My engineering career started shortly after video games appeared. The first arcade video game, Computer Space, was developed by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney and released in 1971. Bushnell and Dabney founded Atari the following year. Computer Space was inspired by another computer game, Spacewar!, which MIT students had programmed into a Digital Equipment Corp (DEC) PDP-1 minicomputer in 1962. Bushnell saw a version of Spacewar! running on a DEC PDP-6 minicomputer in 1969.
Atari’s first arcade game, Pong, was a copy of a table tennis game that Bushnell saw running on the first home video game console, the Magnavox Odyssey, in 1972. Designed by Allan Alcorn, Atari’s Pong was a smash hit. The arcade games started “failing” because their coin boxes filled overnight and would accept no more quarters. Atari was off and running. Magnavox eventually sued Atari for patent infringement and, in an extremely fortunate turn of events, Atari settled out of court while gaining patent rights as part of the settlement. Atari’s Home Pong game machine, based on an early ASIC design created by Atari, appeared in 1975 under the Sears Tele-Games brand.
The stage was now set for the first great flowering of home video game consoles, followed by ups and downs in the market that would shake out big and small players alike. All of that is now chronicled in a newly revised and expanded book by Evan Amos titled “The Game Console 2.0, A Photographic History from Atari to Xbox.” Any video game aficionado will want this book, either for themselves or to give as a gift to another video game enthusiast.
Amos’s book documents 123 video games across nine generations with carefully shot photos of the games and their internal circuitry. Of course, it includes the major milestone consoles including the Magnavox Odyssey, Atari 2600 VCS, Mattel’s Intellivision, Coleco’s Colecovision, Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), Nintendo Game Boy, Sega Genesis, Nintendo Super NES, Sega Saturn, Sony Playstation, Nintendo 64, Sega Dreamcast, Sony Playstation 2, Nintendo DS, Nintendo GameCube, Microsoft Xbox, Microsoft Xbox 360, Sony Playstation 3, Nintendo Wii, Nintendo 3DS, Sony Playstation 4, Microsoft Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and Sony Playstation 5. These game consoles should be familiar to any casual observer of the video game wars. If these names are familiar to you, you’re likely familiar with the external appearance of these consoles, but this book takes you inside many of the consoles and gives you a good look at how electronic design has evolved over the past half century, for that is indeed how long these games have been around.
Although the list of popular games is indeed long, the list of game consoles that disappeared almost immediately after their introduction is also long, and “The Game Console 2.0” helped jog my memory to recall many of the marketing or technical failures in the video game arena. Here are some products from the book that I recall as duds in the market, along with the book’s descriptions of these products and my own recollections:
Fairchild Channel F, $169, 1976
The Fairchild Semiconductor Channel F video game was based on Fairchild’s F8, a 2-chip microprocessor. Image credit: Evan Amos
“The Channel F was the first true video game console, as it was the first to use removable, programmable media in conjunction with a microprocessor. Built by Fairchild Semiconductor, the console was seen as a platform to directly sell its 8-bit microprocessor in the emerging games industry. On release, the Channel F was a step up from dedicated Pong consoles but never quite caught on due to Fairchild’s poor understanding of the gaming and retail markets. The Channel F lacked the innovative action games of its later rival, the Atari 2600, and when console sales stagnated, Fairchild pulled out after only two years on the market.”
First, the Fairchild Channel F used Fairchild Semiconductor’s F8 microprocessor. This was a 2-chip microprocessor with some strange characteristics and a really odd architecture. Mostek infused the F8 architecture into the MK3870 microcontroller, which fared better in the market. Besides the odd architecture, the market failure of the Channel F speaks to the challenges a semiconductor company faces when it tries to enter the consumer market. Game consoles need entirely different ecosystems, consumer-style marketing, and retail savvy. Fairchild Semiconductor had none of these. Intel had similar misfortunes with Microma digital watches during the 1970s. Gordon Moore wore a Microma watch after Intel bought Microma and he referred to the device on his wrist as “my $15 million watch,” because that’s how much Intel lost on Microma.
