Top 25 Earliest Computer Games – Early Computer Games List

Video gaming has evolved from humble beginnings to a multi-billion dollar industry, impacting popular culture worldwide. This evolution can be traced back to the earliest computer games that paved the way for modern gaming. These classic games, despite their simplicity compared to the complex titles of today, hold a special place in the history of video gaming. Among them are iconic games like Spacewar!, Pong, Space Invaders, Adventure, Pac-Man, Zork, Donkey Kong, Pitfall!, M.U.L.E., and Tetris, each of which has made significant contributions to the gaming world and its evolution. Their innovative game concepts and mechanics have served as inspiration for countless games that we enjoy today.

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Spacewar!

Delving into the annals of computer gaming history, one name consistently pops up: Spacewar!

The brainchild of Steve Russell, Martin Graetz, and Wayne Wiitanen, Spacewar! holds the distinction of being one of the earliest digital computer games, stamped with a 1962 creation date. It stands as a testament to the innovation and creativity of early programmers and their ability to construct engaging content within the limits of technology at the time.

Developed on the PDP-1 computer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Spacewar!’s premise was relatively simple yet highly engaging. The game operated as a two-player game, fashioned around a showdown of spaceships in the heart of the cosmos. Each player was tasked with controlling a spaceship, dodging the gravitational pull of a central star, while aiming to outmaneuver and shoot down their opponent.

Fascinations of Spacewar!

Spacewar!’s allure lay not just in its status as a pioneering computer game but also in its gameplay mechanics. Its incorporation of real-life physics was particularly standout. The star at the center created a gravitational pull, introducing maneuvers like gravity assist, which players could use to their advantage. This concept of gravity, though elementary in today’s gaming scene, was a revolutionary feat in 1962.

Each spaceship had limited fuel and ammunition, making conservation a key part of the strategy. A hyperspace button allowed players to disappear and reappear in a random location as a last-ditch effort to evade enemy fire, although frequent use increased the risk of the ship’s destruction.

Impact and Legacy of Spacewar!

Beyond its gameplay, Spacewar! was more than just a game; it was a stepping stone for the evolution of computer games. Its source code was widely distributed and became the foundation for other programmers to develop their own games, thereby stimulating growth in the budding gaming industry.

Looking back, Spacewar! can seem simplistic compared with today’s advanced gaming environment. Yet it remains a significant cultural artifact from the dawn of computer gaming. It showcased how engaging and entertaining content could be created within the constraints of early computing technology—a philosophy that continues to inspire game developers today.

An image depicting the legacy of Spacewar!, showcasing its influence on the gaming industry.

Pong

A Pioneering Game: Pong

In the early days of computer gaming, one of the most groundbreaking games was Pong. Released in 1972, this simple yet addictive game still holds a respected place in the pantheon of early computer games. Developed by Allan Alcorn and launched by Atari Inc., Pong took the concept of table tennis and digitized it into a game that could be played on a computer screen.

The gameplay was simple as players controlled a virtual paddle, moving it up and down on either the left or right sides of the screen. The objective was to hit the pixelated ball back and forth across the screen, with the aim of making the opponent miss returning the ball, thus scoring a point. Despite its simplicity, the game was highly engaging and set a precedent for many future computer games.

Pong played a significant role in the establishment of the video gaming industry. Its success led to a rush of new video game companies trying to capitalize on its popularity. It also served as a launching pad for Atari Inc., which went on to become a prominent name in the gaming industry.

Pong’s influence on the gaming industry cannot be overstated. For many, it was their first foray into computer games, and its simplicity allowed anyone to enjoy it, regardless of their skills or experience with technology. A testament to its legacy, even today, modern versions of Pong can be found on contemporary gaming platforms, and its iconic imagery is regularly featured in pop culture references.

Image depicting a game of Pong being played on a computer screen

Space Invaders

Space Invaders – a name that resonates with both young and old game enthusiasts.

