12 things today’s gamers don’t remember about old games

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.

From Out Run to Wii Sports: The nine greatest summer video games

We have such a fraught relationship with summer in Britain. Most of the time, the sun skulks behind cloud cover, only briefly surfacing to give us false hope on the first day of Wimbledon. Its fleeting visits are met with near orgiastic excitement as even we grown adults flock to ice cream vans or hastily erect rusting barbecues so that we can give all our neighbours botulism. No sunny day can be taken for granted, so the result is stress and resentment. You don’t want to put a bikini on and frolic in the surf, but you have to or the summer police will come and bang you up.

This is why, unless you can spend three months of the year in Portugal, video games are the best place to revel in sunshine. None of these classics will ever be rained off or require the purchase of a Pack-a-Mac. And if you get bored of the endless cobalt skies, you can just switch off and go outside in the rain. Nobody loses.

Here then, are our favourite summer games.

Out Run (Sega 1986)
With its Ferrari convertable, blonde surfer girl and endless scorching freeways, this legendary arcade racer is effectively a love letter to long summer drives. Although the handling model is detailed and challenging, designer Yu Suzuki wanted the game to be a relaxing, enjoyable experience; hence the detailed scenery and a choice of sun-tinged soundtracks. The elaborate arcade cabinet ensured that seaside arcade dwellers had to pay a handsome price to experience the fantasy.

California Games (Epyx, 1987)
In the California Games surfing section, you had to ride an endless wave, performing tricks in your bright green trunks.
During the 1980s, the multi-event sports sim reigned supreme and although everyone pretends to have loved Daley Thompson’s Decathlon, the best titles in this genre were made by US developer Epyx. This instalment features freestyle skateboarding, surfing and frisbee throwing, all rendered in glorious 8bit chunk-o-vision. For C64 and Speccy owners in bleak Thatcher’s Britain, California Games was an almost cruel taste of life in sunny LA.

Sonic the Hedgehog (Sega, 1991)
Azure blue skies, twinkling oceans, towering palm trees, Sonic the Hedgehog takes Sega’s fabled love of sunshine and turns up the joy dial to 38-degrees. Even the Casino Night Zone in Sonic 2 feels bright and humid. Sonic does not do drizzle.

Super Mario Sunshine (Nintendo, 2002)
Super Mario Sunshine pits Mario against the inhabitants of a tropical island that’s been attacked by a mysterious graffiti artist.
With its tropical beaches, waterfalls and funfairs, this Gamecube platformer is a joyous vacation from Mushroom Kingdom, retaining much of Super Mario 64’s 3D mastery, while adding new features, including a rucksack that doubles as a water canon and jet pack. Wonderfully colourful and inventive, Sunshine is a bright spot in the GameCube’s often overlooked catalogue.

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (Rockstar 2002)
GTA: Vice City – more drugs, deaths and sleaze than a badly run carehome.
Rockstar’s 1980s-based gangster adventure stars Tommy Vercetti as a hoodlum who’s been released from jail and is going anywhere but straight. With its woozy orange sunsets, sleaze-ball cast and synth pop soundtrack it is basically an interactive version of Miami Vice – and therefore genius.

Dead or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball (Tecmo, 2003)
DOA: Beach Volleyball – in which a collection of female game characters take a break from both fighting and convincing physics.
Candy floss, piña coladas, wearing flip-flops – summer is all about guilty pleasures, and Tecmo’s ridiculously crass sports game is the guiltiest of them all. Here, the female warriors from the Dead or Alive fighting game series decide to take a two-week vacation, playing volleyball every day, then blowing their cash in the casino or clothing boutiques. Ugh. It has two things going for it though: the sport sim part really is pretty good and the soundtrack includes Jesse Hold On by B*Witched.

Flower (Thatgamecompany, 2009)
Poetic, relaxing and beautiful, Flower has you controlling the breeze as it picks up and collects flower petals floating through the summer skies. Innovative and strangely emotional it set the scene for Thatgamecompany’s magnum opus, Journey.

Wii Sports Resort: ‘and when we’ve finished this game we can hit the swimming pool bar.’
Set on an idyllic beach resort named Wuhu Island, Nintendo’s sequel to the smash hit Wii Sports, gathers a range of 12 gentle holiday-themed activities, such as archery wake boarding and canoeing, into one sunny package. It’s basically like going to a holiday park except you don’t have to spend every night in the resort club, glumly watching French teenagers do the Macarena.

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (Namco, 2010)
Ninja Theory’s rendition of the classic Chinese story Journey to the West is set on one of the most luscious depictions of a post-apocalyptic Earth ever conceived. Under a glaring sun, the player wanders through ruined cities that have become vast exotic rain forests, and the game is lit to make everything look almost magical. Also, the fact that the two lead characters bicker constantly makes it feel like a family holiday.

Sega Saturn – how to buy one and what to play

It was this week 20 years ago that Sega launched its Saturn console in the US, bringing forward the date by several months to beat the original PlayStation to market. Starved of software support and with only a few retailers on board, the ploy failed, and Sony’s machine marched to victory.

But the Saturn was a really interesting console, with dozens of great games that still hold up today. Occasionally, they turn up as digital downloads on PlayStation and Xbox consoles, but the best way to experience them is on the original machine – as long as you have some space under your TV.

The cheapest and easiest option is to pick up a UK PAL console on eBay for around £60-70 – they will often come with a few staple games like Virtua Fighter 2, Sega Rally and Nights into Dreams, and at least one controller. There are two drawbacks with this. First, you won’t be able to play imported Japanese games, which means you’ll miss out on quite a few cult 2D shooters and beat-’em-ups that never got a European release. Also, PAL televisions have a 50hz refresh rate as opposed to the 60hz on Japanese and US sets, so poorly converted titles will run slower and may have black bars at the top and bottom of the screen. However, many releases were carefully prepared for the European market, and Sega actually ironed out early bugs present in the original Japanese NTSC versions. It’s worth checking out retro gaming forums for advice on specific titles.

If you buy an imported Japanese machine, you’ll need a stepdown transformer so that you don’t blow your console up when you plug it in (Japanese voltage is 100v, in the UK our mains voltage is 240v), and a multi-region TV set. An easier option would be to buy an Action Replay or ST-Key cartridge, which allows you to play imported titles. You may also need to replace the internal battery, which is used for the machine’s built-in memory. Fortunately, that’s easy to do.

You’ll want to play games through a good cathode ray tube TV, or even better a CRT monitor like a Sony PVM or Trinitron, or a Hantarex ‘quadristandard’ set (available reasonably cheaply on eBay these days). If you’re determined to stick with a modern flatscreen display, and want to play lots of 2D games, I’d advise the purchase of a scan-line generator or a scaler like the Micom XRGB-mini Framemeister which will improve the visual output (although results will vary depending on your TV and the game itself). RGB Scart, RGB component, S-Video and composite connections are preferable to the default RF cable, and can all be bought online. I use Retro Gaming Cables for my older consoles, and they offer friendly advice on getting everything set up.

What to play
So what games should you buy? Well, there are staple titles that you absolutely have to own (that’s if you can find them – and afford them). The Virtua Fighter and Panzer Dragoon games, Sega Rally, Fighters Megamix, Burning Rangers, Nights, Shining Force III, Radiant Silvergun and Sega Worldwide Soccer are all great. Beyond these, the Saturn has perhaps the strongest line up of 2D shooters and fighting games in console history (and the standard Saturn controller is excellent for this genre). Capcom’s Street Fighter Alpha, XMen: Children of the Atom and Darkstalkers titles are all fabulous, as are SNK’s Fatal Fury, Samurai Shodown and King of Fighters franchises.

For shooters, anything by Cave, Taoplan or Treasure is worth picking up. Radiant Silvergun, Battle Garegga, Batsugun (arguably the first bullet hell game), Darius and DoDonPachi are the key titles, but the excellent Racketboy site has a huge list of recommendations. There’s also a great rarity guide if you’re interesting in tracking down more hard-to-come-by titles.

