My Adoration of the Atari 2600 Knew No Limits … until Yesterday.
Actually, lemme back up a little bit. You remember a couple weeks ago when I reminisced about a roll of quarters I got for my birthday one year? It got me to thinkin’ about the good old days. Back when big hair and blocky games were in. Remembe the game Cosmic Ark, for instance? In my imagination, the Cosmic Ark for the Atari 2600 wasn’t some reddish-orange blob on the screen, it was a massive intersteller structure of such size as to dwarf a city, glistening in the inky blackness of space with an aura of power and majesty. And I was in command of it, a master of the cosmic void! You had to use your imagination back then, you know, because there wasn’t anything else to go on.
So anyways, all those memories made me want to revive my old Atari. Little did I know exactly how much I would end up reviving! I still had it, even to this day. Somewhere. After an evening’s search I found it under a towel up on the top shelf of my apartment. It was sticky to the touch and covered with dust. I wiped it off, stuck in a copy of Pitfall, and turned it on.
Disaster In the Skies
Yeah, it all came back to me. I remembered it clearly, the morning my Atari died. It was 1986, years after the system’s prime. I mean, you couldn’t even buy games for it from the stores anymore. But I decided to fire it up because I was home sick from school that day, and it was the day they were going to send that teacher into space. I had planned to pass time waiting for the shuttle launch by playing Cosmic Ark under a blanket and pretending I was inside a space ship, just like the kids did in the commercial. Anyways, I had just beaten the really tough level, level ten, with the little flapping bat-like creatures – and in my excitement I spilled grape soda all over the console. It flickered and froze with a staticky hum and a red TV screen – I turned it off, terrified for my Atari, and flicked the switch on the back of the television … but what I saw next (an image burned into every kid’s head of my generation) erased my concern over the welfare of my 2600.
On the TV I saw a billowing explosion and two giant rockets spiraling upwards out of control like swirling antennae. The shuttle Challenger had blown up. I was mortified. Well, that was the last time I played Atari, as you can imagine.
But that was 15 years ago! Ages ago. I had many, many fond memories of that old Atari, and I planned to relive them. I just needed to find a gaming expert. My buddy Ray, who was a little too into space games for his own good, recommended this old guy who ran the games trade-in store down the street as someone who could help me fix the grape soda problem.
The Frightening Wisdom of the Gaming Guru
Inside the gritty grey store, with piles of games in every conceivable corner, the Crazy Old Videogame Guru sat with his legs folded under him, lecturing some kid on how to beat 4x4 Evo for the Dreamcast. I Made my way through the narrow corridor between two over-stocked shelves of dusty used Sega Saturn and Atari Jaguar titles and plunked my sticky, dusty Atari onto the counter.
The old man turned to face me, speaking before I could open my mouth. “You can never really go home again,” he said. I couldn’t find the words to reply, but he didn’t give me a chance. Slowly he reached to take my hand in his, then placed my palm up against the sides of the old Atari. “Feel that? Wood grain. Wood grain. Yes, yes. A time gone by, an age passed, never to return.” He stared at the console, intently, then turned away – leaving it cradled in my hands.
He seemed to have said all he was going to say on the matter, so I finally found my voice. “I’d like to fix it,” I said.
The old guru didn’t look up from his game on the Dreamcast. “Can’t,” he said. “Some jackass spilled grape soda on it back in ‘86. Try e-Bay.”
“C’mon, you didn’t even open it up. There’s got to be a way to, I dunno, clean the contacts or something. I really want to get this particular machine working.”
With a squeak and the popping of old bones the guru faced me again, this time levelling his cold green eyes at mine. “I know. But I told you when you came in – you can never really go home again!”
We stared at one another.
“Very well,” he finally said with a hissing sigh. He reached below the counter and pulled up a bottle of rubbing alcohol, a handful of Q-tips, and a greyish green bottle with a peeling faded orange label that read “Industrial Solvent DO NOT DRINK.”
“Ah, now we’re talking!” I said. “So I clean it with this stuff?” As I picked up the sinister grey-green bottle, I noted that I could see the old man’s fingerprints in the thick dust.
“No,” he replied. “You open the Atari up, you clean it with the alcohol and cotton swabs. Then you close it, and you say the sacred ohm, and you become one with the machine. Lay hands upon it and feel the power through you, the joysticks in your ports, the signal you’re sending the TV. Finally, you drink the potion inside the dark green bottle.”
“It says do not drink!” I protested.
“Ignore it, an old label. I recycle.” He nodded, bowing briefly to me, then returned to his game.
Recovering my Atari and his ingredients, I turned to leave. He stopped me shortly before I got outside. “Wait a moment!” he said in a gravelly voice. “Third shelf down, on your left… You’ll need that.”
