A Brief History of Video Games

In the beginning, there was nothing. And then some bright spark started playing
with an oscilloscope, as engineers are wont to do. The first video games were borne upon mighty
post-war mainframes: designed for rapid codebreaking and the calculation of ballistic trajectories. An early example is 1958’s Tennis For Two,
a simple two-player Tennis simulation built for an analogue machine. Once computers made their way into academic
institutions, there was no shortage of programming experimentation – SpaceWar! is such fruit
of curiosity from MIT in 1962. — By the 1970s, the commercial application of
these electronic attractions were realised in the form of arcade games: mass produced,
self contained units which dispense coin-operated entertainment. 1972’s Pong is the most iconic from this era,
proving phenomenally popular and becoming the first commercially successful game. As computers became more powerful, games of
greater complexity became possible: 1974’s ‘Maze War’ is arguably the very first FPS. Atari’s Breakout in 1976 mixed up Pong’s familiar
bat-and-ball paradigm, by adding destructible bricks into the mix – although the following
year saw a recession of the nascent video game industry, largely due to the faddish
nature of Pong. A new wave of games in 1978 ushered in the
golden age of the arcade, with Taito’s Space Invaders sparking the shooting genre, filling
coinboxes worldwide. Asteroids in 1979 was similarly popular, with
its smooth vector graphics and slick space gameplay thrusting it firmly into popular
culture. — The 1980s were a colourful decade, and newly
available arcade technology reflected this with titles like Pac-Man. While the voracious yellow circle-segment
happily gobbled quarters, early computer games were breaking new ground, such as Zork – one
of the first interactive fiction adventures – and Rogue: a seminal dungeon crawler that
spawned an entire genre. 1981 saw Mario’s very first outing in Donkey
Kong – although at the time he was simply known as Jumpman, for his rather mundane ability
to bound over barrels. Another round of arcade hits dropped in ’82:
the excavatory exploits in Dig-Dug, the hi-octane racer Pole Position and the diagonal box-hopping
of Q-Bert. However, there was trouble on the horizon
for the American market – a flood of inferior games and a confusing array of platforms on
which to play them – left many disillusioned. Totemic to this issue is the Atari 2600 version
of E.T. the Extra Terrestrial: an over-hyped tie-in to a hugely successful movie that was
rushed to market and failed to deliver on all fronts. The 1983 video game crash nearly destroyed
the entire American video game industry – permitting a shift towards Japanese consoles, with Nintendo
launching the NES in Japan the same year, alongside a certain plumber’s return in Mario
Bros. By far the most visually impressive arcade
game of its day, Dragon’s Lair leveraged LaserDisc technology to construct an interactive movie:
although the gameplay consisted of little more than quick time events, at least the
death animations were quite rewarding. The 3D wireframe graphics of space trader
Elite in 1984 might not have been as colourful, but the game offered a depth of gameplay and
freedom seldom since matched. This was also the year that saw the introduction
of the deceptively simple yet fiendishly addictive Tetris: the tumbling tetrominoes originating
on the Soviet Elektronika 60, and eventually finding a home on most other platforms. — The American release of the NES came in 1985,
and with it Super Mario Brothers – a hugely influential side-scrolling platformer that
would go on to set sales records unmatched for decades. While the golden age of the arcade might have
come to an close, there was no shortage of now-legendary home console releases by 1986. The Legend of Zelda introduced a charming
blend of action and adventure set in the fantasy land of Hyrule. The gothic platformer Castlevania also made
its debut, alongside Samus Aran’s clash with parasitic space aliens in Metroid. 1987 brought more classics, such as ‘Mega
Man’, with keen platforming action and nonlinear stage selection. Metal Gear injected some stealth aspects into
the top-down genre, with Solid Snake relying more on his wits than overwhelming firepower. Inspired by the earlier Dragon Quest, this
year was also the debut of the longstanding Final Fantasy series, which over the course
of its lifespan helped secure the enduring popularity of JRPGs. Meanwhile the Western RPG advanced with the
first-person perspective of Dungeon Master – this real-time role-playing action defining
the state of the art. In 1988 home micros saw the wonderfully ambitious
Exile, pushing the limit of the 8-bit machines with detailed physics and fiendish puzzles. The Nintendo Game Boy launched the year after,
going on to be the most successful handheld platform ever – and the diminutive device
made the perfect pairing for Tetris. Meanwhile, SimCity kickstarted the city-building
category, putting the player in a town planner’s shoes and proving quite enjoyable in the process. — The end of the decade marked a ramp of pace
for the industry, with new 16-bit machines pushing the graphical threshold beyond anything
seen before. Shadow of the Beast wowed many with its graphics,
and its impressive sprite artwork and parallax scrolling background acted as a catalyst to
drive sales of new hardware. Adventure games also benefited from enhanced
visuals, with the so-called point and clicks such as The Secret of Monkey Island illustrating
your piratical exploits in a way no text adventure ever could. 1991’s Sonic The Hedgehog is an iconic platformer
that still wows visually today. The azure-hued titular character ploughs through
