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When Was Gaming's Golden Age?

Jonathan Lester
Games articles, Golden Age, Mega Drive, Microsoft, Nintendo, PC, Sega, SNES, Sony

Get any group of veteran gamers together for a local multiplayer session and you'll witness the same argument. One will want to play a classic arcade game. Another will want to dig out the N64 for some Goldeneye deathmatch action. Yet another will dive straight for Modern Warfare. Videogames have spanned many different eras and iterations over the last 40 years... and yet it's difficult to pin down when it was at it was at its peak. When gaming truly enjoyed a Golden Age.

Let's try and sort out that age-old question once and for all. It's time for a look back at gaming's finest eras... and to decide which is the best.

Infancy & Arcades: The Stone Age

When Was Gaming's Golden Age?

A few grizzled veterans cling to the idea that the 1970s and eighties represent gaming's Golden Age... and there's no denying that these formative years were incredibly important. Bedroom coders and hobbyists bent primitive hardware to their will in order to make home computers good for more than just calculations. In 1972, a group of Stanford University students created a little company called Atari; championing the idea that videogames could be commercially played in public places. Pong, Space Invaders and Pac-Man became household names and birthed the first arcades... and increasingly powerful personal home computers such as the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 eventually came to the fore (along with new advances in technology and game design).

The seventies and early eighties were incredibly important for our medium, but they certainly weren't a Golden Age of videogames. Instead, they actually represent a stone age where pioneers banged together the crudest of tools to create primitive yet functional innovations. We salute these brave men and their dedication... but gaming was still very firmly in its infancy. We've come a long way, baby.

SNES, Mega Drive And The Rise Of The Console

When Was Gaming's Golden Age?

Co-opting personal home computers and designing custom arcade boards was the only way to game for a long while. However, Nintendo and SEGA were waiting in the wings to define what we've now come to know as home consoles. The Nintendo Entertainment System brought 8-bit gaming to the masses... but it was the 16-bit era that we need to concern ourselves with.

The SNES and Mega Drive faced off in the first true console war, forming fierce competition that drove their developers to compete in greater and greater feats of development brilliance. Mario and Sonic. Star Fox and Out Run. Final Fantasy and Phantasy Star. Hit after hit after hit pushed the boundaries of the incredible experiences we could usher into our living rooms. Not only that, but the first true fanboys finally crept onto the scene. Love or hate them as you will, but even trolls have a part to play in creating the competition that causes great game development to thrive.

The Mid To Late Nineties Renaissance

When Was Gaming's Golden Age?

PC Gaming went from strength to strength over the last few years of the 20th century, but a massive explosion in hardware capability heralded a genuine revolution in both game design and standards during the mid nineties. Rather than just sticking to simple linear concepts, developers were free to harness increasingly powerful 3D graphics to create absolute masterpieces. Quake II, System Shock 2, MDK, Thief: The Dark Project and eventually Deus Ex delivered intricately-designed shooters that challenged our perceptions of what videogames could accomplish. RPGs started to romp forward in terms of immersive interactive storytelling. Increasingly accurate simulations packed the shelves and allowed us to take to the skies (hell, and even other galaxies). New genres weren't just being created- rather, they were being honed and polished into the recognisable staples that we know today.

Console gamers weren't left out in the cold. The Playstation blossomed into an inclusive mainstream icon... and its bitter rivalry with the N64 inspired some of the best games of all time. The likes of Metal Gear Solid, Ocarina of Time and Goldeneye are all bona fide classics that are still revered and respected to this day.

So were the mid-to-late nineties gaming's true Golden Age? Almost. Gaming had reached a level of excellence that the original Stanford students could never have dreamed possible. But it turns out that the best was yet to come.

The new millennium brought wave after wave of new consoles and innovation. The PS2 blossomed, the Dreamcast withered and Microsoft's hefty black monolith bludgeoned its way into the fray. However, they were all leading up to one pivotal era. Gaming's true golden age. Of course, I'm talking about...

Right Now: The Age Of Aquarius

When Was Gaming's Golden Age?

That's right, folks. We're honoured to be currently slap bang in the middle of gaming's brightest Golden Age... that still shows no sign of ending.

Let's talk about standards. Even the worst games and most cynical pieces of shovelware that grace the bargain bins nowadays are still eminently playable and recognisable as games. They can still be enjoyed in some small measure by their intended target audience- if only for a few minutes. We crave perfection, and our personal standards have been warped by how good we've got it. The fact that a 7/10 rating is frequently seen as somehow disappointing is key proof of the standout quality that we take for granted every day.

It's not just about the lows, though. Think of the highs. Titles has never looked better, but we're also privy to the most accomplished gameplay and innovative concepts. We can explore entire cities and massive worlds without sacrificing visual sheen- or enjoy cinematic blockbusters that rival and exceed even Michael Bay's fever dreams.

