Over the course of four decades, video games have become an integral part of our culture. They have evolved from primitive, arcade-driven “twitch games” to elaborate, fully realized imaginary universes. There are many important milestones in the long road to modern video games, and this article focuses on the early period of gaming’s existence, from the early 80s to the mid-90s. As you experience the journey from the early arcades to the 16-bit era, you can also visit a CRRL branch and pick up some of our books on the history of video games. You might be surprised by what you discover!
The Arcade Age and the Crash of 1983
The video game industry had become commercialized by the early 1970s, but it would take a while before games would become widespread in American homes. Early video games, such as Pong and Space Invaders, were simple arcade games with pixelated graphics, very limited game worlds, and an emphasis on “twitch” gameplay that emphasized rapid reflexes. Home consoles only began to truly become mainstream with the release of the second generation of game consoles, especially the Atari 2600 in 1977. The 2600 relied on ports of arcade games for much of its library, and one of its most popular games was its port of Space Invaders, which was released in 1980. Some of the other popular games for the system included ports of Donkey Kong, Asteroids, Defender, and Pac-Man. Many of these games sold quite well, especially Pac-Man, which sold over 7 million copies. Even as Pac-Man became the best-selling 2600 game of all time, troubles began to mount for Atari and its console.
Atari’s success in the early 80s was built off of two factors: having an incredible volume of game releases and paying for popular game and media licenses. Pac-Man was a port of one of the most popular arcade games of the time, designed to take advantage of “Pac-Man fever.” The game had been rushed into release as quickly as possible, and, as a result, the game did not port the arcade classic well. Numerous programming compromises were made in the Atari Pac-Man, including making the character sprites flicker while moving, changing the layout of the game’s maze, and replacing the arcade’s iconic “wakka wakka” noises with less appealing sound effects. Pac-Man did not live up to the classic arcade game and was one of many titles released after 1982 that began to devalue the 2600.
Atari encouraged other developers to release games for their console, and the majority of the 2600’s releases were actually third-party games. Atari designed the console to be as open as possible and did not include any form of copy protection. While this ensured the console would see many new releases, there was no means of quality control, and many of the later games for the 2600 were low quality “shovelware” designed to make quick money for their companies. The reputation of both the 2600 and Atari suffered, and the glut of poor releases in 1982 would be capped by Atari’s first-party E.T. game. In one of the most infamous cases of a “Christmas rush” game in history, Atari only managed to secure the rights to make an E.T. game by July 1982. This meant the chosen programmer, Howard Warshaw, had only 5 weeks to develop and program the entire game so it could be released for the Christmas season of 1982! The result was a confusing disaster that infuriated reviewers and children unlucky enough to receive it as a Christmas present.
Nintendo’s New Dawn: The NES and the late 80s Gaming Industry
Although it was truly Pac-Man’s quality failure that caused interest in the 2600 to decline, E.T. would become a thing of legend in the decline of the early 1980s gaming industry, and the “Atari graveyard” of unsold games was often misidentified as consisting of only E.T. copies rather than the wider group of titles it actually was. Even as the U.S. video game industry was on the ropes and Atari was burying its games in the desert, video games continued to prosper elsewhere in the world. Nintendo had in fact debuted its “Famicom” (Family Computer) in Japan in 1983, the very year of the U.S. crash, but it would take until 1985 for the company to be able to enter the U.S. market. The NES (Nintendo Entertainment System)—the US release of the Famicom—had several features that distinguished it from the Atari 2600 and the Japanese Famicom. Nintendo at first tried to market it not as a “game console” but as an “entertainment system,” designing it to look like a VCR of the period. Nintendo also created a lockout chip, the 10NES, as a form of copy protection, so it could control the number and quality of releases for the system in the U.S. region.
What truly made the NES succeed were the games themselves. Nintendo had an immediate hit with Super Mario Bros., one of the first platform games with a scrolling screen. The game rapidly became identified as the NES’ “killer app” in the US, and Mario, previously known as “Jumpman” in the U.S. release of Donkey Kong, became a mascot for both the NES and Nintendo itself. Super Mario Bros. used its scrolling screen to create one of the first true game worlds; instead of simply being an excuse to generate a high score, Mario’s gameplay offered a sense of progression with a distinct beginning, middle, and end. Mario lived in a game world, the Mushroom Kingdom, that felt like a distinctive setting, with its Koopas and Goombas, many secret items, and level designs that introduced new features and challenges to the player in a progression of difficulty. Of all the game levels, World 1-1 is considered to have the most memorable design, as it eases the player into “platform game” mechanics as the “Overworld Theme” plays. It was Nintendo’s next blockbuster game that would truly define the NES and make it a classic piece of gaming hardware, however.
