From the inside.
I was always interested in electronics and as the death of BW TV’s gave birth to a wave of discarded electronics, I explored them at a very young age (not to mention getting more than a few electric shocks). But when video games started to come out one of the first things I did was … well being the kid I was I took it apart! Looked at what the insides were like and then tried to figure out how it worked. Ok, to be fair, I played it until my parents stopped looking and then pulled it apart. But this resulted into a life long trade of electronics and repair or/and design. While on that journey I saw the progression from the most fundamental technology, all the way through to today.
There is a fundamental link between technology and gaming consoles that is not seen unless you crack the case and understand the things your looking at.
In the very early days, most small computers didn’t have clocks. This seems trivial at first glance, what would it matter if a game didn’t know the time. But what you need to understand is that the central part of the console was working as hard and fast as it could just to keep up with what was being asked of it. So it didn’t need a governor to slow it down when it wasn’t so busy.
But could you imagine the speed of to days computers running the efficiently coded games of the first consoles. The entire space invaders game would finish before it had a chance to be seen at all. What was needed was a sense of real world time to keep things slowed down for us slow humans.
This spare time was what made better graphics possible. Unlike the first game machines made entirely of parts that could be purchased of the shelf., more electronics started to be combined into pre-made dedicated chips, which also made them decentralized with part of the work shared eg sound, graphics, etc while the main controlling of the flow of the game remained in the CPU.
Eventually complete dedicated games reduced the price and the first truly simple games such as Pong were all on one chip. There were also follow up versions that you could select which game it played etc frogger/snake or pong. But so far the game development was limited in two ways.
1: Cost, if it could be done but was to expensive and it would only be an arcade console game. And that’s exactly what happened to start with.
2: Function, although the cost could be reduced to enter the domestic market, the functionality suffered.
Something else happened:
Some game consoles that were sold could actually play more than one game. But the manufacturer had designed them to play several. It’s not clear why this happened and I am only guessing here, but it seemed like the chips as they were being made were faulty to some degree. So rather than totally discard the silicon wafer. It was sold with only the game that worked. Internally setting the game to be played.
It’s at about this point when the line between computers and game consoles blend. At some stage in either the very late 70’s or early 80’s the games become small computers that no longer functioned be direct electronically hard wiring. i.e. a pinball paddle is directly linked to a switch in the button. But with a computer built in, the signal is sent to the pin on the chip and if the program is coded to fire the electronics that drive the paddle it moves.
With this, much less wiring was needed, power use was down, functionality was up and production costs and time dropped. Because of this, game/computer consoles were no longer different parts of the device and only the program determined the function of a device. The birth of the game cartridge!