By Greg Orlando
Forty years ago this month Ralph Baer — a German-born inventor who fled to America from fascist Germany — built and played the first home-video game. Called the “Brown Box” the proto-console was a nondescript unit powered by D-cells and wired to a black-and-white TV. “It’s obvious that no one could have foreseen what it would develop into,” Baer says today.
That invention sparked a revolution — one that has shaped the way humans play, and even how they interact with one another. Video games are firmly embedded in popular culture, and their influence stretches across all mediums. And while modern consoles like the Xbox 360 and the PS3 may be light years beyond that first Brown Box technologically, the breakaway success of Nintedo’s Wii reminds us that the most important component has never changed: simple fun.
This pictorial history isn’t comprehensive — the profound impact of the light-gun peripheral, to pick one example, could easily merit its own story. But here are some of the people, titles and events that shaped four decades of video games in the home.
Left: Inventor Ralph Baer designed the first video-game console for the home and in May 1967 he played the first-ever two-player game. “I lost!” Baer notes.
Baer’s Brown Box demonstration unit soon sported a nifty light gun. The console would evolve into the world’s first commercial video-game system to use at home.
The Magnavox Odyssey grew from Ralph Baer’s Brown Box prototype home-video console. It was released in 1972, sold for $100 and boasted a library of more than 20 games including Tennis, Volleyball, Shooting Gallery and Cat and Mouse.
The 12 games on the left were part of the Odyssey Game system — no additional purchase required. The games on the right, and the light-gun peripheral, were sold separately.
The Odyssey’s Table Tennis game is pictured in thrilling, monochromatic action.
Nolan Bushnell created the world’s first video-game juggernaut with Atari in 1972. Atari’s Pong, a home-console version of the coin-operated video game, would be released in 1975. Pong had full-color graphics and sound effects, something the Magnavox Odyssey lacked, and the new console quickly eclipsed its predecessor.
Although a footnote in the history of video-game consoles, The Fairchild Channel F, released in 1976, was notable for being the first system to use programmable cartridges.
The Atari 2600 (originally the Atari VCS) was the first beauty queen of the home-console video-game set. It was the first successful cartridge-based console; had a library of hundreds of games including such classics as Space Invaders, Adventure and Pitfall; and would spawn a host of successor consoles such as the Atari 5200 and Atari Jaguar.
At the height of its popularity, the 2600 inspired its own comic book, Atari Force.
Atari’s decision to neither financially reward its developers for creating hits nor give them credit for their work, led to the formation of the world’s first third-party game developer. On October 1, 1979, Atari programmers David Crane, Larry Kaplan, Alan Miller and Bob Whitehead, left the company to form Activision.
The founding of Activision opened the floodgates of third-party development for the Atari 2600, as developers hurried to cash in on the system’s popularity. Custer’s Revenge was an unfortunate result of the gold rush: the game called for players to control a buck-naked cavalryman, and attempt to avoid a hail of arrows in order to have relations with a tied-up female native American.
George Plimpton wasn’t the first celebrity to hawk a video-game console (Frank Sinatra has that distinction), but he did play an integral role in the first video-game console war. These print and TV ads hammered home the message that Intellivision was, in many ways, a step up from the Atari 2600.
The Mattel Intellivison, released in 1980, was the first credible threat to Atari’s home-console dominance. Later, with an add-on expansion, Intellivision would also be the first console able to reproduce, albeit robotically, human speech.
The world caught Pac-Man fever, and this malady would prove to be a great part of Atari’s downfall in the early 1980s. Inexplicably, Atari manufactured 12 million copies of Pac-Man when there were only an estimated 10 million consoles sold. But beyond that, the game was a stinking pile; Atari skimped on the translation of this arcade classic, and it showed.
The legends are true: Atari did bury many, many copies of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial in a New Mexico landfill. With its poor graphics and frustrating, almost nonsensical, gameplay, E.T. is considered by some to be the worst video game ever made. It is undoubtedly one of the worst failures in game history, and a leading cause of the video-game crash of 1983.
