My gaming life began on those horrible Pong systems. You bought a console with a pair of paddle controllers, hooked it to your TV, and you could play Pong or one of it's variants, like "vertical pong" or "small paddles pong". This was still heart-stoppingly exciting, but now it's embarrassing to admit. Somehow a rectangle was more interesting than Johnny Carson if you could make it move.
The jump from "symbols" to - I'm going to drop a line of demarcation here - "actual graphics" was brain-explodingly amazing. After seeing little people on your friend's TV screen instead of squares made it hard to ever go back to your suddenly lame Atari 2600 version of Combat at your own house and pretend to be satisfied. This ad for Synapse games shows what I mean.
Yes, by the time the C64 appeared, the Atari 2600 was running much better software, thanks to Activision. But once one saw what the Commodore could do, you began to wish your dad was a stock broker douchebag so you could get one. Nothing else was close.
Pharaoh's Curse looks like a pretty standard platform game, but when you consider that this was 1983, the idea of a large scrolling environment to explore was pretty exciting. Pitfall II was a similar title available on the Atari, and I found the game so compelling, I drew a map of the entire game on graph paper and plotted out my path. The map was about three by four feet, with every enemy and pickup drawn in ridiculous detail. I felt like Columbus, charting a new world. The fact that it is immediately recognizable as a game whose basic functionality is still repeated more than twenty years later is pretty high praise.
Fort Apocalypse looks pretty damn good too, for 1983. It looks similar to Choplifter, which featured a lovingly animated helicopter that tilted perfectly as you swooped around rescuing little soldiers. This was a far cry from what had gone before, which was a square or worse yet, a flickery jumble of squares that game designers sheepishly hoped you would accept as a helicopter.
Protector II looks to be a pretty shameless copy of Defender, right down to the name. Plagiarism was rampant among PC game companies back then. I don't think copyright laws had caught up with the gaming industry just yet.
This generation of games reflects a certain point of maturity in the games industry. Games now needed to be produced by, at minimum, a two-person team, instead of just one programmer with no real art skills. A programmer needed to either be a part time artist or have an artist buddy help him out with his game. This looks like the beginning of specialization in gaming that still continues to this day. If you want a job at a game company now, "game artist" is a title that hardly exists. You are a concept artist, 2D animator, motion graphics artist, interface designer, 3D modeler, rigger, texture artist, or environment designer, etc. Often, companies will interview artists for a very specific role, not just "artist" I think the generation of games shown in this ad captures the point at which game companies had just begun to hire artists.
By contrast, look at Adventure, an Atari game from 1979. It was a groundbreaking game and featured many "firsts". First adventure game on a home console. First game to allow a player to manage an item inventory. First multi-screen adventure game. First hidden message or "easter egg" in a game. The easter egg was this: "created by Warren Robinette". He was a programmer that made the game singlehandedly, though he wasn't an artist. The genius of the gameplay is famous, but the art is still pretty funny. At the time, it was fine, because as an early Atari game, the console didn't have the horsepower to display any real art. By the time the C64 came to be, the computers were ready for artists.