Tell me, O muse, of that time long ago when there were no video games.
When the people did not gather in the halls of the arcade where a round of happiness was bought a quarter at a time, but the pool hall where a beer cost the same if it was cheap, or so the old men say.
When there was no other thing for the fan to talk of than the harsh realities of the lying politicos or what it was that Kirk did on his great ship that sailed among the stars, or so the slightly younger than old, but still old men say.
When there was nothing to do with a television at home other than to actually watch whatever happened to be on at the time, and a personal computer had something to do with Olympian hammers, or so the younger than the older men, who were themselves younger than the olderest men (but not quite as young as the eldest men who snort at such things) might say?
Tell me by Jove! Or by phone, O muse, I know not where to find a “jove”. Phone is probably easier, actually.
What I’m saying, O muse, is that you should probably call me. I need the guidance for the histories I am about to recall.
What? Oh fine. I’ll pay your blasted $3.99 per minute, O muse!
Yokoi above, nothing’s cheap these days, is it?
The Before Time. The Long, long ago.
Yes, it be true. There was a time, gentle reader, when there were no electronic devices you could pull from your pocket to tell you where to go, who starred in Silver Spoons (it was Ricky Schroder), or hurl raging fowl at swine. There was no internet. There were no video games.
It was a dark time, to be sure. A world alight with chaos and torment for those who would take the sacred mantles “geek” and “nerd”. These officers of the obsessed and maesters of the mind had to make do with what the technology of the time could afford them.
Ah, but there was a spark. A light in the dark. As Prometheus stole fire from the gods, so to did Alan Turing.
His fire was that of the algorithm. That of computation. That of the machine.
His fire – an enigma to all at first – was the computer.
The fire in the great oldland hammerhalls that forged the first computer were still hot when the first truth of its purpose emerged. From the mind of the master himself no less, came the idea of the first game. A computational recreation of the courtly classic: chess.
A crude first attempt to be sure, but as the computer rose from the dreams of men and into what was still an archaic, analog reality, so too did its gaming brethren.
Tennis for Two.
Mouse in the Maze.
Embers in the darkness, these experiments sent minds turning and ideas burning.
Gaming as mental sport, so long kept to the scholarly pursuits of the tabletop generals who sent armies of tin or castles of stone upon each other, was finding new hearths to alight. Some swore off technological advance, entering into the ascetic realm of casting runes under elder’s halls whilst speaking the tongues of Gygax in order to keep the old ways, but this was a minority. For the rest of gaming, change was coming.
But as the fates would have it, the revolution was to come most prominently on familiar screen of television. This was where the true battles lay. It was this already sacred venue where heroes would rise, the fans would find both solace and sorrow, and a king would come to rule.
The King who would sit upon a Throne of Games.
The First Age of Consoles
It was a farseer and an epic that started it.
Nolan Bushnell, a lordly engineering wizard in his own time, delighted with the visions of the future foretold in Spacewar! and turned the idea into his own: Computer Space. However, the seed planted could find no purchase. Right at the start, the midway maestro’s machine was cast aside in the unfriendly territory of beer halls and amusement parlors where it had hoped to catch the imagination.
As Computer Space withered, along came the first true pilgrims from Kingdoms Corporate. Fealty sworn to Magnavox in exchange for resource, Lord Baer had been like the sturdiness of his namesake, surviving a long winter of almost a decade of development to found his legacy. A journey so long as this led to a namesake found in the tales of antiquity: The Odyssey.
Attached to the scryer’s screen known as “TV”, The Odyssey avoided Bushnell’s first folly. Carried into the home, complicated controls and mechanics could be learned over time and with study. Drunkards had little patience for anything beyond pinball, it seems.
And yet, The Odyssey also stoke fears in the common man, of uncertainty and reticence. Many thought it was only for screens bearing the name Magnavox as well, and did not consider it at all. Riders were dispatched immediately from the Magnavox Halls carrying new decrees to correct this ill knowledge, and to further entice those unsure of this supposed “future of entertainment” as anything but a dullard’s novelty:
But in the time that passed between mass hesitance and clarification for the Odyssey, the first blood was shed!
Bushnell, now humbled from his failure but sure that this was the path prophecy foretold, had set an apprentice to match the Odyssey’s recreation of tennis. Supposedly it was to learn and refine the art that would become gamecraft, yet it was perhaps theft all the same. Proud of his apprentice’s work and under a new name of Eastern origin – Atari – Bushnell released the game, and it proved true.
Pong was the first of these new “television games” to strike true in the hearts of the populace, spreading intrigue and want not known before like wildfire.
Pong soared to success and soon appeared in taverns across the land, Computer Space was quickly forgotten (even by Bushnell) in the wake of such sweet triumph. A version for home use – similar in form to the Odyssey – proved equally as loved amongst the populace. But no sooner had Pong reared its head upon the minds (and coin purses) of the populace, than did other factions seeking opportunity.
