Codex Gamicus

The 1980s were a decade of highs and lows for video games and it was the second decade in the industry's history. The decade began in the midst a boom in the arcade business with giants like Atari still dominating the market since the late 1970s. An over-saturation of third party games, the rising influence of the personal computer, and a lack of quality in the games themselves lead to an implosion of the North American video game market that nearly destroyed the industry.[1] It takes home consoles years to recover from the crash, but Nintendo fills in the void with its Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), reviving interest in consoles.[2] Up until this point, most investors believed video games to be a fad that has since passed.[3] In the remaining years of the decade, SEGA ignites a console war with Nintendo,[4] developers that have been affected by the crash experiment with the superior graphics of the PC,[5] and Nintendo also releases the Game Boy, which would become the best-selling handheld gaming device for the next two-decades.[6]

Consoles of the 1980s[]

Third generation consoles[]

Main article: History of video game consoles (third generation)

Starting in 1983 the third generation began with the Japanese release of the Nintendo Family Computer (or "Famicom"; later known as the Nintendo Entertainment System in the rest of the world). Although the previous generation of consoles had also used 8-bit processors, it was at the end of this generation that home consoles were first labeled by their "bits". This also came into fashion as 16-bit systems like SEGA's Mega Drive & Genesis were marketed to differentiate between the generations of consoles. In the United States, this generation in gaming was primarily dominated by the NES/Famicom.

Fourth generation consoles[]

Main article: History of video game consoles (fourth generation)

Starting in 1987 and ending in 1996, the fourth generation of video game consoles consisted primarily of games and systems programmed for the 16-bit era. During this generation, 2D graphics had improved over the previous generation and experimentation began to occur with 3D graphics, although 3D games were more prevalent on the PC at the time. The fourth generation also was the first time compact discs were considered a viable port for video game retail sales with the CD-i. Some of the most notable systems released during this generation were the Super Famicom/Super Nintendo Entertainment System (1990), the Mega Drive & Genesis (1988), and the Neo Geo (1990).[7] Nintendo's Game Boy was also released during the fourth generation, which would later become the most popular series of handheld gaming systems during the 1990s.[8] A rivalry between Sega and Nintendo occurred during this generation, starting the first ever console war.


Golden age of arcade games[]

In the early-1980s, arcade games were a vibrant industry. The arcade video game industry in the US alone was generating $5 billion of revenue annually in 1981[9] and the number of arcades doubled between 1980 and 1982.[10] The effect video games had on society expanded to other mediums as well such as major films and music. In 1982, "Pac-Man Fever" charted on the Billboard Hot 100 charts[11] and TRON became a cult classic.[12]

Third-party development and an oversaturated market[]

Following a dispute over recognition and royalties, several of Atari's key programmers split and founded their own company Activision in late-1979.[13] Activision was the first third-party developer for the Atari 2600.[14] Atari sues Activision for copyright infringement and theft of trade secrets in 1980,[15] but the two parties settle on fixed royalty rates and a legitimizing process for third parties to develop games on hardware.[16]

In the aftermath of the lawsuit, an over-saturated market resulted in companies that had never had an interest in video games before beginning to work on their own promotional games; brands like Purina Dog Food.[17] The market was also flooded with too many consoles and too many poor quality games,[18] elements that would contribute to the collapse of the entire video game industry in 1983.

Video game crash of 1983[]

Main article: North American video game crash of 1983

By 1983[19], the video game bubble created during the golden age had burst and several major companies that produced computers and consoles had went into bankruptcy.[20] Atari reported a $536 million loss in 1983.[21] Some entertainment experts and investors lost confidence in the medium and believed it was a passing fad.[22] A game often given poster child status to this era, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial had such bad sale figures that it is reported that the remaining unsold cartridges were buried in the deserts of New Mexico.[23]

Rise of the PC and PC gaming[]

The brunt of the crash was felt mainly across the home console market. The personal computer and PC gaming in general actually thrived in this time period.[5] Microsoft released MS-DOS in 1981 and the operating system was a popular outlet for playing games.[24] Some computer companies adopted aggressive advertising strategies to compete with gaming consoles and to promote their educational appeal to parents as well.[25][26] Home computers had better sound and visual capabilities than most of the consoles of the era.


