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Golden Age

Chronology of the History of Video Games

editor: Ted Stahl

 

 

The Golden Age of Video games is when the world began to recognize what these devices were. Before Ralph Baer and Nolan Bushnell brought these systems into people's homes and the pizza parlor around the corner, these systems were still abstract concepts and experiments. It is during this era that Video games begin to make their mark on society and culture.

Not only do people embrace Video games and make time for them in their lives, many make substantial commitments with their budgets as well. During these formative years, the video game's cultural impact is reflected through its appearance in novels, films, and television shows.

 

1971

On March 22nd, 1971, Ralph Baer files yet another of his pivotal patents regarding video game's technology. This one is for the creation of a "Television Gaming and Training Apparatus." It is important to note that no matter how mundane these concepts may seem in hindsight, they were new constructs at the time. Ralph Baer and his colleagues were inventing interactive entertainment concepts that had previously not existed and that would become the very foundation of this medium as we know it.
Raster vs Vector graphics
Backward compatibility
 
 

History of Video Games

The Early years

The Golden Age <- you're here
The Modern Age
The "Next" generation

History of Computing

pre history
antiquity
pre-industrial era
Industrial era

History of the Internet

When his project is completed, Nolan Bushnell sells his free-standing version of Spacewar! to Nutting Associates and they market the game as Computer Space. 1500 units are manufactured and due to the game's complexity, it intimidates people and makes virtually no money. The first arcade video game's is a financial failure.

 

1972

Odyssey I
Ralph Baer

Magnavox begins production on the Odyssey. They sell 100,000 units in its first year at a price of $100 USD. This is the realization of Ralph Baer's vision: an interactive gaming device that can be hooked into an individual's own televison. Though primative, it is the first home console and the beginning of all that followed.

 

Nolan Bushnell leaves Nutting Associates and forms Atari. Originally he wanted to name the company Syzygy, but the name was already taken.

Picture of Nolan Bushnell
Nolan Bushnell

Al Alcorn joins Atari as its first engineer and develops Pong. Unlike Computer Space, Pong becomes a worldwide sensation. Learning from the original mistake, Bushnell wanted a game that was so simple no one could be intimidated. Hence, the brief but accurate instructions:

"Avoid Missing Ball For High Score."

Pong accompanies Dragon's Lair and Pac-Man as one of the three Video games on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., U.S.A.

 

Pong screenshot


Magnavox sues Atari for Pong because of its similarity to their video tennis on the Odyssey. What makes Magnavox's case so convincing is a signed visitor's log for the Magnavox Profit Caravan from May 24th that year. Nolan Bushnell had attended Magnavox's demonstration of the Odyssey and he had played the system before hiring Al Alcorn to create Pong. The court agrees with Magnavox and Atari is required to pay a licensing fee for Pong.

Gregory Yob creates Hunt The Wumpus. Though essentially a maze-based puzzle game with a text interface, it allows the player to attempt to track a beast through a series of caverns based on simple clues (i.e., "I smell a wumpus").
Boston University's Scientific Computing and Visualization Group maintains a playable version of the game online at: http://scv.bu.edu/htbin/wcl

 

Will Crowther begins coding Adventure (aka Colossal Cave) in FORTRAN on the DEC PDP-10. This is an effort that he makes to try to simulate the sense of adventure in exploring caves to share the experience with his daughters. Though not the first text-based computer game, it proves to be the first truly immersive electronically-mediated interactive experience. It becomes the template from which all text-based adventure games take their shape including the classic Infocomm titles like the Zork series.
Canada's National Laboratory for Particle and Nuclear Physics provides a playable version of the game online at: http://sundae.triumf.ca/pub2/cave/node001.html

 

1973

In spite of the public's interest during its first year of production, the second year Odyssey sales plummet. In order to rejuvenate sales, Magnavox drops the price of the to $75 USD.

 

1974

Magnavox drops the price of the Odyssey to $50 USD and that, combined with an aggresive marketing campaign, yields one of the best years for the system.

Atari begins working on a home version of Pong.

 

1975


Atari begins selling Pong under the Telegames label through Sears.

