Back to the Classics: Video Games Then and Now

There’s no denying it—pop culture is cyclical. It seems that everything, even questionable fashion, resurfaces at some point to become trendy once again. In recent years, that’s been more evident than ever. The ’80s and ’90s have made a comeback through a combination of mom jeans, Vans, and dayglow fanny packs. Movies like Jumanji and Ghostbusters have resurfaced, the ’80s-set Stranger Things revels in popularity, and Full House is enjoying a second go-round on Netflix.

And the trend continues as Atari is set to release a brand-new game console called the Atari VCS or “Ataribox.” You read that right. Not only is Atari releasing a new console (its first in over two decades), but the product will also come with its iconic wood grain facade, for those who fondly remember the Atari of yesteryear.

So, let’s journey back and look at some of the game-changing moments that happened in the world of gaming between the release of Atari (1977) and… the Atari (2020).

A Series of Playable Events

1977: Atari releases the Atari 2600. Baby Boomers and young Gen Xers can now play arcade classics like Pong and Space Invaders in their very own rec rooms! Its best-selling game: Pac Man. Introductory price for the console: $199. (That’s roughly $790 today.)

1982: Atari faces competition with the launch of new systems like ColecoVision and Intellivision. There was always that one kid in the neighborhood who had one of these…

1985: After a series of less-than-stellar games, Atari’s sales greatly decline, leaving room for a new system to dazzle the world. Nintendo releases its Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Mario goes from being the hero of Donkey Kong to a global brand and phenomenon that remains strong to this day.

1986: SEGA releases the SEGA Master System while Atari releases a more advanced system, the Atari 7800, to compete with Nintendo. Neither system, however, comes close to Nintendo’s sales.

1989: SEGA ups its game with the 16-bit SEGA Genesis. Sonic the Hedgehog arrives to compete with Mario and Luigi. Nintendo releases the Game Boy, and everyone is free to play their favorite games on the go. This introduces an element of mobility to the world of gaming that we’re all too familiar with now.

1994: Sony enters the game (pun intended) and releases the PlayStation—going down in history as the fourth-best-selling game console, with its second rendition taking first place.

1998: Nintendo 64 boasts 64-bit graphics and arguably the best version of Mario Kart to this day.

2001: Microsoft releases the Xbox, and soon video games won’t just be for Player 1 and Player 2. By the end of the decade, people can access the internet, watch movies, and play games with people around the world on systems like the Xbox and PlayStation.

2003–2004: Nintendo releases the Game Boy Advance SP and Nintendo DS. Mobile gaming continues to improve in quality with rechargeable batteries, vibrant colors, and brightly lit touchscreens. (Also, they removed headphone jacks before Apple made it trendy.)

2006: The Nintendo Wii enters homes across America. With wireless controllers and family-friendly games, the system is a huge success. The caveat: more than a few Wii remote controllers find themselves accidentally tossed into TV screens (YouTube it).

2010: While Nintendo had the Wii’s motion-sensing remotes, Microsoft gave their Xbox 360 the Kinect—a motion sensing, webcam-style device allowing players to use their whole bodies to play dancing, adventure, and sports games.

2011: launches, creating a platform for gamers across the world to virtually come together to play, spectate, and learn about almost any video game. Down the road, Twitch becomes a key contributor to how Gen Z experiences gaming and entertainment differently from other generations.

2016: Hello, virtual reality. Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR offer virtual reality gaming within the comfort of your very own (and hopefully spacious) living room—at least, to those willing to shell out $600. Meanwhile, Nintendo releases the NES Classic Edition, emulating the original NES from 1985.

2017: The Nintendo Switch allows players to take their console from the living room to the car to Grandma’s house without so much as pausing their game. And it’s not game over just yet. Atari announces a new system, the Atari VCS or “Ataribox,” set to release in 2020 with the goal of feeding nostalgia for the old Atari consoles.

The past few decades of gaming have brought about massive improvements in graphics, connectivity, mobility, and more. Games appear more life-like than ever, and we can expect to see growth in streaming opportunities in the coming years. While it’s fun to sit back and think about the good ol’ days or admire technological improvements, upon closer inspection, you'll notice greater themes spanning the gaming timeline. They mirror some notable generational differences. Gaming may be just one facet of some of our childhood experiences, but how do you think it connects to Gen X’s, Millennials’, and Gen Zers’ unique values and expectations?