Video Games Then and Now

For the first time in decades I have been playing a video game.

Growing up, we had a state of the art video game console in the house, an Atari 2600. This machine was impressive… For the late 1970’s. Specifications included color graphics, 160×192 pixel resolution, and monaural sound. My brother and I played for hours, eventually beating some of the joysticks to the point where they required replacement. I mastered Space Invaders, I could play through all of the levels, wrapping back to level 1 for as long as my stamina allowed.

Atari Tanks
Atari tanks game, circa 1978
One of the games bundled with the Atari was Combat, there were four games on the cartridge including a tank game. I look back on that first game, one of the first we played on that console, with a bit of nostalgia. Two tanks maneuvered around a simple obstacle course, with a point awarded for each shot that hit the opponent. The audio was similarly quite simple, a basic growling sound meant to sound like engines and a few sound effects for the shots.

In the intervening decades I have seldom played video games with any great intensity. There was an Apple II space adventure game called Elite that I did play for a while in the 1980’s, but little else.

The game I have been playing recently is World of Tanks Blitz. This is an iOS and Android tablet version of World of Tanks, a PC game. The iPad may not be a true gaming console, but the graphics of the later generation devices are still impressive.

It is the contrast to a modern tanks game that is such a stark comparison to those old Atari games. The graphics are pretty good, not quite photo-realistic, but reasonably close. The animation effects include detailed renderings of dozens of tanks, and lovely scenery on the maps that includes buildings, trees, waving grass, flash and smoke from the cannon and blowing dust and debris from the tank treads. All of these are incredible when compared to the simple pixelated graphics of that childhood game console.

World of Tanks Blitz
World of Tanks Blitz screenshot circa 2015
In exchange for simple simple monaural sound effects are the complex stereo effects of a modern game. I play with headphones, the sound is important. You hear the shots, enemy fire ricocheting off your armor, the crash of a damaging hit indicating you should move to get out of the line of fire. You hear the clatter of a friendly tanks beside you, the roar of their guns. Likewise you will hear an opponent behind you, or their engine on the other side of the building. The sound is an integral element of the game, not just superficial sound effects.

Another comparison is your opponents and teammates. In place of someone sitting beside you in-front of the television is a team of seven players from across a continent. The opposing team is likewise seven live players… People, not a computer operating the enemy tanks. We take the network that makes this possible a bit for granted today. Consider for a moment of a world spanning network allowing gameplay with players from across the globe. Think of that network in terms of that 1970’s game console and television.

I have played enough to be reasonably good at the game, routinely at or near the top of the leader-board each game and in the top 20% of players on the North American server. The games can be intense, a tough situation or intense battle leading to an adrenaline rush. The thrill of battling it out and winning, sometimes against the odds can be exhilarating. With modern graphics and sounds the game becomes immersive, the experience all the more enveloping in a way that the games of my youth never achieved.

I have no real experience with the modern gaming consoles, the Wii, PlayStation or Xbox. I would expect these to be able to produce an even more impressive gaming experience. I can understand, at least a bit, about modern gaming and the culture it has engendered. World of Tanks may not be the full experience offered on a full game console. What is available on a machine not truly intended for gaming is good enough for me. Remembering those childhood games on the Atari system gives a stunning example of how far our computing technology has progressed over my lifetime.

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on Mauna Kea, Hawai’i.