The Colecovision came packaged with Donkey Kong, and it was largely on the strength of this near-perfect arcade-game translation that the console did so well. The Colecovision debuted in 1982, and might have survived the console crash, but its ill-fated ADAM home computer expansion unit was a commercial atom bomb that nearly bankrupted the company.
The Nintendo Entertainment system (known as the Famicom in Japan) marked the emergence of the Japanese-made home-video console. One of the most beloved consoles ever released, the NES introduced American game fans to Metroid, Castlevania, The Legend of Zelda, and the classic platformer Super Mario Bros.
Plumber turned video-game hero, Mario first saw action as Jumpman in the arcade classic Donkey Kong. He was given a name in Super Mario Bros. and, after countless games, a feature film and merchandising galore, Mario has become the most recognizable game character on the planet.
The Sega Master system was released in America in 1986. It represented Sega’s first stab at the North American game market, but never proved to be much competition for the Nintendo Entertainment System.
The NEC TurboGrafx 16 was the first game console to offer a CD-ROM add-on. Sadly, the drive cost $400, and the NEC was outgunned both in terms of games and marketing by Nintendo and Sega.
Sega released its follow-up to the Master System in North America in 1989. This new system, called Genesis, proved much more successful than its predecessor. Sega’s iconic hero Sonic the Hedgehog debuted on the Genesis, and the console went on to sell an impressive 29 million units worldwide.
“Genesis does what Nintendon’t.” This clever marketing campaign, coupled with an infectious “Sega scream” used in TV ads, propelled sales of the Genesis. Sega would increasingly be known as a company not afraid to push its products with strange, and perhaps even inflammatory, advertising.
The Xband was a revolutionary online gaming network offered for Sega Genesis and the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Although the system failed, it offered features such as a friends list and mail system that later showed up in more successful online console networks such as Xbox Live.
The SNK Neo Geo Advanced Entertainment System proved unwieldy from its launch. The console was a home version of SNK’s coin-operated system and offered arcade-perfect translations of games, but it was doomed by its high price tag: $650 for the console, $200 for games.
Nintendo again struck gold with the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Released in North America in 1991, the SNES would eventually grow to have a library of more than 700 games and would prove only slightly less a commercial success than the mega-hit Nintendo Entertainment System.
September 13, 1993 will forever be known as Mortal Monday. Game publisher Acclaim flooded the airwaves with commercials hyping the release of the ultra-violent brawler Mortal Kombat for Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo Entertainment System. This bold advertising strategy represented the first real “countdown” to a video game’s release.
As video games grew progressively more able to render realistic violence, games such as Mortal Kombat and the Sega-CD game Night Trap brought the video-game industry under the scrutiny of the federal government. After a series of hearings, congress gave the industry a year to come up with its own rating system or have a system imposed on it. The Entertainment Software Rating Board was created by the Entertainment Software Association in 1994 and has become the standard for video-game rating. Although voluntary and not without its limitations, the ESRB system is now used by all game publishers.
With the Jaguar, Atari hammered home the last nails in its own coffin. The system failed to sell more than 500,000 units and had only a small library of games. It was game over for Atari. The Jaguar would be the last console Atari ever sold to the public.
Time magazine hyped the Panasonic 3DO Interactive Multiplayer as the product of the year for 1994. Unfortunately, although the system was very powerful, it was mis-marketed as an audio-visual system that played CD-ROM-based titles. It also sold for $700 at a time when consoles such as the Sega Genesis could be bought for around $500 less.
In Sonic, Sega created an edgy counterpart to the sober and sane Mario. The speedy hedgehog got his start on the Sega Genesis and has since starred in more than 20 games, and counting. Sonic is now slated to co-star in a game with Mario called Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games, which will be released on the Nintendo Wii and DS in time for the holidays.
With the PlayStation, Sony mined the mother lode — the console was destined to sell more than 100 million units and have a lifespan of 11 years. It almost didn’t happen. Sony only released the PlayStation as a stand-alone unit after an agreement to manufacture the product as a CD-ROM add-on for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System fell through.
