Retro Games, Devices, Recall Electronic Youth
Sun Dec 21, 3:14 PM ET Add Technology - Reuters to My Yahoo!
By Franklin Paul
NEW YORK (Reuters) - When Cindy Simmons and her husband get home from a hard day at the office, they cozy up and relax like many young couples -- by bombing enemy ships on "River Raid" using their classic Atari video game console.
"It is just like being 11 years old again," said Simmons, 32, an on-air radio personality from Atlanta. "Except I didn't have 30 games then -- now I do."
High-tech gadgets like digital cameras top many holiday wish lists, but old-school items such as "Pac-Man" video games and vintage televisions are finding an audience with tech-savvy consumers yearning for nostalgia.
Rapid advances in computer technology have allowed consumer electronics makers to pack increasingly more power into smaller boxes, helping to grow the CE market to almost $100 billion.
But even "thirtysomething" shoppers -- the first generation to grow up with personal "Walkman" music players and own a home version of "Space Invaders" -- are overwhelmed when confronted with Sony Corp (NYSE:SNE - news) (news - web sites). PlayStation 2 (news - web sites) and Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox (news - web sites) consoles that also surf the Web and play DVDs, or pocket devices that can store 10,000 songs.
"Devices and games are getting more complex. The learning curve is not what it used to be and or you're not as willing to spend the time to learn as you would years ago," analyst Danielle Levitas of research firm IDC said. "Also, every generation experiences nostalgia, reflecting on what they did in their free time when they were teen-agers."
The trend is most evident with video games. Teens today enjoy them primarily on living room consoles that can, for example, simulate with stunning three-dimensional precision, a World War II battle scene. A single game, packed with maps and myriad weaponry, can take hours to learn and weeks to complete.
By contrast, beloved games of late 1970s and early 1980s were no-brainers, where strategy meant little more than picking whether to chase and chomp the stationary picture of a strawberry or the red cone-shaped monster with the googly eyes.
"The essence of these games was that they didn't go on for 40 hours. You can just pick up and figure out what was going on fairly quickly and then play," said Keith Robinson, president of Intellivision Productions, which is also selling a version of its 1980s games for new game consoles.
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At eBay Inc.'s online auction site, more than 43,000 vintage gaming items are being offered for sale, including the classic brand names Atari, Colecovision and Commodore. Gross merchandise sales -- the value of goods sold via the site -- for Commodore alone are up 61 percent for the last three months.
"This growth is related to the children of baby boomers wanting to recapture a piece of their youth in the early 1980s," eBay spokesman Hani Durzy said.
Intellivision this year is offering "Intellivision Lives!" for PS2 and Xbox, resurrecting long-forgotten titles like "Shark! Shark!" and "Space Armada." Its Intellivision 25 direct-to-TV controller lets users without a console play 25 games by plugging a game controller into their TV or VCR.
Similar game controller products are available from Atari, Activision and Namco, bringing "Dig Dug" and "Asteroids" from the era of Lionel Ritchie and Diane Keaton to that of Missy Elliott and Ben Affleck.
Each game controller looks almost exactly like the original joystick-and-single-button model -- a relic compared to current models that often sport six buttons and two directional sticks.
"People identify with the original Atari 2600 joystick," said Genna Goldberg of JAKKS Pacific Inc., which makes the three joystick games. "For many it was the first video game system they had as a kid."
The nostalgia trend extends beyond games. For example, one of PalmOne Inc.'s most successful handheld computers is in its Zire line of no-frills versions whose features are more like that of its 1998 forefather, the Palm III.
Data storage company Verbatim Corp. sells blank recordable computer CDs whose face resembles a vinyl album. The "Digital Vinyl CD-R," which looks like an old, groovy 45-rpm record, is marketed as "a great way to save delicate LP collections" and urges buyers to "grab a blast from the past."
Dave Riedel and Mike Scott, principal partners at Telstar Electronics in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, sell 1950's style 21- and 24-inch "Predicta" televisions. Each is as eye-catching for its design and hand-polished wood as a 50-inch plasma screen is for its flatness.
Riedel says buyers of the TVs, which come cable-ready with a remote control and sell for up to $3,300, understand today's advanced technology, but want something more unique.
"They don't need a big TV in order to have a satisfied life," he said. "And they are not afraid to embrace technology -- a majority of our sales are assisted by our Web site."
According to IDC's Levitas, this nostalgia market is still a niche category, "but one that should have legs and evolve with the aging population."
(The PluggedIn column appears weekly. Comments or questions on this one can be e-mailed to franklin.paul(at)reuters.com.)