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The evolution of storing and playing video games

Posted by Jason on December 14, 2017 at 2:40 PM

Video games have always fascinated humanity.

The ability to switch on some electronics and have endless hours of entertainment have become a favorite past time amongst people worldwide. And for each era, this theme has remained unchanged. We are always happy to have the latest and absolute best that current technology has to offer. And for old school gamers, a game of Pong was a dose of the future.

Now-a-days, you might find that game a bit ridiculous, oversimplified, with shoddy graphics. And for that, you'll happily load up Witcher 3 (or anything else), and spend a few hours immersed in the pinnacle of visual entertainment.

However, video gamers will be interested in learning that we've come a long, long way from the games of old, and quite a bit has changed in the way we store our games. Here is a quick rundown on the evolution of video game storage.


We all know that the cartridge is the most common form of video game storage. But do you know how they work?

Cartridges use what's known as Read Only Memory chips, or ROMs. These computer chips are stored in plastic housing.

A Printed Circuit Board connects to the ROM, and metal strips connect to the console when the cartridge is inserted. The data within the ROM is detected by the console, and is immediately transferred and used by said console.

And although cartridges seem archaic in today's day and age, they were quite innovative at the time. Cartridges could load the games/data instantly, and the small, basic design meant that cartridges rarely became damaged enough to stop working.

But as time went on, ROMs lacked the storage capacity necessary for bigger games, it would become too costly to increase the data limits for ROMs.


We saw the first cartridge hit the market in 1976, and it was utilized for the Fairchild Channel F console. A device which would become discontinued in 1983. With over 20 ROMS available, the system was something of a short lived success. Which coincides with the lifespan of widespread cartridge usage for consoles, beginning in the 70s until the end of the 1990s. Nowadays, it's rare to see a cartridge being used for anything other than certain handheld devices, notably the Nintendo DS systems. The storage capacity would increase over the years, but to much surprise the format is still expensive in comparison to other means, which is largely why we use the various video game formats that we do in today's times.

In the beginning, the Fairchild Channel F was the industry's first console to implement cartridges, but it was the Atari 2600 that brought cartridges to the forefront of the mainstream. And back in these times, the cartridges had a capacity of 2 – 16 kilobytes (KB), which is probably smaller than your average word document. Towards the 80s we saw that storage double to 32 KB.

The second wave of cartridges offered little to no changes. Utilized for the Atari 5200 and Emerson Arcadia, these cartridges never exceeded the 32 Kilobyte capacity, and the designs stuck to the same rectangular shape we all know and love, with the exception being those of the Atari 5200, which came a bit wider in size.

However, with the video game world approaching the summit of entertainment, we saw the beginning of the 8-bit genre, and with that came a new type of cartridge, the 64KB capacity ROM. These were used on the Atari 7800, a console well known for its improved graphics, backwards compatibility, and hit games like Centipede, Double Dragon, and Donkey Kong.

When the Sega Master System hit the market in 1985, the console had the ability to back up and save progress. Naturally this was a huge success with gamers, and it was all thanks to lithium ion batteries which could help back up the console's RAM (random access memory). Not to mention the Master System had a ROM with 524KB of space.

But, as we always find ourselves saying this, hats off to Nintendo for really bringing the innovation. With the Nintendo Entertainment System, we saw the beginning of a revolutionary era for cartridges.

Nintendo made use of chips that added new features to certain games, as well as upping the storage capacity. The cartridge on the NES would hold anywhere from 64 to 512KB, but eventually was able to save up to 768KB. And, Nintendo made use of Sega's ingenious lithium batteries for backups, so not only could gamers store more, they also could save progress.

The 16 – Bit Future

With a new generation of gaming, the world was given newer and better cartridge. These were used quickly in the Sega and Nintendo consoles, and gave gamers a further enhanced experience. It is no speculation that these enhancement chips helped propel both consoles to the height of video game success.

For the Sega Genesis, this meant a bigger cartridge (5MB) for titles such as Super Street Fighter 2. The Super Nintendo boasted a cartridge that was thicker and larger than those of the past, and ROM sizes varied from the now typical 512KB, all the way up to 16MB.

