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History of video games: from “Pong” to the Wii

Marty Schroeder | Wednesday, February 7, 2007

In 1958, William Higinbotham created what many consider to be the first video game – the “Pong” predecessor “Tennis for Two.” The small step of using an analog oscilloscope as a platform transformed entertainment forever. From these humble beginnings now stands an industry that rivals Hollywood.

Video games are an indelible part of modern life – from nerds who love the latest Role Playing Games (RPGs) to the newest form of social entertainment in the Nintendo Wii. The history of the video game is one of cutthroat business practices and artistry that is just now being recognized as a relevant cultural force.

It must be said that “Tennis for Two” is not really what many today consider a video game, but what it spawned is important to understand in the face of the modern entertainment industry. After 1958, the Magnavox Odyssey hit the markets in 1972 to become the first ever commercially marketed video game console. Powered by batteries and lacking anything in the way of sound capabilities, this proved that games could be created and played not on a board, but on a screen.

The games were basic and on cartridges – the format that would be the industry standard until the Sony Playstation (PS1) was released with games on CDs. This system also saw Nintendo’s first foray into the video game market as they distributed the Odyssey in Japan before moving on to design their own consoles. Although now the stuff of collectors and game buffs, the Odyssey is a milestone in entertainment history.

Atari

As much as the Odyssey was a milestone, it failed to secure a hold on the newly emerging home console market. It was not until Christmas 1975 – when Atari released its already popular arcade game “Pong” – that the home console market exploded. This was based on the success of arcade games, which had been around for several years. However, this home console included only “Pong.” No other games could be played, unlike the Odyssey. Atari, now feeling the success of “Pong,” released the Atari 2600 in 1977, which was capable of using game cartridges so multiple games could be purchased and played on the system. Although it took some time to be noticed, it became the best selling present during the Christmas season in 1979, selling over a million units.

By 1982, the Atari was selling eight million units per year, making it the most successful game console of the late 1970s and early ’80s, and familiarizing users with a diverse array of games including “Pac-Man,” “Space Invaders” and the first incarnation of “Donkey Kong.”

Following the success of the Atari 2600, it would be some years before something truly lasting would be released in the world of the home console market. The Commodore 64, released in 1982, had the most advanced graphics at the time but was a system that straddled the gap between home computer and home console. Quickly overtaken by other video game and home computer companies, it would last for a few years more but not as long as the now dominant market names.

Mario takes control

The next windfall for video gamers came in 1985 in the form of the Nintendo Famicom, or Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) outside of Asia. Bundled with the now legendary “Super Mario Bros.,” this console signaled the end of the 1983 crash and defined what is considered a video game console today. Still revered by many as the symbol of their childhood, this system was a big success not only in Asia, but also North America, having sold over 60 million units since its launch.

Nintendo was the first console maker to openly accept games from third-party developers. Capcom’s “Mega-Man” franchise and Square Enix’s (then Squaresoft) “Final Fantasy” series were games that have become the stuff of legend but were not developed in house by Nintendo. This is not to say Nintendo did not make games for its own system. The “Mario Bros.,” “Zelda” and “Metroid” series were all created by Nintendo and are still being released today for newer systems. With games such as these, Nintendo showed not only technical advancement in its console hardware, but a creative capacity in game design that altered what people thought were video games.

All good things must come to an end and it was no different for Nintendo’s near monopoly on the video game market. In 1989, the Japanese gaming company Sega released the Sega Genesis in America. This system was an improvement over the old NES due to the increase from an 8-bit to a 16-bit processor.

Increased graphics capabilities were showcased in the now famous Sega franchise, “Sonic the Hedgehog.” Another advancement on the part of Sega, which predicted the rise of the CD formatted game, came in the form of Sega CD. This could play music CDs and some games. As foresighted as this was, the CDs suffered from extended load times, which hampered the success of this console.

Nintendo, seeing competition in the form of better graphics and game franchise creations from Sega, released the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). Available in North America in 1991, this system sparked the biggest console war in the history of video games between the Sega Genesis and the SNES. With games such as “The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past,” Nintendo took back some of the market share it had lost to Sega. Other games such as “Super Mario Kart” helped the SNES become a home console staple.

Games go 3-D

The Nintendo 64, released in 1996, was a huge jump in graphics capabilities from the old 16-bit SNES. As the title of the console makes clear, this was a 64-bit system that had the first fully 3-D graphics showcased in games such as “Super Mario 64” and “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.” Aside from these games, the first person shooter (FPS) based on the James Bond film “Goldeneye” paved the way for the explosion of first person shooters so popular today as shown in games like “Halo.”

Sony also jumped into the console market with its release of the PS1 in 1995. The biggest change in video games associated with the PS1 was the shift to games on CDs instead of cartridges. Also, separate, removable memory cards used to save games were introduced, allowing people to transport their memory cards to play saved games instead of an entire system. Load times were somewhat of an issue – the main reason the Nintendo 64 opted for the cartridge format – however, the CD format offered third-party developers more disc capacity and the ability to create epic RPGs such as the successful “Final Fantasy VII.”

After these, Sega had its last console, the Dreamcast, which was one of the first consoles to be able to connect to the internet and allow game play over it. However, due to poor business decisions, Sega left the console industry and is now focused on being a third-party game developer. Nintendo released the Gamecube, which focused on families and social game play with games such as “Mario Party” and “Super Smash Brothers Melee,” the sequel to the very popular “Super Smash Brothers” on the Nintendo 64. Sony has had the most success so far with its Playstation 2. This system currently has the lion’s share of the market even with Microsoft’s introduction of its own Xbox.

The situation today is one of held breath and anticipation. Nintendo has released its Wii, Microsoft has the Xbox 360 and Sony has the Playstation 3. No one system has emerged as the victor in this seventh generation of video game consoles.

The high-definition DVD war is now in play as Sony is backing Blu-Ray and Microsoft backs HD-DVD. “Gears of War” for the Xbox 360 has set the tone for FPSs and Wii’s revolutionary controller is the first major change in controller technology since the inception of the home console. Sony has many loyal fans but the high price and current lack of games has left the Playstation 3 struggling.

The history of the home console is one of creative genius and hard-line business. From humble beginnings with analog technology and no more graphic power than two bars hitting a circle across the screen, video games are a mainstay for everyone from children to business professionals. As more and more people who grew up with video games enter their adulthood and have children of their own, the future is bright for this always innovative entertainment.