Defining The Generations Of Videogaming

The Atari Pong system1. The Pong Generation (early to late 1970s) -- which brought forth the introduction of videogaming in general to the American public, both in the arcade and in the home.  Ralph Baer's experiments with broadcasting images from a computer board to a television became successful enough to be used in the first videogame system produced for the home market, the Magnavox Odyssey, which used plastic screen overlays to supplement the rather crude graphics of the system's built-in games.  Nolan Bushnell used the technology to develop the first arcade-based videogames, Computer Space and Pong.  The first game Computer Space became a flop because it was too advanced of a game for its time, but its follow-up Pong became such a sensation that it inspired other similar games like Breakout and Circus by Exidy.  The company Atari was born from the success of Pong, and eventually other companies would be birthed either from out of nowhere or from the existing manufacturers of pinball games, such as Bally's Midway, to develop other arcade games.  Self-contained game systems that played variations of Pong and other sorts of games that emerged in this generation would flood the market by the mid-1970s.

The Atari 2600 Video Computer System2. The Atari Generation Part I (late 1970s to early 1980s) -- came about with the introduction of both the Atari 2600 Video Computer System and Taito's arcade game Space Invaders, both of which redefined video games in their own ways.  The Atari 2600 would introduce and popularize the concept of game systems that would use interchangeable game programs contained in cartridges, while Space Invaders brought forth a much more modernized concept of gaming such as increasing challenge with each new screen to conquer in addition to having only a few lives to play a game with.  These changes would inspire a new generation of both arcade games and videogame systems that would explore the possibilities inherent thereof.  Atari's Asteroids would use a different kind of video technology as it would present a different kind of space game taking place in a zero-gravity setting, allowing for more freedom of movement than Taito's Space Invaders.  Namco's Pac-Man would introduce the "mascot game" where a familiar face would become a flagship character associated with its parent company (Midway for the American audiences) as it would spawn multiple sequels featuring variations of both its character and its gameplay.

The marketing of videogame systems that would play different games through interchangeable cartridges would actively target specific kinds of gaming audiences in this time period, with the Atari 2600 as the "arcade-action" player's kind of system and the Intellivision having George Plimpton shilling its strengths as a sports-playing game system.  The fact that both Atari and Mattel would use licensed properties behind both their series of games would help attract the kind of consumers that they were aiming for in the first place.

Personal computers at this point were in their infancy, but companies such as Atari, Apple, Commodore, IBM, and Tandy were in the process of developing such for home use.  The British-based Sinclair Technologies would bring forth the Sinclair ZX81 (the Timex/Sinclair 1000) that would be the first truly-affordable personal computer system that could be had for less than $200.

Handheld electronic games began to crop up in this generation, with Coleco and Mattel's adaptations of sports games being the most popular.  Milton Bradley released the first programmable handheld system, the MicroVision, in 1979.

By the tail end of this age, third-party software support for videogame systems would emerge as Activision and Imagic began making cartridges for the Atari 2600 and Intellivision outside the control of the parent hardware companies behind the systems, much to the chagrin of Atari who took Activision to court over publishing games in such a fashion and lost the case.  Also birthed in the formation of Activision and Imagic was celebrity recognition of programmers who developed the games in the first place; although nowadays game programs would require a whole software design firm of programmers, sound engineers, graphic designers, and what-not in order to develop a single game from conception to finished product, there would still be figureheads such as Shigeru Miaymoto of Nintendo and John Romero of Doom and Quake fame (and also of the infamous Daikatana) who would be recognizable as individual stars behind the games.

On that same note, the "Easter egg" (the hidden trick embedded in the game that would hide an interesting surprise for the die-hard gamer to discover) made its first appearance in this generation through Atari programmer Warren Robinnett hiding his name in a special room in the Atari 2600 game Adventure.  Eventually gamers discovered how this "Easter egg" was found and spread its news to all other gamers.  Atari eventually allowed its programmers to embed "Easter eggs" in their games.  From there on, other kinds of "Easter eggs" would appear in all sorts of games, allowing for all sorts of other tricks, including those that could alter the gameplay.  One of the most famous is the "Konami code" that would appear in various Nintendo system games released by Konami.

