by Steve Boutilier
Video game consoles have, for more than 20 years, been a major influence on the lives of children and adults alike, revolu- tionizing the way that children play, learn, and think. As we are now in the thick of a new generation of video game consoles, each of which proposes to take gaming in a different direction, it does us well to look over the history of video games in hopes of gaining an understanding of the present a n d future of console gaming. It would be impossible and futile to attempt to discuss video game consoles without mention of classic arcade systems. The original Pong console, released in 1972, was really the first system to achieve wide- spread success. The gameplay was sim- plistic. Two paddles, and a pixel that bounced back and forth between them. But this game struck a chord with the people, and rapidly became a considerable suc- cess. Pong sparked interest in the video game industry, and prompted a number of companies to begin producing their own arcade machines. This surge of arcade games resulted in what is often termed the "golden age" of arcade gaming. The com- ing of the next generation of arcade games was signaled in 1978, with the release of Space Invaders, and a ton of games, which are still played to this day, soon followed. Defender, Joust, Centipede, Asteroid, Tapper, Pac-Man, and many others flooded the market with addictive, colourful, and engaging games that brought kids to arcades in droves. Video games, however, remained almost exclusively the domain of the young. As the arcade boom took hold, one of the major arcade publishers, Atari, created a home version of their classic, Pong. It was the hot gift of Christmas 1975, featuring a new scorekeeping system and the same addictive gameplay which made it a household name. Pong also made people aware that, with a few cables and a small machine, a regular television could be instantly converted into a home arcade. This idea, which may seem silly now, was truly revolutionary at the time. Then, the first round of console wars began. The first wave of cartridge-based systems hit, bringing the Atari 2600, Colecovision, and Intellivision to the American market. All three of these sys- tems were moderately successful, but soon fell prey to their own rapid growth. Third- party publishers were ubiquitous, and there were so many completely awful and unplayable games that the systems and companies began to collapse under their own dead weight. In 1983, the game indus- try was brought to its knees by a major, industry-wide crash. The technology stag- nated, but price wars began to heat up, and companies quickly dug themselves into massive debts. Developers went out of business left and right, leaving many doubting the viability of the video game industry. Then, a Japanese company released the Famicom (an abbrevi- ation for Family Computer). That company was named Nintendo. In 1985, Nintendo would bring the Famicom to North America with a new name, the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES. As soon as the NES hit the market, all bets were off. The game industry grew by leaps and bounds, thrust forward by the development of 8-bit proces- sors. The term 8-bit simply refers to the number of bits of information that the processor can manipulate in a single process, and it meant that there were seemingly limit- less possibilities on the NES. The new system also brought a new hero - a stout, moustachioed plumber named Mario. The adorable racial stereotype had appeared in the arcade classic Donkey Kong, and then spun off into the arcade version of Super Mario Brothers, w h i c h most peo- ple would recognize as the vs. s t a g e f r o m Mario 3. The Super Mario Bros. game brought con- sole gaming into the future. Instead of out- lines against a flat color background, Mario was bright, colourful, and featured a distinctive soundtrack. Nintendo thor- oughly dominated the North American market, while essentially conceding Europe to Sega, whose Master System was making steady gains. Soon after the successes of the Master System and the NES, the console wars began to escalate. 8-bit was old and bust- ed, 16-bit was the new hotness. Sega struck the first blow in 1989 with its Mega Drive, which was marketed in North America as the Sega Genesis. Sega brought with it the next video game mascot - Sonic the Hedgehog. While Mario was an overweight Italian plumber with a penchant for eating mushrooms, Sonic was brash, snide, and most importantly, fast. Sonic the Hedgehog focused on speed, and the 16-bit game blew the doors off of anything that Nintendo had to offer. Nintendo countered in 1992 with its Super NES, which matched the 16-bit capability of the Genesis, and helped Nintendo to catch up with Sega. Unfortunately, the flagship offering of the SNES, Super Mario World, didn't offer a lot of new gameplay, whereas Sonic presented users with something entirely new. Nintendo struggled to recover, but man- aged to keep pace, until the next round of the console wars. As 16-bit gaming was hitting its stride, computer gaming was quietly becoming a massive market, since they quite literally moved things into a new dimension. The advent of 3D gaming on the computer, with games such as Wolfenstein 3D and Doom brought gaming to desktops, and productivity on computers has never fully recovered. I mean, why file TPS reports when you can you kill a giant robot Hitler with gattling guns for hands? A number of classic games hit the market in this time period, steadily increasing the consumer base for computer gaming with technolo- gy could advance at a much faster pace than consoles. Warcraft, Simcity, Heroes of Might and Magic, Civilization and many others were at the forefront of the growth of computer gaming, and all of these titles are still alive to this day. In 1994, two entirely new consoles hit, both featuring an entirely new form of media: CD-ROMs. Now, instead of a few megabytes