From Circuit Boards to Motion Sensors:The History of Video Game Consoles
By Dawnthea Price
The average gamer is 30, according to the Entertainment Software Association. Since the average number of playing years for a gamer is 13, that mean's today's 30-year-old gamers got their start with the Sega Genesis, SNK Neo-Geo or the Super Nintendo.
That won't make them experts with the dozen-plus consoles before this generation, nor does it necessarily make them well-versed in the 20+ various consoles that have been developed since.
Avid, casual and sporadic gamers worldwide contributed nearly $5 billion to the United States GDP in 2009 in console, game and other services provided by various developers. Last year, 188 million individual games were sold in the United States, a fraction in this multi-billion dollar industry. However, video games were not always as popular or as prevalent, and a detailed look into consoles past, beginning with the first commercial home video game console, provides the why.
Consoles are arranged chronologically from their initial launch or test market dates and include facts about their processors, compatibility with other consoles, original price (not adjusted for inflation) and number of units sold worldwide, if available.
The Magnavox Odyssey 1TL200 was the first home television game console. Games like Cat and Mouse and Handball were played on TV sets using printed circuit board cards and controllers with rotary dials and buttons.
More than 700,000 Odysseys sold during its three years on the market. Today, a Brown Box prototype unit can be found at the Smithsonian Institute's National Museum of American History.
1976-82: Second Generation
Fairchild Channel F
Fairchild F8; N/A
Important aspects that the Atari 2600 is known for, including plug-in cartridges and the introduction of a pause button, originated in the less-than-popular Channel F from Fairchild Camera and Instrument, a transistor company.
However, an overly simple color palette and inefficient, though revolutionary joystick design left the Channel F trailing Atari's now-classic 2600, rounding out at approximately 250,000 sold.
If the Odyssey is the grandfather of consoles, the Atari 2600 VCS is father to the video game industry that exists today. The cartridge-based console lit up markets worldwide with its capability to play more than Pong and Volleyball, allowing third-party developers to flourish.
It was also the only platform for a popular arcade game, cementing the 2600's place in console history.
Notable 2600 games: Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Solaris
The Odyssey2, manufactured by Philips-owned Magnavox at this point, built upon the 2600's allure by introducing an alphanumeric keyboard for educational games and programming, as well as a speech synthesis unit.
Game-wise, consumers received an introduction into deeper storytelling from the Odyssey2. Unfortunately, its graphics were not on par with the competition.
The home of Fisher-Price and Barbie stepped into the thick of Console Wars with the Intellivision, which featured a 16-bit processor and downloadable games. With no storage device for acquired games and shaky developer retention, the Intellivision was not a big hit with consumers.
A failed partnership that birthed the obscure PlayCable and the video game market's crash in 1983 ensured the console's short life. Mattel stepped out of the console race after discontinuing the Intellivision until 2006.
MOS 6502C ; Atari 2600
Based off of Atari's 400/800 home computers, but compatible with exactly zero Atari systems (including the still-available 2600), the 5200 SuperSystem was a wildly unsuccessful follow-up console with enough technical flaws to leave it as nothing more than a blip on Atari's radar.
1983-87: Third Generation
Z80A ; N/A
Released in Japan during October 1983, Casio's PV-1000 was pulled from store shelves soon after, leaving behind few units and little understanding of the console's capabilities. Controllers for the obscure system were also compatible with the Casio PV-2000 home computer, though game cartridges were not; Casio never explained why.
Nintendo's flagship console, known as the Famicom in Japan, appeared during a console-flooded market decline and quickly climbed its way to the top with a more intuitive controller and the overwhelming popularity of an innocuous game franchise.
The NES was so popular that Nintendo remodeled the hardware in 1993 and continued producing new units until 2003, when it was officially discontinued.
Notable NES games: Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Mega Man, Final Fantasy, Metroid
The 7800, a smaller and more durable console than previous Atari iterations, was released a full two years after it had been completed. Though it remained on shelves throughout the '80s, a company wide shift to focusing on personal computers meant that the 7800 did not reach the same levels of success as its predecessors.
Sega Master System
Unknown; Sega Mark III
10 million sold
Sega's Master System was designed to compete with the NES, but a slow game turnaround and inconsistent quality effectively kept it from usurping Nintendo's throne.
The system wasn't fully discontinued until 1998, but sold far fewer units than its better-known successor, Sega Genesis.
