Home video games may seem like a contemporary phenomenon, but they actually have roots that date back to the Truman administration. That’s when computer scientists began tinkering with electronic machines to build basic automated games, like the pioneering “Bertie the Brain,” an ingenious 13-foot-tall computer playing tic-tac-toe featured at a Canadian National Exhibition in 1950.
At a time when TVs hadn’t yet been widely adopted and most games were played on boards, consumers weren’t ready for something as radical as interacting with screens – certainly not. something as big as Bertie’s “brain”. In the early 1960s, the first multi-user computer video game, Spacewar!, gained a nationwide audience of tech geeks, who played it on an innovative new data-processing machine called the PDP-1 that was big, expensive ($120,000) and sold primarily to university computer labs. It wasn’t until the 1970s that more populist coin-operated games arrived, spawning one of the most popular hangouts for teens of that decade: the video game arcade.
Ultimately, all roads pointed to home video gaming. Yet long before games like “Call of Duty”, “Madden NFL” or “Mortal Kombat” emerged to help create the now multi-billion dollar gaming industry, there was “Pong”, “Pac-Man” and a few other games that paved the way.
Here is a selection of some of the oldest and most influential home video games.
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‘Table Tennis’ (1972)
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Console: Magnavox’s Odyssey
When it comes to home video game consoles, the first generation of consumer video games starts with a single device: the Magnavox Odyssey. First designed in 1966 by a small team of engineers led by Ralph H. Baer – widely considered the father of video games – the Odyssey saw several prototypes before being released in 1972. Technically not a computer, rather, the device featured circuitry that directly manipulated the video signal going to a connected television. Like most first-generation consoles, Odyssey’s games were either hardwired into the unit itself or preloaded onto individual game cards, which players could purchase separately.
With its then hefty $99 price tag and primitive graphics – think monochromatic lines, dots and squares – the Odyssey was not a runaway commercial success. Indeed, the company hedged its bets by packaging the console with physical accessories like dice, playing cards, and poker chips to make it look like physical board games popular at the time. But while the Odyssey enjoyed modest retail success, selling around 350,000 units, Magnavox subsequently filed more than $100 million in copyright infringement lawsuits against companies that based on its pioneering innovations.
One of the most popular games on the Odyssey was “table tennis”, which gave each player a “paddle” and challenged them to move the ball past their opponent while remaining on the “table”. The game’s basic design didn’t even electronically keep score; players had to do this manually.
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‘Home Pong’ (1975)
Consoles: Sears Tele-Games and various Atari Home Pong consoles
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“Pong” may not have been the first home video game, but it was the first major video game success, the one that launched the Atari home console dynasty and, arguably, an entire industry. Atari founder and “Pong” creator Nolan Bushnell and partner Ted Dabney had a surprise juggernaut in 1972 with the arcade version of the game, which improved on the basic “Table Tennis” concept by adding sound, scores and effects. Magnavox sued for copyright infringement; Atari settled by paying an exclusive license fee. They then adapted it for home play.
First sold exclusively at Sears as a limited-edition Sears-branded console, Atari’s “Pong” house has become one of the retail giant’s best-selling items of the holiday season. 1975. Atari soon launched its own branded version of “Pong”, helping to popularize its 2600 game console (launched in 1977), which became the most popular home game machine of its time, selling some 30 million units before being discontinued in 1992. Bushnell sold Atari to Warner Communications for $28 million and went on to found more than 20 companies, including Chuck E. Cheese.
WATCH: “Game Changers: Inside the Video Game Wars” on HISTORY Vault.
Console: Fairchild Channel F
Now largely forgotten, the Channel F was an innovative and short-lived precursor to better-known second-generation video game consoles like the Intellivision, Atari 2600 and ColecoVision. Priced at $169 (or over $800 in today’s dollars), it was the first home console with a microprocessor, joystick, and hold button. More importantly, it was the first to use game-loaded ROM (read-only memory) cartridges instead of having all the games built into the console itself. (It came with two built-in games: “Hockey” and “Tennis.”) The technology was designed by Jerry Lawson, a pioneering African-American computer engineer from Silicon Valley, now widely credited as the father of the game cartridge. video.
Channel F (the F stands for “fun”) built a library of 26 ROM game cartridges called “videocarts”, priced around $20 apiece. The most popular, “Spitfire”, was a dogfighting game that challenged users to “fly” highly pixelated versions of the Red Baron and Blue Max and shoot down. An additional revolutionary feature: gamers without a buddy to play with could compete with the processor, a first for a home console.
“Space Invaders” (1980)
Console: Atari 2600 VCS
After its new parent company, Warner Communications, injected Atari with more than $100 million to create an answer to Channel F, the game company soon launched the Atari 2600 (also known as the Atari Video Computer System or VCS), its own ROM-cartridge, CPU compatible console. As with the Channel F, users could play various games by purchasing standalone video cartridges and inserting them into the console.
No game was more popular on the 2600 – or more influential on the gaming industry – than “Space Invaders”, a shooter about descendant aliens originally conceived in Japan.. Licensed for use in the United States beginning in 1980 (the first time an arcade game was licensed for home play), it raised the standards for graphics, sounds and gameplay and adrenaline rush to an industry driven by a glut of underperformance” Clones of Pong. Sales of the Atari 2600 quadrupled after the game’s release, and over 2 million space invaders the cartridges were sold in the first year.
Console: Atari 2600 VCS
Pac-Man, another adaptation of a hit Japanese arcade game, sold over a million copies for Atari when it was released in 1982. Players control the yellow Pac-Man icon , who must nibble through a maze of dots while trying to escape a team of four colorful ghosts.
Reviewers castigated Pac-Man for having poor visuals and sound, and consumer satisfaction with the Atari brand plummeted. Nonetheless, the game went on to become the best-selling Atari 2600 video game of all time and had a wide cultural impact, spawning a huge spin-off of merchandise, from pajamas and stuffed toys to school supplies and breakfast cereals, and even inspiring a Top 10 pop song called “Pac-Man Fever”.