[Editorial Tuesday] The History of Video Games

Every Gamer Starts Somewhere

Today, many youngsters may experience their first taste of games through mobile devices such as Minecraft, Pokemon GO, and Mario Run, or with the present day consoles and/or PCs. For gamers of the baby boomer generation, they may have played the Magnavox Odyssey or Pong at a bowling alley. For the older members of Generation X, their first exposure was through the Atari 2600, or Pac-man at an arcade. For the younger Gen X’ers and older millennials, how can they not forget Nintendo’s first home console? But put it all together, where does it all start?

The Beginning of Electronic Games

For nearly 40 years, the video game industry has been in business. But it is also hard to believe with its present prosperous state, it almost went out of business in 1983. So how did the industry get to where it is? Who made the first video game and what was it? Was it the Japanese? The Americans?

With most advanced technology before the 1970s, it tended to be exclusively available to the US military, their respective contracting companies, and universities. One such university is the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1962, a group of students led by Steve Russell made what is allegedly known as the first computer game, Spacewar! And throughout that era, students of MIT and other technology departments of other universities would further contribute to its development and evolution. From the 1970s, it would become an arcade game for the masses.

The Arcade Experience

Some of you may think that Pong is the first ever arcade game and nobody blames you for doing so. However, one of the earliest arcade games was released in 1966 by SEGA, which still remains as an arcade powerhouse in Japan to this very day. Their first game was Periscope, a submarine simulation. Though arcade games and games overall to this day are software and electronically designed. Due to technological limitations during that time period, it was more mechanically operational like pinball or any old style carnival shooting game.

Thanks to Spacewar! and the popularity of Star Wars, many of the first popular arcade titles were Space Invaders, Galaga, and Galaxian. Upon entering the 1980s, Pac-Man and Donkey Kong would also be big hits. Until the late-1990s, the arcade industry would flourish worldwide thanks to fighters such as Street Fighter II.

The Beginning of Console and Computer Games

In the early 1970s, Magnavox’s Odyssey would be the first home console to be released at a retail price of $99 (and that equates to $575 in 2017!). Considering this was before the Atari 2600, how did these games work? Think of them as televised board games. The games didn’t have much in terms of graphics. The game cartridges could only display Pong-like balls and blocks. As a substitute for graphics, the games would come with display mats players would put on a screen. So if you wanted to play a tennis game, you would put a plastic layout of a tennis court on the screen, and players could play what was essentially Pong with the use of a tennis court. For other games, they would require playing cards in order to play.

As the twentieth century progressed into the 1980s, the Atari 2600 would become the first hit home console that would legitimately display on-screen graphics. Shortly before the 2600, Pong would be released to homes as their own console units. With the Atari 2600, only one console was necessary and games could be sold separately in cartridges, a new concept in the seventies to store data. Thanks to Pong, Breakout, Pitfall and Yars’ Revenge, the Atari 2600 would be a big hit between the late-1970s and early-1980s.

During this period, computers were progressively entering in businesses and households in America. This was notably thanks to both the Apple II and the Commodore 64. Ironically, their introductions into the market would partially contribute to why the console market struggled in 1983. Some would say this was the beginning of the console vs. PC wars.

The Video Game Crash of 1983

As stated in the intro, the industry nearly went out of business. They went from over 3 billion dollars in sales from one year to just 100 million to the next. In addition to the growing home computer market, what happened? A lot of gamers young and old alike tend to blame Atari’s ET. No doubt it played a huge part to the point that unsold cartridges were buried in the Alamogordo desert, but there is more to the story than just that.

ET was simply the icing on the cake. The system was starting to produce other games that were not positively received such as the Atari 2600 port to Namco’s hit, Pac-Man, not living up to its arcade counterpart. So due to games that were considered killer apps becoming colossal failures largely contributed to its downfall.

In extension, supply exceeded demand because there were many home consoles and games on the market to the point that retailers couldn't take them anymore, and were selling games as low as $5. It came down to retailers didn’t want to sell video games anymore. As for PCs, they were cheaper and easier for software companies to produce. Plus, PCs had the superior processing power and many homes were buying them thanks to their other uses such word processing, accounting, personal and business functions.

