Defined by the 8 bit and 16 bit consoles of the time, this era was a time of innovation and creativity that spawned many classics that are still being built upon today. The history of retro gaming is a complex topic so in this article we'll explore the main plot points of the retro gaming story along with the enduring legacy left behind.
Although it eventually became a marketing term exploited by manufacturers to sell consoles, a 'bit' in its most basic definition refers to the smallest increment of data a computer can process. As it is a binary digit, it can exist in two states, either 0 or 1, similar to on/off. Consoles like the Atari 2600 and Nintendo Entertainment System are 8 bit meaning every chunk of information is 8 bits long which in binary, results in 256 possible states whereas 16-bit consoles, like the Sega Mega Drive or Super Nintendo, allowed for 65,536 possible states.
These limitations affected everything from graphics to resolution to audio meaning developers had to be very clever and resourceful in getting the most from these systems. But it was these confines that produced the style and gameplay we still love and replicate today
The 8-bit era, which spanned roughly from the late 1970s to the late 1980s, marked the birth of home video gaming. Before this, gamers were tied to the local arcades endlessly feeding coins into cabinets but then suddenly, we had the ability to bring the arcade experience home to the comfort of our living rooms. And it all started with a little California based business named Atari.
In the ever-evolving landscape of video game consoles, one name stands as a true pioneer, the Atari 2600. Released in 1977, this iconic gaming system was instrumental in transforming the way we play and experience video games. One revolutionary feature of the Atari 2600 was its use of interchangeable game cartridges. This allowed players to easily expand their game collections, opening up a world of possibilities and experiences. The concept of swappable cartridges would become a hallmark of the gaming industry for decades to come.
The Atari 2600 boasted an impressive game library also, which included classics like 'Space Invaders', 'Pac-Man', 'Asteroids', and 'Pitfall'. These titles set the stage for the evolution of video game culture and created the blueprint for future generations of game developers. With that said, things that go up must at some point go down and the video game industry was no exception.
Due to an oversaturated market filled with subpar games, Atari became the victim of what is now known as the 'Video Game Crash of 1983'. With sales dropping 97%, the video game industry was basically decimated overnight and Atari would never financially recover or regain its seat at the head of the gaming table.
Despite this, the Atari 2600's influence on the gaming industry cannot be overstated. It laid the foundation for home gaming, cultivated a love for interactive entertainment, and introduced us to many timeless classics that continue to be celebrated today. And although it seemed like the end of the line for the video game industry, it turns out it was only the beginning.
Emerging from the smoldering ashes of the video game crash came Nintendo who in 1983 released the Famicon in Japan. Two years later they rebranded for the western market and introduced the world to the Nintendo Entertainment System, known commonly as the NES, and with it a cultural phenomenon.
The main strength of the NES was its rich and diverse library of games, many of which are considered among the greatest of all time. Titles like 'Super Mario Bros', 'The Legend of Zelda', 'Metroid', 'Mega Man' and 'Final Fantasy' captivated players with their innovative gameplay and memorable characters. These classics continue to be cherished by gamers and are often re-mastered or re-imagined for new generations.
Many of these titles introduced innovative gameplay mechanics that set new standards and are still utilized today. 'Super Mario Bros' redefined platforming, 'The Legend of Zelda' popularized open-world exploration, and 'Duck Hunt' brought shooting games to a whole new level with the Zapper light gun accessory.
Evolving from the joystick style controllers before it, the NES controller design was not only iconic but also incredibly functional. With its simple D-pad, two buttons, and rectangular shape, it set the template for future controllers and became the blueprint for gaming input devices. Add to this a plethora of accessories such as the NES Advantage, the aforementioned Zapper gun and the ummm, Power Glove (it's so bad) meant gamers now had endless new ways to experience their favourite games.
The Nintendo Entertainment System transcends time, continuing to captivate the hearts of gamers young and old. Its influence on the industry, its groundbreaking games, and its enduring appeal make it a true legend in the world of gaming.
As 8-bit gave way to the 16-bit era of the late 80's and early 90's, a new level of gaming emerged. These updated consoles brought forth groundbreaking innovations in graphics, sound, and gameplay and would result in a war between two rivals for the majority market share.
Few consoles have left as profound an impact on gaming history as the Sega Mega Drive. Known as the Genesis in North America and released in 1988, this 16-bit powerhouse ushered in a new era of gaming and solidified Sega's place as a major player in the industry. Its advanced hardware offered superior graphics and sound compared to its 8-bit predecessors, setting new standards for home console gaming.
As a response to Nintendo's iconic 'Mario' character, Sega introduced 'Sonic the Hedgehog' to the world in 1991 and along with their brilliant marketing campaign of 'Sega does what Nintendon't', established themselves as a serious contender for Nintendo's crown. This original console war ushered in a competitive spirit between both companies driving innovation and spawning numerous memorable titles still enjoyed today.
Along with Sonic the Hedgehog, the Mega Drive boasted a vast and diverse library of games, from arcade-style action titles like 'Streets of Rage' to immersive RPGs like 'Phantasy Star IV'. For those who grew up with the Sega Mega Drive, its games and iconic 'SEGA' startup sound evoke powerful nostalgia. Many gamers fondly remember hours spent mastering 'Sonic', completing 'Shining Force' campaigns, and duking it out in 'Mortal Kombat' battles.
