Although some boomers are under the impression that video games are a relatively new form of entertainment, created by shadowy corporations with the sole purpose of ruining our youth’s eyes and minds, they’re almost as old as our blonde prime minister, Boris Johnson. To be more precise, the first video games registered by history appeared somewhere around the 60s, while the first generation of consoles is widely considered to span from 1972 to the early eighties.
Many years have passed since then. We’re now living during the eighth generation of consoles while the ninth one is just around the corner. That’s why we thought to compile a list of the most seminal platforms ever. Several factors were taken into account while putting the list together: sales, long-term impact on the industry and the games that made them popular.
In an age dominated by giants like Sony or Microsoft and their flashy products, Magnavox Odyssey sounds like an artsy European movie or something like that. But, actually, it’s the name of the first commercial home video game console. Developed by a small team of people who worked in the defense contracting business, it was launched in the United States in 1972, as a black, brown, and white box which could be connected to a television set, alongside two blocky controllers attached by wires and an optional peripheral gun. Depending on the country, the gadget came with different sets of games included within the console itself. Games like:
- Table Tennis – two players used padlocks to knock a ball back and forth;
- Ski – the player had to move a dot representing a skier to go down a mountain path within a set time frame;
- Brain Wave – a strategy game where cards and dice are also needed;
- Roulette – gambling game where players bet with chips and spin their controller dial to launch a spot at a roulette wheel.
Yeah, we know that it sounds and looks a lot like steampunk technology, but those were simpler times and the fact that this whole set was able to display controllable square dots in black and white was something truly special back then. In its three years of existence, it sold somewhere around 350,000 units. It may not sound much, but consider these two factors: the industry was in its infancy and consoles back then were not as affordable as today. What matters is that it showed people the potential of video game consoles and that they could be commercially viable.
Atari’s Home Pong
If you consider yourself a video game geek, you probably heard about Atari’s Pong. It started as an arcade game that featured two paddles that could knock a pixel from one to another (much like Magnavox Odyssey’s Table Tennis, which sued for patent infringement). Earning its creators and bar owners all over America tons of money, a home console version was inevitable. That’s how Home Pong came into being.
After arduous efforts to find a distributor for its product, Atari struck a deal with Sears (American chain of department stores) and released it in 1975. It was an instant success, selling 150,000 units during that year’s holiday season. This achievement encouraged other companies to enter the industry and release clone consoles capable to run Pong. The success of Atari’s console also inspired Nintendo (a current giant of the industry) to make its debut with Color TV-Game 6.
Atari continued to make history throughout the 70s and 80s. Its 1977 product, Atari 2600, marked the beginning of the second generation of consoles and is widely credited for popularizing microprocessor-based hardware. Its games were stored on ROM cartridges, which was something truly revolutionary at a time when games usually came built into the console unit.
It struck gold with its port of Space Invaders, launched in 1980. This led to the appearance of companies like Activision and other third-party software developers, while also paving the way for better visuals and gameplay. Unfortunately, Atari got too cocky and started making poor investments. It sank a lot of money in projects like E.T. and its version of Pac-Man, two critical and commercial failures that led to the video game crash of 1983, an event that almost killed the gaming industry.
The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)
After the huge crash of 1983, the industry stagnated for a while. Then came the Nintendo Entertainment System and saved the day. A remodelled and Americanized version of the company’s Family Computer (Famicom), the NES was launched in 1985 and enjoyed record numbers throughout the years, selling 61.91 million units all over the world. Through NES, Nintendo transformed the industry in several ways:
- It introduced the model of licencing third-party developers, allowing them to create and distribute games for the platform, which led to higher-quality games;
- Hugely popular franchises like Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Mega Man, Castlevania, Final Fantasy, And Dragon Quest wouldn’t have existed without it;
- It started the Japanese dominance of the gaming consoles market;
- It made gaming great again and paved the way for other American or Japanese companies.
Another Japanese console that made waves during the late 80s and early 90s was Sega Genesis. Failing to outmatch its competitors back in Japan, it managed to achieve considerable success in North America, Europe, and Brazil, selling over 30 million first-party units. It offered its customers a lofty library of over 900 games created by Sega itself, while also allowing titles produced by third-party publishers.
It became popular for several sports franchises and the Sonic the Hedgehog series, while also stirring controversy with ports like Mortal Kombat. The latter franchise depicted violence in never-before-seen ways, which led to the creation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), an American regulatory body that assigns age restrictions and content ratings to video games.
Flaunting a sleek, black design, its main target audience consisted of edgy teenagers that considered themselves too cool for Nintendo consoles like the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). This type of aggressive marketing, keen on distinguishing cool gamers from childish ones, gave birth to a full-blown console war between Sega Genesis and SNES, which drew more and more attention to the video game industry during the 90s.
The 90s was a good decade for gaming. The competition between gaming consoles was fierce, the software and hardware were getting better and better, new game genres and features started to emerge, gameplay, level design and storytelling were being revolutionized from one title to another and so on. This is also the decade in which the first PlayStation saw the light of day.
Developed by Sony, another Japanese giant (it’s starting to become a recurring theme, isn’t it?), the console was first released on 3 December 1994. During the following year, it spread to North America, Europe and Australia, becoming one of the best-selling consoles ever: in its nine years of existence, it shipped over 100 million units. This success was a consequence of Sony’s openness to third-party developers, offering them a wide array of programming libraries and technical support teams. By the end of 1996, there were around 400 games developed for the PlayStation, light-years away from competitors like the Nintendo 64 that had a library of only 60 games at the time.
Games aside, its CD-ROM reading capabilities allowed the platform to play audio and even video CDs, a feature that also contributed to its success among the youth during the 90s.
At the turn of the century, Microsoft thought that it would be a good idea to enter the Japanese-dominated console market. That’s how the first Xbox home console came into being, on 15 November 2001. Classified as a sixth-generation console, the platform was pretty big and powerful compared to its Japanese rivals, the Gamecube and Playstation 2, featuring a standard Intel Pentium III processor.
One year later, Microsoft launched a fee-based online gaming service that allowed customers to download fresh content and connect with their peers through a broadband connection: Xbox Live. This feature, alongside the success of Bungie’s Halo: Combat Evolved, proved to be a game-changer: online console gaming would have not been the same without them. The Microsoft gadget also contributed towards the popularity of console first-person shooters, a genre that was linked almost exclusively to the PC gaming market until then.
Today’s gaming industry would probably look very different if it weren’t for these pioneering platforms. So, the next time you turn on your PlayStation 4 or Xbox One for a FIFA 2020 session, take a moment to thank Magnavox Odyssey’s creators for making your hobby possible. Without their groundbreaking work, you would probably have to go outside and play real football, with your real-life mates. Boooring!