“Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us – if at all – not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.” – T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men
The new consoles were rumored to be in short supply. Undaunted, legions of gamers lined up to buy what few units were available, hoping against hope they’d be among the lucky few to walk home with the season’s most sought after technological wonder. A shortage of electronic components had threatened to sabotage the launch before it even began, and technical glitches were delaying hardware certification, but the manufacturer promised the shelves would be full, in spite of last-minute shipping problems. They were only part wrong; the shelves weren’t full, but they were occupied with gleaming console boxes, waiting to be carried home in the arms of lucky gamers. As for big launch titles, there was only one, really, but it was a doozie; a game familiar to everyone who played games – a bona fide console-seller.
This scenario should sound familiar to anyone who’s lived through a console launch. In 2005 the Xbox 360 launched under similar circumstances, and a year later both Sony and Nintendo launched their next-gen machines in an almost carbon copy of the exercise. Five years or so prior, all three companies danced the same dance around their Xbox, PlayStation 2 and GameCube machines, with a special guest appearance by the Sega Dreamcast (just before that company’s hardware division went supernova). But the situation described above happened before these companies were even in the game. Long before.
The machine? The Coleco Telstar, the third home videogame console ever made. The technological doodads in short supply weren’t blue laser diodes, but the General Instruments chips allowing the device to play multiple games with one chip. The launch title? A version of Pong. The Coleco Telstar launched to rave reviews and, although it ultimately lost money for the company, helped kick-start the home console revolution started by Baer’s Odyssey a few years prior. The only thing missing, it seemed, were more games, and somebody was already working on that problem.
The year was 1976, and the first console war had begun. Like learning that our parents also had sex (once), the idea that console wars of the past were just as bloody, just as lopsided and just as meaningless is lost on most gamers. As is the one lesson learned by the losers (and winners) of each and every console war, from Atari vs. Intellivision to PlayStation 3 vs. Xbox 360: It’s the games, stupid.
Here We Go round the Prickly Pear
Coleco started life as a leather goods manufacturer, eventually moving into the realm of play products by way of above-ground swimming pools. I had one. It was awesome. My father’s prized rose bushes were leveled in order to clear ground for the beast, but the resulting swim-hole-out-of-a-box was well worth the destruction of a few beloved thorny flowers. The Connecticut Leather Company discovered they enjoyed making children smile so much (with water) that they stretched their legs a decade or so later with handheld LCD games and, eventually, the Telstar home game console. A “generation” later, they made it big with a “programmable” home console called ColecoVision and a little game by Nintendo called Donkey Kong.
I had one of these, too. I was what you might call a Coleco fanboy. Well before web forums and message boards, I’d gather with my friends on the playground during recess, behind the gym after school or down in the canals on weekends to shoot the bull, trade stolen porn mags or fish for carp, all the while debating the pros and cons of our respective console machines.
The venerable Atari 2600, as we now know, was the clear winner of that war, but this didn’t stop those of us with “lesser” machines from fighting the good fight. The Intellivision, for example (Doug had one of these) had far better games than Scott’s Atari 2600. Imagic’s Microsurgeon was just about the coolest game in the world. And Advanced Dungeons and Dragons? Forget about it. A thousand Pitfalls wouldn’t even come close. My ColecoVision had even better games, and the ports of arcade classics like the aforementioned Donkey Kong and Zaxxon made every boy who owned one an arcade hero (in his own home, no less).
But the 2600 had the numbers. By 1980, the year Mattel launched the Intellivision and two years before Coleco made it to market with their ColecoVision, Atari had already installed nearly 3 million of their consoles into American homes. Intellivision would score a distant second place in this, the second true console war, and ColecoVision, in spite of key distribution deals with then third-party developers like Nintendo and Sega, would come in third. But the story doesn’t end there, as you well know. In fact, it doesn’t even begin there.
Long forgotten by the time the videogame market crashed in 1983 was the Fairchild Channel F, the first of the programmable consoles. Released in 1976, a year before the Atari 2600, the Channel F was a primitive machine, but it did what no other console had yet managed. In addition to sporting a number of built-in Pong-like games (via a GI chip similar to the one in Coleco’s Telstar), the Channel F allowed one to play a theoretically unlimited number of games by inserting game “cartridges” – large, yellow things resembling the popular audio media of the time, the 8-track tape.
I had one of these, too. Before I was a Coleco fanboy, I was a Fairchild fanboy. I’d drool over the bright yellow cartridges at Montgomery Ward’s, begging to be allowed to take one home. The Fairchild’s Pong clone was incredible, and the drag racing game? Forget about it. But the Fairchild, in spite of its innovations and a timely hardware redesign, ultimately failed to capture enough market share to stave off the Atari juggernaut, which, quite simply, had the games, stupid.
But a Whimper
Then, in 1983, something interesting happened to the videogame industry – something all of the fledgling MMOG makers (boutique or otherwise) chasing the tail of Blizzard would be wise to heed: The market became so flooded with knock-off consoles and second-rate third-party games, the average consumer got confused. Why is the Intellivision a better machine than the 2600? And why does ColecoVision outpace them both? Why isn’t the Bally Astrocade just as good? And why doesn’t Pac-Man look the same on the Atari as it does in the arcade? (And why was E.T. such a piece of crap?)
