Experimental and Strange: The '80s Gaming Industry

The early days of video gaming were a mess by today’s standards but in a way that shines a positive light on 1980s platforms like the Atari 2600, Commodore 64 (C64), and Britain’s popular ZX Spectrum. For one, homebrewing and the bedroom development scene meant there were thousands of games available, varying from the excellent to experimental to downright awful. Nobody quite knew what they were doing yet, after all.

Horace Goes Skiing

The homebrew scene produced plenty of oddities in the '80s and covered just about every topic imaginable. A quick look at the list of ZX Spectrum games reveals titles like Brad Blasts the Galactic Barbarians, Battle of the Toothpaste Tubes, and Horace Goes Skiing which followed the adventures of a bipedal Thing. There’s really no other way to describe Horace's gormless, haunted visage.

The 1980s were a boom period for gaming in general. Experiences like bingo were in their heyday, though the hobby somehow evaded bedroom developers and the home computing scene. The pastime would eventually be digitized for the internet generation, with the advent of websites like Buzz Bingo, which features staples of the game such as a range of rooms and prizes. It also offers a free bingo bonus to new players that want to play the latest iteration of the classic game.

Of course, several modern franchises also had their beginnings in the 1980s, including Pac-Man, Frogger, Bomberman, and Donkey Kong. The latter video game is notable for introducing the character Mario, too.

The Video Game Crash of 1983

As with any seemingly directionless industry, gaming had its problems in its formative years. The video game crash of 1983 outright flattened Atari, costing the developer $536 million and wiping away 97% of the industry’s value in just two years. From 1983 profits of $3.2 billion, developers made a paltry $100 million combined in 1985. The less expensive home computers, like the C64, managed to pull through, saved by the same set of bedroom developers.

So, how did it ever recover?

At the time, many commentators and toy manufacturers believed that video gaming was a bubble that would inevitably burst - and it did. All the signs had been present for some time. Atari was pumping out garbage (in a literal sense, considering the fact that copies of E.T. were buried en-masse in the desert) while an over-abundance of games meant that there were more products than there were consumers. It would ultimately fall to Nintendo and its popular NES console to restructure gaming from the inside out.

Within five years, the industry would be valued at $2.3 billion, largely due to Nintendo's restrictions on the number of games that its various developers could release each year. While the Japanese company would eventually be criticized for the strict content guidelines it imposed on creators in the mid-'90s, which removed blood from Mortal Kombat and controversial symbolism from Wolfenstein 3D, there's a good chance that the world wouldn't have those games at all without Nintendo's earlier meddling.

Over the course of the 1980s, the video gaming industry changed direction from its aimless beginnings to a much more disciplined entity.

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