The Next Great Thing
Back in the '80s when I was a teen, the often-heard complaint from the "growed ups" about video games was having to buy the same games again just because there was a new system. While the kids only wanted the latest and greatest, all the parents saw was money going out the window for the something they thought they had already bought, which they wisely knew would be forgotten and replaced when yet the next thing came along. Some say the lack of a single "standard" is what has kept console video gaming in the realm of "toys" rather than "electronics."
Looking back, I think the elders had an arguable point. A case study would be the Activision games for the 5200, which contributed to this line of thought. While still great games, they were not the accomplishment that they were on the 2600.
Activision did a fine job of pushing the Atari 2600, aka Video Computer System, to its limits, coming up not only with games that were in their time technical wonders, but also based on some unique ideas - try selling a video game like Pressure Cooker today that has a player building hamburgers and see how far you get, unless maybe it's Lara Croft behind the counter. Activision raised the standard and forced everyone else to do better, thank goodness. Today titles like Pitfall and River Raid are the epitome of "classic" gaming, and should still be uttered with the respect they deserve.
However, in time the 2600 was replaced by the 5200. Many games were updated for the new system with dramatic improvements - just try comparing 2600 Pac-Man to 5200 Pac-Man. No argument there. However, the games by Activision that made the 2600 shine were not so bright on the 5200. While some games made dramatic leaps in graphics and gameplay, such as the previously mentioned Pac-Man, Activision's games received largely minor graphical tweaks. Whether you're playing Kaboom on the 2600 or the 5200, the feeling is the same. Hence the sense all you did was pay again for something you already had.
That's not to say the games, by themselves, are not good. They are. The problem is they were just as good on the 2600. So much had been achieved with the titles on the 2600, there simply was no substantial leap to be made in the games on the 5200, aside from some touching up. Perhaps the 5200 hardware was not the leap over the 2600 Atari made it out to be. Sure, there's the obvious technical differences, but Activision showed what could be done on the 2600, while others would need the 5200 to achieve nearly the same results. Or could it be that the folks at Activision just did the minimum they had to do to get the games out the door for the 5200? Personally, I lean to the idea that the 2600 Activision games were such an achievement, the 5200 hardware didn't really allow them to do all that much better.
The response to this feeling was the idea of "backwards compatibility," so that just because you bought the next system you didn't have to toss your entire collection for the older one. Atari realized this by releasing a plug-in module allowing the 5200 to play 2600 games, although Coleco beat them by releasing their own 2600 adaptor for the Colecovision first. The 7800 would see backwards compatibility built in. But the idea kind of fizzled, not really coming back until the likes of the PlayStation 2, backwards compatible with the PS1, and the GameBoy Advance-GameBoy Color-GameBoy line.
But with game systems on the market today such as the Nintendo 64, Dreamcast and the Playstations, and upcoming systems such as the Nintendo GameCube and Microsoft Xbox, one wonders when, or if ever, there will ever be a single format. The world may never know.