Armagideon Time

A lot has been written about the Videogame Crash of 1983, side effects most of it dealing with the truth-or-urban-legend tales about Atari’s purported dumping of unsold 2600 cartridges into a New Mexico landfill. Even the more clinical post-mortems of the event, its causes, and immediate and enduring impact tend to operate from a historical scholarship rooted in VH-1 nostalgia porn specials, nominally factual but presenting a very myopic — and frequently received — view of the actual events:

The early 1980s videogame craze led to overexuberance on the part of the game and hardware manufacturers, who benefited from the 2600’s lack of a software authorization system and therefore glutted an already-peaked market with a flood of substandard games that made profitability nigh-impossible.

And, as the classic gaming pundits will tell you, even companies like Quaker Oats (via their U.S. Games division)…

…and Ralston-Purina (via the Chase the Chuck Wagon mail-order promo cart coded by Spectravision)…

…jumped on the rickety bandwagon in hopes of turning a quick profit.

While the increasingly untenable state of things might have alarmed (or not, considering how many otherwise solid developers quickly went tits-up when the crash hit) the developers, industry analysts, and retailers, neither my friends nor I saw the shitstorm to come. We were too blinded by the drastic drop in cartridge prices to notice.

Prior to the crash, the $25 to $35 price point limited new game purchases by our bad tweener selves to birthday or Christmas money spending binges. Once the bottom dropped out of the videogame market, desperate retailers resorted to massive price cuts, with a vast number of titles getting knocked down to a paltry five bucks, easily affordable for any kid with a paper route or modest allowance. The effect rippled upward to the diminishing stream of new releases, too, which spent a couple weeks collecting dust at full-price before landing in the clearance bins.

From the spring of 1983 to the fall of 1985, hardly a week went by that didn’t see me adding at least one new title to my growing library of 2600 games. Even if most of what I purchased was utter crap, neither my friends, brother, or I seemed to notice…as we were young and stupid and overall crudeness of 2600 games in general made separating all but the finest Grade AAA wheat from the chaff very difficult.

Games like E.T. or the 2600 port of Pac-Man have become punchlines for gamer set, popcult shorthand along the lines of “shoulder pads” or “Mike Score’s hairdo in the video for ‘Space Age Lovesong.'” They are unquestioned “givens,” handed down like the Divine Logos of Reference-Dropping Snarkery. And while both E.T. and Pac-Man certainly deserve a place among the 2600 Valhalla of Crap, neither sits on (or particularly close to) the hall’s fecal-stained throne. (That dubious honor goes to Custer’s Revenge…another game more referenced than experienced, for good reasons.)

Both games sold well enough, just not enough to justify the licensing fees and Atari’s over-confidence that the games would be system-selling “killer apps” for a console that had reached the effective limit of its potential market penetration. To the eyes of an eleven year old bottomfeeder, they seemed like an acceptable waste of time.

E.T. was no less nonsensical than any of the other pre-text “adventure” (small “a,” because Adventure rocked) titles released for the 2600, as anyone who has tried to fathom the non-intuitive depths of Raiders of the Lost Ark or any of the Swordquest games in those pre-internet days can attest. If the 2600 version of Pac-Man was a pale, flickering shadow of the arcade version, it was a pale shadow that could be played at home, with no need of sneaking off to the arcade with a handful of quarters stolen from your parents’ dresser.

Besides, we children of the Atari Age were used to imperfect arcade ports, either in cartridge or LCD/LED handheld format. Novelty and convenience trumped glaring technical limitations.  Quality was not the underlying problem. Quantity was.  Too many games — good, bad, and mediocre — competed for limited shelf-space, and the main beneficiaries of the resulting sell-off were eleven year old videogame fans with more disposable income than taste.

3 Responses to “Growing up 2600: A merry disaster”

  1. Brian Smith

    Nothing can take away the pride I felt when I finally mastered catching E.T. in mid-fall to levitate him safely down to the bottom of the various pits. Nothing.

    And the best part of “Swordquest: Earthworld” was the George Perez-drawn comic that came with it — I’d never seen the man’s art before. (I came from a very anti-comics household, so my 1980s childhood was surprisingly free of either Koriand’r or Donna Troy. Or Kitty Pryde, for that matter.)

  2. bitterandrew

    If you didn’t hold onto your copy of “Swordquest” and would like to revisit those pack-in wonders of sequential art, the Atari Age site has a browsable archive of the various comics:

  3. Brian Smith

    Wow, thanks! I had absolutely no idea that existed.

    And I actually never had any of the “Swordquest” games; I just played them and read the comics at friends’ houses. I pushed really really hard to buy a “Swordquest” with my own money when our town’s TG&Y had everything on clearance in its last days…but my parents said no. That was probably for the best, in retrospect.

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