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Nostalgia and greatness meet at California Extreme

Arcade expo preserves a golden era's precious artifacts

The Hyatt Regency's ballroom in Santa Clara is normally reserved for weddings, business conventions and awards ceremonies. But this weekend the cavernous hall hosted California Extreme, a portal through time to a lost era when shooting things on screens was an entirely fresh notion.

More than 600 arcade games and pinball machines filled the great room, creating vast corridors of bleeping, boinging, retro fun. They were attended by thousands of people — including many middle-aged men — seeking access to an arcadian epoch when good times came by the quarter and Billy Idol was cool.

I am one of those middle-aged men. I brought my kids to the show and we played games for half a day. I was transported, charmed, nostalged to my starry eyeballs. My kids were faintly bewildered.

"These games seem so pointless," explained my 10-year-old, working his way through Williams' 1982 sideways scrolling shooter Moon Patrol. "You get killed as soon as you start."

To children today, these games probably seem as archaic as Ragtime or Rawhide seem to me. I saw a few wild-eyed dads at the show, enthusing about this game or that. Their children looked dutiful, at best. Kids have a natural resistance to the notion that the previous generation's younger days were better than theirs.

It reminded me of my parents' generation and their insistence that the musicians of their period were vastly more talented than those who I listened to. Those old rockers and hippies might well have had a point, but I was never convinced by their too obviously self-aggrandizing justifications.

Walking about the show, I tried to imagine how the arcade machines themselves look to a 12-year old who owns an iPhone and plays games on it every day. I venerate these huge boxes with their ancient typefaces and gaudy art. But as museum pieces, they lack visual finesse (the same is not true about pinball machines, but here we are talking arcade machines.)

Literally millions of iPhone games are infinitely worse than the shoddiest arcade game at Extreme.

The games themselves are, by definition, rudimentary. They lack the polish of later generations, the build-in accumulation of decades worth of design and learning. In truth, there are literally millions of iPhone games that are infinitely worse than the shoddiest arcade game on show at Extreme, but there are also many games that are slicker, prettier, cleaving more closely to the observed desires of players.

Today's games are the product of millions of hours of iteration, built upon many of these originals. It would be strange if they had not found some avenues to improvement. I may judge the old games within the context of their time, but I cannot force my children to do the same. To them, they are the games that old people once played, when they had no other choice.

Playing them again, it's difficult to avoid the suspicion that part of their allure rests in powerful connections to the past, tough tendrils that reach deep into the youthful days of the first video game generation.

I played Scramble for a while, a game I've probably not played in 30 years. It took me back to when I was a child.

1981 was a time when Scramble was at the the edge of modern entertainment, a glamorous escape from bad TV and tedious, parent-mandated activities.

Scramble is a sideways scrolling shooter in which the player can both bomb and shoot targets, some of which are rooted to a rocky surface. It's predictable, repetitive and a bit slow. Sure, there was something in its gaudy purples and crimsons that I could still enjoy. But how much I might have enjoyed it — divorced entirely from my memories of bygone days — is difficult to say.

For my kids, this entire spectrum of games represented a giant dollop of porridge called "the past," a faintly incomprehensible blob of history. They can see how Ghostbusters was a thing that might understandably inspire a pinball table. But what do they make of a game based on The Six Million Dollar Man, and why would they care? I can make cultural judgments about these things. But they have enough on their plate, living in 2016.

I stared for a long time at a pinball machine based on Maverick: The Movie until I concluded that it was an artifact carrying absolutely zero discernible meaning. Was it mocking us or mocking itself, or neither?

Perhaps its function is to remind us that there were a lot of stupid things in the world back then, dismal cash-ins that are now celebrated for their naffness.

Certainly, there were many absolutely bad games at California Extreme, pisspoor knock-offs of more successful peers. And yet somebody loves those games. The machines at this convention are all provided by collectors, who go to the trouble of carting them up and down California, just so a bunch of strangers can share in their mysterious attractions.

This is something to admire. Extreme isn't just about reliving the past, or even celebrating the past. It's about preserving something valuable.

The point of the past

The 1980s exist today to provide contrast to our own age. We use it to make a point about how terrible or how great things are today, whether we're talking about politicians, fashions or video games.

It's worth recalling that arcade games existed in the 1980s for the people who lived there, people who had no interest in how those games might look to future generations. They were were simply there to be played.

Some of those things were great and they are still great. This weekend, I played Defender, Frogger, Q-Bert, Smash TV, Donkey Kong, Paperboy, Tron, Street Fighter, Joust, Centipede, Pac-Man and Dig Dug. As I played them, I remembered how exciting those games were when they first arrived, how much they represented newness, the future.

The designers who made those games were working with an entirely different set of tools and expectations from the people who make games today. In those days, an absolutely new game idea was something that happened and was manifested on an almost monthly basis. When was the last time you could really say such a thing?

Game designers were tasked with getting cash-strapped kids to part with their quarters. It was just as challenging as designing to virality and microtransactions is today. Some of those designers did a terrific job. They were wildly innovative.

The games I just mentioned aren't just part of a canon. They inspire and heavily influence today's mobile and console games. The classics are still being recycled, just with flashier graphics and different business models. They will continue to inspire game-makers and other artists in the future.

Extreme's natural reliance on nostalgia is understandable. Mine is not the only generation that has ever yearned for simpler times. But the time will come when these machines no longer host warm and fuzzy feelings about yesteryear, when they are seen as serious artifacts from an extremely important period in the culture life of the world.

Playing these games isn't just some exercise in sad old man nostalgia. It's also a reminder that the golden age of game design existed, and we are fortunate to be able to sample it all over again. California Extreme is 20 years old this year. Long may it continue.

By the end of our day at California Extreme, my kids were enjoying themselves with these "oldey timey" games. One day, perhaps, they will show their kids these same machines, and they will inspire a wonder that can only come from accumulated time and distance, free from the taint of nostalgia.

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