In the beginning there was Pong. Little more than two digital lines scrolling from the top of a television screen to the bottom, blocking a digital square that may or may not have been a ping pong ball, depending on the quality of your imagination. It was cruse and archaic, but it was more than we had experienced before…and we said, “It is good.”
Pong begat the Atari 2600. The machine that brought Space Invaders, Asteroids, and Centipede home, the domesticated versions of these games may not have rivaled their arcade counterparts, but they were more than enough for us. The Mattel Intellivision kids envied us and we, in turn, envied the Colecovision kids. Why? Because their version of Donkey Kong looked more like the stand-up version than ours. The maker of Donkey Kong was Nintendo.
To separate the constituent parts of Donkey Kong is to tumble into madness. Why is a tiny Italian plumber chasing after a giant ape that is casting down barrels at him? Why a gorilla, other than to use the suffix of Kong? Why an Italian hero? Does this stuff make sense at Nintendo’s home base of Japan or is it whacked out everywhere? Didn’t know, and judging from the phenomenon Donkey Kong became, it was clear that no one really cared. It was fun, colorful, addictive, and perfected the magic trick of making quarters disappear. These Nintendo people would be downright dangerous if they managed to put a game machine into the home, a’la Atari.
And then it happened.
The first Nintendo console, the Famicom, the original Nintendo, was released in Japan in April 1983. It wouldn’t arrive in the U.S. for a few more years, but its legend seemed to grow psychically across the oceans. By the time the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) arrived in America, nobody needed to be convinced whether they wanted it. Of course they did, and they wanted it for Super Mario Brothers, a game that, even if you hadn’t a clue about the video game subculture, you knew.
The Nintendo generation would have seen us New Wave kids with our Ataris as primitives, satisfied with three-tone images and dots that purported to represent something it looked nothing like. So too, in this day of gaming where your character can tear out his own spinal column and thrash his enemy with it into a chalky paste, does the Nintendo graphics look remedial…the equivalent of cave paintings. But those cave paintings were a revelation when our time with the NES came around.
An informal lexicon emerged from players to describe what they were doing. The fantasy warrior Link had to slay fearsome “blobby dudes.” The games had a loose narrative like “saving the princess,” or “beating the big boss,” which culminated in the tradition of “rolling credits” when the final mission was completed. Atari folks had a similar, if less elaborate, equal in “flipping the counter.” After a certain point count, usually 9,999, the game makers assumed nobody would be so obsessed, lazy, or fearful of the outside world that they would stay with the game that long. Therefore, after the predetermined number was passed, the game “flipped” back to zero score. The future of games, by 1983 and after, was that there was a linear narrative with many rooms to explore but there absolutely would be a beginning and an end.
Nintendo did a few things much better than Atari did in the business sense. The company was a strict holder of their cartridge design and what got made for their machine. This was not a seal of quality, per se, as there were plenty of junky games that trudged out onto the Famicom/NES. But this prevented the most lowest common denominator products from coming out onto the platform. One has to laugh at the mindless missteps of the Atari era like the games Kool Aid Man (based on, of all things, the Kool Aid Man) and a series of “pornographic” games. These image blunders didn’t quite hamper Atari, as they not only had the backing of parent company Warner Bros. Communications but a partnership with one of video games’ legendary makers, Activision. However, Nintendo remained a vigilant gatekeeper and, as such, made sure to get their slice from every pie.
What emerged thereafter was a sort of game console war mentality. Nintendo had competition from game maker Sega whose Genesis machine offered slight market dilution, but was crushed with the introduction of the Super Nintendo. Sony introduced the Playstation which finally presented serious competition, and a serious threat, to Nintendo. As Sega had asserted, the future was disc-based, not cartridge-based and Sony was perfectly suited to follow that means. Today, the disc-based version is starting to close out too, with Microsoft X-Box alongside Nintindo Wii and whatever latest version of Sony’s gaming division being connected to the web…cloud-based gaming is a reality, and those who filled shelves full of video-game discs will now feel the same pinch the cartridge kids once experienced.
And as always, I do miss the simplicity of those old games. There is something about having interesting graphics, but not overly elaborate graphics, that supports a game. The most compelling times I’ve experienced with these machines were with the initial Super Mario, or Mike Tyson’s Punch Out, or even the spare, almost abstract Metroid. These were games you played with other people, and they had to be in the same room with you at the same time. It wasn’t this isolating foundation of sitting in front of a screen, hearing the voices and seeing the actions of others, all emanating from avatars. From time to time I drag out both the Atari and that first Nintendo, and remember back when games were just games. They were fun, but there was still a real world to play in when it wasn’t raining.