Video Game History: The Defining Moments From the Last 20 years
GameSpot celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. To mark the occasion, we’re looking back at the past two decades with a number of features.
This one dives into the moments that defined the past 20 years, in which we call out memorable and important video game news, game launches, and more. Click "Next Image" to get started:
Satoru Iwata Passes Away
Nintendo veteran Satoru Iwata, who started in games as a programmer before rising through the ranks all the way to president and CEO of Nintendo, passed away in summer 2015 due to a bile duct growth. One of his more memorable quotes came at GDC 2005, when he said, "On my business card, I am a corporate president. In my mind, I am a game developer. But in my heart, I am a gamer."
Taking over for Iwata is Tatsumi Kimishima, who is leading Nintendo on a new path with the NX, smartphone games, movies, and theme parks.
"Nintendo, like all creative companies, will stumble again and again throughout its lifetime," GameSpot's Rob Crossley wrote in his obituary for Iwata. "That is a natural flaw of any person or business that dares to innovate. That dares to expose itself. But Nintendo is undoubtedly standing on far more solid foundations now than it was thirteen years ago. Iwata's legacy serves as a reminder of how far one can go if they never give up on their ideas."
Big New Releases: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Fallout 4, Star Wars: Battlefront, Bloodborne, Super Mario Maker, Rocket League, Splatoon, Batman: Arkham Knight, Halo 5, Call of Duty: Black Ops III.
Microsoft Buys Minecraft
In one of the bigger and more surprising buyout stories in recent years, Microsoft paid $2.5 billion to acquire the Minecraft franchise and its developer Mojang in September 2014. The game’s creator, Markus “Notch” Persson, departed from the company in the takeover. He reportedly held a 70 percent share, meaning he made a massive chunk of change from the sale. He went on to out-bid Jay-Z and Beyonce for a $70 million Beverly Hills mansion. Minecraft continues to perform well for Microsoft, as the company regularly cites Minecraft in its earnings reports as a big-time money-maker.
When the buyout was announced, some feared for what it might mean for Minecraft’s non-Xbox versions. As it turns out, Microsoft has not only continued to support the PlayStation and Nintendo versions of Minecraft, but has even created special content for the Wii U edition in the form of the Super Mario Mash-Up Pack.
Wii U Launch
Nintendo’s Wii successor was definitely different, sporting a tablet-like controller that allowed for some interesting gameplay concepts. It was probably never going to sell as many units as the Wii, which was a runaway hit with some 100 million units sold, but the Wii U significantly underperformed even by Nintendo's standards. While the Wii U has some of incredible games--Mario Kart 8, Splatoon, Bayonetta 2, and Super Mario Maker among them--third-party support fell apart.
Despite launching a year before the PS4 and Xbox One, the Wii U has been handily outsold by those consoles. It appears the console’s life is coming to an end, as production is reported to end in March 2018, with Nintendo focused instead on its NX platform, which comes out by March 2017.
PS4/Xbox One Launch
Sony and Microsoft launched new consoles in November 2013. The PlayStation 4 came out first (November 15), with the Xbox One following a week later (November 22). Both systems sold more than 1 million units in their first 24 hours. The PS4 had the pricing edge, as it came out at $400, a full $100 less expensive than the Xbox One, which also came with a Kinect camera. Microsoft would later offer a Kinect-less Xbox One bundle that brought the console in line with the PS4 in terms of price.
Sony’s system today has the edge, regularly outselling Microsoft’s Xbox One. By Sony’s latest count, it has sold some 40 million PS4s. Microsoft does not report Xbox sales numbers (instead, they focus on Xbox Live figures), but is is believed that Sony’s system is ahead by a significant margin.
Supreme Court Decision
In summer 2011, the United States Supreme Court--the highest court in the land--sided with the video game industry in a landmark ruling, bringing about an end to a six-year legal battle over selling violent games to children in California.
The Court said ruling that a California law preventing retailers from selling violent games to children was unconstitutional. "For better or worse, our society has long regarded many depictions of killing and maiming as suitable features of popular entertainment, including entertainment that is widely available to minors," Justice Samuel Alito said. For more, check out the Supreme Court's full decision, as well as GameSpot's extended feature coverage of the Supreme Court case.
Big New Releases: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Portal 2, Batman: Arkham City, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, Dark Souls, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, LA Noire, Gears of War 3, Dead Space 2, The, Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, Dead Island, Dragon Age 2, Killzone 3, Mario Kart 7, Resistance 3, Mortal Kombat.
