Classic Video Game Emulation

C3P0 UnderoosI recently came to the realization that my best friend in Fredericksburg is my 12 year-old neighbor. I just can’t avoid the fact that I have never really progressed beyond the sixth grade; I am still so dearly enthralled by the product-inspired wonder of my youth. Whether it be Star Wars (and this encompasses everything from the movies to figurines to stickers to trading cards to comic books to UnderRoos), Raiders of the Lost Ark, Clash of the Titans, Pac-Man, our first family VHS player, or the Atari 2600, culture from the late 70s and early 80s is the wellspring of my strong penchant for nostalgia. My 12 year-old neighbor feels the brunt of my unfortunate condition.

Our relationship began benignly enough talking about Lego Star Wars sets, the associated video games, and the current state of Star Wars culture more generally. When I found out he hadn’t seen the real Star Wars movies (namely episodes IV, V, and VI 1/2) I lent him my DVDs and asked him to think about where our shared myth system began. I haven’t been able to convince him of my opinions on the far superior quality of the original trilogy, but I am working on it.

Image of Pac-Man cartridge for Atari 2600More recently, we’ve been focusing on video games. He is enjoying [[Battle Front II] at the moment, and the thought occurred to me that he is experiencing modern video games devoid of their beautifully vectorized history. He has no real sense of the Old Gold games, and that’s a crying shame. So while I didn’t walk 5 miles to school in the snow, I did experience the colossal disappointment that was the Atari 2600 version of Pac-Man first hand, and I thought he might need to understand my pain and experience a bit more intimately. So, how do I go about this? What method should a video game sensei take?

Well, in the age of educational technologies and the beauty of the internets, there is really only one way to emulate the experience…that’s right, you guessed it: to actually play those games and experience their dislocating magic. There are many ways to do this, and luckily I have access to just about all the original consoles and games I am talking about here so I don’t have to worry about all the moral, ethical, and copyright ramifications that bog down those with fewer resources. The fact that we have to agonize over “stealing” the culture” they” (who the hell is ‘they’?) used to shape us with, the very culture we made relevant bac —it’s an outrage! So, in sympathy (or is it solidarity?), I’ll share below some of the resources available for getting your hands on a few select emulators that are freely available online. And, if you use them in the spirit of enlightening your 12 year old neighbor with an impressionistic history of video games, you may even be able to claim educational fair use 🙂


GalagaIt all really starts with classic Co-op Arcade gems, games like Pac-Man, Galaga, Ms. Pac-Man, Tempest, Pole Position, Donkey Kong, Dig Dug, Asteroids, Gyruss, Ghosts and Goblins, Battlezone, Asteroids, Punch-Out!, Star Wars, Rampage, Q*Bert , Galaxian, Joust and on and on. In fact, two of the first things I did when I first got on the internet in 1994 was search out all resources on the classic 60s show The Prisoner along with any and all information on the history of classic video games. A bit later, my friend and co-worker at UCLA’s Audio Visual Services, John Spellman, discovered MAME, and it has been an on-going love affair ever since.

Image of D&D moduleThe stand-up arcade games are a treasure trove of memories. Our local comic shop “The Incredible Pulp” had Galaxian and Joust in the back of the store, and my friends and I would spend hours playing those games in a really amazing setting surrounded by comics, beautifully painted D&D lead figurines, the beautifully illustrated AD&D handbooks and modules, along with countless other artifacts that make up some of the most vibrantly imaginative and obscure objects of my adolescent desire. And there was the Grand Bald Pizzeria that had some pretty good pizza (even by NY standards) and a new series of arcade games constantly streaming in, everything from Track & Field, to Ghosts and Goblins to World Karate Champion to the grand poobah of them all Pac-Man (and still my all-time favorite video game bar none). Finally, their was the Baldwin Pool Hall, a smoke-filled billiards parlor that took a corner of its huge floor plan and put in an arcade, with everything from Make Trax to Pole Position to the Star Wars vector game, Tempest, Battlezone, Defender, Ms. Pac-Man, Galaga, Popeye, Pooyan, and a few more I can’t remember because I didn’t play them.

Image of Grand Avenue, BaldiwnIn fact, these stand-up coin-op games are so intricately linked with the small stores of the community I grew up within. And while I had Atari 2600 when I played most of these games, the experience of going up the block with friends to various stores to play these games was different. It often led to other connections and discoveries in the community, whether making new friends, getting in the occasional fight, or having a space as a ten or twelve-year old that was not entirely dominated and dictated by one’s parents. having these video games in these various stores allowed you to hang out regardless if you had bought anything (well before box stores like Borders made this a “unique experience” and charged you accordingly for it). You were in many ways a part of the world you played in, and I knew the proprietors of each of these stores quite well. I was a kid in the neighbor and that meant something to me, my friends and I were people they knew and the folks behind the counter were people we also knew quite well, joked about, and imagined lives for them beyond their role as shopkeeper.

I wasn’t a god damn number they were ordered to sell a rewards card to; I don’t want your stinking rewards card, I want to talk to a human being! Sorry for that…but arcade games were an integral part of the built environment of my growing years and they framed my person in so many ways beyond the actual game itself. it is complex series of relations that often get discounted when you just look at the game, or isolate that game within one family’s living room.

For some more information on the Golden Age of Video Arcade Games check out this great Wikipedia article.

