Little Book of Video Games

70 Classics That Everyone Should Know and Play


By Melissa Brinks

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Revisit your favorites, find something new, or play your way through this light-hearted guide to the most celebrated and iconic arcade, console, and computer games from the 1950s to the 2000s.

An accessible, informative look at the history and evolution some of the most popular and iconic video games from their early beginnings up to the 2000s. Author Melissa Brinks explores each influential game and its impact on they would have on the games that would follow, with brief, engaging profiles and surprising trivia that is perfect for fans of all levels.

From the groundbreaking games of the 1950s to the genre-defining games of the 60s and 70s to the modern classics of the 1990s and early 2000s, The Little Book of Video Games includes games from a wide variety of genres and consoles including (but not limited to): Pong, Spacewar!, Adventure, Pac-Man, Rogue, Donkey Kong, Galaga, Dragon’s Lair, Tetris, Super Mario Bros., The Oregon Trail, Castlevania, Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy, Mega Man, SimCity, Mother, Mortal Kombat, Myst, Doom, Warcraft, Diablo, Tomb Raider, Pokémon, Tamagotchi, GoldenEye 007, Ultima Online, Metal Gear Solid, Dance Dance Revolution, Half-Life, Silent Hill, The Sims, and more.

Now you can learn, share, and enjoy your favorite classic video games without having to press a power button!


Tennis for Two


Pinpointing the very first video game is difficult—numerous tic-tac-toe and chess emulators existed prior to Tennis for Two’s creation in 1958, but William Higanbotham’s invention is often regarded as the first video game by modern standards.

Higanbotham started his career in radar technology before working at the Los Alamos National Laboratory as part of the Manhattan Project. His team developed ignition and measuring instruments for the first nuclear bomb, but Higanbotham later left the project and dedicated his life to nuclear nonproliferation as a founder of the Federation of American Scientists in 1945. He joined Brookhaven National Laboratory’s instrumentation division two years later, where he developed Tennis for Two, a tennis simulator, to showcase at one of the lab’s annual exhibitions.

Higanbotham hoped that “it might liven up the place to have a game… which would convey the message that our scientific endeavors have relevance for society.” He, along with other members of the instrumentation division, created the game in just three weeks, using existing circuits and instructions. They chose not to patent it because Higanbotham didn’t think the game was sufficiently innovative. And having been developed with Brookhaven’s technology, it would have belonged to the US government rather than to him.

Despite creating one of the earliest known video games, Higanbotham preferred to be known for his work in nuclear nonproliferation.



Spacewar! is another contender for the title of first video game. Though it was never commercially available, the game introduced many concepts—unique weapons, a virtual world, physics—that later became synonymous with the medium. Developed by Steve “Slug” Russell, a member of the Tech Model Railroad Club, which many early hackers participated in, Spacewar! was one of the first games created for entertainment. Two players control spaceships in orbit around a star with a gravitational pull. Both ships have weapons, and the ultimate goal is to destroy your opponent’s ship first.

Russell developed the game with the intent of impressing his friends, and that it did. Because the computer he used to create the game was enormous (roughly the size of three refrigerators) and prohibitively expensive, Russell and others deemed it unnecessary to copyright protect the game. It was also developed under “hacker ethic,” a philosophy of early computer programming that held that computers and the knowledge possibilities they contained should be free to operate and access. Spacewar!, as part of that new technology, was available to be played, taken apart, remixed, and studied by others.

As the game grew in popularity, hackers added new modes, such as a realistic starfield, and tweaked Russell’s weapon deployment (which included frustrating random explosions) to be more predictable. Others invented variations on the game, spreading its popularity among computer enthusiasts for free. The game was even used to test whether PDP-1 units were functional: programmers would turn on the machines and activate the game to verify that the computers were in working order.



Pong is often recognized by modern standards as the first video game—it was available commercially for both arcade and home use—but its history is contentious. Nolan Bushnell, along with his coworkers at the arcade-game manufacturer Nutting Industries, had played a Magnavox Odyssey game called Table Tennis at a trade show. After Bushnell and Ted Dabney founded Atari, Bushnell asked Al Alcorn, a computer scientist and programmer at Atari, to develop his own version of Table Tennis—a project that would become the much-beloved Pong.

Alcorn’s version added some unique features, such as having the ball bounce at different angles, having the speed increase as the game progressed, and a points system. With this competitive two-player angle, Pong became so successful that Atari could hardly keep up with orders. Bushnell and Alcorn, struggling to meet demand and unable to afford skilled workers to produce the arcade machines, offered people at the unemployment office just over minimum wage to build the cabinets. Pong became the first commercially successful video game.

However, their success came at a cost. Magnavox filed and eventually won a lawsuit against Atari, forcing them to pay for patent infringement. And the game was such a hit that other companies were quick to clone it and manufacture their own. It’s believed that, eventually, Atari owned fewer than a third of the Pong and Pong-like arcade cabinets.



Frustrated with the high cost of producing single-player Pong cartridges, Nolan Bushnell offered a substantial bonus to any employee who could redesign the game with the fewest number of microchips—at the time, the average new Atari game contained 150 to 170 chips. Apple cofounder Steve Jobs, then an employee at Atari, asked his friend and fellow Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak to help him do the redesign, offering to split the pay.