I looked over, reached down, and from the pile of games I pulled out a small black plastic cartridge with a silver label. I gasped: It was Cosmic Ark.
Reviving a 15 Year Old Electronic Corpse
“Hey Ray!” I barked into my cell phone as I drove to my house with the early morning sun behind me. “C’mover to my place. That old fool told me how to fix the Atari and you won’t believe it.”
“It’s Saturday,” Ray yawned back at me, audibly fighting off a hangover. “If I wake up before 2 it ruins my whole weekend.”
“I got Cosmic Ark!” I taunted.
“Holy shit. You know, Cosmic Ark is like the BattleCruiser 3000 of 1983. I’ll be right over!” Ray burped loudly, to show his pleasure, then unceremoniously hung up.
Back at my house, I sat cross-legged in front of my wounded Atari and delicately opened it. Ironically, my TV was showing preparations for another space shuttle launch – I turned it off so that I could concentrate on my project. The mishmash of circuit boards and wires meant nothing to me, but I dutifully cleaned each one with the cotton swabs while Ray sprawled out on my couch and begged me not to rub the cotton so loudly.
Finally the Atari was sealed and ready. I turned on my TV and slid in a copy of Combat. But, once again, I flipped the switch – and nothing happened.
“This sucks,” Ray said. “What else did the swami tell you?”
“He said I had to become one with the machine.” I touched the woodgrain and closed my eyes. “OOOoohhhhmmm!” I moaned.
“Dude you’re seriously frightening me.” Ray picked up the sinister bottle. “What were you supposed to do with this? Embalm something?” he popped the cork, took a sniff, and his eyes rolled around his head. “WHEW!”
“I was supposed to drink it, but no way in hell! I think it’s industrial solvent.”
Ray peered inside, then sniffed it again. “Dude, no way. It smells like Mad Dog 20/20, the breakfast of champions. This is just what my hangover needs.” He took a swig and coughed a spasming cough.
“Quiet, I’m concentrating,” I said. “OOOohhhhmm!”
“Holy mother. My headache is gone!” Ray shoved the bottle under my nose: “Drink some!”
“No!” I growled, not opening my eyes.
Ray pulled the bottle away, paused a moment, then pushed it under my face again. “Then drink some of this, instead.” Stupidly, I drank it. Ray was always pulling that crap on me, ever since gradeschool, and I always fell for it.
A Horrible, Yet Glorious, Transfiguration
Suddenly, the TV came to life. Silent images of a shuttle launch were replaced by the bright green and blue color-cycling screen of Atari 2600 Combat. Little blocky tanks sat across from one another on the playfield, ready to fight.
My throat burned from the liquid, as though I had swallowed fire, and everything seemed to get hazy. The room around me seemed to shrink and then grow. My television loomed large above me. Fierce with anger, I turned to face Ray, but the vision that met my eyes caused me to scream.
A twelve-year-old was sitting next to me. He was staring down at his hands and stomach, where his Tee-shirt was draped over him like a tent. “Holy CRAP!” he said – I recognized it as Ray’s voice, but it was high pitched and cracked as he spoke. “My beer gut! My beer gut is gone!”
I shouted something at him, but my own voice was not my own. It was the froggy voice on an eleven year old. I looked down to find that my feet had shrunk right out of their shoes, and my belt hung loosely around my waist. I was eleven all over again.
“Look at the walls!” Ray said, pointing. I couldn’t believe my eyes – I had to reach out and feel them myself. The walls … they were covered with …
“Wood panelling!” I gasped. “Like our basement when I was growing up!”
Ray looked at me, at the floor, at the walls, at the Atari, and finally at the TV. “Dude,” he breathed. “We are home.” And, with a touch of reverence, he picked up his joystick.
The Call of the 2600
First it was Combat, Combat until our thumbs were raw. And then Pitfall, but we couldn’t play for too long, because we got bored waiting for each other to die. Next up? I insisted we try the Indiana Jones game, because I had never solved it. Then Ray wanted to put in Pac-Man, just so we could make fun of it. Yar’s Revenge ate up about a half an hour. I demanded to play co-operative Space Invaders next, and we decided as the points racked up that together we still had “the magic.”
Ray lost his last ship while I was still going, so he watched me play for a bit. But he had the attention span of a 12 year old (come to think of it, Ray always had the attention span of a 12 year old), and soon he grew restless. He paced around the room. “It’s like it’s 1986!” he gasped, looking at his skinny hands and freckled face in the mirror. “Holy crap. I’m 12. Too bad I’m not 17, I could masturbate like five times a day back then.” He suddenly looked skyward, deep in thought. “Am I too old to breastfeed do you think?” Then another inspiration distracted him: “I gotta invest in Microsoft!”
