We look back on video game history with rose-tinted nostalgia, but some things tend to get overlooked amid those misty-eyed tales of gaming yore
Gamers tend to glorify the past, wistfully recalling when graphics were simple, but the challenge was tough. Get two gaming veterans together and it’s not long before they’re reminiscing about how good Final Fantasy used to be, and how Jet Set Willy was better than Sonic the Hedgehog.
Well I was there and let me tell you, it was weird. Here are 12 aspects of ancient gaming history that we tend to forget.
For years, we only had Pong
A customer can play any game they like as long as it’s Pong: the Grandstand 2600 video game. Photograph: Keith Stuart/The Guardian
When the first games consoles appeared in the 1970s, they had black-and-white graphics. The box would often boast ‘comes with 10 games!’ – but it was 10 different versions of Pong. Football? Pong with more bats. Squash? Pong with only one wall. Still, the electricity was off most of the time anyway, so we just played with the packaging.
You had to type in games yourself
Home computers would often come with a book entitled ‘fun games to program yourself’. When you finished typing gibberish, you got to play a game called Syntax Error where the aim was to cry until your dad located the one line where you used a comma instead of a semicolon. When he finished and hit ‘Run’, you played Pong.
This is what a joypad looked like in the early 1980s
That’s right, they had ONE* button! Until the Nintendo Entertainment System came along in the mid-eighties, you could forget about being able to jump, fire, strafe and open a conversation window at the same time. If you owned a Spectrum, you had to buy a separate interface to use a joystick – and they broke all the time.
(*Okay, so the ColecoVision and Intellivision controllers had more buttons, but they looked like prototype mobile phones not joypads – and they were silly.)
Games came on cassettes
A cassette tape during the loading process made the noisiest excesses of My Bloody Valentine seem tame. Photograph: Alamy
Cassettes! Those things your mum and dad used to record the Top 40 on. Games took about five minutes to load, and even then they would probably crash at the last second. During the loading process they would make weird noises like R2D2 being tortured by the Clangers.
We had to stare at this for five minutes before playing anything
Some games showed pixel art and flashing coloured lines on the screen while loading. This was to fool you into thinking that something was definitely happening. It was often a lie.
Games came with gigantic instruction books
In the 1980s, all games came with lengthy instruction manuals. Titles like Elite and Lords of Midnight even had short novels that players were asked to read before starting. If a modern game asked you to read a short novel before starting, it would be on the pre-owned shelf at Game quicker than you could say ‘Britain’s literacy crisis’.
Games were brutally hard …
Fail again … fail better? Donkey Kong. Photograph: video game screenshot
A lot of the principles of action video game design came out of the immensely competitive coin-op industry of the late 70s and early 80s, when companies like Sega, Namco, Taito and Capcom were in the business of separating you from your 10p as quickly as possible. Most people have no idea that Donkey Kong has three different levels after the first one.
And there was no such thing as saving the game
Until hard drives and cartridges with battery-backed memory were widely available, very few games allowed you to save your progress. If you died, you went back to the beginning, and if you had to go on holiday before finishing Super Mario Bros, you put the game on pause and hoped your house didn’t burn down while you were away.
The internet was just something nerds used to start nuclear wars
There were no online 32-player Battlefield sessions for us. Also, we didn’t have Reddit, we had bulletin board systems, which were very different because they were full of angry anonymous men being horrible to each other. That’s almost inconceivable now.
We had weird indie games back then too
If you yearn for a time before weird indie games turned up to “spoil” your fun, hard luck; they’ve been around since the beginning. In the 1984 title Deus Ex Machina, Dr Who actor Jon Pertwee narrated a story about a lifeform evolving from mouse poo, while the accompanying music tape played experimental synth pop.
There was no such thing as a YouTuber
In the olden days, if you wanted an over-enthusiastic youth to shout at you about video games for two hours, you had to go to Currys and ask a sales assistant to show you Manic Miner. Instead of YouTubers with crazy names like PewDiePie and StampyCat, we had games magazines with crazy names like Crash, Zzap and … Your Sinclair.
Social gaming meant going to the arcade
Were you brave enough to enter your local arcade? Photograph: Christopher Jue/EPA
There was no Xbox Live. If you wanted to meet and play against other gamers, you went to the arcade, a hive of scum and villainy where all the high scores tables were dominated by local heroes called TIT, BUM and NOB. You’d spend hours uselessly staring at a screen while pathetic bullying sociopaths mocked everything you did. We’ve got Twitter for that now.