Remembrance of Things Blast

Do you Ms. Pac-Man?

A few years ago, a tech-savvy friend told me to come over anytime I had the urge to play a mean game of Tron. I arrived at his door minutes later, expecting him to lead me to the beautiful upright cabinet that housed the 1982 Bally/Midway classic arcade game, spun off from the cheesily delicious Disney movie starring Jeff Bridges. Instead, he led me to his computer. On the screen was an exact replica of my blue friend Tron waiting to do battle with grid bugs, light cycles, and the dreaded MCP Cone. “What gives?” I asked, mesmerized and disappointed in equal amounts. “That,” said my friend, “is MAME.”

MAME is geekspeak for Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator, which is clearly geekspeak too. For people who prefer English, MAME is a clever application that, in effect, acts as the working guts of an actual classic arcade video game, except that it’s capable of playing almost any old-school title you can think of. The programs for games such as Tron, Kangaroo, Defender, and BurgerTime are small by today’s standards, so reproducing them exactly as you remember them is hilariously simple. The entire program of Asteroids, which dazzled quite a few pimply teens when it arrived in arcades in 1979, took up a mere 9 KB of ROM. My Mr. Coffee machine uses more memory than that.

The benefits of retrogaming are easy to see. Anyone in the world can go to Web sites that offer MAME (like this one for PCs, or this one for Macintoshes) and the game ROMs (check here), download the stuff, and play Pac-Man or Missile Command within minutes. Kids born after the Reagan era have a chance to laugh at how primitive Mario looked in Donkey Kong, and those of us longing to hear, say, the funky buggy music of Moon Patrol can do so anytime we like. MAME keeps these classic games in the video-game vernacular, and that’s definitely an admirable thing. And sometimes you just gotta play Tron.

But something gets lost in the translation from arcade to the PC. Sure, many of the games certainly look and sound the same, and MAME’s authenticity even extends to the cool feature that makes you insert a virtual coin to begin play. But once that novelty wears off, anyone who spent any real time in an arcade will understand my biggest problem with MAME, which is that all the nuances that made these games so special are necessarily filtered out. Gone are the cool yoke controller and stunning color vector graphics of Atari’s 1983 game Star Wars, the signature red joystick of Pac-Man, the excellent side panel and marquee artwork of Tempest, the light-saber-esque barrrrong! of a Qix machine, and countless other characteristics that gave each of these video games charm and cult status. Not to mention the fact that certain games—like Star Wars, Crazy Climber, and, yes, Tron—are quite impossible to play on MAME due to the complexity of their controls. So MAME gives you the games but not the nuances. I’d say the nuances are more important.

Why should we bother to ensure the survival of the Galaxian species when it’s been reincarnated on MAME? That’s like trying to explain why the home-video version of Rear Window doesn’t hold a candle to the original theatrical cut. Besides, the clunky old game cabinets and the memories that go along with them are a crucial part of telling the story of video games. In the same way that a generation of goggle-eyed kids got the directing bug from seeing a Hitchcock film in the theater while chewing on Jujyfruits, the entire arcade experience—not just the onscreen action but also stuff like the strict social strata of the arcade, which stated that the person whose initials graced the top score on a particular game was god, and that if you didn’t put a token up, you had no playing power—influenced a sizable chunk of the game designers and programmers working in the business today. The budding popularity of MAME and other applications like it makes preservation of this arcade vibe all the more difficult.

I know that it’s the rare fan who will drive out of the way to go to that bar whose only selling point is its sit-down Ms. Pac-Man machine or who will bid $700 for a Tron machine on eBay when these games are perfectly free to download online. And I’ll admit to being a purist. But if I win the auction, I may even let my MAME-lovin’ friend come over and play the real deal. But only if he brings the quarters.