Gaming has certainly come a long way in the last 50 years. From a few computers developed through government funding, to what is perhaps one of the most lucrative private industries on the planet.
Gaming has certifiably exited the world of niche government research and training, to obscure hardware that was for the tech lovers of the world, to a truly mainstream aspect of everyday life.
It’s kind of hard to imagine the modern world without computer games.
When people discuss the early days of the industry, they will likely date it back to at least the early 1980s, with most agreeing that the early to mid-1970s was the birth of computer and video game consoles as we know them.
Atari, Coleco Telstar, and the Odyssey series can all date their earliest home consoles to this time.
However, the history of computer games goes back much further than that, with their true beginnings dating back to around the 1950s and 60s, as tests that researchers could program and carry out for themselves.
To help demonstrate what the landscape of early computer gaming looked like, we have compiled this list of the oldest ones out there, which will help you understand just where this giant industry’s humble beginnings started.
Tennis For Two
Starting this list as far back as we can go, we have Tennis for Two, the first program that we would likely recognize as the predecessor of all computer and video games to follow. The granddaddy. The common ancestor, for lack of a better term.
While computing machines had been around for a while by the late 1950s, it was in 1958 when we would see this game released.
Designed by the American Physicist William Higinbotham, this game was originally a tech demo for the Donner Model 30’s analog computer, as a way of showing that it had the computer was powerful enough to simulate and depict wind trajectories.
As proof of this claim, Higinbotham and technician Robert V. Dvorak built a game where the computer would simulate the flight path of a tennis ball in a game of tennis.
The angle of the ball’s trajectory could be controlled by a knob, and a button on the aluminum controller would hit the ball back over to the other side of the screen.
This game is so old, it was displayed on an oscilloscope, and doesn’t even have a true release date!
Still, even though similar computer programs had existed for academic or tech showcases before this, considering that this game was primarily made for commercial entertainment and as a proof of concept, this game is widely cited as the oldest computer game.
With a name like this, it’s good to see that video games got their start at punchy titles from early on!
Jumping from the late 50s to the early 60s, Spacewar was developed by MIT programmer Steve Russell in collaboration with several other programmers and staff of the institute, Martin Graetz, Wayne Wiitanen, Bob Saunders, and Steve Piner, amongst others.
The game is relatively simple, with two spaceships controlled by players (nicknamed ‘the needle’ and ‘the wedge’), that dogfight as they avoid obstacles and the gravity well of a star.
Originally conceptualized as a way to demonstrate the strength and capabilities of the then-new PDP-1 minicomputer (tech-demo games are an older tradition than we thought, it seems), this game became incredibly popular amongst students and staff in the university and the surrounding areas, with any other further developing this concept and programming it into their computer systems.
Part of this widespread use was at least partly because the code and game were in the public domain, they could be shared and copied without copyright issues.
Eventually, the game would circulate across institutions across the country, making this game probably the earliest widely distributed video game in the world.
Outside of its immediate legacy, Spacewar! would become the template through which several other iconic video games would base themselves, making it a vital cornerstone in terms of understanding the early video game industry.
From the 1960s, we take a little jump forward to the decade of disco, the 70s.
While programs and simulation games were being developed and created through the 60s, it is only in 1971 that we start to see the next major step when it came to computer games, with Start trek being one of the games that came out of this next generation of computing.
Hoping to take advantage of the massive popularity of the 1960s Star Trek television series.
The Star Trek game that was programmed with the SDS Sigma 7 Mainframe computer was one of the first predecessors in a genre that would become known as the text-based strategy genre, a very popular type of game for many early computers, as they were easy to program, and didn’t need to render complicated shapes or sound.
In the game, you control the enterprise as you try to take down Klingon ships, and ends once your ship is destroyed, the enemy ships are all destroyed, or until the end of the time limit the game has.
With this game being created and released around the time that microcomputers were just starting to be used in everyday households, as well as the game’s coding being published in several incredibly popular computing magazines and journals, this became an incredibly successful video game in the early days of home computing and is considered a landmark game because of it.
It’s really in the early 70s when we start to see some of the games and design aspects that get the ball rolling when it comes to games and computing hardware, so we may start to speed run through the next 10 or so years worth of computer games.
Like many of the early computer games that we have talked about, Computer Space is a space simulation arcade, where, say it with me, you control your ship as you try and avoid debris and other hazards to your ship.
If the general concept sounds familiar, it’s because this is one of the numerous games that were originally based on Spacewar!, making this both a spiritual and literal successor.
Perhaps most importantly, this was also one of the first arcade games to become commercially available, being sold in arcade machines across the country.
Although not a success by today’s standard, with only 1,500 being produced and sold, it was still proof enough that games as an industry had potential, and marks one of the first true arcade games, and the start of the early generations of games that would take hold across the 1970s.
Ah yes, the infamous Oregon Trail game. The game that obscure video-game trivia lovers will point to as one of the oldest games in the world, predating even the iconic pong, many will point out.
