A Very Retro Christmas!
Updated: Mar 27, 2020
There’s no doubt that Christmas 2018 is an exciting time for gamers. But how does it compare to the same time of year in previous decades? Antstream Arcade takes a look back to the Christmases of 1978, 1988 and 1998 to discover which were the hot consoles, computers and games of these very retro Christmases…
As you might expect, considering this is almost the very beginning of home video game entertainment, pickings were a little slim in 1978, with most kids receiving toys such as Action Man, Star Wars or Barbie dolls instead of electronic presents. Nevertheless, there were still plenty of options for anyone interested in new technology.
Released a year earlier in the United States, the Atari 2600 had become a solid success stateside before its release in Europe earlier in 1978. But as a relatively new machine in the UK, you’d be a lucky boy or girl to have one of these beautiful faux-wooden consoles under your tree, not to mention a bunch of exciting colourful cartridges. More likely to be sitting awaiting you Christmas morning was one of the first wave of Pong consoles, often discounted in price as their popularity waned. One of the best-selling in the UK was Binatone’s TV Master which included several games, all based around the ubiquitous bat and ball original, while Argos advertised Ingersoll’s colour TV variant for £23.95, equivalent to around £130 today. Otherwise, home computers were beginning to appear, with the Apple II and Commodore PET the most successful, but they were generally far too expensive to be bought for over-excited children just to play video games on.
While undeniably a success, the Atari 2600 hadn’t hit the heights in terms of games yet, with classics such as Space Invaders, Adventure, Warlords and, erm, Pac-Man all waiting in the future. Chances are you’d be saddled with a selection of the console’s nine launch titles of which Combat and Video Olympics were the biggest sellers. If you had received a Binatone TV Master, or one of the many other Pong clones, extra games were a non-existent luxury. You were stuck with the pre-loaded so-called sports titles that were all mere variations of the famous bat and ball game.
Released in December 1978, the Philips Odyssey 2, aka Videopac was the latest of second generation consoles and as such would have cost an eye-watering amount for most parents. LCD handhelds were in their infancy (it would be two years before Nintendo took over that market with its Game and Watch series), with Milton Bradley and Mattel having a small number of simple games such as the former’s Logic 5, which would have set you back around £15 – approximately £70 today.
While video games may not have achieved the level of acceptance of today, by 1988 there was a significant industry in place, churning out computers, consoles and, naturally, games. With the US market slowly recovering from its crash, there was a unique blend of technologies available in the UK with both 8 and 16 bit consoles and computers available.
While clearly behind technically, the ZX Spectrum was still a common gift for Christmas 1988, especially for younger children, and a large installed user base ensured it was still a good platform to release software on. Many UK retailers offered large bundles of games and peripherals such as joysticks, and you could buy the base 128k +2 Spectrum for £139, with the +3 disc model going for £199. The Spectrum’s great rival, the Commodore 64, was also heavily discounted, with computer, data recorder, joystick and games bundles often sold for around £150. For those looking ahead, however, the 16-bit computers were steadily taking over, with the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga computers leading the way. Priced between £350 and £400 it was a big price tag, but a more future-proof choice than a Speccy or C64. The Atari Super Pack, containing 22 games ‘worth £450’ was a particularly popular choice for those parents willing to take the dip. Finally, LCD handhelds, including Nintendo’s Game and Watch series, continued to sell, although they were about to be eclipsed by a certain cartridge-based handheld…
For the 8-bit computers it was the Christmas of compilations. Why spend £10 on one game when you could spend £15 on six or eight games? With ‘chocolate box’ syndrome in full swing, the judicious parent could secure a plethora of great games for not much money, and also have some impressive-looking boxes under the tree for Christmas morning. For the majority of machines, it was all about the big name arcade conversions, with Operation Wolf (Ocean), Afterburner and R-Type (Activision) and Thunderblade (US Gold) the heavily-pushed titles. Elsewhere, the latest Daley Thompson-endorsed game, Daley Thompson’s Olympic Challenge proved a good seller on all formats, while Ocean’s game-of-the-movie Robocop stomped all over the 8-bit charts this Christmas, and for some considerable time to come. Thank you for your co-operation.
Both the Nintendo Entertainment System and Master System were pushed by retailers in the UK this year, and while the price of the consoles wasn’t too prohibitive, with the latest cartridges for the NES in particular often commanding over £25 (compared to £8-£10 for a full price 8-bit game), you weren’t likely to get many games unless you were a very lucky kid. With budget giant Mastertronic taking over European distribution of the Sega console, Master System games were cheaper, with many available for under £15.
With videogames now all-conquering, invading front rooms thanks to the success of the Sony PlayStation, Christmas 1998 had a much different tone to the previous decade. With advertising now clearly aimed at young adults rather than children, the Nintendo 64, PlayStation and an invigorated PC market competed for the contents of wallets this year.
Undoubtedly the Christmas of the PlayStation, with retailers Electronics Boutique, HMV, Dixons and Virgin all pushing the console, its games and peripherals to the fore. A round 100 notes would secure you a solo console, with the numerous bundles offering greater value. Savvy parents would probably head to Dixons, where a pack of PlayStation plus four games for £160 was bound to keep any teenager occupied for the festive period and beyond. A cheaper option was the Nintendo 64, often discounted to £80 on its own, or bundled with a top game for £100. For gaming on the go the Gameboy still ruled with its Pocket and Color iterations.
There were iconic titles everywhere this Xmas, and it was an especially bountiful time for racing fans as Toca 2 and Colin McRae Rally appeared, together with the third game in legendary franchises Tomb Raider, Tekken and Crash Bandicoot. And while it had been out a year and would have still set you back at least £40, Square’s amazing Final Fantasy VII was no doubt sitting under many trees come Christmas morning.
For the PlayStation’s rival, the Nintendo 64, Turok sequel Seeds Of Evil, Body Harvest and F-Zero X were the must-have games, as well as its big stand-out release, The Legend Of Zelda Ocarina Of Time. And talking of Nintendo, unbelievably this Christmas you could still buy Nintendo Gameboy games, ten years old and still going strong, with World Cup 98, Small Soldiers and Super Return Of The Jedi the latest titles on offer for the persistent machine. PC Games, boosted by the availability of powerful 3D graphics cards, entered a whole new realm of interactivity. If you were a PC Gamer and hadn’t put Valve’s superlative Half-Life on your list for Santa, then you were doing something wrong.
While PC gaming had firmly entered the market in 1998, prices of new computers were still very high compared with today, making the constant upgrading of memory and graphics cards a necessity. With your average gaming PC costing an eye-watering £1000, you either had to be an older gamer with a disposable income, or have extremely generous parents. Finally, the poor Sega Saturn was clinging on for dear life, having been discontinued earlier in the year, and as a result was available much more cheaply this Christmas, although given its status, was no doubt not the most exciting gaming present to receive.