By Greg Newbegin
With all the rumour and conjecture going around the traps concerning the next generation of videogame consoles, we here at Stevivor.com thought it might be a good idea to take a peek into the past. Home consoles have been around since the 1970s and there are a number of clear generations, so what has gone down over the years?
Stick with us over the next few weeks as we cover off the difference between previous console generations—we’ll take a look at what’s changed and what hasn’t from a general perspective, as well as what was going down in the market at the time. Hopefully this will provide some insight into where we are at currently. That said, some of what was happening in the larger electronic entertainment market may well apply, but don’t be TOO despondent if we only gloss over something you’re really interested in.
Note: This series was written with the assistance of Noel Wheatley, the Stevivor.com TopGeek (@furysevensix), whose vast knowledge of videogame history and large collection of vintage and retro consoles are, in our opinion, second to none.
Generation 1 - 1972-1976
In regards to home videogame consoles, the early years were quiet. However, it’s a little-known fact that there was activity as early as the late 1940s, with an application submitted to the US patent office for a “cathode ray tube amusement device”. This activity trickled along over time, and in 1966 Ralph Baer (along with colleagues Bill Rusch and Bill Harrison) began working on the development of a device that would complement the television to provide interactive entertainment – an idea Baer initially had in 1951. Development took quite a few years; the device was eventually pitched to a number of manufacturers in the early 1970s and resulted in the release of the Magnavox Odyssey, which was released in May 1972. This was to be the first of MANY home consoles to be released in the 1970s.
(Note: There are those out there that may cry out “Spacewar!” in reference to the development of early interactive videogames; however, as Steve Russell—creator of Spacewar—and Ralph Baer never met, that story likely has no impact on the overall thrust of this article. Plus, that was essentially a computer game, if we are to get down to semantics.)
The Odyssey was a strange device, by today's standards. It used batteries for power, and the cartridges were unlabelled (they were generally numbered). There was no sound, and players would simply control a dot on screen, using a knob on a wired controller. To add colour, the system (and individual games) came with coloured overlays that could be applied to a television screen to simulate the game environment. Perhaps a clunky way to do things, but it worked.
While the Odyssey did use cartridges, they were not programmable and merely changed the logic circuits to create variations of paddle and ball games (in general) – essentially the code was hardwired into the console itself and the cartridges affected how this was interpreted. This method is very different to the kinds of systems we use today; in fact, it was even different to the rest of the machines released in the same generation (including other Magnavox consoles), with most opting to simply have all code hardcoded to the machine and no requirement for cartridges. Primitive perhaps, but keep in mind that this was 40 years ago at the time of writing this article, and the microprocessor was only released the year before…
Interestingly, the Magnavox Odyssey was also the first machine to offer peripherals at retail, with players being able to purchase a light gun, as well as numerous television screen overlays and miscellaneous plastic pieces designed to enhance the experience of various titles. While many of these peripherals sold poorly—we are particularly referring to the light gun here—the console itself did quite well, and a number of electronics manufacturers jumped on board the video game revolution , with Atari, Phillips, and even Nintendo being some standout examples. Indeed, it was probably Atari’s Pong console (or consoles – they released several different versions in the mid-to-late ‘70s) that solidified them as a powerhouse in the industry during these early years.
It is important at this stage to point out something else that was going on in the market – particularly in regards to coin-operated arcade machines. Computer Space, the first commercially available coin-op, was released in November 1971 – just prior to the Odyssey. It was not overly popular though, due to its difficulty, and it wasn’t until Pong was released in November 1972 that interactive videogaming started to hit the mainstream in a big way – as a result, sales of home consoles began to increase, given that the Odyssey contained a table tennis game itself (which was allegedly the basis for what resulted in the release of Pong, considering Atari’s Nolan Bushnell sat in on an Odyssey demonstration several months prior to the release of Pong).
Consequently, the market was flooded with Pong clones – many of which did not take cartridges, and merely contained a number of different variations of the same title (think of the “101 games in one” handheld machines that were rife in the 90s). Given the success of Pong in the arcades, it seemed a no brainer to bring these kinds of titles home to the masses—precisely the reason that many of these consoles had built-in controllers that very strongly resembled those of the Pong arcade. In 1977, though, and directly due to the saturation of Pong clones, the market crashed and a number of manufacturers sold off their stock at a huge loss, leaving behind their console businesses in the process. Even given the losses that Magnavox and Atari bore during this time, they were the only two companies to continue their console push into the second generation (although some companies returned to market later).
Without going into TOO much detail around the circumstances surrounding the second generation (to be covered in part 2), there were some clear departures. Gone was the (arguably) analog ideal of hardcoded games – in was ushered the digital age, with programmable cartridges and on-board RAM. Further, the initial reliance on simple dials/spinners built in to the console to provide basic control was replaced by a more dedicated wired joystick (in most cases). The videogame console as we know it today was born here, with the release of the Fairchild VES (Video Entertainment System) in August 1976.