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The complete history of video games – from Pong to Zelda, here’s how they made their mark (1980’s)

Ted Dabney, Nolan Bushnell, and Allan Alcorn with their Pong cabinet game

So who created the first video game?

 Pong cabinet signed by Pong creator Allan Alcorn

Tracing the origin of video games is difficult since it’s hard to distinguish which game would truly be labeled a “video game”.  As early as the late 1940’s, missile defense systems employed by the United States government and run off of large mainframe computers, resembled a video game in both appearance and internal design.  The device called the Cathode-Ray Tube Amusement Device was patented in 1948 in the United States by Thomas T. Goldsmith, Jr. and Estle Ray Mann.  It was described as “using eight vacuum tubes to simulate a missile firing at a target and contains knobs to adjust the curve and speed of the missile”. 

A couple of years later, Charley Adama created a “bouncing ball” program at MIT.  Although the program was not interactive, it did set the stage for the arrival of video game graphics.  By the late 1950’s university students in various colleges in the United States were using university computers to write rudimental interactive games including popular collegiate hits such as tic-tac-toe and Spacewar.

In 1971, Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney created a coin operated version of Spacewar.  Nutting Associates bought the rights to the game near the end of 1971 and created 1,500 Spacewar machines for sale to the public.  Unfortunately, the Spacewar game required a steep learning curve though and hence was not successful in the market.  Regardless, it did go down in history as the first mass-produced video game offered for commercial sale and its inventors, Bushnell and Dabney, would go on to ignite the fire that set the video game market ablaze.

A video game giant is born

The Sears Tele-Games Atari Pong console, released in 1975.

In retrospect, Bushnell and Dabney were not pleased with the Spacewar licensing agreement they struck with Nutting Associates.  By 1972, they had developed their next video game concept but rather than license it to a third-party vendor, they chose to start their own company – Atari, Inc.  After incorporating Atari, Bushnell developed a tennis-like video game called Pong.  Developed by Atari engineers Harold Lee and Al Alcorn, the game featured a ball that is “served” from the center of the court and as the ball moves towards their side of the court each player must maneuver their paddle to hit the ball back to their opponent.

Bushnell and Alcorn called the game Pong and installed the first Pong machine for a trial run at Andy Capp’s Tavern bar in Sunnyvale, California.  What happened next made Andy Capp’s Tavern the birthplace of the video game industry.

One day within the first week, I got a call in the evening saying the machine stopped playing, and could I come down and fix it cause they got customers that want to play the game,” said Al Alcorn. “So I drove down to Sunnyvale and went to see the machine, opened the coin box up and there was this big fistful of quarters that just gushed out of the machine. We knew we had a real hit on our hands.

Space Invaders screenshot

Atari sold 19,000 commercial Pong machines before imitators quickly jumped on the bandwagon.

In 1975 it was decided Sears would sell Pong under its own specially created Tele-Games label, and production was initially projected at 50,000 units.  This was soon raised to 150,000 for the 1975 Christmas season.  Atari agreed to give Sears exclusive rights for the following year and would continue to make custom Tele-Games versions for any future consoles.  Most home console Pong games purchased during the 1980’s were purchased from Sears.

Space Invaders and Asteroids Ignite Interest in Video Games

Original Space Invaders game

In 1978, the game that would tip the video game craze into full gear was introduced by Taito.  The success of Space Invaders, sold and marketed by Bally Midway in the United States, inspired dozens of video game manufacturers to enter the market.  The game was so successful in Japan that it caused a shortage in 100-yen coins.

Space Invaders was developed by Tomohiro Nishikado, who spent a year designing the game and creating the hardware that would be required to run it.  Because microcomputers in Japan were not powerful enough at the time to perform the complex tasks required to draw the graphics in Space Invaders, Nishikado had to design his own custom hardware platform and development tools for the game.  He designed the hardware using microprocessors from the United States including the Intel 8080 CPU. 

Space Invaders is a two-dimensional fixed shooter game in which the player controls a laser cannon by moving it horizontally across the bottom of the screen firing at descending aliens while avoiding the missiles that the alien invaders occasionally drop.  As more aliens are defeated the alien’s movements and game music both speed up.

During development Nishikado discovered that the fewer objects on the screen, the faster the game play ran.  He decided to keep this as a gameplay feature with the result being an increasing faster, and difficult, game experience the closer the player gets to clearing the board of enemy space invaders.

Asteroids video game 1979

Taito produced 100,000 Space Invaders arcade game machines over the next few years.  60,000 Space Invaders machines were sold in the United States with Wal-Mart being one of the first retailers to allow placement of the game in their storefront area.

