Gaming

Here’s What Happens When You Buy An Atari 2600 After One Too Many Cocktails

atari-feat-uproxx
Getty Image / Uproxx

There are some mornings the first thing you do is check your phone to see what stupid things you may or may not have said to someone on social media the night before. It used to be you were only in danger of pissing off the people around you after one too many cocktails. Now you have the ability to piss off just about anyone in the world thanks to the magic of social media. (To be fair, when this happens to me, my messages tend to be more on the side of “you are the BEST,” as opposed to any kind of scorn, which is probably only a little bit better.)

When I moved to New York City in 2004, the thought of living the “writer’s lifestyle” sounded appealing, whatever that even means then and now. I do know that this job is stressful and a cocktail or two on Friday night often sounds very appealing – which sometimes leads to the Saturday morning, “Please tell me I stayed off Twitter,” scroll through the Tweets From Last Night.

A few weeks ago, I remember checking and thinking, Whew, I only tweeted a picture of Gerard Butler smiling four times and told Matt Singer to “take a knee,” not bad! But then I checked my email and I had a notice from eBay about a purchase I had made. My “new” Atari 2600 was on the way.

Oh, yeah, I did buy that, I remembered. God, why? The easy answer is some sort of nostalgia – or, really, the only answer. As someone who spends a lot of time playing Star Wars: Battlefront on PS4, there’s really no part of me saying, “You know, Yars’ Revenge is just as good.” I mean, sure, I have fond memories of the Atari 2600. It was my first gaming system. But why couldn’t I have been nostalgic for Nintendo that night? Those games are much more entertaining. Anyway, I was now going to own an Atari 2600, again.

So, here’s a fun fact about the Atari 2600 I learned: It is not easy at all to hook this up to a modern television set. I would go ahead and classify this as “difficult.” It seems easy enough – there’s something called an RF switch that has a coaxial input option – but this was all invented by scientists in the late ‘70s trying to trick people from the future who made an ill-informed purchase on eBay after four pints of UFO. The end result  is an extremely fuzzy picture that gets better or worse depending on how the wires are positioned behind the television set. Basically, what I attached to my television was an antenna. The shielding is terrible, so it picks up pretty much every signal floating through the air and, in 2016, there are a lot more of these than there were in the late 1970s and early 1980s. What makes it worse, the Atari 2600 isn’t like modern gaming consoles (hmm…, you don’t say?), in that the cord that connects to the television is permanently attached to the Atari. So there’s no just buying some new updated version that won’t do this. This whole dumb thing was now a massive hassle.

Based on some tips I read online, I went to Radio Shack for help. First, yes, these still exist. Second, yes, that’s a funny sentence to write in 2016. Third, no, they were of no help. A guy there did direct me to a classic gaming store in Midtown Manhattan, who at least understood what I was asking, sort of, but said they didn’t have the parts to help me. This led me down the deep, rich world of “Atari 2600 internet.” There are many, many recourses set up for people who own and still play Atari 2600s in 2016, but my query almost seemed too rudimentary for these sites. This was all for advanced Atari nerds who were discussing their collections as prized collectors items. I just wanted mine to work. (I discovered there are Atari 2600 games that sell for thousands of dollars. No, the ones that are worth this much – there’s one that is biblical themed that had to be ordered by mail from a biblical magazine – are probably not in your parents’ attic.)

And everyone seemed to have his or her own solution for all of this. Like, “No, this is how you get rid of the hiccups.” Some of these solutions were expensive and I didn’t want to dump more money into something I regretted buying already. (Some of the solutions might have well been, “The way to get rid of the hiccups is to eat this diamond.”)

Finally, I took a chance on what was an inexpensive cure. If it didn’t work, at least it didn’t cost that much. It seems the main problem is that RF switch and it’s what picks up most of the interference. So that needs to go. I purchased an RCA female-to-male adapter and a RF interference filter off Amazon – the whole thing was around $17. Anyway, yes, this all worked and finally the picture the Atari 2600 was producing looked pretty good! Well, at least for what this machine is capable of producing.

Here’s what I wasn’t expecting: I sincerely enjoy playing it – and not for nostalgic reasons.

Back in 2013, Matt Singer and I did a back-and-forth discussion of missing the simplicity of just inserting a piece of media and then having it just play. Modern technology is great! I love it! But, sometimes, you just want to watch a movie and not have to go through a series of software updates before it can play. So this thing that you thought would take maybe a minute to get started just turned into a 20-minute ordeal.

I mentioned Star Wars: Battlefront earlier. So, as a test, I just timed how long it took me to start playing from the time I hit the “on” button on the PS4 controller to the time I was playing a game. On this occasion, I hit no snags or needed downloads, and it took two minutes and 20 seconds. This might not seem that bad, but just sit there and count to 140 and see how long that takes. I did this same trick with the Atari 2600. I was playing in five seconds. I now know if I want to take a five-minute break from writing, I can go over to the Atari 2600 and I can be playing within literal seconds. The games are simple and easy and I know when I start I’m not going to have to invest a serious amount of time into playing. It actually works as something I’d call a “quick distraction,” and there’s something very appealing about that.

Since getting all this to work, I’ve purchased around 15 games. They are the usual suspects: Ms. Pac-Man, Frogger, Berzerk, Missile Command. And a couple of deeper cuts: Cosmic Ark, Mega Force. I do not think these games are all particularly great, but they serve the purpose of “quick distractions” perfectly – which is the opposite of nostalgia. In fact, this all now seems very 2016.

Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.

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