Gaming sure has come a long way in such a short time frame. What we now call the best that game play, music, story and graphics that we have to offer probably would've just been a science fantasy masterpiece to written by George Lucas had we not helped it to evolve into what it has become today. So, with all the advancements gaming has received in the past few decades, I think we should look back and see just how far we've come and appreciate the best (and worst) moments of our gaming past so we can better understand why we have what we have today, and what we might get in the future.
While the technology that went into video games goes as far back as the 1940's, we're not going to be going that deep into the inception of video games. Christopher Nolan wouldn't allow it. Instead, let's start way back in 1958 when a mister William Higinbotham designed an interactive computer game called Tennis for Two which used a oscilloscope as the display. Its original purpose was to be a display for the visitor's day at Brookhaven Labs to promote atomic power, but I think we all know where it ended up leading to. Shortly afterward in 1962, the game Spacewar! was created by three MIT students named Martin Graetz, Wayne Wiitanen, and Steve Russell. However, unlike Tennis for Two, this game was probably the first true video game as it inspired small number of the other programmers at MIT to design their own games. This epoch is a crucial moment in history for video games. Without the interest in game development and programming, we wouldn't be able to reach our next step in gaming evolution. Personal consumerism and easy access.
In 1971, two men by the names of Ted Dabney and the legendary Nolan Bushnell created a tall standing coin-operated game cabinet by the name Computer Space for easy access to the public. The game in question was actually an updated version of the old game Spacewar! from almost a decade prior. Each quarter that was inserted into the machine would grant the player ninety seconds of time to try and shoot down the opposing player's ship as many times as possible. While this game was quite revolutionary for the time, it would eventually be out-shined the following year by Pong, a table tennis like game made by the very same Bushnell and Dabney. This game allowed for a much more involved experience because of the ability to put a spin on the ball with the paddle controls, and because of its increasing speed as the game went on. This one game cemented video games as a successful and fun new medium for entertainment, however, the popularity of Pong specifically would eventually prove to be too popular as knockoffs and modifications began to emerge for the home market.
In steps the Magnavox Odyssey created by Ralph Baer. Released in 1972, this was the very first game system for use in the average home. It had a small handful of games made for it, some of which were blatant copies or modifications of the game Pong, but many of them included colored overlays for the television's screen and some even had additional accessories like dice, cards, or even a light gun, but while it provided the home market with games that the arcade market could not, it was ultimately discontinued three years later due to a lack of variety. The arcade market however was still flourishing with games like Tank, Gunfight, Death Race, Steeplechase, and Breakout. It wasn't until 1977 when Nolan Bushnell would make a grand comeback and release the new Atari VCS for home use. This then ushered in a new generation of home game consoles.
With the advent of the Atari VCS and its revolutionary game cartridges and joystick controller, games started to get much more accessible, and with the added processing power the console had, home versions of arcade games would also be possible (to a degree). Bushnell saw this opportunity and had his company Atari make more arcade games to showcase at his family restaurant Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theatre which would then be ported to the Atari VCS at a later date. These games included Missile Command, Centipede, Lunar Lander, and Battlezone amongst some original games made for the VCS like Adventure, Haunted House and Combat. But as the VCS became more popular in the United States, Japan started to get in on the video game scene.
In 1978 in the land of the rising sun, a company by the name of Taito was working on their own video games at the time, something to break away from the norm that was Pong and Tank. That game was the extremely popular Space Invaders and it marked the beginning of video games that were made from outside of the United States. After its success, many other companies wanted their own slice of this new golden age of gaming. A company by the name of Namco produced the incredibly popular games Pac-Man and Galaxian, another called Nintendo made the very successful Donkey Kong, and Konami made the fun and addictive Frogger. With all of these fantastic games on the horizon, many would argue that it was only going to get better as time went on. Unfortunately, they were gravely mistaken.
In the early 80's, many film companies saw that games were starting to become more popular at an alarming rate. As such, they started licensing their intellectual properties to game companies like Atari and Intellivision so they could make video games to help promote new movies that were being released soon. This resulted in a flood of rushed and haphazardly programmed games with the most infamous one being E.T. the Extraterrestrial. These poorly made games over-saturated the market and caused an event known as the Video Game Crash of '83. After this, it had become extremely difficult for game companies to sell the games they made and it looked like that the home gaming market had finally ended. But a gutsy video game company in Japan had an idea that could possibly revive the market and usher in a new era of games focused around quality control.
