When it comes to video games, we have come a long way. You may have enjoyed black-and-white, pixelated games during your childhood, but now, games with high-definition graphics with realistic effects are the norm. In a few years, we might even achieve complete virtual reality!
It’s fascinating to think that the beginnings of video games are routed in the very basics of electronics and computing. There’s something special about the firsts and who made it possible.
Since video games aren’t really ancient, we still want to give credit where the credit is due. Innovation comes in many forms, but understanding the video game scene during the early days is an essential part of understanding and appreciating how the modern gaming industry came to be.
It’s important to note that there are still parts of early video game history that are still being discovered. It’s not all set in stone. While some companies, developers, or games are credited to certain “firsts,” there’s always room for debates, as some might be overlooked.
If you’re a video game enthusiast and a history buff, surely you’ll be interested in the pioneering moments in video game history:
First interactive game – Cathode ray amusement device (1947)
When the origins of video games are being talked about, the game Pong often steals the spotlight. Pong was an early arcade game that was released in 1972 and became commercially available for home use in 1975. While Pong was the first successful arcade game, the first interactive electronic game was patented 25 years earlier – in 1947.
Just two years after World War II, Thomas T. Goldsmith and Estle Ray Mann drew inspiration from wartime missile displays to create the first-ever interactive electronic game. This analog marvel, developed on a cathode ray tube, allowed players to manipulate the CRT beam and position a red dot on the screen overlay.
First digital video game – Spacewar! (1962)
The first in a line of computer hardware systems was released in 1960. Known as PDP-1 ((Programmed Data Processor-1), it was created by the Digital Equipment Corporation. Not long after that, MIT students programmed a game to go with it: Spacewar!
Debuting in 1962, Spacewar! was a space simulation video game known as the first ever digital video game. This two-player experience had players control spacecraft and engage in missile combat. Distributed through the early Internet, Spacewar! laid the foundation for many video games to come.
First electronic game joystick – Missile (1969)
The joystick is an instantly recognizable essential for video games. This input device made games more accessible and, gradually, more complicated. It has been the preferred way to control games, especially fighting games.
Ralph H. Baer pioneered the concept of a joystick, and the first commercial game to feature it was Sega’s 1969 arcade game Missile. In this shooter simulation game, players use the joystick to fire missiles at enemies and direct the projectiles’ paths. Though Missile lacked a proper “video” component (being an electro-mechanical machine), it still left an indelible mark on the gaming industry at large.
First commercial arcade game – Computer Space (1971)
For years, games were only played where they were programmed. Generally, it’s limited to universities where the early game developers created them.
The turning point came in 1971 when the successors of Spacewar! was released. In September, Stanford University in California witnessed the installation of the first ever coin-operated games machine, The Galaxy Game. Then, in October, they debuted the first commercial video game, Computer Space, at a trade show in Chicago. Nutting Associates, a small company, manufactured the game housed in a futuristic-looking cabinet.
1971’s Computer Space put players in control of a spaceship and made them shoot down incoming flying saucers. It had a simple gameplay, but its “insert-quarter-to-play” model laid the groundwork for the arcade video game industry.
Computer Space was created by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney, the same guys who created Pong. However, Computer Space didn’t generate a flood of orders. Bushnell and Dabney left the company, founded Atari, and became successful when they released Pong in 1972.
First home console – Magnavox Odyssey (1972)
While Home Pong often steals the spotlight as the first interactive electronic game for home use, the true pioneer was the Magnavox Odyssey, introduced three years earlier in 1972. Designed by Ralph Baer, it became the first cartridge console and the first home video game console ever to be released on the market. But despite its groundbreaking nature, the Magnavox Odyssey was a flop due to poor marketing and the misconception that it required a Magnavox television to play the console on.
