Through Minnesota's The Oregon Trail to Nintendo's Mario 3

A Brief History of Classic Video Games

LEVEL 1: Ancestors

The inception of video games is not so much debated as it is dynamic – up for discussion. Business Insider cites 1962’s Spacewar!, the specialized combat game, while steps back to 1889 when a small Japanese company called Nintendo began to produce playing cards. In 1950, both Claude Shannon and Alan Turing created computerized chess programs; in 1961, the Raytheon Company created a Cold War strategy simulation of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, which was not a “game,” however apparent the influence to series like Civilization Revolution may be now. However, there’s no argument over when commercial video games stepped into the mainstream: the 1970’s.
LEVEL 2: Arcades

The first commercially available arcade game, Computer Space, was released in 1971 by creators Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney, who would later rename their small company, Syzygy engineering, to Atari. In 1972, Atari gave us Pong, the simple tennis-themed arcade game, which made its debut in a California bar. Historians love to debate the legitimacy of the popular Pong anecdote: the first machine stopped working because it was so full of quarters that it jammed.

In 1978, Taito’s Space Invaders, a spaceship-themed shooter, made its way into Japanese arcades. While arcade games were already popular, Space Invaders is cited as one of the first cult hits. Taito’s own legend entails that during Space Invaders’ rise to hit status, there was a shortage of 100 yen coins due to their necessity to play the game – but this one’s been debunked.
LEVEL 3: Rise of Computers

In 1971, Minnesota’s own Bill Heinemann, a math teacher in Minneapolis, Paul Dillenberger, another Minneapolis math teacher, and Don Rawitsch, a History teacher in Minneapolis, created the classic that is still available to play in your (and your kid’s) browser today: The Oregon Trail. Almost immediately, Rawitsch made it available – on a single teletype machine – to schoolchildren in the Minneapolis public school system. The educational game was then produced by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium in 1974, and distributed to Minnesota schools for educational use. The game has remained popular to adults and children willing to risk virtual death, disease, and dysentery ever since.

The wider success of such computer games, as compared to 1962’s Spacewar!, was in part due to the fact that no external hardware was necessary; it could be played on existing computers.

LEVEL 4: Home Consoles

In the mid-1970’s, the video game market caught the attention of Sears, Mattel, and other corporations, including television company Magnavox. In 1972, the Magnavox Odyssey was released, after a six-year development by a small team lead by Ralph Baer – now known as the father of video games. The unit was a console that plugged into televisions, two controllers, 12 games, and, against Baer and the team’s initial wishes, playing cards, poker chips, and dice. While Baer’s forward thinking lead him to believe that these add-ons were unnecessary, they most likely aided in the average family consumer’s accessibility of the concept.

1977 brought us a very familiar release: Atari’s Video Computer System, or the Atari 2600. The games were in color, came in cartridges, and utilized joysticks. You could alter difficulty levels and save progress within the cartridges as well, setting the stage for gameplay to come.

LEVEL 5: Jumpman

In the 1980’s, arcade games made huge strides, particularly with the debut of games like Pac-Man, as well as Nintendo’s arcade game Donkey Kong in 1981, which featured a sprite named Jumpman alongside the namesake ape.

Jumpman, of course, would later become Mario. He was created by a graphic artist named Shigeru Miyamoto, a pragmatic designer unfamiliar with the video game industry. The sprite had overalls to accentuate arm movement, and a mustache instead of a mouth for recognizability. The red cap had an easy explanation, too: Miyamoto hated animating hairstyles.

As legend (and, this time, fact,) has it: a fellow developer told Miyamoto that due to Jumpman’s practical design, he looked less like a sprite, more like a plumber. He was then renamed Mario, as having a proper name appealed to wider markets.

Since 1981, a litany of enemies to be thwarted, princesses to be saved, and Player 2’s have appeared. He’s traveled through countless consoles, including our handhelds and smartphones. Most of all, he’s jumped through generations. And thanks to a playing card company forming in 1889, in 2017 he can be found in arcades across the world, on our PCs, and in the palm of our hands.