It may be hard to believe, but video games for consoles were once developed exclusively in-house by the console’s maker. This all changed in 1979 when designer and programmer David Crane led a walk-out of several Atari programmers, and would later go on to found the world’s first third-party developer: Activision. According to Crane, Atari programmers were disappointed with the low pay and lack of recognition they received at Atari for their games that were raking in millions for the company. When Atari executives rejected proposals for design credit and royalties for games, Crane, along with Alan Miller, Larry Kaplan and Bob Whitehead, quit Atari and founded Activision. Activision would at first design games for Atari 2600, but would later branch out to all video game consoles. Crane, Miller, Kaplan, and Whitehead were the indie developers of their day, pioneers that broke away from an established, multimillion dollar corporation to start their own company. Today, Activision’s total assets are worth over $14 billion. Not too shabby!
In a time when arcades were dominated by space shooters and largely the realm of adolescent boys, Pac-Man offered a fresh concept that proved successful with young and old, male and female. So great was the mainstream success of Pac-Man that, along with birthing its own genre of game and producing many clones, Pac-Man became a pop culture phenomenon, producing all sorts of official and unofficial merchandise including a pop hit song that breached the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts and sold over a million records. Today Pac-Man remains one of the most recognized video game characters and even appears in the latest entry of the Super Smash Bros. series for both 3DS and Wii U.
It was the fall of 1985 and the home console market was still considered dead and buried following the video game market crash of 1983. Nintendo had successfully released the Famicom to the Japanese market two years earlier, but had been trepidatious about launching worldwide. With a two year old library of games and a clear market strategy, Nintendo dipped their feet in the shallow pool of the North American video game market in October of 1985. Marketed as an “entertainment system” instead of a home video game console, the NES would first release in select test markets such as New York City. It would not be until fall of the following year that the system was officially available throughout North America. And the rest, as they say, is history. Given how young I was when the NES was released, I can’t quite recall exactly when I first got one. I do recall that I owned the Action Set with the gray Zapper. The NES was my only home console until the Playstation 2 many years later, and so I’ve got a lot of treasured memories of the system.
Released in a time when the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise was still held to the same standard as Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, Sonic & Knuckles introduced “lock-on technology,” serving as a sort of expansion pack to both Sonic 2 and Sonic 3. Connecting one of those previous titles to Sonic & Knuckles unlocked the ability to play as Knuckles the Echidna. “Lock-on technology” didn’t last beyond the 16-bit era—even Sega abandoned the concept—but the Genesis Tower of Power remains an endearing, if ridiculous, reminder of the sort of lunacy that defined console gaming in the 1990s.
Sonic & Knuckles was one of the first console cartridges I owned. Looking back on it, I realize its appeal is what would probably be considered DLC nowadays: plugging a Sonic 2 or Sonic 3 cartridge into the top of this one let you play those same games with a new character in Knuckles the Echidna, who, by the way, was by far my favorite at the time. Gliding and climbing fundamentally altered the way I approached levels, and it was awesome. And, doing what most DLC can’t these days, the Sonic & Knuckles cartridge could actually act as a standalone game, effectively a Sonic 3.5, which doubled the length of Sonic 3 if you combined them. Easily one of my all-time favorite gaming “accessories.”
1998 – Metal Gear Solid
Although Metal Gear had already seen success, it wasn’t until Metal Gear Solid that the series truly hit legendary status. Hideo Kojima’s experimental blend of stealth and tactical combat wrapped in a philosophical narrative and cloaked with mystery would become one of the biggest hits on the PlayStation, helping Sony overtake Nintendo in the home console market. The game’s themes of existentialism and free will resonated with gamers. My first experience with the series was Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. Initially I couldn’t wrap my head around the game, as it blended multiple genres and was heavier on narrative than I had anticipated. But once I gave it a fair chance, I was blown away. Shortly after finishing it, I rushed to play through the first two games, which I found to be just as fascinating. While Kojima’s scripts can sometimes be overwrought, and while he can depend too much on cutscenes, there remain moments of brilliance rarely found in gaming, and it truly began with Metal Gear Solid in October of 1998. The series will continue early next year with the release of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.
Aside from a brief dream sequence in Metal Gear Solid 4, I’ve never had the pleasure of playing the originalMetal Gear Solid. Personally, I don’t think it’s aged particularly well, but I was spoiled by its GameCube remake Metal Gear Solid: Twin Snakes, which applied a Sons of Liberty-style makeover to this classic and groundbreaking title. The story is effectively the same across the two iterations, though, and that ages beautifully. I fell in love with the Metal Gear Solid franchise playing Twin Snakes, and I’ve been following it ever since.
- 1977 – Atari 2600
- 1982 – E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
- 1987 – Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!
- 1994 – Final Fantasy III
- 1995 – Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island
- 1997 – Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
- 1999 – Pokemon Yellow
- 2000 – Playstation 2
- 2001 – Grand Theft Auto III
- 2004 – Grand Theft Auto San Andreas