Doug, Scott and I debated these points endlessly, but we had the time and magazine subscriptions to form (relatively) educated opinions on the minute details of each console’s construction and game selection. We were true console warriors. But most people didn’t care that much, or didn’t know enough to care, and so just bought whatever machine struck their fancy. Or didn’t buy anything, as happened more frequently, and as a result, hordes of developers went out of business, mountains of games went un-purchased and company after company closed its doors.
Games, it appeared, were finished. It would take a savior from overseas to correct that notion, introduce a whole new generation to the wonder of home game consoles and remind those of us who’d been there from the beginning of what was most important: the games, stupid.
This is the Dead Land
In the meantime, those of us with a game-playing bent had migrated to home computers, following a wave of programmers and publishers who’d done the exact same thing. Apple, Atari, Commodore, Tandy and a slew of other companies had been making relatively low-cost home computers for years, and following the crash of the console market, these machines were poised to take advantage of the sudden influx of game-starved youths.
Marketing their machines as “great for school” (a refrain that would prove catchy among computer manufacturers for decades), Commodore and Apple in particular established wide beachheads in the homes of America, opening the door for a game invasion, the rise of the adventure game genre and (eventually) providing a fertile ground for the development of distributed networks (aka the internet).
My friend Doug, ever the trend-setter, had a Commodore 64. My family, suddenly cost-conscious, had purchased the lesser-powered Vic-20. I maintained my friendship with Doug, therefore, mainly to play Gunship and Impossible Mission at his house instead of missile command knockoffs (or, God forbid, doing homework) at mine. Thankfully, for my own sanity (and the state of the industry), this situation was not destined to last. Utilizing a clever bait-and-switch ploy, Nintendo infiltrated the game-shy American market with their insidious 8-bit NES machine, alleviating the home console drought, kick-starting the third generation of home game consoles and establishing themselves as a videogame powerhouse.
I’d moved to a new town, and my mother, perhaps as a consolation, bought me a NES, otherwise known as ‘The No-Friend-O.” I also made new friends, one of whom, Adam, owned a Sega Master System. His machine’s specs, he would claim, made the Master System the clear winner in this particular war. “No Adam,” I would say. “It’s the games, stupid.”
And the NES had them in spades. Duck Hunt, Excitebike, Hogan’s Alley, Kung Fu, Super Mario Bros. … the launch list alone held gems still fondly remembered (and playable, via GameBoy advance cartridges and the Wii’s Virtual Console) today. But the list kept getting better. By the time I got my hands on an NES, the catalogue had expanded to include Bionic Commando, The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out, games that saw me through some of the most tumultuous years of my adolescence and convinced me that if there was one thing I’d be doing for the rest of my life, it would be playing games.
Sega sold over 13 million units of Adam’s Master System in that war, but Nintendo conquered all, unleashing 60 million of their NES machines onto the market, many of which still reside under countless televisions, carefully maintained, loved and crowed over. Mine is not among them. Or if it is, I wouldn’t know it. I sold it in 1994 (for beer money) while watching my college roommate play Cybermorph on his Atari Jaguar, the venerable company’s erstwhile entry into the 64-bit console war. It was a fine machine, but would ultimately be a distant last-place finisher in that, the fifth console war. The winner was the 100 million-selling Sony PlayStation, obliterating all comers with a low-cost machine sporting a seemingly never-ending supply of third-party game titles. Like the Atari 2600 and the NES, it was a bullet train of commerce winning the war on the strength of the games, stupid.
In the Twilight Kingdom
War never changes.
It’s been more than three decades since the first console war, but we still fight, still struggle. Sides are still chosen for one reason or another, banners still unfurled, weapons still unsheathed, fortunes lost and gained; lives thrown away in the never-ending pursuit of perfection.
We should curse the men who set us on this course – the men who designed the first machines of war – but instead we celebrate their names, building monuments to their ingenuity, writing histories of their contributions to society. Our society. The cult of the game. The Industrial-Entertainment complex within which we are all just cogs in the great, money churning machine.
I took a time out from fighting in the console wars after I retired my NES, but I still played the games, still enjoyed watching the reports from the front of who’d skunked who, and who’d be back for revenge next time around. I would eventually return to the field of battle as an adult, but by that time I was able to buy whatever console I wanted, even if that meant buying all of them. I currently own five, each of which is still connected to my television.
Can I say for sure who’s winning the wars? Well, numbers don’t lie. My PlayStation 2 is but one of over 46 million residing in American homes as of the end of last year. The Xbox, one of more than 20 million. Sony would seem, therefore, to have won that round, based don’t he numbers. But Guitar Hero is what sealed it for me. Since that game arrived, the Xbox has been gathering dust. Once again, it’s the games, stupid.
The same will be true for the current generation, of course. The Xbox 360 is currently leading the fight, with around 10 million units sold to the Wii’s 6 million and the PS3’s just over 2 million. But the games aren’t all in yet. The shooting war has yet to start. These days we have countless websites, blogs and message boards keeping score for us (or attempting to), so if there ever is a winner, we should know it with CNN-like suddenness, the sales figures lancing out across the web like tracer fire over Baghdad. But it won’t matter as much to me. I’m an armchair general now. I’ve retired, and am content to simply enjoy the fruits of other soldiers’ labors; to play the games, in other words. Stupid.
Russ Pitts is an Associate Editor for The Escapist. He has written and produced for television, theatre and film, has been writing on the web since it was invented and claims to have played every console ever made. His blog can be found at www.falsegravity.com.