Vintage Video Games Go Highbrow
02:00 AM Apr. 19, 2005 PT
Pac-Man just turned 25, but he's looking older. Much, much older. He's haggard and wrinkled and toothless, and he's being fed power pellets through an IV drip next to his rocking chair.
At least that's how the arcade icon is depicted in Pac-Man in Hospice, a new painting by artist Greg Simkins. "I thought back to how much these games meant to us as kids," said Simkins. "And I wondered, what happened to the characters in old games while we all grew up?"
Actually, they seem to be doing just fine. That's the impression viewers get from the i am 8-bit art exhibit, opening April 19 at Los Angeles' Gallery 1988. Simkins and more than 100 other artists contributed to this show that pays homage to video games of the late '70s and early '80s.
"That era represents such a mysterious and innocent time for technology," said Jensen Karp, co-owner of Gallery 1988. "Kids like me saw Intellivision and NES as pure miracles. We thought that was as good as it was going to get, and we were pretty happy with that. We're doing the show to bring back that naïve innocence."
Retro game nostalgia is nothing new. Gamers could buy collections of vintage games a decade ago. MAME, the emulation software that lets gamers play thousands of old titles on a computer, has been around since 1997.
What's new is the way artists are re-contextualizing vintage video games. The i am 8-bit exhibit is just the latest example. Lil' Flip's recent hip-hop track "Game Over" sampled the familiar power-up and "waka-waka" sounds from Pac-Man. An installation piece at last year's prestigious Whitney Biennial was built around a hacked Super Mario Bros. cartridge.
But there's never been a collection of game reinterpretations quite like i am 8-bit. The show features more than a score of stylish, evocative tributes to coin-op classics like Q*Bert, Tron and Centipede. In the artists' statement that accompanies the exhibition, many participants cite the life-changing experiences they've had playing games at convenience stores, pizza parlors and go-cart parks.
Artist Jorge R. Gutierrez, who grew up in Mexico City, describes the local arcades as an amazing cultural microcosm. "In every arcade with a Street Fighter 2 machine, you could witness all the struggles of life: the rich versus the poor, the north versus south, the First World versus the Third World -- and more importantly, you versus thousands of unknown kids."
Gutierrez contributed a portrait of Blanka from Street Fighter 2, a game he has played incessantly since he was a kid. "Eventually, my nickname at school became Blanka. When I got into real fights, I even tried using some of his moves. They never worked," said Gutierrez. "I often ask myself, what would Blanka do? I even met my wife because of this game. So yes, I owe my whole life to Blanka."
That sort of ardent obsession seems common among the i am 8-bit artists. Why do these retro games have such an enduring appeal? Nostalgia may account for some of it, but it doesn't explain why junior high school kids -- who weren't even alive in the 1980s -- are swapping vintage game ROMs through P2P networks and buying fuzzy dice covered with Mario mushrooms.
"I think it's the rawness of the shapes that plays with the imagination. The 8-bit games were a perfect abstraction," said Sean Clarity, whose striking interpretation of Excitebike maintains the blocky feel of the original.
Artist Luke Chuen agreed there's something inherently appealing about the low-res aesthetic. His canvas captures a Dig Dug villain at the exact moment it's about to explode. Chuen thinks the old games represent a turning point in art history.
"Creating characters that players could identify with and even develop emotional attachments to within an 8-bit environment forced designers to rethink the rules of 20th-century iconography and visual communication," Chuen said. "I can't think of another defining moment when the rules that governed the art world were forced to work with the rules that governed the math world."
Chuen added that creating artwork in this lo-fi style can even feel subversive. "As visual artists, we're almost expected to embrace new trends and technologies. But it can be very liberating to turn around and say, 'Fuck Photoshop, fuck Maya, fuck the G5, fuck the PS2. It's time to rock it old school!'"
Other artists explore the role the games can play in our lives when we aren't even playing them. Thomas Han's painting Super Mushroom Boogie depicts one of his actual childhood nightmares -- being trapped in the world of Super Mario Bros. "The secret mazes and tunnels that led you to treasures or alternate dimensions just bugged me out as a kid," said Han. "It seemed as if, even turned off, the game was living and evolving by itself."
Pac-Man is a recurring theme in the show, and several artists explore the darker side of the round yellow eating machine. Dennis Larkin's Playing the Nuclear Option shows Mr. and Ms. Pac-Man initiating World War III. Peter Gronquist depicts the couple by carving wedge-shaped chunks out of actual hand grenades.
But few of the works take games this seriously. Most exhibit a spirit of playfulness entirely appropriate to the subject matter. For example, in Duck Hunter S. Thompson, Tim Tomkinson envisions the infamous gonzo journalist using a plastic light gun to blast low-res birds out of the sky.
The i am 8-bit exhibit runs April 19 through May 20. An opening-night reception will feature a live performance by 8-bit Weapon, a band that uses vintage consoles as musical instruments. Plenty of playable Intellivisions will be on hand, as well as an actual functioning 8-foot-long NES controller.