 

1976

 


Atari introduces arcade goers to a sit-down first-person driving experience called Night Driver. By staging the game at night, they can dismiss the need to create graphics to represent the environment and objects near the road. Instead, all they have to create is the illusion of the road itself. This is accomplished by two sets of white blocks that represent the left and right boundaries of the driving surface. Using the steering wheel, the player just stays between the markers as they come toward the bottom of the screen. Though primitive, the illusion is impressive at the time.


Atari begins selling their own home version Pong. Throughout the next two years, multiple incarnations follow including Super Pong, Pong Doubles, Super Pong Ten, and Ultra Pong.

 

While working for Atari, Steve Jobs creates Breakout. It is believed that much of the work on the title is done by his friend Steve Wozniak. Whatever the means, Breakout is another arcade success for Atari. In fact, the addictive gameplay and simplicity of design re-emerge later in the form of Arkanoid. Though this title adds additional features to the experience, it is Breakout at its core.

 

Coleco introduces the Telstar, their first foray into video games. This console is essentially a bargain version of Pong that sells well because of its $50 price tag. Though not revolutionary, it paves the way for their future endeavors.

Mattel Electronics introduces a LED-based hand-held electronic game entitled Missile Attack. This is the beginning of their line that would include such titles as Armor Battle, Baseball, Basketball, Football, and Sub Chase.

Fairchild revolutionizes home video games with the release of their Video Entertainment System. This console is the first to utilize cartridges that house additional games. Although the Odyssey enabled users to plug cartridges into the system to access different games, these merely unlocked the particular title that already existed within the machine. The Odyssey's cartridges were more like keys that unlocked existing code within the unit. Fairchild's Video Entertainment System offered users true expansion through new titles on cartridges. This was to become the paradigm that consoles would follow for the next two decades.

 

1977

Atari releases the VCS (Video Computer System), later known as the 2600. This cartridge-based system becomes the industry standard for years to come and provides a home for the largest library of software for any console during the Golden Age of video games. It is known for such classic titles as Adventure, Asteroids, Combat, Joust, and Space Invaders. Equally, it becomes notorious for some less stellar titles including the VCS versions of Pac-Man and E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial.

 

Mattel Electronics introduces arguably its most popular handheld title, Football. Though its lack of passing and inability to let the player run backwards limit the games overall realism, it offers a mesmerizing challenge to a generation quickly becoming fascinated with electronic entertainment. (As a testament to this game's impact, Mattel re-issued the game in the year 2000.)

 

 

1978

Mattel Electronics releases their handheld LED-based Baseball. Though, like their handheld Football, it seems a bit simplified, its gameplay proves engaging enough to make it exceptionally popular. Particularly the home run light show that the game provides is a favorite treat for many players. (Mattel also re-issued Baseball in the year 2000.)

 

Atari introduces one of the more visceral two-player game experiences to the arcades in the form of Atari Football. This is the first game to use a trackball as a controller. However, unlike Missile Command, the trackball is not used as a pointing device. It is used to control the action and the faster one moves the trackball, the faster the players on the field move. Needless to say, many head-to-head games leave both players sweating, exhausted, and scrounging for quarters for a rematch.

 

Bally releases the Bally Professional Arcade as their answer to the home video game market. It offers significantly better graphics than the competition, but at a much higher price.

 

Taito unleashes Space Invaders in the arcades and the first blockbuster video game sweeps the world. It contributes two firsts to the video game industry. It implements the first use of animated characters in a video game and Space Invaders is the first arcade game to display a high score. Its popularity in Japan is quickly recognized when it creates a shortage of the 100 yen coin. Its impact is further measured by the sheer quantity of spin-offs and remakes that continue to be produced in the following years.

 

Magnavox re-enters the home console market with the Odyssey². Its primary distinction was an integrated keyboard. With the eventual release of development tools, the Odyssey² became a personal computer. This proved to be of great interest to parents who were recognizing the potential importance of exposing their children to personal computing.

