What Atari didn't realize was that by 1983 the vast majority of 2600's were sitting in closets, and in basements and in moldy cardboard boxes in the back of the garage. No other console became popular in its place, not for years.
Why? After all, we still watch TV sitcoms, and they've looked the same since color TV was invented. Kids still play basketball, more than a century after that sport was accidentally invented by a rural turkey farmer looking for a quick way to get dead birds into the round hole of the carcass chute. So what's different about video games?
The difference, is that most people are only playing games for the novelty of it.
Remember the first Roy-Orbison-wrapped-in-shrinkwrap erotic fiction story you read? Of course. Do you remember the 207th one? Only vaguely. Well, it's the same reason. Those stories really aren't that great. It was only interesting for the novelty, and the novelty wears off.
With the 2600, players realized that Hot Dog Maze was just Pac-Man with different colors. Soon the cool thing among video game fans was to sit around not playing video games. The industry collapsed.
Then the Next Big Thing came along, the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1986. It was a radical departure from the blocky 2600, to the point that the experience was novel once again. Games had actual worlds to travel in, and you could save your games from one day to the next. Playing these games didn't just look different; they felt different. Space Invaders was a series of symbols on a screen you manipulated for a score, Legend of Zelda was an actual universe you could escape to.
And yet, even with the enormous number of games (Metroid delayed my discovering girls for a for a good 18 months), the gaming experience itself still couldn't keep our interest for more than a few years. Attention waned again, but this time new, fancier systems arrived just in time, offering a new and novel experience thanks to prettier graphics and character animation. And yet those systems (the Sega Genesis and later the SNES), as great as they were, eventually were retired to closets and attics and the sandy carpets of the Pakistani black market.
It was a bitter, dark cloud of Japanese expletives that wafted from the meeting rooms at Nintendo and Sega when they realized their industry effectively lived under a curse. Gaming was not an everlasting, deep well of joy for the audience. No, the only way to keep them playing was to distract them with novelty, to roll out a new machine every five years, spending half a billion dollars in development each time, moving from colored blocks to 2D figures to cartoonish 3D to realistic 3D.
Which brings us to today. We've now advanced from realistic 3D to slightly prettier 3D and... even slightlier prettier 3D with slightly better reflection effects and slightly better animated water ripples and - oh, look! This game has the most realistic fog yet!
See the problem?
What does an art form that relies on novelty do when it can no longer offer up anything novel? Think I'm crazy? Would you call Nintendo's Hiroshi Yamauchi crazy?
Okay, you would, but in between strapping kleenex boxes to his feet and wearing a giant raw squid as a hat, the 114 year-old console gaming guru spoke wisdom. And he believed gaming has hit the wall as far as graphics go.
You don't have to be a tech geek to get this. Check out the rather startling difference between the Atari 2600 title Jet Goblins Attack from 1980 and The Legend of Zelda just seven years later: