In the early years of the Eighties decade, the only thing that could take my attention away from the multitudes of arcades in my hometown of Columbia, South Carolina was playing video games at home. Well, in May of 1982 the next stage of my video game obsession came to be: my parents bought me the Sears version of the Atari 2600, the Sears Video Arcade, as a surprise end-of-school-year gift. Included with this gift was Atari Pac-Man. Say what you want about Atari Pac-Man’s quality and notoriety, this was Pac-Man and I didn’t care. I was also 10 years old at the time, so there’s that. Of course, experiencing Atari Pac-Man’s offerings led to a bit of a shock compared to what I was used to from my beloved arcade. What’s up with this maze? What’s wrong with the ghosts? Why can’t Pac-Man stop chewing?? These bizarre observations didn’t stop me from playing it though. I still had fun, which really is the point, right? I finally had an arcade in my own house!
Atari had quite a large library of arcade conversions back then, the quality of which varied greatly depending on how much you were willing to accept the fact that these weren’t arcade perfect. I was very forgiving when it came to this – I was playing video games at home ferchrissakes, who was I to complain? Heck, I had better time with some of the home versions! Williams’ high speed blast-‘em-up shooter Defender was crazy hard for me at that age (and still is…), with all those buttons that weren’t even remotely close to each other and easy to reach in a split second. You need a button to move forward and another to change direction—huh??? Well, my good buddy Atari simplified all that nonsense. Up, down, forward, back – all done by the joystick as God intended. This was a much more rewarding experience and remains one of my favorites to this day. There were several adaptations that came pretty darn close to being arcade quality (remember, this is me around age 10). Berzerk was just about perfect. Galaxian was pretty close too, and thankfully they toned all that divebomb screaming that the enemy bugs did as they tried to ram you. I still can’t play Galaxian today because of all that shrill nonsense. The quality of Space Invaders, Asteroids and Missile Command doesn’t need to be commented on, all were classics and still are today. Other conversions also tried their best: Kangaroo, Dig Dug, Pole Position, Ms. Pac-Man and Jr. Pac-Man were all fun in their own ways. Having to press ‘up’ on the joystick to make Mama Kangaroo jump should be illegal though – SO MANY unnecessary deaths because of that! And, Joust – why are you so cruel no matter the system you’re ravaging? Please seek some anger management therapy!
Several third party companies also had some fun arcade conversions. Coleco and Parker Brothers probably had the best third party line-up of arcade conversions, with games like Frogger, Q*Bert, Mousetrap, Tutankham, Amidar, Venture and, of course, the mighty Donkey Kong between them. Again, I had a high tolerance for these games not living up to their big brothers at my local Aladdin’s Castle, so I didn’t mind that Tutankham was on a vertical playing field or that Donkey Kong had only two of the four stages. I was having fun, and that was all that mattered. I’d like to give a special shout-out to SEGA’s Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator conversion – that game was the bomb. I loved what they did with that version and would play it today if I could find a copy (yes, I know about ebay, but where’s the fun in that?).
One major advantage that the home versions had over the arcade originals was the sheer number of variations a game could have. You want to start with no shields or remote controlled missiles in Space Invaders? Wish granted! Enjoy the feeling of playing Missile Command on the hardest level to start out with? You got it! Atari even included special reduced difficulty versions for the youngsters who couldn’t handle the challenges of the regular versions. Game these days still can’t match the variety of yesteryear – if/when you beat a game, you might unlock a higher difficulty level or a new playable character. Sometimes, you’ll have the opportunity to experience a different ending depending on what in-game choices you make while playing. Space Invaders all by itself had 112 game variations. The Atari 2600 may have flamed out by 1983, but it was this kind of thing that had me continuing to play until years after that. Heck, I introduced my six-year-old to the Atari Flashback 6 this past weekend and he loves it. Something tells me we’ll still be playing Atari games in my household for a while.
One more thing – I wasn’t the only one who whipped the power switch off and on to get the double missile trick to work in Space Invaders, was I? Surely one of you out there did this also!
Thor Thorvaldson, Jr.