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Modern Age

Chronology of the History of Video Games

editor: Ted Stahl

 

Many refer to the end of the Golden Age of Video Games as the “Video Game Crash” due to the volatile game market in North America at the time. There are a number of factors that contributed to a perceived lack of interest in video games in the United States. One was a glut of bad games that flooded the market and the subsequent loss that retailers experienced when they couldn’t sell their stock. At the same time, the personal computer was becoming more popular and many parents believed that their money would be better spent on a more versatile piece of hardware that could have educational possibilities as opposed to a piece of hardware dedicated to playing only games.

However, these concerns were not perceived in Japan and interest in video games did not falter. This is why a Japanese company called Nintendo is responsible for ushering in the Modern Age of Video Games. In fact, Nintendo began this in 1983 with its release of their 8-bit Famicom in Japan. It came packaged with a single game that practically ensured the initial success of the system: an excellent arcade port of Donkey Kong.

Raster vs Vector graphics
Backward compatibility
 
 

History of Video Games

The Early years

The Golden Age
The Modern Age<- you're here
The "Next" generation

History of Computing

pre history
antiquity
pre-industrial era
Industrial era

History of the Internet

 

1984

RDI (Rick Dyer Incorporated) releases a home laserdisc game system called the Halcyon. Rick Dyer wanted to create interactive immersive stories. He believed that the best way to do this was to create technology that could enable user input to control access of video footage stored in a non-linear format (utilizing a laserdisc player). Don Bluth provided the footage for his games Dragon’s Lair, Dragon’s Lair II: Timewarp, and Space Ace. The Halcyon is essentially a home version of the technology housed in these arcade systems. Unfortunately, very few units were sold because of the high price. The Halcyon sold for over $2000 USD. Due to the lack of sales, only two games were released. Sadly, neither was based on Don Bluth’s animation. The two games were Thayer’s Quest and NFL Football: Raiders vs. Chargers. The NFL Football title is actually a CED Videodisc game that was ported to the laserdisc format.


Atari introduces 3D polygon gaming to the arcades in the form of I, Robot. It turns out to be a revolutionary game that is years ahead of its time and baffles the game-playing public. David Theurer, creator of this inventive title, is also known for his earlier projects, Tempest and Missile Command.

 

 

1985

 

Due to the skittish North American public, Nintendo chooses to test market their Famicom (called the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES outside of Japan) in New York, New York before attempting to ramp up production and ship to the entire country. In order to set retailers at ease, Nintendo agreed to buy back any systems that they couldn’t sell. This became a non-issue when the NES quickly sold out its 100,000 units in the test market.

 

 

1986

 

The Modern Age of Video Games hits the rest of North America with the official release of the Nintendo Entertainment System. The game packaged with the system, Super Mario Bros., is reason enough for many to buy the NES.

 

Sega introduces their 8-bit system to North America in the form of the Sega Master System. Since the capabilities of the SMS are essentially the same as the NES, the deciding factor for much of the game-playing public becomes a matter of software. This continues to become more significant as the competition continues between Nintendo and Sega and is the driving force behind their competition.

Atari introduces their 7800. The system sparks little interest outside of loyal Atari fans because of dated graphics. It had been ready for release two years before, but was never put into production because of the volatile market in the U.S. at that time. However, when Nintendo proved that there was still interest in video games, Atari began production. One of the most important features of the 7800 was its backward compatibility with Atari 2600 cartridges. Though it didn’t have a large library of its own, it could play any of the hundreds of titles that had been released over the previous decade for the VCS.

 

1987

Irem refines the side-scrolling shooter with R-Type. Whereas it has an ongoing level beyond what is seen on the screen like Vanguard or Moon Patrol (another Irem title), it incorporates significantly improved graphics and extraordinary boss battles. Though the Gradius and Darius franchises are respected highly among shooter fans, R-Type holds a special place for many.