Apart from the console itself, you can also pick up a multitap which lets you plug in up to six joypads (there’s a list of compatible games here, but the key draw is ten player Bomberman with two multitaps), and an excellent arcade stick, which will enhance all those 2D blasters and fighters. Sega also released its own analog stick, the 3D control pad, but only a handful of titles supported it – though one of these is the essential Sonic Team title Nights into Dreams, so it may well be worth hunting down. Oh, and you’ll definitely need a light gun if you have Virtua Cop.

The great thing is, Sega has a huge online community of fans and acolytes. Sites like Racketboy and Sega-16 are mines of information and have busy forums populated by friendly and knowledgeable enthusiasts. The Saturn may have failed, but it left behind almost 1,000 titles (over 250 of those for PAL territories), many of which are still worth discovering and playing in their original format. The only problem is, the Saturn is a powerful gateway drug to other similar contemporary systems. Before you know it, you’ll be clearing space for a Neo Geo, PC Engine and FM Towns Marty. The one part of the retro console experience you can’t buy on eBay is an understanding partner.

The 15 greatest video games of the 80s

Maniac Mansion (1987, Lucasfilm Games)
The 1980s were crammed with wonderful adventure games – The Hobbit, King’s Quest, Leather Goddesses of Phobos – but the first point-and-click title to be designed by comic genius Ron Gilbert using the SCUMM scripting language is the classic that busted out of the genre ghetto. Filled with great jokes and B-movie cliches, the game made brilliant use of its accessible and intuitive interface, as well as seamlessly integrating cutscenes and non-sequential puzzles. The start of a weird and special era.

Jet Set Willy (1984, Software Projects)
Among the formative home computer platformers of the 80s – the likes of Lode Runner, Chuckie Egg and Pitfall – Jet Set Willy stands out for its surreal sense of humour and genuinely disturbing atmosphere. Like that other 8-bit pioneer Jeff Minter, Matthew Smith created his own idiosyncratic dream worlds with distinct rules and twisted logic, and as you battled through the bizarre house with its haunted wine cellars, priest holes and watchtowers, you had to contend with truly monstrous visions, from spinning razor blades to giant demon heads. Smith only made a handful of games, but with Jet Set Willy, he combined Monty Python and Hammer House of Horror to unforgettable effect.

Track & Field (1983, Konami)
Konami’s foundational athletics game was best known for bringing actual physical exertion to the arcade sporting experience, via the legendary button-bashing interface. Featuring six events, all requiring speed and timing, Track & Field allowed up to four players to compete against each other, inspiring the excellent sequel Hyper Sports as well as myriad home console multi-sports sims including Summer Games and of course Daley Thompson’s Decathlon, where a broken joystick or three was a sign of true commitment.

Impossible Mission (1984, Epyx)
“Another visitor … Stay a while. Stay FOREVER.” These crisply sampled words launched every adventure into Professor Elvin Atombender’s beguiling and ever-changing lair, perfectly setting the scene for this seminal adventure platformer. Players took on the role of a secret agent attempting to track down password pieces and foil the professor’s terrible plans. Each procedurally generated room is filled with tricky robot enemies and jump puzzles, and movement through the world is aided by beautifully smooth animation. It was a tough call between this and Paradroid, another formative Commodore 64 sci-fi adventure, but as was often the case, Atombender won out in the end.

Kung-Fu Master (1984, Irem)
With its crunching sound effects, giant character sprites and range of martial arts attacks, Irem’s scrolling brawler set the tone for later fighting games and beat-’em-ups such as Yie Ar Kung Fu, Final Fight and Double Dragon. Heavily inspired by the Bruce Lee movie Game of Death, Kung Fu Master brought the thrills and conventions of Hong Kong action cinema to arcades around the world.

Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (1985, Origin Systems)
It was tough selecting a representative role-playing adventure from a decade that also saw Bard’s Tale, Dungeon Master, Lords of Midnight and Knight Lore – all of which were on the long list for the top 15. However, with its groundbreaking emphasis on personal morality, Richard Garriott’s Ultima IV brought something new to the fantasy genre, with players relying less on killing monsters and more on exploring the world of Britannia and learning a wealth of virtues. It was like starring as a noble knight in your own vivid courtly love ballad.

OutRun (1986, Sega)
Blue skies, cool synthpop, the hottest car imaginable – Outrun practically bled 80s culture. Designed by Sega’s resident genius Yu Suzuki after a motoring tour of Europe, the game is fundamentally not a racer; it’s about the joy of driving, and its multistage layout and scenic complexity inspired arcade game design for the next decade.

SimCity (1989, Electronic Arts)
Will Wright’s urban design simulation took its authentic approach from dozens of textbooks (especially Urban Dynamics by Jay W Forrester), bringing economics, architecture, culture and law enforcement into its complex town-building engine – and it was a revelation. With its non-didactic design, which encouraged experimentation and self-expression, the game inspired a generation of students to become politicians and town planners, and more importantly, led to The Sims.

Robotron 2084 (1982, Williams Electronics)
I knew I needed to include a properly leftfield shooter in the list, and that I should probably choose between Zaxxon, Tempest or Berserk. So I went for Robotron. This multidirectional classic from Defender design team Eugene Jarvis and Larry DeMar, pits players against invading robots and provides two joysticks: one to shoot and one to move. It wasn’t the first use of this revolutionary interface but it was the one that inspired the whole twin-stick subgenre. A perfectly executed action game that lulls skilled players into a flow state more efficiently than any other shooter in history.

Gauntlet (1985, Atari)
Four characters and a giant, multi-level dungeon filled with monsters, food and treasure: this was all Ed Logg needed to construct the most hectic and exciting multi-player action game of the decade. Utilising the staple elements of the role-playing genre while removing all the boring talking bits, Gauntlet ushered in the dungeon crawler genre, eventually leading to Diablo, The Binding of Isaac and Hades. It also meant that childhood me started every mealtime with the words: “Warrior needs food badly,” for which I apologise to my family.

Gradius (1985, Konami)
The scrolling space shooter was the star of the early to mid-80s arcade, and I could have included R-Type, Galaga, Xevious, Defender or many other beloved examples. But I went for Gradius, with its agenda-setting power-up system allowing players to customise their Vic Viper starcraft with a range of weapons and defensive systems. Beautiful crisp visuals and epic boss battles added to the package, which is just as challenging and seductive today.

Elite (1984, Acornsoft/Firebird)
It still feels like the plot of a Christopher Nolan movie: back in 1984, two Cambridge students managed to create a game that contained eight vast galaxies, thousands of space stations, a functioning economy and a complex upgrade system – all in sparse but beautiful 3D vector visuals. On a 32k computer. To this day, I recall the sounds of the Blue Danube that accompanied the docking computer, the prices of luxury goods in several systems and the shock of bumping into a Thargoid invasion fleet. It was, and still is, kind of miraculous.

Super Mario Bros 3 (1988, Nintendo)
There is another version of this article where Nintendo titles dominate the entire list. Donkey Kong, Metroid, Legend of Zelda and Mario Bros are all gigantic omissions. But I am a terrible contrarian, so here we are. Super Mario Bros 3 is arguably the greatest pure platformer ever made, a brilliantly constructed challenge introducing power-up costumes (including the famed tanooki suit), feisty enemies and myriad gameplay innovations. With its non-linear, often highly experimental design it set the tone for Nintendo’s modern era, preparing us for diverse and revolutionary Mario titles such as Super Mario 64, Sunshine, Galaxy and Paper Mario. In 2020, a pristine unopened copy sold at auction for $156,000. It was a steal.Pac-Man (1980, Namco)
ayla plays Pac-Man during the unveiling of Aaron’s $20,000 makeover of the teen center at Berkshire Partners Blue Hill Boys and Girls Club of Boston
Simple pleasure … retro Pac-Man fun for one US teenager. Photograph: Gretchen Ertl/AP
Famously designed by Toru Iwatani as an antidote to the prevalent shooters of the era, Pac-Man replaced spaceships and aliens with a cute sentient mouth and four lovable ghosts. Everything about the game is iconic, from its pill-littered maze, to its “waka waka” sound effects, to its brilliant kawaii character design. It was an arcade superstar that spawned a merchandising gold rush, a slew of sequels and, as I have argued in the past, the concept of survival horror. Whichever way you look at it, Pac-Man, like Space Invaders, will always be a universal symbol of video games and the pleasure they bring.

