For years, whenever the video game industry trotted out another new version of a vintage title from the golden age of video games, the inevitable joke from gamers was "Isn't it time for a sequel to Pong?"
You can't make that joke anymore: Hasbro Interactive has just released a new version of the original, barebones TV table-tennis classic, Pong (subtitled "The Next Level") for PlayStation and Windows PCs. It's the same idea as the 1972 version, with a few more options, colors and moving parts. It doesn't require a 3-D card, mercifully, but it still requires a faster processor than my last PC had under the hood.
Pong joins other retro titles shipping this year: Asteroids, Pac Man, Missile Command, Q-Bert and Space Invaders (reviewed on Page E12). Sound familiar? It's such as 1982 all over again. Even games that weren't very good in the first place are being transferred over to new platforms--take Activision's new PlayStation disc of games originally designed for the Intellivision game console . . . please.
But it's not so much that classic video games are back; it's more accurate to say they never went away. Consider, for instance, the game-emulation community on the Web. At surprisingly active sites such as Classicgaming.com and Vintagegaming.com, fans have built "emulators" that can create a virtual Atari 2600 console unit on their computers, then trade the software code from original versions of the old games.
While it may seem an odd way to spend one's time, the people who build and frequent these sites take this stuff very seriously. On his Web page, game fan James Surine writes with the serious air of a late-term president considering his legacy: "Some of you may remember me from my 'Easy Convert' program, but please consider this my official contribution to the emulation scene." Surine's contribution? He figured out how to run games on the LCD screen of his Kodak digital camera (you use the camera's directional touchpad as a controller) and has posted pictures of his camera running Donkey Kong, Frogger and Pac Man.
One French company, Atelier, recently released a somewhat less esoteric--but no less goofy--form of portable nostalgia: a version of the original SimCity for Palm and Psion handheld computers. The Palm version of SimCity Classic (http://www.atelier.tm/palm/, $30), joins many other games that have already been redone for the popular handheld computer--a form of hardware that, like digital cameras, didn't even exist when the game was originally designed.
Then there's the online rebirth of what's probably the most important title for game fans with an appreciation of history--a modest-looking spaceflight simulation called Spacewar, generally credited as the first real video game. (You can play a Java version of it at http://lcs.www.media.mit.edu/groups/el/projects/spacewar/.) It's a simple thing, really: Two spaceships try to avoid getting sucked into a star's gravitational field while trying to blow each other up. Sounds like a game that could've been released last week, rather than 37 years ago, when this game first appeared at a science fair at MIT. Originally, you had to be a grad student with access to a relatively powerful computer to play the game. Now, however, anybody with a browser can try it out.
Isn't it time for a sequel?
CAPTION: Old video games never die; they just get resold.