Why We Love Those Old Games.
I've always enthused on early 80's arcade games. If you, like me, are in your mid 30's, you were more than likely just as hypnotised as I was at the time. But is it just misty-eyed nostalgia with no real basis, or was there something special going on in those days? I've done some thinking on it, and I believe it's a variety of factors: it was new, it was technology, old folk didn't understand (always a plus), it was created by passionate developers and we were the right age to appreciate it.
The Right Age: At 10-15 years old we were earning enough through pocket money, paper runs or whatever that we could afford to waste a few hours in the local arcade. We also were old enough that our parents would probably be ok with us cycling off into town for the afternoon. Much older than 16 and you'd be more interested in beer, girls and cars than Defender.
Arcades Were a Novelty: I believe the novelty factor cannot be over-emphasised when talking of the 'golden years' of arcades. Whereas anyone born after 1980 has grown up with computers and arcade games, they just didn't exist in the mainstream in the 70's. As the decade closed things were changing rapidly, but in 1975 arcades contained pinball and very little else. Computers were so monumentally expensive that for the vast majority of families they were off the radar. If you're of an age that you've grown up with computers, just imagine if you hadn't and they came out now! So for an 11 year old kid to see his first bank of Space Invaders machines was an unforgettable experience. The sound, the controls, the screen.... here was the future.
Creative Innovation: Remember finding a new machine for the first time, usually stuck out front? It may have been Dig Dug, Galaga, Donkey Kong, Gyruss or whatever, but it had some brand new feature that you'd never seen previously and the excitement was rekindled. Looking at a console controller these days with a dozen buttons on it, it's hard to believe that Defender was considered a near-impossible challenge with it's up/down stick and 5 buttons. Even 3 buttons was complicated. In an era when scrolling was new and vector graphics were considered stunningly realistic it's hardly surprising developers could try any idea and be almost assured of reasonable sales success.
Rewarding Gamers: Often these early machines are referred to as 'quarter eaters', as if they were impossibly hard and it was game over after one minute. Sure, games like that did exist (curse you Sinistar, curse you to hell!) but by and large you could get pretty good if you were observant. Watching over someone else's shoulder certainly helped, as did playing 'doubles' with a friend. I learned early on to watch the attract mode, the demonstration of gameplay and points scoring that appeared on screen when a machine was not in use. Everyone had some favourite game they were expert at and could play for 30 minutes or more (way more!) on one credit.
What Changed: Here's one way I believe games changed in later years: time limits. As technology ramped up in the late 80's and gamers demanded better graphics, the games became far more expensive for an arcade operator to buy or lease. So they either charged more or created time limits. Or both. It became common to run out of time in games, no matter how good you were. Another change in the late 80's was a lack of innovation. In 1980-84 there were so many ideas being thrown in the pot by developers that it was a real challenge just to stay sharp on the latest game, because there was always some newer game being installed that had some new way to hook you. Once we started seeing near-clones and franchises (and boy don't we hear that a lot about franchises these days) it was the beginning of the end of innovation. Also when computers and consoles began to become cheap and yet offer a near-arcade experience there was no need to hit the arcades. And of course as we got older that beer, girls and cars thing started taking up more of our time.
I really think we were lucky to have been the right age in that 5-year window. Anyone in their mid 30's can start up a conversation with someone of similar age about arcade games and the enthusiasm bubbles up, and we're 12 again with a pocket full of credits and an afternoon to kill. Sure a lot of it's misty-eyed nostalgia, but through emulation and a little spare time to get good at a few different old games you can see what was so right about these old games.