 

Atari pioneers another gaming market by introducing the Lynx – the first color handheld. Unfortunately, Atari’s recent trend of bad marketing and lackluster third-party support spell eventual doom for the system. Two years later, Nintendo will prove that inferior technology will sell with the right marketing and software in the form of the GameBoy.

 

FTL (Faster Than Light) releases one of the most important graphic RPGs in the history of video/computer gaming: Dungeon Master. The game is first released for the Atari ST and is soon made available for the Amiga. What makes this title so important is its immersive nature. By using a first-person perspective and having realtime elements (like requiring your party to eat, drink, and sleep at regular intervals) Dungeon Master seems much more engaging than its predecessors. Eventually a port is made for the Super Nintendo and sequels and related games appear on numerous systems later on.

A Java version of the game is available here. It requires the Java Runtime Environment, but includes a link for that too.

 

NEC enters the video game arena in Japan with the PC Engine. Though it is a 8-bit system like the Nintendo’s Entertainment System and Sega’s Master System, it uses 16-bit video. Because of this technology, the system looks much better than its competition and becomes quite popular in Japan. Because of a loyal following, the PC Engine remains popular even after Nintendo and Sega introduce their 16-bit systems.

 

1988

NEC expands the possibilities of their PC Engine with a CD add-on. Thus, NEC is the first console manufacturer to tap into the larger and more cost effective storage capabilities of CD.

Sega makes their leap to 16-bit in Japan by releasing their Megadrive. Though Sega held its own against Nintendo’s market share during the 8-bit generation, they hoped to get the jump on Nintendo by releasing their 16-bit system first.

 

1989

Sega brings the Megadrive to North America and calls it the Genesis. With this system and the creation of their mascot Sonic the Hedgehog, Sega makes the 16-bit generation their fiercest battle against Nintendo. Sonic proves to have the attitude that Mario lacks. Not that Mario is without his following. But the Genesis begins attracting a more mature gaming audience. Sega garners a reputation for their sports games, which attract teens who want to play games with friends. And when Mortal Kombat hits the 16-bit consoles, Nintendo chooses to censor their release, whereas Sega leaves the Genesis version uncensored.

 

Maxis brings Will Wright's vision of simple simulation strategy to the people in the form of SimCity. This title will be the first of many that will establish a genre that will soon become one of the most popular in all of gaming and will lead to the eventual release of one of the best selling games of all time, The Sims. SimCity gives the player a chance to feel what it is like to be the mayor (with supreme authority) of a city and dictate how the area will develop. This includes the placement of powerplants, stadiums, airports, roads, power lines, as well as zoning for residential, commercial, and industrial areas. SimCity is eventually released on a variety of platforms including DOS, Windows, Macintosh, Amiga, Atari ST, and the Super Nintendo.

A free online version can be played on Electronic Art's website. Click here for more details.

 

NEC brings their 8-bit wonder with 16-bit video to U.S. shores under the title of the Turbo Grafx-16. Sadly, they fail to realize that many of the licenses that sell well in Japan are unknown to the majority of the North American market. Because of poor marketing and a lack of relevant titles to many North American gamers, the Turbo Grafx-16 becomes more of a cult system. Many consider it one of the best platforms for shooters. Later in the year, the Turbo CD upgrade becomes available for the system.

Nintendo proves that it knows what sells systems by introducing the most popular game platform of all time – the GameBoy. A combination of low cost, portability, simplicity of use, and a huge library have enabled the GameBoy to outsell all competing console systems. Nintendo also chose to make future GameBoy systems backward compatible. This means that original GameBoy games also work on GameBoy Color and GameBoy Advance systems. Furthermore, unlike with their cartridge-based consoles, a GameBoy can play a game from any country. Though the platform has never been cutting-edge, it has filled a need and sold marvelously well.

Nintendo finally unveils their 16-bit system in Japan and calls it the Super Famicom. In spite of getting a late start behind Sega’s Megadrive, it quickly takes the lead as the system of choice in Japan. Classics like Final Fantasy IV, V, and VI, Super Metroid, F-Zero, Star Fox, Chrono Trigger, and the Mario titles have ensured its place in history.

