What is Your First Video Game Memory?

Do you remember your first experience with a video game? I do.

It was another day in southern Ontario, Canada where I spent the first ten years of my life. Barrie is a commuter town a few hours north of Toronto, wrapped around Lake Simcoe, which makes it feel super-cold in the post-summer months. If you’re from Winnipeg or New York, you’ll be familiar with the kind of nostril-freezing weather experience of southern Ontario. Luckily, today I was about to play my first video game.

Random picture of Barrie from Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dougtone/4119702338/

Little did I realize that this first video game experience would be a defining moment in my life. As a lonely child shuffled between living with my dad and my grandma, video games eventually became the ultimate form of escape, comfort, and joy in my life. Like other shy or lonely kids, I usually felt like I wasn’t wanted by my family, so over the years I retreated deeper and deeper into my hobbies like drawing, writing stories, and playing video games. Video games were one of the few places where I felt like I could belong.

The year was 1984. Since the Atari 2600 was nearing the end of its lifespan, and the video game crash of 83/84 was in full-swing, my dad capitalized on the opportunity and picked up a bargain-priced copy of the aging console. Even though I was only five years old, I still remember admiring the stylish box design and intriguing wood grain paneling on the front of the console. It was dramatic. It was epic. My little brain was captivated by the immense possibilities depicted on the cover. I wanted an Atari.

Atari 2600 box art photograph from Atari Age forums

The cover painted the picture of this vast dramatic scene, giving me a glimpse into undiscovered worlds. There were evil alien invaders and superheroes committed to saving the planet, daring knights facing off against fierce dragons, sporting events, and overly-excited children and adults all captivated by the experience of this life-altering device. I was a complete sucker for this captivating box.

The box proudly proclaimed, “MORE GAMES — MORE FUN”, with no punctuation necessary. I mean, did you really need to say anything more than that? The box was bold and loud, featuring the intriguing black-with-woodgrain console, two joysticks, two paddle controllers, and even a free game cartridge — Combat.

Combat would go on to become many kids’ first video game. While much has been said about Mario, Sonic, and Halo, not as many people seem as interested to talk about this mysterious little pack-in title. Perhaps because it was a bit underwhelming after a few solid hours of gameplay.

From tanks to jets to bi-planes… this game had it all! The box art was so intense, depicting this crazy war scene with all these vehicles in the heat of battle. It was epic! At least, it felt like it was to me as a pre-kindergartener. I was just a few days away from attending school for the first time, and this new game was like a graduation ceremony from being a kid to being more grown-up (or at least it was in my tiny little kid brain).

Screenshot from Atari’s “Combat” (1977)

Combat was one of the first nine ‘launch titles’ for the Atari 2600, originally released in 1977. By the time I got to play it, the game was already seven years old. This repackaged version of Atari’s arcade hits Tank and Jet Fighter claimed to feature “27 video games” built in, though it would be more accurate to describe these as ‘levels’ rather than fully-featured games. The bouncing “Tank-Pong” was my favourite game, as I liked all the great sound effects of the tanks driving, the bullets firing, and the crazy-spinny-outty-sound you’d get when one of the players was hit. The best sound effect was the bizarre blippy-bloopy sound you’d get as the bullets bounced off all the surrounding walls. The worst part was hearing the death sound effect over and over again when someone trapped you in a spot you couldn’t get out of in time. That sucked.

Video footage of Combat’s multiplayer mode… check out that amazing bounce sound effect!

I played Combat relentlessly with my dad for the few days before being whisked away to kindergarten. Those few days were enough, though — it didn’t take long for me to tire of the sound effects and the death traps. My dad and I eventually picked up a handful of other titles for the Atari 2600, like Yars’ Revenge, Berserk, and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, so the tired old combat game just fell to the wayside. Our copy of Combat was sent to live the rest of its life in a beat-up cardboard shoebox by the television.

Atari was due to release a sequel to Combat the same year I got my copy. Combat Two featured a much more elaborate tank battle system with new terrain like forests and rivers. Unfortunately (or fortunately), the game was shelved due to the great video game crash of 1984.

Footage of the (underwhelming) “Combat Two”, which wasn’t officially released until 2005.

If you’re curious and want to check out Combat Two, you’ll need to pick up the Atari Flashback 2. The prototype was eventually launched in 2005, over twenty years after its originally-intended release date.

I don’t think I ever looked back and played Combat again. My dad was often distracted, and it wasn’t as fun to play Combat with just a single player. Instead, I’d opt to leaf through Garfield comics or play one of the more compelling games in our Atari collection, like Raiders of the Lost Ark. Believe it or not, I actually preferred E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial over Combat, as I gravitated towards games with a story. I know many consider this to be the worst video game ever made, but that’s a huge exaggeration. There are many other terrible video games, like the hugely-offensive Custer’s Revenge, the abysmal version of Pac-Man on 2600, or the embarrassingly-awful ‘edu-tainment’ games featuring Mario, such as Mario is Missing and Mario’s Time Machine.

Even though it’s the first video game I ever played, I’m not in a rush to play it again. The gameplay is too limiting, the action is stilted, and the sound effects are grating after a short period of play time.

Thank you, Combat, for introducing me to the world of video games.

Thanks for reading. Hope you enjoyed this first post about my experience with games. I’ll be posting more over the next year on the CollectorQuest project blog, along with posts about the game I’m designing to celebrate games and collector culture. If you have any suggestions or feedback about my post, please feel free to write me a response.

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