U-M Computer and Video Game Archive is a place where you can rediscover your past
The clouds were racing overhead as the winds pushed me toward the Duderstadt Center, the imposing Art, Architecture, and Engineering Library on North Campus that is also home to the U-M Computer and Video Game Archive.
Looking up at the towering mouth of the glassy citadel, it's easy to imagine yourself as an avatar on a digital map, an adventurer about to set foot in a new world.
What challenges await inside?
Student chatter and the smell of fresh coffee swirls in the air as I open the door to the building's basement (why does this feel so appropriate?) and descend to the place that's packed with more nostalgia, per-square-inch, than Pinball Pete's.
With 7,000 to 8,000 games available for free play on original systems from all eras, the archive offers a tactile tour of video game history that the emulators of the Internet Archive can't hold a Castlevania candle to.
That precise number of games lining the walls of this subterranean paradise is up for debate, chuckles founder Dave Carter. He has a cold but appears in good spirits as he glares playfully at Archive Manager Valerie Waldron, who's been listening in silence. A smile breaks across her face. The duo has worked together on the archive since its inception in the summer of 2007. His gentle chiding and her playful dismissal of it indicates the kind of cozy, collegiate affection that comes with over a decade of cooperation.
Waldron tends to err on the conservative side when it comes to the number of video games in the archive, whatever the actual count, it's impressive considering the archive occupies no larger a space than a cozy studio apartment.
The wall of games is organized by video-game system (though a searchable online list is also available). Roughly half of the games arrive by donation, with the other half coming from purchases of both retro and recent titles (including those for current-generation systems, which are also available to play).
My gaze drifts past Waldron's line of sight to the keyboard of a Commodore 64 -- my own childhood introduction into the realm of personal computers/video game systems -- and though my body is present, for a split-second my mind is transported back into the Forbidden Forest, where poison frogs rain down from the stormy sky as I frantically draw arrows from my quiver and fire them at the grotesque, earthbound amphibians.
Back in the moment, I wonder aloud if there are any particular systems or games that seem to draw players in the most. With the confidence of MKLeo at Narita Airport, Waldron answers: "FIFA Soccer."
Waldron's revelation initially catches me off-guard; I would have figured Smash Bros. and Mario Kart based on AADL's ongoing series of packed tournaments for those games. But then another spark ignites in a dusty corner of my brain. This time it's from young adulthood, just as I was settling in with my first roommates.
Most evenings, our studies concluded with some quality gaming time. In the spirit of camaraderie, I hooked my souped-up Sega Genesis (I had saved up for the Sega CD and 32X add ons) to the living-room television. While I was perfectly content playing Bram Stoker's Dracula (aka Keanu Reeves: Book Puncher) or making mince-meat out of demon aliens with Doom, my sports-a-holic roommate preferred FIFA International Soccer and NHL '94.
Though we typically compromised by hitting the tabletops in Micro Machines 2: Turbo Tournament and duking it out in Eternal Champions, I vividly recall the shock one evening when, exasperated at being shut out of my precious console as my roommates slapped digital blips around the cathode-ray tube, I reluctantly snatched up the sleek controller for a round of soccer. That reluctant round turned into an all-nighter.
I had missed the plot in my previous distaste for the video-game soccer: Delete the digital jerseys and recode the players into tiny glowing sticks, and we were essentially playing a glorified (yet glorious!) version of Pong. The clever ways that developers fold familiar gameplay techniques into new formulas have grown by quantum leaps since my all-nighter in the '90s, as has the way we actually take on our opponents.
Before the Sega Dreamcast revolutionized connectivity, your Player 2 was limited to whatever sibling, friend, or relative -- often reluctant -- you could wrangle up. Today we can race a rival from Japan from the comfort of our living rooms. That sea change, however convenient, comes at a cost: the personal bond forged when we share a physical space with a teammate or adversary, which we can't form when they're halfway across the globe. Headsets are great, but a voice in your ear can't compare to a friend sitting near, and you can play side by side with people at the U-M Computer and Video Game Archive.
If you happen to be the type who can tolerate other humans, analog games are at the archive, too. Stacked Tetris-like on a long and wide bookshelf behind me is a collection of board games that would make Will Wheaton well up with tears of geeky joy.
Having recently procured a copy of Scotland Yard (a childhood favorite) courtesy of the PTO Thrift, I was reminded of the many ways my love for video games stemmed from my early love of board games. Unlike the video games at the archive, however, the board games are largely recent releases. If you haven't priced new board games, you may suffer a jolt of sticker shock; the broad tables at the archive offer an ideal track to take a few of those pricey amusements on a trial run.
Later, in the corner "Jam Room" where the Rock Star players shred, I spy a shelf of bulky RPG player guides. Turns out the "Video Game" portion of the archive is simply the stepping-off point to a small universe of challenges down here. I think back, again, to those college days, and wonder how many cold and rainy nights I would have spent down here.
I'll return to the archive next week with my son, the Boy Scout, for a field-trip. If it's anything like last year, another poor, unsuspecting clerk is about to have a dozen, howling pre-adolescent reasons to consider putting off parenthood until those student debts are paid (that deer-in-the-headlights look of pure terror is unmistakable to any observant progenitor). But in terms of gaming, that experience will bond those kids in a way that's increasingly rare.
I know exactly what game my little Hyrule Warrior will run to first. Sure it's a single-player, but before that hour runs out, he'll be firing up the SNES and taking to the tracks in Super Mario Kart with his best buds. He may even race a few that he doesn't get along with. There's value in creating free spaces like this for folks to gather, and I'm grateful to the two people in front of me for creating it.
Perhaps some dreary November night or frigid February afternoon, consider dropping in to have a look. With the occasional exception for special events (the website offers an events calendar for your convenience), the archive is open to the public most weekdays until 8 pm. A simple photo I.D. serves as your passport to thrills both past and present.
Jason Buchanan is a writer and movie fanatic living in Ann Arbor.
The University of Michigan Computer and Video Game Archive is open Mondays, 12-8 pm, and Tuesday through Friday, 10 am to 8 pm.