What is a game cartridge?

What is a game cartridge? If you’re asking, you must not have grown up in the 1980s. But that’s OK. We’re happy to share our generation’s fun with you.

A game cartridge is a plastic case containing a circuit board, a connector, and a ROM chip. CDs and DVDs ultimately displaced them because they offered higher capacity at a lower cost. But in the 1970s and 1980s, the only lasers our game consoles had were the ones they drew on the screens in games about aliens. We liked our cartridges, even if we called them tapes sometimes.

The dawn of the cartridge

Two engineers working for a tiny startup called Alpex, Wallace Kirschner and Lawrence Haskel, invented the game cartridge in 1975. Pre-1975 video games were hardwired to play just a single game. Kirschner and Haskel had the idea to store programs on ROM chips. Then they put the chips on circuit boards and put them in plastic project boxes they bought at Radio Shack to protect them.

Alpex couldn’t market their fledgling game console on their own. So they sold the design to electronics maker Fairchild.

With help from Fairchild engineer Jerry Larson, they turned the Alpex project into a game console called the Fairchild Channel F. Like modern consoles, it plugged into a TV. Nick Talesfore, a Fairchild industrial designer, redesigned the cartridges to resemble 8-track cartridges, a popular music format of the time. Due to this resemblance, many people referred to game cartridges as “tapes” well into the 1980s. Part of the plot of the 1984 movie Cloak and Dagger was smuggling top secret information on video game “tapes.” Correcting people who said that was a good way to get a reputation for being nerdy.

The Channel F hit the market in 1976 and sold pretty well at first. So why have so few people heard of it?

Enter Atari

Demon Attack game cartridge for Atari 2600
Demon Attack was one of the more popular third-party game cartridges for the Atari 2600. Atari cartridges were a bit smaller than 8-track  tape cartridges for music, but still similar in appearance.

The Atari 2600 is the reason you’ve probably never heard of the Fairchild Channel F.

Atari’s cartridges still resembled Fairchild’s design, but Atari was careful not to violate any of Fairchild’s patents. The cartridges were slightly smaller but still resembled 8-track tape cartridges.

Atari’s similar device came out in 1977 and became a juggernaut. Its games featuring shoot-’em-up or beat-’em-up action captured the public’s imagination in ways the Channel F and its intellectual games didn’t. Once Atari licensed the arcade hit Space Invaders, it was over. The Channel F sold about 350,000 units. The Atari 2600 sold about 30 million.

Atari dominated the console market from 1977 to 1984. Early competitors like Fairchild and Magnavox faded away quickly, although toy companies Mattel and Coleco had some success competing with Atari. But Atari had exclusives on Space Invaders and later on Pac Man, so it was hard for others to compete.

Additionally, many home computers from this era could also use plug-in game cartridges.

The crash of 1983

But ultimately the Atari 2600’s worst enemy was itself. It fell victim to its own success, and publishers flooded the market with poor quality 2600-compatible games. Kay-Bee toy stores blew out slow selling cartridges from bins in the front of their stores, for pennies on the dollar. In 1983, the market crashed.

Nintendo picks up the torch

Nintendo NES with game cartridge
Nintendo game cartridges plugged into the unit and slid down like a videocassette in a VCR, purely for marketing reasons

In 1985, two Japanese competitors to Atari, Nintendo and Sega, attempted to revive the video game market.

Nintendo deliberately designed its game system and cartridges to resemble a VCR more closely than an Atari game console. Nintendo also put a lockout chip in its cartridges. If a game didn’t meet Nintendo’s standards, it reserved the right to not sell the maker the chip. While some poor games slipped through, it did improve overall game quality.

In spite of these changes, Nintendo cartridges still worked the same way. They still had a printed circuit board and a ROM chip inside.

The Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES for short, was a phenomenal success. It sold almost 62 million units. It also proved video games weren’t just a brief passing fad. Nintendo’s design had serious flaws that showed up over time, and that led to the practice of blowing into cartridges to make them work. But it didn’t matter. Nintendo had Mario and no one else did.

Sega’s attempt

All of the also-ran game cartridge consoles had one thing in common. All lacked a franchise series like Pac-Man, Mario, or Sonic.

Sega was a Japanese maker of arcade games. Its 8-bit console, the Sega Master System, more closely resembled a traditional game console. Internally, it looked an awful lot like Coleco’s Colecovision console from before the crash. It sold 19 million units, so it was a modest success. Sega had a nice library of games including the arcade racing hit Out Run, but nothing like Mario.

Return of Atari

Atari re-entered the fray as well, releasing its 7800 game console and a smaller, cost-reduced version of the 2600. The Atari 7800 only sold around a million units. Atari didn’t have anything that captured the public’s imagination like Nintendo’s Mario franchise, and by the mid 1980s, Pac Man was old news.

The 16-bit era

Sega ushered in the 16-bit era with its Sega Genesis console, which ultimately sold around 49 million units. Nintendo’s 16-bit console, while not as capable as the Sega unit, also sold around 49 million units. The draw of the Mario franchise kept Nintendo successful. Sega succeeded by going after an older audience, and this time, it came up with Sonic the Hedgehog, a character franchise that showed off the Genesis’ superior speed.

Japanese electronics maker NEC released its own game console, the Turbografx-16. The Turbografx was an also-ran, selling about 16 million units. It was capable, but didn’t have an exclusive franchise.

During this time frame, Japanese game publisher SNK released its Neo Geo console. It also used plug-in cartridges. It was a hybrid 16/24-bit system and highly capable. Its high price limited its success.

The 64-bit era

Nintendo 64 game cartridge internals
This is a Nintendo 64 cartridge, disassembled. Aside from the number of pins on the connector, it looks very much like the cartridges of 20 years before did inside.

Most 32-bit consoles loaded their games off CDs, but game cartridges reappeared in the 64-bit era. Atari was first with its Jaguar console in 1993. It wasn’t very successful. The Jaguar only sold about 250,000 units. Atari needed to sell millions.

Nintendo followed with the Nintendo 64 in 1996. It was very successful, selling around 33 million units. It was the last home console to use plug-in game cartridges. Thanks to cartridges’ durability, it remained popular with young children long after its technical obsolescence. Cartridges hold up better under rough handling.

Portable systems

Even after home consoles shifted to CDs, portable consoles continued to use cartridges. Sega’s Game Gear from the early 1990s used cartridges. Nintendo’s long running Game Boy series used them as well.

Games for Nintendo’s DS series come in packages that more closely resemble digital camera memory cards than traditional game cartridges. The principle is the same, however. So in a way, the legacy of the game cartridge lives on even in the 3DS and 3DS XL.

Obsolescence

Game cartridges are largely obsolete today. Optical formats provide a higher capacity at a lower cost. They are also less durable. But publishers and merchants don’t see that as a disadvantage. Increasingly, however, digital distribution over the Internet looks like the future. It’s cheaper than traditional publishing and it locks out reselling.

So what is a game cartridge? A relic from the past, honestly. But it provided decades of memories, and probably isn’t done just yet.

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