Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Extent of Their Storage Media (Galaga and Galaxy 5000)

Galaga. Released in 1981, a classic shooter in the Space Invaders mould, the game features nothing but a lone fighter opposed by unceasing waves of enemy spacecraft. Its plot is so scant as to defy even the word threadbare. Inasmuch as any context for its unceasing carnage is offered, it comes from its position as a sequel to Galaxian, whose title screen proclaims "WE ARE THE GALAXIANS / MISSION: DESTROY ALIENS." It is unclear, then, whether the endless warfare is a last desperate act of defense against an alien siege, or a galactic rapine casting us in the lead role of genocidal butcher. That we are xenophobic is a given, but the line between alien and indogene is obscured behind a symphony of chirping space lasers.

I joined the symphony a year after. By the time I developed memories, I was already a video game player. I have never known a time without Galaga, Pac-Man, and Space Invaders. That I have my place on a continual upgrade curve of computer technology is a given of my life.

The contours of this curve, however, are arcane. Obsolescence is a simple fact of embodied existence. The Commodore 64 gives way to the NES, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. An existence defined by media is, in the end, defined by that final scrapping, the ferrying of boxes of VHS tapes, tracking shot all to hell, out to the dumpster.

I sold my NES games for the first time in the summer of 1991, $10 a game from the driveway of my grandparents' house in Mahopac, New York. The tag sale in question was a step along the road to my grandparents' retirement to an apartment attached to the house in Newtown my parents had bought the summer before. Thus in one year I went from a summer burrowed into the basement of that Mahopac house, caught between two residences and playing Mega Man like my life depended on it to a summer selling games off to the scrapheap in anticipation of the resplendent August I did not know was to come.

One never knows the future, despite games like Galaxy 5000 promising a sparkling ferment of racing spaceships blasting merrily at one another. If these games are taken seriously as auguries, the future is merely obsolescence in waiting, the same ropey and awkward controls of the present housed in a new chassis. Thrill as your spaceship awkwardly crashes into wall after wall, then is lapped by another spaceship and shot. Then sell it for $10 on your grandparents' front lawn.

The comfort of the future is that it shall someday be as obsolete as the past, just as the comfort of the past is its quiescent endurance. In an arcade cabinet older than I am, transistors pulse out the unceasing waves of alien invaders. Their obsolescence is predicated on their sempiternity.

In practice, the slew of pugilistic spaceships is not so much eternal as it is bigger than you. Galaga is one of many games to suffer a rollover bug, counting its levels with a single counter maxing at 255 such that the game crashes out at that point. This is not so much an error on the part of the game as an error on the part of the player, who was never supposed to be good enough at the game to see that level. In time, then, the end resolution of the unceasing cosmic hecatomb is obsolescence. Neither the Army of One nor the barbarous hordes cease on their own. Instead the very system they are framed upon, the entire cosmos, the infinite void in which the chirping of their weapons does not echo, in time, is what gives in. 

If the end of the Nintendo Generation is the end of death, its beginning is the perpetuity of death. The knowledge that video games predate the NES is the knowledge of the upgrade curve. As we quickly learned from the ramshackle futures of Galaxy 5000 and the endless legion of futures that are, ultimately, indistinguishable from one another save in their pained mediocrity, the future is nothing more than another box for the dumpster, or another $10 flat rate sale. In time, we too shall fall off the curve, leaving the churn of history for others to navigate.

What video games are played in the world we are gone from? The posthumous entertainments fed by the unfathomed quarters of tomorrow?

Today's Nintendo generation clutches the turquoise mica finish of the 3DS. The lenticular folds of the latest future to fall to earth project anonymous vessels into imagined spaces overlaid onto our own. The latest fad, augmented reality, collapses being into pixels. No longer chained in quarter-fed cabinets, the voids we fly through occupy the same spaces as the air that cycles through our lungs. Our avatars become mocking caricatures of ourselves instead of nameless spaceships. And yet the indogene and the alien have never seemed more comingled.

If gaming has now stumbled off the screen, into the real spaces of our lives, what more frontiers does the upgrade curve have? The naivete necessary to believe the curve ever ends is beyond me, at least. In time these real spaces will make their solemn march towards the dumpster, burnt offerings to some future obsolescence.

All that remains, it seems, is the conversion of time into void. When at long last, the upgrade curve carts itself out to the dumpster. This is not the end of obsolescence, but rather the end of the process of becoming obsolete. When games take place over the lived memory of video gaming, proclaiming their obsolescence at release.

The future is closer than we might admit to Galaxy 5000. The 3DS, for all its sparkle, remains a maddening mess of switches and sliders requiring eternal tinkering, nudging the depth of field into its proper confines. The games sit uneasily in space, as though space recoils from their touch, withering as the shadow of the curve passes overhead. The third dimension is not some immersive fantasy, but an endless reminder that one is at the shiniest point on the curve, sinking inexorably towards not even death, but something far worse - the knowledge that there are those yet to be born, for whom all our futures are nothing more than boxes for the dumpster. And as this final product launch approaches, in the distance, in our own blood and memory, the chirping of the space guns echoes on.


  1. 'Their obsolescence is predicated on their sempiternity.' Nice line; made me think... I guess you're implying that things that die when they're old don't go obsolete. Only things built to last go obsolete. It's like there's something profane about an arcade machine -- it was built to remain animated longer than its "lifetime".

  2. Oh, also, regarding the "upgrade curve" never ending: I agree in spirit with your point about it being naive not to appreciate that one's own era's video games will inevitably (and soon) be obsolete, but the nerd in me as always has to point out the following physical limits of computation, for your interest:

    computation rate / mass

    information / volume

  3. Although it seems to me that processor power is not the only factor. The Wii, after all, is barely a significant technical upgrade to the Gamecube. Its central upgrade was almost wholly unrelated to technical limitations.

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