I was really lucky as a kid to have had access to the three major consoles from the second generation of video games. It’s de rigeur nowadays for people to have access to all of them, but that was decidedly not a common thing back in the day. One big factor behind it was cost: Games have always cost at least $50-60, even in 1982 when that was a hell of a lot more money than now. Anyway, I was super lucky because we owned a Colecovision already, I got an Atari 2600 from my cousin with a bunch of games including E.T. — which I thought was all right at the time (don’t judge me) –, and my other aunt and uncle had an Intellivision. Side note – they had a Pachinko cabinet as well, so I got to essentially play Peggle 30 years before any of you.
Since these systems predate most of you being alive by a decade, I thought it would be kind of fun to give you a little bit of an insider’s perspective on what they were really like. The following systems were the big three which were in direct competition with each other; it was essentially the first ‘console war’. Here are the players in this early 1980s drama:
The Atari 2600
This is a classic console that defined its era. It signified a brave new world while also being a product of the late 70s/early 80s (yes, I’m talking about the wood paneling). As a gaming console, the 2600 was kind of like the Wii of its era. It was extremely popular, everybody had one, and it was clearly the least graphically impressive system out there. To be sure, it had some truly amazing games. Pitfall was Far Cry circa 1981, Yar’s Revenge was a great space shooter that ate up hours of my life pretty much right up to the NES era, and Adventure was the prototype of the open world action game. Beyond the short list of great games, there as a LOT of garbage. Still, they had the market cornered to the extent that people would say ‘play Atari’ as shorthand for ‘play video games’…at least until Nintendo took that crown.
Mattel’s Intellivision also had some similarities to the Wii in that it relied on a unique control scheme that worked quite well for some games, but pretty crappy for just about everything else. The controller was a pressure disk that itself was mostly not used as a controller. Instead, it had a number pad where you could slide in a card that would dictate what your controls were. Man, it was such a ridiculous time back then because there really weren’t any standards – anything went. While innovation has its advantages, the Intellivision’s controller can charitably be put into the ‘misfire’ pile.
One game on this system that was freaking amazing, however, was Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. If Adventure was a prehistoric Skyrim, then AD & D was the DNA of Diablo. The object was to make it across the countryside via randomly generated dungeons, shooting monsters with arrows and collecting pieces of the king’s crown along the way. The list of games from the Intellivision that are still worth playing is very, very short. AD & D however is definitely on it.
This console was a beast back in the early 80s. Back in the day, the arcade version of a game was the benchmark to compare graphics? Well, games on the Colecovision were as close as things got. For example, the 2600 and Intellivision versions of Donkey Kong only had the first two levels featured, but this one had all three (it was a year after that I realized there was a fourth level) and it also looked incredible. In some ways, the Colecovision was like the PS3 of its era. It was expensive, it had games that looked better than just about everything else out there, and it had kind of a limited library at first. The jewel in the crown for this system was Zaxxon – an isometric space shmup that was the first thing I ever played which was even remotely 3D.
Not only do you need to keep track of your fuel (acquired by shooting the green tanks), but also of your height and shadow to gauge narrow areas. Oh, and of course, everything is shooting at you. Considering that most games of this era involved one mechanic, Zaxxon felt almost like a flight sim because of all the things you needed to manage. It’s still an incredibly unique and fun game to play considering its age.
Indeed, this was a golden age of unparalleled creativity and open-mindedness due to the uncharted nature of the industry. It was also the Wild-West in terms of advertising. Author George Plimpton was the spokesperson for the Intellivision, and his commercials consisted of doing straight up graphical comparisons with Atari 2600 games. Watch him drop some science here:
While the pure vitriol of today’s console wars was largely absent back then, console makers had the freedom to openly call each other out well into the SNES/Genesis era. Video games were an instant phenomenon in the early 80s, but the surface flash of them couldn’t last forever. By the time the industry crashed in 1983 there were about 8 or 9 consoles in the marketplace, each with its own game library. Nowadays, the industry is large and multifaceted enough to support multiple home consoles, handheld devices, online markets, and the ever-present PC parallel-universe. Back then, there was no real way for consumers to distinguish one system from another. Consequently, people ended up either purchasing one of the garbage consoles and never coming back or they just shrugged their shoulders at the overwhelming variety and walked away, and the industry crashed so hard that it almost never recovered.
In recent years, we complain about shovelware being pooped out by developers and released on the Wii or the iOS, and also about licensed movie tie-ins that are shoddily and hastily put together for all the systems. While it is certainly a problem, this is not the first time the industry has been down this road. Additionally, there just wasn’t any readily available information about this stuff. While that kind of thing has gotten better over the years, consider; in 2012 there are people who think the WiiU is an add-on for the Wii. With the Internet, multilevel marketing, and decades of video game knowledge becoming part of our collective knowledge, a lot of people STILL don’t have an awareness of the products which are available, much less look at them with a critical eye. On the other hand, at least there are resources available such as Metacritic to act as a bit of a warning shot in the name of quality. It’s not perfect, but at least it’s not George Plimpton.
As much as it’s hard to go back and play emulated versions of these games, I feel truly privileged to have experienced that generation first-hand. As a reviewer of games, those experiences have given me some perspective about how to approach them as more than simply a series of mechanics or prettier graphics than something else. Much like going back and watching Charlie Chaplin movies or even old episodes of Maude, a glimpse at gaming’s past can give you some real perspective about ways the industry has taken great leaps forward…and more importantly the ways it hasn’t. I’ve got a million of these kinds of stories so if you’re interested in reading more about the dawn of console gaming, leave a comment, tell your friends, or heck even throw a tweet our way.