Concerned that their PC Engine will not stand up well to Nintendo’s Super Famicom, NEC offers the improved PC Engine SuperGrafx. However, once they realize that people are content with the PC Engine in spite of the 16-bit systems from Sega and Nintendo, NEC stops developing for their tweaked-out platform. Only a handful of SuperGrafx games were released in Japan. They were 1941: Counter Attack, Aldynes, Battle Ace, Daimakaimura, Darius Alpha, Darius Plus, and Granzort.

 

1990

SNK decides that what the world needs is an arcade perfect home console. Heeding this call they release the Neo Geo Advanced Entertainment System. Though its dimensions are approximately 33cm x 24cm x 6cm, it uses the largest cartridges of any home system. The game carts are approximately 19cm x 14cm x 3cm. To put this in perspective, one fit almost fit four Super Nintendo cartridges into the space of one Neo Geo cartridge! The system is essentially an arcade machine in a home console. In fact, collectors can purchase adapters that allow them to play the arcade cartridges on their home Neo Geo AES. Because of the high cost of the system and games, it becomes more of an elitist platform. Yet, this appears to be completely by design because the combination of the games’ high prices and limited production runs. Thus, the platform outlasts many of its contemporaries and still receives titles over a decade after its introduction.

Recognizing Nintendo’s success with the GameBoy, Sega tries to storm the handheld market with their Gamegear. Like Atari’s Lynx introduced four years earlier, Sega offers a backlit color system in an effort to offer a more visually appealing portable gaming experience. However, this screen (also like the Lynx) chews through batteries far more ravenously than the GameBoy. This, combined with the Gamegear’s less than stellar library and its more cumbersome size compared to the Nintendo product, left it in GameBoy’s wake.

 

1991

NEC chooses to take advantage of the small form factor of the HuCard in their Turbo Grafx-16 and release a handheld version called the Turbo Express. Like the Lynx and Gamegear, the Turbo Express uses a backlit color LCD display. However, unlike its predecessors, it is a much smaller device and is shaped more like a GameBoy. NEC also makes a TV tuner accessory for it so that the Turbo Express can also be used as a portable television.

Nintendo sends their Super Famicom to North America under the title of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Though the system follows two years after Sega’s Genesis, Nintendo quickly makes up for lost time with a powerful library of first and third party titles. Franchises like Mario, Star Wars. Jurrasic Park, Final Fantasy, and Zelda create a strong identity for the SNES. And then, as the interest in 16-bit seems to be waning in anticipation of the new 32-bit systems, Nintendo partners with Rare to release Donkey Kong Country and two sequels. The graphics are superior to anything previously seen on a 16-bit system because they are based on 3D models that were designed, rendered, and animated on Silicon Graphics workstations.

In Japan Sega releases the Mega CD add-on for the Megadrive. This is similar to NEC’s enhancement for their PC Engine/Turbo Grafx-16. Because of the additional cost of these devices, a low percentage of those who own the original systems purchase them. This makes for a bit of a catch twenty-two for the developers. They don’t want to make games for a peripheral that people haven’t bought. Yet the gamers don’t want to buy a piece of hardware for which companies are not developing.

 

1992

NEC decides that there is enough interest in their CD peripheral to release an integrated system that plays both the HuCard games and the CDs. It is called the Turbo Duo.

Sega brings their CD capabilities to the Genesis and releases the Sega CD in North America. Though this peripheral doesn’t find its way into every home with a Genesis, there is enough interest to create a few classic titles in its rather limited library. These include the Working Designs games, Popful Mail, Lunar: The Silver Star, and Lunar: Eternal Blue. Many believe that these games are reason enough to own a Mega CD or Sega CD. They earned enough of a following that Working Designs later released updated versions of these titles on the Saturn, the PlayStation, and the GameBoy Advance.

