Before 1977 – retrospective

I’m going to start my detailed look into gaming in the year 1977 for a number of important reasons.  But before this blog gets properly underway, I wanted to highlight some of the most important steps in video game history to this point.  After all, nothing just appears at random… its a long succession of development, innovations, and steps taken along the way.

One thing I find fascinating is that when I first thought I would start playing through videogame history, I figured I’d begin with Atari 2600 games.  Then I discovered there were other systems before the Atari came out.  And the more I looked into it, the deeper the rabbit hole became as more and more “firsts” were revealed.  The history of Pong, the early days of “video arcade games”, the development of the first microcomputers, and on it went.  So it’s quite difficult to start a history of video games, because WHERE do you start!?

I’m choosing 1977 as a great place to more fully delve into video game history as it’s a fairly pivotal year.  In 1977 we have not only the launch of the Atari 2600, but ALSO the trinity of the first pre-built microcomputers:  Radio Shack’s TRS-80, The APPLE II, and the commodore PET.  Each had a different market approach, each had benefits and downfalls.  But the 2600 represented the beginning of a new mass market for home consoles, and the three microcomputers (as they were first termed) signaled the beginning of a new home computer wave, where finally people could buy and OWN a computer that was all their own, and not an institutional machine for sharing time with many users.

All this happened in that rich year of 1977. But how did we get there?  Without going too deep down the rabbit hole, there are a few significant items I’d like to zero in on.  Here is a brief list of some of the great landmark events leading to 1977:

NIMROD machine (1952)

1951 – The “NIMrod” machine was on display at the World’s Fair, challenging anybody to beat it at a game of NIM. Really trippy sci-fi stuff here. Dismantled for other things after the Fair, what a shame.

1952 – “Naughts and Crosses” (or “OXO”) written by a Cambridge University student – Alexander S. Douglas. Shortly after was cast aside, thinking of it as a simple program merely to prove a point… but is considered the first graphical computer game.  Also, there were some early military simulation games programmed by Bob Chapman and others.

1953 – Arthur Samuel demonstrates CHECKERS on an IBM 701 computer.

1954 – 1st computer game of Blackjack for the IBM 701, and a crude game of pool was written at University of Michigan.

1955 – HUTSPIEL – The first theater-level war game (NATO vs. USSR) was programmed

1956 – The first version of computer chess was actually programmed by James Kister, Paul Stein, Stanislaw Ulam, William Walden, and Mark Wells on the MANIAC-1 at the Los Alamos Atomic Energy Laboratory. The game was played on a simplified 6 x 6 board and examined all possible moves two levels deep at the rate of 12 moves per minute.

1957 – Alex Bernstein writes the first COMPLETE computer chess program on an IBM-704 computer—a program advanced enough to evaluate four half-moves ahead.

Tennis for Two

1958 – TENNIS FOR TWO by Willy Higinbotham. This experiment was shown at Brookhaven Laboratory at a public display for visitors. The experiment demonstrates interactive control of on-screen game play, though many today do not consider this to have been a real video game, others consider it to be the FIRST actual video game (2-player). The game was played on an oscilloscope display, and was actually the first to allow two players simultaneous control of the direction and motion of the objects. Gravity, bounce, and even wind speed were calculated into game play.

1959 – THE MANAGEMENT GAME – an early simulation game with simulated competition between three companies in the detergent industry and integrated modules on marketing, production, finance, and research. Pretty sweet! I’d want to play that today, although it would be JUST a little out of touch with current markets. Actually, this game has been updated and revised and is still in use in schools of business today – making it quite possibly the longest-running game ever created.

SpaceWar in Action

1962 – The finished version of the mainframe computer game SPACEWAR is written at MIT by Steve Russell.  A 1962 IBM catalog even lists it for purchase. SPACEWAR is probably the best known game that came from the mainframe era. This was a time when computers were still giant machines that were available only at large corporations and college campuses and games were quite limited, due to cost and storage constraints.  Although SPACEWAR even had a version for the Atari 2600, it wasn’t the same game. Basically consisting of a “needle” and a “wedge” you flew around space trying to shoot each other. There was a sun in the middle with gravity that sucked you in, and you could hit the hyperspace button to disappear and reappear somewhere else. SPACEWAR was created in part as a demonstration of the new DEC PDP-l machine.

