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UK Mike (miner2049er)

The Bi-Weekly British Backtrack - The Video Game Crash, apparently.

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Somebody told me one day that there had been a video game crash. They called it the great American Video Game crash of 1983, and apparently it was a big deal, at least to them anyway, and I suppose to other people in America too. What was this crash that I heard so much about and why didn’t I experience it too dammit?
As one person put it, "The North American Video Game Crash" refers to a period from 1983 to 1986 when nobody gave a flying fuck about video games.
So, the facts then as we mostly remember them were covered in depth by SoCal last month so I don’t need to repeat them all here, but briefly, there were a glut of less than average quality games tainting peoples opinions about game buying, and this was topped off by the release of the less than impressive Pacman and the debacle that was E.T., both on the Atari 2600.
If we believe what we’re told it almost destroyed the industry and led to several businesses going out of business rather than continuing to produce computers and consoles. In 1985 the NES was born and completely revitalised not only the industry but also the mindset of people who once again were persuaded into buying video games.
Probably helping their confidence, at least initially anyway, was the Nintendo Seal Of Approval that was literally stamped onto the side of every NES game box and showed that it had at least gone through some QA procedure and had been approved by Nintendo themselves. Surely another E.T. couldn’t happen again, and people returned to the video game market.
So was it all Atari’s fault? Or even Howard Scott Warshaw’s fault?
Well, the crash was caused by a combination of factors, some more important than others.
There were numerous consoles on the market, including the Atari 2600, the Atari 5200, the Bally Astrocade, the ColecoVision, the Fairchild Channel F, the Odyssey2, the Intellivision, the TandyvisioN and the Vectrex.
Each one had its own library of games and many of them were due to be replaced by the next model such as the Intellivision 2, the Odyssey3 and the Atari 7800.
Desperate to jump on the gaming bandwagon were tons of startups and new businesses all making poor quality games. There were games for Chase the Chuck Wagon (a 1980s dog-food brand) and The Kool-Aid Man, and unbelievably the company behind Quaker Oats had a video game division!
So no, it wasn’t just down to Howard or even Atari, but that’s not to say that Atari weren’t in some way responsible, you see in 1979, Activision was co-founded by a group of Atari programmers that left the company because Atari wouldn’t allow their names to appear on the games or the boxes of the games they made as credits. The developers thought that they deserved the same recognition as musicians, actors and directors particularly because at that time Atari was owned by Warner.
Once Activision started up, Atari sued them to block sales of Activision products that were made for their 2600 console. Atari lost the case in 1982 and the floodgates opened, 3rd party developers could make games for the 2600 and the explosion began, the market became flooded with such games.
Now, I’m going to jump to the defence of 2600 Pacman here because as you know, it’s a game I like. I’ve said it before, I know it’s faults but there's still a solid game in there in my opinion, and besides which, it came out in early 1982, so how you can associate it with the video game crash of 1983 and 4 is beyond me, and not only that but it sold very well. It only sold 50% of the cartridges that Atari made, but come on, they made too many. They made more cartridges than there were systems, everybody knows that. They couldn't sell them all. On a sheer sales numbers basis it sold very well. It isn’t to blame, deal with it, forget about it, move on.
When the NES arrived Nintendo boxed clever, not only with the Seal Of Approval but also with the terms it used to describe the NES. They avoided using the name “console” and instead referred to it as an "Entertainment System" and it’s controllers were Control Decks and it’s games were described as "Game Paks" and because the only retailers likely to stock them initially were the big toy stores like Toys R Us they released the Nintendo Robot called R.O.B. so they would put them on the shelves at least.
So that was in the US but as you know, I’m in the UK and this is about my impressions of the Crash so what was it like in the UK for me?
Well, I didn’t have my own Atari 2600 at that time so the fact that E.T was crappy didn’t affect me in the slightest, other than the fact that I loved the movie and would have liked a good game to go along with it, but I didn’t buy it and didn’t feel the financial pain of it, in fact I don't remember playing it at the time. Not only did I not own a 2600, I didn't own a console then at all. In fact in Europe, that era (1983 to 1986) was dominated by computers rather than consoles both at home and at school.
