Gaming Through the Ages

Take a look at evolutions in gaming over the past few decades

It's safe to say that gaming has evolved into quite a phenomenon over the years. What started as a "cool craze" in the early 80's leading into the 90's has now become one of the most popular sources of entertainment to date, surpassing even television and movies. But, believe it or not, there are a few trends that seem kind of similar between gaming then and now, so I thought I would delve into a few examples as to how much the changes have affected us — and what has managed to stay the same in the conversion.

Some examples I'll be taking all the way from the arcade heyday of the early 80's, while others will be yanked from the 90's and this current generation. With each one, you'll find connection, as well as change that has helped move along the idea of what gaming has become.

Online Gaming

THEN: The idea of networkable gaming was just a twinkle in someone's eye until the early 90's, when community gaming through PC's was born. Games such as Doom and Wolfenstein 3-D began garnering a huge hardcore audience, although connection issues and bugs occasionally came into play with games that weren't really meant to be networkable. Fortunately, it wouldn't be long until companies started establishing more focused gaming networks, allowing for multiplayer competition.

In late 1994, a company called Catapult introduced a device called the XBand, which was made for both the SNES and Sega Genesis systems. Made up of a cartridge with a built-in modem, this was the first example of network gaming for consoles, although it didn't have the official support of neither Sega nor Nintendo. Many games were supported through this service, which billed $4.95 a month for up to 50 connects in a game — excluding online time of $3.95 an hour. The service allowed you to build friend lists and keep mail via an Xmailbox, although commands were hard to input through a controller. (Catapult did sell a keyboard separately, however.)

The XBAND service eventually folded under pressure from lack of support from publishers, as well as long distance "hacks" that ate into Catapult's profits. The only game to be stamped with an XBAND logo for approval was Namco's under-received brawling game Weaponlord. However, in its wake, Sega decided to take a gamble with its own online service. And thus, the Netlink service was born in 1996 for the Sega Saturn console.

Although Netlink was pretty popular and enabled chat and web-surfing ability, there were only a handful of games supported by the service, including Sega Rally, Saturn Bomberman, and Duke Nukem 3D. However, Sega would shape this early network into SegaNet, using the PlanetWeb browsing service. This would become a gigantic feature with the company's next console, the Sega Dreamcast, which arrived in 1999. Since that time, however, both the service and the console have gone under, in the wake of Sega's dedication to third-party software.

NOW: Online gaming has become a big feature in many games — and has become widely supported by the major gaming companies. Microsoft provides its own service — Xbox Live Arcade — for both the Xbox and Xbox 360 consoles; Nintendo has its Wi-Fi Connection service in place for Nintendo DS players, and will be providing it for Nintendo Wii upon its launch; and Sony will provide gamers with its own PlayStation 3 Network plans when the PS3 arrives next month. All three will feature various comprehensive features, including storing friends' lists, providing email, and gaining access to special events, tournaments, and promotions. So, as you can see, the XBAND and Sega web-based services weren't a total waste — they very well may have shaped the browsers we're seeing pop up today.

Oh, and on a side note, online gaming is also huge in the PC arena. MMO-based games such as World of Warcraft and City of Heroes have thousands of players dropping in and out at will; first-person shooters such as Half-Life 2: Episode 1 and F.E.A.R.

have a variety of leagues still going; and, of course, the Internet has exploded into a huge source for data and community. And you thought all that time building Doom mods was just a hobby...

THEN: Downloadable games didn't really take off until Sega introduced an online gaming service called the Sega Channel. This service was launched for the Sega Genesis in 1994, in conjunction with Time Warner Cable and TCI Inc., allowing gamers to download games through a cable adapter. The service was a bit hit for the two-plus years it lasted, allowing access to fifty different Genesis games per month for a meager $15 charge. Through Sega Channel, gamers had access to tips, contest, reader submissions, and, most importantly, demos of upcoming games, as well as big hits and exclusive titles. The service folded in 1997, when the Sega Genesis ceased production and Sega worked on the more advanced Saturn console. Unfortunately, the company did not reintroduce this service with any more of its consoles.

NOW: Game downloads are pretty commonplace. Xbox Live Arcade on the Xbox 360 gives players access to a number of downloadable games, including arcade classics such as Pac-Man and Smash T.V., as well as newer games such as Geometry Wars Evolved and Mutant Storm Reloaded. 2007 should be an even bigger year for the service, as bigger games are on the horizon for it. Players can look forward to such games as Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Castle Crashers, and a variety of others.

Not to be outdone, Nintendo is offering a vast library of its own with its Virtual Console service for the Nintendo Wii. For a few meager points (converted from cash transactions), players can gain access to a number of titles from Nintendo's NES, SNES, and Nintendo 64 game libraries, as well as titles from the Sega Genesis and Turbo-Grafx 16 systems. Although full game lists haven't been established yet, Nintendo has confirmed a few big titles for next month's launch of the service, including Super Mario 64 and Super Mario World.