1966 – Ralph Baer writes a four-page paper describing his ideas for playing interactive games on ordinary television sets. The TRUE father of video games. In 1967 he even has a light gun prototype and a working “ping-pong” game. He applies for his patents in 1968… is displaying a DEMO unit by 1969!

ELIZA – computer psychologist

1966 – ELIZA is programmed into mainframe computers. It was a primitive natural language simulator, and it had modes like DOCTOR – which tried to simulate a typical psychoanalysts response to your statements. “My Mother Doesn’t Love Me” might get a response – “Who else in your family doesn’t love you?” I remember a similar game that I played early on with my Commodore 64. It was “Dr. Sbaitso” and showcased the Creative Labs SOUND BLASTER. Very similar in structure to ELIZA. Anyway, it was this attempt to create a human response that was so inventive, and indeed influenced the natural language parsers of early games like “Adventure” and “DND”.

1967 – Baer has a light gun prototype and working “ping-pong” type game.

1968 – Baer applies for a patent for his TV video game system.

Hammurabi (Apple II version)

1969 – HAMMURABI is released… shortened to HAMURABI to fit an 8-character limit. It is regarded as the first strategy/resource mgmt game.
Baer has a working demo for his TV video game system which is dubbed the “brown box”.

1971 – Magnavox is given an exclusive license to manufacture & distribute Baer’s Black Box.
COMPUTER SPACE – by Nolan Bushnell, is the first commercial coin-op video game.

1972 – the first really BIG YEAR in all video game history:
– PONG created… becomes the first BIG HIT video game, and basically launches Atari!

– Atari was founded, and the name chosen when the first choice of “Syzygy” was already taken

Odyssey 1 – first console

– Odyssey is released, struggles to find a large audience, but still become the first console.  This is the LAUNCH of home consoles, which we now call “Generation 1” or what is generally known as the dedicated consoles (ie. they had pre-programmed uses and didn’t have any cartridges or reprogramability)

1974 – Play Meter magazine publishes first issue (and yeah, I really wish we could read them somewhere)

1975 – Another MONUMENTAL year for videogame history:

Altair 8800 – $399 at launch

– ALTAIR 8800 – The first complete computer you could purchase and assemble from a kit, at a price that home enthusiasts went crazy for.  MITS had no idea the pent-up demand for a homebrew microcomputer that an individual could own.  The personal computer industry begins.

– GUNFIGHT – regarded as the first microprocessor-based arcade video game… although some argue there are some other potential contenders for this crown

Atari’s Home PONG

– HOME PONG – hottest Christmas gift of the year. 150,000 units produced by Atari joint-venture, and sold out.

– ADVENTURE – William Crowther first works on his text adventure game… this becomes the SEED for an entire generation of adventure games, which in turn become one of the main draws for early computers (being so graphically limited, text-only wasn’t really a major drawback in those early years)   Please note: Crowther’s original “Adventure” (aka. ADVENT or Colossal Cave) is added to in 1976-1977 by Don Woods to be a 350-point game with definite points and end goals, and sees widespread mainframe release in 1977.

pedit5 on PLATO – first dungeon crawl/rogue-like game. Along with DND (also on PLATO) helps establish the CRPG-genre.

Fairchild Channel F

1976 – Fairchild Channel-F = the first of the 2nd Generation Consoles.  Generation 2 introduced reprogrammable, cartridge-based, but still quite limited systems. This could also be classified as the “Atari 2600” generation, since that was the clear winner and dominant console of this generation. More advanced 8-bit machines starting around 1982-1983 get placed into the 3rd generation which will be called the “NES Generation.”


Next time we will start to look into major events which began in 1977.


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