The Evolution and History of Video Games

A closer look at how video games have evolved over time

By: Daniel Imbellino
Updated: May 19, 2014

Ahh, video games, I’d be lost without them. I remember back in the early 1980’s fighting with my cousin and brother over who was going to get to play the next round of River Raid on the Atari 7800. pacman game cartridge from 1980's Decades have passed since then, all the while watching the evolution of video games and multimedia technology slowly develop into an entertainment super power. Years past, and so did old technology fading along with it, as a timeline of gaming consoles from arcades to the home appeared and later faded away. Video games weren’t just entertainment, they were a prominent piece of the technological empire of the 21st century. Here we’re going to trace the roots of our powerful 3D gaming technology that we take for granted today, as well as take an indepth look at the technological and historical significance, and the social obstacles it’s brought with it.

Arguably the first video game ever was “Tennis For Two”. It was developed by William a Higinbotham, and it was debuted to the world in 1958. Williams game worked by graphing and displaying the trajectory of a moving ball on an oscilloscope. The game was very simple, but it was also the beginning of technological innovation concerning computers and graphics. This technology later became the concept behind the game Pong. And although Higinbotham created the first game, he wasn’t the first to implement the technology on a large scale.

In 1961 a group at MIT known as the "Tech Model Railroad Club" came up with the idea of the game "Space Wars." It was mainly the work of Steve Russel, Martin Graetz, and Wayne Witanin that brought the idea to life.The game consisted of 2 spaceships that fought against each other with missile like weapons.The game gained so much popularity that it quickly spread to many other universities.

Then in 1966 Ralph Baer came up with the idea of a full fledged video game system. It was simply called the “The Home TV Game”. It featured several interactive games like ping pong, hockey, and even had a light gun. Then in 1972 Baer comes up with the “Brown Box” game system which is then presented to Magnavox, who then implements the system as a home video game called the “Odyssey”. It wasn’t the best selling game system though, infact, not even close. The system was mainly sold in TV stores at the time, and many companies didn’t like the idea and refused to sell them. There were also too many complaints about system failures from overheating. This was a primitive technology that clearly was in its infancy. The Odyssey definitely wasn’t an impressive system, but it was a step forward in the evolution of gaming technology.

Then came Nolan Bushnell. The founder of Atari, and Chuck E Cheese. original atari 2600 console Bushnell pushed video game technology into the rival of the 80 year old box office. It was through his ingenuity that consumers became as much obsessed with video games as they were the first star wars movies. Bushnell works for years to find a way to implement an arcade version of the game “Space War”. This was no simple task as the game ran on a giant mainframe. In 1971 Bushnell completes the Space War arcade game and contracts an agreement with the company Nutting Associates, who then builds 1500 units. The system ultimately fails to achieve his expectations and eventually fails.

In 1972 Bushnell hires Al Alcorn, at the time an inexperienced programmer, to design new games. Al develops pong which later becomes a hit with consumers and video game arcades. This is the same year that Atari is founded by Bushnell. Having newly implemented Pong along with other games that now became the Video Game Arcade era, Bushnell and Atari set out to develop a home based version of Pong. In 1974 Atari cuts a deal with Sears Department stores to manufacture 150,000 home based units of Pong under the label, “Tele Games”. The Pong game system sells for $100 a unit at the time, and was one of Sears largest selling items of the era. It is during this time that Steve Jobs, Yes the founder of Apple, presents Bushnell, his then employer, with the idea of building a new computer system. Bushnell declines and Jobs leaves Atari to create Apple, Apparently a wise choice. Can you imagine what the value of $100.00 was in 1972? That would be about the equivalent of $600.00 today x 150,000 units! They clearly banked off this game.

Between 1974 and 1977, 56 Arcade games are released by various game manufacturers. Chuck E Cheese Original Advertisement In 1976 Bushnell sells Atari to Warner Communications, and In 1977 Atari introduces the first true fully fledged home video game console, the Atari 2600. At this time Bushnell is still very much involved in Atari and the gaming industry, although he no longer owns the company he founded. Bushnell wanting to expand the video game arcade market, opens “Pizza Time Theaters”, which later goes on to become “Chuck E Cheese”. Pizza Time Theaters direct competitor “Show Biz Pizza” buys Chuck E Cheese from Bushnell and all remaining Pizza Time Theaters are converted to Chuck E Cheese stores.