Tetris (1984, various)
Nintendo Gameboy computer game consoles with Tetris. Commissioned for Technology
Nintendo Gameboy computer game consoles with Tetris. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian
How did a puzzle game programmed on an old Electronika 60 computer at Moscow’s Dorodnitsyn computing centre go on to seduce the entire world? How did seven differently configured tetrominos dropping into a confined space make addicts of an estimated one billion players? The rise of Tetris is the most fascinating story the games industry owns, and at the centre of it is coder Alexey Pajitnov, whose childhood love of shape puzzles forged a killer app that pretty much made the Game Boy and brought its object-sorting magic to every platform since. This isn’t a game about heroes, it’s a game about that most human of endeavours: tidying up and finding a place for things. Perhaps that is why we love it so much and why, when we close our eyes, we can still see an infinity of shapes falling gently into place.

Pac-Man (1980, Namco)
ayla plays Pac-Man during the unveiling of Aaron’s $20,000 makeover of the teen center at Berkshire Partners Blue Hill Boys and Girls Club of Boston
Simple pleasure … retro Pac-Man fun for one US teenager. Photograph: Gretchen Ertl/AP
Famously designed by Toru Iwatani as an antidote to the prevalent shooters of the era, Pac-Man replaced spaceships and aliens with a cute sentient mouth and four lovable ghosts. Everything about the game is iconic, from its pill-littered maze, to its “waka waka” sound effects, to its brilliant kawaii character design. It was an arcade superstar that spawned a merchandising gold rush, a slew of sequels and, as I have argued in the past, the concept of survival horror. Whichever way you look at it, Pac-Man, like Space Invaders, will always be a universal symbol of video games and the pleasure they bring.

The 15 greatest video games of the 70s

From the simplicity of Pong’s two bats and a ball to Space Invaders’ advancing ranks of aliens, the 70s saw the rise of a phenomenon that mesmerised the world

From the simplicity of Pong’s two bats and a ball to Space Invaders’ advancing ranks of aliens, the 70s saw the rise of a phenomenon that mesmerised the world

Pong (1972, Atari)
It wasn’t the first video game; it wasn’t even the first ping-pong game – Table Tennis on the Magnavox Odyssey got there earlier. Pong was, however, the game that kickstarted the video arcade and home console industries, the profitability of its hardware and the simplicity of the gameplay – just two bats, a ball and a scoring system – ensuring its huge success and iconic afterlife.

Mattel Auto Race (1976)
Widely considered the first handheld video game, Mattel Auto Race used a grid of red LEDs to simulate a simple race track, the player avoiding incoming dots to keep driving as a timer ticked down. Devised by development engineer George J Klose as a means of repurposing calculator chips, it was a big success, leading to Mattel’s legendary American football and soccer titles, and no doubt piquing the interest of a certain Nintendo engineer …

Computer Space (Nutting Associates, 1971)
Included as much for its beautiful retro-futuristic cabinet design as the game itself, Computer Space was the first commercially available video arcade game, built by Atari founders Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney a year before the arrival of the much more successful Pong. It’s a formative space shooter, with the player battling two computer controlled UFOs amid a rudimentary star-scape, but it’s that curvaceous fibre glass cabinet (which earned the game a cameo in the 1973 sci-fi movie Soylent Green) that we’ll always remember.

Sea Wolf (1976, Midway)
One of the most beautiful painted cabinets of the mid-70s, Sea Wolf was inspired by Sega’s late-60s electro-mechanical game, Periscope, but added a monochrome video display instead of cardboard ships and plastic waves. Players aim and fire at passing battleships, targeting them via a rotating periscope fixed to the front of the cab. Its success inspired the nascent arcade industry to experiment with elaborate novelty interfaces, a factor that proved vital in maintaining the success of the coin-op industry as home consoles proliferated.

Western Gun (1975, Taito)
Alongside Tank, Western Gun (known as Gun Fight in the US) helped lay the foundations of the multidirectional shooter genre, allowing two players to navigate a cactus-strewn landscape, blasting six-guns at each other until one cowboy fell. Among the first games to feature human v human combat, it was almost as influential as designer Tomohiro Nishikado’s later project, Space Invaders.

The Oregon Trail (1971, Don Rawitsch, Bill Heinemann, and Paul Dillenberger)
The classic educational game, originally coded for the HP-2100 minicomputer, The Oregon Trail challenged American schoolkids to lead a caravan of settlers from Independence, Missouri, to the Willamette Valley in Oregon, hunting and trading en route. An early entry into the survival genre, it remains one of the surprisingly few video games in which players can repeatedly die of dysentery.

MUD 1 (1978, Roy Trubshaw, Richard Bartle)
Programmed by Roy Trubshaw on Essex University’s DEC PDP-10 mainframe, MUD (Multi-User Dungeon) 1 took the text-based game design of Colossal Cave Adventure and Zork and added the ability to play alongside other participants via internet connection, thereby capturing the vital social element of traditional D&D. Its legacy includes virtual worlds such as Second Life, but also the massively multiplayer online RPG genre popularised by World of Warcraft.

Zork (1977, Tim Anderson, Marc Blank, Dave Lebling, Bruce Daniels)
Written by a group of MIT students in 1977 and inspired by formative text game Colossal Cave Adventure, Zork built on the burgeoning dungeon exploring genre with a richer narrative and lots of humour. The game was ported to a vast range of early computers and inspired several sequels, leading to the formation of Infocom, one of the most influential adventure game studios in history.

Sprint 2 (1976, Kee Games)
Overhead-viewed racing games were rife in the 70s but Atari’s Sprint titles were the ones I preferred on my childhood jaunts around Blackpool arcades. Using the 6502 microprocessor that would later power Atari’s home consoles, it’s an exciting two-player racer with breakneck speed, responsive handling and 12 different circuits to zoom through. Hugely influential to a whole era of video games including Micro Machines, Indy Heat and Amiga great, Ivan “Ironman” Stewart’s Super Off Road.

Star Raiders (1979, Atari)
The original first-person space combat sim, Star Raiders was way ahead of its time when coder Douglas Neubauer wrote it for the Atari 800 computer, inspired by Star Wars and old Star Trek text adventures. You play as a starship pilot protecting airspace against the invading alien Zylon fleet. The combat is fast and tactical, and, due to the limited amount of fuel, players had to carefully plan each attack, docking in space stations to fill the tanks between shootouts. Stylish, intense and incredibly immersive, it was a clear influence on later genre greats Elite and Wing Commander.

Lunar Lander (1979, Atari)
The first moon landing simulation was written by school student Jim Storer in the weeks following the Apollo 11 mission, on an old PDP-8 minicomputer. Years later, Atari coder Howard Delman decided to use a similar concept to test Atari’s new vector graphics technology and Lunar Lander went into production. As with Asteroids, the stark visuals give the game an authentically serene atmosphere, and the super-sensitive thruster controls are a real test of the player’s piloting skills. The game was never a big hit and, as Asteroids took off, Atari repurposed Lunar Lander cabs to run the newer title. However, its legacy lives on in titles such as Gravitar and Thrust, and it remains a design classic in its own right.

Breakout (1976, Atari)
After the success of Pong, Nolan Bushnell wanted a single-player game that could use a similar paddle controller – so he flipped the Pong playfield on its side, replaced the second player with a brick wall and got Steve Jobs (then an Atari employee) and Steve Wozniak to produce a prototype. The result is the archetypal arcade puzzler – straightforward in concept but hugely demanding and open to player tactics and finesse. It would inspire generations of screen-clearing games, from Arkanoid to Peggle.

Space Invaders (Taito, 1978)
Designed by Tomohiro Nishikado, who took inspiration from Atari’s Breakout, Space Invaders was the first hit arcade game to cross over into mass cultural consciousness – and it’s still there. Its implementation of early shoot-’em-up conventions, its iconic alien designs (based on various sea creatures) and its sparse, perfect soundtrack are part of the DNA of the games industry. From smartphone emojis to street art, Space Invaders will always be the visual symbol of gaming.

