The 10 Oldest Video Games: Pioneering the Multi-Billion Dollar Industry

Long before today‘s incredibly sophisticated video games with movie-quality graphics, multiplayer online capabilities, and virtual reality immersion, there were the pioneers. The earliest video games emerged in the 1940s and 1950s, built using simple technologies like oscilloscopes, cathode ray tubes, and computer monitors to create minimalist shapes and dots on the screen. They seem primitive by modern standards, but these games launched an entertainment revolution.

By looking back at the 10 oldest video games ever made, we can trace the origins of a juggernaut industry now worth over $200 billion globally. These are the forefathers that made everything from Call of Duty to Candy Crush possible. Let‘s countdown the video gaming trailblazers that started it all.

1. Tennis for Two (1958)

In 1958, American physicist William Higinbotham wanted to liven up visitor tours at the Brookhaven National Laboratory. So he created a game called Tennis for Two on an oscilloscope screen using a small analog computer. It simulated a simple tennis match, with a sideways view of the court. Players adjusted angles and velocities of their bounceback "tennis balls" with a controller box.

This is considered the first true video game expressly made for entertainment. Everything before Tennis for Two was limited to technology demonstrations. It established concepts like on-screen graphics, player inputs, gameplay physics, and multiplayer competition essential to the video game medium.

2. Spacewar! (1962)

Developed by MIT student Steve Russell, Spacewar! debuted in 1962 and is considered one of the most influential early computer games. Played on the DEC PDP-1 minicomputer, it was a competitive space combat title for two players who controlled rocket ships called "the needle" and "the wedge."

Along with showcasing interactive graphics and real-time gaming elements, Spacewar! was also the first video game distributed widely via computer sharing networks instead of being contained locally. It directly inspired many early arcade games focused on outer space shooting battles.

3. Galaxy Game (1971)

In fall 1971, just a few months after releasing pioneering arcade game Computer Space, Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney installed a coin-operated version of Spacewar! at Stanford University. Dubbed Galaxy Game, this early arcade machine charged 10 cents per play. The two-player game featured more sophisticated controls and graphic improvements to better suit public arcade settings.

While ahead of its time, Galaxy Game only earned a couple hundred dollars total and was soon dismantled. However, Bushnell was undeterred and went on to launch Pong the next year, which became a mainstream commercial smash. Galaxy Game set him on this path as one of the fathers of the arcade gaming industry.

4. The Oregon Trail (1971)

In 1971, student teachers Don Rawitsch, Bill Heinemann, and Paul Dillenberger created an early educational video game called The Oregon Trail. Originally made for a single classroom in Minnesota, it used a teletype printer for display and taught school children about the harsh journey Western settlers took along the 2,000 grueling miles of the Oregon Trail in 19th century America.

Despite its simplicity featuring only text descriptions and basic graphics, The Oregon Trail has proved enduringly popular. It has seen countless new versions and ports over the last 50 years, introducing generations of students to this fascinating period of history through its innovative simulation gameplay and memorable hunting mechanic for food.

5. Pong (1972)

When Atari co-founder Allan Alcorn created the arcade game Pong in 1972, he wasn‘t aiming high. His bosses assigned him this electronic table tennis simulator to familiarize him with video game development tools. However, Pong soon became a national sensation thanks to its addictive and competitive two-player gameplay based around simple black and white graphics of paddles and balls.

Eventually incorporated into home consoles by startups like Magnavox, Pong ushered in a new interactive entertainment medium to American households. It may seem basic now, but its fundamental concept launched an entire industry around video arcade games. Pong deserves credit as the first true blockbuster in gaming history, paving the way for everything after it.

6. The Magnavox Odyssey (1972)

Pong popularised arcade gaming in public venues, but the Magnavox Odyssey brought video games into homes. Released in September 1972, it was the first mass-market home video game console. The Odyssey used primitive analog electronics with removable plastic overlays and cards that attached to TV screens to simulate graphics. Games included table tennis, football, hockey, and more.