In 1980 Mattel’s introduction of the Intellivision sparks the console video game wars that would flourish in the industry for decades. About this time, Atari releases the 5200 console, and colecovision, and Vectrex hit the market fighting for dominance. By 1983 the market seems to have stalled to a partially slowing U.S economy. Unlicensed games flooded the market for Atari and other systems, causing at times huge monetary losses. Gaming companies are struggling at this point to stay afloat, and many go bankrupt. As you will see later, the unlicensed games factor reflects another controversy that plagues the multimedia entertainment world today, and it’s called piracy!

In 1984 Atari announces the development of their 7800 home gaming console, with a price tag of $140.00, Atari thought the console would surely sell well. After 2 years of setbacks Atari finally released the 7800 but it was around the same time that the Nintendo Entertainment System hit the scene as well. The 7800 had some serious disadvantages over the Nintendo. For one, the Atari 7800 had only three titles upon its initial release, while the Nintendo had dozens! Also, the 7800 suffered many setbacks due to repeated failed negotiations of the sale of their home gaming division to Jack Tramiel, and this is partially what stalled the release of the system for so long.

The 7800 offered full backwards compatibility with all the previous 2600 games, had a beefed up processor, a 256 color palette, and newly redesigned Pro-Line controllers. However, the lack of a library of games brought about the systems demise. Marketing efforts for the system were paltry at best, and in some cases, other game platform developers like Sega paid the price with some of their consoles as well for not making consumers well aware of their products. Arguably, many believed the 7800 console had superior graphics as compared to the NES console, but it lacked on sound quality, another area where Nintendo had them beat.

The early to mid 80's were also the days when Arcades had held popularity among gamers, especially with titles such as Pacman, which had already proved successful with its U.S licensing from Bally Midway, in which Atari was hoping to cash in on the game as well, only to see all their efforts fall apart. Part of the problem with home gaming consoles during this time stemmed from the popularity of arcades, which typically offered better gaming experiences than your average home console did. People preferred to play the arcade versions of games like Pacman, which featured stereo sound effects and music, cleaner graphics, and better quality game play. We have the original Pacman on this site for those who want to play it: Play Pacman Online .

In 1985 Nintendo releases the 8 bit video game system the “Nintendo Entertainment System”. original nintendo entertainment system One of the most successful gaming systems in history, Nintendo developed the system into a platform that supported thousands of games! The system leaves other consoles like Atari’s in the dust. In 1988, Nintendo releases the GameBoy Handheld gaming system, along with Atari’s release of the Lynx hand held console shortly after. The lynx having better than average graphics, was drastically more expensive than the Game Boy games, and for this reason alone, it did not share in the Game Boys success. As you continue reading, you will realize just how pricing alone, in some cases would dictate the success or ultimate failure of an entire gaming system.

In 1987 NEC releases the PC engine, a Japanese version of what was later introduced in America in 1989 as the TurboGraphx 16. Systems made the transition at this time from an 8bit system to 16 bits. The TurboGraphx console was nothing exciting. I found it amusing how it was named Turbographx16, when infact it had an 8bit processor. It did however have dual 16bit GPU’s, but this never made up for the poor processing power. It had a max screen resolution of only 400x270, and a grainy 512 color palette. Graphics quality was really no better than the Nintendo itself, and the system had a low share of the video gaming industry worldwide.

The console used HU cards, named after its creator Hudson Soft. This was really the systems only advantage, the fact the cards were smaller and more portable. Nonetheless, they were just ROM cartridges like any other. NEC then went on to develop the “Turbo CD” add-on unit that attached directly to the core console. The CD games could carry more graphical information and data since they obviously had more room to store data than the HU cards did. The system sold terribly and failed to take off in America, although it did gain some popularity in Japan. Its $400.00 price tag wasn’t appealing to consumers at all, and this issue alone brought about its demise. NEC later came out with a standalone CD unit called the Super CD in 1991, also not a big seller in the US. By the Mid 90’s most of NEC’s interest in the gaming industry had taken a drastic turn and the company moved on to other business ventures.

Along with the competition of Nintendo and NEC, in 1989 came another console that was sure to rock the industry with ground breaking graphics for its time. It was the Sega Genesis with its true 16 bit graphics and 8MB+ ROM cartridges that brought a whole new era to gaming technology. From 1989 to late 1991, Sega ruled the gaming industry as consumers flocked to stores worldwide to purchase the console. It was fairly affordable compared to some other, even far more expensive and advanced gaming systems from SNK. Though it wasn’t odd to pay $60+ on average for one Genesis game back in 89, SNK’s NeoGeo system was by far the most costly at more than $650.00 for an average unit. This was Sega’s chance to retake their share of the market after dismal sales of their Sega Master System platform that never really took off. The Master system carried 8 bit graphics that were nothing special enough for consumers to notice.

