Forget Reggie Jackson or Larry Bird. When I was a kid, my hero was a high school burnout in a Black Sabbath T-shirt who ruled at Asteroids. His kingdom was a dilapidated bowling alley outside Boston called the Bowl-A-Way, where my friends and I watched in awe as he blasted meaty space rocks into rubble, playing for hours on a single quarter. Looking back, I was lucky to have been there at the dawn of the video-game era when Berzerk, Galaxian, and others hit the market. That's why it's such a joy to play MICROSOFT ARCADE (Microsoft, floppy for PC/Windows and Mac, $ 29.95), a collection of five of Atari's post-Pong arcade classics from the late '70s and early '80s long before Sega or Nintendo became the boss of the beach.
Microsoft could've easily souped up these titles for a new generation. Instead, the company has faithfully duplicated the games Asteroids, Missile Command, Tempest, Centipede, and Battlezone in all of their lo-fi, stripped-down, 2-D splendor. Take Asteroids: The spaceship shoot-out against a shower of menacing boulders is still primitive-looking white-outline rocks screaming across a black background, while a pulse thumps in your ear. The bullets still emit a spartan ''ping'' sound, and the occasional enemy spaceship looks like something out of Lost in Space. But just because Asteroids is simple doesn't mean it isn't a riveting game. Even though I grew up with one finger on the hyperspace button, trying to get my 'Stroids chops back was a blast literally.
Centipede is another game that still stands up. An endless onslaught of creepy crawlers, it was unlike any other game, visually speaking, when it came out in 1982. And Centipede's psychedelically colored mushroom screen is faithfully captured here. My one beef: Playing it on your mouse and keyboard, | rather than on the arcade game's rolling trackball controller, will snap you out of your stroll down memory lane.
Where the lack of a trackball matters even more is in Missile Command. Sure, it's still a nice little bit of Cold War fun defending your military bases from incoming missiles and bombs. And, again, its rendering couldn't be more exact. But the real joy of the game, missing in this version, is zipping that little ball around with the palm of your hand. On the plus side, the game's groovy, Woodstock-colored mushroom clouds are still breathtaking, as apocalyptic visions go.
I never did quite get what Tempest was all about: You rotate around the edge of a giant web shooting oncoming geometric doodads and ... huh? Playing it on a computer screen, though, turns out to be an oddly Zen experience. Okay, so there's a mouse instead of that spinning knob, but I was still smitten by the way you warp into each new level.
The one game that really doesn't bring much to the party is Battlezone, a bare-bones tank-shoot-tank game that's so one-dimensional it makes Asteroids look like virtual reality. I tried to remember why I had foamed at the mouth to play it. Then it came to me: The arcade version had a huge, hulking console and viewer that made it feel like you were in a real tank. No such luck here. But then again, none of these games are technically dazzling by today's Street Fighter II Turbo standards. What Arcade does give you is the rush of that run-down bowling alley or arcade where you got your first high score. B+