Outside the Xbox

Tarik Smith of Silver Spring gets plenty of joy playing
Tarik Smith of Silver Spring gets plenty of joy playing "antiquated" video games. (By Michel Du Cille -- The Washington Post)

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By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 27, 2006

Forget PlayStation 3. Never mind the Nintendo Wii. So long, Xbox 360.

In the video gaming world of Tarik Smith, nothing beats the NES.

Remember the Nintendo Entertainment System? The bulky plastic box that duked it out with Sega and Atari? In the 1980s?

It sits front and center in Smith's living room in Silver Spring, hooked up to a giant pull-down projection screen, right next to about 25 game cartridges. That's right, C-A-R-T-R-I-D-G-E-S. All weekend, the brawny 30-year-old in a Redskins jersey and duck slippers threw passes and scored touchdowns on "Tecmo Super Bowl." On Friday he played for four hours. Saturday, five. He took yesterday off, with hours of "Tecmo" to go in the season he's playing.

"A game is a game is a game," says Smith, who is an administrative associate at the American Chemical Society. "I don't understand why everybody's spending so much money and sweating over the PS3s and the Wiis. Especially when they could still spend hours playing their old NESes."

Spoken like a true retro gamer, part of a small but loyal bunch who are utterly satisfied with their old toys, which can reach as far back as the Atari 2600, introduced in 1977. Smith has that one, too. It's in the garage. He grew up with it, as did most retro gamers.

They plan annual conventions such as the Classic Gaming Expo. They frequent Web sites like AtariAge and ClassicGaming, where a game critic who goes by the name of Retro Rogue reviews the perfect gifts for the quintessential retro gamer. (The Stelladator, which lets players hook up their original Atari controllers to their PCs and Macs, is a must-have, Retro Rogue says.)

On YouTube.com, they post and comment on video clips from their favorite retro games, from popular titles such as "Super Mario Bros." and "Metroid" to more obscure ones like "Gyromite" and "Hogan's Alley." Decades after the launch of the Sega Genesis and Super NES, this jury's still out -- Sonic or Mario? The Hedgehog or the Plumber?

Their motto: If it ain't broke, play it. "I spent Thanksgiving playing with my Sega Genesis," says 44-year-old Evan McAnney of Chevy Chase, who's kept quite a collection of Sega titles. And now, while other gamers are hysterically pursuing the new thing, gamers such as McAnney are carefree.

Game systems are like a big family that keeps on breeding. Every five years or so, the family tree grows again and the babies get increasingly expensive. The latest in the PlayStation clan is sold out: Local stores are waiting for new supplies of the $500 and $600 state-of-the-art PS3s, which hit stores Nov. 17. On eBay, a PS3 brings as much as $1,700 -- not bad, considering that some went for thousands more a little over a week ago. Good luck trying to find the Wii, Nintendo's newest offspring. It dropped on Nov. 19 at $250, and now is nowhere to be seen on the shelves of Best Buy in Tenleytown or EB Games in Pentagon City.

James Vilgos, a manager at the CD Game Exchange in Rockville, has been fielding calls all weekend. "No, we don't have the Wii yet," he says to exasperated customers. "No, we don't have the PS3, either." The 21-year-old Vilgos prefers the Super NES above all. He got a used one at age 15, when all his classmates were getting the new PlayStation 2.

Like Vilgos, Smith isn't interested in the PS3 or the Wii, at least for now.

Even though Smith also owns a Nintendo 64, a PlayStation 2 and an Xbox 360, among others, it's the NES, the granddaddy of all his consoles, that gets all the play. Part of it is nostalgia. His girlfriend, 30-year-old Jennifer Dostal, a Web developer, says, "He's just having a lot of fun with games he played with when he was a little kid. Kind of like the way guys buy old cars to fix up."

Part of it, too, is the simplicity of the machine. Smith picks up the NES controller and compares it with the Xbox 360's. On the NES, it's up, down, left, right, push A, push B. On the Xbox 360, it's a left trigger, a right trigger, A and B and X and Y, left thumb, right thumb . . .

"Sometimes you just want to sit down and play a game," Smith says.

He got the NES when he was 12 -- "a good-grades gift," says the graduate of Albert Einstein High School in Kensington. His NES doesn't have a door to fit cartridges through. He got so upset when he got stuck in a dungeon while playing "The Legend of Zelda" that he kicked the NES and -- bam!-- door gone.

So many memories come with each of his NES games. He remembers the time he finally set the plane down on the aircraft carrier on "Top Gun." Or the afternoon he rushed home after getting the "secret code" for "Metroid" from one of his classmates. The frustration of trying to attain the highest level of "Mike Tyson's Punch Out!!" and then finally getting a chance to beat Tyson -- which, after all these years of playing, he never has.

Friday night, he got through division playoffs on "Tecmo Super Bowl," with four more weeks to go.

His message to the worrywarts without a PS3 and Wii: "Wait. Just wait. And start looking for your NES."


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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