Asteroids (1979, Atari)
A lone ship trapped in a dangerous asteroid field with only a laser gun and the physics of thrust and inertia to protect it. This was the premise behind Lyle Rains and Ed Logg’s wonderful multi-directional shooter, inspired by an abandoned Atari project named Cosmos that involved two players stealing planets from each other. The pinpoint sharp vector graphics and brilliant controls (tweaked for months by Logg) made for a uniquely challenging and aesthetically pleasing game that still absolutely stands up today.

Galaxian (1979, Namco)

Space Invaders got there first, but Galaxian showed us the future of the space shooter genre with its crisp, multicolour graphics, dive-bombing enemies and twinkling starfield backdrop. The game also used rudimentary AI to give attacking craft different behaviours – a feature Namco would return to via Pac-Man’s ghosts. A masterpiece in its own right, Galaxian would lead to two superlative sequels, Galaga and Gaplus. Alongside Phoenix and Gorf, this timeless trilogy represented the high point of the fixed shooter era before the likes of Xevious, Defender and Sinistar brought us into the age of scrolling landscapes.

The greatest handheld games consoles

During lockdowns, handhelds have come into their own: here’s our Top 20, from Gizmondo to Nintendo

  • Gizmondo (2005)
    OK, it’s here more for the amazing backstory than the qualities of the handheld itself, but Gizmondo did momentarily look like a contender back in 2004, offering text messaging, web browsing and video playback as well as mobile gaming. But then the founders burned through millions of investor funds on Regent Street stores and extravagant launch parties, and the whole thing collapsed in spectacular fashion, symbolised by one exec’s (non-fatal) 200mph Ferrari crash on the Pacific Coast Highway.
  • Sega Dreamcast VMU (1998)
    Admittedly, there was not a huge amount of developer support for Dreamcast’s amazingly idiosyncratic memory card/handheld console hybrid, but the fact that it even exists warrants it a place on the list. Despite its teeny 48 × 32 dot LCD screen, the VMU did support a range of mini games including a Chao pet sim in Sonic Adventure and Zombie Revenge’s surreal Zombie Fishing.
  • Tapwave Zodiac (2003)
    With a name that sounded like a character from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the Tapwave Zodiac was another ambitious attempt to combine a games console with a mobile multimedia platform. Founded by ex-Palm executives and using the Palm OS, the device attracted critical acclaim, but was crushed by the arrival of the Sony PSP.
  • Nokia N-Gage (2003)
    Nokia’s attempt to build a phone with true gaming credentials was a brave step back in 2003, when the mobile market was still terribly fragmented and 3G was in its infancy. The device was also expensive and poorly designed with its taco-shaped chassis and a gaming slot hidden beneath the battery compartment. But there were good games such as Ashen, Pathway to Glory and Sonic Advance and it also ran an impressive array of retro games emulators. A follow-up, the N-Gage QD, arrived in 2004 but the world had moved on.
  • Game Park GP32 (2001)
    Officially released only in South Korea, the Game Park GP32 is the most obscure handheld here – but with its 32bit CPU, open source OS and PC connection cable, it became a cult machine for homebrew coders and retro game fans looking to run emulators. Although it was considered a commercial failure, it inspired a whole sub-culture of programmable handhelds including hits such as Bittboy, Pandora and the modern day Anbernic RG351P.
  • MB Microvision (1979)
    The first handheld system with interchangeable game cartridges, the Milton Bradley Co’s Microvision was a revelation at a time when single-game devices, such as Mattel’s Auto Race and Football were still a novelty. Designed by Jay Smith, who later created the Vectrex console, it featured a 16×16 monochrome LCD display and a paddle controller. Games were scarce though and the device itself was prone to faults such as LCD leakage – a phenomenon delightfully known as “screen rot”.
  • Bandai Wonderswan (1999)
    Created by Game Boy inventor Gunpei Yokoi, the Wonderswan was a powerful rival to the Game Boy series, with its 16-bit NEC V20 chip, excellent monochrome screen and 40-hour battery life. Players could also rotate the device and play it vertically to get the best out of scrolling shooters. There was decent software support from Namco, Capcom and Squaresoft, and a colour version arrived a year later, but Bandai never garnered international interest in the console and the Game Boy Advance demolished it.
  • Atari Lynx (1989)
    The world’s first full-colour handheld console – a joint venture between Atari and veteran game developer Epyx – thrilled gamers with its 3.5-inch LCD display, twin 16bit processors and eight-player connectivity via the dedicated Comlynx cable. Titles such as STUN Runner and Blue Lightning showed off all that graphical power beautifully. As with the later Game Gear and TurboExpress, however, the big problem was battery life – or lack of it. Releasing in the same year as the mighty Game Boy didn’t help either.
  • NEC TurboExpress (1990)
    The portable version of the cult Turbo Grafx-16 home console (known as the PC Engine in Japan) was – like its big brother – an expensive but extremely slick, high-spec device. It could play the same game carts as the home machine on a screen identical in size to the Game Boy’s – but with a 512 colour palette and incredible sprite-handling capabilities. There was even a TV tuner add-on named the TurboVision. Playing cutting-edge Turbo Grafx titles such as Raiden and Super Star Soldier on the bus felt like science fiction – until your six AA batteries ran out in less than an hour.
  • Neo Geo Pocket Color (1998)
    One of the most beautifully designed handhelds of its era, the Neo Geo Pocket Color featured a lush TFT colour screen, 40-hour battery life, and an arcade-style microswitched thumb controller, which felt very pleasing to use. Its game carts also had gorgeous packaging, with kawaii-influenced illustrations, which have made the system and its software line-up incredibly collectible. Titles such as SNK vs. Capcom: Card Fighters Clash and Gals’ Fighters perfectly ported the fighting game experience beloved of SNK fans to the handheld form factor (they now exchange hands for hundreds of pounds). Sadly though, SNK was in financial trouble and the Game Boy Color was just too dominant for this characterful little system to survive.
  • Sega Game Gear (1990)
    Sega’s rival to the Game Boy added a large, back-lit colour screen and made the most of the company’s most beloved franchises with wonderful Sonic, Streets of Rage and Shinobi translations. But software support was limited compared to Nintendo’s machines, and it ate batteries with an unquenchable appetite.
  • Game Boy Color (1998)
    With a 256×256 pixel TFT display capable of displaying 56 colours and a processor twice as powerful as the original Game Boy, the GBC was a significant upgrade for the series, while still retaining the slim, light form factor and long battery life – and compatibility with original Game Boy titles. It’ll perhaps be best known for bringing colour to the booming Pokémon series via the critically acclaimed Gold/Silver instalment which sold 23m units, singlehandedly lifting GBC into the higher echelons of the handheld market.
  • PlayStation Portable (2004)
    For its handheld gaming debut, Sony went for consumer electronics cool over Game Boy’s chunky styling, with a large 4.3-inch colour display, powerful graphics processor and glossy black chassis. Boasting internet connectivity, video playback and its own proprietary disc format, it was a formidable machine, and games such as Gran Turismo and God of War: Chains of Olympus provided console-style experiences unimaginable on Nintendo’s contemporary devices. Hardware hacks also turned it into a hugely popular platform for the homebrew community.
  • PlayStation Vita (2011)
    Continuing the design philosophy of the PSP, the Vita was another sleek, grownup device with wide functionality. Sporting a quad-core processor, 5-inch AMOLED touchscreen and two analogue sticks for intricate controls, it was effectively a PlayStation 3 in handheld form, and its best games – WipEout, Persona 4: Golden, Tearaway – felt like perfectly miniaturised console experiences. But Sony’s support for the console wavered very quickly and despite strong support from the indie development community, it faded faster than it should have.
  • Game Boy (1989)
    The original and, some would argue, greatest Nintendo handheld, designed by the company’s hardware genius Gunpei Yokoi and accompanied by the best version of Tetris, the greatest puzzle game ever made. The greeny-yellow monochrome display and dated 8bit CPU made it look old-fashioned, even in 1989, but it was cheap, the batteries lasted ages and the games were beautifully designed to take advantage of the limited display. Technologically superior rivals followed, but they all failed to make a dent. As Yokoi put it: “After we released the Game Boy, one of my staff came to me with a grim expression on his face: ‘There’s a new handheld on the market similar to ours …’ The first thing I asked was, ‘Is it a colour screen, or monochrome?’ He told me it was colour, and I reassured him, ‘Then we’re fine.’”
  • Game Boy Advance/SP (2001)
    Boasting an advanced 32bit Arm processor, 2.9-inch display, and 15-hour battery life, the GBA was a huge leap forward for the series, selling 80m units across its lifetime. The strong tech specs and addition of shoulder buttons allowed more varied and intricate games, reducing the gap between handheld and console experiences. Advance Wars is one of the greatest turn-based strategy sims of all time regardless of platform, and there were excellent Zelda, Super Metroid, Castlevania and Super Mario adventures. The later SP model, with its lit screen and clamshell design, made the GBA a truly indispensable travel companion.
  • Nintendo 3DS/2DS (2011)
    Updating the Nintendo DS with a stereoscopic 3D display and a gyroscope for motion controls seemed like a gimmick at the time, but then games such as Super Mario 3D Land, Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D and Outrun 3D began to show the delightful possibilities of the hardware, while the onboard cameras allowed a range of interesting augmented reality experiences. Street Pass, which automatically connected nearby 3DS owners, letting them swap items and messages, was another lovely feature bringing a sense of community to the machine in a way only Nintendo could envisage.
  • Nintendo DS (2004)
    Combining the form factor of the old dual-screen Game & Watch titles with the wireless connectivity and touchscreen technology of a modern smartphone, the DS promised new ways for players to interact with favourite games, characters and friends. While there was plenty for hardcore fans (Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass, Phoenix Wright, GTA: Chinatown Wars, Elite Beat Agents) Nintendo brought in whole new audiences, both through clever celebrity-filled advertising, and titles that pushed the device as a health and lifestyle accessory – most famously, Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training. Asked about the console in 2007, Shigeru Miyamoto stated, “With Nintendo DS, I try to create games that are simple, with a new theme – something that can be played by five-year-olds to 95-year-olds.” In this, he certainly succeeded.
  • Nintendo Switch (2017)
    The Switch is essentially the culmination of everything Nintendo has tried to do with gaming since 1989. It is convenient, intuitive and beautifully designed as a handheld device, but it also plugs into your TV and becomes a proper home console – in this way it combines the Game Boy, DS and Wii lineages into one wonderful product. At first it was Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild that astonished and delighted players, as well as the ability to take it out anywhere and indulge in two- and four-player Mario Kart and Splatoon sessions. But last year, the ability to curl up on the sofa, or park bench, and play Animal Crossing New Horizons, surrendering to its graceful and fulfilling simulation of social contact, was genuinely therapeutic for millions. The Switch is more than a piece of technology – at times it has felt like a friend.

