Generation Gap Pt. 1
It’s difficult to understand and discern the various console generations that have existed, so here’s a brief overview of each one and the consoles that spawned in North America during these generations. Please note that these posts cover home consoles only (and goes into broad detail on specific larger market share, not every console that released) – while arcades and PCs were a signficant part of gaming in the respective 80s and 90s, they will be covered in different posts.
First Generation (1972 – 1983)
Magnavox Odyssey – Launch Price: $75-$100 (retail dependent) – Released: 1972
Designer Ralph Baer’s team started working on the console, codenamed “brown box”, in 1966 and completed a prototype in 1968. I wasn’t even remotely alive when the Odyssey was on the market, so my experience with the console is limited to a few brief and clumsy plays of Ski at various Midwest Gaming Classic conventions.
The Odyssey had interchangeable cartridges that were purchased individually, much like more modern consoles, and also included an overlay for the television. Since it was unable to generate graphics necessary for the games itself, it would instead use the TV overlay to create the playfield and dots or lines would be the only true visual created by the console. Each cartridge would trigger jumpers in the console to generate the desired images or items on the screen. Some games would also include dice and various other items, creating a virtual board game of sorts. One of the most popular among the Odyssey titles was of course Pong, which was actually named Tennis on the console. Unfamiliarity with a device of this sort and co-branding with Magnavox stores created a public perception that the Odyssey would only work with Magnavox televisions, which wasn’t true.
Pong Clones – Launch Price: (Variable)
Although Atari and Magnavox were making “official” versions of Pong various clones began to flood the market made by a whole slew of manufacturers. Eventually the demand for the simple paddle game dwindled and companies that had invested large sums of money were seeing a staggering drop in sales as the bubble burst. Some refer to this as the “video game crash of 1977”, a clear foreshadow to the eventual crash of 1983. After 1977 only Magnavox and Atari remained in the market, dug out by the arcade release of Taito’s Space Invaders.
Atari 2600 – Launch Price: $199 – Released: 1977
You may know this console also as its original name, the Video Computer System (or VCS) to compete directly with the Video Entertainment System (or VES), later being renamed to the Fairchild Channel F. Both consoles were essentially Pong clones upon release until after the crash of 1977 forced developers to put the hardware to work on other potential projects. Ironically enough, the title that the console launched with was Combat as well as two classic joysticks with a single red button.
With the exclusive content and the bowing out of Fairchild for what they considered a dwindling market, Atari became the front-runner for video games by 1979, taking home markets by storm. In January 1980, a licensed version of Space Invaders hit the console and by 1982 the console had also acquired another arcade pleaser, Pac-Man, which sold over 7 million copies itself. 1982 was also the year that the console officially was renamed to the Atari 2600 to make way for the Atari 5200, which also released the same year. This new model was completely black, removing the signature 70s wood paneling and moved two of the dipswitches to the back of the console. Several updated versions of the system would release, including a slim-lined version named the 2600 Jr., and even co-branded products like the Sears Video Arcade (which was the Sears brand of the VCS/2600).
Mattel Intellivision – Launch Price: $299 – Released: 1979-1980
This can technically be considered the first console intended for multiple title and cartridge distribution, although the 2600 had clearly planned for multiple cartridges upon its initial market release. Mattel decided to go right for the throat with the Intellivision (standing for an “intelligent” and “television” hybrid), doing side-by-side screen comparisons with the VCS/2600 in its 1980 commercials for mass market release (although it started in test markets in 1979). It launched with the title Las Vegas Poker & Blackjack, possibly suggesting an older target market (especially in combination with price).
Titles for the Intellivision would include overlays for the odd 12-button numeric keypad located at the top of the controller and a multi-directional pad on the bottom. Intellivision’s list of games provides an impressive combination of licensed arcade ports and original games. Its best-selling title, Astrosmash, also managed to top 1 million sales. In an attempt to find its place in the market, the Intellivision announced a keyboard peripheral and teased add-ons to make it a full computer, but the peripheral was eventually recalled and plans for the computer add-on were canceled resulting in several customer complaints. There were two revisions, the Entertainment Computer System (ECS), which was basically an Intellivision with limited programming capabilities, and the Intellivision II, released in 1983 and not actually new hardware, was manufactured to be cheaper and more sleek with disconnecting controllers.
