In downtown Mesa, Arizona there is an enterprising group of individuals, young and old alike, who are trying to breathe life into Main Street, from which all life seems to disappear, as if in Night of the Comet, after 7 PM or so. I’m talking about HeatSync Labs, a hackerspace (not bad hackers, good hackers) where creativity is lauded and encouraged and the doors are open to the public more often than not. They host a number of events and, after moving from a cramped collaborative space to a bigger and better (and purpler and pinker) storefront of their own and, after renovating what once seemed to be a life-size Barbie dollhouse, have upped the ante for local businesses, proving that people will venture out into the deserted wasteland of Mesa.
The group hosts classes for various things, from electronics to knitting, but high-tech (and sometimes low-budget, just to see if it can be done) trumps low-tech, and events are often related to electronics, hardware and software hacking, and just figuring things out. This brings us to last night’s Retro Video Game night, a haven for gamers who yearn for the 4-, 8-, and 10-bit days of old. Various volunteers dug through basements, attics, and online auctions to bring together a collection of Atari, Commodore, Apple, and other systems from before the crash (and before a great number of internet users were born, I’d venture). The building was a sea of bleeps and bloops and chunky awkward CRTs, providing a fairly authentic 80s video game experience.
There was no real centerpiece, but there were several islands, if you will, each focusing on a particular brand, including a table stacked with chunky C64s, their peripherals, and a slew of floppy disks containing games, both G and X rated, an old Mac commanding a couple of lesser Apple machines, an Atari 800XL and its brain-damaged little brother, the 2600 (thankfully lacking an E.T. cartridge) as well as Pong, an NES and a brickish GameBoy in an absolutely massive case, a MAME box (a laptop, really) connected to a projector in the center of the room, and a single lonely Intellivision. Essentially, if one was around and sentient during the 1980s, downtown Mesa would have been the place to be, especially given the nearby Evermore Nevermore‘s tie-in event featuring video game-themed art, and the hot dog cart outside HSL’s front door, serving up the most brutally punishing hot pepper-covered dogs known to man.
The place was packed. I always come in through the back door since I kind-of-sort-of know the people in charge, despite being a dirty freeloader and not officially joining as of yet, so I wasn’t entirely prepared to walk into the throng of people who had heard about the event through local newspapers, blogs, and word of mouth. The building’s atmosphere was a cacophony of sound, from shouts of encouragement and victory, to the gritty old digital synth fare that powered the sound for all our old games (none of this digitized speech or CD-quality sample nonsense, just sawtooth, pulse, and noise) to music channeled into the room through the PA system. From the storefront, passerby were enticed by speakers streaming old game music into the street and gameplay projected onto the sidewalk, as well as displays featuring spare systems and a Tesla coil (not running at the time, sadly).
I myself enjoyed a few rounds of Pong (I’m not good at Pong, it seems), a bit of Tetris on the humongous green GameBoy, some Pitfall! on the 2600 (it was glitched, so when you fell through a hole, you reappeared at the top of the screen, more akin to Portal than to a jungle adventure), but mostly stuck to my beloved Intellivision, defending Atlantis from alien invaders, hopping a frog across a busy highway, and racking up a score of around 44,000 points in Astrosmash!, the Asteroids derivative that was the system’s best-selling game. Also of note was the re-creation of the oldest of old-school games, Tennis for Two, running on an oscilloscope and wired together in a single sleep-deprived night by the organization’s IT guru, demonstrating the gameplay that was once considered engaging and groundbreaking. On the C64 table, various people had found less savory games, including a text adventure through an orgy and blocky, pixellated strip poker. Nowhere to be found, though, was the infamous Custer’s Revenge.
Lack of terrible unlicensed Atari games aside, the evening was essentially nerd Heaven, a nostalgic trip for those of us who had these machines, and a glimpse into the past for those unlucky enough to have been born more recently.