In September of 1991, Nintendo finally brought the Super Famicom (Family Computer) to the Japanese market. Americans, impatient to wait for the systems U.S. release of what would become the Super Nintendo, were paying an average of $750.00 for one Super Famicom console. I’m not sure if it was in spite of Americans, but Nintendo intentionally made the Japanese versions of their games and systems to carry better graphics technology. Infact, I remember when the original Mortal Kombat was released for the Super Nintendo. Comparing the US version with the Japanese version, both being played on the US console, you could easily see a huge difference in graphics. The American games were choppy, and the Japanese games had much cleaner, smoother graphics. You could remove the security pins on Japanese games and play them on U.S consoles. Although not all games worked, a majority did. Also, even Sega was known to produce games and systems of lesser quality for the American markets.

Now, SNK, in 1989, unlike the other home platform makers spent most of their time developing and implementing Arcade games and consoles. This was their main market, although they did develop home gaming consoles for consumers who could afford the extravagant price tag that came with them. It wasn’t odd for NeoGeo games to cost as much as $350.00 for one cartridge, and you were hard pressed to find any games for under $125.00. SNK however pioneered the gaming industry with its NeoGeo MVS (Multi-Video System) arcade console. The upright console had a multi-cartridge system built in that allowed for easy installation and upgrade of games. The consoles could hold up to six games at one time, and players could choose which title they wanted to play. This was a huge benefit for video game arcades, as Arcade consoles were very expensive at the time, and ROM (Read Only Memory) used in gaming cartridges were difficult to manufacture and exponentially expensive to buy. Also, normally, if you wanted to change a game, you had to swap out the whole entire system for a new one, effectively costing thousands! With the MVS, Arcade owners could simply replace the cartridges with new ones, and remove and replace the skins and images of the console itself, in order to match the new games, effectively saving arcade owners millions of dollars, and earning them millions more in profits. Everyone in the industry benefitted from SNK’s pioneering of gaming technology during that era.

SNK eventually created a home gaming system called the AES (Advanced Entertainment System), that was really a clone of the MVS hardware, although it only played one game at a time, unlike its Arcade counterpart which could house 6 game ROM’s at one time. The AES system was originally intended for commercial use only and was often found in hotels, etc. SNK later released it as a home console. The AES was able to play the actual arcade ROM’s, and even the Arcade units could play the home version games. Then in 1994, SNK, realizing that their home consoles weren’t bringing the sales they had hoped for, released a new system with a cheaper price tag. The 16 bit NEO GEO CD hit store shelves at $400.00 and boasted much cheaper games. The games now being stored on CD ROM, were much cheaper to produce than the Read Only Memory based cartridges used previously. Some Neo Geo CD games were only $50.00 at the time, Although this system suffered from several big problems. For one, the system was known to overheat, and game load times for some games were very long, sometimes several minutes for a single game transition. The problem was the CD drives in these unite were 1x disk drives. Nonetheless, even with the drop in game prices, consumers weren’t willing to pay the high price for the system, prompting SNK to drop its price to $350.00. Still, sales were paltry compared to their Arcade units. Infact, you almost couldn’t walk into any U.S Arcade and not find a NeoGeo console somewhere. Some Arcades were packed with them!

Today "Tommo" working with SNK have developed a newly revamped version of the old NeoGeo AES neogeo X Gold console called "NeoGeo X Gold", which can be purchased on Amazon, among many other places. The system comes preloaded with 20 original titles, a handheld gaming system, and the system has the ability to play all the original AES cartidges! With a price tag of $177.00, the newly redesigned version seems like a decent price to get your hands on a console that once cost over $600.00, and the games pricing didn't lag to far behind.

In the mid 90’s SNK meets its match with competition from Capcom Arcade consoles. capcoms street fighter 3 arcade game Capcom produced three Arcade console systems between the late 80’s and mid 90’s, they were the CPS1, CPS2, and CPS3(Capcom System) gaming consoles. Unlike SNK, Capcom never released home versions of its Arcade consoles, although they did release scaled down versions of many of their Arcade games for current home systems, such as the SNES. The CPS1 console, which was developed and released to arcades in 1988, was Capcoms first ever Arcade system. It was merely an 8 bit system, however, it featured exclusive games developed only by Capcom. This system was plagued by bootleg games. The U.S market for one was flooded with counterfeit copies of Street Fighter II, they were everywhere. Infact, the bootleg versions of Street Fighter II featured much better graphics and faster game play than the actual ROM’s did. Although Capcom did an excellent job of tracking down counterfeiters of their Arcade consoles and games. While Arcade owners were notorious for purchasing these games, despite knowing they were illegal, they continued to buy them anyway. The bootleg versions would pop up in local Arcades, being there for only a few days or a month at most before being busted by authorities. Some of Capcoms most successful games, and among the most popular with Arcade enthusiasts were Final Fight, and Ghouls n Ghosts. The CPS 1 system was an obvious competitor for SNK’s NeoGeo platform at the time. Capcom did make one attempt to produce a home gaming console, the “CPS Changer”. They quickly canned the idea not long after its initial release though.

