The History of Video Games: Press Start

This is a recurring, limited series where I discuss the history and evolution of video games. I will discuss general history as well as history of various genres and their ties to culture.


Nintendo, a company synonymous with exploding the video game craze, began in 1889 as Nintendo Karuta—a playing card manufacturer. But they won’t come back into the game (pun mildly intended) for some time. The Bally Manufacturing Company was created in 1932 and created Pinball games and developed slot machines (the latter of which would push Bally’s toward the world of Casinos through most of its existence, including Vegas).

Yes, this same Bally.

Computers came around during World War II and were soon after utilized for new programs and training, which inevitably led to the creation of video games as we know them today. The 1940s saw US entrepreneurs attempting to sell gaming entertainment to military bases due to the war. In 1951, the US banned slot machines, forcing company Service Games to go elsewhere—in particular, Japan. The 1950s saw an explosion in attempts at computer games, from chess and checkers to tic-tac-toe and almost entirely created to show off the power of the electronic devices. Entertainment didn’t come into the equation until Tennis for Two in 1958, though nothing really came of it outside general popularity.

In 1953, Taito Trading Co. was established by Ukrainian Michael Kogan and sold vending machines to Japan, though later added jukeboxes. In 1954, former US Air Force member David Rosen formed Rosen Enterprises selling photo booths to Japan. By 1957, Rosen shifted his focus to bringing coin-operated machines and gaming (such as slot machines and jukeboxes) from America to Japan. 1958 saw the creation of amusement game manufacturer Midway, which would later go on to be bought by Bally in 1969.

Let’s step back to Nintendo for a second. The company didn’t do well thanks to World War II and by the 1950s were struggling. In 1959, Nintendo gained a boost by partnering with Walt Disney to create playing cards with Disney characters on them. This placed them in a children’s niche for the next few years.

Nintendo made tons of character cards like this.

In 1960, after some major controversy, Service Games of Japan was dissolved and later became two new entities: Nihon Goraku Bussan (which focused on coin-op machines like jukeboxes) and Nihon Kikai Seizō (which focused on slot machines), though the latter went by a slightly different name. Based on the previous business name, Service Games, the branch called themselves Sega, Inc. In 1964, Nihon Goraku Bussan and Sega merged into one. The following year, there was a merger between Rosen Enterprises and Nihon Goraku Bussan, finally taking the overall name of Sega.

It’s like you can hear it.

Created in 1962 at MIT, Spacewar! was the first widespread computer game. The 60s saw an explosion in programming languages, allowing for more college students to create more games. Spacewar! would go on to influence many people, including Nolan Bushnell. Bushnell witnessed the game in 1966 and would go on to team up with Ted Dabney to eventually create a standing cabinet computer system with a coin slot in order to play games on. This was first showcased with his Spacewar! variation, Computer Space. But Bushnell and Dabney, who formed Syzygy Engineering, wanted to try their hand at a simpler game.

1966 saw a couple other important moments. For example, Sega’s first game, Periscope, released to much fanfare. 1966 also brought Ralph Baer, who had the idea to play games on a television set. This idea took him years and multiple partners to bring into reality, but in 1972, the Magnavox Odyssey—the world’s first home console—was born. Before the release, Baer showcased what the system could do, using in part a table tennis game.

The first gaming console

Bushnell saw this game and wanted to do something just like it and had Allan Alcorn make one for him and his company. The game was put together using Syzygy’s cabinet format, though not released under the Syzygy brand. Upon realizing Syzygy was already taken as a business name in California, where they resided, and decided to change their name. Bushnell and Dabney, fans of the Japanese board game Go, found a fitting name in one of the game’s jargon words: Atari.

And so, in 1972, Atari released its table-tennis cabinet-style video game, Pong.

Also in 1972, Taito Trading Co. changed its name to Taito Corporation, and it sold its first arcade game the following year. Taito teamed up often with Midway to distribute their games. Taito released Western Gun in 1975, the first game to include human-to-human combat; Midway was given US rights and renamed it Gun Fight, the first video game to use a microprocessor. The most famous team-up, however, would come in 1978 with the release of Space Invaders, beginning the golden era of video games. (Taito would later be acquired by Square Enix in 2005. We will get more into Square Enix when we discuss RPGs.)

In the 1970s, Atari’s Nolan Bushnell wanted to create a child- and family-oriented experience for arcade games. Adding some pizza into the equation, Bushnell founded Chuck E. Cheese in 1977. His success continued in 1979 at the release of Atari’s next hit, Asteroids, a combination of concepts from Spacewar!, Computer Space, and Space Invaders.