 

Cinematronics brings vector graphic technology to the arcades with Space Wars. Though this title is essentially a remake of Nutting Associates Computer Space, which was Nolan Bushnell's remake of Spacewar!, it offers a different graphic experience. The by using a vector graphic display, the graphics appeared to be much sharper. Later titles will take advantage of this technology with even better results.

 

 

1979

Atari demonstrates that Taito isn't the only company that can make popular shooting games by releasing Asteroids into the arcades. Atari improves upon Cinematronics' use of vector graphics to display the outlines of the asteroids and space ships. Atari also betters the Space Invaders high score function by being the first game to enable players to enter their initials along with a qualifying score.

 

Atari releases a simulation to the arcades in the form of an addictive vector graphic title called Lunar Lander. This experience puts players in the position of finding a safe place to set down on the moon by controlling speed and trajectory all while conserving fuel. The physics engine is engaging and the challenging nature of the game makes it extraordinarily addictive.

 

Namco puts a spin on the Space Invaders formula and introduces the enemy attack formation to the arcades with Galaxian. Though Galaxian is a vertical shooter, Namco adds color and much more complex alien attack patterns. Rather than Space Invaders' repeated back and forth approach, Galaxian sends the aliens down after the player in a much less predictable fashion. It becomes a hit and holds players' attention until they release Galaga.

 

Milton-Bradley releases the Microvision - the first handheld game system with interchangeable cartridges. The system has a 16x16 monochrome LCD screen. Jay Smith, who eventually creates the Vectrex, designed the Microvision for Milton-Bradley.

 

1980

Stern releases Berzerk to an unsuspecting gaming public and arcades everywhere began emanating the mechanical cries of, "Got the humanoid! Got the intruder!" and "Intruder alert! Intruder alert!" The synthesized voices of the robot enemies prove to be the perfect taunt to get a gamer's attention. However, the continued challenge of the progressive maze-like levels and the incrementally faster robots are what keep them playing.

 

Cinematronics puts a vector battlefield in the arcades with Armor Attack. In this title, one or two players manuver jeeps around the screen in order to eliminate tanks and helicopters. Hiding around corners works alright for the tanks, but the helicopters know no boundaries and are ruthless.

 

Mattel enters the home console market with the debut of the Intellivision. The system competes directly with the Atari VCS and has significantly better graphics. However, providing the improved visuals requires sacrificing some overall power of the machine. Whereas the Intellivision provides better images, the VCS is capable of updating the video display more frequently. The result being that Atari appeared to have a faster system while Mattel had the better-looking graphics. Intellivision is known primarily for its impressive sports titles like Baseball, Football, and NHL Hockey. The system also boasts an excellent port of the quirky arcade game Burgertime.

Atari uses the trackball in the arcades again, but this time as a pointing device for their Cold War metaphor Missile Command. In this defense shooter, the player uses surface-to-air missiles to detonate nuclear warheads before they can hit the ground and destroy his/her cities or missile stock piles. The trackball is used to position the cursor where the missile will detonate. One of three stockpiles (left, center, or right) is used from which to launch. The closer the detonation point is to the stockpile, the faster the missile will get there. The real challenge stems from figuring the speed of the incoming missle and leading it appropriately.

 

Namco introduces Pac-Man to the arcades and begins one of the longest running video game franchises. Particularly of note is the interest that the game is not only of interest to male gamers. Many speculate that Pac-Man's less violent puzzle-based gameplay is of more interest to women. In order to further tap into this market, Namco later releases Ms. Pac-Man. Pac-Man accompanies Dragon's Lair and Pong as one of the three video games on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., U.S.A.

 

The trackball makes another appearance in the arcades as the controller for Atari's Centipede. This shooter also seems to have a much more universal appeal to both genders than many others. It could be that the theme of eliminating bugs, rather than a blowing-up ships in space, resounds with a larger demographic. The only potentially alienated gamers would be the entomologists.

 

Amstar introduces Phoenix, one of the classic vertical shooters, to the arcades. Unlike Space Invaders and Galaxian, Phoenix provides stages with different adversaries and each has its own attack pattern. Furthermore, after handling a round of such stages, the player is challenged with a boss battle against a mother ship.

