September 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 5
THE VIDEO GAME turns twenty-five this year, and it has packed a whole lot of history into a mere quarter-century
In 1962 an M.I.T. student named Steven Russell pulled off the ultimate hack. Russell was the kind of kid people make jokes about: short, full of nervous energy, passionately devoted to B-grade science fiction, shy, and brilliant. He worked with the Tech Model Railroad Club, a campus organization that had recently begun turning its focus from toy trains to computers. TMRC members had their own vocabulary.
In 1962 an M.I.T. student named Steven Russell pulled off the ultimate hack. Russell was the kind of kid people make jokes about: short, full of nervous energy, passionately devoted to B-grade science fiction, shy, and brilliant. He worked with the Tech Model Railroad Club, a campus organization that had recently begun turning its focus from toy trains to computers. TMRC members had their own vocabulary. Rolling chairs were bunkies , for instance, and broken equipment was munged . Impressive feats and practical jokes were hacks .
Russell’s hack was creating the first interactive computer game.
Today, when the ubiquitous Mario brothers are as deeply ingrained in the national consciousness as the Disney menagerie, when arcade games of late Roman brutality are vivid enough to have prompted a Senate investigation, when the voracious M&M’s that made Pac-Man the most popular arcade game of all time have become the furniture of a shared past, it is strange to think how brief the history is that has propelled this fixture into our lives: just a quarter-century this year since the first video game went on the market, and thirty-five years since Steven Russell’s masterstroke.
Russell created his game on a Digital Equipment Company PDP-1, one of the first computers to display data on a screen instead of printing it out. Given his deep immersion in science fiction, it took the form of something he called Spacewar.
“I started out with a little prototype that just flew the spaceships around,” he says. “Pete Sampson added a program called Expensive Planetarium that displayed stars as a background. Dan Edwards did some very clever stuff to get enough time so that we could compute the influence of gravity on the spaceships. The final version of that was done in the spring of ’62.”
In Spacewar the players controlled either a curvy Buck Rogers-style spaceship nicknamed the Wedge or a cigarshaped rocket called the Needle. It was an accurate portrayal of the physics of space; the ships floated in their frictionless battlefield, and if they strayed too close to the sun in the middle of the screen, they got caught in its gravity and were destroyed.
It was a two-player game. The PDP-1, which was larger than many automobiles but tiny in comparison with many of the computers of the time, did not have enough processing power to create the artificial intelligence required to pilot one of the rockets.
Spacewar was originally controlled by toggle switches built into a panel on the computer. But the awkwardly placed switches gave the players sore elbows, and after a while some TMRC members cobbled together another set of switches and ran wires between them and the PDP-1—the world’s first controllers for the world’s first video game.
Russell never copyrighted his game. There was no reason to; he couldn’t market it. PDP-1 computers sold for $120,000, and very few people had access to them. In the end Spacewar, became shareware that Digital Equipment technicians used to test their machines.
One person who enjoyed it was Nolan Bushnell. Bushnell liked computers and he liked games—he was working his way through the University of Utah by running midway games at an amusement park—but otherwise it is hard to imagine someone less like Steven Russell than the tall, gregarious, charismatic Bushnell.
He was fortunate in his choice of school. “In the late 1960s,” he recalls, “if you wanted to connect a computer up to a telephone or a video screen, you did it only in three places in the world or the known universe: the University of Utah, M.I.T., or Stanford. And it was just serendipity that I went to school at Utah.” Bushnell spent hour upon hour playing games in the university’s computer lab. His favorite game was Spacewar.
In 1968 he graduated and took a job at Ampex, an engineering firm in Northern California. By 1970 he’d decided to merge his formal education with the lessons he’d learned on the midway. He converted his two-year-old daughter’s bedroom into a workshop and began looking for an inexpensive way to turn Spacewar into a coin-operated novelty that could be marketed like a pinball game.
The cost of computers had come down in the ten years since Russell created Spacewar, but they were still far too expensive to be used as arcade machines. Bushnell came up with a solution. Rather than put the game on a computer, a processor capable of handling several kinds of tasks, he set about designing a single-function machine that could perform just one task: game playing.
