The TPC Retro Revival series is a nostalgic trip down memory lane to pay homage to games, consoles, TV, movies and technology that made the world what it is today. In this article we celebrate the birth of video games as we know them, and follow the journey from Pong to Halo.
It’s an exciting time to be in the gaming world right now. There are next generation consoles and several big budget titles just around the corner all promising to be the next big thing, and there’s more Indies than ever releasing new games and apps for us to lay our grubby mitts on. The thing is, are we getting spoilt?
Back in the not-so distant past games were enjoyed in the simplest of ways; Pong for example had just two dials acting as control inputs and a black and white screen which could display just 12 pixel blocks at the same time. You’d bounce a ball back and forth on the screen until someone missed and start again. It was a very simple idea that proved to be highly addictive, and highly popular.
The concept of Pong (and home consoles as we know them) was first created by Ralph H. Baer, a military contractor working for Sanders in 1966. He had a vision of a home console that could connect to a users existing television set and play multiple games. Baer sold his game machine to Magnavox and by early 1972 a few prototypes had already been produced. In May Magnavox took their new system, the ‘Odyssey‘, to a trade show on the outskirts of San Francisco, California where a young engineer (and soon to be co-founder of the largest games console manufacturer in the world) Nolan Bushnell was also attending. The Odyssey had a number of games on display at the time, but one that caught the keen eye of Bushnell was PingPong.
The Odyssey (AKA Odyssey I) was released in September 1972. It played PingPong as well as a number of additional games and had two removable controllers that allowed the user to control their paddle in the x and y axis. In addition, the Odyssey came with 6 Cartridges that (along with a number of screen overlays, game boards and cards) allowed the user to play a number of different games. As an option, Odyssey owners could buy the “Shooting Gallery” which included four more games and an electronic gun. The gun was simply light sensitive and a score could be racked up quite easily by pointing it at your nearest light bulb.
The birth of Pong!
A version of the Odyssey’s PingPong game was soon adapted by Al Alcorn who, being an expert in electrical engineering and computer science at newly created Atari, was given the project as a training exercise by Atari co-founder, Nolan Bushnell in June, 1972. Alcorn came up with the idea of a simple table tennis simulator (being just days after a trade show where Nolan Bushnell saw a tennis game running on the Odyssey console), and 3 months later Pong as we know it, was born.
Pong was first played as a coin operated arcade cabinet installed in Andy Capps’ Tavern in California. Shortly afterwards, Alcorn received a late-night call from the bar manager saying the game had broken and he wondered if he could fix it. When Alcorn arrived he found the machine wasn’t actually broken, but instead was so popular the coin drop had filled and the slot was jammed with quarters.
Capitalising on this success, the game was quickly adapted to a device that connects to a consumer’s existing television set. Atari’s Home Pong Console was released in 1975 to take advantage of this suddenly new-found market. A simple box incorporating two control dials, a power switch and a reset button kept families entertained in living rooms across the world and opened the eyes of Atari co-founders Ted Dabney and Nolan Bushnell to another mass market of opportunity – console gaming.
Setting sail for world domination
Atari kick-started the second generation of home consoles on September 11th, 1977 with the release of the VCS. Later named the 2600, the VCS launched with a pair of paddle controllers (still useful for Pong), 2 joystick controllers and a game cartridge. That’s right, the VCS was a home console that could play games from a ROM cartridge, unlocking incredible potential as gamers could play whatever they liked by purchasing different, albeit low resolution games on simple 2KiB cartridges.
Atari first bundled the VCS console with biplane side-scroller Combat, and later went on to include their bestselling game (and one you will sure have heard of), Pac-Man. As a result, it quickly rose to success and found a place in millions of homes. Atari may not have been the first to market a cartridge-based console (the Fairchild Channel F beat them to it the previous year), but they sure were the first to make the idea mainstream. Many rivals sought to challenge Atari’s domination of the market over the next decade such as the Mattel Intellivision or Phillips G7000 (Magnavox Odyssey in the US) to no avail. Atari had given gamers a taste of the future. And it tasted like freedom.