The ColecoVision3. The Atari Generation Part II (early 1980s to 1984) -- was a short-lived period that saw a technological maturation in the home videogaming arena where companies such as Coleco and Atari offered game systems that would bring arcade-quality gaming home in the form of the ColecoVision and the Atari 5200, respectively.  Also in that period came "multi-platform publishing" of games across various game systems and personal computers, even from companies that sold competing hardware for the software.

Personal computers would become an increasingly viable alternative to buying videogame systems as companies such as Atari, Commodore, Texas Instruments, and Tandy would market them as "must-haves" for families who would want computers for doing everything useful in the household in addition to playing games.  Game companies would also try to offer upgrades to their systems that would allow owners to turn their game consoles into personal computers, such as Coleco's Adam and Mattel's Entertainment Computer System for the Intellivision.

Backwards compatibility would have its birth in this generation, with Coleco, Atari, and Mattel selling adapters for playing Atari 2600 games on other systems, and Atari developing its Atari 7800 Pro System which would allow its 2600 games to play on that system without an adapter.

Videogames at this point have entered the mainstream: with videogame magazines such as Electronic Games publishing monthly information about the hobby and industry in general; with comicbooks such as Atari Force by DC Comics; with movies such as Tron, WarGames, and The Last Starfighter as well as games based on movies such as Star Wars and Raiders Of The Lost Ark; with cartoon shows featuring game characters from Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Q-Bert, and Pitfall!; with "Pac-Man Fever" by Buckner & Garcia becoming a Top 40 pop music hit; and last but not least, with all sorts of merchandising that would make a dedicated fan's home or room into a shrine of worship.

Coleco, Tomy, Entex, Mattel, Tiger, and Nintendo would be the most prolific among companies that produced handheld and portable games based on existing arcade games during this generation, with Coleco pulling out all the stops in making their adaptations mimic the very look of the machines that the original games had played in.  Entex would release the short-lived and not-well-supported portable programmable system called the Adventure System that would play four different arcade-action games, while GCE through Milton Bradley would deliver Vectrex, which used "vector-scan" graphics and would end up being the most highly sought-after system long after its short market run.

The arcades got a new form of videogame technology in the form of laserdisks that would be used for the first stream of full-motion video games released in the arcades such as Dragon's Lair, Astron Belt, and M.A.C.H. 3.  While this would entertain the masses for some time, they would also be subject to problems that not only rendered them inoperable, but would in the end cause few arcade game companies and operators to have anymore faith in them.

The Apple Macintosh4. The Crash (1984 to 1985) -- was the short period between the Atari Generation Part II and the Nintendo Generation when the American home gaming market fell to pieces.  Lost profits from a glut of games with no quality control present was one of the primary reasons for this to happen, although another was that the American public simply saw videogames as a passing fad and that time period being a transitioning phase to embrace personal computers.  Companies that once dealt in videogames and game consoles either went out of business or shifted their marketing strategies toward personal computer hardware and software.  Even computer companies with their respective personal computer systems were dying off, leaving only Atari, Apple, Commodore, IBM, and Tandy as active players.  The Apple Macintosh, the Commodore Amiga, and the Atari ST would emerge in those troublesome times as the computers that would set the stage for those that would follow in the coming generations.

The Nintendo Entertainment System5. The Nintendo Generation (1985 to late 1980s) -- saw what could be termed "The Great Videogame Revival" as two arcade game manufacturers, Nintendo and Sega, brought the hobby and industry back to life in America with the NES and Sega Master System.  The systems and the games that eventually were made for them would help prove to America that videogaming was more than a fad or a transitional stage to using computers; it was a way of life.  Just as merchandising related to videogames of the early 1980s erupted back then, with prominent characters such as Pac-Man and Donkey Kong being primary cash cows in that regard, similar merchandising would revolve around games made for the NES and characters like Mario and Legend Of Zelda's Link.  Books and magazines would again be written about videogames of this new generation.  Movies like The Wizard would again spread the message of the joys of videogaming, which would lead into the 1990s glut of movies based on videogame titles such as Super Mario Bros. and Mortal Kombat.