He did it on the cheap. “Ampex had a policy that for hobbies they’d give you the parts. Everybody called them ‘Gjobs.’ As long as it wasn’t excessive … I mean, they were just fifteen- or twenty-cent items.”
Bushnell’s first game, Computer Space, was a strippeddown version of Spacewar, its monitor a black-and-white television he had bought at a Goodwill store.
With his prototype, Bushnell set about using his vigorous powers of persuasion to get someone to manufacture the game. When Bill Nutting, founder of a small electronics company called Nutting Associates, agreed, Bushnell quit Ampex and joined his firm. Nutting manufactured 1,500 copies of Computer Space by 1972, but for all Bushnell’s eloquent zeal, the company had trouble marketing its creation in the bars and bowling alleys where coin-operated games were mostly found in those days. The people who saw Computer Space were confused by its five-button control scheme and lacked the patience to read the two solid pages of instructions that accompanied it.
Nutting wanted to continue manufacturing “television games,” but Bushnell blamed him for the failure of Computer Space, claiming the company had mismarketed the game and failed to give it adequate support. He turned instead to a friend named Ted Dabney. Dabney chipped in $250, and the two started their own company. They wanted to call it Syzygy, a word referring to the alignment of three celestial bodies, but found (to their considerable surprise) that the name was already spoken for. Finally they lit on a word in the Japanese strategy game Go that was the equivalent of check in chess. The word was Atari .
A man named Al Alcorn was Atari’s first full-time engineer, and he was an exceptionally clever one. One day Bushnell told Alcorn that no less a client than General Electric had ordered from Atari a tennislike computer game that would feature two paddles swatting a ball back and forth across a television screen.
It was a total lie. Bushnell had not spoken with General Electric; he simply wanted to acquaint Alcorn with the mechanics of creating computer games and thought the engineer might not be motivated if he knew that the task was merely an exercise. When Alcorn finished the game, Bushnell and Dabney knew it was marketable. They tested the prototype of Pong in a rustic Sunnyvale, California, bar named Andy Capp’s Tavern, in September 1972.
Nolan Bushnell was not the first person to conceive a computerized tennis game. In 1966 Ralph Baer, the manager of the equipment design division of a military contracting firm called Sanders Associates, had begun seeking a new use for television sets. Baer, a German-born Jew who had emigrated to America as a teenager shortly before World War II, was a precise, austere man who documented every step of his invention process.
He put together a small team of engineers to create games that could be played on a television. In June 1967 the team began work on a game in which players used paddles to catch a dot as it flew across a television screen. When a team member suggested hitting the dot instead of catching it, the game evolved into computerized Ping-Pong. Baer documented his work at each stage.
As a military contractor Sanders Associates could not market the toy. Baer tried to sell his idea to other companies, and although RCA and a couple of smaller competitors came close to purchasing the technology, they ultimately backed away. It took Baer three years to find a licensee; in 1971 Magnavox purchased Baer’s license and used it to create the Odyssey, the world’s first home video-game console. Within a year Magnavox began presenting its new toy to dealers around the country in private showings. In May 1972, four months before Pong made its debut at Andy Capp’s, the Odyssey was demonstrated at a trade show in Burlingame, California. Nolan Bushnell attended that show—a fact that would soon lead to litigation.
In the beginning Bushnell had envisioned Atari as a company that designed games and sold them to established manufacturers. Shortly after setting up Pong in the tavern, Bushnell went to Chicago to try to sell the game to Bally or Midway, two leading pinball manufacturers. While he was away, Al Alcorn received a late-night telephone call that changed everything.
It was the manager of Andy Capp’s, calling to say that the Pong machine had just stopped working. He went on to tell about something curious that had happened. “Al, this is the weirdest thing,” Alcorn remembered his saying. “When I opened the bar this morning, there were two or three people at the door waiting to get in. They walked in and played that machine. They didn’t buy anything. I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
Alcorn went over to fix the machine. Not knowing what to expect, he sprung the coin box to give himself a free game, and a torrent of silver gushed out. The game wasn’t broken, just choked; players had fed so many quarters into the coin slot that it had simply jammed. Alcorn scooped up handfuls of change, stuffed them in his pockets, walked jingling over to the manager, and handed him a business card. “Next time this happens,” he said, “you call me at home right away. I can always fix this one.”
