Today we are spoiled with glossy trailers, Hollywood-style budgets and astonishing graphics, creating the gaming masterpieces that break records for fun.
But it was all built on the geniuses of the early era of gaming; the pioneers who dreamed up iconic titles on simple machines in humble back offices, not realising the effect their creations would have on the world.
We salute six of the best: thank them every time you hit another kill streak.
(Images: PA/Rex/Taito Corporation/Dave Staugas)
Tomohiro Nishikado - Designed: Space Invaders
You can’t win on Space Invaders. The aliens will keep going forever – infinitely respawning until finally your last ship is destroyed as they reach the bottom of the screen. It’s a gloomy thought. Or, at least, it would be if this was anything other than a video game. As it is, it’s just a signal for you to put more money into the machine. Even when it was released in 1978, creator Tomohiro Nishikado was a veteran having created more than 10 arcade games for Taito, but this is the game he’ll be remembered for – the first shoot-’em-up, the first game to introduce ‘lives’ for the players, and the first to save high scores. Nishikado himself cites Atari’s bat-and-ball game Breakout as the inspiration, with him simply tweaking the mechanics, but one of the standout elements was a happy accident: the more aliens the player shoots down, the faster the remaining ones move down the screen. It was a quirk of the Intel processor being able to render the graphics quicker, but Nishikado enjoyed the extra challenge it provided and left it in.
Impress a geek: Nishikado has claimed he’s so bad at games that he struggles to complete Space Invaders’ first level.
Ed Logg - Designed: Asteroids, Centipede, Gauntlet
Thanks to Nishikado, sci-fi shooters became the dominant genre in gaming. Out of the glut of Space Invaders-inspired games that followed was a pair of Atari titles, both co-designed by maths and computer science graduate Ed Logg. First, there was 1979’s Asteroids which went on to become Atari’s bestselling game of all time. Logg championed the vector graphics, prioritising the gameplay and the player’s precise aiming over visuals. Centipede, released the following year, was similar in tone, even if the target had moved from intergalactic rocks to giant arthropods, and the graphics had been given a gaudy early-Eighties overhaul with neon colours. Logg later designed the Dungeons & Dragons-inspired Gauntlet, a 1985 hack-and-slash which would go on to spawn a franchise that’s still going today.
Impress a geek: Asteroids became so popular that arcade owners had to install larger boxes to hold the sheer numbers of coins being pumped into machines.
Toru Iwatani - Designed: Pac-Man
By the Eighties, arcades had become a sort of galactic-themed interactive playground, a venue for gamers to try out the latest variation of the human-vs-aliens shooter – the preserve of teenage boys. It was thanks to a young designer at Tokyo’s Namco that video games were first brought to a wider audience. Toru Iwatani created Pac-Man, a cuddly mascot that became gaming’s first recognisable character. Then, in a further effort to attract female players, Iwatani also decided not to theme his debut game around killing. After basing Pac-Man’s design on a pizza minus a slice, he created a game world which involved players eating up pellets around a maze while avoiding four cute ghost enemies. Pac-Man, released in 1980, was an instant hit and swallowed coins whole at arcades the world over.
Impress a geek: The game was first called Puck Man in Japan. It was renamed Pac-Man in the US to prevent vandals from changing the ‘P’ to
Howard Scott Warshaw - Designed: Yars’ Revenge, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, ET The Extra-Terrestrial
When designer Howard Scott Warshaw donned a fedora and cracked a bullwhip around the Atari offices in California, his colleagues thought that he’d lost his mind. It was 1981, Raiders Of The Lost Ark had hit big at the box office, and Warshaw was drawing inspiration for the first movie-licensed game. Released the following year on the Atari 2600, the game eschewed action in favour of an abstract strategy game where the player controlled Jones (a stick man wearing a hat) around a series of rooms before (spoiler alert) finding the Ark Of The Covenant. It was Warshaw’s second hit in the space of months with his insectoid shooter Yars’ Revenge becoming Atari's bestselling original title for the 2600. On a roll, Warshaw was asked to create a third game in the space of a year: ET The Extra-Terrestrial. However, he had less than six weeks to design the game from scratch in time for Christmas 1982. It was a disaster. More than three million cartridges went unsold, and it’s often (unfairly) blamed for the North American video games crash of 1983 that bankrupted Atari.
Impress a geek: In 1983 Atari buried more than 700,000 unsold games, many of which were ET cartridges in a New Mexico landfill. They were finally excavated in April of last year.
Shigeru Miyamoto - Designed: Donkey Kong, Mario Bros
In 1977, Shigeru Miyamoto was a talented 24-year-old industrial design graduate. But for all his manga sketches and toy creations, he was still without a career. So his father contacted Hiroshi Yamauchi, the president of a small toy company: Nintendo. Founded in 1889, initially as a playing card manufacturer, Nintendo was leaving the toy market to concentrate on video games by the time Miyamoto was appointed as its first artist. After working on some early titles, Miyamoto began designing the first of his many masterpieces, an arcade game centred on a moustachioed character jumping over rolling barrels to save his love interest from a giant ape. Released in 1981, Donkey Kong introduced the world to Mario (then called Jumpman) and the platform genre, both later refined by Miyamoto in Mario Bros and Super Mario Bros. Miyamoto’s addictive, deceptively tough gameplay and an endless stream of beloved characters would turn Nintendo into one of gaming’s leading names through to the next century.
Impress a geek: Miyamoto only designed Donkey Kong after Yamauchi tasked him with converting unsold units of Radar Scope, an arcade shooter which had flopped in North America.
Alexey Pajitnov - Designed: Tetris
Space Invaders has been given the 21st-century makeover; Pac-Man entered three dimensions in the Nineties; while Mario has now featured in almost every genre of gaming. But, in its 30-plus years of existence, the concept of Tetris has never fundamentally changed, testament to its genius design by Russian computer engineer Alexey Pajitnov on a text-based Elektronika 60 terminal in 1984. Like the best ideas, Tetris is simple. One by one, shapes made up of four squares descend – with the player manipulating each shape to form a complete horizontal line and clear blocks before they stack to the top. But it was in 1989 that Tetris really boomed when it was released on the Nintendo Game Boy, becoming the ultimate pick-up-and-play game.
Impress a geek: As it was technically owned by the Soviet government, Pajitnov didn’t earn a single rouble for his creation until 1996 when he formed The Tetris Company.