64 – Bit Gaming

Even with 64-bit gaming available, the cartridge storage devices retained the same, somewhat large rectangular shape. Sega had given the world a console with similar cartridges to the Sega Genesis.

Atari released its Jaguar Console in November of 1993, which sought to capitalize on being the first 64 – bit console available. Although the console would go on to win GameFan's "Best New System" for 1993, the Jaguar lacked a simple and basic controller setup. In fact, the controller has been called the worst controller of all time.

In terms of storage, the Jaguar had a cartridge with an 84MB storage capacity, although the games only ever needed around 6MB.

The clear winner for 64 – bit gaming era is the Nintendo 64, hands down. With a supreme selection of games, ergonomic controllers, and excellent hardware, Nintendo is the clear winner of 64 – bit gaming. In fact, Time magazine named the N64 console the "Machine of the Year". Cartridge wise, the 64 could hold 16 to 64MB of data, and were smaller in comparison to the SNES cartridges.

Disc Storage

Over time, it was only natural that games would improve. From graphics, storylines, features and depth, the immersive world of gaming has been progressing quickly, with each year faster than the next. Of course, consoles evolved in tandem with the games, and developers had one giant issue, lack of storage.

They needed a format that could store far more than a cartridge ROM ever could. Although ROMS are still able to load quicker than most devices, the cost to manufacture ROMS remains one of its only weak points. Naturally, developers chose optical disks for storage, due to their ability to capture higher quality sound and full video, something cartridges just couldn't accomplish.

In 1988, the TurboGrafx-16 (PC Engine CD-ROM2) was considered the first CD – based console, and achieved massive success in Japan, despite failing to catch on worldwide. Developed by NEC, the unit functioned as an add on for the PC Engine console. By the 1990s, many console manufacturers had followed suit, and soon the world was gaming with storage devices that could house a whopping 650MB of data.

Since then, optical discs are the mainstream go-to for videogame storage. With a great ability to store data and amazing visuals and audios, these devices are ideal for high powered consoles.

Laser Discs

First used in the mid-1980s, laser discs offer plenty of storage capacity. They could easily handle over 500 Megabytes of data, in addition to plenty of room for visual and audio storage. Although the format itself works, laser discs were too costly to achieve widespread adoption.

Compact Disc

With the goal being to create a better version of the laser disc, Philips created the compact disc, for music and audio storage. Eventually, these devices became used for regular data storage.

1984 would bring the world the "Yellow Book" standard, a compact disc with read only memory. Philips partnered with Sony in the creation of these disc storage units. They CD-ROM has a universal file retrieval format, allowing the CD to be used by drives universally, or without needing a specific system or make.

1986 proved to be another great year for the Philips and Sony collaborations. Creating what they titled, "Green Book", this was another industry leading standard in data storage technology. These green book discs allowed for data to be stored on a single track, whereas previous designs had audio and data stored separately. This new design gave more space for data storage, and with a new operating system, Compact Disc Real Time Operating System, machines could learn how to use these new devices. Aptly named the Compact Disc Interactive, or CD-I, these discs would help revolutionize the world of video game storage.

Remember the Atari Jaguar console we mentioned earlier? You know, the one with "the worst controller of all time"? Well in 1995, Atari designed an add-on for the Jaguar console that allowed for CDs to be used. These Jaguar game CDs allowed for around 800MB of data storage. Philips had a major hand in helping Atari design and implement a working CD drive. Essentially, the discs would be recognized like any normal audio CD.


1998 was a huge year for Sega. On November 27th, 1998 the Dreamcast console hit the shelves in Japan. This would be the last console Sega ever produced for home console market, and was met with great success in the United States market. The Dreamcast was hailed as being ahead of its time and IGN has given the Dreamcast a spot in the top 10 "Greatest Consoles of All Time". The Dreamcast helped push the envelope and encourage rival console companies to release better hardware, which we observed with Sony's PlayStation 2 console and the Nintendo GameCube.

