I’ve grown up with games as my passion. I envisioned myself making games in the future, so I learned and taught myself as much as humanly possible about games and consoles. One thing that really stuck with me over the years was a 1996 GamePro article detailing the differences between a cartridge and a CD—cartridges had no load times while a CD did; CDs had better graphics than cartridges; CDs were cheaper to make than cartridges. The list was rather lengthy, but all I remember is that CDs were ultimately the next step for game storage formats.
Although the very first home video game system, the Magnavox Odyssey, had cartridges, they did not have any real games on them, but rather, removable circuit boards that reconfigured the game’s internal elements. They were jumpers that activated the games that were already wired into the console. The Odyssey also came with plastic overlays that gamers put on their TV screens, along with dice, poker chips, and score sheets, which are usually found in board games, so I tend to count that as a game storage format.
The so-called “Pong consoles,” which were consoles specifically built for Pong or its variants (hockey and soccer being the two most common variants), had the game logic hard-coded into microchips using discrete logic so that the number
of games were fixed. When the CPU was introduced into game consoles, games could now have microprocessor-based code and burned onto ROM chips mounted inside plastic cartridges that could be plugged into slots into consoles, and the video game cartridge was invented.
Although featured in some earlier consoles such as the Coleco Telstar Arcade, which had a triangle-shaped cartridge, the Fairchild Channel F (formerly the Fairchild VES), which was also the world’s first CPU-based video game console, was the first to feature swappable cartridges, with each cartridge containing a game. When the games were plugged into the cartridge slot, the microprocessors inside the console read the cartridge memory and then ran the program inside the cartridge. In 1977, Atari released the Atari 2600, the first popular video game console, which also had cartridges as the game storage format. Up until the Nintendo 64 (the last console to use cartridges), cartridges w`ere the preferred game storage format.
There were many advantages to cartridges, and even to this day it still possesses advantages to their CD successors. As the ROM cartridge’s memory is mapped into the system’s address space, software stored in the ROM can be read like normal memory. This cuts loading time drastically because it does not have to transfer data from slower media. Some computers also used cartridges as well, the most notable being the Commodore 64, which could also be considered as the first gaming PC (most PCs up to this point were for business or educational use).
Like most things, cartridges weren’t by any means perfect—older readers might remember having to blow into the cartridge to get it to work properly (or even get it to work at all). I also blew into the cartridges to get them to work. Some might remember their games glitching out if they inserted dirty cartridges into the console slot. It was not until much later on that there was a far more efficient solution to the problem—cleaning the contacts with rubbing alcohol on a Q-tip to fix the issue. However, cartridges were (and are) sturdier than their CD successors. Cartridges were also limited to how much memory they could hold—the Neo Geo system, for example, was a 32-bit system that was largely used in arcades, so it had cartridges as large as seven inches to accommodate the space the games took up.
The CD has been around as a data storage format since the early 1980s, and were used for audio playback and could also display basic graphics at the time. Although the main focus of the “console wars” was the rivalry between the cartridge-based Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo consoles, some minor players included some CD-based consoles. Many of these CD-based consoles or add-ons to cartridge-based consoles were commercial failures such as the Philips CD-i (1991), Sega CD (1992), 3DO (1993), the Neo Geo CD (1994), and the
Atari Jaguar CD (1995). In addition to their high prices, loading times, and some games’ poor quality that ultimately spelled their demises, programmers hadn’t caught up to the processing demands and graphical complexity that these consoles demanded. The one major disadvantage the CD had, other than the loading times, was that the CD was prone to scratching easily. That meant the lens that reads the discs in the consoles could either cause the games to skip or freeze during gameplay or not even read the CD at all.
Over time, CDs became much cheaper to produce, loading times became a lot faster, and with the release of the Sony PlayStation in 1995, the CD ultimately became the format of choice for consoles. Nintendo was the lone hold-out until the dawn of the new millennium, when they released the GameCube in 2001, which used the CD format (although a special kind of CD). CDs are still used to this very day, albeit with more storage space due to Blu-ray discs becoming the main storage format not only for games, but also for movies.
Some game cartridges also had special designs. Micro Machines 2: Turbo Tournament for the Sega Genesis had two controller ports in the cartridge itself so up to four players could play. Another Sega Genesis game, Sonic & Knuckles, allowed you to plug in other Sonic game cartridges such as Sonic the Hedgehog 2 or Sonic the Hedgehog 3 on top of the Sonic & Knuckles game cartridge so you could play as Knuckles in either game. Cartridges were also used in handheld consoles such as the Nintendo Game Boy, the Sega Game Gear, the Virtual Boy, and the Atari Lynx. Nintendo still makes use of cartridges (albeit much smaller ones) in their handheld systems, such as the Game Boy Pocket, Game Boy Micro, Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance and the Nintendo 3DS.
There were also some unusual storage formats that consoles used, but they still somewhat followed the cartridge and CD storage formats. For example, the TurboGrafx-16 had games stored on HuCards, which were basically cartridges that were the size and thickness of credit cards. HuCards were also used for its handheld, the TurboGrafx Express. The PlayStation Portable (PSP) used universal media discs (UMDs), which were basically smaller versions of CDs that could fit in the PSP. The Pioneer LaserActive, one of the rarest and most expensive consoles ever to be released, used the LaserDisc, which was basically a gigantic CD the size of a vinyl record, although cartridges and regular CDs could also be used via purchasing sets of add-ons.
Now, many people use the cloud as media for practically everything, including console and PC games. That means that the cartridge and CD could soon become ancient relics of gadgets past, but they were instrumental in developing the game industry and making it into what it is today.
First published in Gadgets Magazine, July 2013
Words by Jose Alvarez