Greatest Years in Gaming History: 1983

Greatest Years in Gaming History: 1983

We complete our weeklong celebration of the most important years in gaming by taking a good look at the year when the medium's roots truly began to take hold.

Looks like it's up to me to rep the old guard. Sure, 1991, 1995, 1998, and 2007 were great and all, but let's not forget our roots.

If those years seemed to stand tall for gamers, it's because they stood on the shoulders of giants — or a giant, anyway: 1983. If not for the events of 1983, gaming as we know it would be a far different, and likely far lesser, creature.

During the gaming industry's collapse in 1983, fire sale ads like this were common.

Of course, most game enthusiasts who know their history most likely know 1983 as the year of the video game industry crash, which began with Warner Communications' dire financial report in the fall of 1982. Thanks to the dreadful performance of Atari's 2600 market, Warner (which had purchased Atari several years prior) suffered its single greatest annual loss ever. Within a matter of months, the entire U.S. games industry cratered, and home console earnings for 1983 ended up being roughly 90% below the industry's 1982 numbers.

Pac-Man is often cited as one of the games that helped precipitate the collapse of the gaming industry in 1983. Not surprising, really. It seemed to be a success with 7m units sold, but Atari actually made 12m cartridges - more than there were Atari 2600 systems.

For the young industry — home games had only existed since 1975, when Home Pong debuted — it seemed like a fatal flame-out. And indeed, for several years games appeared to have been a fad whose time had come and just as quickly gone. And perhaps that would be true, if the sum total of video games consisted entirely of the American market. The great thing about 1983, however, is that it gave the rest of the world the opportunity to say, "No, we can make games, too." Freed of the Atari 2600's suffocating grip — or rather, its haphazard business model — the games industry could expand and mature.

Console games could easily have been a fad. America loved its dumb fads in the '70s and '80s: Pet rocks, Trolls, polyester, Rubik's Cube, disco, roller skating, etc. Video games could easily have gone the way of short shorts worn with white striped over-the-calf tube socks: Everywhere one minute, gone the next as the nation came to its collective senses and realized what a terrible idea they were.

There was little rhyme or reason to video game sales in those days; distribution and release dates operated without the reliable, centralized system used today. Arcade cabinets popped up in the unlikeliest locations. Video games weren't really an industry unto themselves so much as an aberrant collision between consumer electronics and toys, and they failed to carve themselves a permanent niche.

Warner makes the headlines as Atari's catastrophic losses begin to drag the company down.
ET - one of the games responsible for those catastrophic losses.

Once Activision opened the floodgates for third-party publishing on 2600, the unregulated madness that ensued destroyed any sense of value to video games. Without a proper press or social media to guide consumers away from shoddy products, simply buying a video game became a risky proposition. You could end up with a future classic like Pitfall!, or you could end up with junk like Fire Fly or Bugs. Many factors contributed to the video games crash, but to distill it down to its essence the main culprits were an oversaturated market, fading public interest, and a lack of forward-thinking tactics by everyone involved.

The American video game business was a rotten, chaotic mess in 1983, and sometimes the best way to move forward is to burn it all to the ground and start afresh. Atari (and more to the point, its reckless, unwanted, unregulated third parties) practically salted the earth. But even so, just as clearing out a choking mass of weeds will allow a garden to thrive in the new space, so did Atari's demise give rise to a more varied and more sustainable games industry.

Frogger's entertaining, non-violent gameplay was a big hit with early female gamers.

Perhaps the most important thing to happen in 1983 was the rise of Japanese console development. Japanese game companies had dominated in arcades, with many of the top titles of the golden age hailing from overseas. Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Donkey Kong, Galaga, Dig Dug, Frogger, and countless others demonstrated the keen adaptability of Japanese game designers. Despite the language and cultural barriers existing between America and Japan, those import cabinets became massive hits — their simple action and compelling visuals made them worldwide favorites.

It wasn't until 1983 that Japanese manufacturers became to train their sights on the console market. Within the space of a month, no less than three systems of Japanese origin made their way to the market: The MSX computer/console hybrid standard, Sega's SG-1000 console, and Nintendo's Famicom Computer, which Americans would come to know as the NES. Intellivision and the 2600 (rebranded as the Atari 2800) had seen some modest sales successes in Japan, but they couldn't begin to compare to the popularity of the Famicom and, to a lesser degree, the MSX. Within a year, it was almost as though American systems had never appeared in Japan. With Mattel and Atari fighting for basic survival in the U.S., they had little interest in (and few resources available for) fighting for a place in a small foreign market half the world away.

A redesigned version of Nintendo's Famicom would arise, phoenix-like from the ashes of the US games industry as the NES.

