themselves off as geeks because it’s fashionable who get our goat. It’s the classic reaction of a subculture to posers muddying the waters. I think it started with the punk subculture, so it’s not exactly unique to geeks.

Yeah, was able to play Asteroids back at, what, the Game On convention (?), and it’s a revelation. The clean bright lines of the vector display really are so pretty.

My first encounter with Asteroids was the Atari 2600 which meant it defined what Asteroids meant to me: colourful, flickery lumps of clay gliding through the spatial ether.

When I saw the arcade version (“wha? they turned the Atari game into an arcade game!?!”) I thought “what is this black and white shit?” But I didn’t use the word shit in my head, because I wasn’t at an age where I used such words.

And Defender. I left that beast well alone. That demon was a coin glutton.

You are right about Asteroids in it’s native environs. I’ve loved the game since the 70′s playing it most on the 2600 in it’s lego form, a kind of bootleg Amiga version and then the ones on the Atari compilations. And then last year in Brisbane I got to see it in arcade form for the first time in 30 years.

It doesn’t matter how sharp your monitor is at home, nothing can emulate those glowing lines. What really surprised me though were the bullets. In most home version or emulators it’s just a dot. In the arcade it’s a white hot dot that almost burns your retinas with it’s intensity, leaving behind a phospher trail behind it.

In the home it’s tamed, in the arcade you can feel it’s heat, it’s promise and menace.

It’s like the differences to listening to your favourite band on headphones and listening to them live.

I played Pong at Game On a few years back, and was astonished to find that it was excellent.

The home versions were such poor imitations that I thought the whole arcade success was just some awful gimick that the cavemen of the era played because of the pretty moving shapes. Nope, actually it was fun.