Atari, Mario and more: Hands on at Singapore’s only video game museum
One of Singapore’s most unusual museums, the JCU Museum Of Video And Computer Games, offers a glimpse into the history of gaming – and you can try your hand at it too.
Raving about Black Mirror: Bandersnatch? You might be interested to know there’s an actual old school video game you can play in Singapore that has a connection with the Netflix hit show of the moment.
Somewhere inside a small room at the campus of James Cook University Singapore is a 1980s computer game called Attack Of The Mutant Camels – and its creator Jeff Minter actually makes a cameo playing the author of the fictional “choose your own adventure” book on which the Bandersnatch game is based.
The rare old-school game is one of hundreds of rare items found in the JCU Museum Of Video And Computer Games, an unusual museum dedicated to the history of video games. Set up in 2013, it includes paraphernalia, gaming consoles from as far back as the 1970s as well as around 300 games including classics such as Pac Man and Space Invaders.
The place is the brainchild of Roberto Dillon, an associate professor at the university and video game expert. “The idea was to show how some of the old arcade, computer and console games still have a lot to teach people, especially those in the casual gaming and mobile space,” said the 45-year-old Italian, who reckons it’s the first and so-far only video game museum in Southeast Asia. They also regularly hold retro game-related events such as gaming marathons and also the National Singapore Tetris Championships.
While it’s housed inside a school, members of the public can also schedule an appointment to drop by and even play some of these retro gems.
RETRO CONSOLES GALORE
The consoles themselves are a unique draw, and include units such as the Magnavox Odyssey, the first home video game system that came out in 1972, and more well-known ones from that era such as the Atari VCS and IntelleVision. The museum’s collection also include more current consoles older millennials might be familiar with, such as the Nintendo Entertainment System, Sega Master Systems and the PlayStation.
But video games are really all about the games – and visitors have a chance to try their hand at fiddling with an Atari joystick to play with ET: The Extraterrestial, which is widely considered the worst video game ever made, or reminisce with Mario Brothers or Sonic The Hedgehog.
While it’s hardly a video game centre – and we doubt you could stay for an all-nighter – it’s a nice introduction into the evolution of video games, especially with the nostalgia-driven resurgence of interest thanks to pop culture landmarks such as Stranger Things and Ready Player One (the 1980 game Adventure that played a pivotal part in the movie’s ending is actually in the museum).
“It’s all due to the people of our generation who are nostalgic about the `80s and are now in a position to make games, shows and movies with explicit references,” quipped Prof Dillon.
But he also added that such throwback interest isn’t simply for nostalgia’s sake – earlier game designers would use ingenious techniques to overcome the limited technology, like using plastic sheets to add colour or design to an otherwise simple screen with blinking lights.
“And for some people like me, playing with a simple joystick with one button is almost a meditative experience instead of worrying about the different buttons – you don’t have to have more thumbsticks or buttons and you can still design a good game,” he said.
OLD BEATS NEW
For 25-year-old student Jimena Muchsel, who was trying out some of the games when we dropped by, earlier games sometimes offer more than the sleeker and more realistic versions you have today.
“Nowadays, you put a lot of effort into the graphics but the gameplay itself is getting pushed down – shooting games now are about just shooting people and now about the stories. And I remember playing PlayStation with my brother (beside me) whereas today, you can’t play ‘locally’ anymore. You’ll have to go online to play with different people (elsewhere),” she said.
But if one is keen to relive their childhood with such games, aside from arcade games, you’ll be hardpressed to find such console games especially the really old ones, said Prof Dillon.
“If you want to play the original, unless you have a friend who owns one or use a video game emulators, it’s hard. It’s been kind of challenging to find these games in Singapore. I went a couple of times to Cash Converters asking for the original PlayStation and they’d look at me as if I were some alien,” he quipped.
VIDEO GAME MOVIES
From Lara Croft: Tomb Raider to Angry Birds, there are countless movie adaptations of video games. But that’s different from watching something where you either feel like you’re playing one or part of one. Here are five flicks to check out again.
Inspired by the classic video game Pong, the original 1982 film saw Jeff Bridges gets sucked into an actual video game world that looked as cool as it made the games he played look dangerous – from glowing Frisbees to the lightcycle races. It later spawned the 2010 sequel Tron: Legacy.
What if aliens invaded Earth in the form of video game characters? This 2015 comedy starring Adam Sandler, Peter Dinklage and gang pits them against the likes of Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, with references to games like Space Invaders and Galaga all thrown in for fun.
3. READY PLAYER ONE
Steven Spielberg’s 2018 adaptation of Ernest Cline’s novel is a dystopian look at when we retreat into the virtual world to escape reality. Like what gamers sort of do nowadays, anyway. The visual spectacle is chockful of retro pop culture references – including tonnes of video games as the protagonists themselves dive into one.
4. JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE
If the original 1995 movie starring Robin Williams had a board game, its 2017 sequel updated the experience into a video game where kids get sucked into Jumanji, taking on different avatars with special powers. Also, Jack Black playing a teenage bimbo – or is the other way around?
What happens when the arcade closes at night? Why, video game characters clock off, too! Aside from the memorable titular character and his friends (which reference Donkey Kong and Mario games), you’ve got nods to the likes of Sonic The HedgeHog, Pac-Man, Dig Dug, Frogger and many more.
A HISTORY OF VIDEO GAMES
1972 The first home video game system, the Magnavox Odyssey, is launched. It was so rudimentary that some games required you to stick on a plastic sheet onto the screen.
1977 Enter the Atari Video Computer System, which was later called the Atari 2600, the most popular old-school console ever, with those iconic joystick controllers.
1978 Space Invaders debuted, first as an arcade game before being released in various formats such as the Atari.
1982 Atari releases the version of the hit arcade game Pac-Man, which became the best-selling Atari 2600 game of all time.
1983 Nintendo unveils the Famicom (aka Family Computer) in Japan, before the Nintendo Entertainment System was released internationally two years later.
1985 The popular arcade game Super Mario Bros. makes its way to our homes.
1989 Nintendo’s first handheld game console, the Game Boy, debuted – inspired by the OG of “mobile” gaming, the Game & Watch.
1991 Sonic The Hedgehog was released, becoming the mascot of Nintendo’s fiercest rivals Sega. That same year, Street Fighter II also came out to make arcades cool again.
1994 Sony’s PlayStation comes out and was an instant hit, selling 100 million units in less than 10 years.
1996 The first Pokemon game is released for Game Boy. Go!
1997 Nokia installed Snake into its mobile phones.
2001 Microsoft enters the fray with the Xbox.
2004 World Of Warcraft comes out as PC gaming explodes. The term MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) also becomes mainstream.
2006 The Wii comes out, giving gamers the perfect excuse (“I’m also exercising.”)
2009 FarmVille and Angry Birds were released on Facebook and IOS, respectively.