Magnavox Odyssey inspired new companies to make theirs even better. Atari, then known as Nolan Bushnell, capitalized on this by labeling their Pong boxes, “Works in any television set, black and white or color.” After Pong was released and became a huge success, Magnavox sued Nolan Bushnell for ripping off their Tennis game featured on the Odyssey. They also sued Mattel, Activision, Coleco, and Seeburg.
First video game competition – Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics (1972)
Although modern competitive gaming (known as Esports) has become a huge thing now, gamers have been competing ever since video games were created. The first recorded video game competition happened in 1972 during the “Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics,” involving five Stanford students. The winning prize was a subscription to Rolling Stone magazine. Later on, in 1980, over 10,000 participants engaged in a nationwide Space Invaders tournament, giving the world an early glimpse of large-scale competitive gaming.
First 3D first-person shooter – Maze War (1973)
First-person shooters are one of the blockbuster genres in gaming. While its popularity can be traced back to the success of 1993’s Doom – which inspired many copycat games – the concept is actually much older.
In 1973, the game Maze War was released, allowing players to navigate a pseudo-3D environment from a first-person perspective. At the time, its technology was impressive and ahead of its time – it featured gameplay that allowed players to hunt down eyeball-shaped avatars over networked computers. This game was also recognized as the first 3D game ever. Maze War pioneered the concept of an online multiplayer death match that would change the gaming industry forever.
First video game sequel – Pong Doubles (1973)
Like movies, successful video games often have sequels. Nowadays, game sequels are often more successful and better than their predecessors. However, there was a time when sequels just did not exist. Records of the earliest sequels are sparse at best.
It seems that Pong Doubles, released in 1973, was the first sequel. It was a four-player version of the 1972 classic Pong. Interestingly, Pong Doubles was created as a preemptive move by the developers to stay ahead of the competition because they knew there would be a lot of Pong imitators. Notably, it also holds the distinction of being the first four-player video game.
First true color video game – Color Gotcha (1973)
The exact history of the first color video game is somewhat unclear, with contenders like Wimbledon (1974) and Galaxian (1979) in the mix. Many websites and books say that Galaxian was the first because it was the first to make effective use of color. But there were earlier games that used color.
A strong contender is Atari’s Color Gotcha. Released in 1973, it was a limited-run game that was the colored version of the regular old black-and-white Gotcha. Despite a limited production run and potential release date disputes with Wimbledon, Color Gotcha is a noteworthy candidate for the title of the first video game in full color, hitting the scene over a month before the color Pong clone, Wimbledon.
The first arcade game to use a microprocessor – Gun Fight (1975)
Gun Fight is one of the most innovative games ever made. Released in 1975 by Midway Games, Gun Fight was an arcade game that was the first of its kind to use a microprocessor. Back then, games used the traditional “transistor-transistor” logic circuit boards. Gun Fight uses an 8-bit chip and is powered by the Intel 8080 CPU.
What did this do for video games? In a nutshell, using a microprocessor allowed the graphics to be more fluid and continuous, as it was faster and more solid than the old circuit boards.
First video game to feature human vs. human combat – Gun Fight (1975)
We told you, Gun Fight is groundbreaking. Besides being the first video game to work on a microprocessor, it’s also the first game to depict human-to-human combat, as it featured digital cowboys in duels. Though its visuals were simplistic, it paved the way for some of the most successful and, at times, controversial video games. It can also be considered the earliest “violent” video game ever, even without graphic gore. Gun Fight was also the first to use stereo sound and one of the first to incorporate cinematic storytelling elements.
First video game with continuous background music – Space Invaders (1978)
During the 70s, video game music was usually monophonic, looped, or sparingly used – typically only between stages or at the start of a new game. It wasn’t because of a lack of creativity but due to memory constraints.
The first game to use a continuous background soundtrack was Space Invaders, a popular game released in 1978. This game was so popular that it claimed arcades as “Spacies.” The game was dynamic and interacted with the players, and the pace increased as the enemies descended on the player. This early experiment of using interactive, continuous music for games proved that music truly enhances the overall gaming experience.
