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1982: A Christmas to Remember

by The Video Game Critic

12/10/2017

Video games have long played a major role in my holiday festivities, but the Christmas of 1982 is the one that rekindles the fondest memories. This was the point in history when video games were really taking off. There was an arcade on every corner, several competing home systems to choose from, and groundbreaking titles like Defender, Galaga, and Q*bert appearing on a weekly basis. I owned and cherished a small but well-maintained collection of Atari 2600 cartridges.

My parents always went a little overboard for Christmas, but in 1982 they went completely over the edge and said I could ask for three video games. And that was in addition to all the other stuff I normally got! I was told there was no guarantee I'd get all three, but I knew that was just one big mind game. I had to choose wisely however, because when your income is limited to grass-cutting and snow-shoveling money, new games are few and far between.

My first choice was Frogger. I had played it over several of my friends' houses and it was one of those universally-liked video games that anyone could pick up and enjoy. How many modern games can you say that about? My next choice was Donkey Kong. I was fully aware that the Atari 2600 version wasn't completely faithful to the arcade, but it was Donkey Kong for Pete's sake. I instantly fell in love with its "climb the girders" concept since I first laid eyes on it at the local bowling alley. My third choice was the less-popular Star Raiders. With two arcade hits under my belt I was looking for something with a little more substance. Star Raiders was a first-person space shooter packaged with its own special keypad controller. Atari games that came in "fat boxes" (like Indy 500) were hard to resist because you always felt like you were getting so much more for your money.

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I would have been perfectly satisfied with those three titles but I had an ace up my sleeve. It was a family tradition for me to exchange presents with my younger sister on Christmas Eve. Sure enough, when her gift to me appeared under the tree, it was shaped like an Atari cartridge. Go figure! I handled the wrapped box constantly, as if I was going to discern its contents by feel alone. I made several attempts to trick my sister into divulging the name of the game, but I have to give her credit - she never let on.

I handled that gift so much that by the time I actually opened it on Christmas Eve, the box was kind of bent up. The game was a real shocker: Realsports Volleyball. I had never even mentioned that one in my frequent conversations about Atari games. I played it that night and thought it was terrific. It was a two-on-two beach volleyball game with a scenic blue ocean (complete with waves) in the background. After playing for a while, I left the room, and when I returned my sister was frantically exclaiming to look at the screen. Low and behold there was actually a shark fin patrolling in the water on the horizon! In the old days, little details like that made all the difference.

On Christmas morning I worked my way through the huge pile of gifts to gradually uncover the expected Frogger, Donkey Kong, and Star Raiders. While firing up my Atari 2600 console my mom handed me one last gift. I wasn't too excited because it was shaped like one of those boxes which contained a shirt, socks, or some other worthless article of clothing. But when I brushed aside the tissue paper I nearly had a heart attack. It was E.T.! E.T.!! That's right - the newly-released Atari cartridge that had generated so much fanfare. At that point it was officially the best Christmas of all time.

My sister and I had a blast playing these games while sitting on the carpet still littered with bits of wrapping paper. We would cycle through all of the games but we were especially fascinated with E.T. The game would go down in history as being legendarily bad but we didn't know that. As we guided the little alien between contiguous screens, E.T. would often fall into holes and sometimes find goodies. In one pit there was a dead plant, and when E.T. walked over to it the plant sprung to life! It was pure video game magic.

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In retrospect, the fact that my sister kept repeating, "this is a really good game" was probably an indicator that E.T. wasn't very good. Good games are self-evident. Nobody has ever uttered the words, "You know what? Pac-Man is a really good game!" I vaguely recall the E.T. box still had a $19.99 sticker on it - pretty reasonable for a new Atari cartridge! Retailers had probably seen the writing on the wall and were trying to unload as many copies as possible before the holidays were over.

Frogger and Donkey Kong provided arcade fun, E.T. provided adventure, but it was Star Raiders that delivered the strategy. Packaged in a big fat box that included a special touchpad controller (with overlay), Star Raiders was a serious space simulator. Just figuring out the controls was a challenge! With my sister manning the control pad and me the joystick, we would dutifully attempt to wipe out the Krylon menance and restore peace to the galaxy. Yeah - we used our imaginations back then.

One part of Christmas that always sucked was the obligatory visit to relatives for dinner. I can't recall who it was we visited that year, but I do remember taking the game manuals in the car so I could study them during the drive. On the way back, I had to strain my eyes because it was getting dark. The Donkey Kong manual stated "You'll find that this cartridge is full of special features to make DONKEY KONG exciting every time you play." This tantalizing phrase suggested the game was chock full of hidden rooms and other Easter Eggs. In reality, those Coleco games never contained any extra surprises at all, and usually played exactly the same every time! Good luck finding a shark in that game.

It's difficult to believe that just one year later the video game market would crash and my Atari 2600 would take a backseat to a brand new home computer. It was the end of an era, but I will always cherish the memory of that perfect video game storm that struck on Christmas morning in 1982. Thanks for reading and Merry Christmas!