"When I was a kid, video games had a different name -- we called them 'checkers.'"

At least, so might one's grandpa say. It is a greatly evolving technology; one that we're all benefiting from. Look to the future and ask today's kids about video games when they're old timers and they might say something like, "When I was a kid, video games had screens and controllers you used with your hands."

The technology that fuels video games is nothing short of spectacular and it has developed at a fantastic rate. Video games have advanced amazingly in the past 40 years. They started as boxes that plugged in to your TV and played simple games with blocky graphics and humdrum sound and have become online, 3D experiences.

There have been a number of steps between then and now -- some of those steps might even bring a nostalgic tear to your eye.

Remember the good ol' days?

Pong video game

The early years: Odyssey and Pong

Atari's Pong takes a lot of sentimental credit as being the first consumer video game system, but it wasn't. Seemingly forgotten to time is the Magnavox Odyssey, which was introduced in 1972 and boasted more than two dozen interchangeable games.

But while the Odyssey was the first, it wasn't the most popular -- that honor did go to Pong. Unlike the Odyssey, Pong was a one trick pony: It just played a simple game of electronic ping-pong.

The game was simple -- each player rotated the knob of a "paddle," moving an on-screen rectangle up and down to bat a ball back and forth. That was it. No lasers. No zombie Nazis. Just ping-pong.

Magnavox came out with different flavors of the Odyssey in the subsequent years, and Atari released Super Pong in 1976, but it wasn't until 1977 that things really took off.

What's 2,600 times more fun?

Atari 2600 video game system

Atari 2600 and Intellivision

In 1977 Atari introduced the VCS 2600 (but that "VCS" part was stupid, so everyone just called it an Atari 2600), and its chief competitor, the Intellivision, followed shortly.

This was when home video games really took off. It probably didn't hurt that "Star Wars" had just come out and men and boys everywhere wanted to fly their own X-Wings and blow up a Death Star.

The systems cost a hundred dollars, and though the graphics and sound were laughable by today's standards, they kept us in front of our TVs with controllers in hand. You can probably blame Atari for the current spate of American obesity.

These game systems took a popularity nose-dive by 1983 (you can blame the Atari 2600 game "E.T." for that, but that is a story for another time), but by the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) swooped in in 1985 and saved the genre.

Ready for the next generation?

Nintendo 64 game system

PlayStation, Nintendo 64 and the next generation

Game systems have steadily improved in graphics, sound and computational power, but it wasn't until the mid-1990s when video game systems started packing some serious power.

In 1994 the first Sony PlayStation was introduced. The PlayStation carried a 32-bit processor (prior machines topped out at 16 bits). Shortly thereafter, Nintendo came out with the Nintendo 64, which boasted a 64-bit processor. For comparison, early machines were 8-bit devices.

So what does all the talk about "bits" mean? It means that the new video game systems packed unprecedented power.

Nintendo and Sony weeded out a lot of the competition, and by the turn of the century, video gaming came down to a boxing match between Nintendo and Sony's offerings, plus a new kid on the block -- Microsoft's Xbox.

Who will win?

Sony Playstation 3 controller

Xbox, PS3 and Wii duke it out

Sony kept pace with its video game offerings with its popular PlayStation series. The PlayStation 2 was released in 2000. In 2006 it introduced the PlayStation 3.

The Xbox was introduced in 2001 with the current Xbox 360 coming out in 2005. Nintendo released its Wii in 2005.

The current generation of video game systems offer a variety of features that were not even twinkle in the Odyssey creators' eyes in 1972.

The systems can bring gamers together online; display graphics in high definition; and even allow control of the games with wireless controllers, motion controllers or no controller at all.

But the machines are so much more than gaming devices. They allow you to surf the Web, chat with friends, play high-definition movies and even store your music library and watch photo slideshows.

When is smaller actually bigger?

PSP 1000, Sony PlayStation Portable

Gameboys and PSPs

The game systems that plug into your living room TV aren't the only systems that have evolved over the past few decades.

In the late 1970s, handheld video games were simple gadgets involving flashing lights and annoying beeping noises. It wasn't until 1989 when Nintendo introduced its Gameboy that the console became portable, and now there are gadgets that would make James Bond drool with envy.

The Gameboy was a cartridge-based system that allowed you to pop games in and out and play on the go. The Gameboy remained king of the handhelds, offering different permutations (color, a larger screen, and more power), until Sony came out with its PlayStation Portable (PSP) in 2005.

Nintendo has even taken it to a whole new dimension with its Nintendo 3DS, offering glasses-free 3D gaming and media.

Sony and Nintendo found themselves back to their old rivalry -- but this time with handheld systems rather than living room consoles. And as smart phones and iPods came into more prominence, there seems to be a system for everyone.

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