Videogame Archive at Explore UT

For the first time since its establishment in late 2007, the UT Videogame Archive participated in Explore UT on Saturday. Explore UT is the University of Texas at Austin’s annual “open house” to Kindergarten-12th Grade students and the communities that support them. Each March, students from all over Texas visit the UT-Austin campus and discover the opportunities that await them in higher education.

Kids playing videogames at Explore UT
One kid playing Sonic the Hedgehog, while another plays the Vectrex

In years past the UT Videogame Archive’s collection of functional game hardware and software could not measure up to an influx of eager kids, but this year we decided the archive was ready. When we opened the Briscoe Center’s reading room doors at 11am, we were still a little anxious. But 6 hours later, hundreds of kids had passed through– when the Center announced that it was closing at 5pm, and a few stragglers remained glued to the challenges of Super Mario Bros. 3, we knew it had been a success.

In an effort to mix the familiar with the more obscure, we decided to offer three console choices: Nintendo Entertainment System, Sega Master System I, and the Vectrex. As previously reported in this blog, the NES and Sega consoles were donated by veteran Austin game developer Billy Cain, and the Vectrex donated by Mike Hall.

Due to the condition of Cain’s NES, we initially offered only Castlevania, but we dug into David Rosen’s collection of Sega games and brought out Alex Kidd in Miracle World, Afterburner, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Wonder Boy in Monster Island. For the Vectrex, we had three titles available, again courtesy of Mike Hall: Hyperchase, Fortress of Narzod, and Blitz!

A group of kids crowd around the Sega console

A nearly non-stop stream of girls and boys of all ages played all three consoles. The Vectrex’s minimal vector graphics may have drawn the least amount of players, but it rarely went unused. Sonic proved to remain relevant, as many of the kids gravitated towards the familiar spinning hedgehog, even though it was the 8-bit version. A handful of groups entered the reading room exclaiming, “Wow, look at how old these games are!” Reactions of this sort persisted even when we decided to load the ever-popular Super Mario Bros. 3 into the NES.

But more discerning opinions were not wanting either. One young boy, for example, approached us after a round on the Sega console, and opined that he had always had the impression that Sega was the better game company than Nintendo, but now that he had a chance to play both back to back, his opinion of Sega’s superiority had been strengthened.

And that little exchange illustrates what the UT Videogame Archive is all about: making videogame history available to the public, so that they (whether they be reserchers, historians, journalists, or gamers) can make judgments for themselves based on the available evidence.

Sonic the Hedgehog and Hyperchase!

All in all it was a tremendous experience to make these consoles (and, in the case of NES, their iconic controllers) accessible to a younger audience, and in a small way expose them to videogames-as-history. In years to come we hope to modestly expand the videogame archive’s presence at Explore UT, so be sure to check back with us by next February for news regarding the UT Videogame Archive at Explore UT 2012.