The Great Video Game Crash of 1983 What Caused the ConsolePocalypse

The Great Video Game Crash of 1983: What Caused the Console-Pocalypse?

The Great Video Game Crash of 1983, and the numerous variables (besides the E.T. game) that led to the console market’s collapse.

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The Great Video Game Crash of 1983 What Caused the ConsolePocalypse

Once there were more great consoles than just the Playstation, Nintendo Wii and Xbox. Once, in a distant age, there was Atari and Odyssey, Intellivision and Astrocade – dozens of video game consoles from competing developers, each seeking to grab their share of a new home entertainment market. Then came the Great Video Game Crash of 1983, an apocalypse where numerous console manufacturers went out of business and thousands of unsold games were consigned to landfills.

How did this disaster happen? How much of it was the fault of the universally reviled E.T. video game adaptation? Read on to learn exactly what happened, a story of innovative game development drowned in a tidal wave of wretched third-party titles and half-baked marketing schemes.

Video games weren’t always available for people to own at their homes, and in the early days they were usually shared between people with expensive computers. However, as technology grew over time, some companies wanted to deliver the entertainment value that games provided to a new market: the living room.

The 1970s -1982: The Rise of Gaming Consoles…

The Great Video Game Crash of 1983 What Caused the ConsolePocalypse

The first generation of consoles, led by the 1972 Magnavox Odyssey, were crude by today’s standards, containing a fixed library of games illuminated on TVs using simple light dots and decorative screen overlays; all the same, they pioneered a whole new field of home entertainment. The second generation of video games consoles grew alongside their cousins in the arcades, with consoles like the Atari 2600 and Intellivision porting arcade hits like Space Invaders and Pac-Man over to people’s homes.

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Game controllers grew more sophisticated, simple dials and switches giving way to recognizable joysticks and button arrays, while at the same time new built-in micro-processors and gaming cartridges let gamers play a theoretically unlimited number of games on their console. Everyone wanted to get aboard this brand new craze with their own consoles and games… and in the process, they ended up tipping the metaphorical boat right over.

1980-1982: …And Their Fall

The Great Video Game Crash of 1983 What Caused the ConsolePocalypse

The first factor behind the 1983 Video Game Console Crash was the sheer glut of consoles on the market. In a sort of digital tragedy of the commons, the Atari, Intellivision, Astrocade and other consoles were all competing for the public eye, dividing customer interest. A lack of cross-console titles also kept individual video games from standing out among the flock, hurting sales and keeping dedicated fanbases from developing.

The second factor behind the Crash was that many of the games were just bad. For each hit like Adventure and Centipede, there were twenty knockoffs of Pong and Pac-Man, churned out onto the market by inexperienced toy companies and dog food manufacturers. Many of these games were dreadful, and there were few as dreadful as 1982’s E.T. The Extraterrestrial, an adaptation of the hit Steven Spielberg movie thrown together over the course of a mere six weeks. Within the unassuming cartridge of E.T. The Extraterrestrial lurked a nightmare of gameplay that haunted children with endless pits, collectible Reese’s Pieces and a complete lack of any clear win condition.

What Developers Learned From The Crash

A few companies like Atari managed to stay in business, but the Crash dealt it and competitors a severe blow. After the disappointing release of the Atari Jaguar in 1993, Atari left the console market (returning only recently with their Atari VCS entertainment system). American developers generally turned their attention to making games for the growing PC market, while Nintendo stepped into the breach with their Nintendo Entertainment System, released in 1985. The Nintendo’s practical design, coupled with a library of carefully curated quality titles, secured the dominance of the gaming console industry by Japanese companies, uncontested until the release of Microsoft’s Xbox in 2001.

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The Video Game Crash of 1983 is a sordid bit of history, but one with a silver lining. It cleared out the swathe of consoles on the market at the time, letting gamers make more informed decisions about which one to buy. The sheer awfulness of titles like E.T. and Chuckwagon taught console makers to vet their library of titles for quality and game developers like Activision to assert their own creative visions. Like a purifying wildfire, the Crash cleared the field for video games to evolve and for genuine gaming cultures to rise.

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