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Home » Retrogaming, Technology

The Video Game Crash of 1983

By: 25 November 2010 One Comment

CrashThe video game systems we’ve covered so far in our Retrogaming series here at First Arkansas News have been from the so-called second generation of video game consoles.

The second generation started in 1977 with the introduction of the Atari VCS (later called the Atari 2600). Other major second generation systems included the Bally Astrocade, Magnavox Odyssey 2, Mattel Intellivision, Emerson Arcadia 2001, Atari 5200, ColecoVision and the GCE Vectrex.

By 1984, Coleco, Magnavox and Mattel had left the video game industry, some minor publishers (Games by Apollo and U.S. Games) were gone, Atari was hanging on by a thread and the Astrocade was headed for oblivion. The Arcadia 2001 never really caught on in the U.S. and the Vectrex — a great system that was unique in that it displayed vector graphics and had a built-in monitor — never really got a chance to find a market.

So, what happened? The Video Game Crash of 1983 is what happened and you’ll find an excellent summary of that here. It’s worth pointing out that the crash was contained primarily to North America and everything that you’ll read about Atari’s troubles are true. Yes, the market was flooded with a lot of inferior games for the 2600 that were put out by independent publishers. Yes, Atari itself released a couple of flops (a wretched version of Pac-Man and the equally rotten E.T.) and those helped destroy the console market.

However, there’s one major fact that tends to get overlooked in all of this — the rise of the home computer market. Prior to the early 1980s, home computers were mostly for hobbyists and/or were very expensive. That all changed in the early 1980s in that prices of computers were low and they were generally regarded as superior in terms of graphics and sound capabilities to game consoles.

Think about the computers available back then. You had the expensive (yet very popular) Apple 2, the TRS-80 Color Computer, the Commodore 64/VIC-20 line, the Atari 400/800 line, the Texas Instruments TI-99/4A and even the Timex Sinclair 1000. The VIC-20 and Timex Sinclair were similar in price to a game console (the Timex machine cost less than $100, in fact) and price wars between the Commodore 64 and Texas Instruments machines made those systems very affordable.

With the exception of the Timex and VIC-20 units, the graphics and sound were typically better (or, at least considered to be so) than game consoles. Furthermore, computer games could often be more sophisticated simply because players could save their progress — the “play until you die” arcade games were giving way to more complex adventure games and there were even a lot of educational titles available.

Educational titles were appealing to parents, of course, and they also encouraged their kids to learn programming. In short, computers were seen as the “next big thing” and the potential was there for doing homework, word processing and doing a lot of stuff with computers that couldn’t be done with game consoles. In other words, game consoles were limited to playing games while people could do that on a computer and a whole lot more.

Those of us who were kids at the time couldn’t help but notice that aging systems like the Atari 2600, Intellivision and Odyssey 2 couldn’t touch computers in terms of graphics. While the ColecoVision and Atari 5200 featured graphics on par with computers (the 5200 was little more than a scaled back Atari 400, after all), they were still limited in what they could do. More importantly, how many of us could resist the appeal of learning BASIC and writing our own games?

The Video Game Crash of 1983, then, represented little more than a shift in gaming. We still played games like crazy, but interests shifted to computers. Video game consoles, at the time, seemed obsolete when compared to those new, shiny computers that everyone wanted.

Of course, we know that consoles would gain popularity just a couple of years after the crash, but those games were more complex, boasted better graphics and publishers started coming up with ways for gamers to save their progress. The primary casualty of the Video Game Crash of 1983, then, was the American gaming industry — console manufactures were dominated by consoles from U.S. companies prior to the crash, but Japanese companies became the major players when the third generations of consoles started in 1985 and have remained so since then.

Some might argue that point due Microsoft’s Xbox and Xbox 360. However, we’ve got three major systems in the current console generation and two of them — the Sony Playstation 3 and the Nintendo Wii — are Japanese while the Microsoft Xbox 360 is the sole American player.

About: Ethan C. Nobles:
Benton resident. Rogue journalist. Recovering attorney. Email =

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