A trailblazer in the early stages of digital entertainment, Space Invaders made its debut in the not-so-distant year of 1978. The game’s concept might seem quite basic today, but back then, it was nothing short of revolutionary.

The First of Its Kind

One of the earliest shooting games to attract widespread attention, Space Invaders’ gameplay involved defeating waves of pixelated aliens with a laser weapon, all to rack up the maximum number of points. It ushered in a new era of gaming wherein scoring became equally, if not more, important than simply surviving.

A Japanese Original Goes Global

After making waves at home, Taito saw the potential for Space Invaders internationally. The company licensed the game for production in the United States to Midway, marking one of the first significant cross-pacific collaborations in the gaming industry. Its subsequent success in the U.S proved that gaming could be a truly global enterprise.

The Legacy

Though it may appear primitive to contemporary gamers, Space Invaders paved the way for many of today’s gaming trends. From skill-based games to the international licensing of successful titles, much of the current gaming world owes a nod of gratitude to this groundbreaking game from the late 70s.

A Continued Presence

While the original game is a product of its time, the legacy of Space Invaders lives on. Over the years, there have been numerous re-releases, updates, and sequels to the original game. Even today, you can spot arcades and gaming lounges featuring modern versions of Space Invaders alongside the latest high-tech games.

In essence, Space Invaders is more than just a game from the past. It stands as a testament to originality, innovation, and the power of gameplay that transcends time and technology.

An image showing the iconic Space Invaders game in action, with pixelated aliens descending towards a laser cannon at the bottom.

Adventure

A Leap into Another World: Adventure

As one of the first action-adventure games, Adventure opened the doors for players to step into a vast, maze-like castle. Developed in 1979, the game broke new ground in the budding world of personal computing by inviting players into an immersive experience that went beyond the limited capabilities of many games of the time.

Indeed, the goal was simple – navigate the labyrinthine castle and find a magical chalice, then return it to the golden castle. However, doing so was anything but straightforward. The castle was filled with various rooms and tunnels, each presenting a unique challenge to overcome. Trapdoors could take players by surprise, sending them back to an earlier location, while monsters lurked in the shadows, ready to thwart your winning quest.

What set Adventure apart from other games at the time was its open-world concept, allowing players a great degree of freedom in how they explored the castle and handled its many challenges. Instead of a linear approach that forced players down a single set path, Adventure encouraged exploration, trial-and-error, and creative problem-solving. Players could spend hours charting the various paths, tackling monsters, and working out the most efficient way to secure the chalice and return to the golden castle.

Adventure not only provided players an entertaining way to spend their free time, it also helped to evolve the genre of action-adventure games. By pushing the boundaries of how players could interact with a game world, it introduced a level of depth and engagement that set the stage for future generations of games. For many, Adventure was much more than a game; it was a technological wonder, a test of intellect, and above all, a thrilling ride through a world unlike any they had seen before.

Credited as the progenitor of the action-adventure genre, the innovative gameplay fostered by Adventure continues to influence modern game design. It was the spark that ignited a fiery passion for gaming in many. The simple goal of navigating a complex castle to locate and return a magical chalice turned into an allegorical journey for the entire gaming industry, pushing it into uncharted territories of creativity and adventure.

Image description: A screenshot of Adventure game showing a player navigating the castle

Pac-Man

Pac-Man: an emblematic icon and a pioneer in the gaming universe.

Birthed in Japan in 1980 by Toru Iwatani, Pac-Man’s existence is a noteworthy fixture in the chronicles of early gaming. With a straightforward yet compelling concept, Pac-Man stole the hearts of gamers around the globe, paving the way for the pursuit of gaming as a widespread hobby and legitimate profession.

In this virtually orchestrated universe, the player guides Pac-Man through an intricate labyrinth, solely focused on a simple, primal instinct: to feed.

The game’s primary objective is to navigate Pac-Man around the maze, in an attempt to devour every last pellet scattered around the labyrinthine paths.

However, what seems like a simple task at the outset, quickly escalates into a thrilling chase.

