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Gaming: From infant to grown up; the evolution of the games console

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The mid ‘80s saw the birth of many weird and wonderful inventions – some have stayed with us, evolved and helped saved lives such as the hepatitis B vaccine, some have transformed business such as the first IBM PC and Apple Lisa, and some have been plugged into the great inventor’s shed in the sky. But amongst the success stories, there can’t be that many that have given as many hours of pleasure or created an army of such adoring fans as the games console.

Now I know the uber geeks amongst you will point out the first games console was created in 1951 by Ralph Baer, but not many of us will have been around to play that so, for the sake of this piece, I’m starting in the 80s.

I first remember the arcade games like Space Invaders and me and my mates being obsessed with them when we used to go to the pub with our parents on a Sunday. The machines were big and you could pay-as-you-play which, no doubt, annoyed the parents. But they were great fun and made me persuade Santa Claus to bring me a ZX Spectrum. It was poor and the graphics were weak – nothing like the arcade games in the pub – and we had to wait a while until the launch of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in 1987 and Gameboy in 1989.

Then the 90s arrived, processor speeds increased and games started to get better, which meant the games consoles had to improve too. The seminal moment for the industry was the launch of PlayStation in 1994.  Although this was originally a collaboration project between Nintendo and Sony, it was Sony and Ken Kutaragi that really shifted the dial. This is when the market realised ‘gaming’ was going to be big business – and they were right. By 2003 it’s reported the video games industry was worth over $11b and that now it’s worth more than the movie industry by some way.

How many consoles can you name?

Although the PlayStation launched after devices such as the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) and SEGA Genesis, it raised the stakes and competition was fierce. Nintendo had to hit back and did with the Nintendo 64 in 1997. It was quick and easy to use with some great games such as Goldeneye and Mario Kart, but then Sony struck another blow with one of the most anticipated launches of all time – The PS2 in 2000. It flattened everything in its path – the 64, the DreamCast…nothing could compare to it and the games you could play. Plus it was backed by one of the most well remembered and liked advertising campaigns of recent times. It was, simply, the Daddy.

But just as it looked like PlayStation had a hegemony, enter a new player to the tournament. A player with the power and the money to compete with Sony – enter Microsoft’s Xbox. Launched in Europe in 2002, its launch heralded a new era of console wars and, arguably, Xbox took over as the gamers choice of console, largely thanks to exclusive software titles such as Halo.

Since then Nintendo admitted defeat to Sony and Microsoft in the traditional games market, but blew them both away with their take-over of social gaming through Wii – bringing computer games into the living room and out of the geek’s bedroom and developing a new breed of gamer. PlayStation Portable launched (arguably to the wrong audience as it wanted to be top-end and priced kids out of the market) and has tried to compete with the Nintendo DS as a handheld entertainment device, but it has never been the success Sony wanted or needed it to be.  Smartphones are the biggest handheld gaming devices now with games like Angry Birds continually changing gaming on the go.

As I type it’s a battle between the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 and PlayStation Network and Xbox Live, but with the global economic crisis in full flow it’s hard to see massive investment into new games consoles happening any time soon.  Both the big two players have HD and the PS3 in particular as the power of being future proof thanks to the Cell processor.  Software is making the money and keeping the industry afloat more now than ever before.

It’s been an amazing few decades when you think about it. Hundreds of millions of consoles have been sold and you have to think, at some stage in the future, a new generation will get the chance to play on something even better. I hope so.

Ed Fleming writes for Savoo.co.uk, the voucher code and money saving destination site for Savvy shoppers

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