Monday, April 14, 2008

Frugal hobby #1: classic video games

My post on my frugal approach to hobby computing got me thinking about other frugal hobbies. So this is the first in a series of "Frugal Hobby" posts where I'll highlight a pastime that can be enjoyed frugally.

I'm going to focus on activities that are customarily expensive, or aren't well known. It's easy to point out that blogging is a cheap activity, but I'm hoping to dig a little deeper like I did with computers.

My first post is about classic video games. The console video game industry has adopted a cycle wherein every manufacturer releases a new product at the same time, and those products comprise a "generation." By "classic" I guess I mean systems not from the current generation, nor the one before, but rather two or more generations back. Right now that would mean the "fifth generation" consoles, or Sega Saturn, Sony Playstation, and Nintendo 64, or even older systems.

Video game hardware and games depreciate extremely quickly. A new, state of the art Playstation 3 costs about $400, and a Playstation 1 seems to be worth $10-$30 on eBay. These things were sold in large quantities, so you could probably find one at a thrift store, garage sale, or freecycle without too much trouble. Further, you can tap into the hindsight of others to help choose systems and games that are particularly good. By the same token you can "go crazy" and experiment with some oddball game when it only costs a couple bucks.

So these games' cost is very low, but their utility really isn't. Good older games were a blast when they were new, and the human condition hasn't changed enough in the last few years to change that. A game that was intrinsically fun 5 years ago will still be fun now; the only difference is that our expectation of graphics quality has risen. Some classics, like the Super Mario Brothers series, also have a certain "retro" appeal.

You can also go one step further and play these games through an emulator, which is a piece of computer software that simulates the behavior of the entire game system -- it's CPU, graphics chip, and so on. Emulator software is typically free, and copies of the games ("images") are generally available on the internet. Playing games this way has the added benefit of avoiding the clutter of keeping all the specialized hardware lying around. Keep in mind that game images are copyrighted works, and are supposed to only be used as backups for games that you own on their original media (cartridge).

There are emulators for arcade games, too, and some people have built their own wooden cabinets around a spare computer to make something resembling an arcade game. Obviously a project like this will take up a lot of space, and may not be very cheap. But then again part of the fun is making the thing, a lot of the parts could be salvaged, and you end up with something that's more capable and easier to maintain than an obsolete game console. And there's a certain frugal charm to squeezing some more fun out of an old PC and some nearly-forgotten arcade games.

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