While the Japanese yen has not been subjected to inflation the past 20-30 years, the American dollar was facing progressive inflation between the administrations of Presidents Carter and Reagan. The quarter was losing its spending power, and companies were consequently losing profits. The industry actually lobbied in Congress for dollar coins to be compatible with their arcade machines, but the new Susan B. Anthony dollar coins were a failure. While in Japan, they used 100-yen coins (which are still in use to this day), which gave their video game industry its opportunity to stay afloat and later dominate the market.

How Nintendo Saved the Industry

A few years after the North American crash, the industry made a comeback through Nintendo’s first major hit console, the Nintendo Entertainment System, or the Family Computer in Japan. Even before the NES, Nintendo had a long legacy in Japan. The company started out in the late nineteenth century making Japanese playing cards known as Hanafuda (which they still make and sell to this very day in Japan), and would later attempt other businesses from love hotels to taxi services, which ended in failure.

Thanks to the genius of Gunpei Yokoi, a toymaker for Nintendo (and the inventor of the Game Boy), the company would progress to video games. Beyond Donkey Kong, one of their first games for the home market was the Game and Watch, electronic handhelds games. The design of the Game and Watch would later serve as the inspiration to the controller layout of the Japanese Famicom.

Despite its historical success, the system’s start in both Japan and the US were slow to gain momentum. The initial consoles in Japan had faulty motherboards, but after this problem was fixed, it would gain traction. After success in Japan, they felt it was time to hit American shores. In both the US and Japan, the NES was initially meant to be sold like a PC unit, which would have a keyboard and a cassette drive (for you youngsters, data used to be stored on cassette tapes). However, it was re-designed to make it more appealing to their target consumers.

Nintendo would do its first US test runs in New York City in October 1985, and the following year, it would launch from coast to coast. Of course, retailers were hesitant to sell video games again, but Nintendo decided to market their system by using different labels to avoid the stigma as a result of the crash. As opposed to saying it’s a video game system, it was marketed as an entertainment system. Last, in order to ensure the quality of its products, Nintendo created contracts with third party developers that they could only make 5 games per year for the console and any remaining unsold inventory would be their responsibility.

The Start of the Console Wars

Nintendo would continue to dominate the eighties with no competition. Then as the world progressed into the 1990s, that would start to change. SEGA would start the console wars in North America shores with an aggressive marketing campaign for their 16-bit Genesis console just like how Steve Jobs attacked IBM in the 1984 Macintosh commercial. SEGA’s then slogan was Genesis Does What Nintendon’t. And they strongly empathized on blast processing, which was essentially double the processing speed of the Super Nintendo. Maybe saying the Genesis having over 7Mhz compared to Super Nintendo’s 3.5Mhz (and that speed was a lot in those days) would mean nothing to its target customers, children and teenagers, but having a coined term is enough to get their attention.

The Genesis Japanese counterpart, the Mega Drive, was not as successful in its respective country, but another console that came into the mix was the Hudson Soft PC Engine, which was released as the TurboGrafx-16 in the US. And the irony of this situation is that though the TurboGrafx-16 is an afterthought to non-Japanese gamers, the PC Engine was a huge hit in Japan and was one of the top-selling consoles of the 1990s.

Then from the mid-nineties, after a fallout between Nintendo and Sony over a CD add-on for the Super Nintendo, it was released as its own console as the PlayStation and would surpass the original NES in sales, a record at that time. Sony would establish itself as the new dominant force in the gaming market. From 2001, Microsoft would become a hit in the North American market through their X-Box series though it never gained traction overseas.

Gaming Consoles as Multi-Entertainment Systems

From the late-1990s/early-2000s, gaming consoles would introduce numerous functions beyond games. Sega’s Dreamcast would come with 56k modems for web-browsing and online play (broadband internet wasn’t widely available upon the Dreamcast’s launch in many parts of the world in 1999, especially in Japan). The PlayStation 2’s winning point was the ability to play DVDs and backward compatibility with PlayStation 1 games, which was a big deal back in the early-2000s when DVDs was still a new medium.

This would later be repeated in later Sony consoles. PlayStation 3 and 4 would establish their dominance again by having the abilities to play the Blu-ray format. And Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3, and PS4 all offer their own unique online services for multiplayer and give users the ability to access other entertainment apps such as YouTube and Netflix.

