The first video game that most people remember was a basic computerized version of table tennis, called “Pong”. This is not because it was the first video game – there were many others floating around university campuses long before Pong debuted – but because it was the first video game to gain massive popular appeal. Today, video games are a lucrative entertainment industry, rivaling films for popularity and even intertwining with Hollywood – movies are made from popular games (such as Doom and Resident Evil) and games are created based on popular movies (such as Transformers and Star Wars). In fact, the first movie tie-in video game ever created was based on Star Wars in the 1980′s, when video games were first emerging as a competitive force in popular culture.
It’s tempting to be dismissive of video games as a toy for kids or a hobby for nerds, but they are really much more pervasive and widely popular than that. Their history is filled with ups and downs. Video games did not achieve world wide success overnight, but rather over a long period of time and in fits and starts.
After the sudden popularity of Pong in 1972, the industry enjoyed a brief period of commercial success, where a few of the best-known early games emerged, such as “Tank” and “Blockade”, but it didn’t last. In 1977 the public lost interest in video games and the bottom fell out of the market. This, too, was short-lived, however, as the video game began to reemerge in 1978 with the release of a game that is still popular with video game fanatics to this day: “Space Invaders”. Space Invaders was the first game to give players the incentive of besting other players’ “high score” and was an enormous success. Space Invaders was followed in 1980 by a little game known as “Pac-Man”, an unprecedented success by any standards that put video games firmly back into the public imagination. For the first time, a video game character was so popular that merchandise tie-ins such as keychains and bedsheets were sold bearing its image. After Pac-Man, the public was clamouring for new games, and the companies that designed them were falling over themselves to come up with the next big thing. The next big thing ended up being released by a small Japanese company called Nintendo and featured an ape called “Donkey Kong” throwing barrels at a little jumping man who was trying to save his girlfriend. The little jumping man didn’t get a name until Donkey Kong’s sequel, “Donkey Kong Jr.”, was released and they decided to call him Mario. He would go on to become the single most popular video game character in the world.
The first few years of the 1980′s also saw the emergence of the home game console. The Atari 2600, the Intellivision console by Mattel and ColecoVision consoles all improved upon previous graphics and gameplay, but in the rush to cash-in on video game popularity, the market found itself overcrowded and the public once again lost interest. In 1983, the bottom fell out of the industry for the second time. However, this was also a short-lived setback. Home computers brought back the video game as a popular form of entertainment, and consoles made a major come-back in the 1990′s. Though there were popular consoles during the latter part of the 1980′s – the Nintendo Entertainment System comes to mind – the console really took off when they developed to the point that sophisticated, realistic graphics began to be possible with the innovation of 64-bit technology. At that point, Sony created its famous first console, known as the PlayStation. The PlayStation went head-to-head against Nintendo’s acclaimed 64-bit console, the Nintendo 64, without a clear winner.
The popularity of PlayStation and the Nintendo 64 led to the next generation of consoles from both of those manufacturers, but also saw computer software giant Microsoft enter the fray. In 2000 and 2001, the PlayStation2, the Nintendo GameCube and Microsoft’s Xbox were all released in quick succession, and despite the presence of three major consoles on the market, they all enjoyed a high level of success. Video gaming had reached a level of popularity that, unlike in 1983, allowed it, as an industry, to support them. It had truly become entertainment for the masses.
Currently, the three major console manufacturers each have new consoles on the market: the PlayStation3, the Nintendo Wii and the Xbox360. Each company has tried to come up with new gimmicks and innovations to beat out the others for the affections of gamers.
What’s best for hardcore gamers, however, isn’t necessarily what’s best for everyone. While the PlayStation3 is competing for the same market as the Xbox360, the Nintendo Wii has taken a different approach, appealing to a broader, more family-friendly audience. With its innovative new controller that works by waving it around in the air, rather than pressing buttons, and its family-friendly games – many featuring the famous Mario from their Donkey Kong days – they have managed to create the sold-out, must-have console for the second Christmas season running.
The competition between Playstation3 and Xbox360 is more heated, however. Though they have only been out for about a year, it looks like the Xbox360 is just barely ahead of the Playstation3 in appeal to gamers. Its stunning graphics and capacity for massive online multiplayer games – developed through Microsoft’s extensive experience in home computer technology – has a lot of gamers convinced it is the best console available for serious video game fanatics.
Many people think that the next big innovation in video game technology will be in the field of virtual reality, a medium that has been in development for some time and never quite seems to get off the ground in a commercially viable way. This may change, however, as processors get faster and smaller and the components needed to build sophisticated electronic equipment become cheaper and easier to make.