We’re living in a golden age of gaming. Video games started at the arcade with huge cabinets then transformed into something you could do at home. Once they reached the home console phase, video games earned the reputation of being for shut-ins and nerds (which was always unfair and super-weird since everyone liked video games). Over the years, more portable systems have come out to the point where you can game anywhere. It’s increasingly a social activity and the mobile technology of our smartphones and tablets helps us play anywhere. From computers to independent consoles to portable systems, the games we play have a colorful history. It’s fun to look back because while the past seems a different galaxy altogether, there is a fascinating evolution from invention through the current iterations. We’ll take a look at some of the best-selling video games through the years starting this week with the pixelated pioneers of the 1980s.
1982 – Pitfall
I admit that this wasn’t the best-selling game of 1982 – that honor went to another Atari game, Pac-Man, which, with 7,000,000 copies sold, was the best-selling game in history up to that point. Pitfall also wasn’t popular enough to have a related TV show, which Pac-Man did, something I vaguely remember in the dim cartoony recesses of my childhood. (How did it last three seasons? How could there be enough plots? Were we that dumb in the 80s?). I am biased because this was my favorite game growing up but included it on this list because it had a sense of linear progression. You went from left to right as your little indie Indy jumped over alligators, pits, barrels, and whatever else got in his way. Granted, the screen would only change statically but unlike many games before, there was a sense of movement. Your guy moved from one place to another and didn’t just run around a maze or blast aliens as they attacked horizontally in neat little verticals. It helped pave the way for the next behemoth.
1985 – Super Mario Brothers
Mario had already conquered Donkey Kong, but 1985’s Super Mario Brothers was the nuclear explosion that video games needed. A full story, big bads at the end of levels, a screen that moved with you instead of waiting for you. It may have been a little herky-jerky, but there is no one born within 20 years of this date that doesn’t feel a thrill in their heart when they hear the theme song.
1986 – The Legend of Zelda
The Legend of Zelda is what separated amateurs from real gamers. This was the first mainstream quest game where you had to use strategy, solve riddles, find things, move from one area to another and back again. You would go to the same store because you forgot that guy didn’t have what you want – or was that the other place? For those of us who were simple of mind, Zelda could be maddening. It was the forerunner of many of today’s games that reward patience and strategy, and allow things to not happen. It took hyperactivity and slowed it down. Not to say that Zelda didn’t have its great moments for kids, but it was a more mature game and showed that video games didn’t have to lead inexorably to sugary cartoons.
1989 – Tetris
Tetris isn’t one of the best-selling games for a housebound Nintendo console – it has sold less than eight million copies for the original system and similar numbers for later consoles. It was a hit there, but where it really made its impact was on the legendary Gameboy: over 35 million copies sold. Think about how weird this was – it was 1989, and a game replete with Soviet imagery and Kremlin-sounding songs was sweeping the nation, causing a legit phenomenon. That’s because it is so insanely addictive, as we still know. Tetris is also the most downloaded game ever, with over 100 million paid downloads for mobile devices. Pac-Man and Minecraft tied for second at 30 million each, with Angry Birds a distant third with 12 million downloads.
There is a harmonious connection between Tetris for Gameboy and other mobile devices. Tetris might not have been the first game for Gameboy – I remember being frustrated with Double Dragon – but it was what put it on the map. It’s all anyone thinks about when they remember that transitory time. Tetris made the idea of portable games feasible. It brought games to fidgety waiting rooms, long bus rides, and school yards. It brought it into the salon, the boardroom, and the bedroom.
The allure of Tetris is that it’s simple yet maddening. People posted impossibly high scores and it drove a competitive vibe. As low-fi as it was, it helped to create the modern idea of gaming.
Next week in the ClickAway Blog, we’ll look at how video games exploded into the modern era as the 90s led to enhanced graphics and deeper storytelling.