In an effort to extend the Mega Drive's lifespan, Sega introduced the Sega CD and Sega 32X add-ons. While these peripherals didn't achieve the same level of success as the base console, they demonstrated Sega's commitment to pushing the boundaries of gaming technology.
The Sega Mega Drive stands as a testament to the innovations, competition, and creativity that helped define its era. Its enduring legacy is evident in the continued popularity of Sega franchises like Sonic the Hedgehog and the nostalgia associated with its extensive game library and remains an iconic symbol of the 90s that holds a special place in the hearts of gamers worldwide.
Launched in 1990, the Super Nintendo or SNES represented a significant leap forward in gaming technology from its predecessor. Its 16-bit processing power allowed for vastly improved graphics, sound, and gameplay, pushing the boundaries of what was possible in home gaming and cementing itself as a beloved classic in gaming culture.
As with all beloved consoles, the defining factor is the games and the SNES has a seemingly endless supply of classics to its name. Whether it's building on previous franchises such as 'Super Mario World', 'The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past' and 'Super Metroid' or new entries such as 'Super Mario Cart', 'Chrono Trigger' and 'Donkey Kong Country', Nintendo cemented its place as the dominant force in the industry.
The Super Nintendo featured many new innovations one of which was the controller design. Often lauded for its comfort and intuitive button mapping, the right-hand 4 button layout and the addition of L and R shoulder buttons set the standard for controller design and whose influence is still seen on the latest Xbox and PlayStation controllers today. The SNES also introduced the 'Mode 7' graphics mode which simulated 3D effects in 2D games by allowing a background layer to be rotated and scaled on a scanline-by-scanline basis creating a new level of depth and realism never before seen in gameplay.
Nintendo also continued their tradition of supplying gamers with numerous peripherals to choose from such as the 'Super Scope' light gun and the 'Super Multi-Tap' and even a piano keyboard! Luckily the 'Super Power Glove' never made an appearance.
The Super Nintendo's influence extends far beyond its time. Nintendo continues to release classic SNES games on modern platforms, and fan communities thrive, creating new content and hacks for the beloved system. The Super Nintendo Entertainment System is more than just a gaming console; it's a cherished part of gaming history. Its impact on the industry, the creation of iconic franchises, and the enduring appeal of its games are testaments to its significance.
One of the defining features of 8-bit and 16-bit games was their unwavering focus on gameplay. With limited capabilities, developers were forced to essentially invent the wheel in terms of game mechanics resulting in innovative and highly addictive gameplay and level design. This often resulted in games that were incredibly difficult but made the completion of them all the more satisfying.
Titles like 'Mega Man', 'Castlevania' and 'Contra' are celebrated for their precise platforming and intense action. They demanded pixel-perfect timing and reflexes from players, setting a standard for challenging gameplay.
Role-playing games (RPGs) also thrived during this era. Classics like 'Chrono Trigger' and 'Earthbound' demonstrated the depth of storytelling and character development that was possible within the limitations of 8 and 16-bit hardware. These games have become enduring favorites, with fans revisiting them time and again for their rich narratives.
The 8-bit and 16-bit eras were marked by unforgettable soundtracks that have stood the test of time. Composers like Koji Kondo ('Super Mario Bros' and 'The Legend of Zelda'), Nobuo Uematsu ('Final Fantasy' series), and Yuzo Koshiro ('Streets of Rage' series) created iconic melodies that remain etched in the memories of gamers.
The chiptune music of these consoles not only enhanced the gaming experience but also became an integral part of the culture. To this day, fans around the world cherish and remix these tunes, paying homage to the enduring influence of these composers.
While the technology of 8-bit and 16-bit consoles may seem dated by today's standards, their legacy continues to thrive. Retro gaming enthusiasts and collectors work tirelessly to celebrate and preserve these classic systems and their games.
Collectors scour garage sales and online marketplaces for vintage cartridges, striving to complete their collections. Emulators and virtual console services make these games accessible to new generations, allowing them to experience the classics that defined an era and game companies like Nintendo, Sega and Atari have even released mini versions of their classic hardware to a wave of fanfare.
Moreover, modern games often pay homage to their retro counterparts. Indie developers draw inspiration from the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, creating titles that capture the essence of the golden age. Games like 'Miami Hotline' and 'Undertale' have garnered critical acclaim for their nostalgic charm and innovative gameplay.
As we look back at the pixelated graphics, chiptune music, and hours spent in front of CRT televisions, we can't help but feel a sense of nostalgia for a simpler time in gaming. The golden age of gaming lives on in the hearts of gamers, reminding us of the magic that can be found in the classics.
These iconic consoles and the games they hosted continue to influence modern gaming, demonstrating that, even in an age of photorealistic graphics and virtual reality, there is a timeless appeal to the simplicity, challenge, and joy of retro gaming. As we celebrate this era, we're reminded that great games never truly age, they just become classics.
As lovers of all things retro, Cable Chick has a wide range of accessories available to get you up and running with your old consoles once more and relive the glory days of childhood. Check out some of our options available below!
If we've missed something or you need any help getting your old consoles back up and running again, we'd love to hear from you! Contact us