28 April 2010

Video games birth - 2/2

This article is the second part of the origins of video games. Here, I detail the 1965 - 1977 period relatively to arcade, console and mainframe video games. Many more games than those I mention have been published in this period. However, I try to mention only the ones I find the most interesting and innovative in each of the arcade, console and mainframe video game fields.

Arcade video games

The first arcade games were coin-operated. Arcade controllers were very similar to the 1960's controllers: each player had a knob and a few buttons.

Galaxy Game was released in 1971. I could not find any screenshot or video of it. Computer Space was released two months after Galaxy Game in 1971. The video of the game shows how similar it was to Spacewar! from 1961. Both Galaxy Game and Computer Space were 2D space shooters. In 10 years, not much had evolved, but the shmup genre was certainly defined. I think the Cold War space race context influenced a lot the design of video games. Anyway, Pong was published by Atari in 1972. The video game sport genre began.

Gun Fight was published in 1975. Each of the two players controls a cowboy and shoots at the other. Unlike Spacewar! or the other shmups, bullets are limited in number and bounce against the screen. I could find a few screenshots of Gran Trak 10, the first racing game released in 1974. Gran Trak used ROM to store the game data. People played versus an AI. The player could use a steering wheel, two foot pedals, a gear shifter and a knob. Sprint 2 was a racing game published in 1976. This arcade game added two AI cars and more diverse tracks, but the controller stayed the same as Gran Trak 10. Night Driver, a racing arcade game released in 1976, was the first game to show the world in a first-person view. As seen at the end of this video, the speed of the car increases gradually to make the game more difficult for the player.

Breakout was released in May 1976. You can see the video of its port to the VCS 2600. In the original gameplay, orange blocks speed the ball. Each level increases the speed of the ball and the difficulty of the game.

Home consoles

Before 1977, many home consoles embedded the games inside the hardware - few consoles used ROM cartridge. So it makes sense to analyze the consoles as a whole. I found many information about first-gen consoles in this article.

Magnavox Odissey was the first home console. It was released in 1972 and did not use cartridge (the 1978 upgrade of Odissey has cartridges). Odyssey 200 was a 1975 upgrade of the original Odissey console. It contained three built-in variations of Pong.

Pong was ported from arcade to home in 1975 in the "Atari Pong" home console. This console had the game built-in (there was no cartridge). It took a year for Atari to find a retailer interested in funding the fabrication of the home console. Pong was nevertheless a success on Christmas 1975. In June 1976, Magnavox filed a lawsuit against Atari for patent infringement. Like the Pong console, the APF TV Fun released in 1976 had a monaural sound channel. Like Pong, the APF TV Fun had two knobs and several buttons. Four games were built-in: tennis, hockey, squash and single handball.

The Coleco Telstar was a first-gen console series starting in 1976. Its games were built-in Pong variants (hockey, handball, tennis and Basque Pelota) as well as Pinball games. Some 1978 upgrades had sound and games in color. One of the Telstar upgrades had text in French and English for the Canadian market.
The Color TV Game was a series of Nintendo consoles released in Japan only. Although second-generation consoles started to appear in the US around 1977, I think the Japanese market was at that time out of American console makers' reach. The CTG15 had the first controllers linked by a cable to the console, making the play experience more enjoyable. Games were built-in. Some were based on Atari's successes such as Pong or Breakout, but there was also a racing game.


There are several Mainframe games mentioned at wikipedia. I am sure some games are missing or have been forgotten since the 1970's. The mouse had been invented in 1963 and the ball mouse in 1972. Hence players could already use a mouse and a keyboard to play mainframe games on terminals.
These slides from Pamela Fox provided a lot of information (and screenshots).


PDP-10 games nearly always relied on text-based UI for the input and output. Sometimes, the possible player actions or game feedback were printed (on paper, at 10 or 30 characters per second). Lunar Lander appeared in 1969 (on PDP-8). It was apparently textual (I could not find any screenshot) and was ported to a graphic terminal of PDP-10 in 1973. The company who made the graphic terminal commissioned the game to be written in 1973 as a demonstration of the capabilities of the terminal. The user input was taken from a light pen. Starting in 1971, Don Daglow wrote several games during his college years. Baseball was coded in 1971. No screenshots or videos were found. Then Star Trek in 1972 and Dungeon in 1975. Dungeon was the first RPG and it was multiplayer. Colossal Cave Adventure (or simply, Adventure) was an adventure game created in 1976. The game shows both recreational and educative elements.


The TUTOR language was introduced in 1967 for PLATO III. TUTOR made it possible to code PLATO games. The third slide of How College Students Influenced Gaming shows a quite exhaustive timeline of the PLATO games. Users had only a keyboard - no mouse - to interact with a PLATO terminal.

pedit5 was coded in 1974. It was the first dungeon crawler game and it was using some of the Dungeon and Dragon rules. The name of the game, pedit5, was deliberately misleading in order to hide it from administrators who had forbidden them. Following the same naming strategy, another dungeon crawler called m199h was coded in 1974 (and deleted). dnd was allowed to stay on the PLATO mainframe by system administrators in 1975. Before that, at least 7 major versions of dnd [...] were deleted from the PLATO system for being illicit games on computer system designed solely for education. In dnd players could buy items from vendors and face the first boss monster of video games (a dragon).

Empire appeared in 1973. The game was accepted by mainframe administrators because it was part of a class work. Up to 30 players could play the same game of Empire "online". It has been upgraded regularly until 1980. The game looks a lot like Spacewar! - spaceships attacking each other. Nevertheless, the game mechanics were more complex as teams could use spaceships with different characteristics ("strong but slow" versus "weak but fast"), and spaceships had two different weapons on-board.

Spasim was a 32-player 3D networked space shooter coded in 1974 and inspired by Star-Trek (and previously mentioned PLATO game Empire). In Panther (1975) players were driving tanks. The terrain in Panther was generated randomly.

Other mainframes

Several other important games were released on other mainframes than PDP-10 and PLATO. Highnoon was written in BASIC in 1970. You can play its emulation. Hunt the Wumpus was coded in 1972 also in BASIC. It was a text-based maze adventure game. Later implementations had graphics (see this video) but the first version of the game was totally textual. Maze War was done in 1974. Two players (connected by an Ethernet cable) wandered in a 3D maze and tried to shoot at each other. It was the first FPS (see the gameplay on a Xerox machine). The Oregon trail was released in 1974 as well. The goal of the game was to teach children about the 19th century pioneer life. In fact, the gameplay is mostly about resource management.

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