Despite a 1987 release, the TurboGrafX ended up competing against younger fourth-gen models like the Sega Genesis and Neo-Geo.
This console, which held the record for smallest console built, failed to effectively compete against Sega and Nintendo in non-Japanese markets, but largely because of a lack of third-party development rather than any technical deficiencies with the console.
The SNES took Nintendo's console game to new heights, but the 16-bit console never reached the same level of popularity as its predecessor. The company ceased production of hardware and software for the SNES and NES in September 2003, 20 years after the NES' introduction.
Notable SNES games: Super Mario World, Donkey Kong country, Super Mario Kart, Star Fox, Chrono Trigger
Originally, Sony had partnered with Nintendo to create a CD-ROM add-on to its popular SNES system. However, the partnership soon dissolved, leaving Sony with the option to scrap the project or pursue it independently.
The PlayStation, with its rich 3D environments, DualShock Analog Controllers and cartridge memory cards, became Sony's best-selling product by 1998.
Notable PS1 games: Gran Turismo, Final Fantasy VII, Tomb Raider, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater
Hardware-wise, the Sega Saturn and the original PlayStation are similar: Both have dual CPUs. However, the Saturn heaped on complexity with additional processors and a mind-boggling controller that all but ensured Sony would win this round of Console Wars.
In an attempt to outdo itself, Nintendo released the 32-bit Virtual Boy as a competitor against Game Boy, its other portable system. The more advanced system was inundated with technical and visual flaws, including a stationary setup and outdated red-black LED screens. The system was discontinued within 18 months of its release.
For all intents and purpose, the Pippin Atmark Player could do everything a modern console can today.
Apple had hoped the multimedia player-that-also-plays-some-games would be its big break into the console market, but the Pippin's higher-than-high price tag and lack of connectivity (it couldn't even run Netscape due to hardware constraints) makes this pre-iPod machine look like the world just wasn't ready yet.
64-bit NEC VR4300; NC
32.93 million sold
The last fifth-generation console was the iconic Nintendo 64, so named for its graphics capabilities. Though commercially successful, Nintendo wasn't pushing any boundaries by utilizing dust-prone game paks in a now CD-driven market.
The Dreamcast should have been more popular. When it was released in 1998, it was easily the most graphically powerful console on the market. It had an ergonomic controller setup and visually setup like a Sega-branded PS1.
It should have been more successful, but wasn't; no longer a console powerhouse, Sega stopped developing consoles after the Dreamcast, which ceased production in 2001. The company held onto extra units until 2007.
Notable Dreamcast games: Sonic Adventure, Soulcalibur, Crazy Taxi
From now into the foreseeable future, Sony's success with the PlayStation 2 will be the era-defining console. Not only is it the bestselling console to date (followed by the PlayStation, the Wii and the PlayStation 3), it also has one of the most extensive game libraries with more than 10,000 titles.
Prior to the PS4's launch, Sony ended production of the PlayStation 2.
Notable PS2 games: Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, Final Fantasy X, Kingdom Hearts
While the Playstation 2 and the Xbox sought to broaden their CD drives and cross-compatibility, Nintendo opted for something different. Not only was the Nintendo Gamecube incompatible with the N64, its games were small discs completely unusable in any other machine.
The system was discontinued in 2007 as the company focused its energies more on handheld consoles and the Wii.
PC-driven Microsoft waited until the tail end of the sixth generation to introduce the Xbox. With the PC-like feature of a 10GB hard drive, Microsoft removed consumers' need to purchase an external memory device while preserving a high-quality experience.
The launch of Xbox Live in 2002 encouraged online play; its free and subscription service provided a new experience for all players.
Notable Xbox games: Halo 2, Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Fable
Atari Flashback 1 & 2
More than a decade after the Jaguar's release, Atari returned on the scene with a brand-new-old console.
With a new wave of retro nostalgia for the old Atari games, the company lessened the need for modern emulators by just releasing new versions of the 2600 and 7800 hardware with the games built-in.
The console's cheap price and inclusivity of classic games made it a hit with collectors and fans.
2005-10: Seventh Generation
Microsoft Xbox 360
PowerPC Tri-Core; Xbox
80 million sold
Once Microsoft was in the console game, the company was in it to win it. However, the 360's release was marred with hardware failures, which culminated in the extension of warranty periods for consumers.
