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    • Arcades

      Gamers quickly took to the idea of bringing their saved games with them when they left home. In addition to letting players share their progress and collaborate, memory cards also gave them an avenue for sharing competitive information and records of their gaming prowess. Inevitably, arcade games saw an opportunity to enhance their appeal, leading to a handful of memory card-compatible arcade experiences.

      The first company to bring this idea to market was SNK, a publisher that’s mostly known for fighting games. These sorts of one-on-one games bred plenty of healthy competition between gamers, making them a natural fit for the idea of saving high scores and personal records. When SNK released a home console—effectively a repackaged version of their arcade hardware—including support for memory cards there, too, made sense.

      Konami’s Dance Dance Revolution offers another popular example of arcade memory card use. Some DDR arcade cabinets were equipped with Sony PlayStation memory card slots, allowing gamers to save their customizations and high scores between sessions, and some customizations from the home console carried over to the arcade game.

      Nintendo got in on the idea with 2003’s F-Zero AX, an arcade peer to F-Zero GX, released on the GameCube in the same year. F-Zero AX had a GameCube memory card slot, and much like DDR, allowed the player to bring customizations from their home game into the arcades.

      Image: The first video game console memory card, released for the Neo Geo AES in 1990.

    • Mass Storage & Auto-saves

      Despite their convenience, memory cards had one huge drawback: storage capacity. Around the turn of the century, the industry transitioned from battery-backed memory to non-volatile flash memory—the same thing you’d find in a USB flash drive or a camera’s memory card. Unfortunately, flash memory was still wildly expensive back then, meaning memory cards remained cramped. Frustrated gamers had to adopt a mercenary sort of attitude while digging through the contents of their memory cards, trying to make room for a new game by deleting their progress in another.

      An alternative to memory cards appeared during the sixth generation of consoles. Microsoft’s first Xbox made history as the first console to come with a hard disk built in as standard equipment, and the PlayStation 2 supported hard drives as an optional add-on. Hard disks opened up a lot of new possibilities for gamers, including what was effectively unlimited storage for saving gamers’ progress.

      Both the PlayStation 2 and Xbox supported traditional memory cards as well, but their 8 MB capacities were nothing compared to the hard disks inside the consoles themselves (4 or 8 GB for the Xbox and a whopping 40 GB for the PlayStation 2). The reign of the memory card was over.

      With all of that space available, gamers were finally free of the dreaded “what will I miss least?” decision making process associated with making room on their memory card. Better yet, games could begin assuming that they were always allowed to save—rather than an event that might happen at the end of a play session, saving progress could happen much more often, and without necessarily overwriting what had been saved before. This, pardon the pun, really was a game-changer, leading to the invention of auto-saves. Auto-saves meant that the game itself decided when it should save the player’s progress, freeing gamers from yet another bit of minutiae and saving them from unpleasant events like power outages or game freezes that might’ve led to a loss of progress in years gone past. Some games even manage to leverage auto-saves to discourage cheaters[7].

      Image: Sony PlayStation 2 hard drive with network adaptor

    • Cloudy With A Chance of Backups

      By the time the seventh generation of home consoles landed in 2005, both hard disks and network connectivity were standard features. At first, that connectivity was focused on online multiplayer gaming, but over time, more and more network-aware features appeared in consoles. Sony and Microsoft both added cloud saves to their consoles within the span of a few months in 2011[8][9], untethering save games from physical hardware and giving gamers the freedom to pretty much stop thinking about them.

      Putting saved games on the cloud had a number of advantages, the most obvious being safety. If your console met some unpleasant fate—a very real possibility for Xbox 360 users—at least you wouldn’t lose your precious saved games. And on a more upbeat note, you were also free to sign in to your account on a friend’s console and pick up where you left off (assuming you had a copy of the game with you). After a decade of being trapped inside of memory cards and hard disks, saved games were untethered and free for the first time.

      What’s Next?

      Over the past three decades, saved games have moved from scraps of paper to cartridges to memory cards to hard drives to…somewhere out on the internet. With the move to the cloud, save games have probably achieved their ultimate form. Storage and connectivity are so commonplace that many games just continuously save progress in the background.

      At the same time, we may all have lost something special. Kids in the 80s traded passwords on scraps of paper. Kids in the 90s stuffed memory cards in their backpacks and brought their games over to friend’s houses. Kids in the 2000s gained the amazing ability to play against each other no matter where they were, but lost that little bit of magic that came from taking care of a precious physical thing.

      No one would want to go back to the way things were, but it’s still worth remembering. Next time you notice a “saving…” animation in the corner of your screen, take a moment to think about how far we’ve come. It’s really pretty amazing.

      Here’s hoping Paul Huban’s grandmother’s new 3DS is good for another 3,000 hours of Animal Crossing.

      Footnotes

      1. The first microprocessors went on the market in 1971, about a year before the release of Pong, so it’s not surprising that early games weren’t using microprocessors from the very start.

      2. CES: Nintendo Shows Off Password Pak Technology 

      3. Nintendo themselves got in on the action, publishing a book called Top Secret Passwords in 1992.

      4. Nintendo had first used the concept with a programming environment called Family BASIC for their Japanese console in 1984. 

      5. That honour belongs to a 1985 game called Pop & Chips, released on an obscure console called the Super Cassette Vision. You can see a photograph of the cartridge (which required two AA batteries) in this comment from a user named Pirate Dragon.

      6. Sega wasn’t the first to bring the idea of memory cards to home console—SNK’s 1990 release of their Neo-Geo AES beat them to market by more than a year. Although the AES was a cartridge-based system (and theoretically could’ve used battery-backed saves like other consoles), it used memory cards in order to support interoperability with their arcade cabinets.

      7. Most of the MegaMan Battle Network games auto-save the game before revealing the result of a trading minigame, preventing players from resetting if they don’t like the result. (Source)

      8. IGN, March 9, 2011: PS3 Game Saves Move to the Cloud

      9. The Next Web, July 5, 2011: Microsoft begins moving Xbox 360 profiles and saved games to the Cloud 

      See also

      Atari Mania: Survival Island
      Cart Wars: The Evolution of the Cartridge
      Wikipedia: Dance Dance Revolution hardware
      Wikipedia: Family Computer Disk System
      Wikipedia: Memory cards
      Wikipedia: PlayStation (console)
      Wikipedia: PlayStation 2
      Wikipedia: PocketStation
      Wikipedia: VMU
      Wikipedia: Xbox (console)

      Image sources

      Dreamcast VMU
      Neo-Geo memory card
      Nintendo 64 Controller Pak
      Sega CD Back Up RAM Cart
      Sega Saturn Backup cartridge
      Sony PlayStation 2 hard drive with network adaptor
      Sony PlayStation memory card
      Sony PocketStation memory card