Playing on the success of its CPS1 console, Capcom goes on to produce the CPS2 console in the early 90’s. In 1993 with the release of CPS2, Capcom added advanced encryption algorithms to its ROM games in order to thwart the rampant piracy that plagued its CPS1 console. They added security measures that worked well ta the time, but eventually in the late 90’s programmers did eventually crack the encryption code. This is how we ended up with emulators like “Winkawaks” that can play virtually every single CPS1, 2, and 3 game ROM’s ever created for the Capcom Arcade systems, except for Marvel Vs. Capcom 2, which was hardware dependent, making it very difficult to emulate in software. Many Street Fighter Titles were released under this console, including the Street Fighter Alpha and Zero series.

During the mid to late 90’s, video game Arcades retained their popularity since you were hard pressed to find games of the same quality for home systems at reasonable prices. Also, many Arcade titles at the time were earmarked by the gaming industry as Arcade only ROM’s. Atari Released in 2004, the Atari Jaguar home video game console. Atari touted its advanced 64 bit graphics as being the wave of the future. However, the system was plagued with problems from the beginning. For one, programmers from third party developers complained that it was extremely difficult to develop games for the system, and that Atari failed to provide them with sufficient development tools to create cutting edge games for the console. Also, there were mixed reviews from consumers themselves as to whether the system was worth buying. When the Jaguar launched, it had very few titles to choose from. The system came bundled with one controller and the game “Cyber Morph”. Owning the console myself, I have to say I was extremely disappointed in the graphics. They were choppy at best. Tempest 2000, one of the games I personally owned was very choppy and looked like a bunch of blocks moving around on the screen.

Pitfall 3D had decent graphics, but the lack of development killed the system less than a year after its initial release. Those of us who purchased the system were angry that Atari decided to call it quits and end the console forever. But I, like many other consumers, jumped to fast to purchase the console before reading and verifying the reviews. The tech community wasn’t convinced from the beginning that the console would ever thrive, and that it would ultimately fail to reach the hearts of its users. That’s exactly what happened too. I guess their predictions were right on target when everything was said and done.

By 1995 Sega Saturn and the Sony Playstation hit the scene, and the Atari Jaguar with its supposedly “State of the art graphics” which were nothing more than lousy, was now long forgotten. The new home gaming console battle was now brewing mainly between Sony and Sega. The Sony Playstation boasted nice graphics, and quick load times as compared to its CD game predecessors like SNK. Sony developed a very aggressive marketing campaign to back its new system and the results were off the charts sales of its newest console. The Playstation consisted of a 32 bit RISC processor,2MB of system RAM, 1MB of video RAM, the capability to display 16.7 million colors simultaneously, at a 640x480 resolution, and the ability to draw 360,000 polygons per second on a given screen. Its graphics were truly impressive for the time, and what made the console the real winner, even over Sega’s Saturn console, was the fact that Sony and third party developers worked around the clock to release hundreds of games not long after its initial release. Third party developers stated how easy it was to develop games for the console as well, remember, this was ultimately what killed the Jaguar console, it was the lack of development tools. Despite the Playstations steep initial price tag of $299.00, and fairly expensive game titles, Sony managed to sell more than 50 million units worldwide, and the Playstation's library eventually consisted of more than a thousand game titles being developed under this platform.

The Sega Saturn unfortunately never shared with the success of the Sony Playstation console. Third party developers had a hard time making use of the two parallel processors that were the brain of the console. The problem was, only one processor could gain memory register access at one time. Another issue was the price tag of the unit. While the Playstation retailed for just $299.00, the Sega Saturn console had a hefty $400.00 price tag under its belt. Also, Sega failed miserably when it came to marketing their new console. Infact, many consumers didn’t know anything about the console when it hit store shelves in America in December of 1995. As well, there were a limited amount of titles available upon its initial release, although, eventually there were over 250 titles total that were available for the system by 1998 when its legacy ended production. Despite not being as popular as the Playstation, the Saturn had excellent graphics capability that was easily comparable to other consoles at the time. I would even have to argue that it had better graphics and faster game play than the Playstation itself. Later, Sega’s Dreamcast would encounter an even greater demise than the Saturn. Also, Sega never really had a chance with these consoles, since the games were not encrypted and pirated copies flooded the market, causing huge monetary losses for Sega.