PlayStation at 25: it put video games at the centre of life

There was a sense of fundamental cultural change in the air – or that’s how I remember it. Nineteen ninety-five was the year I started out in video game journalism, as a writer for Edge magazine, the most forward-looking gaming publication in the world at the time. My introduction to the industry was booting up a brand new PlayStation and scorching through the UK launch titles. The machine had been available for several months in Japan, and Edge staff had played all the key games in their original NTSC format. They wanted me to catch up. At that time, Edge was on the top floor of Future Publishing’s Beaufort House office, a converted pub, just off Queen’s Square in Bath. While the older legacy publications – Total, Games Master, Sega Power – were crammed in on the ground floor, Edge shared upstairs with the brand new Official PlayStation Magazine. It felt like exactly the right place to be.

When thinking about PlayStation, especially today on the 25th anniversary of its UK launch, it’s easy to trot out the technological advances the machine made. Following the 16bit consoles – the SNES and Mega Drive – PlayStation was among the first generation to prioritise 3D visuals, its powerful graphics co-processors able to throw 200,000 polygons a second around the screen in a dazzling display of graphics wizardry. When you played Ridge Racer or fighting game Toh Shin Den for the first time, when games such as Tomb Raider and Resident Evil arrived, you almost couldn’t believe the lifelike cinematic clarity, the swirling cameras, the depiction of real, explorable environments. It was like a dimensional doorway opening.

But it wasn’t just the tech. What Sony did more than any other hardware manufacturer at the time was tap into the wider culture. When we were playing games in the Edge office, we were listening to the electronic dance music of the time: Chemical Brothers, Leftfield, BT, William Orbit. These artists had grown up with games and were playing them alongside us. So when the WipEout soundtrack featured Chemical Brothers; when Sheffield-based Gremlin Interactive hooked up with Warp Records for its PlayStation games; when influential graphic design studio Designer’s Republic moved its Japan-influenced art from album covers to game packaging, it all made sense – everyone was using the same reference points. Everything felt connected and games were intrinsic for once. The first record I ever reviewed was a Goldie remix of the Tekken soundtrack – the record label sent it to us at the same time as it went out to ID and the Face. It was unprecedented.

In addition, Sony had no baggage in the games industry. Other than its abortive SNES add-on project with Nintendo, it didn’t have a legacy to live up to, so it was free to reinvent what games were and where they fitted in. I can remember seeing the incredible Double Life commercial and being mesmerised that a video game console could be promoted that way; using masked gangsters and lone women in dirty bedsits. Not even Sega – the master of in-your-face advertising – had imagined games in this way; as something unabashedly, inarguably cool.

We were coming out of a recession. Young professionals unable to afford their own houses were living together, extending their teenage years way into their 20s. A big deal has been made of Sony invading the clubbing scene – with the famous PlayStation chill-out room in the Ministry of Sound being the key example. But for a lot of us, the post-pub PlayStation session became an alternative to clubbing – it was cheaper and, hell, the music was the same anyway.

Games also tapped into the (ugh, sorry) lad and ladette culture of the era. The Official PlayStation Magazine was devised as a lifestyle mag to sit alongside FHM and Loaded, rather than a computer games publication. It was big and glossy and loud, and it had a proper photography budget. Its cover discs, filled with demos of incoming games, became essential items, propelling magazine sales into the hundreds of thousands. For a long stretch, OPM was one of the biggest-selling monthly publications in the country, attracting the sort of youth brand advertisers games had never seen before. We felt like we were at the centre of things.

It was so exciting. The blockbusters were wonderful – Metal Gear Solid, Tekken, Driver – but so were the games that sought to open up the audience. PaRappa the Rapper, Bust a Groove, Beatmania – titles you could bring home to a household of non-gamers and get them indoctrinated. The next day you’d walk to work humming Master Onion’s rap.

In 1995, it felt as if we were on the brink of something new – the digital age. Games as art, games as gigs, games as cinema. Games moving from the bedroom to the living room to the club and the festival. Those ideas, trite now, were new once. I was in my 20s, living with four other journalists in a house jammed with consoles. PlayStation was the one all our friends and partners knew about or wanted to know about. There was always something brand new and thrilling to show them.

Sega Brings Back the Game Gear by Announcing the Game Gear Micro

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome: It’s time for a history lesson! Who here remembers the Game Gear? The handheld device was Sega’s answer to Nintendo’s Game Boy, essentially. Sega released the device in late 1990 before pushing it overseas in 1991. Thanks to its full-color graphics and backlit screen (both of which the original Game Boy didn’t have), Sega touted the Game Gear as a superior product over Nintendo’s, further escalating their ongoing console war at the time. Despite this, the Game Gear didn’t go on to sell very well. In comparison to Game Boy, the sales just didn’t match up, forcing Sega to discontinue the product in 1997. Looks like they’re feeling a bit nostalgic, however, because the Game Gear is back in a brand new way. Just the other day, the company unveiled the Game Gear Micro, a miniature sized Game Gear.

