Sunday, September 15, 2013

Retro Gaming and Hardware Collecting

I don't expect that I'll be blogging any more frequently in coming months than I had been this summer.  Homework and exams will likely occupy all my thought and energy that isn't devoted to either work or my ongoing JRPG-style Barbarians of Lemuria campaign.  Hell, I've already got upcoming physics and calculus exams in the next week.  Bloody vector calculus.  So hateful, and yet so necessary...

Anyway, for once, I'm not going to talk about tabletop RPGs.  I'm still carrying on that JRPG campaign (you can see the delightful setting map in my previous post), and I'll try to sustain it for as long as schoolwork isn't too overwhelming.  But these days, I'm more enamored with another kind of gaming: retro console and computer games.  After a few fortunate finds in game shops, thrift stores, and flea markets, I'm finally starting to realize a longtime dream of mine: to collect most every major gaming platform and get them working, so that I can use genuine hardware for video games rather than mere emulators.

As a rule, classic consoles are much easier to find than classic computers, and in a very short while I've managed to make tremendous headway in that department, to the point where there are only a few (particularly rare and expensive) systems left that I haven't found yet.  It's become fashionable these days to discuss game consoles in terms of "gaming generations", and that's a fine organizing principle to use here.

The 1st console generation consists of Pong machines and the Magnavox Odyssey.  These were the first home video games, but they don't contain CPUs and they don't load games from ROM, so technically speaking, they're not computer games and I'm not trying to collect these.  That said, if I ever found a Pong or Odyssey console for a reasonable price, I'd snatch it up in a heartbeat.  But at the moment, I have no first-gen consoles.

The 2nd console generation is full of mostly obscure and crappy consoles with truly terrible games and often hard-wired to equally terrible joysticks.  So far, I've managed to procure an Atari 2600 (the sleek and silvery little "junior" model), an Atari 5200 (which has the worst joysticks in history, so I can't really enjoy this console until I replace those), Mattel Intellivison, ColecoVision, the Magnavox Odyssey 2, and the Milton Bradly Vectrex (the only home console with a built-in vector monitor, so that games like Asteroids look right).  There are still a number of second-gen consoles out there that I don't have, like the Bally Astrocade, the Emerson Arcadia, and the RCA Studio II, but these are all horrible and nobody wants them.  The only obscure system left in this generation that I actually want to find is the Fairchild Channel F, which was the first of all the second-gen consoles (and thus, the first home computer game system).  The Channel F is noted for its funky plunger-style joystick-paddle controllers and some pretty entertaining Pong-type games.

The 3rd console generation is sparse compared to the 2nd generation, thanks to the great video game market-crash of 1983.  There are only three consoles here (the Nintendo NES, the Sega SMS, and the Atari 7800), and I've got all three of these now.  In the case of the 8-bit Nintendo and Sega systems, there were a couple varieties of each: if you're only going to get one model, it's best to get the original ("model one") 8-bit Sega, since it's compatible with both card and cartridge games.  But for the NES, you've gotta hold out for the NES model two (also called "NES-101" or "top-loader"), for the singular reason that it doesn't slowly wear out like the standard front-loading NES-001.  I was fortunate enough to have received a top-loader as a gift from a very good friend some years ago.  That said, the NES-101 does have one flaw: it only has RF out, not AV out, and this signal is corrupted by the RF modulator's placement on the system's motherboard so that black vertical "jail-bars" appear in the output image.  It's possible to mod the NES to fix this issue, but I'm disinclined to butcher a piece of classic hardware like that.  More likely, I'll continue to leave my NES unmarred and just start using a RetroN 5 for my NES gaming when that console finally comes out.

The 4th console generation brought us 16-bit home consoles and popular handhelds.  For full consoles, it includes the beloved Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis, and the less-beloved NEC TurboGrafx 16.  I've got a SNES.  I've got a Genesis with the Sega-CD and 32X peripherals.  But I don't have a TurboGrafx 16, because the hardware is really hard to find, especially at a price that isn't laughable.  There were several versions of this console between the US and Japan, but the one I'm holding out for is the US "Turbo Duo", which included the CD-ROM add-on built in.  The fourth gen also technically includes the Neo Geo consoles (there were cartridge and CD versions of the same hardware), but these go for positively insane prices -- and besides, they're really arcade hardware guts stuck inside the shell of a home console, so it's debatable as to whether the Neo Geo systems even count.  Meanwhile, the first widely popular handhelds also came out in this era -- Nintendo Gameboy, Sega Game Gear, and Atari Lynx -- none of these are all that hard to find, so: check, check, and check.

