The lights are on
At their core, the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 are video game systems. However, they contain an array of technology that's built on the innovations of the consoles that came before them. From controllers to online services, these new systems offer more for the gamer than anything we've seen before. This article will attempt to give a summary of how we got to where we are today, marking off some of the major innovations in the console spaces as they happened.
The First Console - Magnavox Odyssey (1972)
Perhaps no machine on this list deserves more praise than the Magnavox Odyssey. The Odyssey is ground zero of the console explosion, the first system that brought gaming out of the arcades and into our homes. While the Odyssey is primitive by today's standards, and only offered a small set of pre-programmed games, it established the concept of a video game console in the public's mind, and paved the way for everything that came after. The Odyssey was designed by Ralph Baer, the man generally considered the father of video games.
Game Cartridges - Fairchild Channel F (1976)
The Fairchild Channel F is now largely a footnote in game history, as it was quickly eclipsed by Atari's VCS, but it's worth remembering that the system pioneered the use of removable game cartridges – and beat Atari to market by a full year. Sadly, Fairchild quickly lost faith in the video game market – thinking it was a fad built around the success of Pong – and ceded control of the industry to Atari. Still, it did manage to release 27 game cartridges (many packagings of multiple smaller scale games) during the lifespan of the Channel F.
Analog Stick - Acetronic MPU 1000 (1976)
While the N64 is generally credited with the innovation of the analog stick, that's far from the truth. In the early days of games, a few systems experimented with analog sticks, including the Atari 5200 and the Vectrex in the early '80s. The Vectrex in particular is notable for having a "self-centering" stick.
However the first analog stick in a home console was actually the Acetronic MPU 1000, an obscure European system manufactured by Radofin was also marketed under the names Prinztronic and Interton. Pretty impressive for 1976.
First Downloadable Games - Intellivision PlayCable (1981)
No, that's not a misprint – I was surprised myself to find that downloadable games date back all the way to 1981. The Intellivision PlayCable was an ingenious (and forward-thinking) little piece of technology developed by Mattel. The PlayCable add-on to the Intellivision allowed users to download a selection of small games into the unit's internal 4K memory. For a monthly fee, you downloaded games from a selection of around 20 into the PlayCable, via the FM band of your cable television link. Unfortunately, the service never really took off and was hamstrung by the high costs that cable operator incurred to run it. Still, subscription-based downloadable games is still considered cutting edge in 2013 with things like PlayStation Plus, meaning that PlayCable was a whole 30 years ahead of its time. Impressive.
The D-Pad - Famicom (1983)
The Famicom (Nintendo's Japanese version of the NES) was released in 1983, and included a controller that would forever change the face of console gaming. The joysticks of past systems were replaced by a simple cross button that used for directional controls. Along with two face buttons, this opened up gaming to new design possibilities, and provided much more accurate control for players. Every console controller that followed is in some way derived from this controller.
Shoulder Buttons - Super Famicom (1990)
Nintendo did it again with the Super Famicom (SNES in North America). After the Famicom controller redefined console gaming, the Super Famicom added two more buttons (for a total of four face buttons) and two shoulder buttons. While the shoulder buttons didn't feel revolutionary initially, time has shown it to be much more important than we realized at the time. For one, it enabled a new level of complexity of gameplay. Also, down the road, these shoulder buttons would evolve into triggers that would help make the first-person shooter a staple of console gaming.
Memory Card - Neo Geo (1990)
The Neo Geo was an ambitious console – it sought to literally bring arcade-perfect gaming to the home with a system that featured the exact same technology as a line of SNK arcade cabinets. The only hitch in this plan was that this tech came at a cost: The unit debuted in the U.S. at a whopping $649.99 (that's over $1,500 adjusted for inflation). This link between the home console and the arcade unit did inspire one lasting bit of innovation: a memory card by which players could transfer their games between home and the arcade. For those of us who grew up writing down long codes, this was a godsend. Unlike the cartridge saves of games like The Legend of Zelda, this also made your game saves portable and not tied to any one specific cartridge.