The Origins and History of Video Games

The Birth of the Video Game

The story begins in a little laboratory in Brookhaven. A man by the name of William Higinbotham was head of the instrumentation division here at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL).

During the fall many visitors would come to visit the laboratory, and Higinbotham was friends with them all. But he soon realized that many of his visitors seemed rather bored during their time at BNL. He wondered if there was something he could do to make their trip a little more interesting.

He decided to create a simple game: video tennis. Using a small oscilloscope, visitors would be able to compete against each other with the little dot on the screen in the game Higinbotham dubbed Tennis for Two.

Only three short years later, another development was made. This time it is at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Three men: Steve Russell, J. Martin Graetz and Wayne Witanen want to create a computer program that will be able to show off the advanced technology of their PDP-1 mainframe.

Drawing inspiration from the classic Chronicles of the Lensman novels by venerable science fiction author E.E. “Doc” Smith, it is decided to create a science fiction video game, where two spaceships must fight each other using missiles. The game is created and is called Spacewar! by the team, led by Russell.

Enter the Arcade

Flash forward ten years to 1971. Two programmers, Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney, drawing their inspiration from Spacewar!, develop Computer Space. Computer Space is the first coin-operated video game.

Computer Space doesn’t do as well as hoped, however. Bushnell and Dabney decide to form a new company dedicated to the new field of video
games, and name it Atari. They make a new game, and this one is destined to become one of the true hallmarks in the history of video games: PONG, created by engineer Al Alcorn.

PONG is a huge success, and other companies begin entering the arcade game market. Numerous games are made and sold across the country. The 1970’s produces classic video games such as Space Invaders, the first video game to keep track of high scores, and Asteroids.

Video Games in the Comfort of Your Own Home

In 1951, Ralph Baer worked for an electronics communication company by the name of Loral. While at Loral, he comes up with a brilliant idea. Television, on its own, is completely passive. What if there was a way that the user could actually interact with their television?

He talks to his higher ups at Loral on the idea of creating an interactive game that could be used in conjunction with their television sets. Loral is completely uninterested, and the idea festers for years.

Coming up to 1966, Baer still has not given up on his video game idea. He comes up with a basic design for a home video game system, as well as some categories for types of games that could be played on it: Action, Puzzle, Instructional and Sports.

Although it takes several years, Baer eventually gets his home video game system off the ground with the company Magnavox. The unit is called the Odyssey, and is the first ever home video game system, released in 1972. Unfortunately the unit does not do well.

In the mid-70’s, video game manufacturers began turning some of their popular arcade games into dedicated console systems for play at home. Atari puts up their first of these home video game products in 1975: the home version of PONG.

In 1977, Atari comes out with a new home video game system. This time it is “programmable,” meaning that games can be changed by inserting different cartridges, unlike their previous products on which only one game could be played. The product is called the Atari Video Computer System (Atari VCS), later known as the Atari 2600.

Video Games: The Next Generation

The 1970’s had seen the birth of the commercial video game. In short order they had become immediately popular. In the 1980’s video games would explode, becoming a true mainstay of American life.

It started in 1980 with Pac-Man. Pac-man was the first video game to feature an animated character as the protagonist of a game. It became a huge hit almost instantly and spawned numerous sequels. The most famous of these is Ms. Pac-Man, released in 1981. It was the first video game to feature a female character, and proved even more popular than Pac-Man.

The Atari 2600, released in 1977, had been floundering at the end of the 1970’s. This turned around in 1980, when Atari released a home version of the arcade hit Space Invaders for the system. They had licensed the game from its creators, the company Taito. It was the first time an arcade game had been licensed to be played on a home programmable system, unlike the dedicated console games that had hit the market 5 years before. Space Invaders made Atari an immensely
popular system, and the Atari 2600 finally started making money. 2 years Atari came out with their second home console system, the Atari 5200.