Competitors sailed for this land of plenty, all staking fortunes on two lines of paddle and one dot of ball. Proclaiming neither the Baer’s proud history of hard work to forge the game or Bushnell’s cunning to sell it unto itself, a host of imitators arose. Magnavox soon unleashed it’s papered hounds upon all, and Knights of the Lawsuit fought for their lord’s coin.
Indictments rung throughout the land; the higher authorities would have to judge these men traveling a trail unblazed.
But the door had been opened, and lawyers’ threats would take too long to stop the flow of errant corporations and would be lords fighting for gold and glory from rushing in. Games flew off shelves in droves for home use, new arcade machines were appearing everywhere and it was war amongst all who provided the “electronic games of the future” as Magnavox had intoned them to be. The battles raged primarily on the twin fronts of the rechristened “arcades” of penny slot fame and at home on the televisual screens.
The first home of gaming, the computer, saw the beginnings of what was soon to come in the earliest of Text Adventures at this time, yet the high cost of the mainframes required as platforms limited availability (and profit) severely. The “PC” was a chaotic region of wizened dueling amongst coding craftsman, and didn’t catch the imagination of those outside this programming caste. If the common man was awestruck by Pong, they were decidedly cravens to the fearsome Wumpus.
Yet all as it was, was not to be. Almost as soon as this battle of game makers had begun in earnest, it was over.
Like every land rush before and since, those that had come for gold rather than homestead didn’t build foundation, but dug out the earth from underneath their own feet: the market for games crashed in the year of our Lord Vader, 1977.
Childe Faire to the Flooded Market Came
The problem was Pong.
Or more specifically, its numerous imitators and hangers on. Most every upstart company had been as blind as Homer, not seeing the potential future of the medium and simply kept up with the “fad”. Continually making copies and variants of smacking balls around was no matter to them. They knew of the hula hoop, and how quickly these things could fade. Best to sell as much as you could and steel away quietly in the night.
Magnavox itself committed this sin! The Odyssey had too many heirs without a hold of the populace firmly staked, nor a dominant claim to a rightful successor. Lord Baer, for his part, removed himself to begin work on something that would be next “hula hoop“.
Truly, it was an attack of the clones as foul as the eventual heir of that title. But they were clones of Pong not of Fett.
So it came to pass, that in ’77, the merchants, owing few allegiances and burdened by bales of paddle ball, released their horde of clones at trifling shavings on the copper. Pong and its misbegotten multitudes were everywhere, for less than cheap. Without a true and righteous internet to take an accurate account, one imagines that for a brief moment, Pong clones were used in place of insulation, and perhaps even as a new form of currency.
With so many games already sold, many of these false lords fell when it came time to buy the next. There was no need for “another Pong in the house after all. The loss hurt all of the lords seeking to control gamingdom; some retreated back to their holds to lick their wounds and begin the battle afresh when opportunity next grinned.
Only Atari and Magnavox could withstand the Pong-Clone glut flood. Magnavox in part to some small swearing of fealty (and royalties) from Atari.
It is in disasters that tragedy often strikes the frail and the young. Proving this true here was the Fairchild Channel F. Living up to the name of the lands from whence it came, The Channel F was quite fair, boasting a then powerful microprocessor and more features than its foes already on the field. Yet it was quite young, and Fairchild semiconductor couldn’t handle such a sudden downturn of fortunes so soon after starting.
Yet, while the Fairchild was mortally wounded by rushing headlong into a turning tide, it hadn’t been without gallant genius. In truth, it had heralded the next wave of home console technology; were it not for the crash, Channel F might have proven a valiant foe to ignoble Atari, still above water due to early victories against the Odyssey and continued stocks from the Arcade Halls, though their Bushman’s hold over either was far from absolute.
Sighting this potential foe early, Atari prepared for a siege. Thinking deterrent the best answer, they had begun building their own Channel F. It too, would have removable “cartridges” to allow games independent of the console itself. It too would have more colors, and a microprocessor. But it would also require more support than Atari could bring to bear.
Low on coin to finish such an undertaking, Bushnell and Atari turned without, pledging their lands and bannermen to High Lords of the Old Media, The Brothers Warner.
Granted nobility of lineage, a needed purse, and new strategy, Atari weathered the crashing storm and was prepared to strike! To seize the Throne of gaming and crown itself king! Few contenders seemed prepared to withstand the fresh march of their 2600 and it’s vast host.
Yet even as they released their gilded force upon the land, set to conquer, the waters proved weighty upon the people. There was tepid interest from the common man so soon after the flood of Pong. Video games, even reinforced with new steel chips forged at the micro level, might still starve and fade into nothing should another crash come without the love of the people.
Gaming needed a champion. Gaming needed the face of true knights the men and women could see and rally behind. Gaming needed heroes, not dots and bricks resembling things that might have been tanks – it needed a face.
What it got, was an invasion.
But that is a tale for the ‘morrow. When this historie continues anon, and we enter the the first half of the golden age of gaming: the Age of the First (Pac)Men.