Sure, it sounds dramatic: an Atari console saved my life. But it’s a true story.
When I was five years old I fell ill with encephalitis, a brain infection that can be life-threatening. A lot of it is still a blur, even after all these years. I remember eating a Rainbow Paddle Pop at my grandparents’ house, vomiting, and then waking up in intensive care. I’m sorry to say that Rainbow Paddle Pops have been a hard sell for me ever since.
But one thing I do remember vividly is when I was eventually moved to one of the children’s wards of the hospital, there was an Atari console. The OG, the grandfather, an Atari 2600, replete with the basic joystick and a red button to make all your moves. I was obsessed.
It’s no surprise that video games are a great distraction when you’re a sick kid stuck in hospital. Nowadays there are charities like Child’s Play that provide consoles to hospitals, recognising the mental health benefits that come from gaming. And that’s what that Atari did for me.
I love competition. I blame/credit my dad for always making us earn the win, no matter what we played growing up. “Oh, you want to go bowling? Sure, but I’m not going to throw gutter balls and let you win.”
In hospital, the Atari offered me that same sense of competition, while accommodating my pretty weak energy levels. You could go whizzing around the racetrack in Grand Prix (which I, unfortunately, pronounced “grand pricks” at the time) and dart in and out of traffic in Frogger (still my absolute favourite to this day).
My parents picked up on my newfound obsession and offered me a bribe: get out of hospital and we’ll buy you an Atari. You’re on! I was out of hospital in a week.
While my full recovery went on for a long time after that, I had my precious Atari — and my brothers were pretty pleased with the deal, too. I swear we nearly wore that thing out. There have been Game Boys, Nintendo 64’s and PlayStation 2’s since then that have captured our attention, but nothing will ever match the Atari for me.
I forgot about the attachment of your very first gaming console until my five-year-old niece got her hands on a Nintendo Switch (that’s actually her Dad’s). She excitedly, and in great detail, told me about her mission to get Princess Peach, and how she’d convinced her parents to hold a games night as a treat during the school holidays. Super Mario Party got her good.
I saw that same competitive spirit in her eyes and immediately just wanted to reboot my old Atari and go a couple of rounds of Frogger with her. And of course, I would be in it to win it!
Do you remember your first games console? Do you always play for keeps, even when your opponent is a child? And do you know where I can get my hands on a time machine so I can bring back my Atari from 1987?