The BBC Micro arrived in 1981, the ZX Spectrum arrived in 1982, the Commodore 64 arrived in 1982, the Dragon 32 arrived in 1982 and the Amstrad CPC was slightly later to the party when it arrived in 1984, but among my peer group the generation was fought out but by just 3 of those systems. There were BBC Micros in school and the odd one in the home, but by far the most popular were the Commodore 64 and the ZX Spectrum with the Amstrad CPC being a strong third.
So Christmas 1983 rolls around and I am asked what I want so I reply “A Commodore 64 please.” No thought of an Atari 2600 or in fact any other console. To me, even then the 2600 console was yesterday’s technology, we’d been playing it for years and the games were looking dated by that time. Other friends were no longer getting 2600s, they were moving to computers, and that’s where the industry, certainly in the UK was going. I wanted to be in on that progression. The computer in general was the answer, and specifically for me, the C64 was the answer. I think my Dad, like many parents at the time, felt more comfortable with buying a computer than with buying a console, you would do all of your homework on it after all, right? Right?
If you want a better insight into what ingrained computers into the nation’s thinking at that time, and why in particular they were important to education in the UK, go back to RoundUp 7 from August 2009 where I reviewed the BBC Micro and how it integrated itself into the nation’s psyche.
Throughout that whole period, around 1983, whenever I walked into a game shop the shelves were full of games. There would be rows and rows of Commodore and Spectrum games and some shelf space for Amstrad and BBC Games, but that wasn't just true of game shops. I could walk into town and go into a newsagents shop, and they would have a rack of games in there. Probably not much choice, and maybe only a range of cheaper games like the Mastertronic range, but like I've mentioned before on the show, some of the best games I bought and played were £1.99 or £2.99 Mastertronic games so that wasn't a problem. There was never a feeling of “WOW I just bought an awful game, screw this, I’m never buying another.”
Don’t forget, there was always the fallback of being able to use the computer to actually compute rather than just play games which wasn’t an option with the consoles, they played games and that was it, apart from the odd cartridge that was a painting app or a diary manager app, they were games and that was it.
I remember we had an Audio Video specialist shop in town, and when computers became all the rage they began selling them too, and that's actually where my Commodore 64 came from, a shop that was normally limited to high end audio and video equipment.
After that we would go in there just for games, so they were everywhere and they were easily available. If there was a video game crash, I certainly didn't feel it, and this era was the start of the time that I was most prolific in buying, playing and completing games. I was a young teenager with my whole life ahead of me and all the time in the world to do what I wanted to do. I had no responsibilities to speak of, and if I wanted to stay up all night or all day playing games I could and would do it.
I had tons of games and borrowed tons more, far more than I could actually play in depth, and I had no idea, not even a clue that at that time the industry in America was up shit creek. It was completely off the radar.
If the Atari 2600 became obsolete and unavailable in the UK, if you could no longer go out and buy games for it, big deal, nobody I knew actually cared. They already had a ton of games that they’d already had their money’s worth and far more out of. It was an old console that was on it’s way out. It had been surpassed and it had been bettered by computers and this was the dawn of the computer age, and we all wanted to be in on it.
If there was a playground argument going on, and there usually was, between Spectrum owners and Commodore owners, and some kid had piped up about his Amstrad CPC or his Acorn, he would have been laughed out of the playground. If some kid had piped up about his Atari 2600, he could well have been physically assaulted. It was over and done with. We’d moved on.
As for the companies themselves, as other people have pointed out:
“There was never a period all the way through the 1980s and beyond that companies like Epyx, Electronic Arts, and Capcom didn't have a platform to publish for.”
Nor was there a period when there wasn’t thousands of games available, just not for the old and dying systems.
As one astute writer noted, “This does not constitute a crash. This is a SHIFT.”
So, as far as I’m concerned, E.T. didn't kill gaming. E.T. only killed Atari.

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