ColecoVision – Launch Price: $200 – Released: 1982
Launching in summer 1982, the ColecoVision had a short but sweet life. With a design similar to the Intellivision, the only real difference was that the directional pad was replaced with an arcade-like analog nub and relocated to the top of the controller. It’s marketing goal was simple: take any arcade ports that Atari hadn’t nabbed and gobble up the licenses. Even more significant was the fact that it could create near-perfect arcade ports and in some cases even create ports that were superior to the arcade. With an impressive pack-in at launch, Nintendo’s Donkey Kong, the console was able to move more than half a million consoles by Christmas of 1982.
Arcade ports included Donkey Kong Jr., Zaxxon, and even held responsibility for popularising less known arcade titles like Mr. Do! Of the titles considered superior to the arcade was the standout Space Panic alongside a handful of other titles that continued the trend. Unfortunately the short life of the system can also be attributed to its lack of true original exclusive titles and a decent number of its titles (including those on the console box) that are considered “vaporware”, meaning no version of the game was actually seen by 3rd parties and its unclear whether the game(s) ever existed at all.
Atari 5200 – Launch Price: $270 – Released: 1982
In the grand scheme of things, the Atari 5200 was a waste of consumers’ time and money, directly demonstrating the cause of the video game crash of 1983. Released to compete with the Intellivision and boasting higher graphics than its predecessor and Intellivision, it unfortunately launched only a few months after the ColecoVision as direct competition. With a hefty price tag and little innovation, it was a hard sell to the most enthusiastic of gamers.
The 5200’s controller was nearly identical to the ColecoVision (which mostly copied the Intellivision) save for the more pronounced joystick. Anyone who owned a 5200 remembers the non-centering joystick that would cause all kinds of problems if not centered before turning on the console. Main reasons for the console’s failure was that it did not offer backwards compatibility with the 2600, which was twice as bad when you consider that at this point Intellivision had a cartridge adaptor that allowed it to run 2600 titles. It also featured few games, Atari pumping more time and effort into its ever-expanding 2600 library and doing little more than higher graphical ports of 2600 games with sloppy programming. Finishing off the console’s future was the fact that compared to ColecoVision the pack-in game, Super-Breakout (an adaptation of Arkanoid), was far less intriguing than Donkey Kong. Thanks to the improper handling of the console, it died a quick and painful death.
Video Game Crash of 1983
With the market skyrocketing with video games, the early 80s had no shortage of options, many of which had become overwhelming. At the time of the crash one could enter a store and see a slew of consoles: Atari 2600, 5200, ColecoVision, Coleco Gemini (2600 clone), Intellivision (II), and even a new version of the Odyssey (second generation). This doesn’t even include store specific items like the Sears Tele-game series and the Tandyvision (RadioShack). Mind you, in 1982 $200-$300 was much more than it is today and with many titles ranging from $30-$40 in price, gaming was no cheap hobby. Companies overestimated sales and manufacturing, flooding the market with games. In order to produce games quickly, titles were severely rushed and not given proper treatment – most noteable the poor 2600 port of Pac-Man (which did celebrate commercial success at the price of unhappy consumers) and the pathetic 2600 title E.T. also rushed to meet the release of the movie and a rumored 2 million carts were buried in the New Mexican desert.
With all of this going on, companies were going out of business at an incredible rate and retailers were unable to sell back unsold and returned games to these bankrupt publishers. Everyone suffered from the console manufacturer to the publisher to the retailer. Even the consumer suffered as low-priced software hit the market in droves, enticing gamers away from the high-priced $40 quality software to virtually unplayable $5 carts. By summer of 1983 every store was overwhelmed with unsold clearance software only to hear from both Atari and Magnavox that the 7800 and Odyssey 3 respectively were dated to release the following year. The entire market came crashing down and by 1984 retailers didn’t even want to think about video games again. If it weren’t for Nintendo having the intelligence and foresight to hold back on bringing the Famicom (Japan’s version of the NES) to US until 1985 and selling it as a toy and not a video game, we may not have home consoles today.
Our coverage of video game generations continues in Generation Gap Pt. 2!