Monday, October 3, 2011

Remember When...Video Games Didn't Exist And Nintendo Made Playing Cards

I've always been fascinated by the origins of many of the gaming industry's most important companies. Many if not all of them were involved in other industries for decades before the ping and pop of video games came calling. Many already made carnival games, and assumed that video games would be another fad that they could ride until something came along. I mean, nobody could have predicted that Ralph Baer's "Brown Box" or Jerry Lawson's breakthrough with replaceable ROM cartridges could be enough to convince a vending machine company called Taito Trading company to release Astro Race in 1973, nor could it convince a small amusement machine company called Service Games to get into the video game business in the 1970s by manufacturing their own arcade games. It definitely would not have been enough to take a venerable Japanese playing card company into the "Family Computer" business.

Most of gaming's most iconic taste makers started out in other places, yet they all gravitated towards the video game industry, and they all succeeded at some level. Taito, which was started by a Russian guy in 1953, was making jukeboxes and vending machines until they got into the gaming business in 1973. They made game after game until 1978 when they created what many consider the most important game in Arcade history with Space Invaders. Space Invaders had such an impact on the fledgling industry that entire arcades were dedicated to that one game for years after it's release. While they are currently owned by Square Enix, the Taito brand still commands a great deal of weight and respect among gamers.

Service Games or Sega as it's more commonly known, started life as a maker of shooting gallery games, jukeboxes, and anything else that could occupy a soldiers mind on a military base. Over time they developed more products until they got into the video game industry and scored their first major hits with games like Pengo, Zaxxon, and Tac/Scan. While they have suffered a number of ups and downs over the years, a lot of what Sega brought to the table is still regarded as revolutionary.

The Nintendo Playing card company seems like a good fit to enter the video game market, but their entrance was not the most graceful. Prior to entering the video game market, Nintendo dabbled in everything from instant rice, to taxicabs, to a "love hotel". None of these ventures proved successful though, and in 1974, they obtained the rights to distribute the Magnavox Odyssey in Japan. Then Nintendo began to manufacture their own brand of Pong clones with the "Color TV Game" series, and things slowly rolled from there until a young game designer named Shigeru Miyamoto introduced the world to Jumpman, Lady, and Donkey Kong.

The three companies I mentioned in this post are just a microcosm of the rich histories of many publishers within the video game industry. Much like many of the people who have enjoyed their creations over the years, these companies all started out somewhere else, and through many different paths, they ended up being a part of the video game industry. While some have ceased to exist, many still do, and it is up to us as gamers to keep these companies honest, because without us, they cease to exist, and we are then left with less room for innovation and variety, and that benefits no one who grew up with a controller in their hand.

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