In 1970, Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney, two employees at the Ampex tape company in Sunnyvale, California began to work on a new idea to introduce into the pinball arcades. On weekends and in their spare time, they developed the science fiction video game Computer Space. Players would be in control of an on-screen spaceship and fight enemy flying saucers. The black and white screen on the machine was 13 inches wide. The game featured left and right rotational buttons as well as fire and thrust buttons.
In 1971, Bushnell sold Computer Space to Nutting Associates, a coin-operated game manufacturer. Nutting manufactured a modest 1500 units and introduced Computer Space into the pinball-dominated arcades where it quickly came and went. Bushnell suspected that the concept of Computer Space might have been too complex to attract an audience that had grown used to the simple instructions of a pinball machine.
Bushnell and Dabney invested their profits from Computer Space into their own company. On June 27, 1972, Bushnell hired a young engineering graduate from the University of California at Berkley, Al Alcorn. Bushnell gave Alcorn the task of building a simple video game based on table tennis from his specifications. The game would feature only one control knob and play would be self-explanatory. The resulting machine was called Pong and became Atari's first videogame.
One night Bushnell quietly gave Pong its first introduction at a small bar in Sunnyvale, California. To his surprise, the following day a line of people were stretched out the front door of the bar. It turned out that all of them were waiting for a chance to play the strange new game.
Bushnell shopped Pong around to pinball distributors but could not find any interest because most viewed the coin-operated video game as a gimmick at best. In 1973, not having found a distributor, Bushnell released Pong himself. It turned out to be a major success and Atari ended up building 10,000 units. That number was not as many as the company should have made though because a large number of Pong clones had quickly been released into arcades before Atari had officially applied for a patent.
Dabney split with Bushnell after the release of Pong. Bushnell proceeded to form Kee Games in order to get around the exclusivity agreements coin-operated machine distributors had with arcades. Titles for Atari and Kee Games would be developed by the same people but the two different names would alternately be used with the release of a new machine.
In 1974, Kee Games released Tank, its first title. Again, the setup was simple as players controlled a tank and attempted to shoot another tank amidst a maze of obstructive blocks and mines. The player with the highest score at the end of the allotted time won. Because Tank was the first arcade game to employ ROM (Read Only Memory) microchips, its graphics were significantly more advanced than the basic shapes of Pong. Tank became successful and distributors who had signed exclusivity deals for Atari machines soon wanted Tank. The demand for the game became so great that these agreements were torn up and Kee Games was no more.
In 1976, Gun Fight became the first arcade game to use a microprocessor. It was also the first release of Midway, the video game division of pinball manufacturer Bally. Gun Fight was set in the old west and two cowboys moved across the screen trying to dodge each other's bullets by hiding behind a cactus. The same year a young Atari employee, Steve Jobs, who later co-founded Apple Computer, designed Breakout. The concept of the game was simple as players accumulated points from bouncing a ball at a wall of tiles. The tiles disappeared every time the ball hit one and, as the number of tiles grew fewer, the ball moved progressively faster.
In 1978, video game history changed forever when the Japanese company Taito introduced Space Invaders to an unsuspecting public. The concept of the game concerned 48 aliens who were descending towards earth. After a line of aliens shifted from one side of the screen to the other, they would drop another row closer to earth. The speed of the aliens' descent increased as their numbers lessened. Players hid behind four shields and fired up at the approaching enemy. The aliens were capable of firing missiles down at the player's gun turret or landing and ending the game. Players could also shoot a flying saucer that flew across the top of the screen for bonus points.
One special innovation that Space Invaders featured, as have nearly all subsequent arcade releases, was the High Score. When a player accumulated more points than anyone previously, their score would be shown at the top of the Space Invaders screen until it was beaten. The game was so overwhelmingly popular in Japan that a coin shortage developed in that country. Midway licensed the rights to Space Invaders from Taito for distribution in America where it also became a national phenomenon.
