Welcome to the latest installment on our quest to determine which generation of video games has the right to call itself ‘the best’. Today we look at the third generation of gaming and why it’s worthy of that honor. This generation is often called the ‘first modern’ era of gaming as many of the elements that make up what we recognize as ‘standard’ today first came into being during this time. Now while there were other options available for gamers the vast majority of us remember the late 80’s for one thing – the absolute domination of all things gaming by Nintendo and their extremely popular NES system but there was so much more going on during this time that needs to be recognized and part of why this generation was the best of them all.
Like we discussed in the previous article in this series, the North American video game crash of 1983 basically rewrote everything that the early industry thought it took to make video games a success. Gone were the days of every company under the sun developing cartridges replaced by stringent quality control measures and console manufacturing was dedicated to a handful of companies that. But the biggest change the occurred in the transition between the 2nd and 3rd generations was the shift from west to east as Japanese companies (which had been mostly sparred the effects of the crash) took the lead in-game and console development. Companies like Square, Sega, Namco, Konami and of course Nintendo all found themselves as the new custodians of the gaming and in charge of leading the industry into maturity.
It’s often cited that it was one game that saved the industry from itself and kept it relevant and their’s really no denying that fact. Super Mario Bros.‘ release in 1985/86 was a landmark title not just for Nintendo and its development team but for the industry as a whole. The game was fun, fresh and filled with secrets to discover which not only hooked in players but made the Nintendo Entertainment System a ‘must have’ for everyone with even a passing interest in games. It also represented a shift from games that were mostly about getting high scores to games with narratives and motivations beyond being able to put your initials at the top of the leaderboards.
This focus on new gameplay elements helped establish Nintendo as not only the market leader in the console business (the Sega Master System and Atari 7800 were never really competitive) but led to a game design revolution as other companies soon began to develop their own new ideas, with almost unbridled creativity. Games like Final Fantasy, Mega Man, Castlevania and Metal Gear just weren’t possible before and joined Nintendo’s own heavy hitters like Metroid, Kid Icarus, Punch-Out!! and of course The Legend of Zelda as proof that games were not only getting better in terms of things like gameplay and graphics but in terms of idea, creativity and even as an art form.
However this insist to say that this creativity didn’t come at a cost. It’s well documented that Nintendo’s business practices of the time were strongly supporting of their own ideals of what they believed the industry should be. For example, third-party’s could not publish more than five games a year on the NES, Nintendo decided on the game’s launch date as well as how many cartridges the publisher needed to order as well, the game needed to pass Nintendo’s own quality standards in order to be granted publishing rights on the NES. These draconian policies among others are often seen as the reason that Nintendo was able to keep such a stranglehold on the industry until Sega’s Genesis took off but also why many third party publishers jumped ship to either Sony, Sega or Microsoft as soon as other viable platforms became available. That being said, it did force the industry to not revert back to its old ways and helped prevent another crash like the one that had ravaged the industry just a few short years earlier.
Now it’s easy to look back at the late 1980’s and think that all of gaming revolved around the Nintendo Entertainment System and it’s seemingly endless lineup of great titles, but there was another platform also gaining steam during this time, one that is still alive and kicking to this day – the personal computer. PC gaming was still in its infancy as Atari and Commodore (among others) were rolling out their line of 8-bit computers but it didn’t take long before companies started seeing them as viable way to get their games, often bigger titles that the consoles of the game could run, into the hands of consumers. Games like Maniac Mansion, Metal Gear (the good versions) and the Ultima series among others all dominated the PC landscape and established gaming on a computer as the go to for “serious” gamers looking to play the biggest games in the best possible quality.
The last thing I want to revisit about the third generation of gaming is that it also ushered in the dawn of (true) handheld gaming. Sure things like the Game & Watch and Microvision were available since the beginning of the 80’s but to call them full on ‘video games’ is a bit of a stretch. When Nintendo introduced the Game Boy in 1989 however the dynamic completely changed as you could now play full adventures like Super Mario Land & Link’s Awakening on the go. Now while I don’t want to understate the importance of the Game Boy and it’s competitors to the history of gaming, they mostly competed during the 4th generation of gaming so I’ll save more commentary on that for later.
The third generation of video games in any ways cemented what a ‘modern’ gaming generation looks like. Console gaming cycles came into being at this time supported by both PC and new handheld gaming scenes letting gamers play how they want, when they want. But so much more than that this was the generation where games stopped being simple diversions of children but became stories, became adventures and even became an art form onto themselves. This was the first generation where video games started to be taken seriously and while they still had a long way to before we get to what we have to today, it’s hard to deny the importance of this generation in crafting what we enjoy today.