“When you’ve got Sega Saturn’s triple 32-bit processing power, nothing else matters,” boasted Sega’s ad for its would-be PlayStation killer.
A portrait of failure, the Sega Saturn was the little console that couldn’t. It cost too much ($400) and was too difficult to program. Sega’s choice to have a surprise launch for the console angered retailers. It never emerged as a true competitor for the PlayStation, and died a premature death.
The Nintendo 64 was the last game console to feature cartridge-based games.
On the date of the Nintendo 64’s North American launch, only two games were available for the system. It didn’t matter one bit; one of those games was Super Mario 64, a brilliant platformer that took the iconic hero Mario into the third dimension.
On 9/9/99 the video-game industry fielded its biggest console release yet. Sega recorded one-day sales of $98 million, and the Dreamcast seemed to have a promising future. Sadly, it never fulfilled that promise. Although the Dreamcast was the first game console to feature a built-in modem for online gaming, the console was eclipsed by the release of Sony’s PlayStation 2. The Dreamcast was the final console Sega released.
Chu Chu Rocket was Sega’s first Dreamcast game built specifically for online play. It wasn’t the first game to be played over a modem, but it heralded a shift in the console market toward online gaming.
This creepy bastard is Seaman, who was like a virtual pet, only it hated you. Seaman was the first console game ever to use voice-recognition technology; it came bundled with a microphone and players could talk with the oftentimes disturbing fish-man hybrid.
A behemoth of a game console, the PlayStation 2 launched in North America in 2000 and, despite the release of a successor in the PlayStation 3, is still considered a viable platform by most game developers. The PlayStation 2 was the first game console to play DVDs and the console has sold more than 115 million units worldwide.
Few games have had more of an impact on the history of video games than Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto III. An open-ended 3-D crime drama from the third-person perspective. GamePro magazine’s claim that Auto is the most important game ever made has some merit — its go anywhere, do anything play flew in the face of console games’ traditional dependence on linear play, and the title served as inspiration for countless other console offerings.
Nintendo stumbled with the GameCube. The console came with its own carrying handle and its small, cubish appearance made it look like a child’s purse. Although a fine system, the GameCube suffered because of its perceived “kiddy console” image, and was eclipsed by the PlayStation 2 and Microsoft Xbox.
The Microsoft Xbox marked the return of an American company to video-game console manufacturing. Bricklike in its appearance and initially packaged with a controller so bulky it was derisively nicknamed “the Duke,” the Xbox sold well in North America and Europe, and hardly at all in Japan. The console was the first to require a broadband connection to play online titles and was also notable for being the first to offer a built-in hard drive.
Microsoft’s Xbox Live online-game service, using the mantra “It’s good to play together,” set the standard for console connectivity. Players could create their own identity and build a list of friends, as well as download game demos, new content and, all-too-often, game patches as well. (And, as this picture from Microsoft proves, it’s crawling with beautiful women!) The service debuted shortly after the release of the original Xbox and recently expanded service to include PCs and the Xbox 360.
The Xbox 360 was the first console to come in two separate versions at launch. The 360’s Core system was a pared-down version of the Premium version, and was widely mocked by serious gamers. The 360 was also the first console to launch with a wireless game controller.
Sony released the successor to PlayStation 3 in late 2006, and although initial hype was great, demand for the console has died down considerably. Sony’s decision to release versions of PlayStation 3 for $500 and $600 respectively has hampered sales. The PlayStation 3 is the first game console to offer support for Blu-Ray discs.
Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto is one of console gaming’s most revered creators. Beyond Mario, Miyamoto is responsible for such coin-operated and console classics as Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario 64. More recently, he’s credited for the Nintendo DS and the Wii. In March, game developers gave him the Lifetime Achievement Award and Time Magazine recently named him one of 2007’s Most Influential People of the Year.
The Wii offers a unique control scheme, with its motion-sensitive remote and nunchuk controllers. Although underpowered in comparison to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, the Wii has been heralded as revolutionary. Its games often involve making simple motions to replicate actions like swinging a racket or throwing punches and it appeals to a wide demographic.