So what made the Dreamcast so special? Well, it largely had to do with the Gigabyte Disc storage system. These discs could hold roughly 1.2 GB of data. Known as a GD-ROM, these devices contain 4 tracks for storage, which differs from the conventional tracks on a CD-ROM storage unit. The GD-ROMS could hold far more data than current devices, but required a special drive for accessing the data. This gave the Dreamcast a competitive edge, since more data equates to bigger games and thus more room for visual quality. With the hardware of the Dreamcast, its easy to discern how the console ran games with superb performance.


In 1995, a few companies were credited with the invention of the DVD, what would become the successor to the Laser Disc storage format. Panasonic, Toshiba, Sony, and Philips are all responsible for its creation. A DVD can store any type of content, and due to the large capacity, the DVD is the perfect format for video game data.

DVDs are the same size in diameter as the CD (12 cm). The exception is that a DVD can store far more data, it does this by having a design with tighter tracks. With this and an improved file format, a DVD has increased in storage, compatibility and processing speed in comparison to the older optical disc devices. When the Universal Disc Format was released, DVDs became backwards compatible with CD formats. And of course, DVDs offer better audio and video compression, utilizing the MPEG 2 file systems.

When it comes to gaming, the first console to use DVD formatting was the Sony PlayStation 2, released in 2000 by Sony Computer Entertainment. And it's no shocker that the PlayStation 2 is the best-selling video game console of all time, having sold over 150 million units. The PS2 is also the record holder for fastest console to sell 100 million units shipped. Way to go Sony!

The PlayStation 2 featured backwards compatibility for CD-ROMs, audio CDs and CD-ROM XAs. Of course, the PS2 could also play movies. Since then, Sony has become the producers for what is arguably the most powerful console on the market today.

We think it's pretty sweet that a game console could also play DVDs, and so did consumers, but did you know there was another version of this compatibility?

Well in 2001, VM Labs released a system that turned DVD players into game consoles. This device was featured in the 1999 Video Game Buyer's Guide, for Electronic Gaming Monthly. Initially titled Project X, the system didn't do well in comparison to the PlayStation 2. And it didn't help that Microsoft released their console, the Xbox, that same year.

As history would have it, the Xbox featured DVD-9 playability, and the alternative DVD-5 format. Oh yeah, and Halo for good measure. The Xbox's only competition was of course, the PlayStation 2, Sega Dreamcast, and Nintendo GameCube, which would be released in North America just a few days after the Xbox.

The GameCube differed from both Sony and Microsoft's consoles in that they used a unique type of optical disc for game playing. Known as the "Mini DVD", these discs are miniature versions of DVDs that hold around 1.5 GB of data. They can only be used with the GameCube console, and were created by Panasonic. The design allowed Nintendo the freedom of expensive production fees, and allowed for protection against copyright infringement. And although they hold a lot less than traditional storage formats, the Mini DVDs could be used in the same way, although sometimes more than one disc was required to store one game's entire content. A positive aspect is that the Mini DVDs could load games quicker than their bigger counterparts.


The latest and greatest advancement in optical disc technology is the Blu-Ray disc.

Originally designed to surpass the DVD format, Blu-Rays are capable of storing more data and at a far greater quality. The first Blu-Ray discs hit the market in 2002, and can story up to 50 GB of data. They get the name because Blu-Rays require a blue laser to read the data. And they carry the wonderful backwards capability for both DVD and CD discs.

As it stands, all the big name consoles of todays era implement Blu-Ray technology. The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One use Blu-Ray discs, and it makes all the difference for what today's video gaming requires.

Into the Future

The latest storage format are servers.

Servers are essentially off site data locations, connected to the internet, that allow data to be transferred to anyone connected.

For gamers, this means the ability to tap into sweet multiplayer games, and play against anyone else who is connected. Additionally, gamers don't even need to physically store the game's data. In some instances, gamers need only have internet access to play their favorite games.

It remains to be seen how video game storage will evolve from here. But, given what we know of the past, the newest and best technology will be one that is cost efficient and offers greater ease, comfort and quality for the consumer base.

How we play video games may forever be changed once the world becomes entirely digital. And we can always play some old school games for a nice taste of the past.

Anyhow, we hope you've enjoyed learning just a bit of the evolution of storing games.

Categories: Gaming and other topics, LONG articles

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