Why are retro arcade hits so popular?

The latest gadgets and tech toys.
Dec. 17 2003 4:19 PM

Blasts From the Past

What today's game designers can learn from Space Invaders.

Pac-ing them in
Pac-ing them in

The aliens are invading—again.

Taito, the company that created Space Invaders back in 1978, announced that it would re-release its most famous arcade game next year. The first time around, Japanese fans jammed so many coins into the machines that they provoked a currency crisis in the yen. Now Taito figures the demand for Space Invaders, the Patient Zero of our digital-entertainment age, is back. When your local bar uncrates the arcade cabinet, it will be, quite literally, a blast from the past—one with missiles that go "beeyoo, beeyoo."

In the past year, game companies everywhere have been dragging 20-year-old titles out of cryogenic storage. Drop by a RadioShack, and you can pick up an old Atari joystick that plays 10 classic games, or a Namco joystick that plays icons such as Pac-Man and Dig Dug. Meanwhile, Mattel has reproduced exact copies of its plastic handheld "electronic sports games"—so antediluvian that football players are just LED-style blips on a screen (you may have to play it in a dark closet, as kids did in the '70s). Just in time for the holidays, Midway put out Midway Arcade Treasures: 21 old-school games for PlayStation, Xbox, or GameCube. And if you buy the new 3-D game Prince of Persia? You can unlock a special room where you get to play ... the original Prince of Persia, a low-rez computer game from the late '80s.

Why all this passion for ancient bits? You could dismiss this as nostalgia, GenX-ers pining for the simpler pleasures of their Cold War youth. But that doesn't really explain it, because half the people buying these games are teenagers at Urban Outfitters.

No, these Jurassic games are popular for a more powerful reason: They're the canon of video games, and they prove that keeping it simple still works. Chunky, low-fi games like Pac-Man show us why so many of today's more advanced games can be so paradoxically dull.

For the last decade, most game companies have been governed by one obsessive idea: that making games more lifelike—more three-dimensional and hyperreal—will make them more fun. But this hasn't worked. Even the crappiest game today has an elaborate 3-D world you can wander around and marvel at the superb rendering of shadows, the elaborate tattoos on the characters, or the lens flares when you look up at the virtual sun. But after you've finished admiring the scenery, the game itself is often incredibly tedious. You're just running around, solving obtuse puzzles, and listening to wretched pseudoacting by virtual characters.

What's missing? Game-play. What today's game designers have forgotten is that a video game isn't about 3-D rendering. In fact, a video game isn't about "technology" at all. It's a game, and as game theorists such as Eric Zimmerman have argued, a good game is created by crafting a few simple rules that make your goals teasingly difficult to achieve. Basketball, rock-paper-scissors, and Counter-Strike: They're all nothing more than a set of well-crafted rules. Consider basketball, where if you stop running, you have to pass. It's an arbitrary rule, but it's part of what makes basketball challenging. If you could do whatever you wanted, it wouldn't be a game.

Desperate to shove ever more eye candy at gamers, today's video-game companies constantly forget to put any play in their games. On the contrary, game designers spend hours creating "cut sequences," little dramatic segments where the player has to just sit there, helplessly watching a scene unfold, unable to participate in any way. "The designers have all got 'film envy.' They're just trying to emulate what they see in movies. But that doesn't create any play," Zimmerman once told me.

Granted, this isn't a hard-and-fast rule. The truly great game designers—such as Warren Spector, who created the Deus Ex series, or Rockstar Games, the makers of the Grand Theft Auto titles—produce addictive, dendrite-shredding play as well truly gorgeous worlds. High-end graphics don't inherently spoil a game designer. They're more like a potentially dangerous distraction, kind of the way superadvanced CGI so entranced George Lucas that he thought Jar-Jar Binks would be a cool idea.

When I recently played the Midway Arcade Treasures collection, what intrigued me most were the commentary tracks by the games' creators, who moaned and complained about how hard it was to craft a game using those old 1970s microprocessors. The guys who wrote Pac-Man or Dig Dug couldn't hide behind cutting-edge graphics of exit wounds, so they actually had to focus on making the thing fun. No wonder everyone's turning back to retro hits like Space Invaders.

"Compared to [today], we were working with bubble gum and rubber bands and hot glue," complains John Newcomer, who created Joust, easily one of the oddest games in recorded history. (As you may recall, it involved knights with lances mounted on flying ostriches.) "The memory of the game was 96K, which was just nothing. ... So the real challenge in designing games back then was, how do you do something interesting with some nice animation and how do you do it such a small package?"

But those limitations forced the designers to be more innovative. Spin through that Midway disk and you remember just how hallucinogenically inspired that era was, cranking out demented titles like Paperboy or Marble Madness or Root Beer Tapper. And, OK, maybe Root Beer Tapper isn't the quite the must-play that it seemed like back in 1984, but least the designers were stretching for new ideas. Video games turn out to be just like sonnets and pop songs. Often it's restrictions, not freedoms, that inspire creativity.

Clive Thompson is a longtime contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired. He is the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better.