Video games date back long before the days of the arcades, to the 1950s when scientists were developing sports simulators on oscilloscopes. But there’s no need to go back that far—there have been plenty of moments in recent history that have shaped the way the last few generations have enjoyed their digital entertainment. Here are just a few of these watershed moments.
If there was ever an ah-ha! moment in the world of video games, it was when a company in its nascent years by the name of Atari unleashed “Pong” upon the world. The co-founder of this soon-to-be household name, Nolan Bushnell, was more than just a company head—he was an innovator with an eye for public relations that could rival P.T. Barnum. “Pong” wasn’t the first tennis simulator ever released on a computer, but Bushnell knew how to create buzz, so he installed a machine in a San Francisco bar, creating strong word-of-mouth from patrons who happily found they could enjoy the game no matter how drunk they were.
Bushnell then took “Pong” out of the bars, conquered the arcades and finally the home gaming market. This is because the title served as an evolutionary starting point for the home-video-game console. Because when Atari released their 2600 system in 1977, all bets were off. Kids now didn’t even have to leave their living rooms to get their gaming fix—and the world would never be the same again.
If there’s one indelible image that represents the heyday of arcade gaming, it’s of a little yellow orb gobbling up power pellets with a horde of brightly colored ghosts in hot pursuit. Yes, “Pac-Man” became the face of video games for a time, and the character still has a place in many gamers’ hearts over 30 years after its release. But many people don’t know the origins of this iconic franchise, and how “Pac-Man” came to be will surprise today’s gamers.
Toru Iwatani is the man credited with bringing “Pac-Man” to the world. A designer at Japanese company Namco, he had the idea of creating a game that would appeal to girls, since back then only boys dominated the arcades. Every bit of the design, from the colors to the shapes to even the score text was lighthearted and fun. The result was a game with an aesthetic that welcomed girls into the fold but offered gameplay solid enough to appeal to either sex. Effectively Iwatani slipped a girl-game-hiding Trojan horse into the boy’s tree house, and they never knew the difference.
Today there’s a console system (or two or three) in almost every home. That makes it easy to forget that there was a time when the trajectory of video games wasn’t always an upward one. By 1983 Atari had reached the height of its powers, and then came the crash. (Due in no small part to a lack of innovation and epic 2600 failures like “E.T.”) The home-console revolution seemed to have run its course. Combine that with the fact that kids weren’t spending as much time in the arcades as they used to and the result was that many were writing the obituary for the very notion of video games.
Then came Nintendo Entertainment System in 1985. Japanese masters Hiroshi Yamauchi and Shigeru Miyamoto held fast to the belief that their sensibilities and vision for home gaming would translate to an American audience. To their credit, the gamble paid off, and some of the most iconic video game characters, from Mario to Zelda, ushered in the renaissance and secured video games’ foothold in the American consciousness for generations to come.
CD’s can play games too?
Ever since the Atari 2600 hit store shelves, the home gamer had only known cartridges. To those of us who grew up in the ‘80s, the limits of a game’s potential were clearly defined; we couldn’t see a future offering anything other than 16 or 32 bits of entertainment. But the rise of PC gaming introduced us to CD-ROM, and of course the home-console boys were scheming to deliver the same format on their end.
The first full-blooded CD-system was the Sony PlayStation, and it represented a new frontier in gaming. Players were sling-shot into the future with titles like “Crash Bandicoot,” and “Final Fantasy,” and the system could even play standard audio discs. Competing with the PlayStation at the time were noble failures like the Sega Saturn, some of whose CD games, such as “Panzer Dragoon Saga,” have achieved cult status and are more sought after than many games of today.
Gaming finally goes online
Coinciding with the rise of the internet was the rise of online gaming. Companies took advantage of the fact that more and more folks had internet connections in the home, and from the early 1990s various consoles were released touting their online capability. However, it was Microsoft who delivered the most effective functionality with their release of Xbox Live in 2002. This represented the first time home gamers could effortlessly go online and within seconds be playing with folks halfway around the world.
PlayStation jumped on the bandwagon with their PlayStation Network, but even today Xbox Live remains the gold standard for console gaming in cyberspace.
Ultimately these events represent just a smattering of crucial moments in the history of gaming. There will be more, too, coming at a breakneck pace as technology continues to evolve at geometric rates, and people become ever more digitally connected in a hyper-globalized world.