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If you’re one of those people old enough to remember what an 8-bit game console looked like, or just interested in seeing some of the games that later birthed pop-culture icons like Super Mario Bros., pay a visit to the Internet Archive.
Some volunteer programmers put together a collection of classic games from the consoles of the late 70s and early 80s that can be played on a Web browser. There’s a list of games from the Atari 2600, which was probably the biggest driver of the home video game market in the early 80s and best-remembered, as well as competitors like the ColecoVision. There’s even space for the lesser-known Magnavox Odyssey and the Astrocade. No Intellivision, though, so fans of that might have to wait. The games don’t have sound yet — but a note on the Archive’s site says it’s coming.
According to the BBC, the games are copyrighted, but the publishers aren’t making the cartridges that originally stored the games anymore, so they tend to ignore the communities of programmers who port the games to modern machines.
Besides the nostalgia factor, it’s worth looking at the games to see what early programmers had to work with, and the ingenious ways they made use of limited computing power.
The memory available in a typical Atari 2600 game cartridge was four kilobytes, or about the size of some text-only email messages — it could have been increased to 32K, but that’s still several orders of magnitude less than a relatively “simple” modern game like Angry Birds. The console itself had only 128 bytes of RAM. Even an advanced machine like the ColecoVision was only operating with 16K of video RAM.
Or to put it another way, the resolution of the entire screen of an Atari 7800, released in 1984, was about 320×280 pixels, which on a typical laptop screen is a rectangle just about four and a half inches wide by four inches tall.