Without more established foreign competition to worry about, Nintendo, Sega, and the participants in the MSX coalition had an entire market to themselves — and a magnificently booming market at that. Japan was in full economic bubble mode by 1983, and the rise of its home games industry coincided with the rapid gains of the post-war reconstruction. Japanese consumers had plenty of free cash to spend on games, and all manner of companies were eager to get in on it.

While the gold rush that followed in the wake of the Famicom's strong debut could have resulted in a crash identical to America's, Nintendo had learned their lesson from Atari and put strict controls in place for third parties. They instituted a strict licensing system, limiting the amount of software that could enter the market and ensuring a certain minimal level of quality and reliability in third-party games to prevent the American race to the bottom.

An ad for the SG-1000. Probably wouldn't work so well for Western audiences.

Consolation Prize

Meanwhile, Sega got its toes wet as a first-party console maker with the SG-1000, paving the way for the modest international success of the Master System and the blockbuster popularity of the Genesis. While the SG-1000 ultimately amounted to a tiny blip on the radar, it allowed Sega a foot in the door at retail. It also helped the company establish the internal development resources that would serve it well for the Master System era, when Nintendo had third parties under its thumb; thanks to the SG-1000, Sega had the means to code its own versions of popular licensed games, allowing it to offer players current hot hits without third parties breaking their contracts with Nintendo.

Mario Bros introduced Mario's brother to gamers around the world.

As for the MSX, it provided an effective bridge between console and computer, giving rise to a number of brilliant original games, conversions, and ports. And 1983 saw Japanese computer developers explode into newfound levels of confidence and creativity. Whether on the inexpensive MSX or the high-end PC-8801, PC owners bore witness to the birth of entirely new forms of gameplay. Historical strategy simulation Nobunaga's Ambition debuted in 1983, putting a decidedly Japanese twist on the nascent strategy genre. Hudson introduced Bomberman, and while the original version lacked the distinctive style and large-scale competitive the series is best known for, the fundamentals that would drive the franchise for 30 years appeared almost fully formed. And finally, the real-time strategy genre came into being with the esoteric but clever Bokosuka Wars, which married strategic substance to an action-packed no-nonsense interface.

It might look beige and boring, but NEC's 8801 PC was a hugely influential machine in Japan, and was the platform that delivered several groundbreaking games.
Bokosuka Wars - one of the very first RTS games.

Personal computing

Strategy gaming got its second kick in the pants around the same time in the West, where the collapse of the console industry did nothing to impede the growing PC market. On the contrary, the dissolution of Atari only helped strengthen PC gaming. American developers became intensely gunshy of the console market and would take the better part of two decades to properly reorient itself on that particular space, but the resources they diverted from console games were poured into computer games.

M.U.L.E. enabled two remote players to battle together using a modem.

1983 saw the birth of a PC gaming renaissance, and foremost among the new wave of games was Dani Bunten's revolutionary M.U.L.E. Unlike Bokosuka Wars, M.U.L.E.'s turn-based mechanics allowed players plenty of time to make their moves... but the important thing was that it was about players. Forging ahead in history, M.U.L.E. let multiple people compete against one another, by way of those newfangled "modems" if they were so inclined, hoarding and assigning resources and maneuvering for an advantage through trading goods as they raced to be the first to colonize an uninhabited planet.

Ultima III upped the RPG ante, and set a template that would be followed by many subsequent games.

A lesser (though no less valid) form of strategy took shape in the freshly minted Origin Systems' Ultima III: Exodus. The third chapter in the RPG saga broke from the design of its predecessors while bringing the trilogy to a rousing finale. Gone were the wireframe dungeons and far-flung science fiction elements, replaced with overhead battle scenes that recalled the genre's origins in tabletop gaming. The immense and complex quest forced players to unravel the mysteries of the moon gates scattered throughout the land of Sosaria while completing a variety of quests. It marked a new beginning for the series and shaped countless RPGs to come.

Sierra On-Line's King's Quest would prove to be similarly influential. The graphical adventure genre descended from RPGs by way of Zork, but with King's Quest the format truly came into its own. The platform genre also took several leaps forward in 1983. B.C.'s Quest for Tires offered a brave last gasp for the dying console medium, innovating the "runner" style action game 25 years before iPhone made it a thing; Doug Smith's Lode Runner converted the trap-em-up puzzle action style of the obscure Heiankyo Alien into an accessible but challenging side-scrolling format; and Spelunker was just plain mean. Interesting, both Lode Runner and Spelunker began life as American-developed PC games, but both appeared as early releases for Nintendo's Famicom and through that stroke of good timing ended up becoming massively popular fan-favorites in Japan — a perfect example of the medium's international shift in 1983.

