Friday, June 27, 2008

Games : Video Game History – Do You Remember Pac Man, Space Invaders, and Super Mario Brothers?

Of all the things that the 1970’s produced, there are few that made as big of a cultural impact as video games. There’s no question about it: video games have been a significant force in society and one of the most popular leisure pursuits. Chances are if you’re under the age of 40, you played them, some of us a lot. There was Atari, Intellivision and Colecovision. Don’t forget Sega and Nintendo. Today there are web sites that allow you to download free online games.

And if you remember those days of the late ‘70’s and early 80’s, you recall that the games relied on graphic improvements and better ways of shooting the enemy. It was more or less a solitary pursuit. With the rise of the Internet and online games however, lots of things changed, including the ability to download games and playing online games, making games a more social activity, with lots of players, or opponents playing each other from different countries. This may be the biggest change – and the latest benefit that games have offered the world.

But what about the early days? How did it all start and what were the video games that defined the era?
The Innovators

Many people think that Pong was the home game that started it all, but really it was Magnavox and their "Odyssey" system in 1972. Although it was very simple, it was still the first. It had twelve simple games with graphic overlays. However, there was lots of room for improvement, and that’s where Pong came into play.

Nolan Bushnell created Pong, along with Al Alcorn, the founder of Atari. Rumor has it that when the prototype was tested at a California bar, the machine broke down after two days, because it was so popular. The next logical step was to create a home version. So, one year later, Atari released Pong, complete with built in paddles, and a speaker. Of course, Pong was a huge success and represented a new stage in the evolution of gaming. Over sixty Pong knock-offs would be produced, but Atari dominated the market.

Next was the implementation of the microprocessor, which the entire industry adopted. As a result of this, more complicated systems could be developed. These systems produced groundbreaking and innovative graphical and auditory effects that had never been seen before. Consumers were eating it up. The industry was on fire. In 1981 alone, five billion dollars were spent on video arcade machines and another billion dollars was spent on home video game systems. Atari’s VCS/2600 system remained the dominant player through 1982, when the gaming market experienced a crash.

What were some of the great games? How about Pac Man? Pac Man, the yellow blob that ate up dots and avoided squid-like ghosts, was a worldwide sensation and probably the biggest game of all time.

Space Invaders was another incredibly popular game. In fact, it really marked a turning point for arcade games, bringing them out of bars and into family friendly places like shops and restaurants. The premise of Space Invaders was to stop an alien invasion. This simple formula went on to become the most successful arcade game of all time.

Then there was Super Mario, which was huge as well. It involved an Italian anti-hero who was deliberately designed as a character that everyone could relate to. Soon thereafter came Zelda, Metroid, and other classics.
Rise and Fall of Atari

Atari was the hottest thing in the gaming world in the early ‘80’s. Today, they are a relic of past glory. So what happened? Atari made some bad decisions, and although it’s a little complicated, it’s helpful to understand the situation. At that time in the computing world, magnetic mediums were implemented in the data storage used in Arcade machines. These mediums allowed for a higher memory capacity than ROM cartridges.

In 1982, Atari had the option to include a disk drive in their systems. The price difference would have been nominal, and the memory capacity would have been significant. Atari, however, thought that magnetic media was too “fragile” for the consumer to adequately handle. Atari's "concern" for the customer backfired on them. In the previous years, there had been a very fine line separating arcade game quality from home game quality. With arcades utilizing storage capacities ten to forty-five times larger than home systems that fine line became a chasm. Arcade games seemed to be evolving exponentially, while home systems seemed "stuck in a time warp.”

The public quickly became uninterested in video game specific consoles, and sales plummeted.

This would mark the end of Atari's reign of the video game market.
The Rise of the New

In 1984, everything changed. The reason? Two innovations: The reduction in cost of Dynamic RAM (DRAM) chips which allowed more memory, and the production of higher power 8-bit processors, which lowered the prices of the previous chips. Sega, a new player in home gaming systems, entered the console market with their Master System 2. The Sega Master system would sell very well, but its success would be limited.

