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A Guru's World #28: Videogame Consoles
Author: JonnyGURU
Date Posted: January 7th, 2002

Videogame Consoles

No matter how many quarters we have or how close we live to an arcade, no matter how supped up our PCs are so we can play the latest and greatest games, some of us still prefer to play our video games on a console unit. Whether it be a game of Sea Battle on an old Intellivision for old times sake, or Amped on your Xbox, sometimes playing a game on a console is just more fun.

Christmas this year was quite reminiscent. I had bought myself the present of three ColecoVision cartridges (Time Pilot, Venture and Donkey Kong Jr.) for my mint condition ColecoVision, and I had bought a good friend of mine a 10 in 1 game console to plug into his bedroom television.

The 10 in 1 game console really blew me away. For one, it was somewhat of a blast from the past because it featured 10 old Activision games, including River Raid and Pitfall, just like you would have played on your Atari 2600 nearly 20 years ago. The other thing that blew me away was its size. You see; the 10 in 1 game is just a joystick with a wire coming out of it that plugs into the RF inputs of your TV. All 10 games were housed within the joystick. If you were a kid like me, you took things apart. If you took your Atari 2600 apart, you'd see how big the circuit board was; yet this was just the size of your typical game pad, yet it housed 10 games.

Not that I'm not fully aware of how long we've come in 20 years. I'm typing this on a laptop for God's sake. But it's just interesting to see the progression… the evolution, per se. It's almost entertaining to step back and actually reflect on the history of the home video console as a whole. So here we are. Here's the history of the home video game console… or at least as I remember it (save the "dude, you're showing your age" comments).

Keep in mind that the photos are not necessarily accurate for the time frame in question. The Intellivision shown is an Intellivision II and the Atari VCS shown is actually a "2600" model and not one of the original wood grain VCSs. Consider this a disclaimer. ;)

It pretty much all started in 1971 when the world saw its first home videogame console. The Magnavox Odyssey. Ralph Baer was the creator of the Odyssey and his version of Ping Pong was actually the inspiration behind Atari's Pong. The Odyssey had a black and white picture, but came with overlays to place over the TV screen. One of the most favorite controllers for the Odyssey was the Light Rifle, which would allow gamers to "shoot" items on the TV screen.

In 1972, Atari was formed and the Pong arcade machine was first released. In 1975, Atari decided to get into the home videogame console business and released Home Pong. Home Pong was available only through the Sears catalog and quickly became the best-selling item of the catalog.

The Fairchild Video Entertainment System (or VES) was the first console to use actual ROM cartridges and was introduced in 1975. The name was later changed to Channel-F and was feared to become quite successful because of being so advanced. Because of this, the industry was completely saturated with dirt-cheap Pong and Pong clones. Basically, Pong was going the way of the POG. Sorry. Bad pun. I'll move on. The VES was the wave of the future.

It should also be noted that the Fairchild VES was the first console with a CPU. I had been under the impression, as many others that I had used as a reference for this article, that the Atari VCS was the first with a CPU where all other before it were analog.

In 1976 Atari was sold to Warner Communications for $28 million. In 1977, the whole home videogame console market changed when Atari released the Video Computer System, or VCS for short. Because Atari used the name "VCS", Fairchild changed their name to Channel-F.

The VCS, like Pong, was originally only sold by Sears and the sales of small handhelds, like Simon, overshadowed Atari VCS's success in it's first year. The VCS was eventually sold elsewhere as Sears continued to release game consoles branded as "Sears Video Arcade" and cartridges were released under the brand name "Tele-Games".

Even the VCS's mediocre success during the handheld game craze managed to blow RCA's attempt at a gaming console out of the water. First off, RCA's Studio II was black and white only and how could that compete with Atari's full color VCS?

