The last few years of writing about games have exposed me to a great many gimmicks, some of them more interesting than others. The Kinect, for all its modest charms, has failed to convince me that avatar embodiment is in any way improved by motion detection. My 3DS, as much as I love it, is rarely played with the 3D slider turned up. My Tony Hawk Ride review copy was soon donated to a local after school program, the coordinators of which probably still curse me to this day.
The gaming rooms of the modern home are often filled with gimmicks, right down to the latest range of increasingly affordable 3D TVs. The modern arcade, though, is the most gimmicky space of them all. Aside from a handful of stalwarts (think Galaga, Pac-Man, 1942 – those old machines that are crammed into the corners at the local buffet, their jammed coin-slots unlikely to be repaired any time soon), most arcades are defined by their peripherals.
There are giant guns, steering wheels, fake soccer balls to kick, plastic horses to ride, cockpits to climb into and periscopes to look through. These are all external thrills, but none of them have ever exactly excited me to the point where I’ve seriously started to wonder why these games aren’t being treated as the huge deals that they are.
I stood there with two friends, frantically slamming away at the game’s few buttons, our mouths all agape.
That all changed last week, and it wasn’t because of any big chunky bits of plastic that a game made me hold onto. At the Game Masters exhibit at ACMI in Melbourne, after falling in love with Robotron (it’s like Geometry Wars but better!) and wondering why I’ve never really gotten into Pac-Man, I stumbled across an Asteroids machine.
I stood there with two friends, frantically slamming away at the game’s few buttons, our mouths all agape. It turns out, you see, that the vector display the game used is amazing. Not just ‘oh cool, this looks pretty good for a game released in 1979’ amazing, but ‘oh my god, there can be no scientific explanation for this, this machine was obviously created by a powerful wizard’ amazing.
Sometimes, media objects are amazing almost entirely because of their age. Look at Fritz Lang’s Metropolis – as wonderful as the film is, the visual effects blow our minds not just because they’re so creative and well done, but because we know they were created in the 1920s. And so it goes, to some extent, with Asteroids, which is amazing in part because it makes you realise that something amazing happened in arcades 33 years ago and no one seems to care anymore.
The vector graphics, which really cannot be adequately explained with screenshots or photos, essentially gives the impression that everything on screen is being traced on in real time by a series of extremely powerful pinpoint lights. The whites on screen literally glow with almost ethereal beauty, and your shots leave a trace of an afterglow behind them. There is such an intense clarity to Asteroids, a sense of fidelity that well and truly holds up today as utterly beautiful.
Obviously, Asteroids is still keenly remembered as a landmark game. But for those who were born in the 80s, and who have played games released around the same time that hold up purely for their addiction gameplay (think Galaxian, released in the same year), the reasons why it was such a big deal have been obscured.
Tempest and Space Duel both went on to use colour vector displays, which is just conceptually mind-blowing to me now (I think Tempest may have actually been at the exhibition, but I foolishly missed it). Part of me wishes that these systems were still being used; that arcades were still dominated by simple machines that popped in a way not possible on even the most expensive television without this 70s technology. Another part of me is wary, remembering the gimmicks that have eventually burned me in the past. But it’s essential that machines like Asteroids, and the experiences they provide, continue to be observed and talked about.
The game itself is unlikely to be forgotten, but the actual effect of playing it has been obscured to the point where it’s not the intrinsic part of the game’s cultural relevance that it should be. If play experiences like this aren’t preserved and remembered for what they both were and still continue to be, a part of gaming’s history, and an amazing example of what the industry has achieved, would be lost.
By James O’Connor
James "Jickle" O'Connor is a freelance games journalist lost somewhere in Adelaide. He currently writes for Hyper, Mania and PC Powerplay magazines, as well as Games On Net and AusGamers on that Internet fad. Oh, and MMGN as of right...now!