14 August 1999

CVG 101: Classic Video Games in a Nutshell (originally for Classic Gamer Magazine)

[Classic Gamer Magazine introductionThis article was originally published in CGM volume 1, #1 (fall 1999). This is the article as I submitted it and may not exactly match what was published.]

Welcome to the first CVG 101 column. My name is Lee K. Seitz, and I’ve been actively collecting classic video games since the late 1980s. The purpose of this column is to help educate newcomers to the hobby of collecting classic video games. Each issue I’ll pick a different topic to explain. I hope you find these columns both educational and entertaining. For this, my first column, I’m simply going to try to define many terms often used within the hobby while giving a brief history of home video games.

If you’re on the Internet, there’s a Usenet newsgroup where collectors discuss classic video games. Its name is rec.games.video.classic, or r.g.v.c for short. If you’re not familiar with newsgroups, I’m afraid it’s too big a topic to go into detail about here. Try a site like DejaNews (www.dejanews.com) or RemarQ (www.remarq.com). You’ll see many of the terms I discuss here come up in the discussions in r.g.v.c.

First, let’s cover the home video game systems of the classic age (roughly 1972-1984). You are probably familiar with the some of the major systems of the time, particularly Atari’s. The Atari 2600 was first released as the Atari Video Computer System (VCS). When Atari released it’s second programmable system, the Atari 5200 Super System, they went back and changed the VCS to the 2600. Atari later released the Atari 7800 Pro System, which could play both games designed for it and 2600 games.

Although the Atari 2600 was the reigning champion of the classics, it was not the first console. That was the Magnavox Odyssey, released in 1972. It was a very simple system that played mainly pong-type games. It came with overlays to tape to the TV screen and numerous cards and game boards to help enhance it. Next came Atari’s Pong for homes, based on their Pong coin-op (coin-operated) game. It’s success spawned numerous imitators, notably Magnavox’s Odyssey series and Coleco’s Telstar series.

The first programmable console was the Fairchild Channel F, but the 2600 was released shortly thereafter, quickly taking the lead. Again, Atari’s success created competitors. Magnavox’s first truly programmable system, the Odyssey 2, was notable for its full keyboard. Toy company Mattel created the Intellivision, which upped the ante on graphics. Meanwhile Milton Bradley bought out GCE (General Consumer Electronics) and released their Vectrex. The Vectrex is unique in that it is the only home game system to use vector graphics. Vector graphics are those found in arcade games like Asteroids and Tempest, where everything is drawn with straight lines.

Finally, the technology ante was upped again, this time by Coleco with their Colecovision. And then came the Crash.... The Crash was a period in 1983-84 in which the video game market took a nose-dive. This was caused by several factors, including a glut of sub-par games and the falling cost of home computers. Many video game companies went out of business during this time. Most collectors consider this the end of the classic era. It took a company new to the American home video game market to turn things around when they released the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in 1985.

As you can see, there are many "classic" systems out there. You might wonder where you can find them and their cartridges (carts, for short). There are several places. If you have a lot of time, but little money, search thrift stores (such as Value Village or those run by the Salvation Army or Goodwill), flea markets, and yard sales. Some collectors visit thrift stores so often that they’ve coined a word for the act of visiting several thrift stores around town: thrifting.

If, on the other hand, you have plenty of money, but not much time, you might try a classic video game dealer. Yes, there really are people who have made a business out of selling old video games. There are no national chains that do so, which makes finding them hard. On the bright side, most do their business via mail order throughout the country. Check out some of the ads in this issue. [Cav, do any dealers have ads going into the first issue? If not I’ll need to rewrite this part.] Another option is Internet auction sites such as eBay (www.ebay.com) or Amazon (www.amazon.com).

Notice I made the distinction of time vs. money. That’s because some items are rarer than others. For example, you’ll have no problems finding an Atari 2600 and a dozen games, while finding a Vectrex with any games can be quite a feat. Some enterprising collectors have created rarity lists of the games for various systems. The first to do so was Craig Pell, also known as VGR. (Only he knows what that stands for.) He created a 2600/7800 rarity list. While it is still around and often referred to, it has not been updated in some time so portions of it are outdated. Many lists use the same rarity ratings VGR created: C = common, U = uncommon, R = rare, ER = extremely rare, and UR = unbelievably rare. There is also an unofficial rating of OC (obnoxiously common) that people use in conversation to refer to Atari 2600 Combat and such.

A great way to get rarity lists for most classic systems is to buy the Digital Press Classic Videogame Collector’s Guide, more commonly known as the Digital Press Guide or DPG. Digital Press (www.digitpress.com) is a fanzine dedicated to all home video game systems, old and new, with more emphasis on old. It rates games and hardware on a rarity scale of 1 (common) to 10 (practically unique). It covers most of the systems mentioned above from the Channel F to the NES. To get a copy send $20 (for U.S. and Canada; $30 elsewhere) to Joe Santulli at Digital Press, 44 Hunter Place, Pompton Lakes, NJ 07442. [Prices and address for historical reasons only. Do NOT send money to this address.]

You might wonder what kind of items get rated a 10. Well, they’re mostly prototypes. The term prototype is used to refer to pre-production cartridges. These are generally of two types. The first is a cartridge containing an EPROM (erasable, programmable read only memory) chip that the programmer used to test his or her game on an actual console. In general, the programmer would erase and reuse a cartridge many times during the development process, so few of these exist. The more highly regarded ones are those that contain either a game with some differences from the commercially released version or a game that was never released at all. The second type are called "lab loaners." These were pre-production, but usually completed, games sent to magazines and such for review. Because of the lead time in publishing a magazine, game companies had to get the games to the reviewers early in order for the review to be published at the same time the game was released. These prototypes were supposed to be returned to the game company afterwards, but many were not. They generally have an official, yet generic label on them including the address to return them to.

Finally, let me mention holy grails. These are the games or systems that collectors prize most of all. Now not every collector considers the same game(s) to be his "holy grail." One that many collectors want, however, is Chase the Chuckwagon. (In fact, some collectors use the phrase "chasing the chuckwagon" instead of "thrifting.") Chase the Chuckwagon is an Atari 2600 game that was only available by mail order from Purina if you collected enough proofs of purchase from their dog food. Therefore, it’s fairly rare. It’s far from the rarest 2600 game, but it’s taken on a certain mystique among collectors. Good luck finding your own holy grails, whatever they may be.

Postscript (June 2013)

As you can tell, this is my first article for Classic Gamer Magazine. It appeared in CGM #1 (fall 1999). I chose the date August 14th for the first day of Classic Gaming Expo '99, where the magazine debuted.

I touched on many topics here that I wrote about previously for Suite 101You'll notice this was back when r.g.v.c was still the center of the collecting hobby and before Google bought up DejaNews' Usenet archives.

This is the original article, before Chris "Cav" Cavanaugh did any editing, so I left in the comment addressed to him to give you a behind-the-scenes peek.  As it turned out, there were no advertisers for the first issue, so the sentence before the comment was struck and the sentence before the struck one was modified to say, "...via mail order throughout the country and many are based on the World Wide Web."  And remember when Amazon tried to go head-to-head with ebay by doing auctions?

Craig "VGR" Pell's list is still around (although even more outdated), as is the Digital Press web site (but not so outdated).