At the beginning of the 1970's, video games weren't just in their infancy -- they were still in the womb. Up until now, almost all "video games" that had been created were little more than logical simulations of board games like Chess, NIM, Tic-Tac-Toe, and Checkers. 1958 saw the release of Tennis for Two, the predecessor to Pong. Visually, the game was almost identical to the eventual arcade version -- so why did it take 15 years for the game to hit arcades? This highlights one of the most underappreciated early challenges of the gaming industry. The problem wasn't creating the games -- the problem was distributing them. By their nature, games are only useful if they can get an audience. The majority of games written in the 1970's could have been implemented using the technology of the 50's -- but the issue came in distribution. Early games required room-sized computers to run and cost thousands of dollars, obviously not feasible for profitable sale. For 15 years, the gaming industry sat on its hands and waited for the technology to catch up. That's an exaggeration, of course -- the industry didn't actually exist, but in many ways the bottleneck was in waiting for the technology. In 1951, Ralph Baer pitched the idea of a TV-based video game console, only to have it turned down as unfeasible. Baer would have the last laugh, going on to invent the Magnavox Odyssey and the original light gun, and still receives royalties from many modern game companies for use of his patents. His Odyssey home console was largely a flop, however, and the young gaming industry would rely on a different distribution method: arcades. Arcade units were prohibitively expensive to be sold to individuals, but were perfect for coin-ops in restaurants, bars and college rec rooms. A couple years later, spawned by one wildly popular release, the gaming industry was born.

Choosing a 'game of the year' for each year gets progressively harder as time goes on. Why is that? Because when you get started in 1970, you have exactly one game to choose from. Developed in 1970 by high school teacher Christopher Gaylo, Highnoon was actually one of first text-based games. The game told the story of a duel between the player and Black Bart. For a game this early, this isn't saying much, but the game was surprisingly deep strategically. The player and Bart begin 100 paces apart, and each turn can stay, move forward or shoot. The closer the player comes to Bart, the better accuracy they have -- but Bart's accuracy increases as well. Essentially, it's like a computer game of chicken. The game was the first to achieve any kind of notable popularity -- earlier games, which I'll mention in a moment, were largely hard-coded into a single computer, making distribution and access very difficult. Highnoon was implemented on a shared computer, making it accessible to others with access to the same mainframe, earning the game an actual audience outside the developers and their friends. Honorable mentions at this slot go to OXO, Tennis for Two, Spacewar! and Space Travel. Truth be told, those games are likely far more historically significant than Highnoon. OXO was the first video game ever; Tennis for Two was the precursor to Pong; Spacewar! was the precursor to Asteroids and the first 'traditional' video game; and Space Travel directly led to the development of the Unix operating system. Still, those four games all came out before 1970, so the prize for 1970 has to go to Gaylo's humble Highnoon.

A year later saw what we would truly call the first generation of video game production: arcade games. Multiple arcade-style games were released in 1971, but the most notable among these is Computer Space. While Pong gets most of the credit for the creation of the video game industry, Computer Space is likely more influential for two primary reasons. First of all, Computer Space was the first video game to see actual commercial distribution. Past games had resided on a single computer, but Computer Space actually was built into physical consoles and shipped to bars, malls and college campuses, and is truly the forerunner of the modern arcade. While the game never achieved the popularity of later arcade games (largely due to complicated controls), it initiated a movement that would lead to the widespread incorporation of games into our culture. Just as importantly, though, are the game's creators: Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney created the console, and while it would've been there greatest achievement, it was later displaced when they founded a little company called Atari. The development of Computer Space gave them their start in a career that would go on to launch the first major video game company in gaming history. The honorable mentions for the year 1971 go to Galaxy Game, truly the first coin-operated arcade game (never distributed outside Stanford University, however), the original text-based Oregon Trail (although the Oregon Trail that you recognize would not come out until several years later), and the text-based Star Trek game, notable for being the first game (that I know of) created by a high school student.

