Thank god we don't have to put up with Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft running attack ads!
Since Magnavox released the first video game console Odyssey in 1972, virtually every aspect of video gaming has changed significantly. Controllers have doubled (and tripled) the amount of buttons, gamers control their characters with analog sticks and we're starting to see the birth of motion-controlled games. Gameplay has advanced drastically in every genre (though some would argue that it has digressed) and, as any adult trying to look hip and cool, will say "those new games look really realistic don't they?" Despite all of these changes the most unusual road in video game history is probably also one of the basics: Game storage. While consoles are still boxes that sit by the television, the games we put in them are completely different in every respect from the first software storage mediums.
Even before they were commercially released, video games existed. They were designed for specific computers (the kind that took up entire rooms) by experimenting programmers. There is much debate over what the first game was, but the storage medium was the same for all
These classic black and white games always look more fun in the pictures!
computers: Punch cards. Paper with holes in it (or sometimes special metallic ink on them) stored the few lines of code needed to play a game analogous to Pong or Space Invaders.
Of course, these were only ever used by people who had regular access to the computers (mostly technicians who didn't need to book time on the machines). The first access most people had to video games was the aforementioned Magnavox Odyssey. The games for this system were "stored" in encased circuit boards, all of which were included with the system. These boards contained pathways that linked the circuits within the console, thus forming the
Not every game is worth accessing a special computer to play!
logic required to play each game. The boards did not contain anything except for these pathways. The Odyssey was half of the machine and the boards made up the other half, so that the console had to be designed with the intent of running a specific game in order to guarantee that the proper components were present. The Odyssey is the only console known to have used this type of cartridge. Also unique to the Odyssey is that most of the games had another component. The console was only capable of displaying a few objects and was black and white, so the console came with plastic overlays that fit over the television screen. These overlays had objects and colors on them so that tennis looked green and hockey looked blue.
The next generation of cartridges brought software into the equation. Containing ROM with pre-written software, this type of cartridge has been used in classic computers, modular arcade machines, portable devices and all early consoles since the Atari 2600. These cartridges can also contain special chips to grant additional functionality. This flexibility led to some significant advances in gaming. For
Nintendo didn't just make amazing games in the 1980s, they also revolutionized the entire cartridge format!
example, Nintendo included batteries in several of their 8-bit NES games allowing people to save their progress. This became standard and spurred the complexity in games that is still growing today.
The Super Nintendo was designed specially to function with graphics chips built into the cartridges. The SNES hardware was 2D, but these special chips could create full 3D objects. The most famous example of this is the 1993 space shooter game, Star Fox. Even though cartridges have now been phased out in favor of disc-based media, these early applications of the cartridge's unique features drastically altered early game development.
While the cartridge was favored by the console crowd, early computers used other storage methods as well, both of which are icons of classic computing. The first of these is the audio cassette. These
The famicom cartridges are good for a lot of things (taking a bullet, as a throw toy, etc.), but they aren't a good substitute for real water!
tapes (identical to any other audio tape) stored and retrieved data via an analog format. They were slow, frequently had errors and didn't have much space, but they were cheap and remain the easiest media to copy illegally, since all one needs to make a copy is a 2 deck tape player.
The other classic PC storage device is the 5 1/4 inch floppy disk of "Blue Monday" fame. These were fast, reliable and had plenty of room (at least for 1975) but they were also fairly expensive early on, especially the disk drives themselves. It is notable that the Famicom (the Japanese
Unlike the famicom cartridges, these floppy discs can't take a bullet!
version of the Nintendo Entertainment System) had an add-on which could read specially designed floppy disks. These disks could be written to and necessitated the first use of battery back-up when they were eventually released in cartridge form. The N64DD add-on is another distant relative of this technology, though the disks for it were proprietary and had a much higher capacity.
Software storage in computers and consoles converged with the rise of the compact disc. CDs have massive storage capabilities and are cheap to produce, making them perfect for games that were increasing in size. There were a series of disc drive console add-ons released in the late 80s and early 90s, including one for the Sega Genesis, TurboGrafx-16 and Atari Jaguar. Not to be outdone by industry players like Sega and Atari, Nintendo announced a CD-ROM add-on for their 16-bit Super NES. Unfortunately this device was never released by Nintendo and would become one of the long list of peripherals and add-ons that didn't make it out of R&D. This
I'm not going to say that the Atari Jaguar was a good looking system without the CD add-on, but at least it didn't look like a toilet!
