The History of Video Games: Part 1 - The Rise of the Atari 2600.
The First Major Home Console
Ever heard of the "Oregon Trail generation?"
Probably not, and neither had I until recently, but apparently I am a member of it and never knew it. Members of this generation were born in the late 70s and early 80s and bridge the gap between the last members of Generation X and the first of the millennials. The generation gets its name from the Oregon Trail computer game, a game many of us played on our school’s Apple II computers. Dying of digital dysentery was much more fun than *gasp* “going outside to play.”
Ours was the generation that saw the transition from analog to digital in our formative years. We remember black and white CRT TVs, playing audio cassettes on our Sony Walkmans and renting films from video stores on VHS tapes (and hoping the VCR didn’t then chew them up).
However, we are also young enough to remember the introduction of CD players, DVDs, satellite TV and the early days of the internet. We are also young enough (just) to be able to easily cope with new technology, so we still know our Facebook from out Twitter.
Good for you, you might be thinking, but what has this got to do with gaming?
Good question. What this has to do with gaming, is that the Oregon Trail generation is probably the first "gamer generation." Let me explain…
The generation that came before mine, composed of those who would be in their fifties and sixties now, would not have experienced games to any great degree until they were already adults. This is assuming they experienced gaming at all. They don’t know what they are missing…
The generation that came after mine, those who are children and teenagers at the moment, would have grown up with gaming when gaming was already in a mature state. They probably will not have experienced anything more primitive than a Nintendo DS. Not that we are jealous or anything…
Our generation, however, grew up with and matured with gaming, whilst gaming itself was growing and maturing. When gaming was in its infancy, so were we. When gaming had reached its adolescence, we too were spotty teenagers and when gaming reached its peak we were twenty somethings. And now that we are "pushing forty", some of us can’t help but think that gaming was "better in our day" and that now everything "plays the same."
Those like myself who have been gamers since the early 1980s have racked up some thirty-odd years behind joysticks, mice, and game pads. In that time we have seen the dizzying heights gaming can reach, and the crushing depths it can plunge to as well.
So sit back and enjoy as we take you on a journey through time, where we will track the evolution of gaming through the years, and discuss the good, the bad, and the downright broken.
Gaming as Kids: The Early 1980s
Like many people of my generation, my first experience of gaming at home was the Atari 2600, the first big mainstream console. I got my sticky fingers on one at the tender age of six(ish). This was probably my first "hands on" experience of gaming, with the possible exception of some early coin-op arcade games (more on them later.)
To give you an idea of how old this console was, it featured a switch that would make all the colours monochrome. This was to make things easier to see on black and white TVs!
Most games back then were very simplistic, and many were conversions of popular coin-op arcade games, such as Frogger, Centipede, and of course, Space Invaders. Although the Atari 2600 was far less powerful than most coin-op arcade machines, most of the games were faithful reproductions of their arcade counterparts.
With one exception: Pac-Man. Somehow, someone managed to mess up the conversion of Pac-Man. You would think that such a simple game would be impossible to mess up, right?
One of the difficulties was that the arcade version of Pac-Man had a surprising degree of hidden depth. This was mainly due to the AI — Artificial Intelligence — of the ghosts. Did you know that the four ghosts had different personalities, would react differently to you? Did you know that this was the reason they had different colours, so you could tell them apart and thus predict their behaviour? I didn’t as a kid, but apparently they do. I will cover this in more detail in a future article about AI in games.
Four distinct ghosts, four distinct personalities.
Perhaps the people who handled the conversion did not realise this, or perhaps the Atari 2600’s hardware simply could not handle this level of AI. The days of the ‘arcade perfect conversion’ were still a decade away at this point.
Although Pac-Man was my first disappointment in video game land, it would not be the last. In the next article, we will take a look at the worst video game ever made and the video game crash, which almost killed off the video game industry before it had really got started.