Video Gaming Like It’s 1980: Intellivision Reloaded

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You never know when you might be spontaneously thrust back to one of the best experiences of your childhood. It happened to me the other night.

It was late, and we were out of medication that a family member needed before bed. So I dutifully trundled off to Walgreens to procure it. On my way to the cash register, I spied something utterly remarkable on the clearance shelf: a new-school emulation of one of the most old-school video game systems around, the Mattel Intellivision.

For just $24.99, I could re-experience my first video game console. Only this time, it came packed with a whopping 60 games—far more than I ever had back in the day. And just like that, it was mine.

It may seem ridiculous, but just seeing the word Intellivision on the box quickened my pulse. The original Intellivision retailed for $299 when it was first released, and the game cartridges weren’t cheap either, about $30 bucks or so (which, allowing for inflation, works out to nearly $90 in 2015 dollars). That might seem cheap now, but it seemed like a king’s ransom when I was 10. I ended up with a dozen or so by the time my Intellivision was inevitably supplanted by the next revolutionary system (the even awesomer Colecovision) a couple of years later.

My best friend, Joe, and I spent hours immersed in the 16-bit glory of the Intellivision’s quirky games. There was an Asteroids-meets-Space Invaders mash-up called, what else, Astrosmash. But the game I remember playing the most was a strategy war game called Sea Battle that, frankly, felt a lot like a simplified version of Risk with rectangular, pixilated boats. We were smugly convinced the graphics were so much better than those lowly Atari 2600 titles everyone else was playing—maybe in part because George Plimpton said they were.

The controller was much more complex and unorthodox compared to the Atari’s simple point-‘n’-shoot joystick and firing button, too. The Intellivision featured a movable disc-like, um, joypad, a couple of buttons on each side, and a 12-button keypad over which you slid a plastic overlay with game functions for each game. Compared to the Atari, the Intellivsion seemed orders of magnitude more sophisticated (even if the games themselves looked only marginally better than those on the much more popular Atari system). Never mind that a couple hours playing that disc thingymabob controller left us with blisters.

My video gaming history extended through the ’80s, divided between my Colecovision (which my brother eventually destroyed by putting a cartridge in backwards) and stand-up arcade games. After that, I mostly left games behind for good even as new systems—spearheaded by the first Nintendo, Sega and Sony consoles, not to mention PC-based games—took quantum graphical and narrative leaps into the future.

I bought the Intellivision, of course. My spontaneous purchase has a lot to do with the power of nostalgia, no doubt a force that AtGames, the makers of the new Intellivision Flashback, are counting on. Still, the fact that it was available for half-price in the clearance section portends that there aren’t too many dinosaurs like me roaming the aisles of Walgreens searching for a 16-bit window back to 1980.

That said, I also got the game in part because my own son, who’s now 8, has been chomping at the bit for a video game system. He plays some free games online, but we’ve thus far resisted getting a Nintendo DS or any of the current generation of gaming consoles. We’ve been hesitant to jump on that bandwagon, given how engrossing today’s games can be.

But somehow tiptoeing into these waters with a system from the digital stone age feels like something we might do together in a way that our family wouldn’t be able to with an Xbox or PlayStation. Today’s games seem overwhelming to my tired fortysomething brain. But 16-bit Sea Battle battles? I think I can handle that.

We’ll see how well Reagan-era video game nostalgia translates into 2015. Maybe my son will just roll his eyes and say, “Seriously, Dad?” But I hope that sharing a meaningful experience from my childhood with my son might forge a shared bond with him in a way I’m not at all sure just going out and buying a Wii would accomplish.

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