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The History of Video Games #3: Gaming Comes to the Living Room

Updated: Feb 24, 2021


The Magnavox Odyssey
The Magnavox Odyssey

Hi there evryone, welcome back!


In the last article, we saw how Pong became the first commercially successful video game and ushered in the age of the video arcade. Now we will take a look at how gaming reached people's living rooms.



First Gen



Video games first entered people's homes with the first generation of video game consoles. You would expect these early forays into home gaming to be primitive affairs by today's standards, with simplistic gameplay and primitive graphics and sound. You would, of course, be correct in this, indeed some lacked sound altogether. What you may not expect are some of the fundamental design drawbacks most 1st gen consoles had, choices that would seem thoroughly nonsensical today.


Firstly, most but not all early consoles came with their games 'built-in', and lacked any type of physical media port. These were known as 'dedicated consoles' Since this was pre-internet, there was no way to download digital versions either. Therefore, the game or games which the console shipped with were the only ones it would ever have. The Home Pong console is a perfect example. It shipped in 1975 with Pong built- in, and this was the only game you would ever be able to play on it.



Pong - a 1st Gen console
Pong - a 1st Gen console

Secondly, the controllers of many first-generation consoles were non-detachable and hard-wired to the console itself. This presented many serious problems.

For a start, it was easy to trip over the wires. Anyone who remembers gaming on pre-wireless controllers - such as the original PlayStation DualShock controller - will attest to what a headache this can be. At least the Dual Shock’s cable could be safely unplugged from the body of the console, so tripping over the wire may not have damaged the PlayStation console itself.



The Magnavox Odyssey
The Magnavox Odyssey

Not so with many Gen 1 consoles. With these, the controllers were hardwired to the console itself, so tripping over a cable may damage its connection to the console and render both the console and its controller useless. An internal break of the cable or damage to the controller would do likewise. If the controller, cable or connection could not be repaired the entire console would be permanently out of action. The Magnavox Odyssey above was a good example of this. Perhaps recognising this potential weakness, some 1st Gen consoles, including later iterations in the Magnavox Odyssey series, did away with controllers entirely, instead moving the controls onto the console itself.



The Magnavox Odyssey 200
The Magnavox Odyssey 200

Another, perhaps less obvious, problem is that this stifled developer creativity. Any game developed for such a system had to be based around that system's hardwired controllers, and only those controllers. These shortcomings would be rectified in the next console generation.



Second Gen



The Atari 2600
The Atari 2600

The introduction of the 2nd Generation of consoles was the catalyst that pushed home video gaming into the mainstream. What’s more, it saw the implementation of many novel ideas, innovations which would go on to become common gaming practice in the decades that followed.


By far the most important console of the 2nd generation, both commercially and technologically, was the iconic Atari 2600. Atari were the pioneers of home video gaming, and the Atari 2600 would cement this reputation, becoming the must-have ‘Home video computer system’ (The word ‘console’ had not come into common usage yet). I was fortunate and got my grubby little mitts on one at the tender age of six(ish). Like most children who grew up in the early 1980s, this was my first experience of gaming outside of a video arcade.


The Atari 2600 was primitive by today's standards in terms of graphics, A.I, physics and sound. To put it into perspective, it featured a switch that would turn all the colours monochrome to increase compatibility with black and white TVs - which it would connect to via the RF antenna. However, the Atari boasted several groundbreaking features which put it heads and shoulders above the competition. Most of the features that are standard on almost all gaming consoles today started with the Atari 2600.



Physical Media



The first major advancement was the inclusion of a physical media port. Games for the 2600 came on cartridges, or 'carts' as they were sometimes known. Gamers were no longer restricted to the games built into the console. Now the size of their games collection was limited only by the size of their (or their parent’s) bank balance, and the amount of shelf space they had available to store them on.



Atari 2600 Jr, cartridges, dig dug
The late model lower cost Atari 2600 Jr

Some cartridges contained multiple games on them, which would be accessed via a menu system. Again, this was another first for video gaming, and allowed gamers to rapidly build a library of games to play.



The 'Combat' multi-game cartridge

Another bonus to using carts was that they loaded almost instantly, unlike the cassettes which some later systems would use.


The Atari’s game cartridges often featured highly decorative box art, which helped them to stand out on retailer’s shelves. However, this box art was somewhat deceptive, as the games frequently looked nothing like what the box art suggested.



