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Hot on the Web

Your all-in-one console

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on January 27, 2006
(Issue 2404, Disaster Planning and Recovery)

As we've detailed in the is space before, there is a mind-boggling amount of information (overload?) available about just any computer system every made on the Internet. From ENIAC and Univac to the Apple Lisa and NeXT, almost no system is without its fan base – with Web pages to document their passion.

But few of these sites let you immerse yourself in the experience of interacting with those systems.

GameTap (an AOL-Time Warner/TNT property), on the other hand, makes money by letting folks play hundreds of their favorite vintage console and home computer games. Sonic, Myst, Asteroids, PacMan, PONG, RoboTron and more.

True enough, the experience isn't completely authentic. The controllers are obviously different – you're likely using a keyboard on most of these games rather than your old vintage Atari, Sega or Nintento joystick. And you're playing on a nice, high-resolution monitor rather than the spare Zenith in the guest room.

The Promise

If you've seen the splashy GameTap ads on TV or in gaming magazines, you know the premise of the service: Play all the best games from every era of gaming, from the original Atari up through the present.

With 300 games, it's a deep experience, if far from comprehensive. While the Atari 2600, three Sega consoles, Intellivision, Commodore 64 and DOS are all included (along with original arcade machines and Windows games), there are some gaping holes. The Atari 400/800 home computers, for instance, were the gaming platform for serious home gamers in the early through mid 1980s. The Commodore Amiga took over that role in the late '80s. And then there were consoles like the Fairchild Channel F, the first ever with cartridges. The Coleco, the TurboGrafx 16, the Atari Lynx handheld. All were hugely popular in their day; all greatly influenced subsequent gaming history.

Still, you have quite a bit here. And at $14.95/month, it's priced comparably to many of massively multiplayer online games – EverQuest and Star Wars and the rest.


Okay, this is the part where I was going to write about the GameTap experience.

I registered for the free two-week trial (you need a credit card for this part), and downloaded the GameTap client. At the end of the installation process, I clicked the Launch GameTap check box before clicking Finish.


When I went into the Windows Task Manager, there was nothing listed as running under the Applications tab. Under Processes, GameTap was there – taking up about 3 MB of RAM.

But nothing was happening. I went back to the Windows Task Manager and tried to manually kill the GameTap process.


I rebooted the P4 (3.2GHz, 512GB ram), relaunched GameTap manually from the desktop icon. Hard drive whirred, the hard drive activity light flashed on the front of my case ... but nothing else happened. Again to Windows Task Manager, again no GameTap under Applications, but it is under Processes.

I launched WordPerfect to update this column, launched Netscape to go back to to see if they had an FAQ or Troubleshooting guide.

All of a sudden my Windows screen goes blank – and GameTap comes up! It was a good 5 minutes, maybe a bit more.

So that is a bit disconcerting!

What works

On the other hand, what is there is pretty cool.

On the Web site, you can browse available games by title, by original platform, by publisher and by game type (action, strategy, etc.). From inside the client (a very cool graphical environment like being inside a huge dome once it's actually running), you can browse by type and original platform.

GameTap lists more than 300 games, but not every game is a former hit. Still, there are enough popular titles and very solid games that never became hits to keep most gamers satisfied.

The Atari 2600 and Commodore 64 games were exact reproductions of what we played in the 1970s and '80s. The sounds, graphics and gameplay are identical – much as with the MAME arcade emulator used the original game ROMs to re-create the arcade experience on PCs in the 1990s.

What could make it better

Other than a client that runs a little more smoothly, the other thing most noticeably lacking from GameTap is context.

I realize this is a commercial venture and not a museum or educational effort.

But how hard would it be to combine both? Adding historical elements to the old classic games would go a long way to making this a truly immersive experience. (As would adding more of the classic games – River Raid, Fort Apocalypse, Choplifter, Castle Wolfenstein.) I can't imagine it would do anything other than drum up more business, either.

Imagine if in your Atari 2600 arena you added an About section – photos of the Atari, a history of the company, trivia. It could be fun and add context to the games.

Still, GameTap has the look of a winner – there is the feel of a solid business plan built around an imaginative, fun model that should be able to grow and improve for the foreseeable future.