Hey, remember the ’80s? Wait… that’s a ’90s SNL sketch with Jim Breuer. Crap. Stupid Goat Boy. Well, remember anyway? It was a time of great technological wonder, during which the consumer electronics market exploded (and has since only accelerated). We had our first high profile media format wars, portable devices became practical and all the rage, and home video game consoles became widespread.
Music was becoming easier to deal with and much more portable. While the CD began gaining traction in the mid-’80s, and I remember having our first ginormous, 5-disc carousel changer by the end of the decade, the cassette tape still ruled the day. And there was nothing that defined the cassette tape like the Walkman. While vinyl was still the preferred method of listening to tunes on the home stereo, the ability to take your favorite tapes with you anywhere was the holy grail for a kid back in the day. It was liberating to be able to select a particular tape from the giant suitcase during a road trip and tune out the radio or “oldies” tapes playing on the car stereo. I remember listening to Huey Lewis’ Power of Love single far, far too many times.
The concept of a home theater started to become commonplace once adoption of home video formats took root. The first real format wars had their roots in the late ’70s when broadcasters were fretting over VHS vs Betamax (Betamax was actually a superior format and lived on in many video production houses until recently). Things really took a swing when consumer grade VCRs hit the market. The market made the decision — the lower quality VHS format was cheaper and had a longer recording time. It wouldn’t be the first time consumers made it clear they don’t care about quality, but we won’t get into that here. I’ll also quickly mention LaserDisc in passing. LaserDisc. (Happy, Tom Graham?)
Since we all started spending even more time in our living rooms now that we weren’t stuck watching whatever was on TV (though the mass adoption of cable throughout the ’80s certainly helped with our options), even the VCR started to get too boring. Sure, there was Pong in the ’70s, and we rang in the ’80s with Atari, but the true star of the decade, and the granddaddy of the console wars was the Nintendo Entertainment System. This Japanese invention dropped in the U.S. in 1985, and immediately showed up in homes across America. An entire generation of us remember the “cartridge blow” we all mastered to make aging games run without being all pixelated and weird. If you told a kid today they’d have to play a game disc like a harmonica before putting it in the Xbox, they would look at you like an alien visitor.
Some of gaming’s most recognizable characters jumped out of the NES and into our cultural conscious — Mario was around beforehand, but Super Mario Bros. has to be one of the most recognized games worldwide (don’t check my facts on that). The Legend of Zelda is still held as one of the greatest RPGs of all time. And let’s not forget Tetris. I used to have to beg my mother for time on the TV when she got going on a binge of the classic NES Tetris. Nintendo kept it going at the tail end of the decade and revolutionized portable gaming with the Game Boy. From there, we hit the ’90s and the console fanboy was invented via the console wars. Again, another story for another time.
In short, the ’80s was a hotbed of new technology that shaped consumer electronics to this day. Next time you stream a video, listen to music, or play a game on your smartphone, just remember the roots of those bulky devices that were its forefathers.
— tucker hottes