The excited engineer called Bushnell in Chicago to tell him the news. Surprised by Pong’s instant success, Bushnell changed his plans: Instead of selling the game to a manufacturer, Atari would build it. Unfortunately he had already had an initial round of meetings in which he discussed the game with executives at Bally and Midway. Now he had to find a way to convince them that Pong was a bad idea without arousing their suspicions.
So the next time Bushnell met with Bally executives he led them to believe that Midway had already passed on the game. This made Bally’s people so nervous that they backed off, and so he was telling no more than the truth by the time he sat down with Midway and announced that Bally had pulled out. Freed of entanglements by his shrewd piece of antisalesmanship, Bushnell hurried back to California and secured a $50,000 line of credit, which he used to set up a 2,000-square-foot manufacturing plant.
Pong was an immediate hit. By the end of 1973 Atari had sold 2,500 machines; by the end of 1974, 8,000. The similarities between Pong and the tennis game on the Odyssey did not escape Magnavox’s attention, and the larger company soon brought suit, charging that Bushnell had blatantly copied its game. Bushnell maintained, as he does to this day, that he invented Pong on his own. In later cases against other video-game companies, Magnavox’s lawyers claimed that Bushnell had actually played tennis on the Odyssey for half an hour; Bushnell has always denied this. Nevertheless, Bushnell could not afford a court battle with a massive company like Magnavox, and he agreed to pay a $700,000 licensing fee; all future competitors would have to pay Magnavox even steeper amounts.
Over the next few years Atari put out several games, many of them highly derivative: Pin Pong, Dr. Pong, Pong Doubles, and Quadra Pong. During this time Bushnell bought out Ted Dabney. He thought his partner “still had small-company ideas.”
While Atari was busy releasing its own Pong imitations, other companies were too. Atari’s success had, Bushnell declared, surrounded him with “jackals,” and through the 1970s and early 1980s the most fiercely competitive jackal was Midway Manufacturing. Unlike Atari, Midway did not develop all its own products. Its earliest successes came from Taito, a Japanese company.
Gunfight, Midway’s first video-game hit, was a Western shootout in which players used pistol-grip joysticks to move cowboys up and down the screen as they squeezed off shots at one another.
When Midway’s engineers first tested Gunfight, they were dismayed: The graphics were crude and blocky, the movement of the gunfighters very limited. In hopes of salvaging the game, Midway went to an outside designer named David Nutting, the brother of Bill Nutting, the man who had hired Nolan Bushnell to build Computer Space. By this time Nutting Associates had gone out of business, and Bill Nutting was in a very different field of endeavor, flying relief supplies and missionaries into impoverished African nations. Dave Nutting, however, went on to create several classic games—and to revolutionize the industry.
The prototypical Gunfight that Midway’s people handed Nutting simply featured two cowboys shooting at each other. Nutting sharpened the graphics, then looked for a way to put obstacles between the fighters. His proposed changes would drink up an inordinate amount of power, but Nutting saw a way around this. His improved—and highly successful—Gunfight was one of the first games built with a microprocessor.
At about the same time, a different jackal introduced another durable component to the video-game industry: social alarm. In 1976 the Exidy company released a game called Death Race 98 that had players drive a car along a haunted road beside a cemetery. Gremlins and skeletons would materialize in the road, and players earned points by hitting them with their cars. Despite Exidy’s nicety in calling them “gremlins,” they were in fact stick figures — people —and their advent caused the first national outcry against video-game violence.
A woman in Babylon, New York, was so offended that she launched a very effective one-person campaign against video-game violence, alerting “Donahue” and “60 Minutes” viewers to the potential spiritual carnage. “It’s very tame by today’s standards,” says Eddie Adlum, publisher of RePlay magazine, who is all but omniscient about video-game history, looking back on Death Race 98. “Every time you made a hit, a little cross would appear on the monitor signifying a grave. Nice game. Fun. Bottom line, the game really took off when TV stations started to get some complaints from irate parents that this was a terrible example to set for children. The industry got a lot of coast-to-coast coverage during news programs. The end result was that Exidy sales jumped.”
Communities passed zoning laws that discouraged arcade companies from building new locations. But by now the games were beginning to come into homes themselves.