The other key player was Nintendo of Japan. The genius of Nintendo was their marketing prowess, as they poured millions into advertisements. These advertisements hit consumers at the perfect time, as evidenced in their sales. In fact, Nintendo couldn’t manufacture enough systems to keep up with demand. After all was said and done, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) would become the highest selling system in history. They would also become the most notorious, as they were involved in the intimidation of retailers, competing companies, and other suppliers and partners.

Over the next five years Sega and Nintendo would battle for dominance, going back and forth. The consumer definitely benefited from this rivalry.

Today, it’s between PlayStation 2, the Xbox and the GameCube. Xbox has taken the step to merge the past and present, where Xbox "Live Arcade" is a console system that has a "download-like" characteristic where you can buy games via the console itself. One thing in the video game industry will always remain: the classic games of yesterday were great games, helped define an era, and will always be fun.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Games : Video Game History in a Nutshell

The history of the video game does not go back for centuries, but it goes back farther than you may have imagined. The earliest ancestor of the game we play today is a game called “Tennis for Two” that was introduced by inventor John Higginbotham back in 1958. This video game consisted of a horizontal line across the screen with a short perpendicular line to represent the net. In the 1960’s the first interactive video game called Spacewar was invented and then the first game that was played using a television. Then, in the early 1970’s the first video arcade game called “Computer Space” was introduced. Then in the mid1970’s a new little company called Atari came out with a game known as “Pong” that people could play at home. The first two copyrighted video game products were sold in 1980 by Atari. We’ve come far in the past 26 years or so.

Now there are thousands of games on the market and a number of game systems as well. They keep improving the features and the products. You can even download games to play on your cell phone or play a video game on your watch. You can have a game with 3-D graphics, amazing sound quality and realistic movements. The Playstation 2, the X-Box, and the Game Cube are some of the bigger names in the industry. The new Playstation 3 is creating a buzz with its ability to burn DVDs.

There are some concerns associated with the explosion of the video game industry. Children are more obese and less active than ever before and some feel that these games are partially to blame. In response, the video game manufacturers have come up with interactive games with “dance pads” that allow players to replicate dance moves. Some people are also concerned with the amount of violence and sexuality on these games. They see a direct connection with the rise in violence and crime in society. Now the industry is working with an independent advisory board which rates the games for content and age appropriateness. This is a great tool for families who want to control the types of media that come into their home.

The entertainment software industry will continue to improve the products and technology out on the market today in response to consumer demand-the history of this product is far from over, but it has come a long way already.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The History of Chess

The history of chess isn’t especially clear – there’s hardly a country in the world that doesn’t claim to have invented it, including China, Egypt, Greece, Uzbekistan and (most unbelievably) Ireland. Given the evidence, however, it seems most likely than the game of chess has its origins in 6th century India, and was then refined in Persia, from where it travelled to Europe and much later on to America.

The word ‘chess’ itself is believed to be a mangled pronunciation of the Persian word ‘shah’, which means king (and is still used today, as in ‘Shah of Iran’). ‘Checkmate’, in this theory, comes from ‘shah mat’, which is Persian for ‘the king is finished’.

Chess is notable in the development of games because it does not use dice, meaning that there is no element of luck involved – it is a game of pure skill and strategy. One Indian legend has the game being created by a wise man who was asked by a king to create a game that would enhance his mental abilities and have nothing to do with luck.

While India is keen to claim chess, however, it is hotly disputed. Most Chinese people believe that China invented chess, and also believe that the game is far inferior to Go, which is both older and generally considered more difficult. The Chinese point out that Go has existed since at least 2,000BC, and is played without dice, making it a very likely inspiration for chess.

Iran (Persia), on the other hand, claims that chess is derived from its invention of backgammon, and cite writings and poems that seem to put its date further back than the Indian version. There is no doubting that the version of chess that came to Europe we play today came mainly from Persia, but it is difficult to know exactly where Persia got its inspiration from.

The History of Backgammon

The history of backgammon, the oldest known board game, is an interesting one that began almost 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamia. Numerous variations of the game were adopted by other cultures throughout the history of backgammon. Archaeologists continue to discover many similar games in the ruins of ancient civilizations as they explore the intriguing history of backgammon.

