Updated: Tuesday, 27 June 2006

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In videogames, as in life, we tend to get things right about a third of the time. There's one decent Sonic game for every two disasters; one out of every three consoles can be considered an unqualified success; the Game Boy remake of Mother 1 + 2 was released in one out of three major territories.

With the same level of scientific accuracy, one can easily say that, out of the thirty years that videogames have acted as a consumer product, there are maybe ten really excellent milestones, spaced out by your 1984s and your 1994s – years maybe we were all better off doing something out-of-doors.

It kind of makes sense, intuitively: you've got the new-hardware years and the innovative-software years, spaced out by years of futzing around with the new hardware introduced a few months back, or copying that amazing new game that was released last summer. We grow enthusiastic, we get bored. Just as we're about to write off videogames forever, we get slapped in the face with a Wii, or a Sega Genesis – and then the magic starts up all over again, allowing us to coast until the next checkpoint.

If we're to go chronologically, our history of delights will look something like this...

Image The Institution
As the saying goes, the player is the ping; the game is the Pong. Today, we use the phrase metaphorically: Pong as the prototypical videogame. In the early '70s, it would have driven Ralph Baer up the wall. In early 1972, Baer was ramping up promotion for the final result of six years of his life – the world's first consumer game console, which he dubbed the Odyssey. The Odyssey had interchangeable game cards, and even a light gun; although analog-based and battery-run, the system was basically the model for all modern game consoles.

That spring, a University of Utah graduate named Nolan Bushnell attended one of the Odyssey's early pre-release demonstrations. Already familiar with (cloning) the earlier Spacewar!, he played Baer's ping-pong game with rapt interest, his mind abuzz with ideas of how to "fix" its gameplay. Soon after, Bushnell was the head of a new company called Atari, testing the waters with its own video ping-pong product. The difference: while the Odyssey's manufacturers, Magnavox, had no clue how to market Baer's system, even going so far as to suggest that it would only operate on Magnavox televisions, Ralph Baer was a master of publicity. Thus, "Pong" became the first generic videogame brand – coining not only a colloquialism; also a trend that we will see repeated throughout this article.

The winner of the first console war? As usual, the consumer. Anyone who went the Magnavox route had hardcore "cred" on his side, and far more variety at hand; whoever picked up Pong had a more polished product and was riding the year's greatest fad.



Check out more Next-Gen.Biz "big features":
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