Space Invaders Box Art Atari 2600
Space Invaders Box Art

The box art suggested this...



…But the game delivered this

Video by World of Longplays



Input Devices



The next major advance was the use of plug-in controllers. Not only was this safer and more economical - a broken joystick can be replaced quite easily after all - it also allowed game developers to create a wider range of games, including brand new genres which would have been impossible before.

For the usual arcade conversions and similar games, there was the iconic Atari one-button joystick. I fondly remember using these to play titles such as Pac-Man, Frogger and Berzerk.



Atari joystick
Atari joystick

We used these...



...to play this...

Video by World of Longplays



The versatility of plug-in controllers kickstarted the 3rd party peripherals market. An example of one such aftermarket controller was the ergonomic Quick Shot joystick, which possessed a top of stick thumb button and a trigger. When using one of these I felt like a fighter pilot.

“Wow!", I thought, "This is just like flying an X-wing!!!" (I was six remember.)

Joysticks such as these could be considered the precursors of modern-day HOTAS systems used in flight sims and space combat sims such as Elite: Dangerous.



Spectravideo Quickshot Joystick 318-102 for the Atari 2600
Spectravideo Quickshot Joystick 318-102 for the Atari 2600

...these...



...to play this...

Video by Highretrogamelord



I should note that although some of these joysticks possessed multiple buttons, they all performed the same function. It was not yet possible to map separate controls to separate buttons. This created the phenomena now known as ‘up-to-jump’, meaning that to jump, one must push ‘up’ on the joystick. (As is still the case in Street Fighter 2). This limitation is something that would be carried over to the 8-bit and 16-bit home computers that would come later.

The ‘paddles’ were an early analogue controller, which were ideally suited to games that required precise but rapid control, such as Breakout and Warlords. Analogue input is something that would sadly disappear from gaming after the Atari 2600 for some time, only reappearing in the late 1990s.



Atari Paddle controller for the Atari 2600
Atari Paddle controller for the Atari 2600

...and these...



...to play this.

Video by FilAm4494



Another input device was the Video Touch Pad controller, essentially a small twelve button plug-in keyboard. This was shipped with the Atari 2600’s killer app, the first- person space combat game ‘Star Raiders’. A joystick would be plugged into one port and the VTP into the other. Although primitive by today’s standards, it worked, and it set the scene for later "space combat sims" such as Freespace 2. These games would go on to improve on this formula, culminating in the HOTAS and keyboard set up we see today.



Atari 2600 Video Touch Pad

We pressed these...



...to play this.

Video by Highretrogamelord



NB - The resemblance some of the enemies have to Cylon Basestars in the video above is not purely coincidental. Allegedly, Star Raiders was originally going to be a licenced Battlestar Galactica game, but the licencing fell through mid-development, when many game assets had already been created. Presumably, the devs did not wish to waste perfectly good assets, and so used them anyway.



Conclusion



The versatility of cartridges and plug-in controllers was a winning combination, which cemented the Atari 2600 as the premier home gaming system for several years, until Atari was brought low by events only a few years later - but more on that in a later article.

This concludes our look at the hardware of the Atari 2600. In the next article in the series "The History of Video Games #4: Gaming on the Atari 2600 and the Great Video Game Crash of 1983" we will investigate the Atari 2600’s software, most important of which were the games gamers played on it.

See you all then.

When did you first experience video games? How old were you? What were the games, and what did you play them on? If it was via coin-op cabinets, where did you find them? If you were there in the early days, has the video game industry evolved similarly to how you expected it would? If not, how does it differ from your expectations? Place your answers, or anything else you would like to comment on, in the comments section below.



Iain is a 40+ author and gamer from England, who started his gaming journey on the Atari 2600 36 years ago. His specialities include obscure cult classics, retro games, mods and fan remakes. He hates all sports games and is allergic to online multiplayer. Since he is British, his body is about 60% tea. He can be reached via Twitter at https://twitter.com/IainBaker17, and contacted via email at the_nomad78@outlook.com

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Picture Credits:


Magnavox Odyessy 300 Image by Evan-Amos - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0


Magnavox Odyssey 200


By Museo de Informática de la República Argentina., user of flickr (https://museodeinformatica.org.ar) - https://www.flickr.com/photos/museodeinformatica/11758266216, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=85056438

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