The 40th Anniversary of the Video Game Crash of 1983
Back in 1983, I was 16 years old and living the dream. I had a car, I had money, and I was unencumbered by a spouse, kids, or anything else resembling real responsibilities, or than my job as a Quality Supervisor at a barbeque restaurant. Yes, at the ripe young age of 16, I was telling 20-, 30- and 40-somethings what to do. (They loved it, let me tell you, he said sarcastically.)
Before I digress into my life story, let’s zero in on a certain newspaper ad I saw during this time. Yes, teenagers and even people younger than that read the newspaper in those pre-social media days. Not only for the funnies, and not only for baseball box scores, but also for celebrity gossip, headline news, local interest stuff, and more.
Each Sunday, the paper was massive, thanks in part to ads from retail stores. I would scour these ads for gaming bargains, and one day I found a whopper: a variety of Atari 2600 titles for $9.99 to $14.99 each, including popular first-party titles like Asteroids and Space Invaders. This was a huge discount from the regular selling price of $30 to $45 or so for most video games.
Over the next few weeks and months, I began seeing titles for the Atari 2600, Intellivision, ColecoVision, Odyssey 2, and other consoles selling for $4.99 each…then $2.99…then .99 cents. Yes, brand new video games for under a buck! I’ve spoken to certain people around my age who recall seeing new video games marked as low as .25 cents each. Amazing!
As a hardcore gamer and collector, I was driving from store to store, adding to my collection. I would buy pretty much any game that looked fun to play, and I would buy pretty much any ColecoVision game no matter what it was because that was my favorite console. Stores like Toys “R” Us, Kay Bee Toys, Circus World, and even Walmart and Target would have huge bins with tons of discount games, and I would practically leap into these pits and swim around, catching as many “fish” as I wanted and throwing back what looked unappealing.
It was exciting and fun, but I had no idea what it all meant beyond being able to purchase video games for pennies on the dollar, amassing a cool collection, and playing a bunch of games that I would never have had access to without the Video Game Crash of 1983. I had no idea it meant the video game console industry in North America was dying. It didn’t really sink in for me until 1984, when the writing was on the wall that my beloved ColecoVision was on the way out. It was officially discontinued in 1985, and I was incredibly bummed. The Atari 2600 and Intellivision hung on for a few more years, but just barely.
Video game sales dropped 97% from $3.2 billion in 1982 to $100 million by 1985. The reasons for the Crash are many. Too many random companies had jumped on the video game craze of the early ’80s and were cranking out lousy games for the Atari 2600, the most ubiquitous console of the era. There were also too many consoles on the market in general. This created consumer confusion and dissatisfaction, and retailers struggled to find adequate space for new games on store shelves.
Two of the most highly anticipated 2600 titles, Pac-Man and E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, were big disappointments as the former was a bad port and the latter was confusing for most kids who played it. These and other titles were over-produced, and Atari ended up burying thousands of games in a landfill in New Mexico, as told in the 2014 documentary, Atari: Game Over.
By 1983, many gamers who had grown up with the Atari 2600, which was released in 1977, were moving on to other interests like cars and dating. The 1982 follow-up to the 2600, the Atari 5200, was largely a bust, thanks in part to its fragile, imprecise, non-centering joysticks. Coleco had announced they were going to produce a Super Game Module for the ColecoVision that would have meant games with more levels, better graphics and sounds, etc., but they cancelled that eagerly anticipated peripheral and released the Adam Computer instead. While great in theory, the Adam was a huge failure because so many units were bug-ridden or downright inoperable right out of the box.
Speaking of computers, they were a big reason for the Crash. Many parents felt more comfortable purchasing a computer for their kids than a “mere” video game console. Most of the big consoles at the time promised computer add-ons, but those were all unsuccessful, such as Mattel’s Entertainment Computer System for the Intellivision. The Odyssey 2 had a computer-style keyboard, but it was a video game console, not a fully-functional computer.
The Commodore 64, which Guiness cites as the top-selling computer model of all time, played a big role in the Crash. Why buy a console when you can get a computer that also plays games that are at least as good as the ColecoVision and in some cases better and more sophisticated? And you can pirate those games for free? I saw evidence of this first-hand. After my best friend’s dad brought home a C64 with around 200 games copied illegally onto floppy discs, his family rarely touched their ColecoVision.
While the video game market in North America crashed in 1983, the industry didn’t stay dead for long, thanks in large part to a certain Japanese company’s cool console, savvy marketing, and mustachioed Italian plumber. Test-marketed in 1985 and released nationwide in 1986, the Nintendo Entertainment System, which was the North American version of the Japanese Famicom, introduced a new generation to video games, with Super Mario Bros. taking center stage. More than any video game before it, SMB dazzled gamers with expansive gameplay, cartoonlike graphics, hidden secrets and surprises, and pitch-perfect controls.
When I received my NES for Christmas in 1987, I barely believed what I was seeing. The closest experience I can think of to playing Super Mario Bros. for the first time was my initial reading of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland—simply mind-boggling!
Numerous great games followed on the console, including such legendary titles as Contra, Castlevania, Metroid, The Legend of Zelda, and Super Mario Bros. 3, the last of which was heavily marketed in 1989’s The Wizard. An entire culture was built around the NES. Players would exchange tips and tricks for beating games (as well as call Nintendo’s hotline number), bring issues of Nintendo Power magazine to school, rent games from movie rental stores, pause their system all night so they could continue that long adventure game the next morning, etc.
Even more than Atari, Nintendo brought video games into the mainstream, and the industry has been thriving ever since.