From Pong to Donkey Kong: Evolution of Video Games

When you see an elderly gentleman, chances are he is younger than the first video game. Video games have been around for 70 years. Pacman has been popping pills for 40 years straight, and Mario is 38, and they are not the oldest! There had been a whole decade of popular games before them!

Video games have been a cultural phenomenon from the beginning. If you think the recent hype — about console wars, game developers shifting consoles, PC versions of games changing the game, improvements and downgrades in graphics, cult followings, and geekdom — are all things of the 21st century, think again.

Where It All Began

Computers didn’t use to be such ubiquitous household items. As is the case with many technological advancements, their development was confined to labs. These early models were a far cry from what we use today. They were huge and bulky and had limited capabilities. On such a computer, the first video game was born.

It’s difficult to pinpoint how video games started, but as early as the 1950s, scientists fiddled with their computers to create entertainment. Bertie the Brain was one such example. It was a game of tic-tac-toe that people could play against an AI with punching cards. The game was made for the 1950 science fair but sparked no special interest.

The game system Nimrod followed in 1951, and you could play a tactical game of Nim on it. Throughout the decade, scientists and students experimented and produced similar gaming technologies. Universities like MIT were the primordial technological cradle of video games.

In 1962, a game called Spacewar! came to be, and it was a combat game. You could play it on a small old screen and shoot at blinking dots. Another revolutionary thing about it was that students could exchange codes, so they could install the game at different locations. Soon, the game spread among the students of various colleges. See the story  of how Spacewar came about.

The Evolution of the Consoles

The 1960s were exciting times for the forerunners of gamers, but games were still mostly made by nerdy engineerig students. Scientists soon recognized the entertainment value of their project and saw the lucrative potential behind it. The ’70s were the era when video games entered the world in great style.

First Generation and the ’70s

In 1971, the first arcade game — Computer Space — emerged, and it was inspired by the decade-old Spacewar! The next year gave people the first game console, Magnavox Odyssey. The thing itself didn’t last on the market, but many of its games were influential.

However, in 1972, a more prominent title came to the market — Pong. The game showed two paddles bouncing off a ball like in tennis. It had a two-player option, and it became a smashing hit that launched the company behind it, Atari, into prominence. Their console dominated the decade, and there was a Pong craze across the nation.

Many titles that established future genres followed one another in the ’70s, but it was Space Invaders from 1978 that made the biggest impact and still remains culturally relevant. Two of the reasons for its popularity were that it incorporated extra lives that you could win in the game and keeping high scores.

The ’80s — Golden Age of Arcades

The following several years were the shining era of arcade games. In 1981, Pacman and Ms. Pacman appeared. The following year, Donkey Kong gave us the character of Mario. This was also a period that console makers saw the need to mix it up. The public wanted more, so console makers installed a system of cartridges thanks to which people could change games.

This was the second generation of consoles, and it flooded the market. In the early ’80s, these games suffered from oversaturation and constant churning out of low-quality titles. This was also a time when home computer games started appearing as tech-nerds started copying game codes among each other.

8-bit

After the crash, the evolution of video games continued. The 8-bit era of games came to be, and it dominated the ’80s with the third generation of consoles and NES (Nintendo Entertainment System). We got such cultural behemoths as Super Mario games, Zelda, and Metroid. Nintendo also introduced the concept of a hand-held console with their Game Boy.

16-Bit and Console Wars

However, in 1990, Sega emerged and launched its 16-bit console. It sparked the 4th generation of consoles. With their Sonic the Hedgehog, they immediately conquered the market. Nintendo soon followed with its Super NES, and the first real console war erupted. The companies were fighting for players with better and better game titles and experiences.

The 5th generation of consoles introduced 32- and 64-bit animation, but it was the introduction of 3D polygon gaming that made the real difference. At the end of the decade, Sony appeared, and they knocked the ball right out the park with their PlayStation console. This ushered the age of true gaming we live in to this day.

Kinds of Video Games Played

With several decades in development and constant need for new experiences for demanding gamers, a huge number of different game types came into existence. What are the kinds of video games we have today? It would take books to categorize them all, so we’ll name a few of the most relevant ones.

Platformers

These are your Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog type of games. You have a colorful character who runs around the world, jumping from one platform to another. Typically, they move from one direction to the other (left to right) and pass changing levels with various enemies. The gameplay is easy to understand, but it can get complex to master.

Shoot-em-ups

You go around and shoot everything that moves. You’re usually in a spacecraft blasting aliens, but there are many quirky variations. These games usually involve button smashing and frantic avoidance of bullet hell that zooms towards you.

Puzzles

This is a huge umbrella term for games that generally don’t rely on action but are more mental and abstract. You are presented with a problem, and you need to solve it. They can be as easy as Tetris and Angry Birds, but they can also be so challenging that they make your brain hurt.

RPG

Though a great portion of these role-playing games has fantasy elements, that’s not always the case. In these games, you control characters that have unique personalities, and you get to explore worlds by going through an engaging story. In the meantime, you get lots of action and a chance to upgrade your character.

The Video Game Industry in Dollars

How big is the video game industry? Enormous! In 2020, experts estimate that the gaming industry is to generate approximately $150 billion, and this figure will continue to grow in the future. Consoles and PC games have shown an increase in revenue, but it’s the mobile games that have the biggest rise in cash flow.

From the beginning, games were cash winners. In 1980, the arcade niche of North America garnered $2.8 billion. The most successful console of all time — Sony Playstation 2 — sold over 150 million copies worldwide. Furthermore, the smashing hit Angry Birds earned about $200 million in 2017.

Developers constantly find new ways to attract new customers. The newest big thing on the horizon are Virtual Reality (VR) games with Oculus Rift technology. This is not the first tango we’ve had with VR, but it’s the newest one. Technologies like Microsoft’s Kinect seem revolutionary but may fizzle out.

Games have been with us for three-quarters of a century, and they have gone through the Cambrian era of creativity and development. Like a true form of art and ingenuity, they have come a long way, and it seems the sky’s the limit.