In today’s high-tech world, it’s hard to imagine a life without video games. Whether it’s on our smart phone, computer, or one of the many new and old game systems, video games are a prevalent part of our lives, and don’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. Obviously, that was not always the case. Let’s take a trip back to the mid 1900s and briefly explore the history of video game consoles.
Early 1950s – Video Games for Science
When looking back on the history of video game consoles, it’s easy to forget that the first video games were not technically on a console of any kind, but rather, were created by computer scientists in labs. These men of higher learning would use “super computers” that usually filled a room, to run their rudimentary games, such as digital tic-tac-toe and tennis. While not pretty or all that engaging, this was the beginnings of the multi-billion industry that gaming is today.
The 1970s – Video Arcade Mania
With technology advancing and the design of better circuitry and smaller microchips, the path was paved for the first coin operated video game, “Computer Space”! The awkward, brightly colored fiberglass cabinet featured a player-controlled rocket battling it out against flying saucers. While nothing special by today’s standards, this arcade video game was the first of a new generation of entertainment. Near the end of the 70s video arcades were popping up all over and kids the world around found themselves needing raises to their allowance.
1972 – Ralph Baer’s Brown Box
In 1972, with the arcade games like Pong drawing the attention of America’s youth, Ralph Baer with a handful of developers sought to bring the arcade to the family living room with the invention of the first home video game console on the market, dubbed the “Brown Box”. This is truly where the history of video game consoles began. Baer licenses his console to Magnovox, and soon the Magnovox Odyssey hits shelves as “the new electronic game of the future”.
The system is a far stretch from today’s consoles however and is essentially just a few black and white dots on a TV that behave differently depending on the game being played and controlled with 2 rectangular controllers. The system was so basic it didn’t produce sound and came included with physical dice, cards and other board game accessories as well as plastic overlays for the TV screen to coincide with the game you were playing (so a racing game would look more like a racing game than just 3 moving squares on a TV screen). While not a commercial success, the Odyssey laid the groundwork for the next generation of consoles.
1976 – Second Generation Consoles and the Future
With consumers worldwide getting a taste for video games, the market is soon flooded with consoles to choose from. The Fairchild Channel F, the Coleco Telestar Arcade, and the new Magnavox Wonder Wizard 7702, all try to make their mark on the burgeoning new industry, but its not until 1977 when Atari releases its Atari 2600 game console that home consoles gain a real presence in family living rooms.
The 2600 with its joystick controllers, removable game cartridges, computer-controlled players and massive game library, made Atari a household name and commercial success. Later second-generation consoles such as Holovision, Intellivision and The Atari 5200 continued grabbing peoples interest in video games but it wasn’t until the 3rd generation of consoles that the video game market truly took shape.
1985 – Third Generation and Mario Domination
By 1983 interest in video game consoles were waning, and market saturation of overproduced, inferior quality games caused the video game market to crash. Several companies went bankrupt and the video game consoles future looked bleak. Enter the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in 1985. It was far and above the best-selling video game system of its time and kick started the video game market all over.
The NES quickly differentiated itself from the other systems of the past with its optimal d-pad controller, video arcade graphics and sound, stellar list of both first and third-party games, and various accessories. Nintendo also aggressively priced the NES system, almost losing money on every purchase, making up for the difference in the cost of the games and accessories. Nintendo seemingly did everything right with the NES and soon 30% of all American households owned the system (a substantial number for the time considering only 23% of households owned a personal computer) with over 62 million systems sold worldwide.
Shortly after Nintendo’s success, Sega released the Sega Master System to the world. The Sega enjoyed limited success (mostly in Europe and South America where the NES was hard to find) but only grabbed a small corner of the market, selling 15 million units worldwide. Sega was down but not out.
1988 – Forth Generation and Onward
With the gaming market in full recovery after the 1983 crash, Sega needed to reinvent itself to compete with Nintendo. So, with some aggressive marketing and a brand new speedy, blue mascot, Sega released the 16-bit Sega Genesis. The system was an enormous success for Sega selling over 40 million units worldwide. Part of Sega’s advertising campaign was challenging Nintendo’s dominance by stating their product was a cooler, and more realistic arcade experience and used campaign slogans such as “Genesis does what Nintendon’t” to really drive their point home.
In response Nintendo released their own 16-bit system in 1991, the Super NES. For the next couple of years these two systems were the only 4th generation consoles anyone cared about and the first “console wars” had begun. With their late start, the Nintendo managed to narrowly outpace the Sega, with 49 million units sold, and to this day, the debate over Genesis or Super NES can still be heard in school yards and comic shops across the country.
Which ever console was truly the 4th generation winner is irrelevant (a discussion for a later post), as it was the consumer who truly came out on top of the console wars as both companies now had a drive and reason to produce a constant stream of top shelf games and accessories. Thanks to Nintendo and Sega the future of videos games was secure.
It’s interesting to look at the progression of video games over the years. From a few colorless squares to massive, 3d rendered, open world environments, in less than century, its hard to fathom what shape the industry will have taken another 50 years from now. And while one could go into great depth covering each system that’s ever come to pass, hopefully this brief post gives you a basic idea of where the games you’re playing today trace their roots and gives you a better idea of where to start if you’re looking to purchase a retro gaming system of you’re own. So pick up those sticks and happy gaming!