Bungie and Activision Lock Down 10-Year Deal
While Halo is still one Microsoft's defining franchises, in 2010 the original developer charted a new course. After releasing Halo: Reach, Bungie partnered with Call of Duty publisher Activision and announced a 10-year deal for what later came to be known as Destiny. The shared-world shooter was bigger and more ambitious than anything Bungie has made previously, and that mix of disparate genres (shooter, RPG, MMOG) set a new benchmark for cooperative FPS games.
While Destiny was far from perfect, frequent DLC packs have continued to refine the experience even further. Activision has said it’s pleased with Destiny’s performance, and has gone on to greenlight a sequel for 2017.
Continuing that theme of gamers working together, 2010 also saw the inaugural PAX East, held at the Hynes Convention Center in downtown Boston. It was a huge hit, and as such, every year since it’s been held at the significantly larger Boston Convention Center, where the show still regularly sells out. The event is supported by some of the biggest names in gaming, including Microsoft, Sony, 2K, Nintendo, and many more.
Big New Releases: Civilization V, Call of Duty: Black Ops, Mass Effect 2, Red Dead Redemption, Plants vs. Zombies, Limbo, Fallout: New Vegas, God of War III, Gran Turismo 5, Heavy Rain, Donkey Kong Country Returns
Big Time Casual
We saw the rise of some of the biggest casual gaming franchises of all time in 2009. Zynga's Farmville debuted on Facebook, and it even became a platform for Lada Gaga to launch some of her new songs. And Rovio Entertainment put out the first Angry Birds game. The worldwide phenomenon eventually spawned an Angry Birds movie, produced by Sony and featuring a star-studded lineup. While critically panned, the movie is already tracking ahead of The Lego Movie in ticket sales. The Angry Birds franchise may not have maintained the same level of fervor it had in 2009, but as the box office figures for the movie shows, it still has power.
Even on the console side, there seemed to be a shift towards smaller. No longer was the bulky PlayStation 3 launch model your only choice. Sony released a lighter and thinner version in 2009 (which would be followed by a super slim model in 2012). And who could forget the PSP Go? Sony's follow-up to the PSP discarded the unpopular UMD platform for the even less popular solution of digital-only media.
Big New Releases: Assassin's Creed II, The Sims 3, Resident Evil 5, League of Legends, Infamous, Killzone 2, Demon's Souls, Bayonetta, Left 4 Dead 2, Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2, Batman: Arkham Asylum, The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks, Borderlands, Uncharted 2, Among Thieves, Street Fighter IV, Minecraft, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, Dragon Age: Origins
Call of Duty company Activision and World of Warcraft developer Blizzard Entertainment united forces in 2008, becoming Activision Blizzard. Today, it is considered the biggest western publisher in gaming, controlling the biggest shooter out there, Call of Duty, and the top MMO, World of Warcraft. The company offers much more than those two games, of course, as some of its other big-game franchises include Destiny, Diablo, Skylanders, Guitar Hero, and most recently, Overwatch.
Blizzard officially announced Diablo III at its Worldwide Invitational event in 2008. The game wouldn’t be released until four years later, but it was a massive hit. By Activision Blizzard’s latest count, the dungeon-crawler has sold more than 30 million copies across PC and console.
Big New Releases:Wii Play, Wii Fit, Gears of War 2, Mario Kart DS, Grand Theft Auto IV, Call of Duty: World at War, Mario Kart Wii, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, Sins of a Solar Empire, Professor Layton and the Curious Village, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, Soulcalibur IV, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, Fable II.
Red Ring of Death
Microsoft's success with the Xbox 360 came to a halt once the notorious Red Ring of Death issue raised alarms with consumers, and in 2007 Microsoft had to react. In order to assuage the millions of users who had experienced hardware failure, or were at least concerned about the possibility, Microsoft had to extend the warranty for every Xbox 360 to a three-year window.
The cause behind the Red Ring of Death is posited to be the result of a rushed console launch and inadequate manufacturing practices, but the real answer is left to speculation with no official word on the matter. Whatever the cause, it was a massive headache for Xbox 360 owners who had to send their consoles into Microsoft for repair, but Microsoft paid the price. Microsoft allocated over 1 billion dollars to fix the issue, with almost $240 million budgeted for shipping alone. The company's response to the issue was necessary but commendable, though in the end, it wasn't enough to wash away the memory, as the Red Ring of Death has lived on to be the most memorable event during the Xbox 360's lifespan.
