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Old 09-25-2012, 03:51 PM   #1 (permalink)
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A Look at the Atari Abroad

I organized this week's cover story on the history of the Atari 2600 while in Japan to cover Tokyo Game Show 2012, and at some point a tiny little gear clicked over in my brain and made me wonder, "What kind of 2600 culture can I find in Tokyo's retro-heavy game shops?" Well, not 2600 culture, per se; in Japan, the Atari VCS was redubbed the 2800. I sincerely have no idea what the name change signified, but I do know that the system is fairly obscure over there. In fact, In all the years I've been scouring Japanese retro shops for classics, I can't recall ever having seen the system or its games -- save for one instance.

The famous (if oddly named) Akihabara retro shop Super Potato carries a single Atari 2800 system, in box, in its middle-floor collection of miscellany. This same box has been sitting on the shelves here for several years, and sure enough, it was still there during TGS 2012. It's a beauty of a system: The packing is in excellent condition (despite the inexplicable packing wrap bisecting two of its axes) and nicely reveals some startlingly clean graphic design that honestly would work well enough today. The lack of typical cheesy '80s English-language fonts really pays off, and the silver field remains fairly stylish now. Only the fashion choices of the decidedly non-Japanese family on the box front betray its age.

OK, fair enough, but why has this unit clogged up Super Potato's shelves for several years? My guess is that the price tag has something to do with it: Nice as this machine may be, I imagine prospective buyers choke at the ¥35,600 price (which, when you factor in the exchange rate, works out to be almost $500). But there's also the fact that the 2800 seems to have been a blip at most in Japan.

The video loop running nonstop on the rack above the 2800's perpetual home at Super Potato may actually be the only time I've seen VCS graphics displayed in Japan. The simple fact is that, despite this country's backward-looking affection for video games, that love doesn't extend to the 2600/2800. Super Potato carries a 2800 system, but not a single game (we asked). And that's more than any other retro shop I've visited in Tokyo; those stores don't even offer a system.

It seems like a huge gap in the collective mindset here. Super Potato carries Intellivision games, for crying out loud!

Heck, the place even carries a ton of games for Cassette Vision, a primitive machine by Epoch that the 2600/2800 completely crushed in terms of technology and game output. But no: No one carries 2800 games over here.

Even Mandarake Galaxy in Nakano has sections for who-cares systems like the Pippin @mark, which might be the most pathetic thing ever. And yet, nothing for 2800.

And why not? Ultimately, it boils down to a matter of timing. As you may notice from the box above, the 2800 arrived in Japan late enough to arrive in the system's second physical revision, the solid black (rather than wood-paneled) version. In point of fact, it actually launched in Japan after the Famicom (NES), as well as its competitors the Sega SG-1000 (the proto-Master System) and the MSX computer system. In comparison, the Atari 2800 must have looked awfully pitiful in comparison, with its simple and blocky graphics. The Japanese perspective on game history generally revolves around key arcade titles (Space Invaders), the Famicom, and (to a somewhat lesser extent) personal computers. The 2800, then, would seem to represent an unwelcome interloper, arriving years too late to be relevant and likely as doomed by Atari's imminent collapse as by the explosive rise of the Famicom.

And, generally speaking, the 2600's fate was largely the same elsewhere in the world. European gamers look back to their 8-bit microcomputers as the fertile crescent of their memories the same way that Japanese fans reminisce fondly over the Famicom. The 2600, for all its importance, played a valuable role as midwife to an industry's birthing pains -- the companies responsible for game development and sales were still figuring out the basics. Atari did plenty right with the 2600, but they barely scratched the surface of the international market. As a result, the machine remains a predominantly American experience... though as the system grows older and moves further away from the memories of the core gamer, ultimately all nations will be united in their unfamiliarity with the 2600. A veritable modern-day Babel of forgetfulness!
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