Bringing the games home: the console revolution
The migration of gaming from the arcade to the lounge-room caused a huge sensation during the early 80s, although it wasn’t until the middle of the decade that the movement stabilised and began to grow into the billion dollar industry we know it as today. Leading the charge at the start of the decade was Atari, and their flagship console the 2600, which boasted game titles and industrial design superior to its dozens of imitators and competitors. The design that most people would be familiar with is the third generation of the console, released in 1980.
The casing was fairly minimalist, predominately black with wood-grain paneling and featured four switches and a cartridge port (the first to do so). In these pre-control pad years, the 2600 came with a joystick that featured one big bright orange button that was able to withstand furious thumb thrashings. While the console received numerous design refreshments and system upgrades during its time, this classic casing remains one of the most iconic from the decade.
The Atari logo was a carry-over from the 70s and is still one of the most instantly recognizable in the industry. It is made up of one straight line running down the middle and a curved line on either side, both joining the centre line at the end. The Atari font, which was also used on the majority of their game packaging is a bespoke design, largely influenced by the Bauhaus family of typefaces. It has that quasi-futuristic feel of science fiction books and films of the period. Packaging for the 2600 carries many of the hallmarks of the decade including the use of a rainbow motif. In the case of the 2600, it’s a fairly restrained single block line beneath the logo, however if you look at any console packing or advertising from the decade, you’re bound to see rainbow colours used (and overused) in some way.
Atari rose to prominence with their console adaptation of Pac Man, still one of the most recognisable and successful game franchises of all time. Pac Man became a cultural phenomenon and helped the Atari 2600 reign at the top of the console heap. While the Atari 2600 dominated the first half of the decade, it met its demise during the video games crash of 1983, a commercial disaster that Atari played a huge hand in. Ultimately the combination of rushed, poorly designed titles, such as the colossal flop E.T – an almost unplayable adaptation of the film – and a market which had become flooded by consoles, lead to the industry effectively coming to a screeching halt.
It wasn’t until two years later when Japanese company Nintendo released their breakthrough device, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), that the industry began to roar back to life. This next generation of consoles were remarkably different beasts to those that came earlier in the decade, making those forerunners look like relics in just a few short years. Designed by Masayuki Uemura, the NES featured a much more futuristic look than the 2600, with the black and woodgrain superseded by grey, white and red, and the cumbersome, inflexible joystick replaced with a more logical flat control pad.
It was a little Italian plumber named Mario who helped Nintendo cement their place in video game history, and to continue as one of the world’s most successful console and game development studios to this day. Following his modest but unforgettable first appearance in the original Donkey Kong arcade game, the character and his universe was expanded into the game Super Mario Brothers, the first of many breakthrough hits for Nintendo. The graphic and sound design of this and other new titles blew away anything that came before. While still primitive by today’s standards, they featured sprites and animation that actually began to resemble real life objects and interactions. These developments combined with advances in plot and characterisation were ultimately more immersive and enjoyable for the gamer.
Numerous studios and developers soon jumped on this new wave, with even Atari introducing new consoles in an attempt to climb back to the top. Their 7800 model, the result of thousands of focus groups and market studies, featured much sleeker design, expansion ports, and the ability to play 2600 games. Newcomers Sega would release no less than three major consoles before the end of the decade, the Master System, it’s successor the Mega Drive and finally the Genesis. While all three units were technically superior to the NES, boasting better graphics and sound quality, they simply didn’t have the blockbuster titles of Nintendo. Sega also seemed to lack the design finesse and clear vision of Nintendo, and both systems looked considerably more dated than the NES.
Both Sega and Nintendo launched highly desirable accessory upgrades over the years, including steering wheels, 3-D glasses and laser guns. Most famous (or infamous) of these was the disastrous Power Glove, a cumbersome, imprecise and hard to use controller that was literally worn as a glove. Despite the poor critical and commercial reception of the glove, the technology behind it paved the way for the revolutionary Nintendo Wii.
While the start of the decade was all about funky colour and cartoony design, the second half seemed more concerned with presenting a vision of the future. Nintendo had a particularly active and aggressive campaign, which featured bolts of lightning, exploding televisions, eerie mists and the message that you the gamer could harness the power of new technology. It may seem incredibly cheesy now, but ultimately it must have worked, as the company continued to dominate the Japanese, American and world markets well into the early 90s.
Want to play some games now?