Bill McMullen knows from cool. He co-owns a shop in Solita called Goto, where he sells cool bags and a clothing line with his partner, Tony Chan. Unassuming in manner and catholic in creativity, McMullen also designs CD covers and DVD title sequences for those avatars of cool, the Beastie Boys. Flipping through his sketchbook, you can easily see McMullen understands the cultural crosscurrents, ripples, and eddies that are imperceptible to the rest of us.
So when McMullen and Chan decide to stage an exhibit of classic handheld video games at their shop, you know it’s for a better reason than nostalgia. This would seem, after all, a peculiar moment for such a show, with Sony set to finally release the American version of PlayStation 2. To say this is an eagerly anticipated event is an understatement along the lines of saying the wheel was a remarkable improvement in transportation. This new best thing will offer a much-enlarged computer, greatly enhanced graphics, the ability to play all the games written for the original PlayStation, access to the Internet, and a drive for DVD movies.
So why, in this age of limitless gaming possibility—when careering through Gran Turismo 2 is only slightly less realistic than riding shotgun with Bobby Rahal in the Indy 500—is there a burgeoning interest in vintage video games, the humble precursor to PlayStation’s celestial achievement? “Because they’re just really cool,” says McMullen. “These old games date back to when technology was more than our background environment. These games were just a little more powerful than a calculator, but they’re a blast to play.”
He’s right. Just walk in and start playing. All of the games on display at McMullen’s Kenmare Street shop are loaded with batteries and ready for action. And as soon as the intro theme to Frogger comes bleating from the cheap, pale-green plastic console, you’ll recall the thrill you felt when you discovered the simple ability to move one blip past other blips on a fixed screen. Of course, few of the stone-age-era video games offered the same challenge and—let’s admit it—cute factor as Frogger, but the duds are almost as much fun to reencounter as the ancient faves. Remember Merlin, or the pocket Simon? How about Mattel’s original football game, where your red LED pixel battles for yardage against a fearsome force of other, slightly dimmer LED pixels on a silk-screen gridiron?
McMullen’s not the only one charmed by the dinosaurs of our youth. “There has been an explosion of interest in vintage video games,” says Jesse LaBrocca, proprietor of Multimedia 1.0, widely regarded as Manhattan’s premier source for the gaming enthusiast. LaBrocca has filled a six-foot-high glass cabinet with vintage handheld games, some of the same models that receive more rarefied treatment further downtown at Goto. The games at Multimedia 1.0 are for sale, but they aren’t cheap. The original handheld Ms. Pac-Man, for instance, runs a cool $149.99. Not that the price is deterring anyone. “Sales have been vigorous, especially during the holidays,” says LaBrocca.
But why? McMullen has a few theories. “There’s something almost romantic about the way one machine is devoted to one game,” he says. Because the heyday of the handheld predated the cartridge, form and function blend with surprising finesse. Mattel’s baseball game is shaped like a baseball diamond, the basketball game like a basketball. There’s also, he points out, an innocent, old-school exuberance in the design that recalls an era when technology was a plaything, not the agent of worldwide financial collapse (Y2K, anyone?). And in the end, maybe we love old video games because we love old things and the memories they induce, the rosy glow we cast over our otherwise checkered past. LaBrocca, who has a personal collection of over 200 old handhelds, echoes the sentiment. “When you’re a kid, you’re easily awed. Passion and realization come to you through a video game. The classic handhelds offer people the chance to recapture that feeling of giddy amazement that new tech never really offers. No one ever buys a classic handheld and walks out grumpy.”