By 1985, the home console market in North America had been dormant for nearly two years. The same could not be said elsewhere, however, where video games continued to be a staple of innovation and development. After seeing impressive numbers from its Famicom system in Japan, Nintendo decided to jump into the North American market by releasing the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES for short. It was released, despite the pessimism of critics, as a huge success and Nintendo is often credited with reviving the home console market.[2]

One innovation that led to Nintendo's success was its ability to tell stories, whereas video games before lacked that ability. Nintendo also took measures to prevent another crash by creating regulations upon its third-party developers that are now observed industry-wide. Some of these regulations include a "lock and key" system to prevent reverse engineering. It also forced third parties to pay in full for their cartridges before release, so that in case of a flop, the liability will be on the developer and not the provider.[27]


Notable video-game franchises established in the 1980s[]


PC and console[]


  • 1Game franchises that also accompany major film or television franchises.
  • 2Game franchises that are considered spin-offs of previously established franchises.

Best-selling video games of the decade[]

Best-selling video games of the 1980s
(sale numbers as of 3 March 2012)
Rank Title Release Date Franchise Developer(s) Platform Units sold
(in Millions)
1 Super Mario Bros. 13 September 1985 Super Mario Bros. Nintendo NES 40.24
2 Tetris No consensus on official release date
c. 1984–1989[28]
Tetris Bullet Proof Software Multiple 30.26
3 Duck Hunt 21 April 1984 "–" Nintendo NES 28.31
4 Super Mario Land 21 April 1989 Super Mario Bros. Nintendo Game Boy 18.14
5 Super Mario Bros. 3 23 October 1988 Super Mario Bros. Nintendo NES 17.28
6 Super Mario Bros. 2 01 September 1988 Super Mario Bros. Nintendo NES 7.46
7 The Legend of Zelda 21 February 1986 The Legend of Zelda Nintendo NES 6.51
8 Zelda II: The Adventure of Link 14 January 1987 the Legend of Zelda Nintendo NES 4.38
9 Excitebike 30 November 1984 "–" Nintendo NES 4.16
10 Golf 1 May 1984 "–" Nintendo NES 4.01


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  2. 2.0 2.1 A 20-YEAR OLD LEGEND.
  3. Top 10 Embarrassing Moments in Video Game History.
  4. Nintendo vs. Sega-The 16-Bit Console War - Part-I.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Ten Facts about the Great Video Game Crash of '83.
  6. Nintendo's DS family becomes best selling gaming handheld in history.
  7. 4th Generation Vintage Hardware and Computing Consoles. (2007-08-19). Archived from the original on December 22, 2008 Retrieved on 2009-07-23
  8. Nintendo GameBoy - Reviews.
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  12. "Top 20 cult films, according to our readers". The Boston Globe. 17 August 2006. 
  13. InfoWorld. 1983-11-28. 
  14. Classic Gaming Expo: ALAN MILLER.
  15. The History Of Activision.
  16. Beller, Peter C. (2 February 2009). "Activision's Unlikely Hero". Forbes. 
  17. Chase the Chuck Wagon.
  18. History of the Video Game Console : 1980s. videogameconsolelibrary. 
  19. The Video Game Crash of 1983.
  20. "A History of Video Game Consoles". Time.,31813,2029221,00.html. 
  21. Five Million E.T. Pieces.
  22. All Your History: The Video Game Crash of 1983.
  23. 10 Ridiculous Old-School Video Game Rumors (That Were Actually True).
  24. The 10 Greatest MS-DOS Games of All Time.
  25. 80's Radio Shack Color Computer Commercial.
  26. Commodore VIC-20 ad with William Shatner.
  27. Striking a BalanceIs Nintendo digging its grave with shovelware?.
  28. "At 25, Tetris still eyeing growth". Reuters. 2 June 2009.