 

Williams redefines the shooter with Defender. Eugene Jarvis designs an arcade game that balances destroying enemies while protecting colonists. The gameplay is fast and the graphics are extraordinary. Defender utilizes the new gaming concepts like smart bombs and an onscreen radar. It is the first title to create a simulated world that exists and evolves outside of the player's vew. For example, a player can watch the radar and realize that an alien who has taken a colonist is about to become a mutant. When the mutation takes place, the radar shows the alien seek the player out. In an instant, the mutant is onscreen and attacking the player.

 

Atari releases Battlezone into the arcades and uses vector graphic technology to create the original first-person real time 3D shooter. A version was commissioned for the U.S. Army, but it was never put into production. The so-called "Army Battlezone" is believed to have been a more realistic anti-tank simulator. Only a few prototypes were ever shipped and were supposedly used as a diversion on bases to let soldiers brush up on skills rather than functioning as full-fledged training simulators.

 

Cinematronics releases the vector title Star Castle to the arcades. The simple premise of this shooter is to break down the barriers protecting a powerful enemy ship in order to destroy it before it destroys the player. The game uses a monochrome vector graphic monitor like Asteroids and Lunar Lander, but utilizes tinted color overlays to create the illusion of a multi-colored vector graphic game.

 

Midway takes mazes and two-player games to another level with the Wizard of Wor. Though the gameplay is simple (navigate the maze and eliminate the enemy monsters), the speed with which the creatures move and the fact that some can become invisible make this an engaging and enthralling experience. Especially if a player has a friend to share in the fun.

 

Atari introduces Tempest to the arcades. It is the first multi-color vector graphic game. It utilizes a controller often referred to as a "spinner." It is essentially a knob that enables the player to move the "claw" (the player's avatar in this title) around the perimeter of the play surface. Though Pong and Breakout used knobs years before, the feel of this device is decidedly different. Both Tron and Discs of Tron also used a similarly weighted controller for their cabinets. Though not quite as popular as Atari hoped, Tempest becomes a classic and is considered by many to be one of the most unique arcade games of the Golden Age.

 

1981

SNK breaks the mold for shooters by creating Vanguard. This is neither a horizontal nor a vertical shooter. The player has two sets of four buttons (for a total of eight). One set controls the direction of movement (up, down, left, and right) while the other controls the direction of shooting (again, up, down, left, and right). This makes for an interesting gaming experience. For example, if the player has to move around in order to avoid an obstacle and misses an opportunity to eliminate an enemy, he/she can still take it out from beside it or by shooting behind. Because of the format, many players make this a two-player game and have one person control movement while the other controls the weapons. The title also incorporates an energy power-up that turns the ship into a weapon. The ship will then destroy anything it touches. Appropriately, when the ship is in this state, the enemy flying patterns change as they try to avoid it.

 

Gamers begin dodging cars and leaping logs as Konami pounces Frogger onto the arcades. The gameplay is simple and proves to be another winner for both genders.

 

Namco improves on their formula from Galaxian and introduces Galaga to the arcades. Though this vertical shooter is very similar to its predecessor, it includes more colorful aliens, bonus levels, and an alien tractor beam. This last idea enables certain aliens to capture the player's ship. If the player is a careful shot, he/she can reclaim the ship and have it link to the current ship to give the player the ability to have a double-shot. This feature gives the player double the firepower to handle the oncoming hoards and makes the bonus rounds much easier to complete. At the same time, it comes with a risk. If the player isn't careful, the ship can be destroyed. It's a risk that many find worth taking, but it means that novice players eat through their change more quickly because of it. (Surprisingly, Namco doesn't mind.)

 

Sega releases Turbo - one of the first realistic driving games for the arcades. Since Atari's Night Driver, the technology has evolved to the point that a screen can be refreshed quickly enough to portray a changing landscape that simulates forward movement. The vertically mounted monitor provides enough of a view of the road ahead as well as the skyline that establishes the setting.

