July 9, 1981
The game that launched two of the most famous characters in video game history is released for sale. Donkey Kong was created by Nintendo, a Japanese playing card and toy company turned fledgling video game developer, who was trying to create a hit game for the North American market. Unable at the time to acquire a license to create a video game based on the Popeye character, Nintendo decides to create a game mirroring the characteristics and rivalry of Popeye and Bluto. Donkey Kong is named after the game’s villain, a pet gorilla gone rogue. The game’s hero is originally called Jumpman, but is retroactively renamed Mario once the game becomes popular and Nintendo decides to use the character in future games.
Due to the similarity between Donkey Kong and King Kong, Universal Studios sued Nintendo claiming Donkey Kong violated their trademark. Kong, however, is common Japanese slang for gorilla. The lawsuit was ruled in favor of Nintendo. The success of Donkey Kong helped Nintendo become one of the dominant companies in the video game market.
June 27, 1972
The iconic video game company, Atari, is founded by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney. Their first video game, Pong, was the first commercially successful video game and led to the start of the video game industry. In 1977, Atari’s Video Computer System (known as the VCS and later the Atari 2600) popularized the home video game market. Before the video game crash of 1983, Atari was the fastest growing company in the history of the United States at the time, and the brand was synonymous with video games.
All those who have enjoyed video games, whether we started playing in the 70’s, 80’s, or just in the last few years, should take a moment to reflect on the company that single-handedly spawned the video game industries we so cherish. I propose that the best way to do that is to … well … stop what you’re doing and play a video game right now!
June 6, 1984
Alexey Pajitnov first releases the game Tetris in the USSR. Tetris will become one of the most popular puzzle video games of all time. Originally programmed for a Soviet-built Elektronika 60 computer, the game was soon ported to the IBM PC, where it spread quickly throughout Moscow and the rest of the USSR. Eventually making its way to Hungary, from there the game was discovered and questionable attempts to license it for sale by various software companies were made. By 1989, half a dozen different companies claimed rights to create and distribute the Tetris software for home computers, game consoles, and handheld systems. Several highly complex and drawn out legal battles ensued in the following years to settle who had the rightful licenses and authority to sell the Tetris game in various formats and countries around the world. Ironically, Pajitnov himself was not able to make any money on Tetris for years because as an employee for the Soviet government, the Soviet State ended up owning the rights. It was only when the rights reverted from the old Soviet government to Pajitnov and he moved to the US in 1996 that he was able to form a company and collect royalties. Then he went on to work for Microsoft … trading one oppressive regime for another it would seem!
May 31, 1991
Sega releases the video game Zero Wing for the Sega Mega Drive system in Europe. The game was never released in North America, and was relatively unknown until years later when the poorly translated opening scene was popularized on the Internet. The most famous mistranslation is the phrase “All your base are belong to us,” which has become a very popular Internet meme.
May 22, 1980
Namco’s upcoming game “Puck-Man” is location tested in a movie theater complex in Japan. After favorable initial testing, the game is slightly tweaked, with the most major change the renaming of the game to “Pac-Man”. Midway, Namco’s U.S. distributor, thought that vandals would alter the letter “P” to an “F”. While the game was not officially released until later in the year (October 10th in the US), the creators of the game consider May 22 to be Pac-Man’s birthday because it was the first time the game was shown to the general public.
One of the little known facts about Pac-Man is that it was specifically developed to be popular with women. Most video games of that time had a war or sports theme to them and women were generally not interested in those games. Pac-Mac would be the first game popular with both men and women and was the first video game to become a social phenomenon. Pac-Mac generated over $2.5 billion by the 1990’s, becoming one of the highest grossing video games of all time.
May 5, 1992
Id Software Inc. releases the game Wolfenstein 3D, the original first person shooter game for DOS computers. The game becomes an instant success, putting id Software on the map and launching the first person shooter genre. If you’re curious, you can play the game today on an iPod Touch, iPhone, or iPad.
March 18, 1974
Atari Introduces Gran Trak 10. It is the first arcade game to use solid state read-only memory (ROM) to store sprites for each car, the game timer, the race track, and the score. As such, it’s the the first game to have defined characters rather than mathematically manipulated dots. The game’s controls, which include a four-position gear shifter, a steering wheel, and two foot pedals, are also all firsts for arcade games.