However, unlike the Atari Generations, Nintendo and Sega got smart about how they wanted third-party software support for their systems.  Nintendo pioneered the use of a third-party licensing system that would help stem the control of the amount and quality of games being released for their NES.  They even went so far as to put a lockout chip in their system to prevent "unauthorized games" from running on it, although it didn't stop ingenious programmers from companies such as Tengen and Color Dreams from "reverse-engineering" the NES to find a way to circumvent this protection. Sega, on the other hand, simply forbade third-party companies from releasing games under their own labels, instead choosing to have them be released under the Sega banner.  However, Nintendo's licensing system put such a strangehold as far as doing cross-ports of games that would appear on other systems in addition to the NES until the early 1990s.

Consumers themselves got smart about how they purchased their games, through the emerging market of videogame rentals that appeared in the also-emerging market of video cassette movie rental places in the late 1980s.  This "try before you buy" strategy, which started off with NES games in this generation, would enable even budget-minded game system owners to enjoy all that's being offered by game developers and manufacturers without making such a heavy commitment to own the game first.  Some games even ended up being available as "rental-only" exclusives.

The arcades, meanwhile, would progress further using 16-bit technology in their games.  The fighting games that had their infancy in The Crash would later inspire this generation's games such as Double Dragon and the next generation's Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat.

IBM PC clones would infiltrate the market at this point, yet those who would use them would have to deal with the rather ridiculous DOS system in order to run games and other kinds of software on them.  Alternate operating systems would be in the works, though it would be years before Microsoft's answer to Apple Macintosh's point-and-click user interface, Windows, would surface in a form and with a functionality similar to that of its inspiration.

The Sega Genesis 2 with Sega CD 26. The 16-Bit Generation (late 1980s to mid-1990s) -- got its start with Sega jumping the gun ahead of Nintendo through the release of the Genesis system two years before the Super NES, and through NEC making its attempt to break into the market with its TurboGrafx-16.  All three of these systems would show forward-thinking progress with graphics and sound capabilities that surpassed what the previous generation of game systems could come up with, while only two of them, the Genesis and the TurboGrafx-16, would go further by introducing CD-ROM attachments that would bolster the amount of memory the system could read in order to create bigger and (hopefully) longer-playing games.  Unfortunately, they would end up being mostly used for full-motion video games that, for one, are not suited for the technology of the time and, for another, would wind being just as repetitive to play and less interactive as their predecessors in the arcade nearly a decade ago.

Programmable handheld gaming took off big time in the 16-Bit Generation, with the Nintendo Gameboy system and the Atari Lynx being its pioneers, offering in miniature what the home systems and arcades had offered with similar quality.  Sega and NEC would join in with their entries into this market, the Game Gear and the TurboExpress.

Polygon-driven graphic technology that would become the main staple of videogame systems to come would have its infancy in the 16-Bit Generation.  On game systems, Nintendo brought forth Starfox for the Super NES.  In the arcades, Atari Games gave us Hard Drivin', and Sega would deliver Virtua Racing and Virtua Fighter.  On computers, id Software would produce Doom, an updated version of Wolfenstein 3D.

Atari, the former giant of home gaming, would have its last attempt of recapturing its share of the market that they lost to Nintendo and Sega with its purportedly 64-bit Jaguar system.

The short-lived "multimedia entertainment system" craze would be part of this generation when systems that were dubbed such, like the Panasonic/Goldstar 3DO, the Commodore CDTV, and the Philips CD-i, would make the attempt of offering devices that would do everything short of being like a personal computer yet would also play games.  Unfortunately, very few people bought into this idea, industry giants and consumers alike; part of the reason was that it was an idea years ahead of its time (the DVD technology for playing movies off disks no bigger than CDs was most likely still in development), yet the primary reason among gamers was that they offered very little in the form of games, and even less that were enjoyable.