 

Nintendo puts Mario into the arcades for the first time in Donkey Kong. This title becomes the prototype for future "platform games." It provides a series of individual screens each with their own unique challenges. Rather than conquer the same screen repeatedly with accelerated difficulty (i.e., Pac-Man or Space Invaders), Donkey Kong provides the player with a variety of screens through which he or she cycles while playing, thus adding a diversity to the gaming experience.

 

Namco targets women directly with their modified Pac-Man game entitled Ms. Pac-Man. The title reflects the target audience in that Namco has chosen not to call it "Miss Pac-Man" or "Mrs. Pac-Man." This icon is supposed to be accessible to all women. Interestingly, many gamers of both genders prefer this title over the original for a few reasons. 1) It has variations to the mazes. 2) It has smarter AI for the ghosts. 3) The bonus items move around the maze. These all provide a more engaging challenge for the arcade gamer and prove that the advertisement is accurate when it claims that Ms. Pac-Man is "more than Pac-Man with a bow."

 

1982

On January 18, 1982 Time magazine acknowledges the impact of the video game industry with a cover that declares, "Video Games Are Blitzing the World."

 

Milton-Bradley buys out General Consumer Electronics just before they release the Vectrex. GCE's Vectrex is the only vector graphic home video game system ever made. The unit includes a built-in black & white vector monitor and utilizes tinted transparent overlays to create the illusion of colored graphics. Though its original library grew to about three dozen titles, it is known for almost perfect ports of the classic Cinematronics vector titles: Armor Attack, Space Wars, and Star Castle.

 

Data East introduces their quirky platformer Burgertime to the arcades. Though it doesn't promote the most sanitary of food preparation methods, it does promote fun. The player guides a chef around the screen and helps him assemble burgers by walking over different layers of the sandwich. By walking across the top of the bun, it breaks free and falls onto the lettuce below. This frees the lettuce to fall onto the burger patty and so on. Extra points are awarded for capturing pursing enemies (including a hot dog and a pickle) in the ensuing shuffle.

 

Though it may have taken Mad Magazine a couple of years before recognizing the cultural impact of video games, they made up for it with not one, but two covers satirizing the arcade experience in 1982. The first is their April issue which depicts a modified Space Invaders screen. The second appears on their September issue in which they declare Pac-Man "Man of the Year." Such high-profile appearances of these titles in mainstream media serve to recognize the cultural impact of video games at the time.

 

Namco releases another one of its classics to the arcade: Dig Dug. This tunnelling puzzle game has you blowing up (literally - as in inflating until the explode!) your enemies or finding creative ways to drop rocks on them. It once again proves to be a winner for women and men alike. There's nothing like dropping a rock on a Fygar before he has a chance to singe you!

 

Irem introduces parallax scrolling into the arcades with Moon Patrol. This technique creates a more realistic illusion of movement in a side-scroller by assigning different speeds to elements of the foreground and background (i.e. the further something is in the percieved distance, the less it appears to move). Not only is Moon Patrol visually striking due to this technique, the game is simple and addictive fun. The player is challenged with making his/her way from Zone A to Zone Z safely while taking out hovering aliens that are dropping bombs all while jumping over craters and destroying boulders that block the way.

 

Coleco releases the Colecovision. It competes head-to-head with both the Atari VCS and the Intellivision and has the best of both worlds. It provides high-quality graphics that were Intellivision's strength while maintaining the speed and gameplay that the VCS offered. Furthermore, recognizing the importance of recognizable licensed titles, Coleco offers the best home versions of arcade favorites like Donkey Kong, Defender, Frogger, Joust, Spy Hunter, and Zaxxon.

 

Namco responds to Sega's Turbo by releasing Pole Position to the arcades. Though both are third-person realistic driving games for their time, Pole Position drops the player down into the action a little more and provides more of a sense of speed and immediacy because of it. However, both games prove to be very sucessful and players enjoy both for their strengths.

 

Gottlieb helps gamers laugh when their character dies by watching and hearing Q-Bert swear onscreen. Granted, the letters are gibberish and the sound is indecernable. However, the intent is understood and recognized. And, like the rest of this puzzle classic, it's amusing . In Q-Bert, the goal is to progress from stage to stage by changing the colors of all of the surfaces by stepping on them. At first, the player only has to hit each square once. However, as the game goes on, higher stages require additonal hits per square to convert them to the correct color. Amusing enemies including "Coily" the snake make this as fun as it is challenging.

