Today, the videogame industry is one of the biggest forms of media on the planet, even rivalling the film industry in places. We’re not making this up! The most amazing thing about this exponential growth is the fact that the videogame industry is only a few decades old – unlike films, which are now well over a century. This week, we’re looking at how this remarkable industry began with retro arcade games, and covering one of the key turning points in its history: the Golden Age of Arcade Video Games.
The first ever coin-operated video game in history was installed at Stanford University in the US, of September 1971. It was only one of two ground-breaking moments that year, as November saw Computer Space, the first mass-produced video arcade game ever, released to the public. It wasn’t to hold the mantle of most successful, though – that honour would go to the eternally enduring Pong, which hit the market in 1972. Despite being one of the oldest videogames in existence, its legacy is still felt keenly today. Developed by the then-fledgling Atari (and the same people who created Computer Space), Pong sold more than 35,000 units, and made such an impact that it ultimately led public focus away from pinball machines – no mean achievement!
The industry hit its next milestone in 1978, with the release of Space Invaders. Like Pong, it’s a universally recognised title, and is well and truly alive in various handheld devices and arcade machines today. Space Invaders took a full year to develop, much of which was spent creating new hardware for it to run. That’s right – the game was so revolutionary that its creator had to build a whole new machine capable of running it!
Speaking of which, the game’s legendary curve (the first ever feature of its kind) was entirely accidental. In the first levels, there were so many aliens on the screen that the hardware had trouble rendering them all at the correct speed. As the player defeated them they disappeared – and with fewer on-screen to render, the game could get back up to its usual speed. What you’re playing in the first few levels is in fact a game that’s drastically slowed down from what was originally intended. If you’re following, that means that those notoriously hard later levels were in fact supposed to be the original difficulty!
Hot on the heels of Space Invaders was Asteroids, one of the first major hits of what was by now rapidly becoming the Golden Age of Arcade Videogames. It sold over 70,000 cabinets, and became another of Atari’s highest selling videogames.
Now, the Golden Age of Arcade Games was getting into full swing, but there were notable similarities between many of the games being produced. Due to the power of the hardware, it was easier for developers to render the mostly-black darkness of space for the background, leaving more processing power for gameplay. This meant that science fiction settings and spaceships were common.
Pac-Man changed all that. In 1980, the little yellow sphere chomped his way into our hearts by becoming the most successful video game of all time, selling 350,000 cabinets and earning around $2 billion in revenue. His popularity had a lot to do with his universal appeal, whimsical characters, and intuitive gameplay that was easy to learn and hard to master. There were even stories that some arcade owners had to empty the game’s coin bucket every hour to prevent it from becoming jammed with coins. The original Pac-Man game spawned countless clones, a TV series, and even a hit single. Today, his place in pop culture is still firmly entrenched, and along with the Space Invaders, he has become an icon of the videogame industry.
Donkey Kong’s impact wasn’t quite as legendary, but he’s certainly up there with the best. To some extent, this is for similar reasons as Pac-Man; Donkey Kong introduced a new setting, and a plethora of memorable characters including Mario, everyone’s favourite multi-talented tradesman in his first-ever videogame appearance. But the game itself endured because it introduced skill and timing, rather than many previous games which relied on lightning reflexes and simply shooting as fast as possible. It was truly an amazing time for videogames, and it gave some emerging companies like Taito and Atari the foundations of their legendary identity and the reputations they’re known for today.
The exact end of the Golden Age of Arcade Videogames is still disputed to some extent, but commentators broadly agree that it was at some time in the end of the 1980s to the early 1990s, when consoles began to emerge as a new market force. It was far from the end for arcade videogames though; they still retain their treasured places in modern pop culture, with their nostalgia value and endlessly addictive gameplay helping to cement their truly timeless appeal.
Here at the Games Room Company, we’ve got a whole host of arcade videogames amongst our selection – so whatever retro game you’ve got a hankering for, we’re sure to have something for you! You can click here to browse our arcade videogames, or pop into our Weybridge showroom to see them in the flesh!