The Entertainment Software Ratings Board system would come at the tail end of this generation when concerned parents and congressmen would speak on the issue of graphic violence being realistically portrayed in videogames.  Midway's Mortal Kombat, one of the games that inspired the creation of the ESRB, would see two different kinds of conversions when it was first released on videogame systems by Acclaim: the Super NES version would replace blood spews with sweat and would change half of its finishing moves to be less gruesome to watch, while the Genesis version kept them intact, yet hidden behind a controller-accessible code that must be entered.

The Sony Playstation PSOne7. The Playstation Generation (mid- to late 1990s) -- saw another technological jump, both from using cartridges to using CD-ROMs as the main source of gaming storage, and from flat 2D "sprite" images to 3D-rendered polygons.  Sega and Sony went into this generation with the systems that would use both technologies, the Saturn and the Playstation, while Nintendo balked at the idea of using CD-ROMs due to perceived piracy and instead resorted to cartridges for their Nintendo 64.  Square, the role-playing videogame developer for Nintendo's systems, would end up releasing Final Fantasy VII for the Playstation instead of the Nintendo 64, using that system's strengths to its advantage.  Undaunted by the loss, Nintendo upgraded its long-running Super Mario and Legend Of Zelda game series to being full-fledged 3D adventures while improving on the emerging first-person shooter category with an adaptation of MGM/UA's Goldeneye from the James Bond series of movies.

In this generation came the wonders of game emulation programs that talented programmers would develop, not only for personal computers but also for game systems, that would allow owners of such systems to enjoy yesterday's greatest games from the various systems and computers that they would be played on.  As the videogame industry eventually got its own show called the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) after being part of the Consumer Electronics show for years, classic videogaming would get its own show that would be called Classic Gaming Expo (CGEX) that would not only allow retro-gamers to revisit the glory years of the hobby, but would also showcase new games developed for the older systems as well as never-before-seen prototypes of finished and unfinished games.

The Internet would become increasingly popular for the gaming industry in general as gameware manufacturers would use it not only to show their up-and-coming games but to also let players download demos of those games.  The gaming media would also use the Internet increasingly as well to review the games that consumers would want to buy or avoid.  And gamers would turn to the Internet increasingly for online gaming with their friends.

The Pokemon series of games, birthed from both role-playing videogames of the past and from the Magic: The Gathering card game of the mid-1990s, emerged in this generation to help bolster the sales of the Nintendo Gameboy as the system itself would see the first of several upgrades which include the Gameboy Pocket, the Gameboy Color, and in the generation to come, the Gameboy Advance and the Gameboy Advance SP.

The Microsoft X-Box8. The X-Box Generation (late 1990s to circa 2005) -- saw both graphical improvements in the 3D gaming pioneered by its previous generation and the switch from using CD-ROMs to DVD-ROMs in three of the four game systems that were released: the Dreamcast, the Playstation 2, the X-Box, and the Gamecube.  The systems would also make online gaming, only touched upon by the Super NES and the Genesis through the X-Band modem, much more commonplace.

The self-contained videogame system that was part of the Pong Generation and had died out with the advent of the Atari 2600 made a comeback in this generation, with companies like Jakks Pacific re-releasing Namco arcade games and Atari 2600 games contained within a system no bigger than a game controller.

However, the X-Box Generation would see an exodus of arcade manufacturers leaving the business to focus mostly on home game entertainment.  Atari Games, which became part of Midway at that point, would close its doors forever, and Midway would also say goodbye to the amusement centers that they have been filling games with for years.  What few manufacturers were left to develop arcade games were now struggling to come up with something to keep people interested in using up their pocket change to play.  Dance Dance Revolution by Konami would be the only innovative thing to emerge in the arcades in that generation.