The actual name for backgammon comes from a Welsh term meaning “wee battle.” However, the history of backgammon reflects many different names and versions. The aristocracy and slave population of Egypt and Greece played a similar game called, “senat.” The Romans changed the number of dice from two to three and called it “bac gamen” or “back game.” From the Roman civilization, backgammon moved to Persia, where it was again played with two dice in a game called “Takhteh Nard" or "Battle on Wood." During the time of the Crusades, the Anglo Saxon soldiers and traders played yet another version called “Tables” or “Tabula.”

Throughout the history of backgammon, the Church attempted several times to ban the game, but always failed. Cardinal Woolsey, in the 16th century, ordered all the boards burned, calling the game “the devil’s folly.” Burning the boards was useless, however, since any type of board could be drawn in dirt or sand and played with small pebbles. Dice were often handmade and were small enough to be easily concealed on a person or hidden in someone’s home. Furthermore, the English were very clever and decided to disguise the backgammon board as a folding book. Their innovative craftsmanship is still evident in the board we use today.

Edmund Hoyle, the famous writer and gamesman, documented the rules and the history of backgammon in the mid 1700’s. Colonists from England brought backgammon to their homes in America, along with chess and other board games of the times. Although the game of backgammon lost some popularity in the Victorian era, it quickly reappeared and gained strength in the 20th century. At this time, an unknown inventor devised the doubling cube, which offers players the opportunity to multiply their initial wager by the amount on the doubling cube. Of course, some strategy and experience is needed before using the doubling cube.

Tournaments, books, magazines, and clubs are now a part of the history of backgammon. The introduction of the game on the Internet has increased its popularity to an even greater extent. Backgammon is a fast-paced, challenging, and entertaining game of skill and luck.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The History of Mahjongg

During a recent visit to my parent's house I noticed a solid black briefcase on the kitchen table. I was curious as to what was inside. From it's size, I thought it might be a laptop computer. My mom opened the briefcase to reveal several colorful tiles and game pieces. She informed me that it was her Mahjongg tile set. She plays this ancient Chinese game weekly with her friends.

I am a big fan of playing Mahjongg on the computer. I wondered if there were differences in the rules of my mom's physical board game versus my computer game. There are many differences indeed, just as there are many versions of Mahjongg available. The board version is an intense game of strategy, logic, and planning. My mom plays with three other players and has to work with a partner. The computer version I play is basic in comparison as I just try to match tiles together to remove them from the Mahjongg tile pile.

What is the history of Mahjongg? Mahjongg is an ancient Chinese game that has a debatable origin. There are several theories as to who invented Mahjongg. Some believe that Mahjongg wasn't invented until the middle of the 19th century. Believers of this origin maintain that Mahjongg was based on current Chinese card and domino games.

Others believe that Confucius invented the game around 500 BC. Confucius was known as a great Chinese philosopher. The theory that he started Mahjongg is based upon observation that game piece tiles and popularity relate to his philosophies and travels.

Mahjongg made its way to the United States by the early 20th century. The game was translated into English. In 1937 the National Mah Jongg League was created. The rules of Mahjongg were reviewed and revamped.

Who plays Mahjongg? Mahjongg has had a variety of players. The game requires four players and takes a few hours to play. Therefore, it is an ideal game for parties or special occasions. Players in China have played Mahjongg to celebrate life events.

When Mahjongg became popular in the United States it was primarily played by the Jewish population. Mahjongg is now making its way across all backgrounds and age levels. The physical tile game is familiar to the older generation while the computerized version is bringing in the younger generation.

How do you play Mahjongg? Good question. The answer is that it depends. There are basic rules, but rules tend to vary based on the geographic region. The main goal of the game is to find matching tile suits and complete the 14 to 17 tile set. There are rule books that cover the Western version of the game.

The Mahjongg game that my mom plays is closer to the ancient Chinese version then the computerized version I play. She enjoys the complexity and strategy of Mahjongg as well as the benefit of playing with her good friends.

Mahjongg is an exciting game to try whether you want to play with friends or on your own. I find playing the computer versions both entertaining and relaxing. Many games websites, such as Grandmatrix.com, have several PC versions of Mahjongg available. The different versions are akin to the variety of Mahjongg history, rules, and players around the world. Start your exploration of the Mahjongg variations by searching GrandMatrix under the keyword 'Mahjongg' and you will be well on your way to fun!