Sunday, February 27, 2011


Retro Fever... IN MY PANTS!!!

Ah, the 80s. That's when games were games, man. They had entire buildings just for people to walk in and play video games! If you wanted to play video games at home, you could buy a box that hooked up to your TV and display maybe one or two sprites at the same time. If you wanted a video game in your pocket, you could get this thin thing the size of a credit card that had two buttons, played one game, and doubled as a digital clock.

This is a great time to love retro games. Our portable entertainment computers are sophisticated enough to hold literally the entire libraries of companies who made these games back in the 80s. And the fact that retro compilations don't require as much of an investment as a brand new game -- not to mention the fact that they're at a disadvantage in today's market when they're put side by side with much cooler-looking games -- you can pick up a whole lot of really good games for pretty damned cheap.

So here's a look at some of my favorite portable retro sets, with a closer look at the individual games that make them worth picking up.

Atari's Greatest Hits Volume 1

It's amazing the lasting appeal the Atari 2600 has, considering it was designed to play Pong, Combat, and not much else. Sure, Atari came out with some better consoles -- the 5200, the 7800 -- but the 2600 is the one that seems to stick with people. If you say, "I had an Atari", this is the one that comes to mind.

Atari's Greatest Hits Volume 1 has forty Atari 2600 games, from the big name arcade classics like Missile Command and Centipede to the forgettable shovelware like Slot Machine and Fun With Numbers. The emulation is perfect, and all of the console switches are right on the touch screen, to use at any time. They even went so far as to implement a hotseat multiplayer, so that you can pass a single DS back and forth to play any two-player game where the players took turns.

Personally, the only Atari game on the 2600 that I really care about is Adventure. Sure, it's nice to have 3D Tic Tac Toe, Flag Capture, and so forth, but why settle for anything less than the magic of an adventure game that's different every single time you play it? Even if you play Mode 2, where everything always starts in the same place, that damned bat is sure to shuffle things around enough to keep any of your plans from going smoothly. And Mode 3? Where you don't know what's going to be around the next turn, where the magic sword is, or when a dragon is going to ambush you out of nowhere? That's exciting. Adventure is worth the cost of the package all by itself.

There are also 10 arcade games, including my very favorite of all: Pong. Yeah, laugh if you want, but this is still an awesome game of skill. But don't think you can get away with making me play with a D-pad; the true joy of Pong is the precision you get from playing with the original dial controller. The DS version lacks this, but they make up for it by giving you a slider control on the touch screen. If you're a paddle fan, this is as good as it gets.

Activision Anthology

Activision goes down as being the first third party developer in history. And boy did they have to fight for it! It's kind of funny, in this age where Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft fall all over themselves to woo third party support, to think that Activision had to go to court against Atari for the right to make 2600 games.

And their games rocked.

The GBA version of Activision Anthology may run a little slower, and changes may have been made to allow for the different resolution, but damn do a lot of these games still hold up. Enduro is a marathon racing game where you drive day and night through all sorts of road and visibility conditions to try and pass a quota of cars in a short span of time. Pressure Cooker challenges you to catch burger toppings as they fly across the screen to fill customer orders. Pitfall and Pitfall II are engaging treasure-hunting platformers. And Space Shuttle: A Journey Into Space is a fully-functional space shuttle flight simulator.

On a system with 128 bytes of memory.

Stick Greatest Hits and Anthology in the opposite ends of your DS Lite, and you've created the Voltron of handheld Atari gaming.

Pac Man Collection

Pac Man was the game of the day. The name was synonymous with video games. Everyone played it, and every company imitated it. It's basically the quintessential video game. Run through a funky glowing maze, collect all the dots, avoid the brightly-colored monsters, and grab the special items to get temporary super powers. Namco tried over and over to carry Pac Man's fame into new territories, but they never really surpassed the popularity and appeal of the original.

Pac Man Collection on GBA is a collection of three different versions of Pac Man and also a Tetris-like game called Pac Attack. But the highlights of the package are the original Pac Man (playable in fullscreen or scrolling modes) and its arcade successor, Pac Mania. The 3D isometric view and the ability to jump over ghosts, while adhering to the basic gameplay of the original, makes Pac Mania one of the most memorable games from my childhood.

Dragon's Lair

Not really part of a portable collection, but Dragon's Lair gets an honorable mention in the list, because I just love it to pieces. The DSiWare version recreates the arcade experience like no version before it by offering a complete attract mode, a HUD for your score on the second screen, and an "Arcade Mode" that eliminates several seconds of video for complete authenticity. ("Home Mode" lets you see the complete video and also includes the opening Drawbridge scene.) It's really like having the arcade machine in your pocket.

Game & Watch

I've already said my piece about the Game & Watch experience as a whole and my favorite games in particular. But in addition to the Game & Watch Gallery series, you can now download several titles as DSiWare. The games look great with the DSi's sharper resolution. A feature has been included that lets you start from any score that you had previously earned -- no more long, tedious waiting for the challenge to kick in. And as a cute touch, all of the games feature a "watch" mode so you can turn your DSi into a clock. At only 200 points apiece and taking up very little memory, it's awfully tempting just to download them all.

Intellivision Lives!

The Intellivision folks have been courting the DS practically since it first came on the market. With a second, touch-sensitive screen, it seemed like it was custom-made to emulate the ridiculously complicated, overlay-enabled control scheme of the Intellivision. And yet, it was a real struggle to make this game happen. Publishers turned them down. Nintendo refused to distribute it as DSiWare. So when this collection finally became a real thing that you can put in your DS, it felt like a monumental victory for the underdogs.

It's too bad the games are crap.

Even overlooking the bugs left in some of these games -- Minotaur doesn't display inventory items correctly, Space Spartans has issues with some of the voice prompts -- they just aren't a lot of fun. It's often really difficult to figure out how you're supposed to play these games. There are too many buttons, and the instructions don't do a good enough job of explaining what's going on. It doesn't help that so many games in the collection are just electronic recreations of sports and tabletop games. And the games that are interesting and decipherable -- Astrosmash, Shark! Shark!, Thunder Castle -- just feel really slow-paced. They drag on and on, and wear out their welcome long before you lose.

I guess I appreciate this one more for the fact that it managed to exist than as something to put in my DS and play with.

Classic NES Series

Okay, so this isn't really a compilation so much as a series of reprints, and at $20 apiece, this was the most expensive way to get your nostalgia fix. Maybe the biggest appeal was to collectors who wanted something to waste their money on. On the other hand, isn't Super Mario Brothers worth it? Isn't The Legend of Zelda worth it? And isn't it just a little bit cool to get a GBA version of the original game box and a reprint of the original manual? Sure, the resolution fudging left a bit to be desired, but there's still something magical about being able to turn on a GBA (that looks like an NES, incidentally), stomp that first goomba, and nab that first Super Mushroom.

Retro Game Challenge

Okay, so none of these games were actually made in the 80s. But this game emulates something much more potently nostalgic than any of the other sets in this list ever could -- my childhood. Playing a game while a friend watches on and reacts, looking up cheat codes and reading about amazing upcoming games, watching as technology progresses from Space Invaders to Dragon Quest -- this is the whole experience of growing up gaming in the 80s, distilled into a single DS card. And that's what retro is all about.


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