Despite Pong’s success, the Magnavox Odyssey never sold very well. Baer had originally seen his invention as an inexpensive novelty, something that could be manufactured cheaply and sold for twenty or thirty dollars. Magnavox executives had other plans. They built twelve games into its circuits and sold the system with cards, poker chips, and plastic overlays to create suitable backgrounds for whatever was being played. The final package sold for a hundred dollars—too much for a simple novelty—and then the people who were marketing the Odyssey made an even bigger mistake: They hinted that it worked only on Magnavox television sets. Predictably, this dim ploy did not sell more Magnavoxes; it frightened away would-be Odyssey purchasers. In 1972, the game’s first year of life, only slightly more than 100,000 Odysseys were sold.
In 1975 Nolan Bushnell took Atari into the home market. One of Al Alcorn’s engineers had proposed a home console version of Pong, and the team designed a working prototype based on the same digital technology used in the arcade game. The big dilemma lay not in building the product but in selling it. Toy stores rejected it because it cost too much; like the Odyssey, it carried a suggested retail price of a hundred dollars, and one toy buyer told Bushnell that the only product his store carried that cost more than twenty-nine dollars was a bicycle.
Nor were electronics buyers enthusiastic. They saw Home Pong as a toy, and a mere novelty at that. The public no longer cared about digital watches; why would television games be different? They were all too aware of the Odyssey’s sorry sales record.
One person who was interested, however, was Tom Quinn, the sports-department buyer at Sears, Roebuck’s headquarters in Chicago. As Bushnell tells it, “The guy had done really well the year before on Ping-Pong tables. In winter the sporting-goods section would sell some hockey equipment and a few basketballs, and that was about it. To make his Christmas numbers, the Sears buyer was focusing on Ping-Pong tables and pool tables, and he thought consumer Pong might be just the thing for the family rec room.”
Quinn said he’d visit Atari the next time he was in California. Three days later he dropped in at the offices at 8:00 A.M. , before any of the company’s executive team arrived. He wanted to arrange an exclusive deal between Atari and Sears. His enthusiasm prompted Bushnell to take one final stab at selling Home Pong himself, but finally he accepted Quinn’s terms.
The next step was persuading other Sears executives to support the product. Quinn arranged for a demonstration in a conference room on the twenty-seventh floor of the Sears Tower in Chicago. A daunting group of executives in business suits filled the room and watched as Alcorn hooked a Home Pong prototype to a television set and turned the game on. Nothing happened.
Thinking as fast as he ever had in his life, Alcorn figured out the problem. The Sears Tower has an antenna on the roof that broadcasts a signal on Channel 3; the Home Pong prototype was set for Channel 3, and the broadcast blocked out its signal. Alcorn told a colleague to cover for him and grabbed the prototype. “I turned it upside down and opened the bottom up. I got it to work in about ten minutes. I was sweating now and ready to jump out the window. This was too much pressure for the kid.
“So I finally played the game and it all worked and they were O.K., but I could see that something was bothering them. They had seen inside the prototype while I was adjusting it.
“I said, ‘We’ll replace the wires with a silicon chip that’s the size of a fingernail.’
“Carl Lind, the head of the department, says, ‘Mr. Alcorn, you’re telling me that you’re going to reduce that rat’s nest of wire to a little piece of silicon the size of your fingernail?’
“He looked at me, leaned over the table, and said, ‘How are you going to solder the wires to it?’”
Home Pong received more than enough support. Quinn asked how many units Atari could manufacture. When Bushnell told him 75,000 in time for Christmas, Quinn insisted that he double that output. Bushnell agreed.
Sears executives calculated the success of the products in their catalogue by comparing dollars with inches: They measured the amount of space given to each product and matched it to the amount of dollars they grossed. Through 1975 the reigning champion was an Adidas sneaker. By the beginning of 1976 Home Pong had emerged as the new dollars-to-inches champion.