 

Namco releases another classic in the form of the vertical shooter Xevious. In this title, the player shoots both flying enemies while avoiding their weapons. This all takes place over a continually scrolling surface filled with ground targets that are firing at the player as well. Unlike the static environments or repeating stages, the evolving environment makes for a very intriguing experience that entices the player to want to see what comes next.

 

Sega creates the 3D isometric shooter Zaxxon and inflicts it upon the gaming public. Though graphically superb, the control proved to be a challenge to many. In order to understand where the player's ship is in relation to the environment, one has to keep an eye on the altimeter to the left, observe the shadow below (when available) and shoot to see where the weapon fire goes. Even with the potential frustration, Zaxxon is a blast to play and many consider it a favorite.

 

Williams introduces Joust to the arcades. Two player cooperative and cutthroat matches ensue worldwide. The simplicity of the control scheme, but the variety of strategies with which to eliminate the enemies ensures that there is almost always a long row of tokens lined-up representing the number of other players waiting for their turn. Players enjoy finding amusing alternate game experiences including "belly-bounce" kills and pterodactyl hunting.

 

1983

In spite of numerous obstacles, Coleco begins shipping their Adam computer system based on the Colecovision.

 

Nintendo gives Mario another arcade venue and lets him bring his brother Luigi along in Mario Bros. Though the single screen platform gameplay is simple, the control is tight and the puzzle challenges presented are addictive. The gameplay elements introduced in this title become the staples for the continuing console series Super Mario Bros. However, the home console titles are not limited to single screen interaction, but are full side-scrolling adventures.

 

Thanks to Bally Midway, the Peter Gunn theme began resounding through arcades, with their introduction of Spy Hunter. This driving combat game puts the player in a spy vehicle complete with machine guns and missiles in the front, and oil slicks and smoke screens out the back. And when the road ends and water begins, the automobile of this vertical-scrolling driving adventure turns into a speedboat for wet and wonderful fun. In spite of the inspired classic gameplay of this original, Spy Hunter II does not live up to the reputation of the original.

 

Konami re-visits the concept of a visceral arcade experience (first introduced by Atari Football) in the form of Track & Field. This game becomes one way that an arcade-living teen can get a sweat-inducing workout. In order to get enough speed for many of the events, the buttons have to be pounded repeatedly with alternating hands to the point that one cannot discern the sound of the individual button presses. The game quickly becomes a vehicle through which players prove, not only their eye-hand coordination, but their general dexterity and physical stamina.

 

With the final film of the original Star Wars trilogy in the theatres, Atari introduces an arcade game worthy of the saga. Star Wars is one of the most impressive vector graphic games ever released and the multi-color monitors and the sense of fluid first-person flying make it a delight to play and to watch. Though it only has a few stages that it repeats with increased difficulty, it provides an opportunity for all of the fans of the original film to destroy the Death Star for themselves...over and over again!

 

Cinematronics releases Dragon's Lair, the first laserdisc-based arcade game. Though Rick Dyer programmed the game and it was his brainchild, the game's success is due to the excellent animation talent of Don Bluth and his team (The Secret of NIMH, An American Tale, Titan A.E., etc). The fact is that though the format is visually impressive and allows for graphics far better than what the current arcade boards can produce, the gameplay of this genre leaves much to be desired. User interface development is at a level not previously witnessed. 20110110
The interaction with the onscreen experience is simply a matter of pushing the joystick in the right direction and/or pressing the button. If this is accomplished, then the next video clip will play.

Nintendo releases the 8-bit Famicom (short for Family Computer) in Japan and it sells out quickly. Rather than compete directly with Atari, they negotiate to make Atari the worldwide distributor of the system outside of Japan. Unfortunately, Atari succumbs to the changing marketplace along with the rest of the video game industry.

The video game crash has begun, but from its ashes the 8-bit machines will usher in the Modern Age of video games.

 

 

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