On a side note, Ralph Baer approached RCA first about producing the Odyssey. The whole thing was pretty much a done deal, except that RCA didn't like the idea of getting into a license agreement with Ralph's current employer, which had to be part of the deal as most of the work leading up to the working prototype of Odyssey was done at that facility. RCA backed out and Magnavox picked up the ball. Ouch! That had to hurt for RCA to later find out that the Odyssey sold over 100,000 units in its first year.

Another arcade giant, Bally, made an attempt to break the home game console market in 1978 with the release of the "Professional Arcade", later renamed the Astrocade. The Astrocade was cool, and I'm surprised it didn't catch on. It allowed for four players, had four games built into ROM, a fair quantity of cartridges and even came with a cartridge for BASIC so user could use the optional keyboard to write programs in BASIC and save them to the optional tape recorder. Not bad.

Magnavox had a tad more success than Bally in 1978 with it's Odyssey2. Odyssey2 not only succeeded somewhat because of Magnavox's existing reputation as a home videogame console manufacturer, but also because the Odyssey2 featured a built in QWERTY keyboard that was rarely used by gamers in the United States, but helped with it's success with a number of educational titles overseas.

The Odyssey2 used a number of preset characters, similar to what a handheld LCD game would use, that made a lot of the games look the same, but because of this idea the graphics were better overall and lacked the flicker that Atari VCS games were often plagued with.

Meanwhile, Atari's game designers are getting ticked off because Atari absolutely refused to give any credit for their creations. This prompts the designers of the VCS cartridge "Adventure" to integrate the industry's first "Easter Egg". The designer's name is actually hidden in the game.

In 1979, a console finally hit the market that was able to put a notch in the large piece of the pie Atari had a hold of. Mattel introduced the first 16-bit game system (although all of the games were only 10-bit): The Intellivision.

Also in 1979, the Channel-F was resurrected, not by Fairchild, but by Zircom as the "System II" and was smaller and cheaper than the original and featured removable controllers as opposed to built in paddles.

Microvision was introduced in 1979 as well. Designed by Jay Smith and released by Milton Bradley, the Microvision was the industry's first portable cartridge based video game console. Make the distinction here. Sure, Milton Bradley already had Simon and Mattel had Electronic Football, but the Microvision had cartridges that allowed you to change the games.

1979 was also the year that Atari managed to anger enough employees that the industry's first third party cartridge manufacturer was spawned. Activision is born, and designers get credit for their work right on the box.

Atari was not too concerned with Activision as Atari VCS sales skyrocketed in 1980 because of the first arcade game ported to a home game console. Space Invaders was a huge success.

By porting more arcade games to the VCS in 1981 Atari continued to excel, despite losing a large portion of their creative staff to Activision. Missile Command and Asteroids were released in 1981.

If Mattel hadn't taken a big enough notch out of Atari's home console market in 1979 and if Activision hadn't take a big enough notch out of Atari's software market in 1980, big toy manufacturer Coleco introduced the ColecoVision in 1982, taking a bite out of whatever was left of Atari's market in 1983.

The ColecoVision's biggest attraction was what made the Atari VCS regain popularity in 1980: Arcade titles. The machine was bundled with the arcade classic Donkey Kong and featured several other arcade titles such as Time Pilot, Zaxxon and Gorf. As a matter of fact, an original title for the ColecoVision, unless it was tied to a movie, a sport or a cartoon, was a rare thing!

Another selling point of the ColecoVision was insane expandability. There was an expansion module that allowed Atari VCS games to be played as well as a Super Action controller that featured more buttons than the standard controller; a steering wheel bundled with Sega's car racing game named Turbo and a "Roller Controller" roller ball that rivaled even the finest coin-op track balls.

There was even a computer that could be plugged into the ColecoVision. A computer called Adam. Despite the computer being a mere spin off of a game system, the Adam, with its Z80 processor, 80K of RAM, word processor program in ROM and super high-speed tape drives, was actually quite an impressive computer.