the colourful and varied levels faster than any overweight plumber could ever dream of. Street Fighter II was responsible for sending
the popularity of fighting games skyward, with huge sprites, a cast of memorable characters
and solid combo controls. Although with sprites of a much smaller scale,
Lemmings’ indirect puzzle action proved a frustrating-yet-compulsive hit for many. Sid Meier embarked on a series of games that
would certainly stand the test of time: Civilization put the player in an eternal emperor’s shoes
as you guide your people over six millennia. 1992 was witness to the birth of the Real
Time Strategy genre, with Westwood Studio’s Dune II insisting that the spice must flow. Similarly instigating the rise of an archetype,
id’s Wolfenstein 3D is the emergence point of the first person shooter. 1993’s Doom further cemented the FPS’s enduring
popularity, with the high-action gore-filled gunplay appealing to many. A mite more sedate, Myst’s ray-traced graphics
took full advantage of the then-new CD-ROM technology. Meanwhile, home consoles were treated to the
SuperFX enhanced graphics of Star Fox, pushing the SNES to its limits. The 32-bit PlayStation launched in 1994, and
the new hardware provided the basis for Tekken: building on the foundation laid by Sega’s
Virtua Fighter whilst refining the presentation and controls. UFO: Enemy Unknown was the first in the XCOM
series – successfully blending turn-based strategy with base management and research
in a compelling plight against alien force. Similarly xenophobic, Bungie’s Marathon slipped
by almost unnoticed, largely due to its presence only on the Macintosh platform. —– In 1995, the PlayStation came into its own,
with the stylish futuristic Wipeout from Psygnosis combining breakneck speed with cutting-edge
sound and graphic design. Chrono Trigger was another highlight of the
year – a critically acclaimed RPG that ticked all the right boxes, with multiple endings
and a coherent aesthetic. 1996 saw the launch of the Nintendo 64, and
with it perhaps the first really successful foray into 3D platforming – Super Mario 64. With the processing power to support a 3D
world, and a joypad with analogue precision and enough buttons to control the camera as
well as Mario, the game was both technically impressive and awfully good fun to play. It was the same year the Game Boy was blessed
with legendary collect-em-up Pokémon: a pocket-sized RPG in which you’ve gotta catch ’em all. The franchise inspired an animated series,
films, a trading card game, and has resulted in a longstanding series of video game instalments. Resident Evil flung survival horror to the
forefront, with limited resources taxing your efforts against a biological hazard. The gothic brown hues of Quake saw id further
push the boundaries of the FPS, with a fully modelled world and early support for 3D acceleration. 1997 saw perhaps the first successful console
FPS, with the much-loved GoldenEye 007 from Rare: the four-player splitscreen deathmatch
a particular highlight. The racing sim genre enjoyed the polished
work of Polyphony’s debut Gran Turismo: with a diverse set of cars and tracks making for
a definitive driving experience. Rockstar North, then known as DMA Design,
found a controversial hit in Grand Theft Auto: a top-down open world game in which larceny
and murder are common currency. Valve established their early reputation in
1998 with the expertly crafted science themed shooter: Half Life. The silent vent-crawling exploits of Gordon
Freeman took the player on a fascinating and eventful tour of the Black Mesa research facility. Similarly science fiction and an important
milestone for the RTS genre is Blizzard’s Starcraft: transposing the earlier Warcraft
into a futuristic setting with 3-race interplay. Adventure games were in decline by the late
90s, but one beautiful swan song was the artful neo-noir tale of skeletal redemption in Grim
Fandango. The Legend of Zelda entered the third dimenson
with Ocarina of Time for the N64, universally loved and one of the highest-rated video games
of all time. 1999 was a very good year for the FPS fan
– with two competitive arena shooters facing off one another: Unreal Tournament from Epic,
and id’s Quake 3 Arena. By this point, 3D graphics were starting to
mature, and so fast-paced polygonal action didn’t need to compromise on graphical fidelity. First emerging as a mod for Half-Life, Counter-Strike
boasted tense shooting action that would retain a huge audience to this day – and would go
on to influence the later popularity of modern military shooters. — The new millennium saw both the PS2 and Gamecube
launch, with the Xbox not too far behind. While these new consoles found their footing,
PC gaming enjoyed some notable exclusives – for instance, the loot-fueled satanic exploits
found in Diablo II. Cyberpunk RPG Deus Ex was met with much in
the way of critical acclaim – with its open-ended approach to your character’s goal, the game
permitted the player to navigate their own way through dystopian conspiracy. Of a lighter tone, the virtual dollhouse of
The Sims had universal appeal, with daily micromanagement taken from earlier sim titles
and to the indulgence of pool-stair removing sadists everywhere. 2001 saw the return of the controversial Grand
Theft Auto series, with the third entry broaching the third dimension with an ambitious open
world. Microsoft acquired Bungie to secure exclusive
rights to the Halo franchise as an Xbox launch title, in a deft move that would provide the
platform’s killer app. Not since Goldeneye had a console FPS held
such influence. Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell in 2002 put a high-tech
twist on stealth gameplay, with the iconic glowing triad marking operative Sam Fisher’s
position whilst hidden in the shadows. Metroid Prime was a critically acclaimed continuation