What else but Pong could possibly be the game of the year for 1972. The second release by Atari, Pong took the place of their first game, the commercial dud Computer Space, in bars and college campus around the country. It was essentially an instant hit -- the incredibly simple gameplay, the head-to-head nature, and the massive (for the time) rollout of the game led to its almost instant immersion in popular culture, and introduced video games to the world. Unfortunately, developer Atari was twice-bit by the patent office -- their lack of a patent allowed numerous Pong clones to hit the market, and they later were sued by Magnavox for allegedly infringing on a patent (in fact, to date most video game developers still pay Sanders Associates, the original Odyssey developer, royalties for patent use). But Pong's legacy was cemented. Its success would help spawn Atari as a force in the gaming industry, leading to the first popular home consoles. Since its release, Pong has gone on to become easily one of the most influential games of all time. Truth be told, if Pong didn't spawn the popularity of the gaming industry the way it did, another game likely would have -- but that doesn't take away from the role Pong played in introducing gaming to a mainstream audience, outside college computer labs and experimental facilities. Its position in gaming history is unquestionable -- it inspired the first major gaming company and the first game genre, as well as numerous copycat games. One other computer game was released in 1972 -- Hunt the Wumpus, arguably the first PC game, was written Gregory Yob in the BASIC programming language. It would be Yob's only published video game before he was cryogenically frozen in Arizona. Yes, I'm serious.

1973 is the first year in this series that actually presents any real choice for game of the year. Three significant games came out this year, but the most notable among them is Empire for the PLATO system. Why's so significant about Empire? Online gaming can trace its origins back to this 1973 title. Developed as a project for a college education course, Empire pitted up to eight players against each other in kind of an early turn-based strategy/simulation hybrid involving resource management and planning. But what's important is that eight-player aspect: up until now, pretty much every game fell into one of two categories: player vs. computer or player vs. player on the same console. Empire changed that -- the eight players (thirty in later versions) all sat at their own workstations, with the screen reflecting their own actions and those of others. Later incarnations of the game released in the late 70s reached even more popularity, logging hundreds of thousands of hours of play time, and are still playable today. All modern online games can trace their origins back to this simple example of networked workstations being used to play a multiplayer game. The games presenting competition with Empire for game of the year in 1973 are Lemonade Stand and the Laser Clay Shooting System. The former, developed by MECC, was the first example of an educational game. The latter, though, is even more notable: developed by a little card company called Nintendo, the technology used in it would later be incorporated into the hit Nintendo game Duck Hunt. More importantly, it continued the recent trend taking Nintendo away from parlor games and toward video games, a path that would eventually lead it to produces some character named Mario.

1974 saw the release of several gameplay innovations -- but my selection for 1974's game of the year actually did very little to advance the industry. At some point, popularity has to have a role, and Tank was far more popular than any of the more innovative games released that year. Another in Atari's growing line of arcade games, Tank was originally released under the Kee Games brand name. Kee Games, prior to this point, existed solely to help Atari solidify its market share -- secretly owned by Atari, the two companies were intended to each take such a strong market share that third companies would find difficulty competing with both, thus giving Atari all the profits for both companies. Tank's popularity famously pushed the ownership out into the open, though, as it rose to be the most popular game since Pong. Gameplay was a notable step forward from Pong, with two players each controlling tanks in a maze, attempting to avoid mines and shoot one another to earn points. As mentioned above, though, 1974 saw several gameplay innovations in other games. The first RPGs -- pedit5, m199h and dnd -- were created, though the first two were quickly deleted. The first first-person shooter, called Maze War, was developed by Steve Colley, paving the way for one of the industry's eventual biggest genres. The racing game Gran Trak 10 was released and featured some notable innovations at the hardware and software levels, but also was the first arcade game to feature peripherals like a steering wheel, gear shift, brake pedal and accelerator. And finally, the first 3D game ever created was released -- Spasim (pronounced as an abbreviation for 'Space Sim'), a first-person space shooter.

