The Dawn of Video Games

Posted By at 5:27 PM on Tuesday February 14, 2012


The following article is a Sept. 26th, 2008 reprint of “How the Famicom Was Born – Part 1″ which appeared in the Jan. 31st, 1994 edition of Nikkei Electronics. It was commissioned by Nathan Altice. The names and titles of the businesses and people mentioned in the series are unchanged from how they appeared at the time of the original publication. Click the images to enlarge.

From the Dawn of Games to the Appearance of Built-In Microprocessors

What thought process lead to Nintendo engineers starting development on a domestic game console? The following series attempts to capture the story that lead up to the development and 1983 release of the original incarnation of the Nintendo Entertainment system, Nintendo’s Family Computer, also widely known as the Famicom.

Part 1 picks up the trail in the 1960s, when video games were taking their first breath in America, and follows it through to the mid-1970s, a decade which saw the appearance of game consoles with built-in microprocessors, chips which interpret and carry out instructions, and function as the “brain” of a system. (Booting up your console, for instance, causes the microprocessor to retrieve data from the game cartridge, interpreting this data as instructions to draw the game’s title screen. It then sends further instructions to various mechanisms necessary for executing the task.) Around the end of 1975, an American company called General Instrument (GI) started selling specialized LSI chips for use in video games, creating a US market that saw over 3,000,000 sales a year.

The implementation of RISC chips has expediated the development of a next-gen video game console that enhances 3D graphics functionality. (RISC chips were utilized by Silicon Graphics workstations, which were used to develop the graphics for early pseudo-3D games such as Donkey Kong Country and later implemented in the N64 and PSX.) Major consumer electronics companies such as Matsushita Electric Industrial (now Panasonic) and Sony have entered the market one by one, and the competition to unseat Nintendo has intensified. At the root of it all is the aspiration of these competing companies to achieve the success of the Famicom.

What, then, was Nintendo thinking in 1983 that lead them to produce the Famicom and achieve such success?

Nintendo’s thoughts on the creation of the hardware they’ve developed will no doubt become a guideline for exploring the future of domestic multimedia. Our publication has, accordingly, taken the question of what thought process lead to Nintendo’s hardware engineers developing a domestic game console, and split it into several parts, publishing them in succession.

In part 1, we take a look at the dawn of video game consoles and the rise of the domestic gaming market in America in the mid-1970s. (Fig. 1) During this time, Nintendo had yet to make an appearance in the game industry. “I did, however, have some basic thoughts concerning game consoles in the mid-70s. The Famicom was greatly influenced by the events of the time,” says Masayuki Uemura, father of the Famicom and section chief of the second division of Nintendo’s manufacturing headquarters.

1972: Business Begins

In order to unravel video game history, we have to go back to the early 1960s. It all began when Steve Russell, specializing in computer graphics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in America, began developing a computer program called Spacewar! for Digital Equipment Corporation’s PDP-1, a mini-computer used for scientific calculations. (Fig. 1)

It was 10 years after the creation of Spacewar! that video games were plunged into the world of business. Nolan Bushnell, one of the founders of the American company Atari, was inspired by Spacewar! and went on to develop specialty gaming computers for installation in game centers in the late 60s. In 1972, Atari released Pong, a game based around his ideas, and the arcade business was born.

While Nolan Bushnel was heating things up with his ideas for arcade consoles, another group was looking to get involved in the domestic market. Video game consoles were attracting the attention of a group lead by Ralph H. Baer of Sanders Associates, an American company that produced and sold industrial electronics, due to their potential as a new application for domestic television sets. After the successful development of their system in 1969, Sanders Associates agreed to a licensing contract with American television maker Magnavox. In 1972, Magnavox released the Odyssey, the world’s first domestic game console, to the tune of 100 dollars.

Figure 1

Figure 1

20 Years After Video Games Are Invented, the Famicom Debuts

A rough flowchart of game console history. Video games are said to have originated when Steve Russell, a student at MIT, began developing a game program called Spacewar! on a mini-computer used for scientific calculations. Nintendo’s Famicom was released around 20 years later.

Establishing the Fundamental Look of the Domestic Game Console

The Odyssey, the world’s first domestic game console, came packaged with two controllers, a cartridge with a selection of games, and an antenna switch. (Fig. 2) Masayuki Uemura stated that, because of this, “despite being the first system produced, the fundamental look of the domestic game console had already been established.”

The Odyssey was composed of a number of discrete components (an electronic component with just one circuit element), including 35 transistors. It contained signal-generating circuits to draw pictures on the screen, horizontal and vertical synchronizing signal generating circuits, and RF oscillation circuits, whose circuit blocks had each undergone modularization. (Fig. 2b)

The controllers were equipped with rheostat, which varies the resistance in a circuit, thus altering the frequency of the picture signal when players turned the knobs, changing the positions of the patterns on the television screen and allowing them to progress in the game.

1 Odyssey cartridge allowed you to play around 10 different types of games. Players could select games by switching between cartridges, each of which contained a selection of titles. Every cartridge had a built-in printed circuit board with a different wiring pattern. By changing the cartridge, a different picture signal was generated, allowing players to enjoy a variety of games.

