21 March 2010
The guy next door worked at Westinghouse. He was an engineer. I've known him my whole life. I can remember when I was a kid thinking he looked like the guys at mission command watching rockets blast off. When an astronaut said "Houston, we have a problem," the guy they were talking to looked a lot like this guy. Black glasses, salt and pepper hair cut short, short-sleeved white dress shirts with no-nonsense ties.
And he was smart. In between building bombs or whatever it was he built all day he and his engineering buddies figured out how to hack an Atari 2600. They built this metal box that connected to the cartridge slot. On top of the metal box were two slots for computer chips and tiny levers that locked them in place. As soon as a new game came out, somehow he would come home with the chips. It was brilliant. Looking back now I realize it was illegal and probably the wrong message to send to the neighborhood kids.
But back then I was happy to be one of the neighborhood kids who got to play new Atari games as soon as they came out. His youngest son was my best pal.
And we loved to play Atari Football.
This is at once the worst sports game ever made and the best. It is ugly, clunky and about as realistic as the football game you played in school with the triangle made of paper. But it's also an absolute blast to play. Richie and I played this game for hours while the summer sun rose and fell outside. To our credit, we also played outside. But many an afternoon was spent choosing to pass or run with the three lunchbox-shaped players on the flickering screen of the giant Zenith in his living room.
Madden is the undisputed king of virtual football these days, and it deserves its success. But you didn't need an encyclopedic knowledge of professional football to enjoy a gridiron match-up when I was a kid. All you needed was the ability to decide whether to pass or throw. And if your best friend's dad was an early hacker, all the better.
By Victor Paul Alvarez