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The Atari 2600: So, how did we know what was going on?

I saw a re-released version of the Atari 2600 with embedded games and wireless joysticks at Bed, Bath and Beyond the other day (don’t ask me why it was there, or why I was there for that matter). I would’ve bought it on the spot if I hadn’t been with my kids and without a free hand to lug it back to the car – rest assured it will be purchased soon.

As I was examining the box, a flood of great memories returned to me: sitting in the basement with my brother and friends playing Haunted House, Yar’s Revenge, Pitfall, Jungle Hunt, etc. on our elaborate wood-paneled television. To be sure, there were some bad memories too including playing The Empire Strikes Back with my gaming savant friend, Nick, who was good enough to take advantage of the game’s never-ending land-and-repair feature every time his Airspeeder got damaged, ensuring that I would never actually get to alternate in, but I digress.

When I got home, I went online and looked up some of my favorite games. The graphics were basically as I remember them, although looking at them with fresh eyes instantly made me wonder: as kids playing these games, how the hell did we know what was going on? I don’t remember any manuals that would explain anything (although I’m sure some existed and were quickly disposed of). For example, in Adventure, how did we instinctively know that the giant duck creature was a dragon? I guess there were some captions, but I probably would’ve been too young to read them. What about Toht in Raiders of the Lost Ark – that black blob thing certainly doesn’t look like Toht, but we all knew it was him. Did someone or something tell us as much? Going a step further, how did we know what to do in these games? Raiders is another good example - what the hell is going on in that game? Made perfect sense at the time though. In Haunted House, how did we know we were supposed to assemble the magic urn or even that there was a magic urn? As far as we knew, we were just a pair of googly eyes walking around a dark maze.

Conclusion: Kid brains are awesome. They are so imaginative that they will compensate as much as is needed for lack or graphics, plot, game play or otherwise. I so wish I still had some of that…

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