Game Design, November 5th, 2013: A Quick History of Video Games
Every story has a beginning.
The very first video game?
It was essentially pong.
Not the Pong with dial paddles, though that
would later be Atari’s first game and the first
video game people actually had in their homes.
The first Pong, though not called pong, was
created in 1958 by Willy Higinbotham and
played on an oscilloscope. It was called Tennis
Was also part of the team at Los Alamos
responsible for the nuclear bomb. Nice job,
The first real innovators…
Were Atari. Founders Nolan Bushnell and Ted
Dabney started development of an arcade
game– Computer Space– in 1970. Computer
Space is essentially a “port” of a game called
Spacewar developed on a mainframe at MIT by
Sweet success for Atari!
1500 cabinets of the first
arcade game ever,
Computer Space, ship.
And people think it sucks,
basically, though it
appears Ginger from
Gilligan’s Island loves it.
Not to be defeated…
strikes back like the empire it will
become, and starts working on a little bit of that
video game tennis action. In 1975, they release
Pong. And people… kind of lose their minds.
Within two years, in 1977, Dr. Phill is born into a
world where Atari sells a home system (the precursor to the Atari 2600). It runs on cartridges
and can replicate many arcade games. Atari also
considers personal computers, but that goes
sort of like Computer Space did.
Not just for your Xboxes
and Playstations and
handhelds and this class…
but Atari was the breeding
ground for a lil outfit
called Apple. iThink they
might have made some
A company named Midway introduces this little
guy and a million of his slow moving, always
Space Invaders is the first arcade game to record
scores. That… ends up being a big deal. People
like scoring points and leaving their initials on
Mattel debuts the Intelivision,
a machine that in spite of
coming second and having
better technology ends up
being the betamax to Atari’s
VHS. Every kid who’s parents
shopped in the Sears catalog
Also, the game to the left
debuts. It’s not a big deal or
Namco originally named the
game “Puckman,” as the
protagonist looks like a
yellow hockey puck. But they
realized us crazy Americans
have a tendency to deface
things, and since someone in
their office was named
Chuck and could play the
name game, they knew what
we’d do. So he became
Atari ups its game to the 5200 to try to compete
with the new home system, Colecovision.
Dragon’s Lair hits arcades. Everyone sucks at it,
but it looks so cool we cope.
In Japan, a company named Nintendo launches
the Famicom and makes a deal for Atari to
distribute in the US. That deal falls through (oops,
Is relevant in that it brings the swords and sorcery world of table-top gaming
to video games. It’s also the first game to use laser disc technology instead of
just a circuit board. It ends up being more like a choose your own adventure
cartoon, but it blows away the graphics of its competitors.
The Nintendo Entertainment System is test
marketed in New York. It’s Famicom, only for US
audiences. While this is happening, a Russian
named Alex Pajitnov invents Tetris, essentially
fueling the puzzle game genre we know and love
The NES and the Sega
Master System (both 8-bit)
hit the United States.
Nintendo’s console comes
with a game called Super
Mario Brothers. The console
wars essentially begin here,
even though there have
been rivals before. This is the
first time the division feels
anything like it is even
between the two companies.
Oh, that Mario
Nintendo’s plummer-in-chief wasn’t born with the
NES. He first saw action in Donkey Kong in 1981,
then his brother Luigi joined him in Mario Brothers
in 1983. Both started as arcade machines but
found life on home consoles (Atari and
Colecovision). But the Mario most know and love–
the one who rescues the princess– first appeared
in the free-with-the-system NES Super Mario
The Legend of Zelda debuts. It’s the first major
cartridge game to include a battery to save your
data and it makes action RPGs a “thing” for
Americans. Also… the cart is GOLD!
The REAL Triforce
In 1986-7 Nintendo also released Metroid, a game
best known for a hero who can curl into a ball,
looks a little like Boba Fett, and ends up being a
girl! The trio of Mario, Zelda and Metroid would
constitute a major “first party” advantage for
Nintendo, as those were games that Sega couldn’t
offer on their Genesis console.
Nintendo debuts the
Gameboy. The original is
HUGE by current
standards, but it allows for
Things like color, and
graphics that aren’t
terrible, won’t come until
Also in 1989
Sega tries to one-up Nintendo in the “next
generation” fight and launches the 16-bit Genesis.
The Genesis is touted as the first system to allow for
“true” arcade game play at home.
NEC’s 16-bit console, TurboGrafx-16, debuts. It is the
first system to run CDs. It has limited appeal bur great
Atari releases the handheld Lynx. No one buys it.