With over 100,000 initial sales despite only being sold by Magnavox dealers, the Odyssey proved strong market demand for video games outside arcades. It triggered a wave of first-generation home consoles in the 1970s from rival companies. The Odyssey established console gaming and television as defining platforms going forward thanks to their wider accessibility.

7. Space Race (1973)

While simplistic by modern comparisons, Atari‘s Space Race game in 1973 was cutting-edge for its era. It extended the competitive two-player format of Pong into a space setting with spaceships racing against each other while avoiding asteroids and other hazards across the screen. Space Race was Atari‘s first video game after Pong pioneered the nascent arcade industry.

What set Space Race apart was its use of integrated circuits instead of discrete transistors. This paved the way for video arcade games transitioning from electromechanical designs toward all-electronic platforms. The graphics, physics, and obstacles in Space Race also provided greater depth than previous games. It showed the rapid progress of gaming technology and gameplay complexity since games relied on oscilloscope dots just years earlier.

8. Touch Me (1974)

Touch-based interactivity took a major step forward with the 1974 arcade release of Touch Me. The competitive two-player game by Atari asked players to replicate increasingly complicated sequences of colored light patterns on a panel. It tested and improved hand-eye coordination and memory skills.

As both an early example of touch technology in gaming and an innovator in mental challenge games, Touch Me left its mark. Many memory test arcade and video games still follow in its footsteps today, from Simon to Brain Age. Touch Me moved gaming beyond pure physics games into new niches focused on human cognition and ability.

9. Gun Fight (1975)

The recently launched arcade game industry took another frontier leap into the shooting gallery genre with Japanese developer Taito‘s 1975 release Gun Fight. Western themed, the black-and-white electronic game is centered around two Old West gunslingers squaring off in a duel. Players control their cowboy‘s movements behind cover objects and shoot their six-bullet pistol by pressing a button.

As the first video game to depict human-to-human combat and among the earliest with a gun interface, Gun Fight hugely expanded gaming subject matter and control implementations. Its cover system and input methods formed the template for all subsequent shooter games covering military, action and adventure themes that dominate today‘s industry.

10. Breakout (1976)

When young programmer Steve Jobs was tasked by Atari in 1976 to create a Pong-style brick destruction game, he roped in Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak to help develop the hardware while he designed the software. The result was Breakout for arcades, in which players knock out rows of differently shaded bricks by bouncing balls against them.

While not the first ball-and-paddle game, Breakout stands out for its role in forging the fledgling Apple partnership that would soon pioneer the personal computing revolution. The game itself also enhanced graphics to new chromatic levels and added varied difficulty through its brick designs. Just a few years from cathode ray tube blips, video games now created full play environments.

Pioneering an Entertainment Juggernaut

Looking back at primitive dots chasing dots across a screen at the dawn of the video game industry, it would have been impossible to expect the photo-realistic masterpieces like Red Dead Redemption 2 that immerse today‘s audiences in expansive worlds. And yet every boundless virtual universe gamers enjoy owes its existence to inventive concepts first hashed out decades ago in basic games like Table Tennis or Spacewar!.

Along with the 10 oldest video games highlighted here for establishing various technological firsts and gameplay genres, hundreds of other creations in the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s explored the possibilities of this new interactive digital entertainment format. Out of elementary graphics and crude interfaces emerged the building blocks, giving rise later to master craftsmen. Pong‘s paddle is emblematic of how primitive materials can create future brilliance when forged in creative spirits.

Fundamentally, video games are about transporting players into other realities where they can immerse in wondrous new experiences, limited only by technology and imagination. That desire has always existed. The earliest video game pioneers discovered ways to harness that yearning for the first time using a cathode ray tube. Today‘s incredible multi-sensory verisimilitude shows how far we‘ve come in fulfilling those original visions. But it all traces back to the game-changing spark kindled by that virtual tennis ball across the oscilloscope screen.

So as virtual worlds become increasingly mirror images of our own, we shouldn‘t forget gaming‘s fanciful origin point when an attenuated electronic blip opened eyes to worlds beyond imagination.

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