When asked what images they mentally conjured up at the utterance of “video game history”, my friends all concurred that they envisioned Japanese geniuses in business suits toiling away at a computer screen, working on the “soon-to-be” hottest new release. They said that they thought of wide-eyed Japanese children playing the latest role-playing game with mouths agape, even before the United States got a fleeting glimpse of the splendiferous title. Now although that may be true by today’s standards, it would be a prevarication to say that these matters always existed as such.
The quality and sheer vicissitude of Japanese games would have human providence and common sense lead you to believe that video games originated in The Land of the Rising Sun. That is an all too common misconception. Let me brief you on a few key events on the origin of video games in the United States. In 1962 a young MIT student by the name of Steve Russell created Spacewar, the first interactive computer game, on a mainframe computer. At the same time Nolan Bushnell, the proclaimed “Father of Video Games,” enrolled in the University of Utah and was exposed to the rare Spacewar video game. Continuing this path, Bushnell and his partner made the company Atari in 1972, which translates to “check” in the Japanese game Go. Later on that year Bushnell created the now legendary Pong and the Atari name was propagated across the nation. Around this time an aspiring business owner saw a lucrative industry in video games and merged his Japanese photo-booth with a company called Nihon Goraku Bussan. This merge called for a named that would accommodate both parties, so the photo-booth operator and Nihon Goraku Bussan decided on Service and Games, or SEGA as their company name. During their incipiency, SEGA devoted their collective efforts to developing amusement devices for the Japanese audience, and the rest is history.

As mentioned earlier, when one thinks of video game history one mainly thinks of the Japanese cranking out quality games at an accelerated rate while the US gamer is left to pick up their vestiges. Part of this could be attributed to the fact that games were better received and integrated into the Japanese lifestyle; however, a lot of the difference between the installed user bases has to do with an egregious crash on the US video game market in 1983. The unbelievably popular Super Famicom was also released in Japan during the same year as the crash, so Japanese gamers experienced a resurgence of interest in games while American gamers went through a recession. These series of events further widened the already growing gap between of video games’ influence on the Japanese and American cultures. Fortunately, now the US game companies are back in full swing, and some of our larger game developers work simultaneously with their Japanese sister companies. For example, Square, who are known primarily for their seraphic Final Fantasy series, have recently merged with Electronic Arts, the largest software distributor on the planet. With this joining, Square and Electronic Arts have become the progenitors to two powerful daughter companies, working in the states and overseas, that plan to double their productivity to shorten the conversion times of their great games. But alas, due to cultural differences many games will still never see the light of day here in the states.

In Japan “wacky” games are received with open arms. Bust a Move has you pushing buttons to perform snazzy dance steps to popular music, while Tokimeki Memorial is an example of the popular girlfriend simulation genre that has the gamer trying to score a date with one of the lovely ladies of a virtual town. Japan is also filled with many huge location based entertainment centers, some of which would send Las Vegas home to its mommy in a fit of tears. These entertainment centers have typical American arcade games-personified. The attractions range from interactive gyroscope rides to etchi video games for the mature gamer. Used video game shops are commonplace in Japan and they often offer the best prices on the latest hardware and software. You can even buy games at the local convenience store. Imagine going to 7-11 and getting a 20-ounce Sprite, a bag of Cheetos and Asteroids 2000. One of the nicer aspects about the Japanese gaming circle is the “electronic town,” or Akihabara. Here you can find televisions, stereos, videocassette recorders, Walkmans, software, peripherals and anything video game related for dirt-cheap prices. It’s like turning a small city into a Best Buy.

When you think of masters of their field you may think of DaVinci conquering the art medium, Beethoven dominating the music field and Frank Lloyd Wright being the champion of architectural work. The masters of the video game field may not be as world renown as the aforementioned examples of excellence, but they are profound in their own right. Shigeru Miyamoto is considered a deity to most gaming aficionados. He pioneered the Nintendo back in 1986 and it was an instant success. The graphics and speed of his prime game, Super Mario Bros., were leaps and bounds above what most gamers had seen on the older Atari or Colecovision. In addition to the Mario series and the Nintendo machine, Miyamoto has gone on to make groundbreaking products such as Zelda, Metroid and the highly acclaimed Super Famicom. This “Sherman Tank” of the industry is still going strong with his recent release of the most anticipated game ever, Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Another name that many hard-core gamers know is Akira Nishatini, the creator of the immortal Street Fighter series. The first in this series came out as a nondescript arcade fighting game in 1987. The hype didn’t really pick up until 1991 when the sequel came out which was a complete overhaul from the original. Gamers were awestruck by the advent of the fighter genre, and today, 20 some-odd versions later; Street Fighter can still stake claims as being the king of fighting games. A game design veteran whose time is really starting to come about is Hideo Kojima. He is credited with the cult hits Metal Gear and Snake’s Revenge. These two games may be smudges on the casual gamer’s mind, but the true fans jumped for joy with the recent release of Metal Gear Solid, one of the most talked about games ever for five years in the making. You may also recognize Kojima’s name on the Japanese hits Snatcher and Policenauts, two more titles that have, sadly enough, been reserved to the American gamer’s dreams. But there is more to this field than merely the design of a game, music and art play a huge role at creating the overall ambient effect. Yoshitaka Amano and Nobuo Umetsu, both from Final Fantasy fame, are respectively two of Japan’s hottest game artists and musicians. Amano’s dancing pen has graced the covers of more than a few of the top selling games, and the musical styling of Umetsu rivals that of even our premiere classical composers. The proof is in the product, and these men definitely deliver.

In aggregation, video games have come a long way. They started out as a simple spaceship game running on an American Digital PDP-1, and are now being run on Japanese systems more powerful than most high-end computers. They’ve suffered a nearly fatal crash, but have bounced back high enough to spread their influence as far as the likes of Congress. The Japanese have influenced us immensely, in regard to gaming, and I’d like to think that we have helped them commensurately. Although we may live on different sides of the globe and speak different languages we still bleed the same blood, the sanguineous, bitmapped blood of a gamer.

By Ira Humphrey – 01/09/02

Screenshots for History of Videogames