Chez Shaffner

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Breaking Out The Atari

I have to admit I had some skepticism when Keryn first told me about the Atari. She said she bought it on eBay two years ago, thinking it would be a great addition to the family compound in Maine. That seemed reasonable enough, but the way she talked about it, I got the sense she considered herself a skilled gamer. “Decathlon,” she said, with more than a touch of pride, “I was great at that game.”

This was difficult for me to envision. Granted, the heyday of the Atari ended before I met her; by the time she moved to Bucksport, the Nintendo revolution was in full swing. But somehow I couldn’t put the controller in her hand. The image of a young girl wearing pageant sash and tiara and clutching an Atari controller in her tiny eight-year-old hands did not coalesce in my imagination.

The TV at her camp is more than twenty years old, old enough to require leaders to convert UHF or VHF screws into a coaxial post. Keryn had all the requisite connectors in years past, but somehow they were lost in the shuffle. Without the right adapter, the Atari is a useless, silent black box. Since all sounds emerge from the TV, when disconnected, even powering up or down the Atari has an unsatisfying silence.

Overheard at Radio Shack in Boston:
Me: Hey, excuse me, I have an unusual problem.
RadioShack Dude: Sure, what’s up?
Me: So I have this Atari…
RadioShack Dude: No way, man. That’s awesome.
Me: Yeah, it would be awesome, except we need one of those RF modulators to connect it to the TV. [Editorial Note: I was very proud to use “RF modulator” like I knew what I was talking about. Re-read and picture the corresponding attitude.]
RadioShack Dude: (yelling to back) Hey Carl!
Carl: What’s up?
RadioShack Dude: This guy’s got an Atari…
Carl: I wasn’t even born then.
RadioShack Dude: Me neither.

The guys looked, but what I needed wasn’t there. However, they did their best to figure out a way for me to do it, and ended up selling me two $2 parts that together would do the job. Great customer service, except for the making-me-feel-old part.

Problem is, next time we went to Maine, I left those parts on my counter.

Rather than alert Keryn to this lapse, I arranged for a surreptitious trip to another Radio Shack once were in Maine.

Overheard at Radio Shack in Portland (ME):
Me: Hey, excuse me, I have an unusual problem.
RadioShack Dude: Sure, what’s up?
Me: So have this Atari...
RadioShack Dude: Leaders or Coax?
Me (squinting): Leaders.
RadioShack Dude: (walking about ten feet, pulling an item off the hook, handing it to me). This should do it.

That was a long way of saying that apparently Ataris remain in much more widespread use in Coastal Maine than in Boston. Are you surprised? Shocked?

Now, I have to describe this Decathlon game.

Perhaps you’re familiar with the Olympic event thanks to that irritating (though clearly successful in making an impression on me) ad campaign in the mid-nineties? As the name implies, the Decathlon comprises ten events: 100m, Long Jump, Shot Put, 400m, High Jump, Discus, 110m hurdles, Javelin, Pole Vault, 1500m.

Now, consider the Atari controller… Then imagine how you might make your stick figure run.

Got an idea?

You may be surprised to learn your stick figure runs NOT because you press the orange button a thousand times per second. Instead, try wiggling the joystick side to side as fast as you can. Keep in mind that an Atari joystick is tight; it doesn’t move more than a fractional inch with each jostle. It’s great for guiding Ms. Pac-Man through the labyrinth, but it was not designed for rapid wiggling…

Cut to Keryn running the hundred meters. Her stick figure flies through the race, crossing the finish line in a respectable, and realistic shade, over ten seconds. (Mine struggles to get there just shy of eleven seconds, and our tête-à-tête decathlon opens with her taking a solid sixty point lead, one she will not relinquish).

What strikes me just then is not only her seeming prowess in video gaming; instead I sit there gape-jawed at the realization that the game is entirely in real-time. Which means that the pain I feel in my forearm at eleven seconds of joystick work is nothing compared to the workout awaiting me in the forms of the 400m (at least 50 seconds) and the 1500m (a solid four minutes). Real-time… Can you imagine? That’s like playing Madden with full-length quarters. Who has the attention span for such things?

Later in the weekend, we will play a four-player Decathlon grudge match. It will take an hour. Keryn’s younger sister will develop a round blister in the heel of her palm. I will bathe my muscles in Ben-Gay. We will joke that if all video games required the physical fitness of Decathlon, American would be much thinner.

But let me take a minute to talk about the most important thing I learned that weekend in Maine: Keryn was being modest when she said she was good at that game. I have become convinced that she must hold the all-time world record for Pole Vault. As each of the rest of us failed to clear anything higher than 3.2, Keryn sent her stick figure careening over the bar at nearly 6. I gained a whole new respect for her, and have decided to stop suggesting we play a few games on the Xbox. I can’t take the humiliation.

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