Golden age of video arcade games
During the late 1970s, video arcade game technology had become sophisticated enough to offer good-quality graphics and sounds, but it was still fairly basic (realistic images and full motion video were not yet available, and only a few games used spoken voice) and so the success of a game had to rely on simple and fun gameplay. This emphasis on the gameplay is why many of these games continue to be enjoyed today despite their technology being vastly outdated by modern computing technology.
Relevant time period
Walter Day of Twin Galaxies places it as lasting from January 18, 1982 to January 5, 1986. Technology journalist Jason Whittaker, in The Cyberspace Handbook, places the beginning of the golden age in 1978, with the release of Space Invaders, which he credits for bringing an end to the video game crash of 1977, sparking a renaissance for the video game industry, and starting a video game revolution.
Video game journalist Steven L. Kent, in his book The Ultimate History of Video Games, places it at 1979 to 1983. The book pointed out that 1979 was the year that Space Invaders, which he credits for ushering in the golden age, was released in the United States, and the year that saw the advent of vector graphics technology, which in turn spawned many of the popular early arcade games. However, 1983 was the period that began "a fairly steady decline" in the coin-operated video game business and when many arcades started disappearing.
The History of Computing Project places the golden age of video games between 1971 and 1983, covering the "mainsteam appearance of video games as a consumer market" and "the rise of dedicated hardware systems and the origin of multi-game cartridge based systems". 1971 was chosen as an earlier start date by the project for two reasons: the creator of Pong filed a pivotal patent regarding video game technology, and it was the release of the first arcade video game machine, Computer Space.
Other opinions place this period's beginning in the late 1970s, when color arcade games became more prevalent and video arcades themselves started appearing outside of their traditional bowling alley and bar locales, through to its ending in the mid-1980s.
The most successful arcade game companies of this era included Taito (which ushered in the golden age with the shooter game Space Invaders and produced other successful arcade action games such as Gun Fight and Jungle King), Namco (the Japanese company that created Galaxian, Pac-Man, Pole Position and Dig Dug) and Atari (the company that introduced video games into arcades with Computer Space and Pong, and later produced Asteroids). These companies wrestled for the top slot in American arcades for several years. Other companies such as Sega (who later entered the home console market against its former arch rival, Nintendo), Nintendo (whose mascot, Mario, was introduced in 1981's Donkey Kong), Bally Midway Manufacturing Company (which was later purchased by Williams), Capcom, Cinematronics, Konami, Centuri, Williams and SNK also entered around this era.
Arcades catering to video games began to gain momentum in the late 1970s with games such as Space Invaders (1978), Gee Bee (1978), and Galaxian (1979), and became widespread in 1980 with Pac-Man, Rally-X, Missile Command, Defender, and others. The central processing unit in these games allowed for more complexity than earlier discrete circuitry games such as Atari's Pong (1972).
During this period, arcade video games began shifting away from single-screen titles towards scrolling games. Early examples were Sega's side-scrolling shooters Bomber (1977) and Secret Base (1978). Namco's Rally-X in 1980 introduced multi-directional scrolling, as well as a radar tracking the player position. Sega's Space Tactics that year was a space combat game allowing multi-directional scrolling from a first-person perspective. The following year, Namco's Bosconian allowed the player's ship to freely move across open space that scrolls in all directions. By the early 1980s, scrolling had become popular among arcade video games and would make its way to third-generation consoles, where it would prove nearly as pivotal as the move to 3D graphics on later fifth-generation consoles.
The Golden Age also saw developers experimenting with vector displays, which produced crisp lines that couldn't be duplicated by raster displays. An early example of vector graphics was Sega's 1978 release Space Ship, a multi-directional shooter space combat game. A few of these vector games became great hits, such as 1980's Battlezone and Tempest and 1983's Star Wars from Atari, as well as 1982's Star Trek from Sega. Another notable example was Sega's 1981 release Eliminator, the only four-player vector game ever created, and featuring color vector graphics as well as both cooperative and competitive multiplayer. Sega's Space Fury that year also featured colour vector graphics, in addition to speech synthesis. However, vector technology fell out of favor with arcade game companies due to the high cost of repairing vector displays.
This period also saw significant advances in digital audio technology. Space Invaders in 1978 was the first game to use a continuous background soundtrack, with four simple chromatic descending bass notes repeating in a loop, though it was dynamic and changed pace during stages. Rally-X in 1980 was the first game to feature continuous background music, which was generated using a dedicated sound chip. That same year saw the introduction of speech synthesis, which was first used in Stratovox, released by Sun Electronics in 1980, followed soon after by Namco's King & Balloon.
Developers also experimented with laserdisc players for delivering full motion video based games with movie-quality animation. The first laserdisc video game to exploit this technology was 1983's Astron Belt from Sega, soon followed by Dragon's Lair from Cinematronics; the latter was a sensation when it was released (and, in fact, the laserdisc players in many machines broke due to overuse). While laserdisc games were usually either shooter games with full-motion video backdrops like Astron Belt or interactive movies like Dragon's Lair, Data East's 1983 game Bega's Battle introduced a new form of video game storytelling: using brief full-motion video cutscenes to develop a story between the game's shooting stages, which would years later become the standard approach to video game storytelling.
New controls cropped up in a few games, though, arguably, joysticks and buttons remained the favorites for most manufacturers. A racing wheel was included in racing games such as Road Race and Night Driver, while Fonz introduced a motorcycle handlebar with vibrating force feedback technology, Atari introduced the trackball with 1978's Atari Football, Paperboy used a bicycle handlebar, and tethered optical light guns were popularized by Nintendo's 1984 light gun shooters Wild Gunman, Duck Hunt and Hogan's Alley. Other specialty controls, such as pedals in racing games, and a crossbow-shaped light gun in Crossbow, also debuted in this era.
Some games of this era were so popular that they entered the popular culture.
The first to do so was Space Invaders. Following its release in 1978, the game caused a national shortage of 100 yen coins in Japan, leading to a production increase of coins to meet demand for the game. It would soon have a similar impact in North America, where it has appeared or is referenced in numerous facets of popular culture.
The game that had the biggest impact on popular culture in North America was Pac-Man. Its release in 1980 caused such a sensation that it initiated what is now referred to as "Pac-Mania" (which later became the title of the last coin-operated game in the series, released in 1987). Released by Namco, the game featured a yellow, circle-shaped creature trying to eat dots through a maze while avoiding pursuing enemies. Though no one could agree what the "hero" or enemies represented (they were variously referred to as ghosts, goblins or monsters), the game was extremely popular; there are anecdotes to the effect that some game owners had to empty the game's coin bucket every hour in order to prevent the game's coin mechanism from jamming from having too many coins in the receptacle. The game spawned an animated television series, numerous clones, Pac-Man-branded foods, toys, and a hit pop song, Pac-Man Fever. The game's popularity was such that President Ronald Reagan congratulated a player for setting a record score in Pac-Man. Though many popular games quickly entered the lexicon of popular culture, most have since left, and Pac-Man is unusual in remaining a recognized term in pop culture, along with Space Invaders, Donkey Kong, Mario Bros., and Frogger.
Source: Wikipedia, "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_age_of_video_arcade_games", available under the CC-BY-SA License.