After the crash of '83, it was considered quite the challenge for game companies to sell their games. Even gaming computers like the Commodore 64 and the Amiga were having trouble earning money and they were eventually discontinued. But Nintendo had a plan to get their new game console, the Family Computer or "FamiCom," overseas to American consumers in 1985. Their plan was to redesign the system to more closely resemble VHS players and package it with a peripheral known as the Robotic Operating Buddy or "R.O.B." to act as a Trojan Horse. This was to trick the consumer market into thinking it was more like a toy instead of a gaming system as many stores were reluctant to stock video games so soon after the crash. Ultimately, the plan worked and with the Nintendo Entertainment System or "NES" at the helm, Nintendo became the company that launched a thousand franchises with the promise that "quality over quantity" would be their main focus. It was such a strong promise that gaming systems like the Turbografx-16 and the Japan-only MSX2 were left by the wayside. However, Nintendo soon encountered a new foe in the early 90's that would prove to be quite the adversary in what was known by many as The Console Wars.
Nintendo had secured a new gaming market with the success of the NES and with games like Super Mario Bros, Metroid, and The Legend of Zelda, but Sega, a company that was new to the gaming scene, was starting to replace their old and tired console known as the Master System. Seeing Nintendo as a rival of theirs, they released the Mega Drive (or Genesis) to the consumer market in 1989, two years before Nintendo's successor to the NES, the Super NES, with their slogan being "Sega does what Nintendon't." This slogan alone is what sparked what we dubbed as The Console Wars and fueled the competition between Nintendo and Sega in order to prove which system truly was better. Sega's Sonic the Hedgehog series proved to be quite the adversary in this little war between them, and games that were censored on the Super NES often were free of any editing if they also happened to be the Mega Drive. This strategy ultimately paid off as Sega won this battle having more total sales than Nintendo, but it came at a price.
Because of Sega's willingness to leave extreme violence, gore, and allegedly sexual content intact in the games produced for their system, they started to come under fire by concerned parents and politicians that the situations in those games would corrupt the minds of that era's youth. Lawsuits started to emerge that stated that some children have become withdrawn, aggressive and even hostile after playing games like Mortal Kombat and some cases stated that the game Night Trap was "promoting violence against women." As such, a rating system was put in place in any country that allows the sale of video games. These non-profit companies like the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) and Pan European Game Information (PEGI) provided age ratings to games that listed the content with the product in a similar fashion to films. This helped to make it easier to buy games for their children by reading the rating on the box. This also changed Nintendo's stance on their own censorship policies and many newer games made for their systems were left unedited as a result, but this would require Nintendo to try and aim for a new demographic.
With the haphazard success of Sega's Mega Drive, Nintendo needed to find some way to extend the life and appeal of their Super NES console. To combat Sega's various add-ons to the Mega Drive like the Sega CD and the Sega 32X, Nintendo released a cartridge adapter that allowed the Super NES to play games from their portable system, the Game Boy. This nearly doubled the Super NES's library of games to allow masterpieces like Pokemon and Kirby's Dream Land to be played on your TV set. Because of the success of the adapter dubbed as the Super Game Boy, Nintendo teamed up with Japanese electronics developer Sony to develop a CD attachment for their Super NES, but negotiations unfortunately fell though when Nintendo wouldn't allow Sony to have free use of their franchises and IP's in whatever they made. This made Sony's president angry and they released a modified version of the CD add-on out of spite as a standalone console called the PlayStation. Because of the high quality audio, 3D polygonal graphics, and CD playback, the consumer market flooded to the new technology like moths to a flame. Because of this, Nintendo and Sega needed to step up their game.
After the release of the PlayStation in 1994, Sega got the idea to release their successor to the Mega Drive, the Saturn, earlier than planned to compete with it. This was ultimately a bad idea as they released it before any games for it were even finished. This gave Nintendo the time they needed to finish their new 3D console, the Nintendo 64 and release it in 1996. This ended up with a new Console War between three competitors, one of expensive quality games (Nintendo 64), one of cheap games with long load times (PlayStation), and the one with the most arcade ports (Saturn). The battles this time weren't so much focused on attacking each other, but rather on pulling in as many players as they could to buy their products. While Nintendo had produced a handful of quality games like Super Mario 64, Star Fox 64, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and F-Zero X, and Sega had a lot of ports of arcade games like Virtua Fighter and Virtua Racing, Sony ultimately won round 2 with its affordability and variety. This did not discourage the other two companies though as they fervently started to work on new consoles to succeed their current ones. But what they didn't know is that a new threat would soon make its way to the arena and it would complete wipe one of its competitors clean off the map.
