Tuesday, 25 October 2011

A History Of Computer Games, Part Two - The 80's and The North American Video Game Crash of 1983

The 1980's for the video games industry was all over the place, a decade of trials and tribulations, success and failures.

On the back of the PC revolution, the video games industry was about to get into full swing, a rapid growth of technology and more powerful computer systems meant we seen one of, if not the biggest developments in the industry, the transition of video games from arcades and into homes.

From very early on in the 1980's we begin to see the introduction of some of the most iconic games in gaming history. Pac-Man in 1980, Donkey Kong in 81 and Mario Bros in 1983 are just a few. But in 1983 came the North American Video Game Crash, almost destroying the then fledging industry. Too many poorly made games and a massive choice of systems to choose from, a media frenzy.

With the shift from arcades into homes we began to see the very first 'game ports'. Unfortunately many of these ports were, as I've stated, of a poor quality and were widely criticised. Pac-Man is one of the most successful arcade games of all time, and one of the most recognizable video game characters of all time. After its release in the US in 1980, Atari obtained the license to port the game to its Atari 2600 home console. When Atari did this, there were around 10 million Atari consoles in households across the US, but, with this figure, Atari decided to manufacture 12 million copies of the game, with expectations that the game would increase sales of the 2600. Atari were too confident, and published a prototype port of the game not to miss that years holiday season. The quality of the games was so bad on the Atari 2600, many consumers asked for refunds. The game barley resembled its arcade counter part and Atari incurred huge financial losses from around 5 million unsold game cartridges.

Above; Pac-Man arcade vs the Atari 2600 version

Another disaster was E.T. After the film was released it was quickly licensed to become a video game. Head of Warner Communications, owner of Atari, told the CEO of Atari, Ray Kassar, that he wanted the game out by Christmas (6 weeks). Clearly Atari hadn't learnt from their mistakes, Kassar said, “We had literally six weeks to produce a brand new game, manufacture it, package it and market it. It was a disaster. I mean, the programmers hated it. Nobody liked the game”. It is still to this day considered one of the worst video games of all time. Almost all of the 5 million copies were returned to Atari, and, by the end of 1983 Atari had lost nearly $536 million.

There was an overwhelming amount of poorly produced games appearing at this time and video games were rapidly loosing value. Another reason, as I have suggested, for the crash is too many consoles. Today we have three home consoles to choose from, Xbox360, Wii and PS3, were as in the early 80's there were literally dozens of consoles competing against each other. With a huge amount of confusion sparked by the diversity of consoles available there was a loss of publishing control. Today all games for consoles are controlled by the console manufacture, but in the early 80's there was a loss of control and there was a boom in third party games being developed, the market became flooded and it was more bad news for the industry.

The last contributor to the crash was the computer. By the early 80's home computers had significantly dropped in price, they offered superior graphics and sound as well as other uses such as word processing. Many consumers felt that a computer was a much more sensible and practical investment than a console.

In 1983 the industry came to a sudden halt, lasting for two years. But why don’t most people know about the video game crash of 83? Well, the crash was primarily bad for the industry not the consumers, who were treated to an array of, all be it poor, but cheap video games.

The crash had some long lasting affects, starting with the NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) released in 1985, new measures were taken to control third party development with the 'lock-out chip' built into the system, as well as some of the best and most memorable games ever including Metal Gear in 87, The Legend Of Zelda and Final Fantasy. The most important change for me however was the shift of the video game market from the US to Japan, and even today Japan has the majority control over the home video games console market.

Sadly Atari never recovered from the crash, but from 85 onwards the industry as a whole began to recover after the release of the NES. Towards the end of the decade Nintendo had released the first ever portable games console, my first console, the original Gameboy and the world was introduced to 16-bit technology with the release of the Megadrive from Sega.

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