We Bought Our Sons a New Gaming System…and a History Lesson

"Like" this post if you have ever used one of these! Image credit: Patricia Vollmer.
“Like” this post if you have ever used one of these! Image credit: Patricia Vollmer.

You’ve said it to your kids when they complain about how difficult life is. Go ahead…admit it.

“Back in my day, we had it hard!

“We walked uphill in a blizzard to school…both ways!”

“Your Dad and I had only seven TV channels! And if you missed your favorite show, you were doomed until the rerun came on!”

“If you didn’t rewind the video cassette rental before returning it, you were charged a fine!

Recently, my husband and I had heard some commentary from our 10- and 13-year-old sons about how primitive their Wii video game system is compared to their XBox 360. That seemed to spark quite a family conversation one evening.

That opened the floodgates of back-in-my-dayisms:

“Back when we were your ages, there was no internet to play XBox Live! One or two players. In person. Side-by-side. That was it.”

“Imagine what video games were like in the 1980s! Everything was connected with wires!”

“You think the 8-bit look in Minecraft is retro and cute? When we were kids, it was the most amazing thing in the history of ever!

In a fit of nostalgia, my husband and I bought an Atari 2600 with 10 games on eBay.

You heard right. We bought a 35-year-old video gaming system to give our sons a glimpse of what it was like…back when it was hard.

Our new gaming system. The controls were so incredibly simple back then. Image credit: Patricia Vollmer.
Our new gaming system. The controls were so incredibly simple back then. Image credit: Patricia Vollmer.

Okay, it wasn’t quite as impulsive as that might sound. It was actually our 10-year-old son who put the idea in our heads. We were talking about PONG, the Atari systems, the Commodore-64 I grew up with, the Sega Genesis my husband had in high school, and other old-school gaming systems. Our youngest asked if we could still buy those systems.

Since we like answering our kids’ questions truthfully, we took a peek on eBay. We were greeted with dozens of options. It was actually rather overwhelming. After showing the boys what kinds of prices Atari 2600s sell for now, we tried to put the idea out of their heads. But my husband and I got to talking. Why couldn’t we get an Atari? It’d be nostalgic, and it’d give our sons an appreciation for how far gaming has come in less than 40 years since PONG.

We continued to watch eBay for a few days. One of the things that caught our attention was whether the gaming systems had been re-fitted to work with our modern-day HDTVs. The original gaming consoles had a “switch box” that connected to your TV via a pair of antenna leads. The backs of most modern TVs don’t have a place to host such leads, so it’s best to find either an adapter switch box, or a gaming console that’s been re-fitted with a coaxial or composite cables. We found one that had been refurbished with a coaxial cable.

A sampling of some of the games we've been able to find so far. There are still several on our wish lists, but there's no hurry. We're having a great time with these ones. Image credit: Patricia Vollmer.
A sampling of some of the games we’ve been able to find so far. There are still several on our wish lists, but there’s no hurry. We’re having a great time with these ones. Image credit: Patricia Vollmer.

Most of the gaming systems offered on eBay also will come with a complement of games. My husband and I discussed our favorite games, and found a refurbished console with two joysticks and 10 games that included a couple of our favorites. I was insisting on Combat!, while my husband really wanted to show our sons Asteroids and Missile Command. The lot we bought included other favorites such as Pac-Man, Frogger, and Donkey Kong.

We surprised our sons on a Friday evening after the eBay order arrived and they were delighted! We showed our sons how the gaming console had to be plugged into the back of the TV with the primitive coaxial cable, and how the joysticks had to be plugged into the console and would remain connected.

“What? The joysticks aren’t wireless?” #FirstWorldProblems (Our sons’ first memories of a modern gaming system is a Wii in 2007.)

For the first time in a very long time, we were turning our TV not to “HDMI-1” or “HDMI-2”, but to the “TV” input. That’s the part of the TV where you could change channels. The Atari has a switch in the back where you determine whether the console would connect with Channel 2 or 3. We had to teach our sons what that meant.

This cracked our sons up. They had to walk all the way back to the console to restart the game. Image credit: Patricia Vollmer.
This cracked our sons up. They had to walk all the way back to the console to restart the game. Image credit: Patricia Vollmer.

After the initial giggles at how basic the Atari’s sounds and graphics are, they enjoyed several hours of playing the same favorites my husband and I had enjoyed as elementary school children in the early 1980s. Our sons made numerous comments about how stiff the joystick controller is, and how frustrating it was to be stuck with a wired controller.

My husband and I had fun showing our sons the tricks and techniques to conquering our old favorite games. We even showed them how to blow into the cartridges if the game didn’t properly turn on.

We’ve had our “new” Atari 2600 for about a month and our sons enjoy playing the games a little bit every week. My husband and I are on the lookout for good second-hand deals on the following games from our youth: PONG, Breakout or Super Breakout, Missile Command, Adventure, and River Raid. The first two on that list require the “paddle” controllers, which didn’t come with our original purchase. It’s trickier on the checkbook to order individual games, but if you take your time in your search you can find one for as little as $5 with free shipping.

Who else out there in our geekdom plays Atari? What are your favorite games?

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Patricia Vollmer is a geeky meteorologist mother of two emerging geek sons, ages 11 & 14. Patricia blogs about her family's nomadic military life at Ground Control to Major Mom. Home is always where the Air Force sends her family, which for now is in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Hobbies include running, despite no one chasing her, and exploring the world with her boys. Ask her why the sky is blue at your own risk.