Big New Releases: World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade, Wii Play, Crackdown, Virtua Fighter 5, MotorStorm, God of War II, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, Guitar Hero 2, Super Paper Mario, Pokemon Diamond and Pearl, Odin Sphere, Forza Motorsport 2, Super Stardust HD, Picross DS, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3, Bioshock, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, Blue Dragon, Heavenly Sword, Halo 3, Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions, Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles, The Witcher, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Super Mario Galaxy, Contra 4, Assassin's Creed, Mass Effect.
Nintendo Releases the Wii
When the Wii was announced at E3 2004 as the Nintendo Revolution, nobody knew how serious Nintendo was about redefining video games. Yes, the Wii was small, it was great that it would offer backwards compatibility, both with physical GameCube games and older systems via the Virtual Console emulation platform, but these qualities were far from revolutionary. When it came out that Nintendo's real pitch for the Wii was the introduction of motion controls, everything changed.
Up until the Wii, games were played with controllers where the only input came from button presses. Apart from a few failed hands-free experiments such as the Nintendo Power Glove and the Nintendo U-Force, Nintendo's primary console designs focused around traditional input methods. With the advent of Wii--in a similar fashion to the DS--Nintendo opened the doors for people who weren't traditionally interested in games by removing the abstraction of playing with a traditional controller.
Now, with a Wiimote in hand, anyone capable of mimicking the action of swinging a sword or a tennis racket could potentially play games on Wii. By including Wii Sports with every Wii, Nintendo made sure that anyone exposed to the system would get a taste of motion controls in a friendly and familiar setting, with a little bit of a competitive spirit fueling their desire to continue playing.
Nintendo's success with the Wii would inspire untold numbers of snap-on peripherals for Wii controllers, but more importantly, it inspired Sony and Microsoft to come up with an answer, lest the companies get left in the dust as mainstream customers flocked to Nintendo's innovate, inexpensive, and small console. Sony's Move controllers earned no such love or excitement, and Microsoft's Kinect failed to catch on. Nintendo wasn't just first: it captured the hearts and minds of people from all walks of life, not just hardcore gamers.
Big New Releases: Grandia III, Black, Tales of Phantasia, Onimusha: Dawn of Dreams, Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter, Kingdom Hearts II, Mother 3 (Japan only), New Super Mario Brothers, Hitman: Blood Money, Half-Life 2: Episode One, Dead Rising, Star Fox Command, Loco Roco, Mega Man ZX, Okami, Just Cause, Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria, God Hand, Final Fantasy XII, Neverwinter Nights 2, Gears of War, Call of Duty 3, Red Steel, Rayman Raving Rabbids, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, Wii Sports, Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops.
Microsoft Releases the Xbox 360
After finding mixed success with the original Xbox--which was trounced by sales of the PlayStation 2--Microsoft had to make its next attempt count if it wanted to stand a chance of competing with Sony in the long term. In an effort to get a running start, Microsoft released the Xbox 360 a year before PlayStation 3, providing customers with the first taste of the seventh generation of consoles.
This exceptional lead-time paid off for Microsoft as Sony not only struggled to get its next-gen console out in a timely manner, but for a reasonable price as well. By the time E3 2006 rolled around, and it was announced that people would have to pay at least $500 for Sony's next-gen system. Suddenly, the $300 entry point for Xbox 360 looked far more attractive to people who were holding out for Sony's new machine.
With the Xbox 360, Microsoft continued to pursue network services through Xbox Live, defining the standards for which all consoles would have to match for years to come. Broadband connectivity was the norm at this time, and Microsoft was poised to capitalize on the trend. It also continued to push its successful first-party game series, including Halo and Fable, while also paving the way for new blockbusters like Gears of War and Forza Motorsport. Where Microsoft was an outlier when it released the bulky and expensive Xbox, the Xbox 360 made the company the model for which all other consoles would be compared to in its generation.
Big New Releases: The Legend of Zelda: Minish Cap, Resident Evil 4, Tekken 5, TimeSplitters: Future Perfect, God of War, Jade Empire, Psychonauts, Battlefield 2, Killer 7, Nintendogs, Advance Wars: Dual Strike, Indigo Prophecy, Black and White 2, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, F.E.A.R., Quake 4, Age of Empires 3, Shadow of the Colossus, Call of Duty 2, Civilization 4, Mario Kart DS, Dragon Quest VIII, Dead or Alive 4.
