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  • On Game Design: A History of Video Games

    [01.11.07]
    - Jason Weesner

  •  The Arcade Experience

    Arcades weren't always adjuncts to bowling alleys, upscale restaurants, and miniature golf courses. Arcade games weren't always ways of passing the time in laundry marts or proving one's mastery at trivia in a dive bar. If we jump in the time machine again and venture back to a different corner of Coronado during the early 80's, we'll find ourselves at an odd looking mini-mall which looks something like a cross between a townhouse complex and a twisted hacienda. At one end of the mall is Wendy's; Coronado's first franchised fast food restaurant. At the other end, down a partially obscured staircase, behind smoked glass windows is a hubbub of noise called Supercade. It's not the best arcade in town. That's over the bay bridge at a place called Spanky's Saloon which is out of our range unless somebody's parents agree to drive, but Supercade is easily within biking range and just a few steps from the beach. That's not to say that there aren't other places in town to play games. Even Safeway had a couple of games at the peak of arcade popularity. In the early 80's, arcades were an exciting place to be. Over a period of just a few years, rapidly advancing technology and a hungry marketplace produced a seemingly nonstop flow of new games and genres on a weekly basis.

    Many people are quick to think that arcade games were the origin of home consoles. Sure, many of the earliest home console hits like Missile Command, Donkey Kong, and Pac-Man were, indeed, translations of arcade hits, but the history of video games predates even the first arcade game. There's some amount of controversy over who invented the first video game. Ralph Baer's Odyssey (which we talked about earlier) is actually predated by a Pong-like tennis simulator called Tennis For Two which was created by Willy Higinbotham in 1958. In 1961, Steve Russell, Martin Graetz, and Wayne Wiitanen created Spacewar; a simulation of space combat which Nolan Bushnell later converted into an arcade game called Computer Space in 1971. In 1972, Al Alcorn designed the first successful coin operated arcade game: Pong (which was developed for Nolan Bushnell's fledgling Atari).

    Arcade games introduced and refined many genres (both game play and presentation). There are other arcade game genres that aren't covered here that we'll look at in future articles. For now, these four categories should cover enough ground. Let's run through a few terms and examples:

    • Classic arcade (presentation): classic arcade games were usually based around a simple, fixed screen (no scrolling) game mechanic: Pac-Man (maze game play), Missile Command (shoot down incoming missiles with a trackball controller), Joust (air-based, medieval combat on vultures), Centipede (shoot complex patterns of bugs), etc.
    • Shooter (genre): not to be confused with FPS (First Person Shooters), the original shooters usually consisted of a single player ship battling endless waves of alien ships. In 1978, Taito produced Space Invaders; the grand daddy of shooters that was hugely successful and launched an industry of copycats (some better than others) like Phoenix (also Taito) and Galaxian (Namco). Outside of pinball, Space Invaders was also the first arcade video game with a high score table. Scramble (Konami) and Vanguard (SNK) were both introduced in 1981 and featured a progression of side scrolling (a playfield / background that scrolls from side to side) levels of varying terrain and enemies. Both of these games are distinct ancestors of later, successful games like R-Type, Gradius, and Raiden.
    • Fighter / Beat-‘Em-Up (genre): fighting games first started appearing in arcades in the 1980's: Renegade (Taito), Final Fight (Capcom), Double Dragon (Technos Japan), and Golden Axe (Sega) were all popular side scrolling fighters. Capcom introduced the Street Fighter series in 1987, but it wasn't until Street Fighter 2 in 1991 that the fighting genre exploded. Street Fighter 2 introduced a varied line-up of world fighters each with complex fighting styles with a wide assortment of moves and blocks. Street Fighter 2 paved the way for a whole industry of copycats like Mortal Kombat and SNK's Art Of Fighting and Fatal Fury series. In 1991, Sega debuted Virtua Fighter which brought fighting games into the realm of 3D.
    • Simulator (genre + presentation): this is a very broad term that covers everything from racing games (Virtua Racing and Ridge Racer) to various sports titles like Sega's Top Skater or Namco's Alpine Racer. Simulators (as a genre) generally try to copy their real life counterparts as closely as possible whether its in the presentation or the execution of rule sets and statistics.

    Arcades are a different experience now. In the United States, most are boutique type experiences like Dave & Busters while a few smaller arcades can still be found here and there at bowling alleys and miniature golf courses. The days of the 1980's style, dedicated arcade are long gone; replaced by the affordability and availability of home consoles.

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