It’s been a while since I’ve posted about a film or TV show inspired by something utterly ridiculous. So to refresh your memory: There’s a Monopoly movie coming, a movie based on the computer game Myst, a reality show in which former celebrity mistresses get plastic surgery, a reality show based on the Chilean miners, a movie based on the how-to book What to Expect When You’re Expecting, a movie based on the Rubik’s Cube, and many others. Well, let’s add a fresh one to the list: Pac-Man, the reality show.
According to the press release, the series will be a “big, crazy Wipeout-type event with a lot of energy.” No idea what that means, but I’m picturing a dude dressed up in a puffy yellow jacket running around a maze eating cherries and being chased by ghosts. I can only assume the show was conceived as a metaphor for post-industrial consumerism.
As one of the few names on the BlackBook masthead old enough to have suffered from Pac-Man fever as a child, I’ve watched Atari’s decades-long decline with melancholy. Back in the early eighties, every kid whose parents weren’t absolutely horrible had an Atari 2600 console connected to the TV in the living room. We spent countless hours avoiding homework and sunlight while playing simplistic games like Combat, Haunted House, and Space Invaders. When forced to leave the house, we’d head for the pixelated warmth of the video arcade to pump coins into the Missile Command, Tempest, and Centipede machines. We swapped game strategies, took pictures of our high scores on Kaboom! to send in for the patch, and formed a nerdy video game club at school. For several years, Atari was the most important brand in our lives.
A series of management blunders and the introduction of superior gaming systems like Intellivision and Nintendo – not to mention the proliferation of the personal computer – gradually turned the video game giant into an also-ran. But it never completely disappeared, and today, as the LA Times helpfully informs us, Atari is making a big comeback, entering the burgeoning online gaming market with reboots of old classics as well as new releases that can be downloaded or played on social networks. It’s still unknown if they can produce hit games like they used to, but they’ve got one business line with a good shot at success: licensing.
Yes, Atari is finally going to license its iconic logo and many classic games for consumer products and even a couple of movies. Before long, scenesters from Brooklyn to the Bay Area may be wearing fully-licensed Atari T-shirts, toting Atari tote bags, and carrying their dachshunds in Atari dog carriers. My reaction? Way to strike while the iron is hot, guys. It’s only been, what, 25 years since Atari was on top of the video game world? Nostalgia and retro-kitsch are all fine and good, as long as people remember who you are. But people like me who grew up with Atari are dangerously close to being past the age of novelty T-shirts and throwback logos.
Will the twenty-somethings of today, who know not the joy of playing PONG for the first time, embrace the brand as an ironic signifier? Or will it mean nothing more to them than any other forgotten company, relegated to the ash bin of history by superior technology? Perhaps all it needs is a little boost from a cultural icon old enough to have fond childhood memories of the company. Do you think Jay-Z would wear an Atari shirt in his next video?