Sega wasn't a company that was willing to back down easily. In 1998, they released a new console to succeed the Saturn called the Dreamcast. This was one of the first home consoles that could play online games over a phone line and it had a very unique memory card for it that had a screen embedded within it. This Visual Memory Unit or "VMU" had the ability to download minigames from the console itself that could be used to unlock new features within the main game. But unfortunately, the Dreamcast failed to take off due to how easy it was to pirate games for the system. This ended up killing the console not too long after it was launched and the company ended up shelving away any further attempts at making a game console and decided to focus on developing games for other systems as a third-party developer. This proved to be a smart decision as no-one would have guess who would be entering round 3 of the console war.
In 2001, the third console war was starting to roll around and Nintendo could now focus their efforts more on Sony with the Release of their Game Boy Advance as Sega was no longer in the picture, or so they thought. With Sega's absence from the console market, this gave Microsoft the opportunity they needed to swoop in and claim the audience that was abandoned when Sega bit the dust. This was Microsoft's first gaming console known only as the XBox. With a new competitor on the field and with Nintendo's Game Cube and Sony's PlayStation 2 getting ready to be released, this invigorated consumers with new gaming drive and sales started to take off like wildfire. With games like Nintendo's Super Smash Bros Melee, F-Zero GX and Metroid Prime, Sony's Jak & Daxter, Sly Cooper and Rachet & Clank, and Microsoft's Halo, Dead or Alive and Ninja Gaiden series, gamers needed to choose which console would be their mainstay as they all were similarly priced with many games that were on multiple platforms. Ultimately the PlayStation 2 won this round with an astoundingly high number of sales dwarfing the Game Cube and XBox combined. If Microsoft and Nintendo wanted to stay relevant, they needed to reinvent themselves.
After the lackluster sales of Game Cube, Nintendo felt like they needed to change up their strategy with their next console. As such, Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of many of Nintendo's flagship franchises like Mario, Zelda, Donkey Kong and Pikmin, thought of making a new console with motion-based controls being the main focus. After they bought the rights to a Bluetooth based piece of motion technology, they used it in the controllers of their brand new console, the Wii, which was scheduled to be released in late 2006. This caused waves in the gaming community causing a revolution with consumers splitting them into two major groups: those who focused more on HD graphics and hardcore games, and those that cared more about creativity and genuine fun. This ended up unintentionally labeling Nintendo as a company that catered mostly to kids, but that didn't diminish the sales of the system in the slightest as they sold out of unit so quickly that it was almost impossible to keep them stock. This divide in gaming cliques ended producing yet another Console War, but not in the way you would expect this time around. This time, it was all about company loyalty.
When 2012 rolled around, gamers were still pretty much at each other throats debating which console was the best and why you should buy it. The Wii, DS and the newly released 3DS had created a brand new generation of gamers and the PS3, PSP and Xbox 360 had pulled away loyal fans of Nintendo that were disappointed in their decision to focus their efforts mostly on a casual audience. Nintendo was aware of this loss in fans and decided to try and win them back with the Wii U, the successor of the Wii. This was a very risky move for Nintendo to make as the Wii U's large GamePad controller and its unusual name was considered very off-putting, so in order for Nintendo to help push the Wii U's success, they priced it fairly low compared to its competitors and bundled some versions of it with a game or two. This however still proved to be difficult for it to compete with the newly announced PlayStation 4 and XBox One which both had processing power that could put many computers to shame (Specifically, the commercially available ones, not the self-built ones).
Now since we are still in this current generation of games, only time will tell if gamers will eventually reconcile their differences and focus more on what the future of video games has to hold. With the Oculus Rift, mobile games, and indie games being funded by Kickstarter, we can only hope that the future will shine. And come rain or shine, sites like novoGamer.com will provide info on games old and new. But until then, I'll be seeing you.