Prowling the maze alongside Pac-Man are his vibrant adversaries: the four ghosts named Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde, each with their unique movement and hunting patterns. Pac-Man must artfully dodge these spectral pursuers, avoid their traps, and seek opportunities for a counterattack. All while munching on the erratically strewn pellets and chasing the elusive victory.

What sets Pac-Man apart from other games of its era are its groundbreaking design elements.

The simple, maze-like layout employed bright, contrasting colors that were visually striking, appealing to the aesthetics of the user and allowing easy differentiation between different elements of the game. The memorable jingle accompanying the game was catchy and easy on the ears, offering an audible experience that complemented the visual appeal of the game.

Pac-Man’s style of play strongly emphasized strategy and quick thinking.

The game subtly encourages players to plan their moves wisely, study the ghosts’ patterns, and make split-second decisions to ensure survival. This served to elevate the game beyond mere entertainment; cultivating cognitive abilities like problem-solving, decision making, and strategizing.

Pac-Man’s profound impact stretches beyond the digital realm and into popular culture.

From merchandise to cereal brands, TV Shows to tribute music albums – Pac-Man has been a pervasive cultural icon. More than just a game, Pac-Man is a celebrated piece of digital art that revolutionized the face of the gaming industry, setting the bar high for future innovations.

But perhaps Pac-Man’s most commendable attribute is the sense of nostalgia it elicits.

Even decades after its release, the thrill of chomping on those pixels, the adrenaline rush from a close encounter with a ghost, and the sheer joy of setting a new high score still echo in the hearts and minds of countless gamers worldwide. It beautifully encapsulates the excitement and charm of early computer gaming, making Pac-Man an enduring title in the pantheon of pioneering video games.

Image of Pac-Man ready to eat pellets in a maze.

Zork

An Interactive Text Classic

Zork is undeniably one of the earliest computer games that bridged the gap between man and machine. Originating from the early 1980s, this game is a piece of digital history, a testament to the evolution of gaming. It was developed by a software firm called Infocom, a company that played a crucial role in the early development of computer games.

The Essence of Adventure

Unlike graphic-driven games, Zork was purely a text-only adventure. The entire game unfolded like a classic novel, its adventure sprawling out amongst carefully constructed sentences and paragraphs. The game provided players the freedom to use typed commands to control the protagonist, taking him wherever their imagination and keyboard could take them.

A Different Kind of Exploration

In Zork, the concept of exploration was different; it was hidden in the lines of text and the player’s ability to engage with the prose. The environment was revealed through detailed descriptions, and the game’s progression depended on the player’s comprehension and response to these narratives.

Breaking The Input Barrier

An intriguing aspect of Zork was the need for typed commands to progress in the game. This command line input allowed for a direct method of communication between the player and the game world. It was a unique, immersive interaction that helped to distinguish Zork from its contemporaries.

Spellbinding Storytelling

The text-only nature of Zork relied heavily on the narrative to engage players. The storytelling was spellbinding, pulling players into a world of dungeons, treasures, and lurking dangers. It demonstrated the power of words and imagination in creating an immersive gaming experience.

Groundbreaking Game Design

Zork’s design was groundbreaking. It prioritized gameplay and narrative over graphics. Its text-only format, while simplistic compared to the visuals of modern games, was revolutionary at the time. It offered a different kind of gaming experience, one that required creativity, imagination, and problem-solving skills from its players. Without the traditional graphics and sound effects, the game pushed the boundaries of what a game could be, reshaping the landscape of gaming forever.

A Legacy of Interactive Fiction

Zork is more than just a game; it’s a piece of interactive fiction that has stood the test of time, remaining popular among enthusiasts even today. Its innovative design and captivating storytelling set a new standard for interactive text games, earning it a special place in the annals of computer gaming history.

A vintage computer with a text adventure game displayed on its screen, representing Zork, an interactive text classic.

Donkey Kong

One of the earliest and most iconic computer games was Donkey Kong, released by Nintendo in 1981.