Unfortunately, the Adam missed the Christmas 1983 market, and ended up being a serious loss for Coleco. Coleco turned its attention to Cabbage Patch Dolls to regain its financial footing in the toy industry. Demand exceeded supply, so Coleco expanded anticipating a second year of the craze. Unfortunately, Cabbage Patch popularity had died in 1985 and Coleco had to eventually file for bankruptcy.

For once, Atari was not at the top of its game and the 5200 release in 1982 wasn't met with much fanfare. The games were of a quality similar to the ColecoVision, but titles were fewer, prices were higher, the controllers were hated and just to put icing on the cake, the 5200 console didn't play Atari VCS cartridges. A later revision of the 5200 had two slots to accommodate both 2600 and 5200 cartridges, but it was perhaps too late to save the console.

This same year, Atari renamed the VCS the "2600". Obviously the name stuck as people even today call the VCS the 2600 even if it was made prior to 1982. Also, the 2600 enjoyed another resurgence of popularity when yet another arcade game is ported to home: Pac-man. Atari paid $1 million dollars to have the game programmed as quickly as possible. This shows when Pacman and Ms. Pacman for the VCS are compared head to head. The graphics for Pacman are almost unforgivable. That same year, Atari paid $21 million to license E.T. and only sold 1 million copies as over 5 million more sat on the shelf.

The more hardcore gamers in 1982 fell in love with the Vectrex game system from GCE. The Vectrex featured vector, as opposed to raster, graphics and had a built in monitor. Like the ColecoVision, the Vectrex featured a full gamut of arcade games like Cinematronics' Solar Quest and Rip Off.

The Vectrex, with it's built in monitor, was also fairly portable. It's joystick tucked within the bottom of the unit and the power cord wound up in the back. There was even a handle built into the top.

Vectrex was the first console to have a game with a voice synthesis. The game "Spike", which was a lot like Donkey Kong, featured a kidnapped Molly screaming "Help, Spike!" and when Spike's rescue was thwarted, he would curse "Darn it!" Vectrex was also the first home videogame console to have one of its games converted into an arcade machine. Cinematronics released "Cosmic Chasm".

In 1983, Milton Bradley bought GCE and began distributing the Vectrex. This purchase was no surprise to some, as Jay Smith, the same gentleman that designed the aforementioned Microvision, also designed the Vectrex. Got to hand it to Mr. Smith… He was innovative! Unfortunately, the Vectrex came out just prior to the big videogame crash, and its success was short lived.

In 1983, Emerson jumped on the home videogame console bandwagon with the "Arcadia 2001". What a mistake. Plop down a new gaming console just as the market is completely hitting rock bottom? Ingenious! The Emerson didn't have as good of graphics as either the 5200 or ColecoVision, but was of a fairly portable size and ran off of 12 volts so it could run off of a car battery. Of course, you needed a TV set that also ran off of 12V, but it's the thought the counts.

By 1984, the damage from poor third party titles and Atari forcing resellers to place their orders for units for the entire year had done in Atari. Atari Incorporated is split into two companies. The division that made arcade machines was called Atari Games, which ended up being sold to the Williams/Midway conglomerate in 1996. The division that made home game consoles and home computers was called simply Atari Corporation and was sold to founder and former CEO of Commodore Business Machines (remember the PET, C64, C128, etc): Jack Tramiel. Jack had just been fired by his own company a mere 6 months prior to the purchase of the Atari Corporation. Both companies get to keep the rights to previous Atari arcade titles like Pong, Missile Command and Centipede.

After the dust cleared from the videogame crash in 1985, Nintendo surprised everyone and dropped a bomb on the industry with the N.E.S. The system was test marketed in 1985 and hit the market officially in 1986 and had some of the best graphics of the time. Of course, when you look back at games like Excitebike and Hogan's Alley today, you've got to wonder what we were thinking!

The next year, Sega introduced the Master System. A very impressive unit with excellent Role Playing titles, better sound and better graphics and cooler accessories like 3D glasses, but just as the Astrocade was squished by the popularity of the 2600, the timing was bad and it couldn't compete with the Nintendo system in 1986.