Nintendo would still continue to play a part through their other unique innovations. Through the Wii, Wii-U, Switch, and their handheld units, they still pride themselves as a game company that emphasizes on substance over style and concentrate more on the experience of gaming as opposed to multi-purpose entertainment. The Wii was built around motion control, the Wii-U and Switch’s main points are portability.

Virtual Reality Is Now A Reality

Though the concept of VR helmets was popularized in the popular culture of the 1990s through movies like Johnny Mnemonic, its history goes as far back as the old view-masters where kids could put slides into a set of goggles and see various pictures of landscapes so they could feel like they were experiencing it first hand. In 1980, one of the first virtual reality games that were released was Battlezone, a submarine simulator by Atari. It would use periscope goggles like a real submarine and the rest of the arcade would simulate that feel. SEGA did something similar with their other arcade games like a cockpit cabinet for their fighter jet simulators like After Burner.

SEGA would continue to have 3D arcade games at select locations throughout the 1990s. Of course in the latter half of the decade, Nintendo released the Virtual Boy, which wasn’t well received by the public and forced Gunpei Yokoi into exile. But as technology evolved the past few years, it would later be sold to the general public.

Thanks to the PlayStation 4’s VR headset and the evolution of technology, the format is progressively becoming popular with consumers through games such as Resident Evil 7, which makes full use of VR. In addition, if a player moves his or her head within the headset, the display moves along with them like they are in that world. In Odaiba, Tokyo, visitors can also experience other VR games such as Votoms, saving a cat from a plank, or experience a haunted house.

The technology has evolved to the point that cheaper versions for smartphones can be purchased. Maybe in the future, we can play soccer with a virtual David Beckham, try to go one-on-one against LeBron James, or go toe-to-toe against Floyd Mayweather. Though consumer VR is still relatively young upon publication of this article, what the future holds is limitless!

Video Games As Art

The controversy of videogames as art came to light when film critic Roger Ebert said that video games aren’t considered art. Ebert’s basis of his claims is that in games, there are rules and you can win. With other forms of art like dancing, movies, theater, and books, those are things that you experience first hand. Jonathan Jones, an art critic for the Guardian, says that in video games, it robs a person’s reactions to life and that no one owns the game. Meaning if there is no artist, there is no art.

Though these claims have been subjected to rebuttals from those within the gaming community, Hideo Kojima, the creator of the Metal Gear franchise agrees with the notion that videogames are not art though they do contain works of art. He feels that art is more of a niche hobby that is meant to appeal to a small group of people while games are meant to appeal to the masses.

Hardcore gamers and journalists naturally argue that videogames are art, but a newer and evolving form of it. In this day and age, it is very difficult to argue what art is. Some professional critics and observers believe that a highly controversial picture of Jesus Christ soaked in urine is considered art, and others consider it vile. There are others that believe making nude statues of politicians are art. Some people say art is about acquiring a reaction out of people, and how it reflects our true feelings. Don’t you readers think games are capable of doing that?

The Next Step

With how far games have come from Spacewar!, do you think games should have some recognition for not just their contributions to technology, but to art? If Apple’s products can be considered art, why can’t games? What do you think games have to do to prove their merits? After VR, maybe holograms are the next phase in gaming. Hopefully, as the next generation of professional critics comes along, maybe their life experiences in comparison to present day critics can bring something different.

It is difficult to believe that many years ago, Pong was considered innovative or that the Altair was the best computer technology had to offer. 30 years from now, will present day games be considered primitive? If games do go holographic, can we do Skype or Google chats with holograms, or play online games through holograms? With how fast things are changing, time can only tell.

What are your thoughts about the evolution of gaming? Has it made an impact in your life, whether it be positively or negatively received? How do you think games will evolve in the years to come? Let us know in the comment section below!

Wii-Launch-Bundle-The-History-of-Video-Games-Capture--700x364 [Editorial Tuesday] The History of Video Games


Author: Justin "ParaParaJMo" Moriarty

Hello, I am originally from the states and have lived in Japan since 2009. Though I watched Robotech and Voltron as a child, I officially became an anime fan in 1994 through Dragon Ball Z during a trip to the Philippines. In addition to anime, I also love tokusatsu, video games, music, and martial arts. よろしくお願いします

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