That year was a tumultuous one for the young industry, with several companies wrestling for leadership in the home market. There was a shortage of microchips, and because Coleco (a name derived from the Connecticut Leather Company) was the only outfit that received a full shipment of chips in 1976, it became the biggest home-console manufacturer that spring. By August, however, Fairchild Camera and Instrument had released the Channel F, the first game console that used interchangeable cartridges. The consoles made by Atari, Coleco, and other competitors were like calculators and could play only games that were built into their circuits; the Channel F, on the other hand, was like a minicomputer that could be programmed to play a library of games.
Atari also had a cartridge system under development—the Video Computer System (VCS). Compared with the VCS, which used the same eight-bit microprocessor as the Apple II computer, the Channel F was as primitive as Pong. But Atari didn’t have enough money to produce the VCS in the quantities necessary to dominate the market. Seeking more capital, Bushnell took the first steps toward selling Atari stock on the New York Stock Exchange, but a slump in the market scared him. The only other option was to sell the company. Bushnell found a willing customer in Warner Communications. Atari, a company founded just four years earlier with $500, sold for $28 million.
Warner Communications took over Atari during one of the video-game industry’s bleakest years. The national protests against video-game violence had taken their toll on the arcade business; so too had the lack of innovative games. The home business was also slow; consumers had wearied of Home Pong and its myriad imitators.
Atari manufactured 400,000 units of the VCS for Christmas 1977; but sales were low, and although they remained steadier than expected after the holidays, Steve Ross, the president of Warner Communications, was furious. He had by then invested $100 million buying and building Atari, and so far he had seen very little return.
The tension between Bushnell and the new owners of his company increased. They saw him as no longer caring about his company. This may well have been true; at a budget meeting Bushnell claimed that the market was saturated with VCS systems and that Atari needed a new console. After the grim Christmas of 1977, Ross fired Bushnell. He replaced him with Ray Kassar, a flamboyant man who had risen through the ranks of Burlington Industries. Ross first sent Kassar to decide whether he should liquidate Atari or continue its operations after the disappointing Christmas. Kassar knew nothing about high-tech industries, but he liked the VCS and suggested giving the company another year.
Though he knew little about computers, Kassar was a man who understood the public’s taste. In 1978 Atari enjoyed a record-setting Christmas, and the year marked the beginning of a new era of home video-game technology, as the industry, still less than a decade old, enjoyed its first real boom.
In 1978 Midway distributed a new arcade game from Taito. When the game was launched in Japan, it had barely received any notice, and Taito executives dismissed it. A few months after its release, however, the game had become so popular that Japan was suffering a national coin shortage. The cause of this frenzy was called Space Invaders. Prior to its advent a top-selling arcade game meant about 15,000 units sold. Taito sold 300,000 Space Invaders, 60,000 of them in the United States.
Space Invaders helped everybody in the industry. Its popularity opened new outlets to coin-operated games. Soon they could be found in movie theaters and restaurants. It even helped Nolan Bushnell, whose new venture was Pizza Time Theaters, a company that opened Chuck E. Cheese restaurants—pizza parlors with video-game arcades.
Ripples of Space Invaders’ success also reached Atari’s consumer division. Kassar purchased home rights to the game and translated it into a major bestseller for the VCS. In 1979 an Atari coinop engineer created a game in which players cleared asteroid fields with a small free-floating spaceship; Atari would sell 70,000 copies of Asteroids in the United States.
Meanwhile, Midway was busy placing 100,000 units of its new Pac-Man game in North America alone. Other companies followed suit. Atari released Missile Command, Tempest, BattleZone, and Centipede. Williams Electronics, a leading pinball manufacturer, had their biggest hit with Defender. Taito of America, the new U.S. arm of Taito, released Qix, Front Line, and Jungle Hunt. Stern Electronics released Scramble. Nintendo released Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Junior, and Popeye. The most successful game in U.S. history was an updated version of Pac-Man called Ms. Pac-Man—with more than 115,000 sold.
Video-game arcades became more plentiful than convenience stores. “Pac-Man and Space Invaders were going into virtually every location in the country with the exception of funeral parlors,” says Eddie Adlum of RePlay . “And even a few funeral parlors had video games in the basements. Absolutely true. I believe churches and synagogues were about the only types of locations to escape video games.”
Suddenly video games had become a major force in popular culture. In 1981 Americans spent twenty billion quarters playing 75,000 man-hours on them. The games outgrossed movies and the recording industry. A hit song was written about Pac-Man, and the characters that inhabited the electronic landscapes of Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and other games appeared on their own television shows in Saturday-morning cartoons.