First handheld video game – Auto Race (1976)
In the ’70s and ’80s, kids were used to playing games in the arcade before handheld video games became widespread when Nintendo released the GameBoy in 1989. But the idea of gaming on the go is older than that – it’s almost as old as console gaming itself.
Auto Race, introduced by Mattel in 1976, is generally considered the first handheld electronic video game. The game was very successful, and it led to the creation of a slew of more titles for the company, including the more famous Mattel Football.
Though the graphics of the game consisted of little more than lines and dots, the concept quickly became popular to inspire a wave of imitators. It became an inspiration for many future handheld consoles, including the more popular GameBoy.
First online game – MUD1 (1978)
Nowadays, online games are more accessible than console-based games because you can play online games with your existing tech, like your PC or mobile phone.
The history of online gaming dates back to the early days of packet-based computer networking in the ’70s. While the clear answer to “What is the first online game?” is muddy, one early example of an online game is MUDs (which stands for Multi-User Dungeon), including the first one: the MUD1. It was a text-based online RPG created by Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle in 1978. It was the precursor to modern online RPGs that followed.
First 3D game for home use – 3D Monster Maze (1981)
While Maze War was the first ever 3D game (while its graphics were simple, it was the first to create a 3D environment in a slew of 2D games), the first-ever commercial 3D video game was Battlezone, which was a classic tank game released in 1980 by Atari.
But the game changer was the ability to play 3D games at home, and it started with 3D Monster Maze. Released in 1981, the survival horror game was developed by Malcolm Evans for the Sinclair ZX81 platform with 16 KB memory expansion. It immersed players in a 3D experience, challenging them to navigate a randomly generated maze without being caught by a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
First female video game protagonist – Billie Sue from Wabbit and Ms. Pacman (1982)
Since then, the majority of game developers and arcade players are males. Video games were generally more marketable for boys, so developers tried to add female characters to get girls into arcade gaming.
In 1982, Wabbit for the Atari 2600 broke new ground by featuring the first named and playable female character, Billie Sue. Wabbit is also reported to be the first console game with a named playable female character who isn’t off-screen. Her goal is to defend crops from rabbits. Interestingly, this is also an early example of a game designed by a woman, a Vietnamese programmer, Van Mai (then Van Tran). Unfortunately, because her name was mistaken as Ban Tran for quite some time, her contributions to the gaming industry were nearly forgotten. Fortunately, diligent researchers helped restore her and Billie Sue’s rightful place in gaming history.
That same year, another female character takes the lead in a game, and that’s Ms. Pac-Man from the arcade game of the same name. Ms. Pac-Man is generally accepted as the first famous female protagonist in the history of video games. The game brought a large female fanbase for the Pac-Man franchise and arcade gaming in general.
First console-based RPG – Dragonstomper (1982)
RPGs (role-playing games) are such a hit because they take you to a whole new world, allowing players to escape real life for a while to immerse in a fantasy land. The first ever RPG on a console was Dragonstomper for the Atari 2600.
Released in 1982, this game was the first RPG of its kind, where players embark on an adventure as a dragon hunter ordered by a king to find a dragon and recover a coveted amulet. The game features quests, item collection, random battles, and chances to increase player’s stats. While the story is particularly clichéd, the game inspired legions of imitators, like the popular Dragon Quest.
First 8-bit game console – Nintendo Entertainment System (1983)
The term “bit” in a gaming machine refers to the speed of its microprocessor. An 8-bit processor can access 8 bits of data in a single operation, while a 16-bit processor can access 16 bits of data, and so on. The advancement in” bits” in the video game world meant that the graphics and gameplay improved.
The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) stands out as the first successful 8-bit machine, with a staggering 62 million units sold, securing its place as Nintendo’s top-selling system.
Concurrently, the Atari ST and the Commodore Amiga were also launched at the same time as the NES, marking the beginning of the 16-bit era of video gaming.