This final point is arguably the most important. The greatest accomplishment of our Golden Age has been to thrust our medium into the mainstream. Playing videogames is no longer a niche hobby. It's open to anyone and everyone. The Wii and DS has allowed families to integrate gaming into their everyday lives, becoming a natural part of the routine along with music recitals and parents' evenings. Businessmen can steal a few guilty minutes with Angry Birds or Puzzle Quest on the train. And, of course, us diehard veterans have an enormous selection of fantastic titles to relish even as we complain about them on N4G. We now represent a growing majority rather than an ostracised subsection of society, making this nothing less than gaming's Age of Aquarius. Long may it continue.

Do they still make 'em like they used to? Want to get involved or disagree with my musings? Have your say in the comments!

Add a comment8 comments
Sy  Dec. 2, 2010 at 14:38

The SNES/Megadrive era was the best for me. Gathered round a crap TV with all your mates swearing at a Italian plumber. Sounds quite wrong now.

naffgeek  Dec. 2, 2010 at 14:52

Couldn't agree more.

For me XBLA has been amazing this year with the likes of Limbo, Ilomilo, Tomb Raider, Splosion Man, Games Room and loads more.

Add that to so many big retail releases like Mass Effect 2, Red Dead, Alan Wake, Black Ops, NFS:HP, Rock Band 3, Assasins Creed : BH, Fable 3, Vanquish,Castlevania, Splinter Cell....and a load more.

What a year to be a gamer!!

Martin Cooper  Dec. 2, 2010 at 16:54

I'd be interested in knowing the age of the author. For me the best times for gaming where the late 70's and early-mid 80's but that's when I had time to code and play for hours on end as a schoolboy and then a student.

Now married and nearly a grandparent I still long for those long, long sessions of playing but generally only manage it once a year on holiday or late in the evening, battling with my in-laws playing MarioKart over the net!

Ashpolt  Dec. 2, 2010 at 19:14

Can't agree with you here Jon. Today's gaming industry represents the death of what I loved of the medium, because companies aren't willing to take risks any more, and gaming is, by and large growing more and more homogenous: all shooters must aspire to be epic cinematic pieces like Call of Duty, all RPGs must aspire to shed their complexity in favour of "accesibility" and action....actually, wait, do other genres still exist? (Rhetorical question: of course they do, but with no kind of prominence.)

OK, yes, we have casual gaming as well, but even that's showing its own signs of homogeny already - Motion controls you say? Best make a sports title!

Yes, it's good that gaming has become more accepted, but in trying to appeal to everyone, it's turning gaming into a grey, featureless sludge with no personality and little variety. Can you imagine Planescape: Torment being made today? Grim Fandango? Do turn based games even exist anymore? When was the time you last played an RTS that wasn't a sequel? The last time someone came out with a Theme Park / Rollercoaster Tycoon style management sim at all? We've seen entire genres all but die off, with nothing to replace them, just endless waves of brown and bloom shooters and games that claim to be RPGs but are really just action games with very poorly tacked on RPG-lite mechanics.

And worse, we're getting to the stage where developers would rather defile an old franchise than create their own new IP. My personal whipping post here is Deus Ex: Human Revolution, but what about X-Com? It may be an OK game in its own right, but how exactly is it an X-Com game? What would it have lost by being a new IP? Same with Fallout 3 and New Vegas: as much as I enjoy them (well, kinda) there's no real reason they couldn't have been their own IPs and given us a completely new experience: instead, the Fallout franchise as it once was is now completely gone: those who enjoyed the deep, turn based RPGs of old will never get another one.

The one place that variety and depth still exists is, somewhat ironically, mobile gaming: the iPhone has seen some brilliantly innovative games (Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor being a beautiful example.) I don't know about you though, but I'm not at the point yet where I'm prepared to do the majority of my gaming on a screen the size of a business card. I'd love to see a return to the days where games were made for the passion and because someone had a genuinely good idea, not because "x is popular now, let's make X - but set in space!" Sadly, I know it's realistically not going to happen.

Gunn  Dec. 3, 2010 at 10:30

Agree it is very age related, I was a teenagers in the 90s so that's my favourite era and time to play games is a big factor, I can't get into games as much as I want too, stupid life getting in the way :)

Benneto  Dec. 3, 2010 at 13:21

Awesoem article nice read on a lunch break. If this is the golden age it does show signs of ending people are running out of ideas nothing new I being created.

Phil  Dec. 3, 2010 at 13:26

I was just going to comment but noticed Ashpolt had said 90% of what I wanted to say. Only point missing is how damaging consoles have been to the PC - You used to be able to do so much with PC games - create your own maps, create your own servers (with rules you wanted - i.e No snipers) and get free addons. Now its standard to pay for maps (looking at you COD!) and you can't even choose who's team you play with (COD BO!). All choice variety and freedom that was standard in the late nineties has gone.

Russell  Dec. 3, 2010 at 14:10

Yeah, I agree with what Ashpolt and Phil said; the big new releases mostly feel a bit stale. Although the games you can download from PSN and XBox marketplace do provide some relief and I've purchased a number of fun titles for a very modest cost in most cases.

Personally my golden age would have been 96-98ish when I was in college and had the time to spare gaming without any family commitments. Diablo, Goldeneye, ocarina of time and especially Quake (with the explosion in user generated content and online gaming that came with it). I couldn't count the amount of time I sank into those games alone.

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