In 2000 Sony launched its much famed Playstation 2 console. Boasting 128 bit graphics, backwards compatibility with original Playstation titles, and even accommodating the use of DVD videos and CD audio, the Playstation 2 was an instant success. The console had 32MB of system RAM, and 4MB of dedicated video RAM, and it easily surpassed Sony’s previous console as the new universal home gaming system of choice. The $299.00 price tag was considered acceptable given the reputation that Sony had previously built for the system. In all honesty, most Playstation 2 games were mediocre at best. There were a number of titles with excellent graphics for the time, but not all games carried their own weight with consumers.

When the original XBOX hit the scene in November of 2001 in America, it was considered the first truly high grade home gaming system that had graphics easily comparable to its Arcade counterparts. Microsoft originally named the console the “DirectX Box”, since it was originally developed through the help of Microsoft’s Direct X team, and was later changed to the XBOX before its initial release. Soon after its release, the first version of Halo was soon available for the console, and was considered its most popular game. But, it was Microsoft’s invention of XBOX live the following year that took the gaming console to new heights. Microsoft realized the social potential for online gaming, and wanted players to be able to play and communicate on a higher level, and that’s exactly what the XBOX Live service brought. It was this console that brought the future of gaming technology to real light.

The original XBOX used a standard SATA (Serial Advanced Technology Attachment Interface) Desktop PC hard disk drive. It boasted a 733MHz Pentium III processor, one of the most powerful at the time. It had 64MB of dedicated video graphics memory, thanks to Nvidia’s ingenuity. It was about this time that home gaming consoles like the XBOX brought about the death of the once prominent video game Arcades we used to see in our local malls. Arcade titles were now being released for the XBOX on a large scale, including the “Marvel v.s Capcom” series games. The problem was, video games have universally relied on solid state memory as an underlying part of its infrastructure. Solid state memory back in the 80’s and 90’s was very expensive, difficult to manufacture, and costly to research for gaming companies. But as the price of solid state memory began to decline in the early 2000’s, the once impossible “Arcade at Home” idea was now looking much brighter.

It was in the mid 2000’s that Microsoft unleashed the world’s greatest console ever, the XBOx 360. The super powerful gaming console ran on an IBM tri-core processor running at 3.2 GHz, and featured 512MB of dedicated RAM running at 700MHz, as well 10MB of embedded DRAM. It was truly one of a kind with its custom 500MHz ATI graphics. With the addition of its dual layer DVD ROM drive, games were able to feature graphic intensive game play. Standard DVD’s at the time only held 4.7GB of data, and this didn’t include space allocated for formatting with given file systems. The dual layer DVD architecture effectively doubled game capacity and gave game developers more room for better graphics.

At present, a new gaming war looms between the Playstation 4 and the XBOX One! xbox one video game console The XBOX One touts an octocore (8 core) AMD Processor, 8GB of super fast dedicated DDR3 memory, a 500GB hard drive, (assuming its solid state as nothing else compares), and voice activated and hand gestured controls. The Playstation 4 feature a share button, so users can capture their game play and upload the videos to their social networks on the fly. The PS4 controllers feature a touch pad just like the one's on laptops, a new feature to gaming. Microsoft has stated that users will have to pay a royalty for used games, and that games which are traded into game stores will be de-activated on the users console, as if they never owned the game. Also, the game stores themselves will have to pay royalties in to game publishers in order to resell those games. These new rules are sticking well with XBOX fans, who have stated on a mass scale they wouldn't be willing to accept the new rules.

It's likely that the Playstation 4 has a serious advantage over the new XBOX, since Microsoft has gotten to carried away with retaining control over is games.

While we didn’t cover every gaming console ever made, the point of the article was to reflect on how video games have evolved over a period spanning decades, also bringing into focus their failures and successes. My first game console being the Atari 7800 was obviously a far cry from today’s gaming rigs, but it was a part of today's evolution the nonetheless. It’s difficult to say what may come in the future, probably more interactive gaming platforms such as Microsoft “Kinect”, or futuristic versions of the older virtual reality technology of the 90’s may be what’s in store. If you were to look at all the factors that drove video gaming technology for all these years, undoubtedly, it was hardware costs that presented the biggest constraints. From the Sega Genesis’s 8MB ROM cartridges, to the multi-Gigabyte PC platform games, you can easily see how years of development in solid state technology have shaped how gaming technology was implemented in the past, and how it will evolve in the future.

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