 

1993

Trip Hawkins introduces his concept of a video game system to the world in the form of the 3DO. It’s the most powerful console on the market, powered by a PowerPC processor co-developed by IBM and Motorola. Furthermore, it is designed to be upgradeable, rather than replaced in a few years. Hawkins, the founder of Electronic Arts, wanted to make the most advanced game system conceived. However, rather than fund the project completely, he decided to partner with a number of hardware manufacturers to whom he would license the 3DO technology. Panasonic was the first to actually produce the 3DO system. Unfortunately, because of the cost of the technology involved and the apparent need to recoup as much of the development costs early in the platform’s life cycle, the 3DO initially sold for $700 USD. This, combined with a slow-growing library, limited the audience for the platform. Later, as other manufacturers like Gold Star produced 3D0 units, the price would drop significantly. However, once the PlayStation hits the market at its price point, few looked back to the 3DO.

Atari releases their last console system and calls it the Jaguar. They stress the fact that the architecture of the system is 64-bit and reflect that in the advertising tagline, “Do the math.” However, many question the validity of Atari’s power claim and joke about the fact that the players have to do the math because the system can’t. Though there are high hopes for the Jaguar, its small library and the eventual launch of the Saturn and PlayStation put the final nails in Atari’s coffin.

 

Toward the end of 1993, Cyan releases one of the most popular video games of all time - Myst. Though it is initially released only on the Macintosh, it is soon followed by a PC port and eventually finds a home on a number of other platforms including the Atari Jaguar, Sony PlayStation, the Amiga, and even the Pocket PC. It is a traditional adventure game that uses surrealistic 3D rendered visuals to create an immersive environment for the player. Many self-proclaimed "hardcore" gamers scoff at Myst and say that it's not so much a game as it is a narcotic. Granted, those who defend Myst would probably admit that they are addicted. The fact is that the title is a beautifully visualized interactive puzzle in which you cannot die and you are not given any traditional rules. Because of the less restrictive nature of the experience, Myst has broad-reaching appeal to many who were never interested in playing video games.

 

 

1994

In a last effort to keep the public interested in the Genesis, Sega releases the 32X. This peripheral adds a 32-bit processor to the Genesis and enables 3D capabilities to the system. Most owners were disappointed that the unit not only came without a pack-in game, but there were no games available to buy at its launch. Eventually a few dozen games were available on the system, but it was quickly overshadowed by Sega’s own Saturn.

In an effort to make a more affordable version of their platform, SNK releases the Neo Geo CD. Though the system itself isn’t cheaper, the games can now be sold at prices comparable to other systems because of the low cost of CD production. SNK can now sell games for around $50 USD instead of the $100 USD + price of AES cartridges. Sadly, there was a downside to the Neo Geo CD. Because of the size of the games, the slow throughput of the CD drive created unbearable load times for most of their titles. Though they tried to rectify this problem later by using a 2X CD drive in the Neo Geo CDZ, it was still slow and that unit was plagued with overheating issues.

At the end of November, Sega releases the Saturn in Japan and the world teeters on the edge of the Next Generation of gaming. The Saturn goes on to become one of Sega’s most successful systems and does better in Japan than any of its previous consoles. Though it proves to be a little more challenging to program, its graphics engine is stunning and classic 2D genres like fighting games and shooters have never looked better. In fact, the Japanese Saturn is home to Treasure’s Radiant Silvergun, which is considered by many to be the best shooter ever made.

 

Barely a week after Sega launches the Saturn, Sony introduces Japan to the PlayStation. Though this is Sony’s first attempt at marketing a video game console, they prove that they understand consumer electronics and, more importantly, marketing. Not only does the PlayStation handle most of what the Saturn can do, it is also easier to program. It also has enhanced 3D capabilities. Having said that, the Saturn has superior frame-buffering for smother animation of 2D titles. Essentially, they both have their strengths. However, in the 32-bit era, gamers become more interested in 3D and less interested in 2D.


 

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