The 1970s were a bit of a rollercoaster for Sega, which continued to switch hands and see people coming and going. But it also struck a deal with Toho (the film company behind Godzilla) that threw Sega into the arcade mix as a major player. Though there was also another company rising. Nakamura Seisakusho, which started in 1955, was a company that specialized in installing children’s rides at public businesses. They eventually renamed to Nakamura Manufacturing Company in 1959. Walt Disney even wanted them to create children’s mechanical rides using Disney character likenesses. The company then created many mechanical-based games, such as Periscope—the same game Sega had put out, but a year earlier. In 1971, the Nakamura Manufacturing Company shortened their name to Namco and started releasing rideable arcade games.

Formula-X, one of Namco’s earlier games.

Meanwhile, Nolan Bushnell wanted to expand to Japan and created Atari Japan in 1973. Short version: It doesn’t do so well and ends up selling to Namco. This new division gives success to Namco, who want to continue making more games. After the arcade boom with Space Invaders, Namco released Galaxian, and it’s really popular. So much so that Namco partnered with Midway to release it overseas, which created a strong importing partnership… for half a second. Namco wanted to create pleasant games aimed at women, so Pac-Man was born in 1980. Namco would continue their arcade success with hits like Galaga and Dig Dug. But in steps newcomer General Computers Corporation who creates and sells an enhancement for Pac-Man called Crazy Otto, which Midway resells as Ms. Pac-Man. Follow that up with more unofficial sequels profiting off the name and a handful of attempted lawsuits, and the Namco/Midway partership ends rather heatedly.

“Did you know the original word for Pac-Man was Puck-Man? You would think it was because he looks like a hockey puck, but it actually comes from the Japanese phrase “paku-paku” which means to flap one’s mouth open and closed. They changed it because they thought Puck-Man would be too easy to vandalize, you know, like people would just scratch off the P and turn it into an F or whatever.”

But also in the early 1970s, Nintendo made a switch to electronic children’s toys, releasing the Beam Gun. This eventually turned into a range of games, including Beam Gun: Duck Hunt in 1976, a game where ducks were projected onto a wall and could sense when hit with the beam gun. (Fun fact: Sega also made a game called Duck Hunt in 1969, though unrelated.) Thanks to the success of Atari and Magnavox, Nintendo looked into the technology and, in 1978, created two research and development divisions: Nintendo R&D 1 & 2. In 1979, Nintendo’s US arcade subsidiary opened in New York City. The same year, they released Radar Scope, developed by Nintendo R&D 2, which ultimately bombed.

However, having put so much of their money into the game, Nintendo of America found itself in a bad spot and was forced to move to Seattle. They also needed to do something with the unused Radar Scope cabinets, to retrofit a new and better game into them. Nintendo turned to an industrial designer named Shigeru Miyamoto, who had worked for Nintendo for a few years. Miyamoto claimed he could come up with something to help the company.

Miyamoto-san to the rescue!

Sega released Konami’s Frogger in 1981, creating its best-selling game at the time (as well as help boost Konami). But that was not the only major gaming release that year. After Nintendo failed to create a game based on the Popeye comic strip, Miyamoto created characters that were similar and could be reused in multiple games. Instead of Popeye trying to save Olive Oyl from Bluto, a man would try to save a lady from a giant gorilla. The man would become known as Jumpman, as the game would be the first to include a jumping mechanic (and it sounded similar to other, popular brands). Now, with computer animation being relatively new at the time, animators found it tricky how to get the little guy to move correctly. They couldn’t draw a mouth, so a mustache was put there instead; hair was hard, so they put a cap on him; and they couldn’t see his arms move, so colored overalls it was. They also eventually renamed the lady and Jumpman after people they knew or who had helped them, giving them the names Pauline and Mario, respectively. The game was Donkey Kong, and it was released in 1981 on arcade units to much success in both Japan and the United States. Coleco won the home console rights to the game, which it sold bundled with their ColecoVision console.

In the summer of 1981, a man named Walter Day traveled to over 100 arcades, recording the top scores in games. He then opened up his own arcade in Iowa named Twin Galaxies and published the top score records, thus making Twin Galaxies the home of video game records. And anyone and everyone knew that if you wanted to hit the national scoreboard, you needed to either do a live performance at a recognized place such as Funspot, or submit a tape to Twin Galaxies, as its hometown became the “Video Game Capital of the World.”