In handheld gaming, Nintendo replaced its Gameboy series of systems with the Nintendo DS series, introducing touch-screen gaming with interchangeable games at affordable prices. Around that same time, Sony made its debut with the Playstation Portable, a sort of miniaturized version of its Playstation 2 console that played games from a small optical disk format. Non-gaming applications through handheld gaming systems would have its start with the short-lived Nokia N-Gage game/phone system and then be followed in the next generation with the Nintendo DSi's web-surfing and picture-taking capabilities. The Apple iPod, which was normally used for playing music and videos, would eventually play games that were offered through Apple's App Store service -- a feature that would carry on with its successors, the iPad Touch, the iPhone, and the iPad.

On personal computers, Maxis' The Sims would become a best-selling game series after Electronic Arts bought the company, making the life simulator game a popular category worthy of emulation. Nintendo's own life simulator game, Animal Crossing, would cross over from the previous generation's Nintendo 64 (which was only available in Japan as Animal Forest) unto the Gamecube, the Nintendo DS, and the next generation's Wii.

The massive multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), which had its start in the Playstation Generation, would become a dominant genre in PC gaming with the releases of Final Fantasy XI, Star Wars Galaxies: An Empire Divided, and World of Warcraft in this generation, and The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar, Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures, and Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning in the following generation. At present, there are two handheld game systems in development that would aim to make this game genre more accessible to the portable gaming crowd.

Digital distribution services for games that would emerge in later generations through Apple, Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, and Google would have its humble beginnings in this generation with Valve, the producers of the Half-Life and Portal series, bringing forth Steam in 2003 to distribute games for the Windows PC users.

The Nintendo
          Wii9. The Wii Generation (circa 2005 to 2012) -- got started with Microsoft releasing its X-Box 360 game system in the fall of 2005, and Sony's Playstation 3 and Nintendo's Wii in late 2006. So far the only known innovations introduced in this newborn generation of videogames is the use of Blu-Ray DVD technology in the Playstation 3, plus HDTV compatibility for the Playstation 3 and X-Box 360, resulting in sharper graphics for gameplay, and the Nintendo Wii's infrared controller that reacts to physical movement of the remote-like controller unit. Internet websurfing capabilities introduced by the fledgling Sega Dreamcast would become a standard feature for all three systems, with downloadable games and additional content for existing games being offered. The marketing of the game systems would eventually be split into the "casual game market" and the "hardcore game market" as the Wii offered games that appealed to a broader base of potential players while the Playstation 3 and X-Box 360 offered games that appealed to the same demographic of gamers as Sony's and Microsoft's previous generation's systems. Due to being in second and third place behind Nintendo in system sales, Sony and Microsoft were also aiming to grab the share of the same market with their motion-sensing control devices such as the Playstation Move and the Kinect for the X-Box 360.

A new trend that emerged near the end of this generation was "crowdfunding" independent developer gaming projects, where money for developing a videogame would come not from a publisher or an investor, but from the people themselves who would be interested in seeing the project come to fruition. One of these "crowdfunded" projects was the release of an online gaming system known as the Ouya.

10. The "Eighth Generation" (2012 to present) -- features again the three big game system manufacturers making successor systems, with the first being Nintendo's Wii U, which not only brings their audiovisual quality of gaming up to Xbox 360 levels, but also offers a unique tablet controller for games that will use it. Sony and Microsoft's systems, the Playstation 4 and the Xbox One, came a year later, pushing the quality of graphics fidelity even further while adding other home entertainment possibilities.

However, all three systems are facing competition from online gaming devices such as the much-touted "Steam Machine" from Valve and the Android-based microconsole systems such as the Ouya and the Amazon Fire TV. It remains to be seen how successful they will be in comparison to the game consoles, the handhelds, and the PC. In the handheld game department, Nintendo brought out the 3DS while Sony brought out the Playstation Vita, both of which are now competing against tablets and smartphones for ownership.


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