COMPUTER GAMES PRICES OVER THE YEARS
Guest Review By Steven Clarke
Those of a certain age will remember that, thanks to labels such as The Hit Squad, Mastertronic, Ocean and Code masters, you could get great games like R Type, Rampage, Bubble Bobble, Jet Set Willy, and Dizzy for a measly £2.99. These same companies also gave us licensed games like Rambo, Batman, Short Circuit, and Robocop for under a tenner. A tenner!
Of course, this was also the era when you could get ten games on one cassette for £2.99. At that price point it was inevitable that there’d be a stinker or two on there (to be fair, for three quid it didn’t matter if nine of the ten were utter cack), but every so often you’d find a budget compilation that made you feel like you’d found something as rare and special as the Lost City of Atlantis.
It’s the same principle as when DVD players first came out bundled with 50 films to get you started. You knew that you wouldn’t be getting 50 Gone with the Wind’s for £100, but that didn’t matter. You had more than enough to entertain you with your new toy for a while and that was fine.
So, while some of the games might have been rubbish, at least you had enough in the way of variety to keep you entertained. At that time you could even get free demo games on the cover of the numerous computer magazines that littered newsagents’ shelves (Click here to read my previous blog about that). And it was just as well…
Growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, the only time most of us kids could afford anything other than the budget titles or something from the bargain bin was when we got money for our birthday or at Christmas. I distinctly remember that when these rare occasions happened, I’d do a ton of magazine review research first - If I was going to be parting with my bi-annual windfall for an expensive game then I was going to make damned sure that I’d get my money’s worth out of it.
In 1991 I went all-in and paid £15 for a ‘Big Box’ version of WWF Wrestlemania on the C64 (and, in all honesty, that was only because it came with three badges of Hulk Hogan, the Legion of Doom, and the Big Boss Man).
I couldn’t wait to get home and play this thing. In my 11-year-old head, if I’d forked out four times as much as the £2.99 that I usually paid then this was going to be the greatest game in the history of the universe. I remember opening the carboard box like it contained a bomb because I was so scared of tearing it; then, banging the tape in and settling back and waiting for the experience of a lifetime. The loading screen was amazing, the music was sublime. So far, so good - I’d invested well.
And then the game started.
You could only choose 3 wrestlers from the entire WWF roster and the controls were more unresponsive than David Blaine being interviewed by Eamonn Holmes. I had made a catastrophic error in judgement. I was utterly heartbroken. The only time I’d been more upset in my life at that point was when my beloved pet dog had died. I learned a very valuable lesson that day. Pretty package maketh not a good game.
Fast forward to December 1994, and my parents had just bought me the Super Nintendo SuperMario All Stars bundle. I had some Christmas money burning a hole in my pocket and was in the market for a new game. Donkey Kong Country had been released the month before and it was THE hot game to have – but it was £60. It did come with a CD of the soundtrack, but memories of WWF Wrestlemania just three-years earlier were still fresh in the mind.
The SNES with 4 games had cost £99.99 – for me how could they justify charging £60 for one game? However, I cracked, bought it, took it home, fired up the SNES, and waited in absolute dread - but I need not have worried. It was (and still is) a stunning game.
Still, the jump from £2.99 a game to £60 a game is considerable. The thing is, compare WWF Wrestlemania on the C64 to Donkey Kong Country on the SNES – these games are only separated by three years in real time, but they are light years apart in terms of graphics, sound, and interactive experience. So, does that give the games companies the right to charge us more for this enhanced experience or are we being ripped off?
People like me complaining about the cost of gaming isn’t a new thing. When the Atari 2600 came out in the late 1970’s, the console itself cost £199 and games for it retailed at around the £30 mark. In today’s money that roughly works out to £620 for the console and £120 per game. Ouch.
Compare that pricing to the leading consoles of today. The PS5 or an X Box Series X currently costs around £450, with games setting you back between £50 and £85 each. When you consider their HD graphics and sound, massive memory storage, and online connectivity to that of the Atari 2600, then aren’t Sony and Microsoft giving you a relative bargain?
Technology advances at a rapid rate and the work required by teams of people making the games themselves. As it advances, the presentation and interactive possibilities of the games inevitably go up, but the price of the hardware that it’s produced on actually goes down. Half the reason why the SNES was such a financial success is because Nintendo started to manufacture their own chips in-house which saved them a small fortune in production costs.
The difference between game production now and in the 70’s is that back then computer gaming was just a fledgling industry. Back then, you could just get a few kids to program something in their bedroom on a freelance basis, pay them peanuts for it, and run a successful one-person business from a basement. Nowadays, it’s a multi-billion-dollar global industry. It’s teams of hundreds that design and produce games and millions of dollars are invested into marketing and developing lucrative franchises. The technology might have become much cheaper, but the overheads have gone into the stratosphere.
The Atari 2600 is a relic now, but at its time it was revolutionary, just like the PS5 and X Box series are now. If the PS5 was the technological industry standard back in 1977 then you’d have paid the £199 going rate for it and been none the wiser. It’s only because we have the ability to look back now and have something to compare it to that we even question it.
So, are we as gamers paying a high price now or less? That’s for you to decide, but just because technology has improved that doesn’t mean that every game will always be amazing. For every Pong there was an E.T: The Extra Terrestrial.
You pays your money and you takes your choice.
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