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
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
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
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
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!