In his 1983 State of the Union address, President Ronald Reagan defended aid to the Nicaraguan contras by comparing it with the money spent on video games. “The total amount requested for aid to all of Central America in 1984 is about $600 million; that is less than one-tenth of what Americans will spend this year on coin-operated video games.”
For President Reagan to have been correct, every American man, woman, and child would have had to spend almost thirty dollars a year in a video-game arcade. But he missed more than the numbers; the feverish trend itself was winding down at the time he spoke. By June 1982 what the industry still remembers as the golden age had already dimmed. Business softened alarmingly, and by year’s end arcades had begun closing. This downward trend has continued, with only a few positive spikes, for nearly fifteen years.
The home-console market took a brutal beating the next year. VCS sales had been strong for four years despite new competition. In 1979 Mattel, one of the world’s leading toy manufacturers, had entered the market with the Intellivision, a system that offered better graphics and more complex games than the VCS. Mattel sold an impressive 200,000 units in its first full year but barely dented Atari’s market. In 1982 Coleco unveiled the ColecoVision, a sophisticated home console that ran excellent versions of top arcade games. All three companies made enormous profits.
Atari had the largest profits, but they were not enough. In 1982 Atari released two VCS cartridges that cost the company dearly. The first was Pac-Man, the long-awaited but poorly programmed home version of the arcade smash. Atari made twelve million copies of the game, many of which came back from disgruntled customers.
The second cartridge was based on the phenomenally successful movie E.T. According to several sources, Ross forced the game on Kassar after promising the film’s director, Steven Spielberg, a whopping twenty-five-million-dollar royalty for the exclusive video-game rights to the movie. The game was dull and hard to play. In the end Atari created a landfill in a New Mexico desert, dumped in it millions of E.T., Pac-Man, and other cartridges, crushed them with a steamroller, and buried the fragments under cement.
Atari’s profits dropped for the first time in eight years. When, on December 7, 1982, Atari executives revealed that the company had not reached its projections, Warner Communications stock tumbled from fifty-one points per share to thirty-five, and Ray Kassar was fired.
Over the next two years Mattel pulled out of the video-game market, Coleco imploded after investing all its resources in a highly flawed home computer, and Warner Communications sold Atari Home Computers. Under its new ownership Atari managed to limp out of the wreck of the home-console market and even showed a $450 million profit in 1988. However, it never reemerged as a force in the video-game industry, and last year the company was purchased by a disk-drive manufacturer.
Now it was Japan’s turn. In 1985 Nintendo announced that it would restart the American video-game market by releasing a game console called the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Though the system was very popular in Japan, American software developers, many of whom were nearly bankrupted by the collapse of Atari, scoffed at the idea. Retailers refused to carry it.
In October 1985, Nintendo of America’s president, Minoru Arakawa, proved his product’s viability by releasing it in New York, a city generally considered one of the toughest markets in America. To persuade retailers to carry the NES, he promised to buy back any unsold items and set up his own elaborate displays in stores. The system sold out at almost every location.
Nintendo’s impressive graphics, speed, and game control quickly developed an avid following. The NES came with Super Mario Bros., an arcade game based on a popular character named Mario, a plumber who had first appeared in Donkey Kong and then gone on to star in several hit games. Mario got his own Saturday-morning cartoon and, indeed, became a cultural fixture. According to the 1990 Q ratings, a series of surveys that grade the recognizability of real and fictitious public figures, more American children recognized Mario than they did Mickey Mouse.
Under Nintendo’s leadership, the home video-game industry became more profitable than ever before. By 1991 more than thirty-three million homes had NES consoles. Though Nintendo charged steep fees for allowing others to publish games on their hardware, many companies became rich doing just that.
In 1989 Sega, another Japanese video-game company, entered the market with a sixteen-bit game system called the Sega Genesis. The console received little attention in 1990, but when Sega of America hired a new president named Tom Kalinske, it took off. Kalinske, a former head of Mattel, began an aggressive attack on Nintendo’s 92 percent market share. He dropped the price of the Genesis nearly to cost; then he set up a large software-development division in the United States to create games that would appeal to American audiences. His strategy was Gillette’s old one: “Give away the razors” in order to “sell the blades.”