Atari released their own successful title in 1978. Football was a tabletop game where players were represented by X's or O's. There were four offensive and defensive plays to choose from and the game had a time limit of 90 seconds. When time expired players would have the option to continue the game for another quarter. Football was the first arcade title to utilize a track-ball controller.
Prior to 1978 video game systems had utilized "raster" graphics. In 1978, Cinematronics released Space Wars which used "vector" graphics that utilized cathode-ray tubes to display the on-screen characters and environments. Inside the tubes an electrode scanned the screen from 30 to 60 times per second, creating an image composed of two-dimensional pixels. An electrode moved to two preprogrammed points on-screen and connected a phosphorescent line between them. The vector graphics were more simplistic than raster but its crisp bright look made it stand apart from other games of the time.
In 1979, Atari first utilized vector graphics with its release of Lunar Lander. The object of the game was to successfully land a spacecraft on the surface of the moon. Various on-screen gauges displayed such necessary data as fuel consumption and altitude. Lunar Lander was abruptly pulled from the production line in November 1979 so that Atari could devote all of its resources to a new game it felt could be potentially explosive.
Atari combined vivid vector graphics with an imaginative concept in the design of Asteroids. Players navigated a spaceship around an asteroid field, breaking apart the flying rocks with a laser cannon to avoid collisions. Atari decided to push Taito's High Score idea another step further with Asteroids. Players who accumulated the highest number of points on the machine were allowed to enter any three letters of the alphabet on-screen. Countless quarters were spent by people striving to record their initials on Asteroids machines. As Atari had suspected, Asteroids touched off a national craze in America and sold 70,000 total units.
Competition between companies heated up in 1980. Atari released Battlezone which again utilized vector graphics, this time in a realistic tank simulation. The objective of the game is similar to Tank but Battlezone's field of view is from the scope inside of an armored vehicle. Atari also incorporated the use of radar at the top of the Battlezone screen and players were introduced to another dimension outside their immediate field of view.
Williams, a pinball manufacturer, used a more detailed radar detector in their new game Defender. Players of the game assumed the roles of space pilots defending civilization from an alien invasion. As aliens descended to kidnap residents of the home planet, players were required to use their radar screens to thwart the abductions and collect points. Defender built Williams' reputation as a videogame manufacturer.
The raging cold war helped bring about the concept for Atari's Missile Command in 1980. In fact,
the game was called Armageddon in its developmental stages. Players used three bases to launch nuclear missiles in an effort to intercept incoming missiles. Stern had its first major success in videogames with Berzerk in 1980. The machine immediately captured players' attention because it actually spoke to them. Players ran through rooms of mazes shooting at robots while a voice from inside the cabinet said things like "Intruder Alert!".
The biggest game released in 1980 was not initially available in the United States. Namco, a Japanese arcade game company, introduced the simple concept of a big mouth eating rows of yellow dots in a maze while at the same time evading four ghosts. With the aid of four power pills positioned strategically throughout the maze, players would gain the temporary ability to eat the ghosts and collect bonus points. Pac-Man soon became the most popular arcade game of all time. Over 300,000 machines were sold worldwide. Midway, the American distributor for Pac-Man, sold more than 100,000 units alone in the United States. Songs were composed for it, books were written on how to beat it and Pac-Man even inspired a Saturday morning cartoon.
In 1981, Atari released Tempest, the first game to use a color vector display. Players needed to shoot at elusive oncoming shapes from the rim of a three-dimensional tunnel. They could advance to a differently shaped tunnel after destroying all threats from below. The game offered supercharged action and featured 96 different levels.
Donna Bailey became the first woman to develop a videogame when she co-designed Centipede, released by Atari in 1981. It featured a giant centipede that scurried down the screen while players shot away segments of it. Centipede utilized a trackball controller and had a strong female following.
The Japanese game manufacturer Nintendo released Donkey Kong in 1982. Players controlled a character, originally named Jumpman but later changed to Mario, who had to climb ladders, jump over barrels, dodge fireballs and beat the clock to rescue a girl at the top of the screen. A novel plot line and exciting gameplay helped to make Donkey Kong a major arcade success. Suddenly, Nintendo was a recognizable manufacturer among videogamers.