Two years after it debuted on the Apple II, John
Madden Football is released for Sega Genesis. It later
spreads to every console on Earth, sort of like a
football tossin’ Skynet.
Two years after the
Genesis and TG-16,
Nintendo releases the
Super Nintendo in the US.
It still does surprisingly
well. Mario, Zelda and the
gang have a lot to do with
I’ve tried to hit on a few key games, but during this
era, the sheer number of games available
explodes. To track them all would turn this into a
horrifying mess of release dates. But a time-line
might be a fun thing to build.
Atari’s Jaguar, which was to be the first 64 bit
system, fails worse than their Lynx did.
Joe Lieberman, who would later provide absolutely
no energy to an Al Gore Presidential run, tries to
legislate an end to violent games. Poor guy thinks
Mortal Kombat is bad. I wonder how he feels about
Grand Theft Auto: V.
Japan gets Sega Saturn and the Sony Playstation.
The US gets:
Sony Playstation and Sega Saturn come to the US.
Nintendo 64 debuts in Japan.
Everyone says that Sony has no chance against the
big two in America.
Arcades start a shift from cabinet games (the success
of fighting games like Mortal Kombat and Tekken
now starting to wane) and begin to feature more sitin-the-car, ride-the-skis, surf, etc. games.
Tamagotchi is released.
People are into it, for
like a week, then their
virtual pets starve
because American kids
don’t really get “into” it.
In Japan, there also
lurks a Pokemon.
Thanks to either geniuses at Sony or a terrible
controller (Nintendo 64) and a lackluster game
catalog (Sega Saturn), Playstation dominates the US
gaming scene with 20 mil units sold.
Arizona goes “Full Lieberman” and tries to ban
violent video games. Only the bill doesn’t pass their
state legislature. Flawless victory. FINISH HIM!
Sega releases the Dreamcast, a system that
runs a version of Microsoft Windows. It’s
brilliant, but it never quite takes off. It’s also
in an odd “half-generation” position, as it’s
not quite next-gen but sort of is.
Wal-Mart decides to ban some violent games.
Shoppers go to Target. The world keeps
Say hello to the Playstation 2, a system that will one
day bring you God of War.
The Sims is also released, showing that people still
play PC games that aren’t for FPS LAN parties.
Y2K doesn’t kill us, but it kills Sega, as they
cease manufacture of hardware and go
straight up game production.
Microsoft’s Xbox and Nintendo’s Game Cube
launch the same week. Nintendo… starts to
fall to third in the console wars.
But the GameBoy Advance is awesome!
Sony and Microsoft trade hammering blows.
Nintendo starts to focus again on the portable
market. In 2004 they release the dual screen
Nintendo DS. It does much better than the then
faltering Game Cube.
How relevant is WoW?
Many had proclaimed PC gaming dead. Sure,
Warcraft III, Diablo and a handful of other games
had sold well, and early MMOs like Ultima Online
and Everquest did brisk sales, but WoW at one point
would boast 11.5 million subscribers and essentially
rose like a phoenix to put MMOs on the gaming map.
Now games like League of Legends boast nearly 5X
the users, and online communities thrive.
Sony debuts the PSP.
It’s a nice system, but it
can’t seem to stop the
power of the Nintendo
Microsoft gets the drop
on the next generation
by releasing the Xbox
The Playstation 3 debuts, and in spite of a vocal fan
community vs. fan community flame war all over the
net cannot catch up to the installed base of the Xbox
Nintendo debuts the Wii, going in a totally different
direction and making gestural gaming a real thing.
Also, lots of people destroy TVs, furniture, and each
other launching the nunchuk here there and
Thanks to the iPhone, people can carry more
sophisticated games on their phones, and mobile phone
gaming– already a big thing in other countries– starts to
really stick in the US.
Later the app store will become a boon for indie
developers. Then a nightmare. Then a potential boon
again. It will lead to the Xbox Live arcade, Androids App
store, the Sony Playstation Market, etc. It also causes
2003’s release of the Steam platform to finally mean
something to the masses.
While it was publically released in 2009, the final release version was in 2011
This year brought the Nintendo 3DS XL and the
Playstation Vita, as mobile game systems attempt
to combat the iDevice and Android phone mobile
Nintendo releases Wii U, which is popular with
families but seems to fall flat for hardcore gamers.
Rumors swirl about the next Xbox and Playstation.
One of the things you read for today is a visual
history of Zelda. You can sort of tell, from the
graphics, what the mechanics were in those
eras, how the systems worked, etc.
The challenge: pick a current gen game and
“devolve” it; what would it look like, how would
it play? What would have to change for it to be,
for example, a SNES game? What could you