Yesterday's games Arcade favorites are enjoying revival on Internet and beyond


There was a time when 6-foot-tall video arcade games ruled the Earth.

When Pac-Man was on the radio, best-seller lists, and blue jeans. When Americans pumped 20 billion quarters - more than they spent on movies and casinos combined - into arcade games for a quick digital fix.

Decades later, these electronic dinosaurs are vanishing, run out of shopping malls and 7-Elevens by personal computers and home entertainment systems. But the games that once entranced us are flickering back to life, revived by the same nostalgic forces that gave birth to "Leave It To Beaver" marathons and classic-rock radio.

Hasbro Interactive, which scored a hit last year with a remake of the hop-and-splat classic Frogger, is launching a remake of Centipede. Activision is bringing back the 1979 arcade classic Asteroids.

The games, expected to hit stores this month, will sport stereo sound and spiffed-up 3-D action - a vast improvement over the the bleepity-bleeps and cave-drawing graphics of the originals. Next year, game companies plan to make over more arcade classics, including Missile Command, Space Invaders, and even the black-and-white granddaddy of them all, Pong.

"These kinds of games simply just hit a nerve," says Eric Johnson, senior vice president of marketing at Activision in Santa Monica, Calif. "There's something comforting and familiar about them. It's like, why do you think a lot of the popular radio stations are having '70s nights?"

Meanwhile, small groups of purists around the globe are bringing these 20-year-old, coin-operated games back to life in their original form, but using modern media - home computers and the Internet. To these preservationists, spiffing up the crude graphics of a vintage game is as blasphemous as colorizing the movie "Casablanca."

"Let's face it - it's a chance to preserve history," says Pittsburgh engineer Mike Balfour. "These games are so scarce that any time one of them dies, it brings them closer to extinction."

The digital archaeologists aren't just after hits like Centipede or Frogger. They're also looking for the duds that disappeared into arcade history, losers such as Ozma Wars, Mega Attack and Money Money. The craftsmen restore them byte for byte, to the delight of millions of one-time vidkids who flock to Web sites devoted to the games.

Their efforts have also provoked the wrath of game publishers such as Nintendo, who retain copyrights to the titles. But the digital excavation continues.

"Personally, my youth is very much tied to those games," says Mirko Buffoni, a 26-year-old programmer in Bergamo, Italy. "Saving them is saving my youth."

Buffoni and several dozen collaborators are working on a project called the Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator, or MAME. These emulators are programs that allow modern computers to mimic the pea-sized silicon brains of early video games.

But emulators are useless by themselves. To re-create an arcade hit like Donkey Kong, for example, the programmers need the circuit boards from the actual arcade game. Locked inside the ROM chips on these boards is the programming itself.

Finding these ROM chips isn't always easy. Restorers scour flea markets, thrift stores, and garage sales, looking for original arcade games. Even so, they can learn only so much from the integrated circuits. To make sound and graphics historically accurate, they also rely on the memories of those who played the games. For obscure titles, those memories are tough to come by.

"It's really guesswork," says Balfour. "It's like working on a jigsaw puzzle which might have the wrong number of pieces and an unrecognizable picture. But that's part of the fun."

The finished product isn't a knockoff - it's the original game, complete with "Insert Coin" prompts and the original software bugs. So far, MAME programmers have converted 900 classic coin-op games, mostly mostly from the Golden Age - the late 1970s and early 1980s. They figure they have 2,100 arcade games left.

Old arcade games aren't the only prehistoric playthings nostalgic techies are trying to resurrect.

Brian Silverman, a 41-year-old visiting scientist at the MIT Media Lab, and two colleagues recently re-created the very first video game ever: Space War. The game, written in 1962 by MIT students, pitted two space ships armed with rockets against one another against a backdrop of winking electronic stars.

It ran on a Digital PDP-1 minicomputer, a $120,000 monster the size of three refrigerators that was, perhaps, the world's most expensive video game.

"I devoted more of my undergraduate career to that game than I should really admit," says Silverman, who played in the early 1970s.

As a tribute, Silverman and two friends wrote an emulator for the PDP-1 last year, tracked down one of Space War's authors for the game's source code, and turned it into a free Java game on the Web.

"The experience that I had the very first time I saw it run again was borderline mystical. It's like being able to go to a car museum and drive the cars," Silverman says.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.