As for Sony, the company have a few plans of its own in offering game downloads. The Sony PSP will soon see a downloading service that will allow gamers to access classic PlayStation 1 games on its system, and the PlayStation 3 Network will hook up gamers with several games similar to that of Xbox Live Arcade's offerings, including the innovative Internet-based game flOW.

Technical Features

THEN: A lot of game systems touted specific features that some of the competition didn't really have. Take the SNES, for example. Nintendo's 16-bit console showed off the technology of Mode 7, which would allow for the scaling and rotation of certain objects. This technology moved the system along with more advanced games, including Super Mario Kart and Konami's Castlevania and Contra games.

Not to be outdone, Sega inputted two 32-bit RISC processors in its Sega Saturn console upon its release in 1995, which gave the system the kind of horsepower usually saved for its arcade games. Unfortunately, the technology ended up being a wee too much advanced — many third-party developers couldn't get the hang of developing for the system, leading to its eventual demise.

In 1996, Nintendo continued to march on the cartridge warpath with the Nintendo 64 system, showing off the "liquid animation" abilities similar to that of the T-1000 from Terminator 2: Judgment Jay. This became most apparent with the appearance of Liquid Mario in Super Mario 64, running around almost in full metallic mode. However, developers found themselves struggling, this time with the cartridge format. (This was probably the move that forced Square Enix to shift development of Final Fantasy VII from the N64 to the PlayStation.


Finally, CD-ROM technology really evolved with gaming in the early 90's with the introduction of two game devices — the Sega CD add-on (which snapped into the Sega Genesis), and NEC's Turbo-Grafx CD add-on. With these, games were able to store more data, and provide a better soundtrack than what could be produced on a cartridge format. The CD technology has since moved along to higher ground, particularly with the Sony PlayStation.

NOW: Nowadays, technology is being pushed more and more in video games. Sony introduced the advantage of DVD-ROM formatted games with its PlayStation 2 console in the year 2000; Nintendo finally shifted to a mini-disc format with the Nintendo GameCube in 2001; and the next-gen consoles, both the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3, look ready to utilize HD-DVD and Blu-Ray, respectively. The face of technology is changing quickly, and, with that, consoles are becoming more advanced. Fortunately, the games remain just as much fun as they always have — even if they are more expensive.

THEN: When the NES and Sega Master System were introduced in the mid-80's, not many innovations existed with controllers, aside from rapid-fire button functions and the occasional massive joystick release, such as the NES Advantage. The same goes for the Sega Genesis and SNES pads, although both of them expanded with a few more buttons with proper placement. It was with the following generation, however, that controllers began to take shape with this design. The PlayStation, Nintendo 64, and Sega Saturn featured controllers that supported analog play, enabling gamers to get a better sense of control with their thumb than they would on a tired old D-pad. The PlayStation introduced a Dual Shock technology that would feature "rumble", where the controller would shake with certain functions in the game. Not to be outdone, Nintendo released an accessible "Rumble Pak" that got released with StarFox 64.

NOW: Analog control has been tightened down for more precise movement. Push an analog stick ever so slightly in one direction and you have a slower speed. Press it all the way in a direction and a person could take off in a sprint. Games such as Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty and Ninja Gaiden demonstrated the use of analog controls perfectly. Buttons also became more pressure sensitive, sometimes telling the difference between a light punch and heavy punch. A good example of this is Dead Or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball and the pool hopping game, where you have to be careful jumping on floating pads. Hit too hard and you'll clear one entirely and take a dip in the pool.

But this next generation looks to be even more high-tech than ever before. The Xbox 360 controller not only has a wireless model that works more efficiently than previous wireless pads (including the Nintendo WaveBird for the GameCube), but it also features a glowing "X" button that automatically pulls up an interactive menu system to help move you along. The PlayStation 3 controller will introduce similar features, enabling gamers to access a "home" feature while enjoying comfortable wired or wireless play.

The difference with this generation, however, lies in maneuverability. The Xbox 360 controller doesn't take advantage of this, but the Nintendo Wii's controller, the Wii-mote, does. Movement is key in playing a number of Wii games, using it for steering in racing games such as Excite Truck and Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam or for action movements in Ubisoft's Red Steel. The PS3 controller will eventually use this technology as well with such games as Warhawk and Gran Turismo HD.

This is just a small set of examples as to how gaming's really changed over the years. But you can see that even the smallest of roots have left ripples in the tide that other teams have picked up upon. Now all that's left to see is where today's gaming techniques and gadgets will help change the face of gaming in the future. It'll certainly be interesting to see...

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.