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Vintage Video Games on Exhibit

By Charles Spencer

Michael Black playing video game

Computer Science professor Michael Black tries his hand at Final Fantasy. (Photo: Charles Spencer)

If names like Atari, Frogger, Super Mario Bros., and Nintendo evoke memories of hanging at the mall or vegging out in dorm rooms, you’ll probably want to see and play the vintage computer games and systems now on display in the Computer Science Department.

Computer Science professor Michael Black has drawn from his personal collection of about 150 vintage computers and game systems that date back to 1959, practically prehistoric in tech terms, and thousands of disks and cartridges of software.

But these artifacts have value beyond nostalgia, Black insists. Plus they’re fun.

“Today’s technology is a lot less interesting,” says Black, who got his first computer when he was 6. “It’s more homogeneous; you can’t repair computers individually now. All these old computers here you could pull out chips, rewire connections, and make them work again. That’s just impossible on a computer today. And a lot of these computers are meant to be programmed by the end-user.”

Take the Heathkit analog computer, which dates back to 1959. It’s nothing like a digital computer, no zeros and ones. Its patch panel is a tangle of jacked-in wires. “You wire together equations and you can show the equations on the oscilloscope,” Black says. The Heathkit featured games like the pre-Pong Tennis for Two. (Sadly, Heathkit, whose ads were once a staple of magazines like Popular Mechanics, is no more. The company ceased operations this year.)

Still very much alive is the Atari brand, and the 2600 console (released in 1977), a cartridge system that also played games from other companies, was phenomenally successful. A popular genre on Atari and other systems was arcade games, the model of a whole era of video games in the ‘80s. They found their most famous innovator in the work of Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of such games as Donkey Kong and The Legend of Zelda. Donkey Kong, a game few current students have played, is notable for the first appearance of the character Mario. The Super Mario Bros. franchise went on to rank among the most successful video game series in history.

Classics such as Space Invaders, and imitations offered on systems such as Texas Instruments graphing calculators, were also hugely popular.

Board games such as Civilization and role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons were also enormously influential in video game development. And a fascinating low-tech path was followed in the mid-’70s by games such as Colossal Cave Adventure. An entirely text-based game, its interactive story is played entirely by keyboard commands. The game dates back to mainframe computers. It was distributed on computer bulletin boards via the Internet precursor Arpanet, downloaded, and copied onto disks. Indeed, Black notes, a sizable community devoted to developing interactive fiction still exists today.

The computers and consoles themselves provide a fascinating survey of gaming technology. There’s the “portable” Osborne 1 (weight = 23.5 pounds), the Commodore 64 (maybe the biggest-selling computer system of all time), the Apple II and its ubiquitous Oregon Trail educational game, and the IBM Personal Computer (the ur-computer for all PCs). And starting in the ‘80s came perhaps the most far-reaching innovation, hand-held consoles such as Game Boy and Nintendo DS with their ever-increasing capacity and capabilities. Black predicts handhelds will make consoles obsolete within a decade.

So what makes a computer game vintage? That’s a bit tricky, Black admits, but he sees the fault line somewhere between Final Fantasy VI (1994) and Final Fantasy X (2001), both of which are on display. Looking at these enormously popular role-playing games, we see an evolution away from two-dimensional worlds and characters with their tinny soundtracks to the technological leap forward allowed by the greater storage space of CDs versus cartridges. Suddenly the game was 3-D. Views could pivot; photo realism was introduced to replace the somewhat crude pixilated characters, and voice actors replaced text prompts. Sound improved; the game became twice as long.

And the stories and characters took on a depth that could be described as literary.

“They’ve kind of reached a point in which they’re essentially interactive cinema, which was impossible before,” Black says.

So what can people interested in video games and systems, particularly students who want to develop their own games, gain from exploring their pastime’s history?

“There are ways of presenting yourself in a game that doesn’t necessarily involve high-end, 3-D graphics,” Black says. “Which is a good thing because to really do a good 3-D graphical game you need million-dollar budget and a studio. But we know with the advent of things like Angry Birds that a person can code a game in their basement or dorm room and still make a killer app. There’s no reason that students have to be looking at the high-end 3-D games like Grand Theft Auto 4 and saying , ‘If I can’t do this I can’t be developing games.’”

The vintage games and systems will be available to see and to play for the next few weeks at the Computer Science Department, located in the Sports Center Annex.