A storm is coming
Even though the 2600 was limited in its capability, games like Pitfall!, Grand Prix, Space Invaders, Meteor, Centipede, Dragons Lair and many others took gamers to places they had never been, transporting us into a whole new worlds. No cinematic cut-scenes, no deep storylines, just raw gameplay at its best. By 1982 the gaming industry had enjoyed astonishing success. However, poor development choices (yes ET, we’re looking at you…) had let the market grow stale. A surplus of low-quality games began to fill store shelves and the video games market started to stall. Consumers had become frustrated with games designed solely to make money for greedy developers. By 1983, video game sales had fallen to the lowest on record and by 1984 almost no new games were developed. Meanwhile, home computers began to appeal to more consumers as companies like Commodore and Sinclair aimed to make their units smaller, more powerful and most importantly, cheaper. The home console market needed something new.
8-bits of something
In July 1983, just as the rest of the world were suffering the effects of the crash, Nintendo launched its new console in Japan; the Famicom (or NES as it became to be known in Europe). Japan saw fantastic sales and Nintendo looked to release its new console into other markets, ending Atari’s US domination and bringing with it one of the most iconic characters gaming has ever seen; Mario. The plump plumber still to this day remains one of the most iconic figures in gaming.
Nintendo’s NES launched in the US in 1985 and finally worldwide in 1987. It sold in millions, and by the end of 1988 it had sold seven million units – that’s more than the Commodore 64 sold in its first 5 years. By the end of 1987, Nintendo had an 65% share in the console market – the once unbeatable Atari held on to just 24%. Nintendo dominated the US market so much that most computer-game developers suffered poor Christmas sales, leading some into severe financial difficulties.
Hedgehogs love rings
In Europe the NES was rivalled (and largely outsold) by Sega’s new offering – the Master System. Both consoles offered broadly the same specifications, both used cartridges to run games, both had multi-button control pads. Games had made a leap in terms of graphical scale, with side scrolling, 3D aspects and sharper graphics. To make the market even more competitive, Nintendo and Sega both imposed strict licensing rules on developers that ensured platform exclusivity for a period of time, and thus ensuring the start of the ‘console wars’.
Late in the third generation, Nintendo unleashed the GameBoy onto the world. Suddenly in 1989, you could take your game with you wherever you went – although the device would be considered ‘chunky’ by today’s standards. Nintendo totally dominated the handheld market for the next 15 years selling 188.69 million units worldwide. To put that into perspective, that’s 1 console each for every man, woman and child living in the UK today. And you’d still have enough left to give to the entire population of Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, and Finland. Plus you’d still have 14,021,137 left for spares. So if you wondered why they’re still selling for just £5 on eBay, now you know.
Time for a refresh, and a blue hedgehog
On October 24th, 1988 Sega released its new 16-bit console in Japan, the Mega Drive. It brought 16-bit graphics (twice that of previous generation consoles) and released with almost perfect ports of arcade titles Altered Beast and Shinobi. For the US market the console was renamed Sega Genesis, however all other aspects remained unchanged. Nintendo were initially reluctant to bring another console to market, but NES sales were starting to decline and the company needed to release up-to-date hardware. The Super Nintendo was finally released to the masses in 1991 and brought with it an array of new titles including Super Mario World, The Legend of Zelda and Street Fighter 2. The rivalry between console makers was beginning to reach a whole new level and the fourth generation brought the most exclusive titles of any seen so far. Meanwhile, the Atari 2600 finally ceased production on January 1st, 1992 having been on the market for just over 14 years and shifting over 30 million units worldwide.
Sometimes its better…
Late in the fourth generation saw a partnership form between Nintendo and electronics giant Sony to incorporate the new Compact Disc technology into new consoles. The deal fell apart when Nintendo realised how much control Sony wanted, and they quickly partnered with Phillips instead. That deal also fell flat, eventually forcing Nintendo to release another cartridge-based console – the N64. Infuriated by Nintendo’s decision, Sony decided to develop a new console on its own and the PlayStation, not only the console but the brand as we know it today, was created.
…to go it alone
The Sony PlayStation completely dominated from its release date, eventually selling over 102 million units worldwide when production ceased in 2006. To put that into contrast, the N64 sold just 32 million units. With 3D games becoming the norm, the PlayStation boasted some great titles such as Crash Bandicoot, Tomb Raider, Ridge Racer, Parappa the Rapper, Driver and Oddworld.
So that’s where we’ll end part one for now. The gaming industry was heading for a bright future having learnt from mistakes of the past, and that could only be a good thing for everyone. Next time we’ll look at the consoles released from 1996 to the present and see some of the most iconic games ever to grace our screens. Be sure to check back soon, and thanks for reading.