Asteroids, by Atari, followed in 1979 and became one of the most popular games of the “Golden Age” of video games.  Using a two-dimensional display as with Space Invaders, the game presents an Asteroid field that is periodically traversed by flying saucers. The object of the game is to shoot and destroy asteroids and flying saucers while not colliding with either.  Asteroids soon became Atari’s bestselling game of all time.

Color Games and Pac-Man Arrive

Pac-Man screenshot

By 1980, during the height of popularity of Space Invaders and Asteroids, the first color versions of video games arrived and Pac-Man, also sold by Midway in the United States, was introduced.  Pac-Man became a social phenomenon that inspired an animated television series and a top-ten hit music single. Pac-Man is credited with being a landmark in video game history and is among the most famous arcade games of all time.

Pac-Man was developed over the course of a year by the Japanese company, Namco. “When they were making the Pac-Man, the guy who was leading the project took his team to lunch,” said Steven L. Kent, Author of Ultimate History of Video Games. “They went for pizza in Tokyo. And somebody had taken the first slice of pizza. And then he looked down, and there was Pac-Man staring up at him.”

Pac-Man was originally to be named Puck Man.  Puck Man was picked up for manufacturing by Bally Midway for the North American market.  Feeling that vandals would change the “P” in Puck Man to an “F”, they decided to rename the game Pac-Man.

Pac-Man arcade cabinet game

The introduction and prevalence of Pac-Man also introduced game players to the concept of “bugs” in games.  Pac-Man supposedly has no ending – as long as the player keeps at least one life he should be able to continue playing indefinitely.  However, it was soon discovered that this was rendered impossible by a bug in the game.  Normally, no more than seven fruits are displayed on the side of the screen at any one time, but when the internal level counter reaches 244, the program behind Pac-Man causes this value to roll over to zero before drawing the fruit.  This causes the programming routine to attempt to draw 256 fruits which corrupts the bottom and whole right-hand side of the screen with seemingly random drawing of symbols, letters, and numbers.  This made the game unwinnable.  It soon became a test of Pac-Man prowess and Pac-Man players sought to take the game to the “Split-Screen” level.

Pac-Man soon outstripped Asteroids and Space Invaders as the best-selling game of all time.  Suddenly, video games appeared in shopping malls, storefronts, restaurants, and convenience stores.  The video game craze had begun.

Video Games Appear in the Home and in the Hand

Nintendo Family Computer FC or Famicon video game console - world's first video game console

While the video game market started in the home with games such as Pong and worked their way into commercial games rooms, the home video game market also expanded during the 1980’s.  In 1985, the North American video game console market was revived with Nintendo’s release of its 8-bit console, the Famicom, in Japan. An upgraded version was created, known outside Asia as Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).  It was bundled with Super Mario Bros. and instantly became a success.  The NES dominated the North American and the Japanese market until the rise of the next generation of consoles in the early 1990s.

In the new consoles, the gamepad or joypad, took over joysticks, paddles, and keypads as the default game controller included with the system.  The gamepad design of an eight-direction Directional-pad (or D-pad for short) with two or more action buttons became the standard.  The standard remained for decades afterward.

A Nintendo Entertainment System video game console with controller attached.

The Legend of Zelda series made its debut in 1986 with The Legend of Zelda.  In the same year, the Dragon Quest series debuted with Dragon Quest, and has created a phenomenon in Japanese culture ever since.  The next year, the Japanese company Square was struggling, and Hironobu Sakaguchi decided to make his final game, a role-playing game (RPG) modeled after Dragon Quest and titled Final Fantasy. The Final Fantasy series, which would later go on to become the most successful RPG franchise in video game history. 

1987 also saw the birth of the stealth game genre with Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear series’ first game Metal Gear on the MSX2 computer and ported to the NES shortly after.

Before long, Nintendo had a whopping 90 percent share of the video game market.  In 1989, the company’s domination of the industry got even bigger when it introduced its video game equivalent of Sony’s Walkman – the Game Boy.

At the end of the Cold War, a Soviet computer engineer named Alexy Pajitnov created a puzzle game called Tetris.  When the Iron Curtain lifted, Nintendo got its first look at Tetris and started talking rubles.

“And we knew that that could be the killer game on Game Boy, the launch title,” said Howard Lincoln, former chairman of Nintendo of America

Thanks to Tetris, Game Boy became an instant hit, selling thirty-two million units in its first three years.

Popular Video Games that Fueled the 1980’s Video Game Trend

The computer gaming industry experienced growing pains in the early 1980s too, with many honest businesses, such as Electronic Arts, occasionally surviving at least 20 years, alongside fly-by-night operations that cheated the games’ developers. While some early ’80s games were simple clones of existing arcade titles, the relatively low publishing costs for personal computer games allowed for bold, unique games. Thus, video arcade games reached their zenith in the 1980s. The age brought with it many technically innovative and genre-defining games developed and released in the first few years of the decade, including:

Photo taken of a computer screen at the start of 1980 text-adventure Zork.

