July 17, 2009

Video game weekend: a brief history of video games

Since Fridays and Saturdays are low-traffic days, I'm devoting them to lighter material that I know lots of the readers here are interested in -- video games. (Hopefully this will recapture the feeling of being done with school and renting a video game for the weekend.)

They're a huge player in the entertainment industry, yet they haven't been studied very much. At some point, movies became a serious thing to talk about, so why not video games too? And just as the evolution of Hollywood businesses tells us a lot about the cultural products they made, we can learn a lot about the quality of video games by examining the history of this industry's businesses.

I'm in the middle of reading two histories of video games from academic sources, and I'll probably post on that later. But for now, I'll simply re-direct you to a four-part YouTube series by The Gaming Goose:

Part one, part two, part three, and part four.

Most of the info can be found on Wikipedia and a few other sites, but it's a pretty good synthesis, and there's a lot of personal insight from someone who grew up experiencing the birth of video games. Plus, unlike virtually every video game reviewer on YouTube (or elsewhere), he comes across as a normal person, not an autist.

One thing he mentions is that it's nonsense that the improving quality of home console games was what killed off the arcade games -- i.e., that people could now fairly well substitute home for arcade games. That's a point that I've made before by just noting the timing of the rise and fall of arcade game sales, in relation to home console sales. Arcade games started disappearing already in the very late 1980s, years before arcade-quality graphics were available and affordable at home.

He also emphasizes that going to video arcades was a social experience that you can't duplicate by playing people online today. That's true: you're out of your house, probably at a mall or movie theater surrounded by tons of people, and you're interacting face-to-face. There's all sorts of non-verbal stuff that's missed by playing online, such as that look of excited relief that you give each other after you beat what seemed an unbeatable boss. It's a superficial bond that only lasts as long as you're blasting away a common enemy, but that's still closer than the interaction between two random mall-goers.

Also, especially for younger boys, there was the thrill of getting to hang out with the cool older kids -- one of the few places where they would tolerate your presence. Unlike sports, a younger kid can actually fare pretty well against a teenager in video games, so that you could easily prove yourself to them and earn their respect. "Damn, look at that little dude go -- he just smoked your ass!" I don't know that there are many places left now that allow this partial breaking down of the age barrier.

And just for the record, Golden Axe is the best arcade game, just ahead of Ninja Turtles and the Simpsons.


  1. I agree with the Angry Video Game Nerd that it makes no damn sense that they never ported the Simpsons Arcade game to a console (at least one that lots of people owned) and we got Bart vs. the Space Mutants and Bart vs. the World instead.

  2. Seriously. They have like 50,000 ports of old arcade games for just about any console you can think of.

    Surely they could release a lot of the really good ones from the late '80s and early '90s for the new systems.

  3. Get MAME. It's an emulator for old arcade chipsets and runs the actual ROM's on a PC, so you are playing the original game code. You can get actual arcade sticks and switches too. A friend of mine build a full size arcade cabinet that plays a couple of thousand classic arcade games.

  4. I agree that Golden Axe was a great game. The dwarf was the best character by far.

    - Breeze

  5. I didn't play Golden Axe much, but I loved the TMNT Arcade game. That and Killer Instinct. How about Rampage?

  6. Most of the Rampage I played was on the NES -- pretty lackluster. I always looked forward to going to the Ohio State student union when my mother went to campus so I could play the real deal.

    I found a cheap copy of Midway Arcade Treasures for the GameCube ($6), and it has Rampage on it.

  7. I don't know how much kids like dinosaurs these days, but back in the mid to late 80s, I was into them and King Kong, Godzilla, etc. so Rampage was an obvious joy for boys like my brother and me. A little later in the mid 90s, Primal Rage came out, a dinosaur fighting game with buckets of blood that again was very fun to play.

    The only places I frequent now with an arcade are movie theatres. The only good one is usually Ms Pacman. Those old arcade days are long gone.

  8. Agnostic,

    I remember pausing NES rampage overnight, it took so long to conquer the country. The cities were almost indistinguishable, and the beating the game consisted of seeing a flashing map of the US. Lackluster indeed.

    If great arcade games are being thrown around, surely Street Fighter has to be mentioned--as far as the "whoa, he just smoked your ass!" phenomenon goes, it was second-to-none.


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