Playable Classics

I’ve talked before about my distrust of nostalgia. But, I like playing, reading about, and writing about old videogames. This presents something of a conundrum.

Many discussions of old videogames are colored by nostalgia. Gamers of a certain age have strong opinion on whether the Atari 800 or Commodore 64 version of a given game was better, and have been known to come to blows over the issue. Worse, though, is the tendency to only remember the good things about games we played when we were younger. So you’ll hear people talking about how the games today aren’t as good as something from 30 years ago, conveniently forgetting about how terrible the UI was on that older game, and how the older game didn’t actually let you save your game, so if you wanted to finish it you needed to sit in front of your computer for 36 hours straight. To try to prevent this from happening here, I’m introducing a concept I call “Playable Classics.” A playable classic is a game that you could pick up today and play on your Windows or Mac box and enjoy just as much as if you picked up a new game off the shelf. I’ll still talk about old games that aren’t Playable Classics, but only the ones that meet certain criteria will get the label. If I say something is a Playable Classic, I give you my word that it’s not just a memory-laden reverie, but a game you should go download and install right now.

The rules are very simple.

First, the game mechanics have to have stood the test of time and still be fun. This is a somewhat subjective judgment on my part. If the game’s UI requires a printed reference card so that you can figure out that “move your man 3 steps up and to the right” requires you to type “s6m45,3” because there’s no in-game help and if you type it wrong the game just beeps and prints a question mark, it ain’t a playable classic. This eliminates a lot of games that were good at the time, but wouldn’t be tolerated today. Fortunately, it also leaves a lot of games in contention.

Second, you have to be able to start the game on a Windows or Mac computer by just double-clicking on an application icon. In other words, it has to be a simple installable app. No emulators, no Apple ][ disk images, and so on (to be clear: it’s fine if the app is “really” an emulator dedicated to running that one game, but the user must not need to know that or install third-party software to get the game to work). I expect some people might disagree with this criteria, but really: if you’re the type of person who is dedicated enough to install an emulator and start fetching disk images or ROMs, you probably already know what you like and don’t need my recommendations. This rule is designed to restrict the field to the true classics, games that were so great that someone looked at them and said “I can’t possibly let this game die. I’m going to keep it alive no matter what.”

So that’s the plan. I’ll be reviewing the first Playable Classic later this week. If you’ve got suggestions for games you think merit the title, feel free to send them my way.