Video games are special to me. I fondly remember first seeing Pong as a 7 year old at my uncles New Year Eve party. Years later I became enamoured with digital worlds like Tron.
That’s why it was with great anticipation that I picked up Steven Kent’s The Ultimate History of Video Games.
I loved this book. I got to relive Atari, Intellivision, and Colecovision as a child but this time seeing it through the eyes as an adult. It felt a bit like reuniting with some old friends.
Here are a few notes I highlighted as I was reading:
- Atari got it’s name from the Japanese word for ‘check’ in the game of Go.
- Within ten years of it’s inception, Atari would grow into a $2Billion a year company making it the fastest growing company in US history.
Jobs and Wozniak take on Atari Breakout
- Because of repair costs and reduced circuit board space, Atari saved approximately $100,000 for each chip removed before production. Nolan Bushnell (founder) wanted his engineers to reduce the number of chips in Breakout – but got no volunteers.
- Enter Steve Jobs. Jobs was working with Wozniak on the Apple ][. Jobs convinced Woz to give it a go, and Woz did it in 72 hours non-stop, all in his head. Bushnell set a target to get it down to 75 chips (down from 100). Woz got it down to 20.
- Don Valentine, the founder of Sequoia Capital, was one of the first investors in Atari. He only stayed for 2 years, but later on Steve Jobs and Wozniak asked Valentine to help start Apple computer. That year Valentine invested in Apple and Cisco. Not a bad year for a VC.
The Golden Age of Arcade Games
- Space Invaders was so popular when it came out that it caused a national coin shortage.
- Pac-Man, invented by Toru Iwatani, was originally called Puck-Man but was changed to prevent any Americans from vandalizing the name.
- Defender was a huge breakthough in gaming. 3 ½ screens and scrolling.
- Nintendo is a 100 year old company
- The same guy, Shigeru Miyamoto, created Donkey Kong, Mario Brothers, and Legend of Zelda
- Tempest took a year and had about 21K of code. It was also revolutionary for it’s vector based graphics.
- Toru Iwatani, the Namco employee who designed Pac-Man, was not involved with the creation of Ms. Pac-Man. It was created, instead, by nine college students, led by two MIT students, Doug Macrae and Kevin Curran.
- Midway sold 100,000 Pac-Man machines and more than 115,000 Ms. Pac-Man machines in the United States. Other than these, no arcade game has ever sold more than 100,000 units in the US.
- Though ColecoVision had only the standard 8-bit processor, 8K of RAM, with an additional 16K of video RAM, it was cheap enough that COleco could afford a chip with the memory mapping and frame buffers that Atari had left out.
- Dragon Slayer, a game combining arcade play with full on animation, looked like a Disney production because it was animated by a former Disney animator who worked on films such as Robin Hood, the Rescuers, and Pete’s Dragon.
- In 1982 Activision replaced Atari as the fastest-growing company in the history of the US riding high with hits like Pitfall and River Raid.
- Commodore International was founded by Jack Tramiel - possibly the most complex person ever to enter the computer industry. He was a Polish Jew, a survivor of Nazi concentration camps, who worked his way from poverty to fortune.
- In 1981, Commodore release the VIC-20 that sold for under $300. It had 5K RAM and 16-color graphics, and was a pricing coup for it’s time.
- In August 1982 Commodore launched the Commodore 64, a personal computer that company executives claimed rivaled the $1000 Apple ][ in power but sold for $600. By the following January Commodore was shipping 25,000 computers a month.
- In 1983 Commodore surpassed Apple in overall sales and became the first computer company to report a $1-billion sales year.
- Coleco licensed a guys concept for dolls and renamed them ‘Cabbage Patch Kids’.
- In 1986 Coleco acquired the company that published Trivial Pursuit. They missed the fad, and in 1988 filed for bankruptcy.
- The biggest and most successful game company that emerged during the Commodore 64 run was Electronic Arts, a company that did something no other video game company had done before – it promoted it’s game developers.
- EA was founded by Trip Hawkins, a Harvard, Stanford MBA graduate who was opportunistic and persuasive. Was Apple 68th employee and was involved in many strategic decisions there.
- Hawkins is attributed for coming up with the albumn cover concept form video games
- EA created one of my favorite childhood games – Archon (chess where you fight the actual battles).
- Sega is not a Japanese word. It is an abbreviated form of Service Games founded by Americans that has it’s roots in a US military base in Japan.
I could go on and on. The book goes into great detail talking about the rise and fall of Sega, Nintendo (these guys were huge but I didn’t play a tonne of these games). I more enjoyed the Atari, Intellivison, and Coleco Vision.
If you are looking for a thorough, indepth, light read on Video Games. This is definitely the book for you. It’s not the most well written piece of prose, but if you like history and nostalgia on one of the worlds biggest pop culture events, you won’t be disappointed.
My favorite video of all time – Disks of Tron.