The Atari 7800 was a bit more successful than the 5200 because of it's backwards compatibility with the 2600, but the damage had been done to Atari. Besides, the 7200 had the same old titles and virtually no marketing. By 1987, Atari had essentially repackaged one of it's 8-bit computer systems as a game console and labeled it the "XE Game System" and released a miniature version of the 2600 called the "2600jr". Both went over fairly unnoticed.

Also in 1987, Activision bought home computer game company Infocom. There were hopes that Activision may survive the videogame console crash by releasing more PC titles. The next year, they changed their name to "Mediagenic"

In 1989, the home videogame console market boomed again with the release of two actual 16-bit game consoles (as opposed to Intellivision's 16-bit console with 10-bit games): The Sega Genesis and NEC's Turbo-Grafx 16 which was the first game console to utilize a CD-ROM drive.

The Turbo-Grafx was already a big hit in Japan where it was known as the PC Engine and the Sega Genesis, known in Japan as the Mega Drive, was not nearly as popular. Once the two landed on American soil, the tables turned.

Despite the fact that the Turbo-Grafx could utilize a CD-ROM drive for improved games, the console did not come with the drive and to buy the drive was overpriced. By default, the Turbo-Grafx used mere cartridges that lacked the sound and the speed of the Sega Genesis cartridges. The American market judged the unit by this and despite both units selling quite well, Sega won the war and NEC simply bowed out.

Nintendo's Gameboy was also released in 1989. The small black and white game system became the best selling handheld console ever.

Atari made an important impression on the industry that same year with the Lynx. The Lynx was the first color portable game console. Unfortunately, a lack of product caused Atari to miss the Christmas season, so the handheld market was lost to Nintendo with hardly a fight. Even after the Lynx was available the next year, it was more expensive than the hand held market was willing to pay.

In 1990, the Neo-Geo targeted the adult gamer with $200 game cartridges and was undoubtedly the finest game system to date. The Neo-Geo was actually based on an arcade coin-op called the Neo-Geo MVS.

1991 saw the release of the Philips CD-1 and the Nintendo N.E.S matured into the Super N.E.S. The Super N.E.S. was 16-bit instead of 8, had 8 times as much RAM and had nearly double the resolution that displayed 16 times the colors then it's big brother, the N.E.S.

Mediagenic changed its name back to Activision. Since the home video game console crash wiped out all of the platforms that Activision wrote games for and Infocom lacked the snowball effect of new titles it had enjoyed in the last decade, in 1992 Activision filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

1993 saw the release of yet another CD based game system… The 3DO. Actually, the 3DO was not just a game system, nor was it an actual game system at all. The 3DO was a "concept" licensed to several manufacturers and had the ability to play audio CD, Video CDs as well as games. Unfortunately, the first 3DO units were sold for over $600 and, despite the additional features, were seen as nothing more than a rich man's gaming console. Future 3DO units sold for less, but the damage had been done. The initial high price of 3DO devices scared off the customer.

Atari also released the Jaguar in 1993. The Jaguar was the first 64-bit game console. It featured a proprietary chipset manufactured by Toshiba and Motorola and was built under contract by IBM. The graphics and sound for the Jaguar are so impressive, that the year following the release of the Jaguar, Atari Games integrated the Jaguar's technology into an arcade machine: Area 51. Tempest 2000 is released for Jaguar and sells an amazing (for Atari in the 90's) 350,000 copies.

Atari released a virtual reality headset for the Jaguar in 1995, but only one game is ever released for it: Missile Command 3D. Atari released a CD-ROM player for the Jaguar as well.

1995 also introduced us to the Sega Saturn. The Saturn was 32-bit as opposed to 16-bit, but never really took off like the Genesis did, or the Playstation for that matter. The console was expensive and game development was difficult, which scared off third-party developers.