Your first impression upon seeing the Game Gear Micro will be “Man, this thing is TINY!”. The retro throwback measures in with a 3.15 inch length and 1.7 inch height. The screen itself is a mere 1.15 inches, making it quite smaller compared to the original Game Gear. Sega unveiled four different color variants for the Micro, and as it turns out, these aren’t just for show. Each color of Micro comes with a different set of four games. Which one you pick, therefore, will likely come down to game preference rather than color preference. The games are emulated thanks to the efforts of M2, and the colors are as follows: Gray, Blue, Red, and Yellow. Gray will net you the original Sonic the Hedgehog, Puyo Puyo 2, OutRun, and Royal Stone. Blue features Sonic & Tails, Gunstar Heroes, Sylvan Tale, and Baku Baku Animal. Red will get you Megami Tensei Gaiden: Last Bible, Last Bible Special, The GG Shinobi, and Columns. And last but not least: Yellow! Yellow contains Shining Force Gaiden, Shining Force Gaiden 2, Shining Force Gaiden Final Conflict, and Nazo Puyo Arle no Roux.
As you can see, each color kind of focuses on a different subset of game types and series. For those worried about the small size of the screen, have no fear. Sega has announced alongside these a Big Window Micro attachment, which is a callback to the Big Window attachment the original Game Gear received. If you want to get one, there appears to be a catch: You have to pre-order all four color variants of the Micro at the same store. Keep in mind, however, that these are the rules for Japan. So far, Sega has contained this announcement entirely to Japan in general, with no mention of a Western release. Looking at Sega’s history, though, makes it seem likely that they’ll announce specifics for overseas fans relatively soon. The Game Gear Micro will require two AAA batteries to operate, though you can use a micro USB cable if need be. It also contains an in-built speaker and headphone jack, making it perfect for a noisy subway or bus ride.

The Game Gear Micro releases to Japanese stores on October 6th later this year. Each variant of the Micro will run buyers a total of 4,980 yen, which converts to around $45 USD. So what’s the occasion for all of this, you may be wondering. Sega’s 60th anniversary just hit recently (June 3rd, to be specific), meaning the company has gone all out celebrating 60 years in the biz. The Game Gear Micro is in honor of that, though who knows what else they have planned. It’s good to note that the planned October 6th release matches up with the release date for the original Game Gear in Japan: October 6th, 1990. Seeing as Sega almost-definitely did this on purpose, it lends credence to the idea that they may match the date for us too. This would have it releasing sometime in April next year for the states. That’s just a theory, though.

The 25 greatest video game consoles – ranked!

On the threshold of a new console generation with the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, here are the industry’s most influential and impactful machines over 50 years of gaming.

25. 3DO (1993)

The second true 32-bit machine after the FM Towns Marty, the 3DO was available via a unique business model: the 3DO Company (formed by Electronic Arts founder Trip Hawkins) licensed its technical specifications to third-party manufacturers such as Sanyo and Panasonic, which then built their own versions. Unfortunately, this approach made the hardware hugely expensive ($699 at launch – equivalent to $1,267 or £990 today) compared with rival consoles that could be sold at a loss by their manufacturers. There were some excellent titles, including the original Need for Speed and the strategy-shooter Return Fire, but the PlayStation killed it stone dead.

24. Atari Jaguar (1993)

The veteran company’s final console boasted a powerful yet jumbled architecture based around two silicon chipsets (named Tom and Jerry) and a Motorola 68000 processor. Some say it was difficult to code for, it lacked a broad games catalogue and at $249, it was also very expensive. Now best known for the trio of excellent shooters Tempest 2000, Doom and Alien vs Predator, it remains an intriguing technical oddity.

23. Sega Master System (1985)

Throughout the early 1980s Sega made several attempts to transfer its arcade expertise to the home console market – the Master System was the most successful. More powerful and with a fuller colour palette than the mighty Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), the eight-bit machine boasted decent arcade conversions, but is best remembered for its scrolling platformers, including Alex Kidd in Miracle World, Wonder Boy, Psycho Fox and an expertly reduced version of Sonic the Hedgehog.

22. Intellivision (1979)

With its brown and gold chassis, wood effect lining and retro-futuristic controllers, Mattel’s Intellivision screamed “It’s the 1970s!” from every angle. But, developed a year after the release of the Atari VCS, it was a much more sophisticated machine thanks to a 16-bit central processor and generous 16-colour palette. Famous for its pioneering use of licensed sports titles and its convincing arcade ports (Burger Time, Donkey Kong Jr, Bump N Jump …) there were also intriguing original titles such as the weird operating-theatre sim Microsurgeon and B-17 Bomber, which came with a voice synthesiser for, ahem, “realistic” speech effects.

21. PC Engine (1987)

In the 1980s most consoles resembled toys – the PC Engine, with its futuristic white chassis and cool mini-cartridges (or HuCards), looked like something out of Akira. Designed by electronics giant NEC and game developer Hudson Soft, the console contained twin 16-bit graphics chips that brought a singular aesthetic quality to arcade conversions such as R-Type, Splatterhouse and Ninja Spirit. Released later in the US as the Turbografx-16, it’s a genuine cult classic.

20. Sega Saturn (1994)

Hitting Japanese shelves a fortnight before PlayStation, Sega’s 32-bit machine would be forever defined by its failed rivalry with Sony. Its fragmented internal architecture was built around Sega’s cutting-edge arcade machine technology, but developers needed expert knowledge of assembly language to wrestle anything out of it. Still, Sega’s studios triumphed with Virtua Fighter, Nights into Dreams and Sega Rally, while its plethora of stunning 2D shooters and fighting games thrilled hardcore gamers.

19. Colecovision (1982)

With a Z80 processor three times more powerful than the Atari VCS and a huge 16KB of video ram, the Colecovision was a significant technological leap forward, allowing smooth animation and colourful visuals. Among its 125 games there were interesting original titles such as scrolling adventure Tarzan and Fortune Builder, an early SimCity predecessor. Later expansion modules let owners play Atari game carts and use a steering wheel controller. The machine is best known for excellent arcade conversions including Gorf, Zaxxon and Donkey Kong. Nintendo was so impressed that its head of R&D, Masayuki Uemura, used the Colecovision as inspiration for the NES.

18. Magnavox Odyssey (1972)

The first ever games console was developed by engineer Ralph Baer while working for defence contractor Sanders Associates under the attractive code name Brown Box. It consisted of a white and, yes, brown box containing just 40 transistors and 40 diodes, with wires connecting to the TV and two blocky controllers. The games, basically variants of Pong, had no sound and colour was achieved by placing plastic overlays on the screen – but the profound concept of interacting with graphics on your TV began here.

17. SNK Neo Geo (1990)

Like Sega, SNK was a 1980s arcade giant with a desire to infiltrate the home console market, but its approach was much more ambitious. It set out to build a machine using exactly the same technology as its coin-op hits. This resulted in astonishing home versions of Fatal Fury, Art of Fighting and The King of Fighters; the only catch was the Neo Geo cost three times as much as its competitors and the 330-megabit game carts cost up to $200 each. No wonder it’s known as the Rolls-Royce of game consoles.

16. Atari VCS/2600 (1977)

For a while, in the late 1970s, Atari was video games. After the success of its home Pong console in 1975, the company’s designers spent a year constructing a microprocessor-based system that could play games based on rom cartridges. During Christmas 1977, 400,000 machines hit US shelves and sold out almost instantly. The look of the machine, with its black fascia and wood panelling, and its simple eight-directional joystick, set the design ethos of the industry, while its games, with their beautifully illustrated boxes, were design classics in both form and function. Infiltrating pop culture via movies as diverse as Airplane! and Bladerunner, the Atari was more than a console – and even its failures, especially the botched film tie-in ET, became the stuff of legend.

15. Nintendo GameCube (2001)

Beside the muscular design and technical potency of the PS2 and Xbox, with their internet connectivity and DVD support (the Xbox via an add-on), the GameCube looked like a giant Lego brick with a handle and its IBM PowerPC processor was underpowered compared to Microsoft’s machine. But Nintendo wanted a fun, characterful console that was cheap and easy to develop for – that’s what we got. Plus, Metroid Prime, Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, Resident Evil 4 and Super Mario Sunshine competed with anything on those other machines.

