"We Need a Place to Put These."
Video games began in a primordial technological soup whose origin point shifts depending on how you define the term "video game." From 1972 through today, we've rounded up 67 distinct game cartridges, cards, disks, and other important storage systems that have defined the gamer's world since the dawn of the industry. All of the media formats in this slideshow (except those in slide 15) are presented to scale with each other to give you a clear picture of how far gaming has come.
Photos by Benj Edwards
The First Cartridges
The first video game system, the Magnavox Odyssey, could generate only rudimentary graphics. Its jumperlike game cartridges (2) contained no active components but still instructed the console how to set up a particular game on screen. Between 1972 and 1977, all new game consoles shipped with built-in, noninterchangeable games (think Pong). Fairchild broke that streak with the first system to use cartridges containing software ROM (Read Only Memory) chips (3). From then until the 1990s, most game consoles used this format.
Key:  Atari 2600 (1977),  Magnavox Odyssey (1972),  Fairchild Channel F (1977),  RCA Studio II (1977),  Magnavox Odyssey 2 (1978),  Bally Professional Arcade (1978)
A Selection of Computer Cartridges
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, home computers like the Atari 800 (2) and the Commodore 64 (3) straddled the line between PC and game machine. As a result, many home PCs ran software from ROM cartridges in addition to more traditional personal computer media like cassette tapes and floppy disks.
Key:  Commodore VIC-20 (1980),  Atari 400/800 (1979),  Commodore 64 (1982),  TI-99/4 (1979),  TRS-80 Color Computer (1980),  Mattel Aquarius (1983)
All Shapes and Sizes
Since the actual circuitry inside a plastic cartridge's housing was typically much smaller than the housing itself, each cartridge was primarily designed for fashion rather than function.
Key:  Atari 5200 (1982),  Mattel Intellivision (1980),  Coleco Colecovision (1982),  Nintendo Family Computer (1983),  Sega SG-1000 Mk. II Card Catcher (1984),  Sega Master System (1986)
Miniature consoles need miniature cartridges. However, the first handheld video game system, the Milton-Bradley Microvision, used jumbo cartridges (1) that included not only built-in screen and controller overlays, but a game ROM and the CPU used to process the data as well.
Key:  Milton-Bradley Microvision (1979),  Nintendo Game Boy (1989),  SNK Neo Geo Pocket (1998),  Bandai WonderSwan (1999),  Atari Lynx (1990),  Nintendo Game Boy Color (1998),  Nintendo Game Boy Advance (2001),  Sega Game Gear (1990),  Tiger Game.com (1997),  Nintendo DS (2004),  Nintendo Virtual Boy (1995)
End of an Era
As the 1990s rolled around, cartridge designs grew more distinctive--but the rise of optical discs would soon end the cartridge era.
Key:  Nintendo Entertainment System (1985),  Atari 7800 (1986),  NEC PC Engine (1987),  Sega Mega Drive (1988),  Nintendo Super Famicom (1990),  Amstrad GX4000 (1990)
Enter the Optical Disc
The first console to actually store game code on an optical disc (and the first to use a CD-ROM drive) was the NEC PC-Engine CD-ROM2 unit , an add-on to the extant PC Engine console. (This unit became the TurboGrafx CD  in the United States.) Sega soon followed with its own CD add-on for its Genesis/Mega Drive console known as the Sega CD  in the U.S.
 RDI Halcyon (1985) & Pioneer LaserActive (1993),  NEC PC Engine CD-ROM2 (1988),  Sega CD (1991)
The earliest video game cartridges were read-only devices. They provided game data, but data generated while playing was lost when players shut off the console. Nintendo first attempted to solve this problem in 1986 by borrowing a page from PCs: It released a unique floppy disk system (2) for its Famicom console in Japan.
Key:  The Legend of Zelda (NES, 1987),  Famicom Disk System (1986),  Nintendo 64DD (1999),  Nintendo GB Memory Cartridge (Game Boy, 1997),  Nintendo SF Memory Cassette (Super Famicom, 1997)
Largest and Smallest
At left, we see the world's smallest proprietary video game cartridge format (1) -- that of the Nintendo DS -- in comparison with the world's largest (2). The largest belongs to the SNK Neo Geo Advanced Entertainment System (AES), an expensive home game console in its day that specialized in bringing home exact versions of SNK games one could play in the arcade. Its cartridges were large because its games were large, datawise, and needed plenty of physical space for the numerous ROM chips inside.
During the 1990s, Nintendo and Sega experimented with delivering games on demand via various transmission media. The Sega Channel was a subscription-based service that allowed Sega Genesis owners to temporarily download games to a local adapter (1) for play. The BS-X Satellaview provided similar functionality for the Super Famicom in Japan over Satellite TV networks. However, users could store downloaded games indefinitely in interchangeable Memory Paks (2) that would fit into a larger adapter (3).
Key:  Sega Channel Adapter (Genesis, 1994),  Nintendo BS-X Memory Pak &  Nintendo BS-X Special Broadcast Cassette (Super Famicom, 1995)
The Cartridge's Last Stand
The last major mainstream home video game console to use games on ROM cartridges was 1996's Nintendo 64 (4). Critics ridiculed Nintendo's decision to stick with aging cartridges in the face of the cheaper and more capacious CD-ROM format, but Nintendo stuck to its guns over concerns about piracy. Ultimately, Nintendo paid a heavy price for its decision by losing its home console market dominance to the CD-ROM-based Sony PlayStation. After that painful episode, Nintendo -- and the market in general -- would never look back.
Key:  Super NES (1991),  Atari Jaguar (1993),  Sega 32X (1994),  Nintendo 64 (1996)
Proprietary Optical Formats
In the late 1990s, Sega developed a proprietary optical disc format called GD-ROM (1) for its Dreamcast game console. Nintendo followed up the cartridge era with the GameCube Game Disc (3), and Sony developed the Universal Media Disc (2) for its PSP system so it could bring the high-capacity, low-cost optical disc model to the portable sector.
Key:  Sega Dreamcast (1998),  Sony PlayStation Portable (2004),  Nintendo GameCube (2001)
The DVD and Blu-ray Era
Sony led the charge into the DVD era with the Sony PlayStation 2 (1) in 2000, the first console to use the DVD format. Its discs can hold, at maximum, 8.54GB of data. The Microsoft Xbox (2) and Xbox 360 also use the DVD format for their games. Like the GameCube, the Wii uses a nonstandard disc format that is nonetheless very similar to that of DVDs. But this time, Nintendo chose the standard 12cm size that can hold a full 8.54GB. Sony blazed a trail into even higher-density optical formats in 2006 with the PlayStation 3 (4). Its Blu-ray Disc format can store an impressive 50GB of data on dual-layer discs.
Key:  Sony PlayStation 2 (2000),  Microsoft Xbox (2001),  Nintendo Wii (2005),  Sony PlayStation 3 (2006)
The Internet Era
Beyond the optical era, we now live in a world where the primary medium for game distribution is quickly becoming entirely electronic -- through the Internet, using a router (3). The first console to use a hard disk (2) for data storage was the PlayStation 2 console (1) in 2001 via an accessory option. Microsoft followed up with a built-in hard disk for its Xbox a few months later. The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 continue this trend, with only the Wii relying on flash media (4) for user-managed game media in a nonportable system. The Sony PSP (5) and Nintendo DSi also use flash memory for dynamic game storage, a trend that no doubt points to the future of video game media.
See also: 20 Sizzling Summer Video Games (slideshow)