I think it’s fair to say that I’ve wasted spent an excessive a considerable share of my life playing videogames. While many manifestations of my geekdom (role-playing games, store toy collecting, prostate anime) have waxed and waned over the years, clinic videogaming — alongside funnybooks — has been one of the two enduring constants.
My previous Saturday retrogaming features have focused on my developmental relationship with specific consoles — the Atari 2600, the Sega Master Systen, and the Sega Genesis. This time around I intend to take a more ecumenical approach, a cross-platform autobiography of to a live lived via pixels and polygons.
The advent of the Information Age was so sudden and utterly transformative that it can be difficult to imagine a life before smartphones and cloud storage and inane message board threads (no matter how much one would like to). The kids of my generation came of age during the transitional period between analog and digital societies. We bore witness to the extinction of black and white televisions, rotary phones and mechanical cash registers while being on hand to see technological concepts like handheld computers and and the internet go from sci-fi abstractions to unbiquitous aspects of everyday life.
While these advances never attained the “singularity” prophecied by fantasists and other visionaries, they did imprint themselves on our collective consciousness and instill a specific (and now nostalgically quaint) vision of futurism which encompassed everything from Space Invaders to Blade Runner to the synthesized pop music of artists like Gary Numan and the Human League.
For a pre-tweener who couldn’t tell Syd Mead from Martyn Ware, videogames were the primary vector for propagating this techno-gospel. My initial exposure took place sometime around 1978, and was split between three roughly coterminous events whose exactly sequence has been lost over three decades of mnemonic haze.
There was, of course, Pong — or rather a “Tele-Games” knockoff of Atari’s seminal, digital take on table tennis — bundled into a bulky home version with the control dials built into the woodgrained plastic console. Between the hassle of tying up our family’s only TV and the expense of the four D batteries needed to power the device, opportunities to play were few, far between, and (like the slot car and model train sets kept in my parents’ closet) reserved for the occasional weekend treat.
My memories of Sprint 2 — an overhead perspective racing game relased by Atari’s “Kee Games” offshoot in 1976 — will forever be associated with the greasy tang of clam strips and the infectiously irritating rhymeplay of Supertramp’s “Logical Song.” Both were unescapable constants of the Billerica drive-in’s concession stand where the game cabinet resided.
I was only able to play the machine once or twice, but it didn’t matter. Star Wars‘ epic space battles playing out (via a grainy sixth-run print) on the big screen paled in comparison to the experience of wrapping my grubby mits around a grimy steering wheel controller and watching the crude representation of a Formula-1 car respond to my imprecise commands.
My dad used to go on regular fishing trips during the summer weekends, driving up to some old pier by an abandoned fish processing plant in Gloucester with my uncle with my cousin and me in tow. On the way home, they’d stop at the Ground Round in Saugus for some grub and brews. This was back before the chain abandoned its notorious rep as a dive bar incarnation of Chuck E. Cheese and reinvented itself as a more (marginally) upscale family dining venue.
The place embodied all the horror stories about the chain at the time — dark, filthy, and sporting a carpet of spilled popcorn on the floor — but it was also a place where a tired parent could get his or her buzz on while their semi-feral brats occupied themselves with diversions like crane machines and, in my case, Night Driver.
The game was a first/third perspective racing game where the player’s vehicle was represented by a static physical overlay, a move which freed up the machine to concentrated on rendering the two lines of markers used to represent a dark and winding road. Though the abstraction was rooted in the limitations of existing technology, its minimalism became an aesthetic unto itself — the visual language of an impending future.
There was nothing in the above three games that exceeded the gameplay complexity of pinball or similar mechanical diversions. There were several analog machines similar to Night Driver but with lusher visuals. It wasn’t the novelty that dug its hook into to a generation of impressionable kids, it was the unspoken promise of even greater things yet to come — a technological wonderland being constructed before our very eyes.