This innovative game became an instant classic, and it served as the stage for the debut of two significant characters in gaming history: Donkey Kong himself and the legendary Italian plumber, Mario, who has since become Nintendo’s mascot.

The game’s primary objective had a classic plot, a hero saving his damsel in distress.

The player steps into the shoes of Mario, maneuvering him through various platforms fraught with hazards.

Donkey Kong, a giant ape, has kidnapped Mario’s girlfriend, and the goal is to reach the top of the structure where she is held captive.

The gameplay offered a mix of jumping, running, and dodging, with a rising level of difficulty in each stage.

This was one of the first games to feature platform gameplay with ascending levels—a novelty then but standard today.

The perilous journey involves dodging burning barrels thrown by Donkey Kong and scaling ladders that reach higher platforms.

Another groundbreaking aspect of Donkey Kong was its narrative.

For the first time in gaming history, a storyline was developed to give context to the game’s setting and objective.

Donkey Kong’s success was undeniable—it was infectious, addictive, and challenging to the point of obsession.

It set a new standard for gaming and established Nintendo as a front-runner in the industry.

Finally, it’s important to recognize how influential Donkey Kong was in introducing set characters within its gameplay.

Its characters’ popularity extended outside the game.

Donkey Kong and Mario soon began appearing in other Nintendo games, becoming part of a shared universe, and eventually earning their own individual series.

This strategy, while common now, was groundbreaking at the time, adding depth to characters and expanding the possibilities of game design.

In essence, Donkey Kong can be considered a revolutionary force, driving the gaming industry towards a new horizon with its sense of story, character, and fun, high-stakes gameplay.

Its legacy is undeniable, with its characters and game design influencing the current gaming landscape.

Image of Donkey Kong throwing a barrel towards Mario on construction platforms

Pitfall!

Pitfall! holds a special place in the history of early computer games, setting the stage for the platformer genre and becoming one of the best-selling games of the early 1980s.

Released by Activision in 1982, this ground-breaking game introduced players to the adventurous Pitfall Harry. Refreshing in its innovation, numerous sequels and remakes have been created in homage to the original game.

The game takes place in a maze-like jungle teeming with deadly obstacles and filled with enticing treasures. Within a 20-minute time limit, players are expected to guide Harry through the perilous environment, with the aim of collecting all the hidden treasures.

A Jungle Adventure Awaits

Pitfall Harry wasn’t equipped with a high-tech power suit or a magical sword; his survival depended on his precision, timing, and a keen understanding of the jungle’s pitfalls. He wasn’t just battling against snakes, scorpions, and crocodiles, but also contending with quicksand, rolling logs, fires, and gaping holes in the ground.

The Challenge of Treasure-Hunting

Remaining one of the unique features of Pitfall!, the game offered no maps or guides. Players traveled blind, making split-second decisions that could either lead to the discovery of a treasure or an encounter with a deadly obstacle. The treasures to discover include bags of money, gold and silver bars, and diamond rings, all scattered randomly throughout the game.

A Race Against Time

Unlike many contemporary games, Pitfall! thrusts you into a thrill-filled race against the clock. With only 20 minutes on the timer, players needed to act swiftly while maintaining a level of careful accuracy to navigate the treacherous jungle. Coupled with the non-linearity of the game, the time challenge added an exciting and anxiety-inducing element to the game, marking Pitfall! as a definitive and unforgettable part of video game history.

Influence on Future Gaming

Pitfall! remains influential within the gaming world, having shaped the way for future video games, notably in the platforming genre. While technology and sophistication in game design have certainly surpassed Pitfall!, its footprint is found in many modern classics that capitalise on the similar themes of exploration, treasure hunting, and environmental hazards.

Image depicting a jungle scene with Pitfall Harry navigating obstacles and collecting treasures

M.U.L.E.

M.U.L.E. is an early artifact in the realm of computer gaming, having been released way back in 1983.

A strategic gaming experience with economic simulation features, M.U.L.E. became quite influential in setting the precedent for the genre.

The game is named after the mechanical mules, which each of the players needs to buy and use for harvesting resources.

