Gamers sometimes get bored with photo-realistic settings and dizzied by the marvels of true-physics engines. That's why it's great to return to the classics.
And that's why a whole "retro gaming" culture has evolved, whose devotees attend shows to collect old Colecovision cartridges or Pong paddles. We've also seen a few emulators - PC-based software that converts old software, like that for a Commodore 64, into a format the new computer can use. You can download them, but not everyone's geek-inclined enough to use them, and besides, PC keyboards lack the pure button-mashing tactility of the originals.
Now there's an option for everyone. The new plug-'n'-play games eliminate clunky boxes, incorporating all the hardware into the controller, which plugs right into the A/V ports of your TV.
Plug-'n'-play took off last year when North American toy magnate Jakks Pacific bought up its rival, Toymax, which had just put the equivalent of the Atari inside its original joystick. Jakks saw the toys' eminent marketability and launched a new line called TV Games. The controllers are set to ride the wave of the 80s retro revival, like GI Joe and My Little Pony, toys whose original owners now buy for kids of their own.
I want one. I know their design is just pressing my nostalgia buttons, so to speak, but, damn, those classics are fun, and if I could play Pac-Man at home I would. So I hit Dufferin Mall and take a look around.
First stop is a mall kiosk selling a 76-in-1 game player for $35. The box set contains three retro-fitted controllers that aren't very well made. The selection is sketchy at best, and the games on the menu don't correspond exactly with the ones that come up when you click on them (WWF Wrestling brought up a generic wrestling game for the Nintendo), but at least Pac-Man works. Still, dodging ghosts is not the same with this controller's feeble pad.
I move on to Toys R Us and hit the R Zone (aka the electronics section), where plug-'n'-play games have their own prominent display. I'm surprised at how many titles are available. When Jaxx picked up Toymax, it snapped up as many licences as possible. It also created a new platform for aggressively promoted brands - witness new titles like Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith.
I cajole Kelly, the R Zone staffer, into letting me try it out in the store. While we hook it up, she tells me, "People actually do buy them quite a lot. Before Christmas they were one of the hottest items."
Aha! I was wondering if the kids would come around on the classics we've known and loved. Not quite.
"A lot of people who are older, like your age, are buying Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man. But their graphics are too clunky for kids. They want the new ones: Spider-Man, Batman. We actually have a SpongeBob game that's currently sold out because it's so popular."
TV Games has been playing it smart. The old games are packaged to maximize their retro appeal, carefully crafted to feel just like the originals. The new licences are kid-friendly, cartoon-like and colourful, shaped like Spidey's or SpongeBob's face. And they're a cheaper alternative. For 25 bucks, less than the cost of a memory card, you can get a blast from the past or keep the brats occupied for the next week.
But that's all out of my mind now. The screen lights up, and with chunky ball in my palm, it all comes back . Now I'm ready, no quarter necessary. Wakka wakka wakka wakka wakka.