The game they developed was Breakout, a solo game in which the player breaks bricks by bouncing a ball off a paddle. It took four nights without sleep, but Wozniak and Jobs got the project down to a mere forty-four chips, fewer than a third of the average Atari game. But due to Wozniak’s complex and compact chip arrangements, manufacturing was difficult. In the end, the commercial version contained about a hundred chips.

Like many others, the game became a great source of controversy. Jobs didn’t share the promised bonus with Wozniak, despite the fact that Wozniak had performed the bulk of the work. Al Alcorn once said that Jobs “never designed a lick of anything in his life. He had Woz do it.”

Colossal Cave Adventure


Colossal Cave Adventure is the first known work of interactive fiction, a medium primarily composed of text. Players type actions into a text parser, which interprets the input and responds by either rejecting the command or moving the story forward.

Colossal Cave Adventure is also the first example of a text adventure, the precursor to adventure games. In the game, players input directions and commands to guide their character through a sprawling cave system filled with riches. Designer Will Crowther and his then wife Patricia were avid cavers, and they folded their knowledge of Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave system into the game’s design.

One of Crowther’s inspirations for Colossal Cave Adventure was his desire to forge a deeper connection with his daughters after his divorce from their mother. The game also combined his fondness of role-playing, such as in games like Dungeons & Dragons, with his fondness of caving in a simple, engaging format. According to Crowther, his daughters loved the game. Its simplicity and sense of mystery intrigued players for generations, leading to the inclusion of mechanics like mysterious room structure, inventory systems, noneuclidean mazes, and more as staples of the text adventures, role-playing games (RPGs), and roguelikes that came later.



Zork followed shortly after Colossal Cave Adventure, expanding on that game’s design with a more intelligent, sophisticated text-parsing system. Named for a nonsense word that programmers used to refer to unfinished programs, Zork was originally intended to be called “Dungeon” until Tactical Studies Rules, the publisher of Dungeons & Dragons, claimed that it violated their copyright.

The game was programmed on the common computer system of the time, the PDP-10 (an earlier version of which was used to program Spacewar!), which was too big and expensive for home use. Because of this, Zork, like many early games, was designed without copyright or sales restrictions, and the game’s developers, Dave Lebling, Marc Blank, and Tim Anderson, built it without thinking that others would be able to play it.

However, the simplicity of porting (transporting an existing game to a different system than the one it was developed for) text adventures meant that eventually they were able to create other versions, including versions for the personal computer, through Infocom. The game was later split into three parts and redesigned for cohesion. Between 1980 and 1982, editions were released for the Atari 8-Bit, Commodore 64, and other systems under the names Zork I: The Great Underground Empire, Zork II: The Wizard of Frobozz, and Zork III: The Dungeon Master.

Space Invaders


Space Invaders remains a popular game in arcades today, with its simple yet addictive gameplay and pop culture fame. It’s commonly used as a symbol of the past in movies such as Terminator 2: Judgment Day and TV shows like Robot Chicken, with its iconic spaceships and blooping soundtrack being synonymous with classic video games.

The game’s straightforward combat and alien enemies inspired legions of shooters to come. Designer Tomohiro Nishikado created all the hardware and software from the ground up, as the technology that existed at the time was insufficient to power his vision of a game in which players shoot at aliens (he believed that it was immoral to depict violence against humans). Though Nishikado cited Atari’s Breakout as his biggest inspiration, he was reportedly also influenced by a dream he had in which Japanese schoolchildren waiting for Santa Claus were attacked by aliens.

Space Invaders was distributed by the company Taito in Japan, where it rapidly grew in popularity until even regular stores began replacing their wares with arcade cabinets. Taito licensed the game to Atari for home use—the first such deal—and it was released for the Atari VCS shortly after the films Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars hit theaters, tapping into America’s growing interest in aliens.

The timing paid off. Space Invaders became the first “console killer app”—a term for games that encouraged people to buy a console, in this case the Atari VCS. Four years after its release, the game had grossed $3.8 billion—some $13 billion today after adjusting for inflation—making it the highest-grossing video game until Pac-Man dethroned it in 1980.



Before we had massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs)—giant, shared worlds in which many players could play together—we had MUDs. The acronym, short for “multi-user dungeon,” also refers to MUD, a 1978 game by Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle. Inspired by the “Dungeon” version of Zork as well as by Dungeons & Dragons, Trubshaw and Bartle wrote and designed the game to be a virtual world in which multiple players could play together. Like many other role-playing games of the era, MUD was text-based, but rather than playing solo, players connected over ARPANET, a precursor to today’s internet, and interacted through a text parser that responded to simple commands.

Given the limited technology of the time, MUD


On Sale
Jul 14, 2020
Page Count
160 pages
Running Press

Melissa Brinks

About the Author

Melissa Brinks is a writer and editor with contributions to Forbes, Bitch, Women Write About Comics, and numerous other entertainment sites. She edits, a gaming news and critique site, and talks passionately about pop culture on her podcast, Fake Geek Girls. She lives in Washington with her husband, two cats, single dog, and dreams of someday keeping bees.

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