The Sony Playstation was also "only" 32-bit, but was a winner because of several arcade games ported to it, including a full gamut of Konami titles. Also, all of the titles were on CD.

In 1996, Atari Corporation was "absorbed" by cheap-o hard drive manufacturer JTS. Eventually, JTS itself died and is snapped up by toy giant, Hasbro for a mere $5 million is 1998.

The last cartridge based game system was released in 1996: The Nintendo 64. The N64 was 64-bit (hence the name) and was even more powerful than its predecessor, but was never as popular despite popular titles.

In the beginning, the market was decidedly split between the N64 and the new Sony Playstation, but the winner in the end turned out to be Sony. Apparently, the public was tired of cartridges, but Nintendo thought that cartridges would be the way to go in order to thwart piracy.

In 1999, Sega attempted to regain its hold on the home game console market with the Dreamcast. Ironically, what started as Sega's best selling console, ended up being the shortest lived. Dreamcast, what I believe was the first 128-bit console, featured a 200 MHz RISC processor, 16MB of RAM and was capable of 16-bit color at 640x480. In a nutshell it was almost better than most PCs and ended up dominating the market in 1999... but just 1999.

You see, the very next year Sony came out with the Playstation 2, or PS2 for short, and did a damn good job at marketing it. Demand for the PS2 was so great; units were being sold on the Internet auction site eBay for nearly three times suggested retail. People were even conned into buying empty PS2 boxes. The PS2 also won hearts by coming with an installed 4X DVD-ROM drive that will play audio and DVD movies. Even today, the Playstation 2 is my pick (as if you asked).

Hasbro Interactive launched the Atari brand name in 1998 with a line of updated arcade classics. We saw new 3D versions of Pong, Missile Command and Centipede for both the Playstation and N64. These actually became some of my most favorite PC games too. Then, in 2001, Infogrames acquires Hasbro Interactive and it's associated companies… like Atari! Infogrames re-releases a number of Hasbro and Atari titles, but without the Hasbro logo, and uses the Atari name to release a line of sports and racing games for the Playstation2.

This past year, Microsoft entered the home videogame console with the Xbox and Nintendo once again with the Game Cube.

The Microsoft Xbox is essentially an IBM clone engineered specifically for games. It's an Intel Pentium III (which some argue is a mobile Celeron because it has only 128K of cache) 733 MHz with 64MB of DDR RAM on a custom NVidia chipset motherboard with a built in NVidia NV2X graphic chip that is faster than a PC's NVidia GeForce3. It's the same price as a Playstation 2, but the 5X DVD ROM drives ability to play DVDs is optional. Sure, the add on is only $30, but currently everyone is out of stock on them.

This unit seems to blur the line between "computer gaming" and "console gaming" and may mean that the death of the home videogame console as we know it (or rather, knew it) is nearing an end. Here's my take on the situation... Game developers writing for the Xbox are essentially writing PC games, but optimized for Xbox's high end graphics. Developers do not produce such games for PC because they do not want to alienate PC users with older, less hearty video cards. But given that the life cycle of a typical PC is only 2 years, and that the $300 that the Xbox will run you could buy a pretty serious video card, wouldn't it make sense to just go ahead and alienate those low end video card users? You're already making them buy a $300 machine for "the ultimate gaming experience". Why not make them buy a $300 video card?

As for Nintendo's is a bit of give and take. The Game Cube uses CDs, but they are proprietary 3" diameter CDs. It seems that in an attempt to thwart piracy that is a compromise between using CDs or DVDs that can be easily copied and the cartridges of Nintendo's past, they may end up digging themselves another grave. Oh well… Maybe they can get by with just "Game Boy" type consoles for the rest of their lives. They seem to have no problem doing that right. The Game Cube is under $200, and we have to remember that, but in my opinion, if Nintendo would stick with the hardware and game titles it currently has a winning formula with and combine this with a standard DVD, they may be on to something.

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