Also in 1981, Japanese company Nintendo, releases the video game Donkey Kong. Nintendo was an old Japanese company founded in 1889 that produced
playing cards. In the 60’s and 70’s they entered the world of video games. Donkey Kong introduced the character of Mario, who would become a permanent fixture of the Nintendo world.

As the 80’s went on, the technology behind video games continued to improve. Synthesized speech was introduced with Taito’s Stratovox in 1980. Laserdisc technology providing advanced animation came out with 1983’s Dragon Lair, which would produce a whole new genre of video games. In 1984 Atari’s arcade game “I, Robot” introduced 3D polygon graphics.
By the middle of the decade, video games had grown into a monumental force. In 1985, one of the first major hits for the growing world of personal computers (PCs), Tetris was created by programmer Alex Pajitnov was released. CD-ROMs made their first debut on PCs, and Nintendo puts out its first home console system, called Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). The next year would see the company Sega, who would become Nintendo’s major rival in the home console market, release their first console system: Sega Master System.

At the end of the 80’s CD-ROMs had carried their first games such as “The Manhole. NARC introduced 32-bit graphics to the arcade world. 1989 saw the release of Nintendo’s first handheld game system, the Game Boy, and Sega had released their newest console system: Sega Genesis.

Video Games: 1990’s and Beyond

In the early and middle 1990’s, the home console video game market was a contest between the two rivals: Sega and Nintendo. Atari, although still in the market had begun to fizzle out after the release of their Atari 7800 in 1986. Nintendo and Sega were clearly the dominant forces, each epitomized by their primary characters: Super Mario for Nintendo and Sonic the Hedgehog for Sega.

As home console systems became more popular and more affordable, the importance of the arcade began to wither. Although still a force today,
they do not hold nearly the importance that they did in the 70’s and 80’s.

Nintendo released their second home console system, Super Nintendo Entertainment System (Super NES) in 1991. The first game, Super Mario World (the fourth in their Super Mario series) became an instant hit.

The next year, Sega introduced a CD-ROM expansion for their immensely popular Sega Genesis system, after Phillips had introduced the concept of CD’s for home console systems with its CD-i. In 1983, Atari attempted to resurrect its market share in the home console market with the Atari Jaguar, the first home system to utilize 64-bit graphics. Unfortunately for Atari it did not catch on as hoped.

In 1995, a new player entered the home console market: Sony. Their Playstation would prove to become an immensely popular home console system. That year Sega also released their newest system: Sega Saturn that year. Both moved away from cartridges and instead utilized CDs.

With two new systems to compete with, Nintendo jumped back into the spotlight with Nintendo 64, featuring 64-bit graphics unlike anything seen in the home market
before. It failed to move into the CD world, however, and was the last home console system to utilize cartridges.

As the 90’s wore on, Sega began to lose its place in the console market to newcomer Sony. They attempted to rectify this in 1999 with their new Dreamcast, but it would not be enough to stem the slowing market sales. By 2002 Sega had decided to leave the console field and only work on actual game development.

2000 saw the explosion of the Playstation 2 by Sony. The Playstation had clearly come to dominate over both Sega and Nintendo, and was now the primary player in the home console market. In 2001 another newcomer arrives on the home console scene: computer mega-corporation Microsoft with its X-Box.

Nintendo also came out with their newest home console product: GameCube. They had begun to lose market share for their home console systems, however, first to Playstation and now to X-Box. Fortunately with the release of Game Boy Color in 1998 and Game Boy Advance in 2001, they continued to be a major force in the handheld video game market.

Today, fans of video games have many options. While not as numerous as in the past, video arcades continue to collect the quarters of millions of people every day, featuring more advanced controls, graphics and mechanics than is possible on a home system.

Home consoles are the largest part of the video game market, with some sort of console system being a vital element of any proper home entertainment system. Computer games are another huge market, although one very different from more traditional video game fare. From their meager beginnings in the 50’s and 60’s, video games have become a defining element of modern life.

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