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Classic Video Games: A Look at Where it All Began

Samyak Lalit | August 2, 2013 (Last update: November 7, 2019)

Samyak Lalit is an Indian author and disability rights activist. He is the principal author and founder of projects like TechWelkin, WeCapable, Viklangta, Kavita Kosh among many others.

Classic arcade and video games that have led to the complex, user-integrated games that are popular today.  Gaming is more popular than ever – with more and more people across the world playing games on their smartphones and tablets. With touchscreens on smartphones, it is easier than ever to play a video game. But remember how games used to be played? The perseverance, creativity, and sheer intelligence of the inventors of early video games underscores how technology develops both over time and on the backs of giants. This article will take a look at some of the first video games to make it big, and then explore how the user experience has gradually changed over time.

Tennis for Two

American Physicist William Higinbotham devoted his life to the work of nuclear non-proliferation. It was the result of a few hours of work in 1958, however, for which he is most widely known – work that led to the groundbreaking first-ever video game ‘Tennis for Two’. While working at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, New York, Higinbotham got the idea to make a game to entertain bored visitors to the laboratory. Using computer calculations of ballistic missile trajectories as the game’s foundation, Higinbotham used an oscilloscope as the game’s display and circuitry the size of a microwave. This was all done with a Donner Model 30 analog computer. The game’s display showed the trajectory of a ball that could be reversed when it hit the ground, the other player directing it back over the net. Players controlled the ball using analog aluminum controllers, with a button to hit the ball and a knob to control angles. While this game was a hit with laboratory visitors and a technological feat, it did not get mass use. Nevertheless, it is rightfully considered to be the very first video game.

Computer Space

Release in arcade format in 1971, this was the first coin-operated video game. Made by the duo that would eventually go on to found Atari, Inc., this Computer Space put the player in the shoes of a rocket-ship pilot who needed to avoid enemy rockets and flying saucers. The length of the game increased based on whether the player’s score was higher than the score of the flying saucers. If the player won the first round, he or she was transported to “Hyperspace”, an animated sequence where the screen colors reversed. If the player was still in the lead at the end of this round, the colors changed back for a new round. This repeated until the player lost.


Similar to Tennis for Two, Atari’s Pong simulated table tennis and was one of the first videogames to reach mainstream success.  This two-dimensional game worked by players operating a paddle on- screen to keep the ball in play, in order to earn the most points. While the gaming experience in Pong was simple, its impact was huge – many consider Pong the sole originator of the video game industry. Pong hasn’t stopped – Atari recently held a competition to find a new developer for a new ‘Pong’ for smartphones and tablets!

Donkey Kong

This first in a series of games featuring a simian adventurer was created in 1981 by Shigeru Miyamoto. The original Donkey Kong was a single-screen game that pitted Donkey Kong against another beloved video games character, Mario – the enterprising hero-plumber (though in this game Mario was a construction worker). Donkey Kong’s weapon of choice was the barrel, which he managed to use as both a weapon, mode of transportation, and a home. In addition to gaining Nintendo a win in a copyright infringement lawsuit levied against them by Universal Studios, Donkey Kong rocketed the video games developer to US success, securing its prominent place in the industry for years to come. Donkey Kong was one of the first ‘platform’ video games ever created: a game that requires a player to jump from suspended platforms or obstacles.

Mario Bros.

This 1983 arcade game by Nintendo featured Mario and his brother Luigi, who attempt to destroy all the evil and nefarious creatures that come up from the NYC sewer system. Mario and Luigi run and jump around, killing enemy turtles by first knocking them onto their backs by hitting the underside of the platform they are on, and then kicking them. The enemies become more and more difficult to catch, and the obstacles more complex. Long before Mario was saving Princess Peach, he was mastering the art of monster-plumbing in this watershed game.

A Changing User Experience

These video games reveal the progression of ideas, technology, and user experience in the gaming industry. While gaming may have started with users blinking excitedly at the oscilloscope and a floating green dot, we now have games which are so hands-on that it is becoming difficult to determine where reality ends and gaming begins. The mechanics of gaming have also developed. Far from the realm of computers that took up so much space they practically needed their own room, new generation gaming devices – tablets and phablets – are light and mobile, and specifically designed to optimize a gamer’s user experience. Though the games described above may just represent the earliest stages of development in the gaming industry, they were born of an enduring and inventive spirit that continues to drive innovation forward.


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