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Pong to Pokémon

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I am going to curate an exhibit on the history of video games. Since all twenty of my readers are (collectively) smarter than me, I thought I'd put my research notes here.

Physically, the exhibit will take up about four large display cases, with some possibility of room enough for, oh, a stand-up arcade machine. I'm still working out the nature of the exhibit, but here's my first thoughts:

Organization

I can't cover the whole history of video games in four display cases, no matter how small I make the type, or how long I make the interpretive audio clips. What I can do is highlight a few themes that I hope will excite an audience that has almost certainly played video games without thinking hard about the nature of video games.

I am planning in terms of three themes:

Why are games fun? In this section, I hope to have an illustrated (animated?) description of the nature of video games. In this, I'll heavily fall on the ludology side of the ludology vs. narratology debate. But I think the best way to explain this is with a concrete example of game mechanics (Pac-Man's ghosts may be a good example, because their AI is simple, explicable, well-documented, and at the core of arguably the most famous video game ever made).

How do games work? This would probably end up being a simple exploded-view of a console game system, showing what I consider the common parts to any video game setup: input device, game code, processor, display. It's no coincidence that this is roughly how you describe any computer.

As I think about this, I may make the Pac-Man-ghost (or whatever) AI explanation part of the second theme, not the first. It's specifically a mechanics issue, and would tie in the importance of software to the nature of games, even over hardware.

A bestiary of games. At first thought, this was going to be a selection of the most important game-playing machines, divided into four classes: arcade, computer, console, and mobile (this category encompassing the Game and Watch, the Game Boy, the N Gage, and the iPod Touch). I'm still thinking in those terms, but I realized I was grossly over-emphasizing hardware instead of actual individual games. People care about Mario, not the NES; Elite, not the C64.

Here's my long lists of systems and then games that should be included. Comments and corrections most welcome:

  • One or two Pong-type consoles, just to represent the vast panoply
  • Odyssey 1
  • Odyssey 2
  • Atari 2600
  • Colecovision
  • Intellivision
  • Vectrex? (cool, but not important)
  • Commodore 64 (representing, really, all the 8-bit game machines)
  • NES
  • Super NES
  • Game and Watch
  • one of the tabletop LED portables?
  • Game Boy
  • Game Gear
  • 3DO? (nowhere in the marketplace)
  • Sega Genesis
  • Sony Playstation
  • PC with an early 3D card (3dFX Voodoo?)
  • Nintendo 64
  • Nintendo Gamecube
  • Sony Playstation 2
  • Sony Playstation 3
  • XBox
  • XBox 360
  • Nintendo Wii
  • Nintendo DS
  • Arcade machines: Pong, Space Invaders, Pac Man, Donkey Kong, Galaga, Asteroids, Street Fighter 2, Mortal Kombat, Frogger, Golden Axe, Time Crisis (or some other gun game) Tetris? Daytona USA, Virtua Racing, Defender, one or two very recent machines?
  • current gamer PC
  • Nokia N-Gage
  • Apple iPod Touch
  • Sony PSP

Games (I won't break out the various versions in most cases, and I'll exclude arcade units):

  • Pong
  • Atari 2600 Pac Man
  • Atari 2600-era shovelware
  • Tetris
  • Ultima 1
  • Rogue/Nethack/some other Roguelike
  • an Infocom text adventure or two
  • Doom
  • Combat
  • Pitfall! (and other Activisions?)
  • Intellivision baseball
  • Tecmo Bowl
  • Super Mario Bros.
  • Lode Runner
  • M.U.L.E.
  • SimCity
  • Civilization
  • Minesweeper
  • Solitaire (as an example of a pure conversion of an existing non-video game)
  • Pokemon
  • Coleco Smurfs?
  • Sonic the Hedgehog
  • Gran Turismo
  • Night Driver
  • Quake
  • Wii Sports
  • SSX
  • Final Fantasy...VII?
  • King's Quest
  • Leisure Suit Larry
  • Elite
  • perhaps a range of sports games, to show the evolution of complexity, eg Football through the Ages
  • Blades of Steel
  • NHL 95
  • Gauntlet (arcade?)
  • Oregon Trail
  • Rocky's Boots
  • Dragon's Lair (arcade?)
  • Shenmue (only on this list to shut Sega Fanboy #1 Chang up)
  • a selection of more recent Flash, casual, and Indie/experimental games

I really need to spend more time thinking about the game selection. This is neither comprehensive nor well-balanced. Here's a near-useless starter list.

Other artifacts: joystick designs, joypad designs, DDR pad (DDR!), Guitar Hero guitar, misc cartridge formats, box art, screenshots, video demos, paddle controller, driving wheel, arcade-class game-specific hardware (like Prop Cycle), Wiimote/Nunchuk, ?

Comments

Shenmue was not the greatest

Shenmue was not the greatest Dreamcast game; certainly not the greatest Sega game though I suppose one could make a case for its crazy ambition making it among the most important. I would say really, Virtua Fighter 2 (or 4), Virtual On, Crazy Taxi, or Sega Rally (?) best embody the core spirit of Sega games.

I'd skip having both LSL and King's Quest, but maybe you can make a case for them. You might want to add a Lucasarts game - both Sierra and Lucasarts made very funny graphic adventure games, but the latter also made their games unloseable through robust design, unlike the learn-by-dying model of Sierra's games.

I would suggest adding GTA3 - this was /the/ system seller for PS2s for a while. And Warcraft/WOW - the former to represent the RTS genre and the latter because its impact has been astonishing. And a flight sim of some sort.

SF2 is definitely a must. The impact it had on the arcade game market and arcade culture is hard to overstate.

I could write a whole paragraph about the fitful history of networked games. Xtrek, MUDs, Doom on LANs, the work that went to making FPSes playable on modems and modem-connected internet, the Dreamcast's Chu Chu Rocket and Phantasy Star Online, Halo 2 & Xbox Live, digital distribution with PSN & XBLA & iTunes...

The N-Gage was not all that important to gaming history IMO. OTOH, the Neo-Geo might be. It was certainly a laudable experiment - provide a machine that was literally the guts of a true arcade machine for the home. And it was outrageously expensive too.

You might want to have an ultra-modern graphics showcase game like Uncharted 2 or Crysis to show off the full progression from Spacewar to now.

more games

How about:
Warcraft
Command and Conquer
Sims

not that I claimed to have spent zillions of hours on them.

For sports games I know this is not big in North America but Super Volleyball was a classic at its time for realistic game play.