Clicking above will take you to Shawk JAWS, a 1975 arcade game notable for being the first game to try to capitalize on a movie's popularity -- but the game of the year goes to Moria, a release for the PLATO educational system which is not listed on GameFAQs. Moria was undoubtedly the most significant release of 1975 (although the exact release year is debatable). The number of gameplay innovations supplied by Moria is rather incredible: at a very broad level, it was simply one of the most complete, deep games released. An RPG, the game featured custom character creation, multi-player parties connected over a network, a simplistic 3D wireframe depiction of the dungeon, and most significantly, dynamically-generated content, ensuring that no two trips through the game were identical. Moria featured a very complex battle system, taking into consideration four base statistics that derive into numerous others. Equipment, terrain, and battle all feature their own systems, including numerous battle options like attacking, bribing, tricking, spellcasting, fleeing, and item use. Parties are flexible as well, with players able to combine and separate in-game with ease. Even time and character deaths are included, with characters having to eat daily and the game continuing after a character dies. Overall, aside from the graphical element, Moria is still a solid game by today's standards, which explains why the game can still be found online. Other notable games from 1975 include Adventure (though not the more famous title from several years later), Panther (a tank simulation) and Dungeon, a similar game based on Dungeons and Dragons.

In 1976, the first whispers of what would become the first popular home video console were echoing through the ears of Atari's fans -- but arcade games would rule one more year, and provide the game that has inspired perhaps more similar games than any other single game. Released in arcades in 1976, Breakout has become the type of game that everyone has played at least once. You control a paddle at the bottom of a screen, with a ball bouncing around a field of bricks. Every time the ball hits a brick, the brick disappears, and the player must ensure the ball doesn't pass the paddle. It was inspired and pitched as a one-player Pong, and would go on to have more success as a game concept than Pong itself, inspiring more variations than one can possibly count. But there's possibly a much more significant result of the development of Breakout. You might recognize the names of the game's two creators: Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. After their work on Breakout, they teamed up to form Apple, and the rest is history -- although it should be mentioned again that in the process, Jobs conned Wozniak out of $5,000 for the Breakout prototype, paying him a mere $350, the first in a lifetime of questionable business deals. Other notable games from 1976 include one of the first TV series tie-in games (Fonz, an arcade game featuring Arthur Fonzarelli riding his motorcycle), Death Race (the incredibly controversial 1976 title based on the movie Death Race 2000), Night Driver (the first first-person racing game, later ported to several home consoles) and several games that would evolve into the classic game Snake (Barricade by RamTek and Bigfoot Bonkers by Meadows Games).

1977 was one of those proverbial "This. Changes. Everything." years in video game history. Up until now, video games have experienced a slow evolution from college computer labs to stand-alone units in bars to full-blown arcades dedicated solely to gaming. But 1977 changed that: 1977 introduced home gaming. Sure, the Magnavox Odyssey debuted several years earlier (predating even Pong) and continues to receive royalties from every modern game manufacturer -- but 1977 was the year home gaming started to take root, led by industry heavyweight Atari's Atari 2600, and relative newcomer Nintendo's Color TV Game 6 in Japan. Leading the Atari 2600's launch titles was Combat, a vehicular combat game featuring tanks, planes and fighter jets. On its own, the game was one of the deepest games yet seen -- it featured numerous play modes, fairly sophisticated multiplayer and widespread appeal. But at a broader level, it signified something more important: it signified a new transition in the gaming world from console gaming to home gaming. Over the next several years, the most influential and important games would increasingly be found for home consoles, with arcades relegated to ports of console games. Other notable games included all of the Atari 2600's launch titles, Classic Empire (not to be confused with the PLATO version of Empire), Space Wars (the first vector graphics game) and Zork, one of the most expansive early pieces of interactive fiction and the forerunner to most modern text-based games. And as mentioned, 1977 also saw the release of Nintendo's Color TV Game 6, a series of at-home video consoles that would in many ways lead to Nintendo's eventual rescue and domination of the gaming industry.

