The other week on Seinfeld, George had a bad strain of Pac-Man Fever: After seeing his old winning score on the Frogger machine at his high school pizzeria, he bought the vintage arcade game so he’d never be beaten. He’s not the only one lured back by those tinny bleeps and boops, however. Over the Net and on CD-ROMs, retro games are on the reboot.
Consider Hasbro Interactive’s new Frogger disc for PC and Sony PlayStation. With more than $11 million in sales, it’s just the prelude to a massive digital nostalgia blitz. Hasbro recently acquired rights to the entire catalog of 1980s Atari video games — more than 75 titles in all — and on the horizon are souped-up versions of all the classics: the fungi-nuking funk of Centipede (due in the fall); the apocalyptic zipper bombs of Missile Command; the primordial, Mondrianesque Pong. Not to miss the trend, Activision recently jumped into the game with ’90s-style versions of Battlezone and Pitfall.
Intrepid Webheads, meanwhile, are way ahead of the retromania curve. For years they’ve been swapping home-cooked bootleg programs that play the original games on a PC or Mac. Called Multiple Arcade Machine Emulators (MAME), this freeware is readily available (www.gamepower.com/mame/mame.html); once you get past an annoyingly complex installment procedure, MAME transforms your desktop into blip-for-blip renditions of such oldies as Asteroids and Defender.
Yep, there’s a zeitgeist thing happening here. The first generation of arcade junkies — those who hit puberty with Ms. Pac-Man in the early ’80s — are fast approaching their 30s, and predictable longings for youth are setting in. Personally, the nanosecond I booted up the Crazy Climber emulator, I could hear Rush blasting from the speakers in my mind, smell the token grease on my hands, and feel the blueberry Slurpee brain freeze.
The problem with commercial companies like Hasbro and Activision, though, is that they’re crassly blowing our trip with these so-called new and improved versions: The liner notes describe the new Frogger as ”Revived, Rebuilt, and Ready to Hop!” Spare me. I don’t want to play Pitfall 3D; I want to see flat-boy hero Harry swing the jagged pixel vines. The whole point of nostalgia is a return to the past, not a Return to the Past 2.0. It’s kind of like a colorized Casablanca — or worse, Ugly Kid Joe singing ”Cat’s in the Cradle.”
What the corporations forget is that given the software limitations at the time, the old games were more impressive for their ingenuity. Pong was competition distilled: two opponents and a ball. Burger Time was genuinely funny, a Willy Wonka-ish game in which you’re a chef chasing pickles and burgers with lethal shakers of pepper. Right on. If I want something contemporary, I’ll boot up Quake or Riven. If I forgo Hasbro for a real blast from the past, put the blame on MAME.