In 1982, Midway, the American distributor of Namco's Pac-Man, developed its own follow-up named Ms Pac-Man. The design of the game was similar to the original except there were four different maze screens (depending on the level) as opposed to Pac-Man's one and the bonus fruit prizes bounced around the maze. Ms Pac-Man sold more than 115,000 units and became the biggest arcade game in American history.
In 1982, Midway also unveiled the phenomenal Tron. It was released simultaneously with the Walt Disney movie of the same name. Tron featured game levels inspired from scenes in the movie including a dazzling Light Cycle chase and a three-dimensional tank battle. Sales for the videogame Tron actually out-grossed the film.
In 1983, Cinematronics managed to create a game totally unlike any other that had come before. Dragon's Lair took six years to produce. Don Bluth, a former Disney animator who had directed the animated feature film The Secret of NIMH, produced 22 minutes of theater quality animation with the help of his Bluth Studio workers. The total cost of the production was $1.3 million and the animation was incorporated onto new laser disc technology.
The plot of Dragon's Lair centered on a medieval knight named Dirk and his attempts to rescue Princess Daphne who had been kidnapped by a dragon. When players moved the joystick in a particular direction at certain moments, the laser disc player would skip to a designated chapter on the disc and show another piece of the movie. The game would most often end with Dirk's death when a wrong decision was made. Players used a lot of quarters in exploring more than 200 different choices the game offered, making Dragon's Lair a success.
By the late 1980s, arcade graphics were beginning to change. Sprite-based 3D games were soon replaced by complex polygon-based games. In 1989, Atari released S.T.U.N. Runner, a racing game that was composed entirely of polygons. The game boasted quality graphics that had not previously been seen together with such a dynamic 3D effect.
In 1991, Sega released Time Traveler, a game that featured simulated holographic technology. When the screen of a 20-inch television monitor was reflected into a parabolic mirror, a two dimensional image appeared to float inside the cabinet. Players needed to guide cowboy Marshall Gram through various points in time to destroy Bolcor, an evil scientist, and rescue Princess Kyla of the Galactic Federation. Time Traveler did not produce a true hologram and incorporated the same laser disc technology as was used in Dragon's Lair.
In 1992, Midway released the violent Mortal Kombat. The game set highly detailed graphics against a bloody fighting concept. Players battled menacing opponents hand-to-hand in a tournament setting. With a certain sequence of joystick positions, players could perform special fighting moves to defeat opponents. The game became controversial for the unabashed amount of gore it showed. Mortal Kombat became so successful that New Line Cinema produced a live action movie of the videogame in 1995.
In 1994, Sega introduced Daytona USA which was immediately heralded as a benchmark racing game. Up to eight players could compete against each other in the same race when four Daytona twin cabinets were linked together. With its three different, highly detailed racetracks, Daytona USA presented players with the most realistic physics to date in a racing game.
In 1996, Namco released a new racing game with a 50-inch projection television display. Alpine Racer put players on an incredibly realistic ski slope by utilizing a 32-bit processor. Namco fitted Alpine Racer with unique handle controls to provide players with a wholly original game experience. There was a selection of three different courses and either gate or speed racing to choose from.
In 1997, Sega released Super GT, a car racing game powered by the 64-Bit Model 3ed microprocessors comparable to those found in the Apple Macintosh PowerPC computers to create graphics even more detailed than Sega's Daytona USA.
By the late 1990s, the gap has been closing between arcade and home video game technology. Home consoles are getting so complex that players can now drive to the local game store and purchase a CD-ROM or cartridge that will virtually match the graphics seen on last year's arcade screens. As the technology for arcade and home platforms continues to evolve at such a staggering rate, it is important to remember that the systems that become landmarks are more a product of the game designer's imagination than the clock speed of the microchip inside the cabinet. A true classic game will still be enjoyable fifty years in the future because of the inspiration of its developer.
The rest is soon to be history :)