As Microsoft kept the 260 on the market for the better part of a decade before releasing a successor, it provided the company with time to play with new hardware, such as the Kinect sensor device.
Notable 360 games: Call of Duty: Black Ops, Halo 3, Minecraft, Kinect Adventures, Gears of War
The Hyperscan, somehow, did worse than its predecessor, Intellivision. The only RFID console, Mattel hoped to combine its toy-selling market with its hopeful console market.
Before it was pulled from shelves in 2007, the Hyperscan system's price dropped to approximately $10. Of the seven planned games, only five were released.
Sony Playstation 3
Cell Broadband; PS1, PS2
80 million sold
The PS3 saw the launch of the PlayStation Network, Sony's answer to Xbox Live. Additionally, though initial PS3 models were fully backward-compatible with the PS1 and PS2, newer models were released without compatibility.
PS3 games are released on Blu-ray discs, the first console to do so. Despite the PS4's launch in 2013, Sony announced that they will continue to support the PS3 until 2015.
Notable PS3 games: Grand Theft Auto 5, The Last of Us, Heavy Rain, Final Fantasy XIII
IBM Broadway; GameCube
100.3 million sold
The Wii is Nintendo's first attempt at cross-compatibility and innovation. With a motion-based, two-handed controller, CD drive and Gamecube software/hardware compatibility, Nintendo hoped to expand its customer base to non-traditional gaming demographics.
Notable Wii games: Wii Sports, Wii Fit, Super Mario Galaxy, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Epic Mickey
The Sega Firecore is actually the Sega Genesis. Sort of. In 2009, AtGames began producing a Genesis-compatible console with its Sega license and named it Firecore. AtGames re-released several classic Genesis games, which are also available via emulators as well as on the digital marketplaces for every other major console and Steam.
2012-Present: Eighth Generation
Nintendo Wii U
Wii U OS; Wii, Virtual Console
4.09 million sold
Buzz surrounding the Wii U began in 2008, though it remained unofficial until 2011. With two new controllers, HD display and the ability to continue gameplay on the GamePad without a television, Nintendo hoped to bring back traditional fans disillusioned with the Wii.
However, a lukewarm reception during its opening month led to a market-wide scaleback of new game production for the console.
Android 4.1 Jelly Bean; N/A
The first major Android-based console, OUYA, was funded via crowdsourcing website Kickstarter in May 2012, ultimately raising $8.5 million against a base goal of $950,000. The OUYA, released in 2013 for the low price of $99, features an 8GB flash memory, USB port, wireless controller and Bluetooth connectivity.
In addition to a lack of large developer game titles on the small console, the OUYA's hardware has not been well received. Ouya, Inc., has yet to release any figures about the number of consoles that have been sold.
Sony Playstation 4
Orbis OS; NC
2.1 million sold
Sony previewed the PlayStation 4 after Microsoft announced the Xbox One. During their preview, Sony assuaged consumers' fears about DRM measures on used PS4 games (non-existent) to explaining the ease with which independent developers can self-publish on PlayStation Network. PS4 games are also not region-locked, which will allow owners worldwide to purchase and play games on the console in all regions.
When the XBox One previewed at E3, Microsoft came under fire for being heavy-handed in its lack of backward compatibility, restriction of used games and dubious 'always-connected' clause. Within days, Microsoft was forced to backpedal on several features, including the persistent Internet connection.
Though fans and critics alike lambasted Microsoft for what was largely considered poor judgment, the Xbox One opened to high sales during its first week.
Android 4.1 Jelly Bean; N/A
$6.99/month - $250
The latest wave of consoles competing in niche and mainstream markets from companies other than Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft have rebranded themselves as 'microconsoles,' low-cost devices running on Android software that connect to monitors and allow for games to be downloaded like mobile applications.
One of the major criticisms regarding microconsoles is that they may not necessarily add to the experience that already exists in smartphones, though independent game developers are expected to flourish due to their low costs.
SteamOS; Cloud support
Launch Price Unknown
Valve Corp., the company behind the digital distribution service Steam (and countless cake-basedimages), announced that it would be tossing a hat into the console ring with Steam Machines, outsourcing the hardware to various manufacturers and running SteamOS.
Not much is known about the Steam Machine at present. A limited beta opened to all Steam users; 300 participants were chosen based on their community contributions.