Nintendo Releases the Nintendo DS
At the end of 2004, Nintendo released the DS, its unusual-looking handheld with two screens, one of which supported touch-based input. The DS's design caught many people off-guard at the time, but Nintendo knew something we didn't: gaming was becoming mainstream, and with the inclusion of a touch screen and a stylus, people who were once shy to pick up a controller had an intuitive means to give games a try.
Sure enough, Nintendo made a concerted effort to utilize the DS's features for new types of game experiences that would be attractive to casual players and curious first-timers. Nintendogs was a hit, allowing people to raise a virtual pet and interact with it using the stylus for a tactile experience. Brain Age games emerged, and proved to be a fun diversion from the norm by providing logic and memory-based challenges for all ages.
Not one to forget its core demographic, Nintendo and third-party developers maintained a steady flow of traditional games, ensuring that anyone, whether they had a passing interest in games or a passionate attachment to the medium would find something to love about the DS.
This philosophy paid off, as the DS went on to become the second best-selling video game platform of all time, only bested by Sony's PlayStation 2. The success of the DS is still felt in the 3DS today, validating Nintendo's pioneer spirit at a time when video games were still relegated to a niche, rather than mainstream audience.
Big New Releases: Metroid Zero Mission, Ninja Gaiden, Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes, Unreal Tournament 2004, Far Cry, Final Fantasy XI, Manhunt, The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventure, Doom 3, Gradius V, Fable, Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War, Star Wars Battlefront, Katamari Damacy, Counter-Strike: Source, Halo 2, Half Life 2, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, World of Warcraft.
2001 went to PlayStation and 2002 to Xbox, but in 2003, PC gaming reigned supreme. Valve's online gaming platform and store Steam launched in that year, though few would probably have been able to foresee the massive growth ahead. Today, the platform boasts more than 125 million users and is far and away the leading destination for digital PC gaming. The platform now has not only a library of 6,000-plus games, but also a catalog of movies and non-gaming software. Steam also made a name for itself with its Early Access feature, which allows users to pay for an in-development game.
Though not quite as impactful as Steam, 2003 was also the year Enix Corporation and Square Co. merged to form Square Enix Co. It's also when Nokia launched its disastrous N-Gage handheld and, amazingly, was the final year of production for the Famicom and Super Famicom (the NES and SNES, respectively, in North America).
Big New Releases:Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Planetside, Fire Emblem, Call of Duty, Viewtiful Joe, Amplitude, Beyond Good & Evil, Silent Hill 3, Max Payne 2, Deus Ex: Invisible War, The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker.
Xbox Live Debuts
Xbox Live is today a cornerstone of Microsoft's Xbox business, and it all began in 2002 when the service went live. Robbie Bach, a former Xbox executive who helped launch the network, summed up Xbox Live’s impact in this way: "This was social networking before MySpace and before Facebook."
In September 2002, Microsoft made one of its most memorable acquisitions ever, snapping up GoldenEye and Banjo-Kazooie developer Rare for $375 million. Rare was renowned for its critically acclaimed spate of N64 games, such as GoldenEye, Blast Corps, Diddy Kong Racing, and Banjo-Kazooie. While Rare has shipped the likes of Viva Pinata whilst under Microsoft ownership, it's widely held that its quality of games has diminished somewhat since the buyout.
2002 also saw renewed panic over the potentially violent influence of games thanks to Rockstar and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. If you happen to remember Florida lawyer Jack Thompson (who has since been disbarred), this is probably why.
Big New Releases:Kingdom Hearts, Animal Crossing, Metroid Prime, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Super Mario Sunshine, Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, Battlefield 1942, Dungeon Siege, Rez, Ratchet & Clank, Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven, Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus, SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs, Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell, Ghost Recon.
Xbox and Halo Arrive
The Xbox era began in 2001 with the launch of Microsoft’s first home console. Created in part to compete with Sony for the living room, the Xbox was bolstered by one of its key launch titles from then unknown developer Bungie: Halo: Combat Evolved. This game would of course go on to become Microsoft's crown jewel and one of the top FPS franchises in all of gaming. The system itself went on to sell about 24 million units, far ahead of expert projections for Microsoft's share of the home console market.
Nintendo's Game Boy Advance and GameCube also hit the market in 2001. Though GameCube couldn't keep pace with the more powerful Xbox and PS2 (and would eventually be supplanted by the Wii anyway), the little purple cube somehow built an impressive game library that eventually included masterpieces like Super Smash Bros. Melee, Metroid Prime, The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, and Resident Evil 4. GBA, meanwhile, further tightened Nintendo's already unshakable grip on the handheld market with some classics of its own, such as Advance Wars and Pokemon Crystal (both released this year as well).