First video game to sell more than 10 million copies – Super Mario Bros. (1985)
It’s not surprising that this title goes to one of the most legendary games in history: Super Mario Bros. on the NES. This iconic game has sold more than 40 million copies worldwide. Mario, a beloved Nintendo character, has appeared in more than 200 video games. Also, the Mario game franchise was the first to sell more than 100 million copies globally.
First video game to feature blood and gore – Chiller (1986)
Generally, gamers love violent games. These genres of games are a staple in the video game world, with titles like Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty, and Metal Gear Solid being highly popular. The sense of violence and disruption in these games offers gamers the thrill of stepping into the shoes of a character that won’t get in trouble if they break the law.
The first video game of its kind that featured blood and gore was Chiller. Released in 1986 on arcade machines, this shooter game arms players with a light gun and makes them shoot at everything on the screen, including zombies, ghosts, and humans. The graphics included depictions of flesh being torn off in chunks and dismemberment. Notably, Chiller was considered so extreme at the time that it became the only game permanently banned in the UK. In hindsight, the game’s severity is incomparable to the realistic graphic content found in today’s games.
First 16-bit game console – PC Engine/ TurboGrafx-16 (1987)
The 16-bit era of video game consoles began in 1987 when Japan’s NEC Home Electronics released the PC Engine (known as the TurboGrafx-16 in North America). This groundbreaking system was also the first to offer an optional CD module, allowing gamers to play CD-based games. This brought more storage, cost efficiency, and better sound quality to TurboGrafx games.
Remarkably, the console holds the Guinness World Record for being the smallest game console ever made, measuring just 14 cm x 14 cm x 3.8 cm. With a total of 10 million units sold to date, the TurboGrafx-16 left an indelible mark on gaming history.
First 32-bit game console – Amiga CD-32 (1993)
Released in September 1993, the Amiga CD-32 was the first 32-bit system ever, pioneering the 32-bit era of video games. However, it wasn’t widely known because it only sold 100,000 units worldwide. That same year, Panasonic released its first console, the 3DO Interactive Multiplayer, and sold two million units. But since it wasn’t released worldwide until 1994 and came with a steep $700 price tag, the first successful 32-bit console is debatable.
But at the end of the day, we all know what dominated the 32-bit world: the Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation launched in Japan in 1994. The PlayStation, in particular, made history as the first gaming console to surpass 100 million units sold.
First 64-bit game console – Atari Jaguar (1993)
Marketed as the world’s first 64-bit system, the Atari Jaguar was released in November 1993. However, being the first of its kind in a market saturated with 32-bit consoles (and with 16-bit consoles still in stores), it sold only 500,000 units worldwide.
The first 64-bit game console to become a huge hit was the Nintendo 64, which was released in 1996. While it was commonly grouped into the 32-bit era, it was actually a 64-bit (hence the name) and was way ahead of its time.
Meanwhile, the major 128-bit systems include the Nintendo GameCube, Sega Dreamcast, Sony PlayStation 2, and Microsoft Xbox.
First console peripheral – EyeToy for PlayStation 2 (2004)
The EyeToy was the first peripheral that enabled players to play their games using just their bodies, without needing a physical controller. Released in 2004, the EyeToy is basically a camera that uses gesture recognition and computer vision. These cameras were paired with a PlayStation 2 and a handful of games – mainly mini-games that are fun and lighthearted, such as having to scrub a window, swat at ninjas, or conduct fireworks.
While the technology showed great potential, game variety was limited, and the EyeToy did not always recognize what you wanted it to do. Despite its shortcomings, the EyeToy was a cutting-edge invention that marked the start of the next era in interactive entertainment, paving the way for controller-free games.
Exploring the milestones of video game history showcases the industry’s technological leaps. However, making these advancements accessible to a wide audience remains a challenge. What Techniques Are Used to Optimize Game Performance on Low-End Hardware? sheds light on the innovative solutions developers employ to ensure that even the most groundbreaking games can be enjoyed on a variety of devices, democratizing the gaming experience.