Under Kalinske, Sega adopted a new mascot—a hyperactive blue rodent named Sonic the Hedgehog—and adopted an advertising campaign that ridiculed the weaknesses of Nintendo’s six-year-old console.
Nintendo unveiled the sixteen-bit Super NES in time for Christmas 1991. While Nintendo sold every piece of hardware it could bring to the United States, the big surprise was Sega, which sold almost equally well. For the first time ever Nintendo faced real competition. Within a year it had become apparent that Sega had established itself as a much “cooler” company in the minds of the fifteen- to eighteen-year-old boys who made up the bulk of the video-game-buying public. Older players preferred the Genesis because it had better sports games; young players were actually embarrassed to be seen playing games on a Super NES. When Sony ran a focus group, some kids refused to admit that they owned one.
Over the next three years nlntendo and Sega slugged it out while shutting out other competitors. Sega enjoyed a slight lead in the market through most of this period, and nothing Nintendo tried would close the gap. When the extremely brutal game Mortal Kombat (which ends with such impressive fillips as the victor yanking the vanquished’s skeleton bloodily out through his throat) appeared, Nintendo insisted that the publisher take out much of the violence. The uncensored Genesis version outsold the Nintendo version three to one.
Incensed by this new and far gaudier spate of video-game violence, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, of Connecticut, and Sen. Herbert Kohl, of Wisconsin, launched an investigation in December 1993. Though they gave grudging praise to Nintendo for editing Mortal Kombat, they condemned the entire industry for recklessly allowing children access to acts of extreme violence. The hearings resulted in the video-game industry’s adopting a rating code to alert parents. When Acclaim released Mortal Kombat II the following year, it carried a warning label.
In 1994 home video-game sales started to soften. By this time industry executives had learned that the market was cyclical, and rather than abandon it, as Mattel had done in the eighties, Nintendo and Sega began developing newer and more powerful systems. Despite the weakening market, Nintendo sold more than seven million copies of a game called Donkey Kong Country that featured superb computer-modeled graphics.
In May 1995 Sega released the heavily promoted thirty-two-bit Saturn system. Overpriced and sent out into the world with very little software, the Saturn did poorly. In September Sony released a new thirty-two-bit system called the PlayStation, which cost a hundred dollars less than the Saturn and did a better job handling three-dimensional games and digitized video. The PlayStation outsold the Saturn in the United States by nearly three to one.
By the time Nintendo finally released its latest system, the Nintendo 64 (N64), in America, Sony had shipped more than three million units here and more than eight million worldwide. By last November Sony had more than a billion dollars in PlayStation sales in North America alone. So as the industry marks its twenty-fifth anniversary this year, it is clearly well out of the most recent down cycle.
Perhaps as significant as any of the inroads the video-game industry has made into our lives is its role in helping drive the computer market. Recent surveys discovered that after word processing, the most common use for home computers is playing games, and games are one of the leading forces that push consumers to upgrade their computers. After all, you can still run most word processors on a 486, but today’s top computer games require a Pentium processor. Such leading computer companies as NEC and Gateway 2000 have launched computers specifically designed to play games, and Microsoft has vowed to make computers a competitive gaming platform.
And it is on computers that video games—the most frenetic and immediate of creatures—can clearly be seen to have become a part of history. They are now the objects of a small nostalgia boom, with collections of older games being reissued for computer play.
As for the founders of the industry, it is a young enough enterprise that some are still active in it. Ralph Baer consults and invents toys and games; Steven Russell worked for Digital Pictures, which created a highly controversial game called Night Trap, until the company declared bankruptcy last year; and Nolan Bushnell has unveiled a new line of coin-operated Internet machines.
What these men and their colleagues have made is, of course, all around us. The plunk and boing and sizzle, those postnuclear landscapes, the waterfront gunfights with casualty rates on the scale of the Battle of Shiloh, the gladiators pulling off one another’s limbs—this is all familiar stuff now. It was a strange, extemporized, intuitive birth, but the child is healthier than its parents could have dreamed a quarter-century ago, and it will likely outlive us all. •