The 5th console generation popularized CD-ROM consoles and 3D gaming.  These consoles are new enough that they're easy to find, but old enough that they're easy to find cheaply.  Included in this period are the Sony PS1, the Sega Saturn, the Nintendo N64, the 3DO Interactive Multiplayer, and the Atari Jaguar.  I've found all of these except the Jaguar (and it's ultra-rare CD-ROM add-on, which I suspect I'll never find).  This generation also includes the Nintendo Virtual Boy, which is the other fifth-gen console I don't have.  Maybe someday I'll run into one of these, but I'm not hopeful of finding one anytime soon.

Consoles newer than the 5th generation aren't, strictly speaking, collectible yet, so there's not much of a point in carrying this part of the discussion on much further.  (Besides, I already had all of the sixth generation consoles anyway, collected over time as a matter of course.)  To complete my array of classic consoles, I've boiled it down to the Fairchild Channel F, the NEC Turbo Duo, the Atari Jaguar & Jag-CD, the Nintendo Virtual Boy, and maybe a Neo Geo AES or CD console if I ever found one being sold for peanuts by some schmuck who didn't know what he had.

Retro computers are different matter entirely.

There is such a bewildering array of home computing hardware that it's necessary to set more modest goals for collecting in this area.  For my part, I've decided that I just want to gather enough classic computers that I can run most software from the early 80s onward on the following four major manufacturer's best-known platforms: the IBM/PC-Compatible, Apple, Commodore, and Atari.

The first retro computer that I found was a Tandy 1000, which is an 8-bit PC-compatible.  Anything too new to run on this machine will run on modern Wintel PC or through Dosbox, although I've also made sure to acquire a cheap Pentium machine that now runs Windows 98SE for proper late DOS and early Windows gaming.  In other words, for the IBM/PC/Wintel platform, I'm pretty well covered.

For Apple, I first found an early model iMac G3 from (I believe) 1998.  It's comparable to a Windows 9x machine, and I'm honestly not interested in any newer Macs.  My next find was a classic Macintosh, perhaps a little more advanced than the ones I grew up with in my elementary school classrooms, a Performa 550 in decent condition.  Now, for older Apple computing, I can either hold out until I find a real Apple II computer, which would be awesome; or I can track down an Apple IIe card and put it in the Performa.  Either would be sweet, but the latter is much easier to accomplish.

Commodore computers have a rather cultish following.  There's also a steadily improving progression of Commodore computers out there: the PET, VIC-20, C64, C128, Amiga... at the moment, I only have a C64, but it would perhaps be nice to get a VIC-20 and a C128 as well at some point in the future, and I definitely need to find the Amiga 500 and Amiga 1200.  That would cover the history Commodore gaming software pretty nicely.

Lastly, there is the Atari computer family: the 8-bit series of machines (400/800/XL/XE) and the 16-bit ST.  These all seem to be pretty difficult to find in my area, so I don't have any of these machines, but I definitely want to get an Atari 800 and an ST, and I might someday want to grab an 800XL and an XEGS just to plug some gaps in compatibility (that is to say, for the same reason that I'd want a Commodore VIC-20 and C128 when I already have a C64).

Whew.  So there it is.  I still have quite a ways to go in the retro computer department, and I'm not really actively pursuing that side of the hobby because, well, retro computers are a lot more expensive than consoles, and they take up a whole heck of a lot more space.  I've been lucky so far, finding a lot of these machines cheaply at Goodwills and flea markets, but now I'm getting the sense that I've sort of tapped my region dry of old hardware, and that the remaining things I haven't found are rare enough that I won't just stumble across them randomly.  In other words, now the hunt begins.

I've also studiously avoided seeking software and peripherals for these machines, but that's a whole separate kettle of fish that I'll have to get into next time.  Retro computers and the Atari 5200 console, especially, need some special... help, shall we say, in order to get them up and running in this day and age.  More on that later.

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