Midway through the decade that brought personal computers to homes, M.U.L.E. offered a gameplay where players get to select their characters, and then kickstart their virtual ventures as pioneers.

As a player, you will buy plots of land, and develop resources on these plots.

Your choose one of the four characters, each of which has its strengths and weaknesses.

In a fascinating twist, the game allows players to feature in an open market where they can sell their resources.

The choice is yours – do you want to offer your mineral, food or energy resources to the planet’s store or sell them to other players?

A Unique Conversational Element

M.U.L.E. is more than just a strategy game! It injects a social element into the gaming experience by encouraging players to trade and communicate with each other, a rarity in early computer games.

This added richness to the gameplay and made it more immersive and engaging.

Another intriguing feature of M.U.L.E. is how it balanced competition and cooperativity.

Players needed to work with each other to ensure the survival of the colony by keeping the store stocked with enough resources.

At the same time, they were aspiring to be the richest person on the colony.

The Legacy of M.U.L.E.

The uniqueness of M.U.L.E., and its mix of strategy, economics, and interpersonal interaction, has left an enduring legacy in the world of computer gaming.

The game emerged not only as an innovative strategy and economic simulation game but also as a pioneer demonstrating how engaging gameplay can be achieved through player interaction.

M.U.L.E. was an early testament to the power of the gaming platform as a social experience, a concept that has since become a cornerstone of the modern gaming industry.

A screenshot of the M.U.L.E. game with four players in a virtual world, exchanging resources and developing their plots of land.

Tetris

Deep within the Soviet Union, in the 1980s, a computer puzzle game was developed that rocked the globe. Tetris, the brainchild of Russian software engineer Alexey Pajitnov, swiftly made its mark on the gaming world, becoming a well-loved household name.

The Birth of Tetris

Designed in 1984, Tetris demonstrated Pajitnov’s prowess in his field. The game embodied simplicity and complexity at once – a difficult balance to strike. Its foundation lay in the arrangement of a stream of falling shapes. These shapes, also known as ‘tetrominoes’—polyominoes made up of four square blocks each—had to be moved and rotated by the player to form unbroken horizontal rows across the game screen—a task that was easy to understand, but challenging to master.

The moment a horizontal line was completed, it would vanish, making room for more falling bricks at the top of the screen. At the same time, the player’s score would rise—a gratifying payoff for meticulous planning and quick reactions.

Tetris: A Global Phenomenon

In no time at all, Tetris became a global phenomenon, enthralling gamers of all ages. Its timeless appeal owed much to its intoxicatingly simple concept, yet it was also engaging enough to keep players coming back for more.

The game’s rhythmic, escalating difficulty level was another draw. As players progressed, the pieces would drop faster, requiring quicker reflexes and presenting an ever-more complex puzzle to be solved in real-time. This aspect gave Tetris a competitive edge, unifying the global gaming community in collective challenges and competitions.

Tetris: A True Kickstarter

Tetris also holds an important place in gaming history as effective kick-starter of the casual game market. It inspired countless design concepts and paved the way for future puzzle games.

In essence, Tetris was more than a game—it was a cultural phenomenon that traversed geographical borders and technological milestones alike. Despite its simplicity—or perhaps because of it—Tetris captured the imagination of gamers worldwide, standing the test of time and cementing its status as one of the first true classics in the realm of computer games.

Illustration depicting the history of Tetris with various game screens and Tetris pieces.

The unpretentious beginnings of video games represented through the likes of Spacewar!, Pong, and Donkey Kong have transformed into an industry that constantly pushes the frontiers of technology, storytelling, and art. Each of these simple yet ingenious games formed the bedrock for future developers to innovate, creating complex worlds we navigate in today’s gaming landscape. The impact these early games had on the shape and direction of the industry is undeniable. They are not just games, they are milestones in digital entertainment history, reminding us of the extraordinary progress we have made from spaceships avoiding stars to immersive 3D worlds and beyond.

Ashley Newby

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