80’s music and the flicker of an old telly let me live someone else’s video game history

Pitfall2600Yeah, I’m well versed in Atari’s sordid history, allegedly bringing the gaming market to a crash. I’m also aware of the meteoric rise of Activision in that same period, driven by recognition hungry developers who more than anything, just wanted their name on the box.  I happen to also have held an Atari 2600 joystick or two in my life, admiring the stylish woodgrain panels on the front of the system, and playing a round or two of Asteroids or Centipede while admiring their simplistic charm.  But being just a tad over 30 now, it doesn’t take a mathematical genius to see that I was barely a twinkle in my parents’ eyes when the 2600 was at its peak, and so the rise and fall of that little American company that could came and went while I was still well and truly relieving myself directly into my pants.

So to say I’m not an Atari veteran is an understatement.

But years after Atari had come and gone, and other companies had risen to take its place at the top, there I was sitting in my teenage bedroom, enjoying Activision’s classic Atari games in much the same way a mullet-sporting 80’s teen wearing stonewash jeans and a jean jacket would have.  Of course I was sitting there in the early 2000’s on hardware umpteen jigawatts more powerful, clothing that in hindsight was only slightly less embarrassing, and a television that while now is antiquated was modern for its time, earning patches and dealing with a rolling picture all the while listening to a mixtape of bands including Naked Eyes and Twisted Sister.  For that moment in time I was an 80’s teenager.


Activision Anthology on the Playstation 2 was my gateway into the time before the Euro-centric home computer boom of the 80’s, and of course the rise and rise of the Japanese console manufacturers.  It was a time of mechanically simple games that relied on charm and the pursuit of high scores, of games that required little more than quick reactions and pattern memorisation, and a time where every game courted the competitive streak and sibling rivalry in every one.  They were in many ways the formative years of video gaming as we know it today, and while the history of Atari systems and its games taken in isolation couldn’t be more uninteresting to me, I couldn’t help but be utterly mesmerised by that collection of forty-something 4k artefacts.

I could never have imagined that, with games like Ridge Racer V and Gran Turismo 3 vying for my attention, what equates to a teeth brushing shoot ’em up of Plaque Attack would keep me glued to the screen in a ‘one more coin’ kind of way.  And in isolation they probably couldn’t have.  There was nothing particularly special about Barnstorming but I spent hours playing it, nor was playing multiplayer Ice Hockey any better than almost any subsequent sports game release.  But there I was sitting in front of the telly fixated on these video games most of which predated me, games that weren’t necessarily within my wheelhouse, and games that comprised someone else’s gaming history and nostalgia.

That’s when I realised that the history of the medium is more than just the games themselves.  It’s a function of its time – the sights, the sounds, the tangibility – that makes people hold these experiences dear.  Just as I would always associate the games I played with a time and place, there was something intrinsically 80’s about the Atari, something that could never be separated and enjoyed in the same way out of context.  And whether it be the flickering of an old cathode ray tube in a dimly lit room or Wall of Voodoo’s Mexican Radio playing on the very latest in tape deck technology, for many, playing these very old and very simple games takes them back to a time where their whole lives were ahead of them and where technology was changing the very fabric of society. Literally if you were dedicated enough to take a polaroid of your scores to score a coveted cloth patch to show off to the world.  And Activision Anthology was a window back into that world.

To say that the Activision Anthology was was a historical video game collection done right isn’t doing it justice.  It perfectly recreated a point in time, enabling those of us who weren’t around to live someone else’s history, and bask in everything that made that moment in video game history so special to so many people.  It allowed me to be a tourist in someone else’s video game history, into a time that I have no recollection of, and certainly no conditioned fondness for.  I don’t remember Atari, I don’t remember Safety Dance being on the radio, and I sure as hell don’t remember a time where wood-panelling was the pinnacle of home electronic design.  But for those precious few months in the early 2000’s, I could’ve sworn I did.



  1. I totally agree. It’s one of the reasons I can, and DO enjoy media (games, movies, and TV shows) from before my time. While the current generation of technology might be far superior; enjoying said media is less about technical competition, and more about taking a trip through time.

  2. Sums up perfectly why I enjoy retro collections so much. Recently I had a great time with the Megadrive collection on PS2, I never owned a Megadrive (although the impression I get from friends is that it was nothing short of a rite of passage for kids in the UK in the early to mid nineties) but while I’ve played a number of excellent Megadrive games individually, the collection was a great way of experiencing that system’s highs, and I think just as importantly, its averages, its mediocres and its lows, all in a single package.

    1. I’ve just managed to pick up the Megadrive Collection for the PS3 – it’s mindblowing how many games are on it. I’m looking forward to working my way through at least a few of them – having owned a SNES back in the day, there are tonnes of SEGA games I missed out on.

      1. I’ve somehow been hooked on Flicky more than once – first on the PSP Mega Drive collection and then again on this collection. Small things amuse small minds i guess 🙂

        I thought this historical stuff was great, but it was missing that ‘scene setting’ I loved with the Activision Anthology. But do yourself a favour and download the PS3 dynamic theme that came out with this game – it more than makes up for it. You’ll see.

  3. I owned an Atari 2600 Junior (the one without the wood panelling), which I got as a hand-me-down from my uncle when he moved onto the Amiga. Being 35, I just about remember pictures of Atari consoles for sale in my mum’s Kays catalogue before they completely died out in the late 1980s. (Let’s forget about the Atari Jaguar.)

    I remember thinking that the 2600 games were laughably primitive next to the games for my brand new NES, but some were highly addictive – Centipede springs to mind as a really good one. But most were pretty damn awful. In particular, I remember that Real Sports Boxing was a real stinker. There’s no doubt that the overall quality of games has improved enormously over the years, but there’s still something just so evocative about playing games from the really early days.

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