History of Videogames: The Age of Arcade

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Although not the beginning of all videogames, the first generation of video game consoles began in 1972 – over a decade before I was even born – with a concept called ‘interactive television.’

We have been exploring ‘interactive television’ in the History of Videogames Club as part of the Co-Curricular Programme as, frankly, there is no better place to start than at the beginning. But where did it all start? Well, with industry pioneer Ralph Baer’s “brown box” and a game whose name means something to just about everyone.

Baer’s ‘interactive television box’ as it was originally known was the precursor to everything consoles would go onto become, with Chase being his very first game.

In Chase, two dots can be independently moved around on screen and… well, that’s about it. No matter how good a teacher I may or may not be, it would a struggle to engage the members of History of Video Games Club with that one – especially as the brown box didn’t even boast sound!

In 1968 however, engineer Bill Rusch developed the first-ever version of a tennis game that would subsequently go on to take over the world.

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Even after that huge stride forward had been taken, it still took Rusch, Baer and fellow engineer Bill Harrison another four years to get their prototype system to market. They did of course, under the catchy title of the Magnavox Odyssey, and it even made noises!

A forward-looking device in many ways, the Odyssey used controllers and a light gun, with software contained on microchip boards that had to be swapped in and out to change games. The Odyssey was, essentially, the forebear of the consoles I grew up with – the Nintendo Entertainment System, the Sega Master System and their successors – but back then the Odyssey was released and scrapped in less than six months.

Ultimately, nobody bought one!

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The next leap forward...

With The Odyssey being victim of its own pioneering spirit perhaps, it took Atari and Atari’s version of Pong to popularise the console, and soon a whole wave of new machines hit the market, all based around Pong.

Hard to believe as it may be today, the first Atari console could play the basic version of Pong we are all familiar with and that game only. It was even called ‘Home Pong’ which, when you think about it, is a slightly unfortunate name – but it was a phenomenon.

Despite Pong’s popularity at the time, it is a game which is little more than a curiosity to both to the members of History of Videogames Club and myself; in real time it would have taken four more years for Atari to develop the Atari Video Pinball machine (which featured 7 Pong-inspired games including Pinball, Basketball and Breakout) and for Nintendo to release the Color TV Game (which included 15), which were the first consoles of the second generation.

 

In the meanwhile, the 8-bit arcade scene had exploded. Colour graphics backed up by bit-tune audio saw the likes of Pac Man, Galaga, Space Invaders and Donkey Kong birthing the first iconic characters and shapes that went on to make up the now-global language of videogames.

Whereas Pong occupied the members of History of Videogames Club for 20 minutes, Pac Man and Space Invaders were titles I could hardly peel them away from!

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They wanted to earn high scores, it turned out, and much like the players of the late 1970s and early 1980s, they were hooked on those second-age classics – classics from a period I like to call The Age of Arcade.

 

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