Walter Day helped add a new layer to gaming.

Donkey Kong Jr. and Donkey Kong 3 came out over the next two years. In 1983, Twin Galaxies created the U.S. National Video Game Team, headed by Walter Day, and included 6 original members–including a young man named Billy Mitchell. Billy Mitchell is known for breaking all sorts of records. He was the first person to get a perfect Pac-Man score. He was also known for having the highest scores in Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr., among other games.

But then 1983 happened—a big year that did very different things for both the US and Japan in terms of gaming. The US market was saturated with games, from arcades to a plethora home consoles. Many of these consoles put out pretty rough games. One such title was Atari’s 1982 video game adaptation of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, which was so bad it almost single-handedly tainted the reputation of the industry. A game so bad, it almost single-handedly ended video games in the United States. A game so bad, all extra copies of the game were henceforth buried (yes, buried), and Atari never recovered. (Okay, so it wasn’t just E.T., but a handful of games, including a pretty bad port of Pac-Man. But E.T. is the famous example.)


Fun Fact: The ColecoVision was the primary competition for the Atari 5200. ColecoVision was responsible for the video game adaptation of WarGames, the film version of which co-starred Dabney Coleman. Coleman would go on to co-star in the film version of Cloak & Dagger, though the Atari 5200 port of C&D never happened due to the E.T. game helping crash the industry. And the other co-star of the Cloak & Dagger film? E.T.’s Elliot, Henry Thomas.

Another Fun Fact: My grandpa had a speaking role in the Cloak & Dagger movie and got to interact with Henry Thomas. That means I’m like… only 3 degrees of separation from Drew Barrymore.


Atari was failing in the US, and it didn’t have any major hold in Japan. In 1983, Sega had been developing a home computer/console system—the SC-3000—to try and make up for failing arcades, which was causing the company to crash. However, Nintendo announced they were creating a games-only system, so Sega had to step up their game (pun very much intended). They developed the SG-1000, and both it and the SC-3000 were released… on the same day Nintendo released the Famicom (family computer). Video games in Japan skyrocketed (and not because of Sega). Sega would go on to try and create a new system, later named the Master System, which would also fizzle away to little fanfare in the US, despite being technically stronger than the Famicom (though it did well elsewhere). And the Famicom still hadn’t ported to the United States.


Yet Another Fun Fact: Right around the same time, Microsoft released the MSX, their first home computer/gaming system. It’s funny to think now, the three dominating companies are Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo. But then, Nintendo was about to become king, and Microsoft’s MSX system (which had moderate success)… was manufactured by Sony.

MSX

In an attempt to work with Atari, Nintendo was working on a deal where Atari would design and produce the US port for their Famicom. But before the deal could be signed, Coleco released a new system—the Adam computer. And their game to release with it? Donkey Kong. Atari held the computer rights for Donkey Kong, while Coleco held console. Atari was angry, but Coleco legally had the high ground. Technically, Atari held floppy disk rights, while Coleco was using cartridges, so it was considered console, despite it being for a computer system. Atari was publicly shamed further and fell apart from there. The company dissolved, leaving only an arcade division—Atari Games—which was later sold to Namco in 1985.

Atari barely missed out on being a part of this.

Nintendo announced their US release for the Famicom in 1985, renaming (and redesigning) the system as the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES. And one game would come with it. Popularity for Donkey Kong and Jumpman was intense, so a spin-off entitled Mario Bros. was developed. Mario now had a brother, Luigi, and though Mario was originally a carpenter, he was made a plumber due to his look and location. The game was about the two brother plumbers who must save New York after strange creatures start coming out of the sewer pipes. But bouncing around and attacking enemies from below was too easy, so the concept of just knocking them onto their backs and kicking them away was born. What kind of creatures came from that idea? Turtles, as their shells made it easy for them to get stuck on their backs.

And so a sequel was called for. Enter… Super Mario Bros. for the Famicom and NES. And now, the turtles could be stomped on, since they just felt flipping them first would be illogical. They also wanted Mario to be able to change sizes, so while looking into ancient folk lore, they discovered stories where people would walk into forests and eat magical mushrooms. Thus, the mushrooms and the Mushroom Kingdom were born. The game was released in 1985, along with the NES itself (in America), and helped save the video game industry from the crash.

Who will save gaming? It’s-a me!

With the NES, Mario, and soon thereafter The Legend of Zelda, Nintendo dominated the market. Nobody could even come close. But then, let’s just say… Sega picked up the pace.

Next on Video Game History: Platformers

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