IMS 211: A (very)Brief History of Video Games

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Information about IMS 211: A (very)Brief History of Video Games

Published on March 3, 2014

Author: AlexanderMSU


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 For Two.

Higinbotham Was also part of the team at Los Alamos responsible for the nuclear bomb. Nice job, tennis dork!

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 Steve Russell.

IN 1971 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.

Thank Atari… 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 cool stuff.

In 1978… A company named Midway introduces this little guy and a million of his slow moving, always descending friends: 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 machines.

In 1980… 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 had one. Also, the game to the left debuts. It’s not a big deal or anything.

True Fact: 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 Pacman.

In 1983-1984… 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, Atari).

Dragon’s Lair… 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.

In 1985… 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 today.

1986 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 Brothers.

1987 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.

1989 Nintendo debuts the Gameboy. The original is HUGE by current standards, but it allows for portable gaming. Things like color, and graphics that aren’t terrible, won’t come until later.

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 games. Atari releases the handheld Lynx. No one buys it.

1990 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.

And now… Madden looks like this:

1991 Two years after the Genesis and TG16, Nintendo releases the Super Nintendo in the US. It still does surprisingly well. Mario, Zelda and the gang have a lot to do with that.

A note: 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.

1993 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.

1994 Japan gets Sega Saturn and the Sony Playstation. The US gets:

1995 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.

1996 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.

1997 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!

1998 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 spinning.

2000 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.

2001 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!

2002-2004 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.

2005 Sony debuts the PSP. It’s a nice system, but it can’t seem to stop the power of the Nintendo DS. Microsoft gets the drop on the next generation by releasing the Xbox 360.

2006 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 360. 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 everywhere.


The iPhone 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.




2011 While it was publically released in 2009, the final release version was in 2011

2012 This year brought the Nintendo 3DS XL and the Playstation Vita, as mobile game systems attempt to combat the iDevice and Android phone mobile renaissance. 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.

2013 LoL has 32 MILLION unique players monthly. That’s roughly the population of Canada by some numbers (and just under it by others).


You want more detail…

Next class… Make sure to read the three articles. We’ll talk more about immersion and interfaces.

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