CNET también está disponible en español.

Ir a español

Don't show this again


Revenge of Pac-Man: Vintage games are back

Aging players and '80s nostalgia are reinvigorating interest in old video games, and an industry that has long focused on the future has become eager to herald its past.

In the early 1980s, when he was 25 and working on the arcade games Defender and Robotron 2084, Eugene Jarvis wasn't sure video games would last.

"There was a fear that everything would just kind of die," he said recently. Video games were new and seemingly impermanent, vulnerable to business convulsions that made him fear that he was involved in a faddish "digital Hula-Hoop" and that ever improving graphics would render early games obsolete. There were even wild theories that spaceborne alpha rays could cause arcade machines to decay.

Cosmic rays and other forces have not yet gotten the best of Jarvis' creations, which are among the most popular in the thriving market of retro games. As players age and '80s nostalgia reinvigorates interest in old games, an industry that has long focused on the present and future has become eager to herald its past.

"Retro's very popular now," said Perrin Kaplan, vice president for marketing and corporate affairs at Nintendo of America, which is introducing a classics game line. "We are part of the initiative that's happening across fashion, music and otherwise."

New York Times

For the latest breaking news, visit

Sign up to receive top headlines

Get Dealbook, a daily corporate finance email briefing

Search the jobs listings at


Last month, Saturn introduced a commercial featuring its Vue sport utility vehicle rolling through a town, absorbing dots to the officially licensed sounds of a grazing Pac-Man. Billboard magazine's Hot 100 singles chart includes "Game Over (Flip),'' a song by the rapper Lil' Flip that contains a beat built from the sounds of Pac-Man.

In the world of retro fashion, video game logos and icons make for trendy T-shirts. (Most of the Atari T-shirts in circulation are not officially licensed, according to Wim Stocks, Atari's executive vice president for sales and marketing. Stocks' company was called Infogrames until, in an acknowledgment of the retro trend last year, it adopted the faded Atari name, which it had purchased three years earlier.)

Next week, Nintendo, which has only sporadically reoffered games from its extensive back catalog, will release a nostalgia line for the Game Boy Advance that includes replica versions of Donkey Kong, Super Mario Brothers and six other titles once playable on TV sets through the 1985 Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES. It will also sell a special Game Boy Advance painted to resemble the NES. The games will retail for $20 each, a price close to that of many retro compilations of five or more games from competing publishers. Kaplan said a similar Nintendo line in Japan sold 1 million games in eight days.

This month the toymaker Jakks Pacific will add two new units to its own classics effort, the million-plus-selling TV Games line. The TV Games devices resemble classic arcade and home-console joysticks but actually contain and play games as well, serving as controller, processor and retro game collection all in one. One new unit will be shaped like a 1970s Atari "paddle" controller. When plugged directly into the TV, it will play 10 Atari classics, including Breakout and Warlords. The other unit resembles an arcade joystick and will include Ms. Pac-Man and four other games.

Stephen G. Berman, president of Jakks Pacific, said the appeal of the products, priced at $25 each and sold in game stores as well as at mainstream retailers like Urban Outfitters and Walgreen's, stretched beyond current gamers. "People who don't have the ability to play and the patience to play PlayStation 2s or the Xboxes have the ability and patience to play our TV Games," he said. The joysticks have been successful enough that two major game publishers, Sega and Konami, announced separate plans last month to license competing products through Radica Games and Majesco, respectively.

Classic video games have not always been easy sells. To the uninitiated, their appeal has often been confounding. Old games tend to be basic and technically as far from today's games as silent film is from Lucasfilm. But aficionados say that well-designed game play can transcend limitations in the graphics.

Jarvis, 49, now a game designer at the arcade maker Raw Thrills, likened the appeal to that of beloved games in other formats. "You never get tired of playing Monopoly or Stratego or hearts," he said. "If you look at the very cream of the crop of the video game medium of the early '80s, there's probably 20 games there that will be fun forever."

Yet like Jarvis, plenty of designers had early doubts about their works' longevity. Yuji Naka, a Sega game developer who programmed the first Sonic the Hedgehog game in 1991, said he expected sequels to the game. "What I did not see,'' he said by e-mail, "was a demand for vintage Sonic games on current, then next-generation platforms."

Industry veterans speak of a bias against old games among those who work to promote new titles. "For many, many years nobody wanted to acknowledge that these things are part of a history," said Julian Eggebrecht, president of the game developer Factor 5. "Marketing people were looking at you with a funny, 'Oh, my God, is he getting old?' "

But now classic games fit into many business plans. Robert Ennis, chief operating officer of Namco, publisher of the transcendent Pac-Man, said that classics represented about 5 percent of his company's revenue. More important, he said, the company's several "museum" collections have involved little financial risk. "The development costs have already been incurred," he said. "They are very profitable and easy to predict."

The classics have worked well not just as as standalone products but as bonuses to newer games, too. Eggebrecht said his development team included an influential 1982 Star Wars arcade game as a bonus in its 2003 Star Wars title to show gamers the inspiration behind the 2003 game.

In 2002, Atari programmers added to the entertainment value of a racing game, Test Drive, by letting gamers play Pong during between-level load times. The same year, Nintendo designers enabled players to collect and play classic Nintendo games in the virtual town of the console game Animal Crossing. Enthusiasm for that feature helped inspire Nintendo's classic line, according to Kaplan.

Digital Eclipse, a company often hired to bring old games to new machines, is having its busiest year of retro projects yet, according to its creative director, Mike Mika. The diversity of the company's work reflects the broadening uses for old games: retro compilations for consoles and the PC, an assignment to insert classic Tron arcade games into a 2004 Tron title, and the squeezing of the once-controversial 1992 fighting game Mortal Kombat into cell phones for THQ Wireless.

Digital Eclipse has also brought Jarvis' work to multiple platforms, including the current rights-holder's Web site, where they can be played free.

Once relatively rare, some classic games are now likely to be owned in multiples. Greg Canessa, group manager of casual games at Microsoft, where he is creating a classic-games download service for the Xbox called Xbox Live Arcade, said he owns 16 versions of Pac-Man, and will "still stick quarters into Pac-Man when I see it at the old soda shop or burger joint."

"There's just something about the classics,'' he said, adding, "I'll be an old man playing these games."

Entire contents, Copyright © 2004 The New York Times. All rights reserved.