Four Ways Gaming Was More Difficult in the '70s and '80s

An hour of playing this game is enough to break the toughest player.
An hour of playing this game is enough to break the toughest player.
Photo by Chris Lane

I've been playing video games most of my life going back to the late 1970s, when new amusements like Space Invaders and Asteroids began to make waves in arcades across the country. It wasn't long before video games captured the imaginations of the young and young at heart, becoming a huge national pastime. It's probably difficult for younger generations of gamers to understand what it was really like during the early days of their hobby, but things were vastly different. Rather than shake my fist at the kids on my lawn who don't respect the old ways, I thought it might be more interesting to look at how things have changed over the past 30 or 40 years of game history.

4. Arcade Games Were Usually Better Than Home Systems

In video games' infancy, home console systems were a big deal. If you received an Atari 2600 for Christmas in 1977, you were one lucky kid. A couple of years later came Intellivision, adding fuel to the game-console scene and making any home a potential arcade experience. Well, not really. The truth of the matter is arcade games were almost always more advanced than their console counterparts, at least in the first few years that video games were available to the home consumer market. The arcade games usually had more responsive controls and better graphics, making the home versions seem lame in comparison.

Back then, most of us were just happy to be able to play video games at home, but the real action was still at the nearest arcade. Nostalgia has fueled a sort of idealization of early console games, but seriously: That Atari 2600 joystick always felt like an unresponsive rock, and navigating the fragile Intellivision control-disk/numerical-pad combo wasn't a whole lot of fun either. There were real reasons so many people were saving up their quarters for the arcade instead of only relying on the cheaper "play for free" option at home.

3. The Social Environment

When a new arcade game was released in the early '80s, it was a big deal to a lot of people. Games like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong became huge national fads, which spawned terrible novelty songs, toys and other merch that entrenched those games further into pop culture. Huge crowds would form around popular games at arcades, with people lining up quarters to "reserve" the next turn. An entire social scene sprang up around the games and businesses that provided them, and fans had to leave their homes to experience it. Sure, they could go play Pac-Man on their Atari 2600, but that was a mere shadow compared to the arcade version. A lot has been written about the wild and sometimes abusive nature of modern online game play, and I don't doubt that it's a vile cesspool, but in 1982, if you were a kid who wanted to play Tempest, you might have had to deal with bullies face to face. On the other hand, the kind of pervasive sexism and hateful abuse that is rampant in today's online games wasn't as common in arcades then. The anonymous nature of online gaming seems to foster that garbage in a way that meeting in person usually didn't.

2. Arcade Games Were Harder

Since arcade games were engineered to separate players from as many quarters as possible in exchange for a few minutes of entertainment, it's not surprising that some of them were really difficult. There was no way to "pause" a game at the bowling alley, and each time a person started to play, it was a singular experience; the very best one could hope for when he'd burned through his last man was the option to plunk another token in to continue where he'd been. Even that wasn't a standard feature, not even on early home-console systems. Most of the time a person got three game "lives" for a quarter, and that was that, so anyone who could extend his game beyond a few minutes of play had skills that would inevitably impress his peers. Some arcade games were notoriously hard, and anyone who could master them secured real bragging rights. My hat's off to a person who can actually "beat" the Ghosts 'N Goblins arcade game; I own one and can rarely get beyond the first three screens. It's merciless. To be fair, the NES port three years later was incredibly hard, too. But it didn't cost a player a million bucks in quarters to try to beat it.

As game consoles became more advanced, the types of games being developed changed with them. Today's home systems are amazing, but they provide immersive experiences that are similar to interactive movies and are usually geared toward players' ability to complete them. Hard games are still released on modern consoles, and the difficulty can be dialed up to the point of making them nearly impossible, but they're still different in nature from the more challenging older arcade games. The designers of most of those had no interest in players' being able to "finish" a game.

1. Learning Tips or Strategies Was Also Harder

Nowadays if a player gets stuck on a challenging part of a game, he or she can quickly peruse online resources for a solution. Back then there was no such thing as a YouTube walkthrough or online game forums. The best a frustrated player could hope for would be a friend who might have some advice, or that one of the early game magazines would address the issue. If a game threw something unexpected at you, you were largely on your own.


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