Play Stuff Blog

What Video Game Crash?  

Think for a moment about some great video games. Consider coin-ops such as Atari’s vector-graphic Star Wars, Bally/Midway’s James Bondesque Spy Hunter, and Cinematronics’ laserdisc Dragon’s Lair.  Search your memory and recall playing early PC games like Dan Bunten’s M.U.L.E., Bill Budge’s Pinball Construction Set, or Richard Garriott’s Ultima III: Exodus. Return for just a minute to the shag carpet in front of your family television set where The Activision Decathlon, World Series Baseball, and a port of Zaxxon sat alongside Atari VCS, Intellivision, and ColecoVision consoles. Besides being great games, they were all released in 1983.  

Looking back on my teenage gaming years, 1983 certainly feels like the year for great games. My friends and I talked about the latest coin-ops, PC games, and console releases. Sure, Atari’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was a dud, but we didn’t worry about that because other games consumed us.

 I’ll never forget when I walked into the local arcade and for the first time saw a line forming in front of a game. Players waited eagerly to drop a couple of tokens into Dragon’s Lair. But as exciting as the arcade scene seemed, the real highlight for me came in the form of World Series Baseball for my Intellivision home console. Sports games were my passion, and this game’s multiple camera angles made me feel as though I were a part of the game like I never experienced in any other title. If you were into gaming during 1983, I’m sure you have similar memories. It was gaming paradise. Or was it?  

t’s interesting how things can seem drastically different depending on the lens through which we view them. From a gamer’s perspective in 1983, games couldn’t get better. From the industry’s vantage point, however, things quickly went from bad to worse. Countless historians and bloggers pin the industry downturn on Atari’s much maligned E.T. cartridge, but one game alone certainly didn’t send the trade into a tailspin.

What happened is that an increasing number of third-party developers saturated the home console market with new game titles. For every quality third party, such as Activision or Imagic, scores of development firms rushed poorly designed games into stores. Plus, the new games could not compete against increasingly powerful personal computers. The boom of the late 1970s and early 1980s gave way to the market crash of 1983. Companies went bankrupt, many game developers lost their jobs, and the North American console industry nearly folded.

 Despite the industry’s downfall, gamers played on through the mid-eighties. While companies released fewer titles for home consoles than in previous years, Paperboy, 1942, and Mark Cerny’s classic Marble Madness all hit the arcades in 1984. The PC scene witnessed significant innovations in games like Sierra On-Line’s King’s Quest.  By 1985 the Nintendo Entertainment System filled the home-console void, and everyone I knew gauged their gaming prowess on how many levels of Super Mario Bros. they could complete. From a kid’s point of view, it really felt like a seamless transition from one set of consoles to the next.  

I’m interested to hear how others remember gaming around 1983. Did the realignment of the industry have an impact on what you played?  Or did you work in the industry and fear this series of events would derail your career?