I grew up with video games. When I was a child, my family had an Atari 2600, which broke after too many people tripped over the cord. Lesson: don’t play games during extended family functions. By the time that happened, however, I had been introduced to Nintendo at one of my friend’s houses, and Super Mario Bros. For Christmas that year, my dad bought both an Atari 7800 and a Nintendo, not knowing if the latter system was good or not. We played a few games on the 7800, like Pole Position II, but whereas everyone had played games on the old Atari, I ended up being the only one who kept playing games on the Nintendo, at least until my brother was older.
For me, Nintendo was the golden age of video games. Most game genres, as we know them today, were created during that time (two exceptions, created during the era of 16-bit gaming, were one-on-one fighting games and first-person shooters). Most games were platform games, but on the computer, Lord British was creating the first role-playing games with the Ultima series, and other genres exported from the computer included puzzle and strategy games. Still, those games and genres got their greatest exposure on the 8-bit NES. Even though Atari systems and games were still around during the early days of Nintendo, and the Sega Master System had its converts, it was Nintendo that all but ruled the gaming world during the heyday of the NES, a span lasting almost 10 years. In fact, the Famicon (the original Japanese version of the NES) was supported from 1983 to 2003, an unprecedented 20 year span.
Over that period of time, games got bigger and more complex, graphics got better, and the music improved. The best example of this is to compare the original Super Mario Bros. with Super Mario Bros. 3–the latter of which is, in my opinion, the best platform game ever made, and one of the best games ever made.
Next came the silver age of gaming. When Nintendo released Double Dragon on the NES without Sega’s permission, the resulting lawsuit allowed Sega to get a head start on the 16-bit wars, as well as relegate Nintendo’s first portable handheld system, the Game Boy, to black-and-white. This lawsuit, and the release of third-party companies from their exclusive contract with Nintendo (which was Nintendo’s biggest advantage over Sega, since they had huge third-party support), paved the way for the 16-bit wars of Sega and Nintendo, with some wiggle room for a third system, the TurboGrafx-16 (which used dual 8 bit processors instead of one 16 bit processor). And let’s not forget that TurboGrafx-16 was the first system to have games on CD, provided that you bought the TurboGrafx Duo or TurboGrafx CD accessory.
When Super Mario Bros. 3 was released, it contained 4 MB of memory, making it the largest game at the time. 16-bit games started at 4 MB and increased from there. The catalyst for this was Street Fighter II, the monster hit of an arcade game that sent everyone scrambling to enter the fighting genre arena. Games at that point has expanded to 8 MB; now they expanded to 16 MB. By the time consoles were making way for the new 32-bit systems like the Playstation and Dreamcast, cartridges were as large as 48 MB, mainly for graphical storage space, as was the case with Super Street Fighter II. In addition, with each new development in the gaming wars, more and more buttons and functions were added to controllers (the Atari Jaguar took this to ridiculous extremes, even if computer games nowadays use many more).
With increased storage space, games also became more expensive to buy. One game, the 24 MB Phantasy Star IV for the Genesis, cost a hundred dollars to buy (on the other hand, the 24-bit Neo Geo system had been selling cartridges for $200 for years, one reason why their games were popular in the arcades, but somewhat of a Holy Grail for the average gamer)! With the advent of CDs (and then DVDs and Blu-rays), games have dropped back down to within the $60 range, which is incredibly when one thinks that Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (released in 1988 in America) cost roughly $50 the year it was released. To compare: the almost $50 Zelda II:
…with 2011’s The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, which can be purchased for $60:
The Atari 2600 was the birth of my exposure to video games, the NES my childhood, the Genesis my adolescence, the Playstation and computer games my college and post-college years, the PS2 and old gaming sites my young adulthood. I read Game Players magazine and Nintendo Power when young, and GamePro magazine when older. With that kind of upbringing, how can I not love video games?
And yet, to play NES games now is to realize how frustrating they were, where one missed jump could spell death, where the challenge was often due to how many continues you received, or whether there was a password feature or not, or where you could save the game. Now, games allow saves wherever you wish, platform games are mostly a memory (though you can still fall to your death in some games), all environments are immersive, and simplistic game play can only be found on websites devoted to old video games, like GoG or VirtualNES.
And yet, some of those old games are still good, because no matter how simplistic the graphics, or the storyline, or the world, what matters is how much passion was put into the project, and how much talent. There have always been talented and passionate people to make video games. The difference now is that they no longer have to fool the CPU. They only have to fool the gamer into thinking the world they have created is real, and that the characters who inhabit it exist.
(Thanks to the always-reliable Wikipedia for information on the history of video games, particularly this link to the NES and its tight control of third-party companies, and this article on Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. Other information I took from articles I read in gaming magazines and my personal experiences).