As good as Mario was, it was still bound to the mechanics of the arcade games that came before it. There was still an emphasis on high scores, game lives, and a linear system of movement through the game world. A video game where the players could explore the world, moving in any direction they wanted without the constraints of timers, lives, and linear level design, was still a radical idea. Shigeru Miyamoto began work on what would become The Legend of Zelda in 1984, conceiving it as an “opposite” of Super Mario Bros. The design basis for Zelda came from Miyamoto’s younger days of exploring caves in Japan, which he pretended were mysterious labyrinths as a child. The game’s world, the kingdom of Hyrule, was deliberately designed to be nonlinear and mysterious, encouraging the player to explore and experiment to find treasures and weapons. The game’s dungeons were as much about puzzles and hidden pathways as they were about sword fights with monsters. The game was an instant success upon release and would see many sequels over the years, and the world of Hyrule and the series timeline would become increasingly well defined by Nintendo.
A War of 16 Bits: The Nintendo vs. Sega Rivalry
NES games would continue to evolve over the course of the late 1980s, with Zelda providing the fuel to designing more complex game worlds. Games like Crystalis, Metroid, and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link all offered distinct gameplay centered around exploration that owed a debt to the original Zelda. 8-bit games were changing from their arcade roots partly because the NES was not powerful enough to truly emulate the newer, more powerful arcade machines that were appearing by the late 80s. In 1989, a newer, more powerful system would arrive to provide far more graphics and processing speed, allowing for much more accurate adaptations of arcade games. But it would not come from Nintendo.
Sega, a maker of many popular arcade games that had tried to compete with Nintendo with its 8-bit Master System, beat Nintendo to the punch with the Sega Genesis. Called the Mega Drive in many countries other than the U.S., the initial marketing for the Genesis featured much promotion of arcade ports, especially an “arcade-perfect” port of Altered Beast. The system’s launch titles were designed to show off the system’s processor, which was extremely fast for its time, and ability to show 61 colors on screen at a time. Even with a far more powerful system than the NES, Sega still initially struggled in the U.S. market because Nintendo had exclusive rights to many of the popular arcade games of the time. But by the middle of 1990, Sega would begin work on a game that would drastically change its fortunes.
To make a lasting impression on the gaming market, Sega decided its console needed a mascot. Several characters were pitched early on, including a rabbit, a dog, and a human, but none proved as popular as a hedgehog. The hedgehog was both simple to control and designed to move very fast by rolling into a spiky ball. He was made blue to match Sega’s logo, and was named Sonic to emphasize his speed. The game was designed to be the new pack-in for the Genesis for the 1991 Christmas season, replacing Altered Beast. Sega’s advertising campaign heavily promoted the Genesis’ processing speed, associating it with Sonic through the concept of blast processing. The Console Wars had begun, as Nintendo was also preparing a 16-bit console for 1991, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES).
The rivalry of the SNES and Genesis would dominate the video game industry for the first half of the 1990s. The SNES and Genesis had very different hardware priorities; SNES emphasized having many more colors onscreen at a time (up to 256 at a time!) and a sophisticated audio system, while Genesis offered a higher processing speed than the Genesis. With a CPU speed of 7.67MHz to the SNES’ 2.68MHz, there was some actual truth to the Genesis’ advertising claims of blast processing. Genesis performed well with fast-paced titles like the Sonic series, Vectorman, and NBA Jam. SNES countered with slower, more adventure-centered titles like Secret of Mana, A Link to the Past, and Illusion of Gaia. Both systems would begin to experiment with polygonal graphics in games like Virtua Racing for the Genesis and Star Fox for the SNES. Following the debut of Sonic, Sega took an early lead in the sales race, outselling the SNES by 2 to 1 in the 1991 Christmas season. But Nintendo would slowly close the gap over the years, relying on its own killer apps like Donkey Kong Country to outsell the Genesis from 1995 to 1997. Even as the SNES pulled ahead in the sales race with the Genesis, the 16-bit era was rapidly drawing to a close. Nintendo and Sega’s rivalry would continue in the third dimension, but a new challenger would arrive to reshape the industry.