Another feature of the system was the distribution of a semi-transparent sheet that went with each game, sticking to the TV screen and allowing for play. (Fig. 2d) Each sheet had a design that matched a particular game.

It’s intriguing to note that the concept of a game console that hooked up to a cable television network has been around ever since the days of the Odyssey. A Magnavox engineer named Gordon H. Allison Jr. wrote on the idea of people in separate locations being able to enjoy games together using a cable television network in a technological treatise.

Figure 2

Figure 2

A Game Console Composed of 35 Transistors

The Odyssey, the world’s first game console, appeared in 1972 and was sold by Magnavox. Fig. 2a depicts the system’s exterior. Its external dimensions measure 370 mm wide, 230 mm thick, and 95 mm tall. Fig. 2b is the system’s interior. Each of the circuit blocks have undergone modularization. Fig. 2c is an exterior shot of the controllers. Protuberances included, the external dimensions of the controllers measure 160 mm wide, 85 mm thick, and 95 mm tall. Fig. 2d depicts one of the semi-translucent sheets that can be attached to the television screen. One plays by changing the sheet to match each game.

The Advent of the LSI Boom in the Mid-70s

The Odyssey, which appeared on the scene in 1972, didn’t end up becoming a hit. It wasn’t until late 1975 and 1976 that the domestic game console boom lit a fire under the US market. First came Pong, which Atari equipped with a specialized LSI chip in order to reduce its cost. The game shot to popularity when it was released around Christmas, 1975. Riding the waves of its success, more than 20 companies dove into the market, exhibiting their game consoles at the 1976 Summer Consumer Electronics Show. The same year, America saw shipment volumes that exceeded 3,000,000.

What facilitated this boom was the semiconductor technology of the time, which replaced bulky electrical components that would previously have made a console small enough for domestic use impossible. General Instrument, currently famous for its animation compression technology, began marketing specialized LSI chips for use in video games at the end of 1975. As a result, American firms such as National Semiconductor and Texas Instruments began selling them as well. (See chart 1 for details.) The specialized LSI chips of the time integrated picture pattern generating counter circuits and synchronous idle generating circuits. They boasted a variety of functions, enabling the development of a tennis game played by moving the rod-shaped paddles up and down to hit the ball back and forth. Semiconductor makers gathered together to develop these specialized LSI chips in anticipation of a large LSI market that would later extend to calculators and wrist watches.

General Instrument, the leading maker of LSI chips, went on to obtain a large share of the market. At the end of 1976, with more than 20 game console manufacturers adopting the use of its specialized LSI chips, some went so far as to say that the market was determined by GI’s ability to supply them. (Fig. 3)

It seems that the first company in Japan to get on board with the manufacture of specialized video game LSI chips was Oki Electric, who released their version in 1976. Mitsubishi Electric and NEC followed suit in 1977. Mitsubishi’s chips went on to be adopted by Nintendo, while NEC provided LSI chips to Epoch.

Chart 1

Chart 1

Manufacturers of Specialized Video Game LSI Chips (1975-1976)

Figure 3

Figure 3

The Video Game Console Functionality Provided by 1 Chip

A block diagram of a game console using General Instrument’s specialized LSI chip, the AY-3-8500-1. Fig. 3(a) depicts the exterior of Lloyd’s Electronics International’s TV Sports 812, equipped with a built-in chip. Its external dimensions measure 280 mm wide, 205 mm thick, and 75 mm tall. It was made by Japanese calculator manufacturer SYSTEX. Fig. 3(b) shows TV Sports 812′s interior.

Merchandizing Games & Built-In Microprocessors

In 1976, another major development concerning game consoles was underway in America. A US firm called Fairchild had begun marketing the Video Entertainment System (later renamed to the Fairchild Channel F after the release of the Atari 2600, initially called the Video Computer System), a domestic game console that contained the company’s built-in microprocessor, the F8. (Fig. 4) The appearance of a game console with a built-in microprocessor was an answer to the problem of the limited game variety on consoles that utilized specialized LSI chips, an issue that resulted in players getting bored.

The advent of built-in microprocessors began to change the whole business. Fairchild sold stand-alone ROM cartridges containing its game software separate from the console itself. This marketing technique went on to influence future game consoles, including Nintendo’s Famicom.

Figure 4

Figure 4

Game Consoles with Built-In Microprocessors

Fairchild began marketing its Video Entertainment System, a game console that contained the company’s own built-in 8-bit microprocessor, the F-8, in 1976. Not only was it first domestic game console with a built-in microprocessor, it also pioneered the idea of selling cartridges containing game software separately from the systems. Fig. 4a depicts the system’s exterior. Its external dimensions measure 315 mm wide, 335 mm thick, and 90 mm tall. Fig. 4b is an image of VES game cartridges. Each measures 100 mm x 140 mm x 20 mm.

This is the end of part 1. Follow me on Facebook or Twitter for updates! In the meantime…


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