Nearly three years ago (!), I began, in my own words, “a stupid, insane, and misguided quest to understand more about my favorite hobby and the industry I want to be a part of.” What that means is I began playing every game that interested me from the very beginning of the video game industry, and ranking and writing about them for each year. My story began in 1979, as I judged it the first year with more than one notable game that is still great today. As I immersed myself more and more in the prehistory of video games, I realized I was leaving a significant portion of video game history untouched by my writings. And I just couldn’t let that injustice continue. So I decided I would assign a game of the year to each year I hadn’t yet addressed. So here we are: addressing the best games of the bulk of the ’70s, the decade that also brought us bellbottoms, Star Wars, disco, and so much more.
Note: Previous entries in this series were built with North American release dates in mind. From now on, games will be considered for the year they were first released, regardless of territory. Thankfully, there weren’t any major games lost in this translation. Additionally, due to the increasingly complex nature of this idea, it’s going to be difficult to write at length about every game I played. Some help will come in the form of fellow Invisible Gamer writers, however.
1971 – Computer Space
Developer: Syzygy Engineering
Publisher: Nutting Associates
Why is 1971 the starting point of game of the year consideration? Well, even though there were video games before 1971, that year saw the birth of the commercial video game industry with Computer Space, the first coin-operated arcade video game. It was intended to be played by the public, not just college students, researchers, or scientists, and it’s one that can still be accessed (in modified, simulated form) relatively easily today. Developed by the Atari predecessor Syzygy (formed by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney) and distributed by short-lived arcade manufacturer Nutting Associates, the story of Computer Space is one too packed with details relevant to the entire trajectory of video games to tell here. Simply enough, though, the game was an adaptation of Spacewar, first developed in 1962 by Steve Russell and also adapted in 1971 in the form of the second coin-op arcade game, Galaxy Game. While the detail of which came first is often debated, it’s clear that Computer Space took a simplified approach to the spacefaring progenitor of video games, and signified a trend of Bushnell “commercializing” game concepts he had seen elsewhere. Oh, and it’s fun!
1972 – Pong
Come on. Pong. What can I say that hasn’t been said before? It’s definitely the game of the ’70s, and one that riveted a world and created an industry with its addicting and compelling simplicity. Pong is competition incarnate, and its “source material” was so universally known that it could teach video game interaction without having to explain its own world and rule set. Like Computer Space, Pong has its roots in a pre-commercialized video game industry; Tennis for Two, arguably the first video game, was as much the basis for Pong as Spacewar was for Computer Space. Pong was the Big Bang. The video game industry was created in its wake.
1973 – Space Race
Atari’s post-Pong and pre-Atari VCS/2600 days are kind of weird, less religiously documented and talked about. And that’s because of the company’s struggle to create a success quite like Pong. Still, removing Space Race from the context of what came before it, the incredible smash that was Pong, it stands as a fun, equally simple concept. If Computer Space was too complicated a take on space media for a world that had literally never experienced video games before, Space Race was the Pong-ification of a space game. The two players can only move their ships up and down to avoid the asteroids and complete a “lap,” adding a point to their score. The game is played for a set amount of time, and the person with the most points wins. Space Race is proto-Frogger, and the mounting stress of the time limit presents an enticing risk versus reward system; if a player hits an asteroid, their ship disappears for a few seconds then respawns back at the beginning, costing them precious time. The recreations of the game are easily accessible online, and fun to play with a partner.
1974 – Gran Trak 10
Developer: Atari/Cyan Engineering
Gran Trak 10 was a cool arcade cabinet. It had a steering wheel, brake and accelerator pedals, and gear stick. Players drive a car around a single track as fast as possible. It’s as simple as the first car racing game could be, which makes sense: it was. Quite honestly, Gran Trak 10, as with the other notable 1974 games, is not readily accessible in any form outside its original platform. Still, I crown it Game of the Year 1974 due to the influence it created with its arcade and game design; it essentially created a genre. It also stands as a signifcant entry in the Atari pantheon because, due to the complicated nature of the game’s prototyping, the company did not realize it was selling each cabinet for a loss. Eventually, the problem was fixed, but this resulted in a massive loss at the end of Atari’s fiscal year, sending them into a different trajectory and mindset as they sought to course correct.