14. PlayStation 3 (2006)

Beset by difficulties and delays regarding its ambitious Cell processor and the inclusion of a Blu-ray drive, the PS3 was an intimidating project from the start. Its online multiplayer service was generously subscription-free yet inferior to the Xbox 360 offering and developers found it tough to work with the array of multiple synergistic processing units (SPUs). And yet this is where a new form of lush cinematic gaming experience flourished: Uncharted 2, God of War III, Demon’s Souls, Heavy Rain and Journey all pointed to a future of imaginative, challenging storytelling within rich immersive worlds. Their lessons are still being taught and learned.

13. Nintendo 64 (1996)

Developed in conjunction with supercomputer specialist Silicon Graphics Inc and originally given the not-at-all hubristic codename Project Reality, the N64 was a contradictory beast – backwardly sticking with carts instead of embracing CD-roms but innovative in its use of an analogue joystick to allow accurate 3D movement. This, of course, led to Super Mario 64, the defining game of the era, but the console saw many other classics, including GoldenEye, Banjo-Kazooie, Wave Race 64 and Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

12. Xbox One (2013)

Built more as a nicely boxed PC than a traditional console, the Xbox One boasts multicore AMD processors, HDR (and 4K video) compatibility, cloud storage, game streaming and a host of multimedia options. And just as the machine was beginning to age, its S and X iterations came along and boosted the specs. Alongside beautiful versions of multiplatform hits Witcher 3, Assassin’s Creed Origins and Fallout 4, it has also brought us Forza Horizon 4, Sea of Thieves, Halo 5 and Ori and the Blind Forest. State of the art, in many ways.

11. Xbox (2001)

Teased by Bill Gates himself at the 2000 Game Developers’ Conference, Xbox was conceived by the team behind Direct X (Microsoft’s middleware for PC game developers) as a technological Trojan horse to get the company’s products into the living room. From those slightly Orwellian foundations came a robust, powerful and exciting machine, its back catalogue of more than 600 games boasting one of the greatest console first-person shooters ever in Halo, as well as gritty brawler Ninja Gaiden, surreal adventure Psychonauts and Star Wars epic Knights of the Old Republic. From the beginning, Xbox understood the rising importance of online play, with its integrated ethernet port and robust Xbox Live infrastructure. The most significant US-designed console since the Atari VCS.

10. Nintendo Wii (2006)

Plenty of games industry pundits saw the tech specs for the Wii in 2005 and wrote it off as “two Game Cubes taped together”. What they hadn’t figured on was the unique joypad, which used motion controls providing barrier-free access to simple, perfectly designed games such as Wii Sports, Wii Play and Wii Fit. Suddenly, whole families could compete together, from the youngest to the oldest – and Nintendo sold more than 100m units as a result. A victory for utilitarian design over technological obsession.

9. Sega Dreamcast (1998)

With its built-in modem and hugely innovative controllers (complete with removable memory cards doubling as handheld games machines), the Dreamcast was a visionary piece of hardware, backed up by Sega’s astonishingly creative first-party development teams. The machine saw an array of idiosyncratic titles – Jet Set Radio, Shenmue, Seaman, Rez, Phantasy Star Online – that either invented new genres or utterly revolutionised old ones. But the lack of support from western developers and the sheer might of the PS2 ensured that its life was as brief as it was beautiful.

8. Nintendo Switch (2017)

The follow-up to the interesting but flawed Wii U replicated that console’s two-screen approach, but made its built-in HD display truly portable, adding two motion-sensitive controllers into the mix. The Switch is a brilliantly flexible home console, seamlessly switching local multiplayer between the living room and the world at large, somehow combining the genius of the Wii and the Game Boy. Its best games – Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Super Mario Odyssey, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Super Mario Maker – exploit the delightful peculiarities of this machine perfectly.

7. PlayStation (1994)

By 1993, Sony had failed to enter the console industry through collaborations with Sega and Nintendo, so the company’s hardware genius Ken Kutaragi thought, screw it, let’s make our own machine. He designed an architecture that was powerful yet easy to develop for and focused on pushing 3D shapes around the screen as efficiently as possible. Sony then solved its lack of development experience by purchasing UK studio Psygnosis and inking an exclusive deal with Japanese arcade veteran Namco. The resulting console ruled the 1990s, thrilling time-rich twentysomethings with titles such as Tekken, Gran Turismo and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. This machine changed everything.

6. Famicom/Nintendo Entertainment System (1983)

It’s an oft-repeated fact, but always one worth remembering: throughout the 1980s in North America, you didn’t play “video games”, you played Nintendo. Like Hoover and Aspirin before it, the brand was so synonymous with the activity that it became genericised. This was down to the NES, a boxy, dated entry into the console market, which came with funny flat little joypads (heavily inspired by Nintendo’s successful Game & Watch handheld devices) and chunky carts. But the games, oh the games. Super Mario Bros, Legend of Zelda, Contra, Mega Man, Final Fantasy, Excitebike … This was where Nintendo’s (and specifically Shigeru Miyamoto’s) design genius originally flourished and where we learned the company’s maxim that old, well-used technology could be reformulated to realise amazing things.

5. PlayStation 4 (2013)

Based around similar tech as the Xbox One and launched almost simultaneously, the PS4 saw Sony concentrating on games rather than multimedia functionality, immediately winning the PR war against Microsoft. With its excellent controller, vastly improved online infrastructure and seamless sharing and streaming functions, it’s an innovative system, but where it really wins is in its embarrassment of first- and second-party gaming riches. Uncharted 4, Horizon Zero Dawn, Marvel’s Spider-Man, God of War, Bloodborne, Death Stranding … all of them push at the possibilities of video games as a visual narrative medium.

4. Sega Mega Drive/Genesis (1988)

By building an architecture capable of accurately converting arcade hits such as Golden Axe, Strider and Altered Beast, and bullishly marketing at teenagers, Sega made Nintendo look fusty and old-fashioned. This punk attitude was amplified further in 1991 by the arrival of Sonic the Hedgehog, a speed-obsessed, spiky-haired dude-bro perfectly in tune with early-1990s MTV culture. The Mega Drive would go on to sell 35m units and host a wide range of experiences from romantic role-playing adventures to real-time military sims. It wasn’t afraid to be weird and loud and rude, and some of us related hard to that. In the process, for better or worse, it invented the whole idea of console gaming as a lifestyle – an identity.

3. Xbox 360 (2005)

The first console of the broadband era, Xbox 360 put online multiplayer functionality at the core of its offering from the very start. Innovations such as Achievements and the Gamer Score turned the global user base into one vast competitive community whether the battleground was Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Halo 3 or Forza Horizon. Arguably, this was also the machine that saw the superior versions of epic adventures such as Mass Effect 2, Elder Scrolls V, Bioshock and Read Dead Redemption, ushering in our modern era of mature narrative game design.

2. PlayStation 2 (2000)

It’s tough to win the console wars two generations in a row. PlayStation 2 didn’t just equal the success of PlayStation – it became the best-selling console of all time, shifting 155m units. Its utter dominance, its technical power and its familiar development environment allowed studios around the world to be extraordinarily creative. This was the golden era that saw mainstream blockbusters Grand Theft Auto, Metal Gear Solid, Gran Turismo, Pro Evo Soccer, Burnout and Ratchet & Clank come to fruition, but it also hosted idiosyncratic treasures such as Katamari Damacy, Ico and Okami, and through the Guitar Hero and Singstar titles it also became the post-pub entertainment platform of choice for a whole generation. This was where TV, movie and music creatives all woke up and realised, ah yes, games are the future, we’d better get in on this. And then everybody did.

1. Super Famicom/Super Nintendo Entertainment System (1990)

Whole days in front of Street Fighter 2, the living room crowded with mates, coffee table loaded with snacks and Coke cans. All-nighters on Legend of Zelda: a Link to the Past, Super Metroid and Secret of Mana. Sharing Yoshi’s Island and Harvest Moon with your younger sister. Blasting through the Super Star Wars series. Discovering Donkey Kong Country. Millions of us have these memories. The SNES arrived in an industry already changed by the Mega Drive, but Nintendo stuck with what it knew – solid tech and astonishing, fecund creativity. The machine produced beautiful, colourful visuals and lush sampled sounds, and it had the flexibility to allow enhanced cartridges later in its lifecycle. But really, the lasting influence was all down to the games – more than 1,700 of them – and the way they made us feel. That is, in the end, what it’s all about.