They’re not wrong, of course. Being originally released in 1971, this game does pre-date Pong by a year.
Interestingly enough, Oregon Trail is also one of the first games on this list (aside from the first game Tennis for Two that we covered) that didn’t use space as its main setting, with this text-based strategy game being created as an educational tool to teach kids about the famous (or perhaps infamous) Oregon trail.
While it isn’t the most accessible game by today’s standards, the game is still considered to be one of the most important early educational games that were released in the early to mid-70s.
Hunt The Wumpus
Yeah, it’s a goofy name, but it is still a very important early game to consider.
While Hunt the Wumpus falls under the umbrella of text-based strategy games, this game has the distinction of being the first adventure game to be released.
Setting it apart from other text games, you explore a series of caves that have been arranged in a dodecahedron, as you hunt for the titular Wumpus.
The turned-based element used in the game, however, would quickly become the standard for many adventure games to come, with even many RPGs being influenced by this design choice in their games.
Ah, yes. Finally, we come to the father of video games, and the granddaddy of many arcade games to come.
At this point, Pong probably needs no formal introduction, as pretty much everyone will have at least heard of this legendary arcade game, if not played it in some form or other, either in a close-to–original form online, or one of the many imitators that spawned from it.
Functioning as effectively a digital version of table tennis or ping pong (hence the name), players simply have to score a point by getting the pixel ball past their opponent’s defending block.
While at this point, it should be pretty clear that Pong is far from the first computer game to be developed, or even the first arcade game at this point (computer space predates Pong by about 3 years), what Pong represents is still very easy to understand.
Being the first massive commercial success when it came to video games, it is likely that the expansion of arcade and home game consoles wouldn’t have happened without Pong, and as a result, gaming as we know it today may not have existed at all.
It’s for this reason that pong is considered such a cultural touchstone for the gaming industry.
However, the creators of Pong wouldn’t leave it at a single success, and the next game they produced would similarly go on to sell very well, further cementing the video game industry as a viable market for future expansion.
Space Race bears many similarities to the space-themed games that litter the early history of computer gaming, however, here, the goal isn’t simply to aim for a high score, but also to compete against each other to outlast their opponent.
As we can see here, the competitive nature of arcade games and gaming as a whole has been around since very early on!
While this game is certainly not recognizable as a shooting game as we would probably recognize it, Maze War is often considered a predecessor to the shooter genre as a whole.
Players must navigate through a maze-like structure to find and shoot their opponents to gain points.
Another aspect that set this game apart was the ability of this game to be played across computing systems, with a player using a Xerox computer each to play.
So, in some ways, Maze War is also the predecessor to LAN and online gaming that came to define the medium in the 2000s and 2010s.
Gran Trak 10
Racing games even have their early routes in this pioneering era of game development, with Gran Trak 10 being released to arcades in the United States in 1971.
While the racing format might be a little different than players may be used to, with control of your vehicle being done from a bird’s eye view of the track.
However, this is still a driving game where you have to navigate around the track that the game gives you, so it’s a driving game, without a shadow of a doubt.
In this game released in 1974, two players must control two tanks inside of a maze from, once again, a bird’s eye view, and try to destroy one another.
Players could move with a joystick, and fire by pressing the main command button. Players must destroy their opponents as many times as possible in a given timeframe, and whoever has the most kills/points at the end wins the match.
Developed by Kee Games originally, the game was designed to combat Atari’s early domination of the market. This is ironic, considering that Atari would acquire the game developers a few years later.
Time for an entry from Japan to enter the scene!
First released in 1974, Speed Race, probably known better in the United States at the time as Wheels, was another early driving arcade game.
However, Speed race managed to distinguish itself by being one of the first arcade driving games to include a steering wheel as part of the arcade setup.
Gun Fight (Western Gun In US/EU)
While not the first competitive or even shooter game to appear in this list, Gun Fight stands out from the rest of the crowd by being the first game that features human-to-human combat, with players controlling a cowboy that had 6 bullets each to try and take out your opponent with, with the game only ending when one player had been shot, or both had run out of ammo.
We couldn’t exactly mention early games without this titan, could we?
Released in 1978, Space Invaders was a hit when it was first released in Japan, and its many imitators continue to be very popular and successful, as the player controls a cannon to stop an alien invasion.
Considering the number of moving targets on the screen at the time, as well some simple-yet-effective designs, it’s no wonder it was such a hit when it landed.
By this point in the late 70s and early 80s, we’re starting to see the formation of the gaming industry as we know and love/hate today, so this is probably a good place to call an end to this list of the oldest computer games out there.
As you can see, the list of computer games from yesteryear is vast, even in its earliest days.
Some of them have somewhat faded into obscurity and the digital sands of time, whilst others have become genre-defining and stood the test of time, spawning a thousand copycats, and inspiring generations of game developers.
Where will the industry take us next? Only time will tell.
So, how many of these games did you recognize? Which ones were a surprise? Let us know!
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