So, in short 🙂 , if you are looking for the Classic Coin-Op Arcade games for your computer then MAME (for Windows) and MacMame (for the Mac) are one, precarious way at it. Precarious because when it comes to getting the actual ROMS for each of the games, you’re on your own because they’re still under copyright and it is illegal to distribute them. This doesn’t mean they aren’t easy to obtain. In fact, a quick Google search will do the trick, but you still have to weigh the onus of ownership and how our culture is being imprisoned by draconian copyright laws that are incongruous with the digital flow of information and resources.

ATARI 2600:

Without question the Atari 2600 home game console will forever be a part of some of my most splendid memories of consumer culture. The idea of going to Sears or Playland to buy a video game cartridge remains one of the most vividly expectant moments of possibility in my paltry life. The history of Atari 2600 is in many ways a fundamental history of media in the 80s that is as important as the VHS home recorder or the death of the single-screen movie theater. I didn’t know this at the time, but as of 1981 there was as many as eight million Atari 2600 systems sold, at a $100 some-odd bucks a pop that’s $700 million dollars. Moreover, the Pac-Man cartridge alone sold 7 million copies, making it the best selling 2600 cartridge of all time, not to mention one of the greatest disappointments for any console since. Check out this list of ten Atari 2600 cartridges that sold over a million copies. It seems kind of crazy now, but when you do the math from just the two figures above, Atari in the early 80s was probably a billion dollar company, insane! And seems like the dividends won’t ever stop coming in. Interestingly enough, according the the Pac-Man Atari 2600 Wikipedia article, the video game crash of 1983 is linked to such disappointments like Pac-Man and E.T., in fact despite selling seven million copies of Pac-Man and 1.5 million of E.T., Atari seems to have lost on both:

Although Atari sold seven million units (of Pac-Man), out of a 2600 user base of ten million, twelve million cartridges were manufactured, under the expectation that the game would re-stimulate sales of the console. When this did not happen, Atari had to write off the five million unsold copies, incurring large losses.

The same held true for E.T a year later, four million copes were manufactured, but only 1.5 million sold. The millions of unsold cartridges have become part of an Atari landfill legend that gets mentioned in the E.T. wikipedia article (so fun!):

In September 1983, the Alamogordo Daily News of Alamogordo, New Mexico, reported in a series of articles that between ten and twenty[18] semi-trailer truckloads of Atari boxes, cartridges, and systems from an Atari storehouse in El Paso, Texas were crushed and buried at the landfill within the city. It was Atari’s first dealings with the landfill, which was chosen because no scavenging was allowed and its garbage was crushed and buried nightly. Atari officials and others gave differing reports of what was buried,[19][20][21][22] but it is widely speculated that most of Atari’s millions of unsold copies of E.T. ultimately ended up in this landfill, crushed and encased in cement.[23]

Image of Haunted HouseSo much of this waste had to do with Atari’s move to capitalize on a video game or film’s popularity, which meant entirely disregarding both the design and play of their games. Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of the few games in this circumstance that most agreed was relatively unique and forward looking with the use of more than one controller for action/adventure narrative game play. Raiders of the Lost Ark for the Atari 2600 still remains one of my personal favorites, along with Popeye (a beautiful adaptation from the original Coin-op), Kaboom!, Pitfall!, Warlords, Asteroids, Chopper Command, Superman, Haunted House, Adventure, Night Driver, Combat, and Space Invaders. For a full list of all Atari 2600 games go here.

And while the Atari 2600 games occupy a large part of my imagination from back-in-the-day, they were just about all inferior to the arcade coin-ops save a select few (Pitfall! being one of them). Nonetheless, the limitations of this gaming systems offers a fascinating space for disorientating a contemporary game fan. I plan on having my neighbor play the 1979 Atari 2600 game Superman, which may be one of the most de-familiarizing and confusing games for a kid who is used to a more seamless and congruous narrative game play. Not only are the sound effects extremely grating, but the game play is terribly disorientating. Try mapping space in this game, it ain’t easy (in many ways these early games are similar to the early 1900s films that film historian Thom Gunning talks about as experimental and alternative spaces that would later be modified and codified into more dominant film narratives, most famously exemplified by D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation).

One more thing, I recently discovered a whole series of adult-themed games for the Atari 2600. A whole underground I never knew about 🙂

So, all this nonsense to say that there are a number of Atari 2600 emulators (see the list at Atari Age here). I have played with the Z26, which works with both Windows and Linux, and it gets the job done. Stella is an emulator for Windows and the Mac that I haven’t played with, but plan on trying out sometime soon. Same drill with the ROMS for the Atari 2600, they are available, but the questions remain.


ConanHallOfVolta_ingameI have far less experience or knowledge of Commodore 64, and much of my experience with this system comes from friends who actually had one. I got one second-hand almost a decade after it was popular, and it is quite fun, but I wasn’t really into computers in the 80s as much as I was into video games, and a full-blown computer seemed like a whole lot of overhead for what I wanted to do. That said, I wasn’t oblivious to the classic games like Pirates!, Boulder Dash, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Conan: Hall of Volta, Lode Runner, and Choplifter. I still have a lot to learn about this platform, and the list of games is actually two Wikipedia articles, which suggests just how many there are (it’s kind of overwhelming!).

The emulator available for the C64 is called VICE, and the ROMS once again are plentiful. In fact, the amount of non-copyrighted material for the C64 will probably be far more plentiful than the Atari or classic Coin-Op emulators which are almost entirely proprietary.

OK, that’s it, I’m officially shot. This post is all over the pace and I could still talk about the first Nintendo system and how games like Mario Bros. and Blades of Steel were amazing to me, but I don’t have it in me at this point. Just more fodder for the next nostalgia outburst.

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