Topics: The Arcade Era, Evolution of Home Consoles, Today's Games and New Technology
Illustrations by Greg Chinn at The Local Brand Co.
“I got a pocket full of quarters and I’m headed to the arcade…”
Just as Buckner & Garcia sang timeless 1981 hit “Pac-Man Fever” … Ok, nevermind. That song was awful. But, it captured the furor that kids growing up in 1980s America felt as they hit the arcade to try their luck at Space Invaders, Asteroids, Centipede and all those early arcade games.
In the decades since, games have migrated from ATM-sized arcade machines to home systems to portable systems to … our phones. The technology is more advanced, the graphics are insane and E-Sports have become a legitimate contender in the world of sports entertainment media. The gaming industry has grappled with toxic problems, from rampant sexism to accessibility challenges, but it has begun to come to terms with its issues. Games have been bashed for violence, mocked for childishness and blamed for screen addiction (all valid arguments), but they’ve also brought us countless hours of joy, camaraderie and good-natured competition … even if I did go through about four Atari joysticks in my day.
The Arcade Era
As video games evolved from the simple blips of Pong to the marginally less simple blips of Space Invaders, the first great era of video gaming was born — the arcade era. From Asteroids to Galaga, Defender and Donkey Kong, these games evolved fast. It was a kind of arms race in graphic and sound design. Gen-Xers feel nostalgia for these games the way the previous generation felt about the Beatles. Not only did Frogger, Tron, Dragon’s Lair (maddeningly impossible game),Centipede and all the rest set the stage for gaming at home, they also contributed to the rapid and sophisticated growth of digital design and technology.
Evolution of the Home System
It all really started with the Atari home console (or the generic Sears version that I had). Early games like Combat were little more than large blocks firing smaller blocks at each other. Soon, Coleco and Nintendo challenged Atari with sleeker consoles and better graphics. The 1990s were ruled by Nintendo and Sega, with Mario and Sonic battling it out in the marketplace. In 1995, the first PlayStation hit the US and all bets were off. From then to today, the PlayStation and XBox have been the home heavy hitters, with other notable consoles like the Wii making splashes, as well. PC gaming also took off in the 1990s, and is as strong today as ever.
The games of today, from the latest installments of Final Fantasy and The Last of Us to Ghost of Tsushima and Dreams, are absolute masterpieces of game design and digital art. They’re beautiful, challenging and built at feature-film levels of sophistication and budget. With Fortnite, Minecraft, and Animal Crossing at the tops of adolescent and teen minds, non-game artists and corporations have found ways to cross over, with Marshmello and Travis Scott’s Fortnite concerts and entire music festivals on Minecraft as prime examples, particularly for the days of pandemic.
Mobile & Beyond
It all began with Tetris, I suppose. The game that was so popular it became a blanket term for any situation where you need to fit a bunch of stuff into a space. In 2020, the Apple app store offers just under one million games. Angry Birds was a pop culture phenomenon (I hear the music in my sleep) that, like Pac-Man in the previous century, expanded to tv, movies and approximately forty bazillion licensed products. Pokemon Go opened the world up to gaming in the physical world, bringing augmented reality gaming to the world. The Nintendo Switch revolutionized portable systems. It probably won’t be long before we’re controlling games with our minds.