By PJ Standlee
Gamers seeking digital camaraderie and elbow-rubbing competition have a place to call their own. Located at the historical McCullough-Price House opposite the southwest corner of Chandler Fashion Mall, the "ZAP! Vintage Video Games" exhibition welcomes gamers of all ages to come in and pick up the joysticks of challenge and test their skills on some of the oldest and most beguiling games ever created.
Guests can try out games from the archaic Atari 2600 game console on a vintage 1980s TV or practice their rapid-fire fingers on arcade classics such as Centipede. If classic games aren’t your thing, current generation home consoles such as the X-Box 360 are also available to play — all for free from June 14 to September 6.
Best of all, players with more ambition may also compete head-to-head at the ZAP! Vintage Game Tournament, which will be held on June 19 from 2 to 5 p.m. for youths; then on June 20 from 1 to 4 p.m. for teens; and finally on June 21 from 3 to 6 p.m. for adults.
Admission to the tournament is also free but with a limited number of spots, so first come, first served. Players will have a five-minute warm-up round and then head off to compete using the Atari Flashback 2 system, which will use an undisclosed range of Atari games. After banging on the controllers for two and a half hours, the top three players will advance to a championship round. Prizes and honors are up for grabs to the vintage gaming king.
If playing tournaments isn’t your style, then visitors are welcome to casually play games and meet other gamers while perusing the exhibition.
During its opening day, the exhibit attracted families, causal gamers and even student game designers from the University of Advancing Technology located in Tempe.
Jean Reynolds, public history coordinator for the MCullough Price House, said the purpose of "ZAP!" is to bring different generations of players together.
“We wanted parents and kids to come together and create a dialogue about the past, and we’re doing this through games,” says Reynolds.
Since video games have evolved into full-blown multi-player universes, now seems like a great time to reflect back on their two-dimensional ancestors.
Self-described gamers Jim Pfleger and Robin Tennenbaum of Phoenix said that the vintage games offer one thing that most new games don’t have: game play.
“There was an achievable goal,” Tennenbaum said about older games. “As much as I enjoy depth to a game, sometimes it’s like watching a movie.”
While new games have incredible stories that seem to last forever, she explained, they lack the problem solving and goal accomplishment qualities of their predecessors.
“There is also a social aspect that the new games don’t have,” added Pfleger. “Playing online isn’t the same as watching people come up and pour quarters into a game you're playing because you keep kicking their ass.”
Tennenbaum and Pfleger agreed that a turning point in arcade history happened when Dragon’s Lair arrived on the scene. The game featured animated sequences with graphics beyond anything seen before but sacrificed pulse-pounding action for a "choose the right direction" style of game play. Then the arcade games really began to die away when fighting games such as Mortal Combat and Street Fighter moved onto home consoles.
Even though the arcade game can’t compete with console or even computer-based games, most do agree that the camaraderie and game play is something players do miss in modern, high-tech games.
Others such as Daniel Galayda of Mesa, who came with his friend Bianna Ine, said he appreciates the simplicity of older games but quickly gets irritated with the bewildering objectives of some of the older games.
“What am I supposed to be doing here?” Galayda said as he continually smashed concrete blocks with a crane to no apparent effect.
His friend Ine felt differently. “I really enjoy the older games,” Ine said. “I can’t play games with more than two buttons.”
For Erin Hugus of Chandler, whose favorite arcade game was the classic “Asteroids,” bringing her family to "ZAP!" was a chance for her family to learn about each other.
“I felt like my family didn’t have an appreciation for older games, so when I saw this advertised in the paper, I thought they should see some of the older games,” Hugus said.
Jeff Hugus also concluded that the newer games just don’t have the same game play that the older games had.
“They had to draw in a player and keep their attention for three turns,” Jeff said. “And there were a lot more different genres. Today, some games all seem the same.”
Outside the arcade room, another party was going on. The Game Truck, a sponsor of the "ZAP!" exhibition, had set up shop just outside the McCullough-Price House allowing gamers to try out Guitar Hero, Rock Band, Lego Indiana Jones and many of the casual gaming titles on the Nintendo Wii system.
Jason Tang, who was practicing his back swing on the Wii’s tennis game, said the older arcade games just can’t compare.
“Modern games already do everything that the older arcade games did,” Tang said.
Just a few rooms down from the "ZAP!" exhibition room, some students from the University of Advancing Technology had set up shop to demonstrate the technology and skills required to make today's advanced computer and console games.
Nate Bealor, a career service coordinator at UAT, said one of the most important skills that a game designer must learn is team work.
“In the past the technology could be handled by one or two people,” Bealor said. “But now you need one person to do the production, another to do the art and another to do the design. Games have become so complex that they require a lot of cross-disciplinary skills. And while one person in the past could do the coding and art, that’s become too difficult now.”
UAT student Roland Ryan’s run-and-gun demo called Sanity’s Requiem, which was available for "ZAP!" visitors to check out, has taken Ryan a semester to complete.
Using the “Unreal Tournament Three” game editor, Ryan stripped down the game and redesigned three levels of what he called “pure nastiness.”
Ryan built a maze-like graveyard to confuse players, with extra attention put into lighting and textual effects caused by rain and lightning. Once past the graveyard, players enter a monster-infested church and then into a strange time/dimensional portal that dumps the unsuspecting into an eerily pristine church with a giant heart spewing blood from the ceiling.
As visitors talk with Ryan about his project, it’s clear to see that creating the game was a labor of love for Ryan.
“Every day you run into problems that seem catastrophic; something that will make you want to quit. And then when you get it to work, you feel great!” Ryan said.
Yet rarely does this kind of satisfaction come from being a lone programmer.
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Working with classmates who were better artists and coders helped Ryan learned how to finish vital parts to his demo game.
“If you want to make video games, don’t pay any attention to the commercials that say you can go to school and play games all day,” Ryan said. “I don’t play video games at all, and not because I don’t want to. This is extremely time-consuming, and you have to be able to work in teams. No one makes a game alone anymore.”
Not only are games time-consuming to make, but they are increasingly time-consuming to play — some with no end in sight, which makes playing a ten-minute round on dusty, old arcade games a worthwhile distraction.