Super NES CD-ROM would eventually become both the Phillips CD-i and Sony PlayStation (this is a long story unto itself). These disc drives didn't do much to improve the games themselves, but because the discs had so much space, developers were free to add high quality audio and full-motion video. Unfortunately, this led directly to a gimmick-driven decrease in game quality and these add-ons never achieved popularity.
The next generation of consoles was made up entirely of disc-based systems, (storing saved games on memory cards or internal storage) with the exception of the Nintendo 64. Continued reliance on now comparatively expensive and small capacity cartridges has been cited as a key reason for Nintendo's backseat position at the end of that console cycle, though it
The Nintendo DS is just about the only console not using some sort of disc-based media, perhaps that's why these cool kids like it so much!
did have a few key benefits such as minimal loading times. Nintendo switched to mini-DVD format for their next system, the GameCube. Over the years the focus has changed from CD-ROMs to DVDs, to higher capacity DVDs and now to Blu-Ray (in the case of the PlayStation 3). The disc standard has yet to have any substantial competition and has now been adopted on the PSP (albeit in plastic casing). The only mainstream holdout is the Nintendo DS which utilizes memory cards and maintains a port for Game Boy Advance cartridges.
While discs will certainly be the standard for large games for the foreseeable future, the internet is the place to turn for smaller titles. The Xbox Live Arcade is a hugely successful game download service and original Xbox games (often clocking in at 3 GB) have recently been made available for download. Sony has notably released major first-party titles like "Warhawk" in both disc and downloadable forms, and the PC services that allow full game downloads (such as Steam) have
While you can download all of the Xbox Live Arcade games to your hard drive, Microsoft decided it would be a good idea to sell a compliation disc, too!
proven to be quite popular as well. It has yet to be seen if the lack of ownership of a tangible object will prevent download services from overtaking physical game sales, but if the trends continue at this rate it's only a matter of time before downloadable games will be the standard.
While these game formats have been instrumental in the development of video games, there have been some far less successful standards proposed. The Sega Master System is particularly notable in this regard. It included a slot for games on cards which were cheaper to manufacture, alongside the standard cartridge slot. It was also the first game console that could function without a game inserted, as it contained a game known simply as "Snail Maze" that would run if there was no cartridge or card present. The TurboGrafx-16 also featured a similar card slot for their unique HuCard games.
There have also been attempts to update the original audio cassette standard by using VHS cassettes. These
If I were the princess I would run as far away as possible, Dirk only seems to bring pain and trouble!
glorified VCRs could play video off of the tapes, but the format couldn't handle the stress of constant fast forwarding and rewinding that was required to load games. Both units and tapes broke frequently and ultimately no system has been released using this concept.
Precursor to the DVD, a few arcade games used laserdiscs to play high quality video. These include the infamous "Dragon's Lair" and "Space Ace". These games were barely playable, but have maintained a cult following for their impressive cartoon animations (done by famous cartoonist Don Bluth) and cheesy production values. Aside from being not very much fun to play, the units would frequently break, as the discs could easily be knocked out of alignment.
The most successful of these fringe formats is Nintendo's E-Reader device for the GBA. This device reads cards; it's basically
It's not the prettiest add-on and it isn't very practical, but the E-Reader managed to gain a certain amount of success!
a throwback to the original punch card system. The device serves a variety of functions, such as emulating NES games or playing mini-games in a physical version of "Mario Party". Since the cards are small, light and cheap to produce they have been used as promotional materials, often unlocking additional features when connected to GameCube games. The format is extremely flexible, but the E-Reader did not sell well and so the cards have a very limited following.
While the low cost of discs has provided us with nigh unlimited storage capacity, the evolution of other storage mediums has certainly contributed significantly, both to the face and the core of video gaming. Cartridges, tapes and floppies still hold a special place in the hearts of many gamers, and the creativity of the hardware designers that devised these formats certainly deserves a place of honor in video game history and culture.