While I continued blasting aliens he clumped his way toward my refrigerator, his shoes flopping. “I could really go for some peanut butter and jelly,” he said. He gasped loudly after opening the fridge door.
“What?” I asked, narrowly avoiding death to clear another board.
“You got BEER in here!” Ray pulled out a can, his jaw hanging open. “I probably don’t have any tolerance. This is gonna ROCK! Do you want one?”
“Are you crazy?” I squeaked. “I’m not old enough to drink! Get me some grape soda, instead.”
Ray padded his way back to me, beer and soda in hand. He froze in his tracks. “Whoa! Cosmic Ark! It calls to me. It speaks to me in my own language, and that language uses short words, is easy to understand, and knows how to party.”
He waved the cartridge in front of my face as I played. “Cosmic Ark! Cosmic Ark!” he chanted. I told him to wait until I was done. So he kept shouting, “MISS!” everytime I tried to fire my laser until finally I died.
“YOU’RE A BUTTMUNCH!” I whined as he shut off the game. He plugged in Cosmic Ark but I grabbed his hand before he hit the ‘on’ switch. “Dude we have to put a blanket over our heads and the TV like we’re in a spaceship. Duh.”
“Wow yah,” he agreed. “I put the whole mission in jeopardy.”
While I unfurled the sheet, he cracked open his beer, took a sip, and winced with pain. “Holy crap! All this time all my girlfriends were right – MGD does taste like ass!” He looked around and burped. “I think I’m drunk already. Check it: We could score with a 16 year old chick right now and it would still be legal. Hey, you know when I was 12 I always used to watch Wheel of Fortune and fantasize about Vanna White?”
“Yesterday you were 27,” I said, draping the blanket over us. “And you still watched Wheel of Fortune and fantasized about Vanna White.”
“I’d like to buy an … O,” he mumbled.
The Cosmic Ark Returns: A Mission of Mercy
We settled in, necks craned forward, and turned the game on. The great orange Cosmic Ark hovered before us, poised for its life-saving mission across the cosmos. Wordlessly I cracked open my grape soda while Ray started the game.
“Oh man,” he sighed. “The depth of the gameplay here is rivaled only by the work of –” and here he whispered: “Derek Smart.”
“Look out, meteors!” I cried as the storm buffeted our ship. Purple grape-stains formed around my lips. Ray hadn’t lost his touch; landing after landing he scooted his recovery vehicle past the planetary defense systems and rescued the little creatures below. Life was good. Life was very, very, very good.
Suddenly, he reached the surface of planet ten, and I spotted the little bat creatures flapping around below him. “C’mere, bat bitches!” he crooned, slightly buzzing from his half of a beer as he guided his ship toward the surface of the planet. That’s when it hit me: The terrible fate of those astronauts in 1986. It was all coming together. The grape soda, the tenth planet, Cosmic Ark, the shuttle mission – no no NO! I had to stop it!!
“STOP!” I cried, trying to grab the joystick. Ray squirmed away. “You can play after I die,” he said.
I crawled up to my knees and whirled to face him. “No no! If you beat Planet ten with the bat creatures the space shuttle will explode and people will die!”
He said the word ‘bullcrap’ but disguised it with a cough. “It’s my turn dillwad. You can not rescue the bats on your turn.”
“Gimmie the joystick!” I yelled, grabbing. “Lives are at stake! The future of man and space! GIVE ME THE JOYSTICK!”
Ray pushed me away with his foot. “Nuh-unh I called nexties while you were playin’ Space Invaders, gamewhore!”
Then, amidst our wrestling, and only moments before he left the surface of planet ten … I knocked over the grape soda. It spilled all over the slatted surface of the 2600. My television went all red and a staticky hum erupted from the machine.
Suddenly I was dizzy, and the room spun around me. I grew tall, straight up, through the blanket until I found it wrapped around my head. When I threw it aside I saw that the TV was showing the shuttle launch – NASA’s ship rocketed gracefully into the air and spun in a slow turn until it reached earth orbit. “THEY’RE ALIVE!” I cried, shocked to hear my normal adult voice return. “I SAVED THE ASTRONAUTS!” I danced around the room, my shoes now snug to my feet and my belt wrapped tightly around my waist once more. “I SAVED OUTER SPACE!”
Ray, on the other hand, held his joystick in one hand and his beer gut in the other. He glowered at me with sunken eyes. “My buzz is totally gone,” he rumbled. “Smooth move, Dorkweed.”
Heh – I’d like to buy an ‘O’ – NOW I get it!
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