Traditionally gamers attribute the advent of gaming to the PC platform. Although it is true to a certain extent, video gaming itself dates back to early 50s. While the first game was a really simple version of Tic-Tac-Toe, Noughts and Crosses, gaming has now evolved into a multi-billion dollar industry.
In these modern times, gaming consoles have invaded our living rooms and has become an integral part of our life. Today, we are going to take a look back at the evolution of consoles over the years.
Gaming consoles go back to the early ’70s with the Magnavox Odyssey being the first of the many. Impressed with the Spacewars! demonstration, Ralph Baer set out to create the world’s most pristine console. Little did he know that his invention was going to rule the world. If you’re curious, Ralph received the National Medal of Technology for inventing the home console for video games.
Odyssey had a lot of potential, but their poor marketing strategy took them down. It was Atari who took this concept to the masses with their hugely popular Arcade game – Pong. On seeing this, Atari decided to take it the next level with Atari Pong, under the Sear Tele games label. This version of pong had an on-screen scorecard and an enticing sound whenever the paddle meets the ball. Needless to say, it was a huge success and many competitors followed, leaving the market flooded with consoles.
Cartridges and the Great Video Game Crash
Breaking from the Pong console culture, Fairchild came up with an innovative cartridge based console system, VES, in 1976. The console had a programmable microprocessor, while the cartridges only needed a single ROM with the instruction sets. This was a huge step at that time and literally set the tune for the industry for the time to come.
Realizing that single game consoles are a thing of the past, Atari too came up with their legendary Atari 2600 or Atari VCS, as it was called then, in 1977 just before the first video game crash. Most of those single game devices kept piling on and the developers had no options than to sell them at a discounted price. It resulted in a heavy loss, and most companies filed for bankruptcy. Only the cash rich Atari and Magnavox were able to stem the tide.
The Rise and Fall Phoenixes
The first signs of revival appeared when Fairchild VES registered a profit in 1978. On seeing this, Magnavox added a programmable cartridge based gaming system to the Odyssey portfolio. Later that year, Atari ported their hugely successful arcade game Space Invaders to a cartridge. This spurred up the sales of Atari 2600 and gave the market a much-needed boost. This era also saw gory ad wars fought among major players.
The market again faced a huge crash in 1983. While the rise of home computers did have an impact, the poor quality of games made things worse. Atari built a lot of hype around E.T, which turned out to be a disaster. Atari lost millions of dollars, while many other developers lost their livelihood. Some even moved out of the console segment to other segments like home computer gaming. While the industry revived itself eventually, Atari was never been able to reach its former glory.
Welcome to the Seven Kingdoms
The market continued to be dull until Nintendo entrusted us with the daunting task of rescuing Mario’s princess. Nintendo improved the quality of gaming with its 8-bit beauty, the NES, which was the first to support high resolution spritess and tiled backgrounds.
Launched as Famicom in Japan, it gave us a lot of awesome games like Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., and Popeye, but due to a faulty chip, the initial iteration was not received well. However, the astute minds at Nintendo realized this quick enough and replaced all the faulty consoles with new ones. Reassured buyers went on to buy this in huge numbers for friends and family, making it a huge success.
Back in America, the video gaming culture was declining and the likes of Atari did not have a clue on how to take it forward. Nintendo sensed an opportunity and closed in on the kill. They signed up a deal with Atari to bring Famicom across continents, but it fell through due to various reasons. Running out of patience, Nintendo decided to go solo despite many misgivings. The console or The Control Deck, as Nintendo preferred to call it, saw the light of the day in the year 1985, heralding a new era of gaming. The package itself was handcrafted with so many accessories like Zapper to attract youngsters, with my favourite being R.O.B, the toy robot.
While Nintendo was ruling the whole of Japan and America, Sega took consoles to Europe, and was fairly successful too. Despite having lower end hardware specs compared to the NES, Sega’s Master System was able to achieve higher scrolling performance. It went on to sell 13 million consoles worldwide.
Atari finally released the 7800 series, with joysticks, in 1986. Powered by Atari’s custom-built 650C CPU, it was not able to compete with the other powerhouses. It was originally slated to replace the Atari 5200 in the ‘80s, before the market crash but the project was shelved due to several reasons.
It was only after their fallout with Nintendo did they decide to dust off the old project. It was the first console to have backward compatibility without any additional modules and it was ranked #17 in the IGN’s list of game systems. However, they weren’t able to penetrate the market, thanks to the heavy competition put up by other vendors. Delaying the release and low-end hardware specs did not make things any easier. Even still, Atari managed to sell 4 million devices worldwide.
Many epic games like the Super Mario Bros., Legend of Zelda, Metal Gear appeared during this era. We also saw a glimpse of primitive RPG’s. With 8bit computing, the scope of video gaming had improved rapidly, and for the first time focus of the industry shifted towards quality gameplay from quantity. However, the defining moment didn’t arrive until handheld devices made a strong presence. Nintendo’s GameBoy literally setup this platform single handedly, and continued to be on the top until Sony’s PSP took over in the early 2000s.
A Japanese Invasion
Now that Atari was virtually routed, the fight was getting intense between Nintendo and Sega. This time Sega caught Nintendo sleeping, and launched the first of the successful next generation monsters powered by 16-bit chips. Amid much fanfare, the device was first introduced in the spring of ’88 in Japan, and in North America, 4 months later.
Sega Genesis, or better known as Sega Mega drive outside the US, was modeled closely around Sega’s 16-bit Arcade architecture. The sales were slow initially, but with successive release of ported arcade super hit games like Altered Beast, Ghouls n’ Ghosts, proved its power and there was a spur in sales. Sega later ported Sonic the Hedgedog to its collection to compete with Mario and won that battle as well.
Actually, Nintendo launched the first 16-bit gaming console, a full year before the Mega Drive. They came up with TurboGrafx-16, in collaboration with Hudson Soft and it was the first of the cavemen to use a CD-ROM. It did receive some initial attention, and even held the record for the world’s smallest game console but it lacked support from third party developers.
Moreover, the CD ROM was available as an add-on initially, and most of the popular games were available only on this new format. There was a huge shortage for this and a disaster was imminent. By the time Nintendo woke up, Sega swept them clean under their carpet, with some aggressive marketing.
“Genesis does what Nintendon’t”
Nintendo was struggling for to survive, while the board was fighting as to whether to launch a new productor not. Finally they made up their mind and unveiled the Super NES in 1991. Having burnt their finger in their previous attempt, Nintendo retained most of their revered developers. Initially only Super Mario World and F-Zero was available, but they were well received. This gave them enough boost to match up to Sega’s might. But the main battle was yet to be fought.
Consoles have come a long way from being a mere ports of the arcades, but things were about to get better with the rise of alternate media, and of course, the Xbox. We’ll be talking more about that, and explore what’s on the store for the future, in the next part.
The list here is no way complete. I’ve focused on the most important inventions that changed the landmark of our Gaming Industry. I’m sure there are many other awesome devices, which were left out.
Which was the first console that you’ve ever played? We’d love to hear from you, and do share your thoughts by joining us in the discussion below. Thanks a lot for reading and stay tuned.