The game that ate the world: 40 facts on Pac-Man’s 40th birthday

The iconic maze chase has been played billions of times, created one of the 80s’ strangest sex symbols, stupefied Martin Amis – and is now enshrined in a leading art museum.

It was on this day in 1980 that one of gaming’s most iconic characters made his debut. To celebrate, here are 40 facts about the ravenous yellow circle and his proud, pill-popping legacy …

1. Pac-Man was created by game designer Toru Iwatani – he was just 24 at the time. The idea for the character came to him when he removed a slice from a pizza.

2. He was also partly inspired by the onomatopoeic phrase paku paku meaning “chomp chomp” and the kanji symbol for the word taberu meaning “to eat”.

3. In 2010, Iwatani told Wired that Pac-Man particularly targeted female players. “When you think about things women like, you think about fashion, or fortune-telling, or food or dating boyfriends. So I decided to theme the game around ‘eating’.” There is absolutely nothing problematic about this statement …

4. To make the game more kawaii (“cute”), Iwatani designed the ghosts in bright colours and gave them large doe-eyes.

5. The ghosts are called Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde and they each have their own personalities based on AI routines. Blinky constantly chases Pac-Man, Pinky attempts to ambush him, Inky is randomised depending on Pac-Man’s position and Clyde will get close to the player then attempt to flee to the bottom left corner, potentially cutting off escape routes.

6. The idea of eating a power pill to give Pac-Man super strength came partly from the cartoon Popeye and his love of spinach, and partly from the Japanese concept of kokoro (“spirit”) or life force. It’s considered one of the first examples of a “power up” in video game history.

7. Pac-Man manufacturer Namco installed the first machine in a movie theatre in Shibuya, Tokyo, on 22 May 1980.

8. The game was only a moderate success until its blockbusting US launch the following October.

9. It was originally called Puck Man, but the US distributor Midway was worried that the word Puck could easily be modified by mischievous vandals into something ruder. Hence, Pac-Man.

10. The game features short animated sequences between levels, showing Pac-Man being chased by the ghosts. This was one of the first examples of a non-interactive video game “cutscene”.

11. Martin Amis was a fan of the game and in his 1982 book Invasion of the Space Invaders claimed to have spent weeks in “a Pac-Man-fed stupor […] unwilling and unable to think about anything else”.

12. Within a year of Pac-Man’s launch, 100,000 units had been sold and 250m games were being played every week. Pac-Man became gaming’s first marketable mascot, with licensed merchandise including lunchboxes, joke books, T-shirts, board games, pyjamas and, for the romantic gamer, Valentine cards.

13. A strategy guide to the game, Mastering Pac-Man by professional blackjack player Ken Uston, sold more than 1m copies.

14. With its simplified maze and blocky visuals, the Atari 2600 version of Pac-Man is widely considered one of the worst arcade-to-home console conversions of all time. Although it sold 7m copies, the game was so wretched it has been widely blamed for the 1983 video game crash, alongside the similarly poor title, ET.

15. Japanese toy manufacturer Tomy made a famously beautiful, handheld Pac-Man game in the shape of an enormous yellow blob with an LCD display. This advert for the device is quite a rush.

16. The tribute song Pac-Man Fever by artists Jerry Buckner and Gary Garcia reached number nine in the US charts in March 1982. An album of video-game-inspired songs followed. It was not good.

17. The game’s distinctive electronic music and sound effects were also an inspiration to early hip-hop pioneers. Notable examples include Jonzun Crew’s Pack Jam and Newcleus’s Jam on Revenge (The Wikki-Wikki Song).

18. The game gave us this Marcus Brigstocke joke: “If Pac-Man had affected us as kids, we’d all be running around in dark rooms, munching pills and listening to repetitive electronic music.”

19. In 1981, Japanese manufacturer Shoei released a terrible “erotic” version of Pac-Man called Streaking. It was later heavily featured in the movie Joysticks, which belonged to the 1980s teen sex comedy genre popularised by Porky’s. Here is the movie trailer. Please don’t watch it.

20. The movie also featured preview footage of Super Pac-Man, Namco’s official sequel to the original game.

21. In a 1982 episode of the sitcom Taxi, Louie (Danny DeVito) installs a Pac-Man cabinet in the garage and Jim (Christopher Lloyd) becomes addicted to the game. The scene is effectively a how-to guide and an advert for Pac-Man rolled into one.

22. Pac-Man was a major element in the appalling Adam Sandler comedy Pixels, with Toru Iwatani getting a cameo as an arcade repairman. But let’s just forget about that, shall we?

23. In 1999, Billy Mitchell became the first person to obtain a perfect Pac-Man score of 3,333,360, eating every dot, power pill, ghost and bonus on every level without losing a single life. However, Mitchell was later accused of cheating by video game records supervisor Twin Galaxies. The record was equalled by David Race in 2012.

24. It is impossible to score higher than that because of a bug in the game that turns the screen to gibberish on the 256th screen.

25. The success of Pac-Man inspired US distributor Bally Midway to create a series of mostly identical sequels: Ms Pac-Man, Pac-Man Plus, Jr Pac-Man, Baby Pac-Man (which added a mini pinball table under the monitor) and Professor Pac-Man.

26. Professor Pac-Man was a quiz game depicting Pac-Man in a mortar board and glasses. It was not a success.

27. In 1982, Hanna-Barbera produced a Pac-Man cartoon series. It features Pac-Man, Ms Pac-Man, their child Pac-Baby and their cat Sour Puss as they attempt to elude the evil Mezmaron who is obsessed with power pills. The intro sequence is a work of hallucinogenic brilliance.

28. In his book Trigger Happy, writer Steven Poole suggested Pac-Man was a precursor to survivor horror games such as Resident Evil and Silent Hill due to its confined, maze-like map, supernatural enemies and emphasis on evasion.

29. In corporate parlance, “the Pac-Man defence” is a strategy in which a company targeted for a hostile takeover attempts to turn the tables and purchase the acquirer.

30. Ms Pac-Man is widely considered a better game than Pac-Man, due to the more varied maze design and improved ghost AI.

31. However, it is most remembered for the image on the side of the game cabinet, which depicts Ms Pac-Man with high heels, red lipstick and fluttering eyelashes, making her the decade’s most bizarre and confusing sex symbol. And, bearing in mind we’re talking about the 80s, that’s really saying something.

32. In the Friends episode The One Where Joey Dates Rachel, Phoebe gives Chandler and Monica a pristine Ms Pac-Man cabinet as a late wedding present – a generous gift as it would have cost about $2,500.

33. Namco has regularly attempted to update and expand the Pac-Man concept. Sometimes this has worked (scrolling platformers Pac-Land and Pac in Time, and the isometrically viewed Pac-Mania); sometimes it really hasn’t (risible party game Pac-Man Fever and mystifying off-road driving sim Pac-Man World Rally).

34. Pac-Man has also appeared as a playable guest character in many other games, including Everybody’s Golf, Mario Kart Arcade GP and Street Fighter X Tekken. He stars as the world’s cutest racing car in Ridge Racer Type 4.

35. Swiss tech company ClearSpace is developing a satellite capable of orbiting Earth and gobbling up space junk. The project leader nicknamed it “the Pac-Man system”.

36. In 2004, New York University students created a real-world version of Pac-Man entitled Pac-Manhattan, in which a player dressed as Pac-Man had to run around the city avoiding students dressed as ghosts. The game used mobile phone GPS signals to track their positions.

37. French street artist Invader has created several mosaic works featuring the Pac-Man character and ghosts, notably in Paris and Bilbao.

38. For his spring/summer 2009 collection, fashion designer Giles Deacon dressed the models in gigantic Pac-Man helmets and had dots painted along the runway.

39. In 2012, Pac-Man was one of 14 video games brought into the collection at MoMA in New York and displayed in its architecture and design gallery.

40. Toru Iwatani returned to Pac-Man in 2007, co-designing the brilliant Xbox title Pac-Man Championship Edition, which adds a time limit and an endlessly transforming maze layout. It was a fitting end to his Pac-Man odyssey.