Wanna play? Old games get new life

A fan of classic games creates software for Pocket PC and Palm handhelds that faithfully re-creates inexpensive electronic Mattel games that were popular in the '70s and '80s.

3 min read
The retro video game craze is taking another step back in time.

A programmer and self-avowed fan of classic video games has created software for Pocket PC and Palm handhelds that faithfully re-creates a breed of inexpensive handheld electronic games made popular by Mattel in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

In creating LEDhead, software programmer Peter Hirschberg has managed to capture much of the essence of the simple games, which consisted of a few blinking light-emitting diodes (LEDs) moving around a painted screen.

The software, when run on a $600 Compaq iPaq, does a good job capturing the low-tech environment of the games, complete with blinking lights and high-pitched sound effects. At the time, such handheld games sold for around $20 and could be powered by a single 9-volt battery.

Each game offered a simplistic take on a particular sport such as basketball, soccer and football. Titles along other themes included "Space Alert" and "Sub Chase." Hirschberg offers 11 of the games with LEDhead software.

According to a poll on the Web site, the two versions of football are by far the most popular, with baseball a distant third.

Hirschberg said the response from fans of the games has been quite emotional.

"I get e-mails daily from people nearly in tears they are so happy to be able to play these games again," Hirschberg said in an e-mail.

The effort to bring back the Mattel games is part of a larger trend of using today's technology to play yesterday's games. Another Web site offers PC-based simulations of other handheld games, while Motorola is looking to re-create classic Atari video games for its cell phones.

Stand-up arcade games such as Pong and Pac-Man have already enjoyed a renaissance with a number of imitations. Meanwhile, the original stand-up consoles serve as a status symbol at underground music spots and trendy art shows.

Hirschberg said he was inspired after buying his favorite childhood game, "Space Alert," on eBay.

"Being a programmer, I found that I couldn't help myself writing little code routines in my head for the game logic," he said. "So I wrote a little program that emulated the logic just sort of as a brain teaser exercise."

One game turned into several, and Hirschberg eventually decided to consolidate all the games into a single program.

"That gave me the idea of porting to handheld devices," he said. "I thought the synergy of having these old handheld games on a modern-day handheld device about the same size...It was just too cool to pass up."

To avoid stepping on any toes with LEDhead, Hirschberg spent hours writing programs that closely match the original games, without using any of the original code. "LEDhead uses simple but extremely clever imitation to ensure excruciating faithfulness to the games you grew up with," Hirschberg proclaims on his Web site.

LEDhead baseball LEDhead is being offered free, although Hirschberg is accepting donations. For those without a handheld, Hirschberg offers a Windows version.

But with Xbox, PlayStation and dozens of realistic gaming worlds to choose from, why would gaming fans want to go back in time?

"Without an effort to preserve these memorable games, most or all of them would eventually fade into obscurity," Hirschberg said on his Web site. "Many already have. It is my endeavor to ensure these games are remembered into the future as the culturally significant icons I believe they represent."

And while LEDhead is free, investment banker Tom Taulli says there is money to be made by looking in technology's rearview mirror.

"Many who played video games in the 1970s are now--hopefully--professionals who have a sense of nostalgia," said Taulli, who works for NetCap Ventures. "They remember the fun of playing Pong and Pac-Man and want to do it again, but perhaps this time on a mobile device."

Taulli said the retro trend goes beyond tech.

Volkswagen "has been bringing back its classic cars from the 1960s, and they are selling like hot cakes," he said. "I think this is a great strategy, especially when marketing and branding (new products) can be very expensive."