A few of you might know that I really love vintage consoles. In fact, I love them so much that I collect them and even have a tattoo of one of them! That being said, many of us don’t have a lot of knowledge about the history of such old video games and video game consoles, so I’d like to explore some of the creations that helped pave the way for even better consoles.
1.) Magnavox Odyssey
The very first video games appeared in the 60s–over 50 years ago! Instead of playing on a TV, people played them on huge computers that were connected to a display. Ralph H. Baer drew several different designs for a possible home video game console. He entered an agreement with a company named Magnavox, who released the Magnavox Odyssey in 1972.
At first, his design included switches that allowed players to turn certain sections of the console on and off–doing this would change the games. Magnavox decided to replace this function and created cartridges for each game that could be switched out. It only sold about 100,000 units–so it wasn’t a roaring success.
Atari’s arcade game, Pong, helped bring attention to video games. Magnavox decided to cancel the original Odyssey and released the Odyssey 100, which only played Pong and hockey. After this, many small developers decided to start making video game consoles too–that’s because General Instrument designed inexpensive microchips that could minimize the size and price of a console drastically. Most of the consoles released during this era were limited to in-console games–you couldn’t add any new games.
2.) Atari 2600
The second generation of video games began with the Fairchild Video Entertainment System, called the VES. The VES contained a programmable microprocessor, and you played games with cartridges. Instead of putting all of the game components in the cartridge, developers could just include microprocessor instructions in the cartridge. After the VES, Atari released the Atari 2600. It went on to sell 30 million units and became the most popular game console yet!
3.) Nintendo Game & Watch
The Microvision created the first handheld game console with interchangeable cartridges in 1979. Unfortunately, it was discontinued two years later. The Epoch Game Pocket Computer was then released in Japan in 1984, but the systems also sold poorly. Nintendo created the Game & Watch in 1980–each tiny handheld console could only play a single game, but over 60 models were released for the line. It proved to be quite popular and lasted until 1991. Each game console included a single game and a clock, an alarm, or even both–that’s why they were called “Game & Watch”es.
The Game & Watch is actually the predecessor to the legendary Game Boy. The creator of the Game Boy, Gunpei Yokoi, was traveling on a bullet train and saw a businessman playing on an LCD calculator. He was inspired to make a watch that could also double as a mini-console–it would be designed to tell time and kill time. Because of the Game & Watch, handheld consoles became incredibly popular–Tiger Electronics and Casio tried to jump into the trend too.
In the early 1980s, video games in North America suffered a sharp decline in popularity. Cheaper, low-quality games were released. Atari also published E.T. and a special version of Pac-man, but they were disappointing. North American game consoles were all discontinued by 1984.
In 1983, Nintendo released the Family Computer, which was most commonly known as the Famicom. The Famicom supported high-res sprites, a broader color palette, and tiled backgrounds, all of which helped Famicom games become more complex and detailed. They released the Famicom in the United States as the Nintendo Entertainment System and marketed the console as a toy rather than a video game.
That was because most people in the United States believed that video games were just a trend that had already passed. Mario became a legendary icon because of the NES. Nintendo also established dominance during this period by forcing developers to enter a contract which limited them to 3 NES titles a year and prevented them from creating games for other video game consoles.
Around this time, Nintendo released the Game Boy, which absolutely crushed any competition and cornered the handheld console market.
These are the first three generations of game consoles. Do you recognize any of them? Have you ever played on them? It’s important that, whether you’re designing or playing on a console, you know at least a tiny bit about its history. Tell me what you think about these consoles (and their goofy ads) in the comments 🙂