First, just a little nugget of background information on this piece. This was originally submitted to my Honors United States History II teacher Mr. Bacon, as an extra credit report we students had the opportunity to write. ‘Twas worth 40/40 points, quite the nice chuck of extraness. The purpose behind the report was that we were to chose a topic concerning the 1980’s, either music, politics, culture, or art, and write about four specific examples of which impacted the ’80’s. My original thought was to a report on the effects of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on the then-adolescent crowd, but then I had a different thought. The 1980’s saw the birth of the NES, the great video game depression, numerous famous Atari releases, and other momentous occasions. Why not write about that? So I talked to Mr. Bacon, and he allowed me to write about the effects that four specific video games on their industry. So without further lengthy introduction, here follows my history report:
“The Social Ramifications of Pac-Man, Space Invaders, and Other Comparably Ancient Venues of Electronic Entertainment”
The 1980’s were a turning point in the short history of interactive television entertainment. Prior to this point in time saw the release of the Atari Video Computer System (VCS), later to be known as the Atari 2600. The Atari 2600 is widely accepted as being the first mainstream video gaming console, and from 1977-1984, it saw the release of numerous ground-breaking titles, including Space Invaders, Pac-Man, and Donkey Kong. It was the Atari 2600 that really brought video games to the cultural scene of the United States, for it is with this console that most people began to see video games as something more than a toy for those technically inclined.
Space Invaders, in which the player’s objective was to keep the invading aliens from reaching planet Earth, was released for the Atari Video Computer System in 1980, due to the console’s under-par sales. Today, such a game would be referred to as a “killer app” — that is, a superb game that would make people want to by the system for which it runs. Space Invaders was a major player in bringing video games to American culture; it was the game that made people want to obtain their very own VCS/Atari 2600. Not only was Space Invaders the first ever killer app, it was also the first video game to be adapted directly from an arcade game. Before Space Invaders, developers would make entirely new games for their respective video game systems. Now, with this release, programmers saw that they could take the addictive, quarter devouring games from our nation’s arcades, and release home versions of them, so people would not have to leave the comfort of their couch to partake in their favorite games. Since Space Invaders, rare is it that one finds an arcade game that one is unable to play at home. The only real exceptions to this are games which would not be feasible to play at home, such as racing games that require a steering wheel and pedals, or fantasy space games which require a big plastic rocket ship. Even those are sometimes released for home use, with the various wheels and gear shifts and laser guns replaced with buttons and joysticks on a system’s controller. Because of this new arcade to console concept, it can be said that Space Invaders had a significant impact on the video game industry, for had it not existed, many games today might still be arcade-only.
Another significant release for the Atari 2600 (which was of, by the way, also a game originally found in the arcades) would be that of Donkey Kong, published by Nintendo in 1981. In this video game, the player controlled a rotund plumber named Mario, who was trying to save his princess from the clutches of giant evil monkey named Donkey Kong, all the while having barrels tossed at him. Donkey Kong is important for two reasons: One, it saw the creation of the character Donkey Kong (who went on to be involved with numerous other titles, including Donkey Kong 2, Donkey Kong Country, Donkey Kong Land, and Mario Kart 64), and two, it saw the creation of cultural icon Mario, who would go on to star in countless games of his own over the span of twenty plus years. Mario is the mascot of Nintendo, one of the most popular to-date video game publishers. Mario has gone on to affect nearly every facet of American culture, including cinema, television, and literature (yes — there have been books written describing Mario’s adventures). Mario has earned billions of dollars for Nintendo, has a legion of fans following his legion of games, has been the basis for various spin-off video games (including Wario Land for the GameBoy, and Yoshi’s Story for the Nintendo 64), and is currently the most widely known interactive television entertainment character, being synonymous with the term video game. Had it not for the Atari 2600 game Donkey Kong, the landscape of video gaming would be entirely different. It is said without a shred of doubt that Donkey Kong had a significant impact on the video game industry.