Commodore VIC-20, $299, 1981
The Commodore VIC-20 was an early personal computer and game machine based on a 6502 microprocessor. Image credit: Evan Amos
“The VIC-20 was a home computer from Commodore, an American electronics manufacturer that had shifted from calculators to the nascent computer market. Commodore focused heavily on a low-cost product offered to the widest audience and wanted its VIC-20 to be available at common retailers and department stores. Compared to contemporary computers, the VIC-20 was compact, affordable, and easily attainable. A hit with young hobbyists and families, the VIC-20 introduced an entire generation to personal computing but its amazing success would soon be overshadowed by Commodore’s next computer, the Commodore 64.”
My family bought a VIC-20 to see if we could turn it into a word processor for a rent-by-the-minute retail concept we wanted to try in Boulder, Colorado. The VIC-20 wasn’t much of a computer. It had a limited keyboard, albeit with full-travel keys. It came with only 5 Kbytes of SRAM and a cartridge slot that could accept either a game cartridge or a RAM expansion cartridge, and its screen image displayed a paltry number of characters (22 columns by 23 rows). Its 8-bit 6502 microprocessor ran slightly faster than 1 MHz. (By this time, Commodore had purchased MOS Technology, the originator of the 6502 processor. Rockwell and Synertek were second-source suppliers.) The VIC-20 was the first personal computer to sell one million units, and although Commodore eventually sold 2.5 million VIC-20 computers due to its low price – towards the end of its life, the VIC-20 sold for just $90 – the computer had a relatively short life. Commodore quickly obsoleted the VIC-20 with the Commodore 64, a far better machine that became a much beloved computer and game machine.
Atari Lynx, $179, 1989
The Atari Lynx was based on a Western Digital 65C02 microprocessor. Image credit: Evan Amos
“The Atari Lynx was a powerful handheld system that featured a full-color, backlit screen. Compared to Nintendo’s simple, monochrome Game Boy, the Atari Lynx was an upscale portable that offered a home-console experience on the go. However, the Lynx’s backlit screen rapidly consumed batteries, and like other post-crash Atari systems, the Lynx suffered from poor advertising, limited retail presence, little third-party support, and long game droughts. The Lynx quickly fell behind the Game Boy in sales and was later replaced by the Sega Game Gear as the preferred color handheld console, shunting the Lynx to a distant third place.”
The video game market crashed in 1983, and Atari was badly damaged. Jack Tramiel bought the computer and home console divisions and created “Atari Corp,” which went on to make the fantastic Atari 1040ST personal computer. The arcade games stayed with Atari Inc, which renamed itself “Atari Games.” Atari Corp introduced the Lynx handheld game console in 1989. It was based on a Western Design Center 65C02 microprocessor running at 16 MHz, so 16x faster than the VIC-20’s 6502. A parts shortage prevented the company from shipping many games, and there were quality control problems, especially screen problems as I recall, as well.
Atari Jaguar, $249, 1993
The Atari Jaguar was based on a Motorola 68000 microprocessor. Image credit: Evan Amos
“The Jaguar was Atari’s last console and the true successor to its 1986 Atari 7800. A powerful but deeply flawed system, the cartridge-based Jaguar had a complicated and difficult-to-use multiprocessor architecture. The system had all the troubles of other post-crash Atari consoles: a small game library, limited retail presence, and little third-party support, which all added to Atari’s long-tarnished reputation that kept developers and consumers away. The Jaguar struggled and, even after multiple price cuts, sold fewer than 150,000 consoles after three years. Its failure marked the end of Atari as a company, which effectively ceased operations and sold off its assets.”
By the time of its introduction, Atari as a company was so broken that the Atari Jaguar was an endangered species. It seemed like a mythical animal because it was very hard to find on store shelves. The Jaguar’s failure essentially ended Atari’s reign as a game and computer manufacturer. Truly a sad end to a company that had once led the game industry. These days, the operating company named Atari SA is a rebranded French games company formerly known as Infogrames Entertainment, which ended up with the original company’s assets through acquisition.
Evan Amos’s book “The Game Console 2.0” is chock full of information that’s sure to churn up many memories for anyone who’s spent much time playing video games. If you’re at all interested in the subject, get yourself a copy and let those memories roll.