One of the first Rare games, Jetpac on ZX Spectrum was a massive hit with European gamers.
It looks basic, but back in 1983, Jetpac was cutting-edge stuff.

And finally, perhaps the most significant Western debut in 1983 came in the form of Ultimate Play the Game, the British studio that would eventually come to be known as Rare. No company was more emblematic of the British gaming scene of the '80s than Rare, a troupe of technical geniuses with an uncanny knack for squeezing every ounce of performance out of a game system. They made the ZX Spectrum do things that left audiences stunned, and once the NES began to gain traction they did the same on that platform as well. Rare wasn't simply content to dabble in the NES, though. Legendarily, they cracked the copy protection on the NES as their entrée into the platform; eventually, they would become the go-to developer for Western studios looking to get in on the action, eventually becoming a key partner for Nintendo and later Microsoft.

Arcades soldier on

Console games may have been on the outs in 1983, but arcades continued their golden age of content and profitability. Dozens of great new titles arrived in arcades that year, ranging from sequels to beloved properties to entirely new works.

Dragon's Lair's stunning cartoon graphics helped it become an overnight sensation in 1983, but its legacy is the concept of QTE gameplay.

Foremost among the new creations to arrive in arcades that year was Dragon's Lair. Though history doesn't regard Dragon's Lair with the utmost kindness, it represented a major leap for game technology. With visuals consisting of hand-drawn cel animation streamed from LaserDisc, Dragon's Lair looked like nothing that had come before it. In every way, it was the first interactive movie; players controlled a hero named Dirk the Daring as he ventured forth to rescue an abducted (and scantily clad) princess named Daphne. Admittedly, "controlled" may be too generous a word; Dragon's Lair essentially consisted of non-interactive video sequences punctuated by action points at which players needed to intuit an input to avoid a trap or slay a monster. Though barely interactive, the game dazzled with its gorgeous visuals, and its blend of cinematic presentation matched by minimalist player input inspired countless games from the "Siliwood" projects of the '90s to last year's Ryse: Son of Rome for Xbox One.

An even more impressive marriage of movie and game came with Atari's Star Wars arcade game. Though not the first attempt to translate LucasFilm's theatrical smash into video game form, it was by far the best. Thanks to its vivid color vector graphics, Star Wars replicated a rudimentary 3D first-person cockpit view of an X-Wing starfighter as it played out the climactic Death Star assault from the film. Fast-paced and immersive, its use of audio samples taken directly from the movie helped deepen the sensation of being Luke Skywalker. By any standard, it was an amazing game — and perhaps the first truly great video game rendition of a licensed property.

Atari's Star Wars was one of the most impressive games of 1983.
I, Robot was a commercial flop, but it was the first arcade game to feature polygonal graphics.

While Star Wars fudged its 3D visuals with simple wireframes, Atari also explored true 3D by creating the first game to incorporate polygonal graphics: I, Robot. While conceptually complicated and needlessly opaque, I, Robot established a testing ground for the future standard of video game graphical tech. Like many pioneers, its halting first steps left footprints in which countless others would follow.

And finally, 1983 also saw some significant legal actions that would help shape the outcome of video games, and specifically Nintendo. That was the year Universal Pictures sued Nintendo for infringing on King Kong with Donkey Kong; had the company lost, the fallout could well have shut down the company just as it began to build its console empire (not coincidentally, the Famicom began its legendary run on the strength of a great port of Donkey Kong as its day-one killer app). However, Nintendo prevailed after pointing out that King Kong had entered the public domain, which is how Universal came into possession of the property, and what could have been a disaster instead propelled the game maker to new heights.

On the other hand, Sega's Congo Bongo represented more dangerous challenge to Nintendo's Donkey Kong rights. Many of Nintendo's early games had been coded by a company called Ikegami Tsushinki, who went to court with the claim that Nintendo had infringed on its code by manufacturing additional units of Donkey Kong beyond the original contract and reverse-engineering the game code to create Donkey Kong Jr. In the meantime, they produced the suspiciously Donkey Kong-like Congo Bongo for Sega as a seeming middle finger pointed at Nintendo. It wasn't all bad news in the arcade for Nintendo, though; 1983 also saw the debut of Mario Bros., the first game to properly define Mario (and his brother Luigi) into the character we know today — the true beginning of a mascot and a franchise to surpass all others.

Congo Bongo - an early isometric platform game from Sega.

So maybe 1983 didn't produce as many instant classics as some of the years others have explored this week, but as any student of strategy knows, victory is in the planning and setup. Without the events and releases of 1983, the games industry would have developed far more slowly. But with the pruning of the overgrown 2600 market, the year's other notable releases and creations had the room they needed to mature and develop. It was gaming first truly great year, and the basis for every great year since.

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