Sega's ill-fated Dreamcast system was also discontinued this year despite reports that the console had an estimated 800,000 active online users. When that happened, Sega officially dropped out of the console market, opting to focus entirely on software instead.
Big New Releases:Grand Theft Auto III, Devil May Cry, Max Payne, Serious Sam, Black & White, Bejeweled, Tribes 2, Civilization III, Final Fantasy X, Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec, Ico, Time Crisis 2, Red Faction, Twisted Metal: Black,Burnout, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, Silent Hill 2.
The launch of the PlayStation 2 dominated headlines all year in 2000, and rightfully so: when the consoles hit Japanese store shelves on March 4, it became the fastest day-one seller in Japanese history. When it reached North America on October 26, it broke the global day-one sales record en route to becoming the single best selling video game console of all time, with more than 150 million units sold over the course of its 12-year lifespan.
And within those 12 years, the PS2 turned pioneered motion gaming, prioritized online connectivity, turned game consoles into media devices, and arguably spurred the creation of the original Xbox. It also provided a home for dozens of timeless classics, including exclusives like Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3, Final Fantasy X, and Twisted Metal Black. Hell, it was even subject to export restrictions when Japan's Trade Ministry, in April 2000, decided the console was sophisticated enough for military applications. Sega's poor Dreamcast never stood a chance.
Big New Releases:Mario Tennis, Paper Mario, Shenmue, Perfect Dark, TimeSplitters, The Sims, SSX, Spyro, Deus Ex. Diablo II, Grandia II, Marvel vs. Capcom 2, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2, Banjo Tooie, The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, Chrono Cross.
Ah, Dreamcast. You left us all too soon. After finally being released globally in 1999, Sega's last attempt at a home game console lasted only a few more years and was discontinued in 2001. A combination of poor software support (EA, for example, didn't make games for the Dreamcast), insanely high sales expectations (spurred by poor sales in its home country), and increasingly tough competition from the likes of Sony and Nintendo all led to the Dreamcast's early demise. Sega, who had been a dominant force for many years, started its slow decline out of the console business in 1999.
It was a pity, especially because the Dreamcast still managed to deliver some outstanding game experiences in its first year of release, with titles like Dynamite Cop, Marvel vs Capcom, Power Stone, Sonic Adventure, Crazy Taxi, and Soul Calibur were all being outstanding.
One of the Best Years Ever for New Releases
Several hugely notable events occurred in 1998. The Dreamcast was first launched (in Japan), for example. The release of the very first version of the Unreal Engine. The formation of Rockstar Games. But despite all these industry-affecting changes, 1998 will be probably remembered for one thing: as being one of the best years for video games ever.
What else could you call a year in which several huge, genre-defining games were released? 1998 had an embarrassment of riches when it came to impactful tiles. Consider this: in 1998, the first Half-Life (a revolution in narrative-focused shooters), StarCraft (a revolution in real-time strategy), Baldur's Gate (simply the best RPG released thus far), and Thief (a redefinition of stealth games) were all released on PC. Each one of those titles could have been worthy game of the year winners, and they all came out within a 12-month span of one another.
PS One Shines and Big Games Debut
1997 would prove to be the year that the Sony PlayStation would truly shine, cementing it (and Sony's) place as part of the video game console elite. The new console would continue to build its might against it biggest competitors, with huge hits such as Gran Turismo, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Tomb Raider II, and Parappa The Rapper (which would become the genesis of the huge music game boom that would soon follow). Of course, one huge game would overshadow them all: the early 1997 release of Final Fantasy VII.
A Turning Point
In many ways, 1996 would prove to be a key turning point and shaper of what games are like today, and it's all thanks to the Nintendo 64.
Just a year before, Sony entered the console race for the first time with the PlayStation, a race that had been dominated for many years by the likes of Nintendo and Sega. But with the release of the Nintendo 64 in 1996, many game makers started to turn away from the Japanese giant and decided to support the upstart in Sony. Why? Because the N64 still used cartridges, a format that was quickly becoming outdated despite its positive qualities.
With the added storage available on CD-ROMs, game makers were given more space to create even more immersive titles. Case in point: the Final Fantasy series, which had long called Nintendo home, eventually went to the PlayStation for Final Fantasy VII.
Oh, and a video game site known as GameSpot was launched.