A Real Space Invader (Atari VCS Version)

Perhaps the title should read: "This is a Space Invader" or, "Behold: the Space Invader". I had trouble settling on the right one. What's in a title though?

The photo you see here is of a real Space Invader, or at least the Atari VCS (2600) version there of. A true real Space Invader would be generated on the the original arcade machine. In the realm of home gaming in 1980, this is a close-up image of one in the armada of 36 invading aliens that marched their way down from the skies in the Atari VCS (2600) ported home console hit: Space Invaders.

So why do I call this the image of a "real" Space Invader? What exactly makes it real? Space Invaders aren't real, they're just blocky little graphics in an old classic video game, right? Well yes, but that's not what I'm talking about.

The original arcade Space Invaders and its Atari 2600 port are still enjoyed every day by millions of classic gaming enthusiasts and curious newcomers. The majority of people experience this classic game with the help of game emulators. No quarters are needed to play the arcade original, and no Atari VCS is needed to play the first home console port of it. Everyone can enjoy Space Invaders right on their computer or emulation device of choice. But is this really Space Invaders?

In 1980, we played Space Invaders on a TV that had an Atari Video Computer System (VCS) hooked up to it. Inserted into the Atari console was the game cartridge "Space Invaders*". The asterisk represented that the game was licensed to Atari by Taito, the company that invented the game. The game's play-screen was generated via scan lines on the TV's CRT. Thousands of tiny red, green, and blue rectangles blended together to give the illusion of colorful shapes on the screen. Faint electronic humming noises could often be heard through the TV speaker even when the game itself was not generating any sounds.

Playing Space Invaders via an Atari 2600 emulator is a whole different experience. Many computer monitors do not use scan lines, or even have a CRT these days. In the ones that still have a CRT, the scan lines are almost undetectable unless one looks really hard for them. The red, green, and blue elements are so small, they are pretty much invisible to the naked eye. This allows modern computer monitors to display colorful images of great complexity in beautiful high definition resolutions. Modern games look outstanding on them. Emulating Space Invaders on these screens however, seems a little stale to me. Somehow the game doesn't seem to be so alive, as it felt back on the old TV sets when played using real Atari 2600 hardware.

Emulated Space Invaders are a perfect looking set of blocks. Because today's monitors offer such high graphic resolutions, each Atari-pixel is represented by at least 4 (often 16 or more) pixels. The color is perfectly consistent. There are no electronic humming noises to be heard in the background, not including noises the computer itself makes regardless (fan, hard drive, etc.). This perfect looking series of emulated blocks doesn't feel nearly as much like Space Invaders to me, a guy who grew up playing it on an an Atari VCS more than 25 years ago. That old technology seemed to come to life in a way that is lost in modern emulation.

Don't misunderstand my position on game emulation. I love the fact that the games of yester-year can still be enjoyed today with the help of emulation software and game ROM. Not only does it allow games to be preserved seemingly forever, it also allows a whole new generation access to the games that us older folks, the first generation of gamers, grew up on. Emulation provides very convenient access to the games I played, loved and grew up with. Although I still have my original Atari 2600 and it is still fully functional, not everyone's Atari has survived as well over the years. They break down, wear out, have things spilled on them, get lost or stolen, sold in garage sales, etc. If I want a quick fix of an old game I used to play, I'm more likely to spend a few minutes with it in an emulator than on the original hardware. It's just easier that way for those of us who don't have unlimited space for our classic gaming systems to remain hooked up all the time.

When I have a craving for some quality time in the game, I must hook up my vintage Atari 2600 and play it the way it was intended to be played - on a tube-TV, using joysticks, not a game-pad or keyboard. The images are not pixel-perfect and contain old school electronic artifacts. The Atari's TV video signal spills through the R/F modulator (causes interference) and can be heard as a faint electronic hum through the TV speaker(s). The game looks, sounds, and feels exactly like it did when it was originally designed and released. You cannot emulate that experience on today's computers. Perhaps on a holodeck or similar device when they become available, but until then you need a tube-TV, Atari VCS, Space Invaders game cart, and a joystick. THAT is how the Atari port of Space Invaders is meant to be experienced. It was designed to be played that way, and in my opinion, is best enjoyed in that form - its true form.

That is why I say the image above is that of a real Space Invader. The image is displayed on a 20" TV screen with my vintage Atari 2600 hooked up to it. The game-screen is drawn via scan lines that refresh at a rate of 60Hz. Take a close look at that image up there. Look at those beautiful little red, green, and blue rectangles working together to create the illusion of colorful objects when viewed at a normal distance. That Space Invader seems more alive than its emulated facsimile - it's old school digital and analog veins pulsing with electricity. Everything about playing this game on the original hardware hooked up to a tube-TV makes the experience far more rich. Those are real Space Invaders, or at least the Atari 2600 version there of, and that is what I'm talking about.

If you own a functional Atari 2600 and Space Invaders cart CX2632, plug it in and fire it up. Enjoy the thrill of blasting wave after wave of the invading aliens out of the sky. Enjoy the fart-noise death sound that the Atari 2600 version plays when your gun-ship is destroyed. Maybe even try playing in "fat-momma" mode - that's what I used to call it when playing under difficulty setting "A", which makes the gun-ship double in width. Most of all, just enjoy playing Space Invaders on the original hardware hooked up to a tube-TV. Total classic home-gaming magic.

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This page contains a single entry by Todd published on July 6, 2008 3:50 PM.

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