1975 – Gun Fight
Publisher: Midway (NA)
Taito was one of the great early Japanese video game developers. Their games came stateside fairly successfully, and they were either right alongside or ahead of Atari in many video game firsts and innovations. Gun Fight, or Western Gun in Japan, was one of those notable firsts. It was the first game to feature human-to-human combat, and the first game to use a microprocessor when Midway reworked it for a North American audience. Like many early video games, Gun Fight is a perfectly primal representation of competition; in its case, it’s literally to the death. Gun Fight is a great example of the little bit of adrenal thrill you can get from narrowly avoiding a fatal end in a video game, and the sinking depression that comes from seeing your on screen avatar shot into oblivion over and over. Gun Fight and Call of Duty have that in common, actually.
1976 – Breakout
I love Breakout. It and Pong are the best games to come out in this period, and Pong just narrowly beats it out. Breakout, like Pong, also had an incredible influence on the world. Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs (mostly Wozniak) built the game, and their partnership on the project led into Apple, one of the most important companies of the 20th century. In any event, Breakout is incredibly fun. It carries the same satisfying Pong gameplay loop, that of bouncing a ball from a paddle, but its objective is to hit stationary blocks rather than outmaneuver an opponent. Watching the bricks slowly disappear is a perfect measure of success; there’s a reason why an entire genre that didn’t really exist in any other gaming and sporting form, Breakout clones, spawned from this landmark game.
1977 – Combat
Combat is a perfect representative for the launch of the Atari VCS, later known as the Atari 2600. It was bundled with the system, which was a massive step forward in console gaming and a landmark use of microprocessor-based hardware and ROM cartridges. Oh, to be clear, the Atari 2600 didn’t do this first; the year prior, the Fairchild Channel F did everything the Atari 2600 did. But Atari was still developing their console at that time; in a move to secure the funding to complete it quickly, Nolan Bushnell sold the company to Warner Communications, shaping the (very near) future of Atari drastically. But in the meantime, the Atari VCS came out and blew the Channel F out of the water commercially. It didn’t hurt that the VCS’ games were…well, they were great for home gaming at the time, sure, but I’m actually of the opinion that a lot of 2600 games don’t hold up very well today. Combat, while sort of clunky and not as intuitive as other milestone Atari games, offered 27 game “modes,” variations on tank, biplane, and jet dogfighting that, like the best of early video games, offered a satisfaction of the primal urge of competition through familiar symbols and concepts.
1978 – Space Invaders
Space Invaders set the stage for a new era of video games. While everything before had been Pong clones and other adaptations of familiar concepts, Space Invaders would create a space game craze that, it could be argued, never ended. To be clear, space games had existed before Space Invaders, and Star Wars’ release in 1977 would set in motion a cross-media genre explosion with or without Space Invaders’ help. People were familiar with space and sci-fi already, and the idea of Space Invaders wasn’t an incredibly complex and unknown concept in 1978. Nevertheless, Space Invaders’ vertical shooter gameplay style would be mimicked and improved upon for many years to come. And that’s due to Space Invaders being just downright fun. It’s another perfect illustration of risk versus reward gameplay that was done so well in the early days of video games. Do you hide behind a barricade or move out and take the risk of, well, actually playing the game and shooting some aliens? It also represented a stylistic shift in video games. Space Invaders had a defined art style, however primitive, and this facet of video game design would move so rapidly in the next few years that “graphics” would become a defining factor in the enjoyment of a video game by the early ’80s. I see Space Invaders as, perhaps, the next majorly important game to be released after Pong, and it’s a perfect way to close out the bulk of the ’70s.
Can you tell who dominated the video game industry in the ’70s? In spite of Atari’s looming presence, though, many great, obscure, and silent innovations were being made elsewhere, outside of my game of the year selections here. In any event, have you played any of the games on this list? What are your favorite video games from the ’70s? Let us know in the comments below!