1978 is a no-brainer. Along with Pong and Pac-Man, Space Invaders ranks as by far one of the most influential early games.It was first released in Japan in 1978, and took the United States by storm not long after. It featured simplistic gameplay by today's standards, but united a couple basic game mechanics to form a runaway hit. The game had no inherent end to it, inspiring players to pursue the ever-rising high score by surviving as long as possible, as opposed to most previous games which ended after a preset amount of time. The simplicity and opportunity for actual strategy made the game an instant hit in arcades, and in the end the game would be ported and copied to several other mediums. One interesting aspect of the game is one of the key game mechanics. As you get further, the aliens speed up, making them harder to shoot -- but in reality, this mechanic wasn't intentionally added in. Instead, it was a simple side-effect of less time being required to render fewer alien ships. It's impossible to measure Space Invaders' impact, as it has since been rated one of the best arcade games ever, and has permanently embedded itself into popular culture. With its popularity, Space Invaders temporarily distracted the gaming world from the newly found home gaming industry, at least for one year. It wasn't the only notable release of 1978 -- several others included Atari Football, the first sports-themed game and the first popular trackball game; Adventureland, an interactive fiction game and one of the first for the relatively new Apple II; MUD1 and Scepter of Goth, two of the first online virtual worlds; the most-recognized version of the game we know as Snake; and Starfleet Orion, one of the first strategy games.

Like 1978, 1979 is a bit of a no-brainer with the release of the smash-hit Adventure. Up until this age, most graphical games have followed relatively similar themes, involving very simple interaction and rapid gameplay. Plot-themed adventure games existed, but were largely restricted to text-based gameplay or extremely simplified graphics like those seen in Moria. Adventure, released in 1979, changed that. Inspired by the many text-based adventure games that preceded it, Adventure aimed to provide a graphical element. Adventure supplied many features that have since become standard: it was among the first to let the player keep items, move around at their own pace, and solve puzzles and navigate mazes as a chief game element. The game is also one of the first to have an inherent plot, focusing on "a nameless hero trying to set right the nasty deeds performed by a nameless evil magician in a nameless Kingdom". Overall, the game is simply far more continuous than its predecessors, with much more depth than simply mastering a simple control scheme. The game also famously supplied the world's first in-game Easter egg, giving the programmer some credit for the game's production, and is widely credited for inspiring series like the Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy. Several other recognizable games debuted in 1979 as well, including Asteroids, the revolutionary text-based RPG Avatar, the Starfleet Orion sequel Invasion Orion, Atari's Lunar Rescue, the Donkey Kong predecessor Radar Scope, the popular 3D game Star Raiders, the PC game Temple Apshai, and the original fighting game Warrior.

In the span of 10 years, the gaming industry went through more than a transformation -- it went through a creation, followed by a metamorphosis that was only beginning to take hold in 1979. In 1970, the gaming industry did not exist. What games had been implemented were largely just technical demos for hardware capabilities. The earliest games were little more than exercises for the programmer to test their own abilities. The first arcade game releases in 1971, though, opened the floodgates to an entire new industry. Within a few years, arcades had become a mainstay in American popular culture, attracting numerous games and inspiring companies in completely unrelated films to start developing video games. Interestingly enough, it was exactly the catalyst of the early gaming industry that led to its temporary downfall. Early on, the main video game developer -- Atari -- unfortunately neglected to patent almost anything it created. This spawned a legion of copycat games, largely depriving Atari from some of its hard-earned profits. Although Atari would have the reputation for being the main video game company, it made a fraction of what such a dominant force would expect. But it is exactly this flood of copycats that spurned the success of the industry as a whole -- Atari had neither the capital nor the means to roll out arcade consoles in the numbers needed to truly submerge them in the collective American consciousness. Had Atari worked alone, gaming would have remained mostly a niche industry, catering only to the biggest college campuses and other gathering places. But because so many companies were able to sell near-identical copies of Pong and other popular games, the industry exploded into view. But it was exactly those lax standards that would lead to the video game crash of 1983, only a few years down the road and at the dawn of the home gaming age.


List by DDJ
(10/01/2009)

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