of the much-loved series, and Kingdom Hearts saw a successful union of the Square and Disney
universes. Hailing from the original Medal of Honor team,
newly formed studio Infinity Ward released their own take on the WW2 shooter in 2003’s
Call of Duty. Instead of focussing on a single front, multiple
facets were shown with three authentic and interwoven campaigns. 2004’s World of Warcraft essentially rewrote
the book on MMORPGs, taking the stylised fantasy world from the earlier RTS titles and constructing
the rich world of Azeroth for players to dwell within. Half Life 2 marked Valve’s new Source engine,
and proudly portrayed its physics capabilities through employment of multiple see-saw puzzles. The dystopian world was compelling, however
– and to once again don Freeman’s HEV suit and tread the streets of City 17 was a satisfying
exercise in defiance. 2005 saw the launch of the first Guitar Hero,
sparking a cultural phenomenon and somehow convincing everyone that investing in fake
plastic guitars was a good idea. Resident Evil returned the same year, with
the fourth entry standing out as the best in the series: and the artful Shadow of The
Colossus portrayed video gaming’s ability to appeal to a higher aesthetic. We also saw the start of the seventh generation
with the launch of the Xbox 360, and in 2006 the chainsaw-fused gory action of Gears of
War emerged. Set upon an ashen planet, the armour-clad
Delta Squad engage in futile combat with the grotesque Locust threat. Nintendo also entered the fray with the oddly-named
but hugely popular Wii – and the bundled game, Wii Sports, would outsell Super Mario Bros.
to become the best selling video game of all time. The Wii’s popularity would also prompt a surge
in interest in the concept of motion controls, with PlayStation Move and Microsoft’s Kinect
adding to their respective platform’s arm flailing ability. 2007 saw a certain series take a radical swing
towards the present day, with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare bringing the modern military
shooter to the forefront of a entire generation. A superb campaign punctuated by one of gaming’s
more shocking moments, and a compelling multiplayer to boot – COD4 can boast of incredible influence
to a wide variety of games that followed. However, there was no shortage of alternative
FPS games that year – Bungie brought Master Chief to the next generation with Halo 3,
serving up a polished experience and proving a popular title on Xbox LIVE. Bioshock lived up to System Shock 2 as a spiritual
successor, with the submerged city of Rapture providing a backdrop like no other for a supply
of rich narrative. Valve unleashed The Orange Box the same year,
with the euclidean geometry-bending effects of the small but perfectly formed Portal proving
particularly popular: henceforth all cake deemed dishonest. Grand Theft Auto returned in 2008 with GTA
IV: a return to Liberty City with greater fidelity than ever before, marred only by
frequent social interruption. The much-loved Fallout franchise was revived
in Fallout 3, with the vault-dweller acting in real-time and from a first person perspective:
although the VATS targeting system is reminiscent of turn-based roots. Media Molecule dabbled with user-generated
content in the charming LittleBigPlanet: with the cute woollen exploits of SackBoy shifting
the boundaries of social gaming. Similarly collective was Minecraft, with the
first public alpha available in 2009. While the graphics are simplistic, the randomly
generated worlds rewarded exploration, and the addition of multiplayer made for a compelling
co-operative building experience. Red Dead Redemption in 2010 transplanted the
Western into an open-world setting, paired with superlative storytelling for a moving
experience. The super-slick Bayonetta the same year proved
that stylish and frantic action can be both accessible and fun without sacrificing depth
of gameplay. The next year, the Elder Scrolls series returned
with Skyrim, with the frost-laced northern realm serving as a backdrop for a role-playing
tale of fate and dragons. The broad scope made for compelling exploration,
if not overwhelming depth – but the game had significant impact on gaming pop culture,
if only through arrow-to-the-knee references. Providing a more hardcore RPG experience is
the brutal Dark Souls, rewarding those who persevere through relentless punishment. 2012 was dominated by the established franchises,
with a slew of sequels providing more reliable profit than late-gen experimentation. This did grant indie titles a chance to shine,
however – the understated but artful Journey providing a near-spiritual experience. Polytron’s FEZ finally emerged, with its well-honed
pixel art and unique rotational mechanic making for a charming puzzle game which was well
worth the wait. Most recently, 2013 has had some highlights
emerge from the embers of the current generation: Bioshock Infinite’s compelling world in the
clouds coupled with an engaging storyline and memorable characters lending to its appeal. Naughty Dog gave the PS3 a glorious send-off
in the brutal yet heartfelt Last of Us: a superbly polished gem suitably sitting atop
the generation. — That brings us up to the present day – over
50 years of gaming, condensed into as dense a package as one could muster. The selection process was ruthless, with the
entirety of video gaming almost impossible to distil into any finite time frame – no
offence is meant by any omission. In any case, here’s hoping that the next half-century
is just as eventful, and that we might look back from the future to see just how far we’ve
come. Thank you very much for watching – and until
next time, farewell.

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