Trailing right behind Mario in the list of video game’s all time greatest characters is Pac-Man. Pac-Man was released by Atari for its 2600 console unit in 1982. In this game, the player controlled a little yellow circle, with a little dot in its upper section to signify its eye, and a sliver cut out of the side to signify its mouth. Your objective in Pac-Man was to consume little yellow pellets strewn all about a maze-like area. While trying to obtain his food sources, Pac-Man would find himself being attacked by ghosts of several colors, whose names included Blinky, Inky, and Speedy. It can be difficult to understand how such simple a game could spawn such great a following. Pac-Man was the first video game to be mass-merchandised. There were Pac-Man action figures, Pac-Man lunch boxes, Pac-Man nightlights, Pac-Man cereal, Pac-Man board-games, Pac-Man Rubix Cubes; the list goes on and on. There’s even a currently available, which focuses entirely on Pac-Man merchandise, entitled Pac-Man Collectibles. Never before had a game been commercialized so much until the release of Pac-Man. There was even a song hitting the airwaves about this cultural phenomenon, entitled “Pac-Man Fever”, by Buckner and Garcia. Pac-Man was sweeping the nation in the 1980’s, and there was no avoiding it. Pac-Man reached all forms of culture, as did Mario; but Pac-Man did it first.
Atari 2600 was not the only gaming system around in the 1980s. Towards the middle of the decade, Nintendo decided to throw their hat into the console ring, and released their Nintendo Entertainment System. The Nintendo Entertainment System was the home for many a legendary video game, including The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Bros. 1 through 3, Duck Hunt, Excitebike, and the original Dragon Warrior. Dragon Warrior (known as Dragon Quest in Japan) was released to American shores in 1989, amid little fanfare. No one, not even the game’s publisher Enix, could have predicted how large an impact its Dragon Warrior would have. In the United States, such a game had never before been seen. There was never such an involved plot in previous video games; the objectives were always just shoot this space ship, jump on that turtle. There was little rhyme or reason to the character’s actions. Dragon Warrior, in effect, introduced the genre of role-playing games (RPG) to the western hemisphere. It followed the basic Dungeons and Dragons style of gameplay; that is, the player assumes the role of a hero of sorts; completely controlling every facet of this character’s life. The player sleeps for it, the player attacks enemies for it, the player talks to people for it, the player buys and sells items for it. Players of Dragon Warrior were free to do as they pleased; they were not constricted by the pixilated boundaries of previous releases. If the player did not feel like fighting that boss yet, the player did not have to. The player could do battle with other, lesser monsters in order to develop the player’s skills, or the player could go around a speak with all of the townspeople, or the player could walk around and see what areas were there to be discovered; the possibilities were virtually endless. In Dragon Warrior, the player assumes the role of the descendent of Sir Edrick, defeater of the fearsome Dragonlord. It has been many, many generations since that event in time, and the Dragonlord has made his grand return to Alefgard, the place which he once terrorized. As the descendent of Sir Edrick, it was the player’s task to defeat the Dragonlord once again, and return peace to Alefgard. In today’s realm of video games that seems like a fairly simple plot, but back then it was unheard of west of Asia. There is an actual story, an actual set of goals, an actual motivation to defeat the villains. Such ideas have been carried over since Dragon Warrior’s release to innumerable other games. Dragon Warrior paved the way for the Legend of Zeldas, the Pokemons, the Final Fantasy’s of latter years. Had Enix not developed Dragon Warrior, the genre of RPG might yet be unknown to the United States. It too had it’s own cartoon, but no cereal or other tchockes. Dragon Warrior paved the way for other games to have such tchockes.
Many games in the 1980’s had an impact in the realm of interactive electronic entertainment; the list is not limited to just Space Invaders, Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, and Dragon Warrior. There was Duck Hunt, the first game to make use of a toy gun attachment for the gaming console, Track and Field, which had the players running on a plastic mat attachment for the gaming console (leading to such games as Dance Dance Revolution in1998, which has its player dancing in time with the character on the screen), Tetris, which created the basic format for all puzzle games to follow, and many, many others. The 1980’s were a defining era in the short history of video games; a time period whose effects will still be felt for generations to come.