Zork (1980) further popularized text adventure games in home computers.  As these early computers often lacked graphical capabilities, text adventures were often the only game types possible on these machines.

Defender (1980) established the scrolling shooter and was the first to have events (e.g., enemy movement) taking place outside the player’s view. A radar was displayed showing a map of the whole playfield.

Pac-Man (1980) was the first game to achieve widespread popularity in mainstream culture and the first game character to be popular in his own right.

Battlezone (1980) used wireframe vector graphics to create the first true three-dimensional game world featuring tanks battling against each other while avoiding three-dimensional polygon objects.

Donkey Kong (1981), an arcade game created by Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto, was the first game that allowed players to jump over obstacles and across gaps  This game also introduced Mario, who became an icon of the genre.

Turbo (1981), by Sega, was the first racing game with a third-person perspective, rear-view format.

Pole Position (1982), by Namco, used sprite-based, pseudo-3D graphics when it refined the “rear-view racer format” where the player’s view is behind and above the vehicle, looking forward along the road with the horizon in sight.

Moon Patrol (1982) introduced the parallax scrolling technique in computer graphics.

Dragon’s Lair (1983) was the first Laserdisc video game, and introduced full-motion video to video games.

Mario Bros. (1983), developed by Shigeru Miyamoto, offered two-player simultaneous cooperative play and laid the groundwork for two-player cooperative players.

Mario Bros. 1983 Nintendo screenshot

King’s Quest (1984) was created by Sierra, laying the groundwork for the modern adventure game.  It featured color graphics and a third-person perspective.  An on-screen player character could be moved behind and in front of objects on a 2D background drawn in perspective, creating the illusion of pseudo-3D space.  Commands were still entered via text.

Kung-Fu Master (1984), a Hong Kong cinema-inspired action game, laid the foundations for scrolling beat ’em ups with its simple gameplay and multiple combatant enemies.

Dragon Quest (1986), developed by Yuji Horii, was one of the earliest console role-playing games.  It spawned the Dragon Quest franchise and served as the blueprint for the emerging console RPG genre, inspiring the likes of Sega’s Phantasy Star (1987) and Squaresoft’s Final Fantasy (1987), which spawned its own successful Final Fantasy franchise and introduced the side-view turn-based battle system, with the player characters on the right and the enemies on the left, imitated by numerous later RPGs.

Metroid (1986) was the earliest game to fuse platform game fundamentals with elements of action-adventure games.

Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (1987) and Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest (1987) are two other early examples of platform-adventure games.

Street Fighter (1987), developed by Capcom, introduced the use of special moves that could only be discovered by experimenting with the game controls.

Metal Gear (1987), developed by Hideo Kojima, was the first stealth game in an action-adventure framework, and became the first commercially successful stealth game, spawning the Metal Gear series.

Image Credits

In-Article Image Credits

Photo taken of a computer screen at the start of 1980 text-adventure Zork. via Wikipedia Commons by Marcin Wichary with usage type - Creative Commons License. This image was originally posted to Flickr by Marcin Wichary at (archive). It was reviewed on 22 April 2019 by FlickreviewR 2 and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-2.0.
Nintendo Family Computer FC or Famicon video game console - world's first video game console via Wikipedia Commons by Evan-Amos with usage type - Public Domain
A Nintendo Entertainment System video game console with controller attached. via Wikipedia Commons by Evan-Amos with usage type - Public Domain
Asteroids video game 1979 via Wikipedia Commons with usage type - Creative Commons License
Space Invaders screenshot via ResearchGate with usage type - Editorial use (Fair Use). Analyzing Game Controversies: A Historical Approach to Moral Panics and Digital Games - Scientific Figure on ResearchGate. Available from: [accessed 15 Aug, 2022]
Original Space Invaders game via Wikipedia Commons by Coentor with usage type - Creative Commons License
Ted Dabney, Nolan Bushnell, and Allan Alcorn with their Pong cabinet game via Standford University with usage type - Editorial use (Fair Use)
The Sears Tele-Games Atari Pong console, released in 1975. via Wikipedia Commons by Evan-Amos with usage type - Creative Commons License. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Pong cabinet signed by Pong creator Allan Alcorn via Wikipedia by Chris Rand with usage type - Creative Commons License

Featured Image Credit

Ted Dabney, Nolan Bushnell, and Allan Alcorn with their Pong cabinet game via Standford University with usage type - Editorial use (Fair Use)


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