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Published: Sunday, 12/11/2005

Yesterday's titles are finding a whole new cadre of enthusiastic fans today

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

In the back of the Target on Monroe Street stands the dream of anyone who ever spent an inordinate amount of the early 1980s in dingy video gaming arcades, pumping rolls of quarters into machines for hours on end:

An affordable stand-up.

In other words, one of those old-school arcade games, which often cost thousands of dollars, now as expensive as an Xbox 360 loaded with not-exactly-state-of-the-art games, but two-decade-old arcade titles like Defender and Joust and Sinistar.

True coin-op junkies, however, wouldn t want it any other way.

The Midway Stand-Up Arcade ($499), sold exclusively through Target (and largely sold out in many locations, including the company s Web site), is just the latest example of the strangest trend in gaming:

Retro gaming.

Or call it classic gaming.

In the age of Xbox 360 and a Madden NFL 2006 so detailed you can count individual snowflakes falling on Lambeau Field, one of the most popular segments of the video game industry (and fastest-growing areas of the toy industry, in general) are those old Atari time-wasters, dusty Nintendo characters, and ancient titles like Asteroids, Pac-Man, Galaga, and, yes, Pong.

The International Development Group, a consulting firm out of San Francisco, estimates that retro and vintage gaming will constitute roughly $500 million of the industry s $28.5 billion annual take.

I had a guy tell me that he brought the Atari Flashback 2 home for his kids, said Curt Vendel, who developed the retro console for Atari. He thinks if they re interested at all, it ll be some game with tanks, and they re playing Pong for hours.

The joy of simplicity

Good old Pong.

Stark white lines for paddles. A stark white square ball. A black background. A couple of blocky numbers to keep score. A blip and a blap for sound. Popular again, and 33 years old.

A few years ago, Josh Thomas, 24, a graduate physics student at the University of Toledo, was digging through a flea market and came across an original 1980s Nintendo gaming console. He became hooked on the old unit, which led to his finding an old Sega Genesis, which led to the UT Society of Physics Students hosting Retro Gaming Night several times a semester.

This is the Halo generation, Vendel said, but I think a lot of them are learning that a game should be easy to learn and hard to master and not vice versa.

The history of gaming has not been like the history of other technological wonders: the push forward is not toward simplicity and ease of use, but toward depth and complexity and learning skills. For instance, before you take a spin around Madden NFL 2006, on Xbox or PlayStation2, there are training camps, trading players, weighing strengths and weaknesses all backed by screens and screens of actual NFL statistics.

Toledoan Luke Sutter, 27, collects vintage gaming consoles and old games, and he said the appeal is partly to stay with the stuff you grew up with, but also it s the charm of just sitting down and not having to spend 12 hours in a game or learn a bunch of fighting combinations before you feel comfortable.

At the peak of the popularity of arcades, the charm was in the novel and characters with names like Frogger and Q*Bert. When arcades tanked in the mid 1980s, and the cute iconic simplicity of Donkey Kong was replaced with Street Fighter and the brutal, realistic blood of Mortal Kombat, a generation left gaming in the hands of young men and teenage boys.

You hear people say, That s an old movie, but you never hear them say, That s an old movie, it shouldn t be watched anymore said Blake Lewin, vice president of New Product Development and Innovation for Turner Broadcasting. The same is true of great old games. We want to keep them alive. I ve often said, and I m not the only one to say it, if movies were the art of the 20th century, gaming will become the art of the 21st.

Last month Lewin and Turner launched GameTap with a $50 million marketing push. The idea behind GameTap is an online archive, accessible through broadband, of dozens of vintage and fairly recent games, from Space Invaders to the first Tomb Raider.(For a $15-a-month subscription fee.)

Even Microsoft s Xbox 360 gives a nod to hardcore casual gamers with Xbox Live Arcade, a function accessible through the new console that allows you to download old titles like Smash TV basically, everything new is looking old again.

Forward and back

Musicians like Beck and Lil Flip have worked video game sounds into recent songs. It s not uncommon to hear a cell phone playing the jaunty, Madeline-like music of Mrs. Pac-Man. And in Ann Arbor, at Wizzywig, a store specializing in Japanese anime, owner Kathie Borders said she moved the plush Legend of Zelda characters and business-card holders shaped like Nintendo controllers closer to the door because they re inviting to customers who get scared off by anime.

Retro games have also become the choice of the budget conscious. For $29.99, the Atari Flashback 2 contains 40 of the original games for the Atari 2600 with original controllers, even the fake wood-grain from the vintage 2600 console.

It s called a plug-and-play. You plug it into the audio-video jacks on your television. You play. It s also the most elaborate plug-and-play. Others, containing fewer games, are simply a joystick with a computer chip that contains the vintage games. (JAKKS Pacific, the most hottest manufacturer of plug-and-plays, has sold millions in the past few holiday seasons.)

And if you ve ever wondered whether video games were art, the endless wave of compilation discs of old games Namco Museum 50th Anniversary Arcade Collection ($19.98), Taito Legends ($19.98) make a compelling argument. Like greatest hits from old musicians, the fact we want to play and collect old games at all suggests they re more than disposable technology. The best of these compilations suggest that game makers, like studios, have distinct styles and voices.

You know, it s not just nostalgia, said Aaron Auzins, 24, the manager of 2-Play, a video game store in Bowling Green.

Since the first Sony PlayStation, I think people have become fixated on what a system can do, how far it can be pushed. Before that, programmers had to rely on creativity. They couldn t hide a terrible game behind graphics. The games had to be fun. That s why I play the old titles more than new ones. It might be a triangle shooting at another triangle, but designers were so committed to the game play, if it was fun then, then it is probably fun now.



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