of space to work with, develop- ers had several hundred megs with which to create their games. The Sega Saturn and the Sony Playstation hit stores almost simultaneously, and their introduction of 32-bit gaming brought with them the potential for 3D, polygonal gaming on consoles. Games such as Battle Arena Toshinden, Final Fantasy VII, Tomb Raider, and Twisted Metal showed that 3D gaming was the wave of the future, and Nintendo was falling behind. The Nintendo 64, named after its 64-bit capabilities, was delayed repeatedly, and finally came to stores in 1996. It was an instant hit and flew off of the shelves, since the graphics were sharp, and the games were of tremen- dous quality. Some of the early titles for the N64 are still widely regarded as some of the best ever, including the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Mario 64, and Goldeneye. Nintendo, however, made a choice when developing the N64, which proved to be a critical mistake. Nintendo decided that they would use a cartridge to store games, rather than CDs. The logic was that car- tridges don't require load times, and Nintendo hoped that gamers would appreciate this increased pace of play. This opened the door for larger scale games such as Metal Arms, Metal Gear, and Final Fantasy to move to the Playstation and Saturn, due to their higher storage capaci- ty. As this was all occurring, computer gaming was becoming more and more influential. First person shooters were fill- ing electronics storeshelves, and the advent of the Internet made online gaming a popular medium, attracting hordes of gamers to computer gaming. The consoles found themselves in a struggle to keep up with rapidly advancing video technology. Something drastic had to be done. Then, Sega made an incredibly brash- move. They released the Dreamcast system in 1998, and it was possibly the greatest disaster in video gaming history. The Dreamcast showed immense promise, introducing 128-bit gaming to the masses, but unfortunately, in its rush to get to the market, Sega doomed its console from the beginning. By rushing the system, developers just didn't have time to prepare software, and people just didn't latch on to the system. The Dreamcast was a pioneer for 128-bit gaming, and even introduced online gaming to consoles, but it was ahead of its time, and was quickly eclipsed by the so-called "big three." In the period from 2000-2001, Sony, Nintendo, and console newcomer Microsoft released their 128-bit offerings. While the technology of the Playstation 2 and Microsoft Xbox were fairly compara- ble, Nintendo made the choice to release a less powerful, more affordable console. Unfortunately, the gambit by Nintendo failed, and the Gamecube fell behind, skewing to a younger market with games such as Pokemon. The PS2, with a strong library of games, and a tremendous variety of genres, sold an astronomical number of sys- tems, with the Xbox coming in a distant second, but establishing a devoted following. What this generation really taught developers was that gamers are no longer simply for chil- dren. The top selling games on both major systems were incredibly violent: Halo 2, and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. It became clear to the publishers and console developers that to be successful, they needed to reach out to the group of gamers who grew up playing. Now, we are at the beginning of a new console cycle, and each producer has opted for different tactics to market their systems. Microsoft, unfazed by the disas- trous collapse of the Sega Dreamcast, decided that its best option for pulling ahead was an early release. The Xbox 360 came out on Nov. 22,. 2005, and signaled the first console generation that wasn't bit- driven. Bits were no longer of interest. Rather, processing speed and graphical capability was becoming the major con- cern. The Xbox had both of these in spades, and was a success from launch. While it didn't blow anyone away, the inclusion of High Definition graphics were a major visual leap for- ward for video games. As the Xbox 360 grew in popularity, so did computer gaming. World of Warcraft and The Sims were showing that computer gaming was still a force to be reckoned with. While Xbox and Xbox 360 had made use of the Xbox Live online gaming software, it was clear that the heart of online gaming was on the computer. Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG) had conquered the market, and were flying off the shelves. World of Warcraft, in fact, has established itself as one of the most widely played games of all time, for any system. Computer gam- ing, which had been quietly growing for more than a decade, was finally hitting its stride, and doing so in a big way. Then, Nintendo released its revolutionary Wii. The oddly named system fea- tured limited processing power, but a new and intriguing motion-control system, which they hoped, would open up gaming to new markets. Wii has focused on gameplay rather than graphical power, and con- sumers have responded with their pocket- books. Wiis are flying off the shelves, and stores are struggling to keep them in stock. At almost the same time, Sony released the Playstation 3, which was more powerful than any system ever released, featur- ing multiple pro- cessing cores, Blu- ray media hard- ware, and numerous other features. Unfortunately, a high price tag and an extremely small initial ship- ment has resulted in the PS3 falling well behind both the Xbox 360 and the Wii. Where to now for consoles? It seems hard to say. The Wii is growing fast, but the Xbox 360 has a huge market share, and the PS3 remains a dark horse in the console wars. Computer gaming continues to enjoy its online renaissance, and handheld gaming is growing at an astronomical rate. Video gaming is growing quickly, and has been for quite some time. It seems inevitable that video games will only get bigger, and constitute an even bigger part of our lives in the future.