How The First Video Game Cartridges Came Into Existence

How the First Video Game Cartridges Came Into Existence

They're pretty much a distant memory now — except for tinier descendants like 3DS and Vita games — but it used to be that cartridges were the only way to get video games playing onto a TV. The exact origins of the cartridge have been tough to trace, but a new Fast Company article run down the beginnings of this key piece of gaming technology.

The feature by Benj Edwards goes back in time to the 1960s, when three refugees from a bowling alley supply company formed their own electronics outfit and began trying to enter the booming video game business:

With Lawson in charge of electronic engineering and software for the project and Talesfore as head of industrial design, the group began work miniaturizing Alpex's unwieldy prototype into a size that would fit within a box that could sit comfortably atop a living room TV set. Before long, they realised that implementing the actual removable game software module would take special expertise. Talesfore knew just the guy to do the job: Ron Smith, a mechanical engineer he had worked with at National Semiconductor.

The key to the ubiquity of cartridges back in the day was their sturdiness and ease of use, something that was intentional:

Alpex's prototype had always included a way to exchange games via plug-in modules. But the modules were fragile and awkward. Fairchild had to envision a consumer-friendly way to package them, a job that fell primarily to industrial designer Nick Talesfore.

Inserting and removing socketed electronic assemblies had, until then, been an activity reserved for trained technicians, engineers, and military personnel. Taking a sensitive circuit board and putting it into the hands of a consumer — who might be prone to stepping on it, dunking it in the toilet, or leaving it baking in the sun — posed a considerable design challenge. Obviously, the board needed a protective shell of some kind.

The Alpex team's efforts eventually came to fruition as the Fairchild Channel F console. While influential and unique, it eventually got steamrolled by Atari. But the breakthrough created by those early pioneers laid the roadmap for many successes that followed, even if we don't use cartridges anymore. Read the whole deep dive over at Fast Company


    Controllers kinda look like black dildos. I would feel uncomfortable using this console. 0/10.

      Just because it looks like a dildo you don't have to put it in your butt. Probably be more comfortable if you held them in your hands.

        Just because it looks like a dildo you don't have to put it in your butt.

        If I had a dollar for every time I've heard that at the grocery...

        Last edited 23/01/15 5:05 pm

    I really think Nintendo are going to push for a cartridge revival with their next console. Their system isn't a media player so it doesn't need disc drives. Blu-Ray discs don't have a massive capacity advantage anymore. The only problem is that as a form of DRM they no longer work.

      Death to the loading screen!

      (I know with the size of data these days it's unfeasible, but I can dream)

        Don't need loading screens at all if you design your engine correctly. :)

        Last edited 23/01/15 1:58 pm

          Yeah but who's gonna bother doing that? :P

        Maybe just a punch in the face to the loading screen? =P

        Yeah, the original days of 'no loading screen' with cartridges were because they were literally mapped to memory directly. Effectively, the entire game was sitting in RAM. Sure, it was a little slower RAM than the actual CPU's memory, but it means that game data could be accessed directly by the microprocessor.

        This is infeasible to do today for many reasons, mostly due to the size of the games. Modern cartridges are operated as 'storage' and need to be accessed in a manner similar to a hard drive or optical disc, so load times will still exist.

          I remember the Cube was billed as having "industry-leading load times". I miss that.

          Interesting little factoid there! My spanking new Vita has loading times similar to a PSP, and I was wondering why.

            No problem! Always glad when my random online blabberings contain some useful information :p

      Would be great for sure to see the cartridge come back. Storage capacity is no longer holding them back.

      That would be sweet, seems like physical media is on the way out altogether though, I'd take a console with a very large PCIe SSD/s and download all my games to it.

      Blu-Ray discs may not offer raw storage advantages, but they are still unmatched in terms of cost.

      Manufacturing costs per unit are practically zero for optical discs as a component of a game's total cost [development, marketing, distribution etc].
      Cartridges are a lot more expensive, and eat a large chunk out of a games potential profit. They are important for portables, of course. But for a fixed-location console, I see no reason why a cartridge would be better than an optical disc.

      But hey, this is Nintendo, so who knows! :p

        True, but using cartridges isn't exactly sending publishers broke on the 3DS and Nintendo have showed an interest in unifying their handheld and console products in the future. I'm also guessing they won't need ultra high capacity cards. They're replacing DVDs afterall.
        They've never been known for being super friendly to develop for. Forcing publishers to eat into profit in the name of doing what Nintendo thinks is best isn't exactly out of character for them. =P

        Like you say though who knows with Nintendo. They're just as likely to do a 180 on their online policies and go with a digital only system. used to be that cartridges were the only way to get video games playing onto a TV.

    My first "console" didn't have cartridges. Of course it could only play the four games built into it, but cartridges weren't the only way.

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