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The humble console has come a very long way in a relatively short space of time, morphing from chunky boxes for nerds into the flash centre-point of most family households.
If you’re wondering how we got from A to B then wonder no longer. This video game console history article will let you bone up on your history without just being a long list of facts. ~ Zoey Hughes
Japan, America and, especially in the early days, the UK; these are the places people associate most strongly with video games development.
But what started as an industry developed in a few confined pockets around the world has now become a global multi-billion dollar phenomena with even some of the most far-flung countries now housing games studios. To look at the expansion over the years and maybe find a games studio near you check out this great interactive map.
The first generation of video game consoles is something out of the kids of today’s nightmares.
Starting with the Magnavox Odyssey and encompassing such classics as the Coleco Telstar, this generation spanned 1972 to 1977.
Lines and dots made up the graphics, colour was used sparingly or not at all, even audio wasn’t guaranteed
The consoles used transistor based logic (no micro-processors here yet) and the firm favourite game of the generation was the highly addictive Pong.
Consoles in this generation varied widely in price from the £35 Binatone TV Master to the original Nintendo, the Nintendo Colour TV Game priced at up to Y48,000 which equates to just shy of $600 USD in today’s money.
Surprisingly peripherals were all the rage from the get go with the Magnavox opting for a light gun, the Binatone for paddles and a light gun, and the Coleco Telstar having a variety of different pad styles.
It has to be the Coleco Telstar for me.
I may never have actually played on one but the name itself conjures up all sorts of images for me, and I have no doubt that if I had been alive and gaming at the time, this
would have been the one for me.Obviously this generation was far before my time but a cult fan base has arisen that has led to references appearing in many a geeky TV show.
The second generation started in 1976 and at this point in our home console history some crucial things were already starting to take form.
Micro-processors took over from transistors creating much better logic algorithms, ROM cartridges came into being allowing consoles to be used for more than one game (that would be a seriously expensive way to game in today’s market!) and games were no longer limited to one single screen-size for gameplay.
Basic sprites meant you no longer had to play as plain block, audio and colour became common place and maybe most important of all AI was born, allowing games to be a single player experience for the first time.
Yes, it was certainly a massive step forward from the hideously basic boxes that had arrived only a few years beforehand.
The change in landscape saw some new faces get into console production, some only to disappear again soon after, but some familiar names that we still recognise today.
The generation kicked off with the Fairchild Channel F, a cartridge based machine that stayed firmly over the ocean with our American friends. It was soon followed, however, by the first Atari branded console, the 2600 which was followed up which was followed up five years later into the generation by the 5200.
Magnavox released the Odyssey2 after the success they’d had in the first gen and Mattel (Yes, the Barbie people!) joined the party with the Intellivision in 1980.
During the latter stages of this generation the Golden Age of Gaming had begun. A lot of massive retro games titles were released for this generation.
Gamers must have been over the moon when titles such as Asteroids, Space Invaders, Donkey Kong, Galaga and Pac-Man arrived at this time. Arcades also saw the first ever Mario game, simply titled Mario Bros.
It has to be one of the Atari systems. The 2600 went on to be the best-seller of the generation and there’s no doubt that that the arrival of Atari left a permanent make on both consoles and home console games history.
A lot of the killer apps in this gen were Atari titles, and when you could play them happily in your living room on a system designed for them, Atari had stumbled onto a recipe for success.
In 1983 the third generation of home console was born, as Japan became the first country to experience another major step (I swear one day I’m just going to move to Japan so I can experience some of their gaming wonders without the long wait for European release).
Lots of exciting new innovations arrived in this generation including the first controllers with D-Pads (no more joysticks for us!), large scrolling backdrops and tile and sprite based graphics.
Of course there was also a major advance in the quality of both colours and sound.
This was a great era which saw a key console developer rivalry develop. It was during this generation that the epic fight between Sega and Nintendo began.
Sega released two consoles in this gen, the SG-1000 which was only available in New Zealand and Japan and the original Master System (now we’re talking).
Nintendo meanwhile released the Nintendo Entertainment System or NES (known as Famicom in Japan) and successfully wiped the floor with the competition due to a complete domination of Japanese market.
Yep, the Japanese had tasted games and they liked it. Atari continued to have a strong market holding with their new console, the Atari 7800, a system with backwards compatibility to the classic Atari 2600.
A noted re-emergence of the peripheral occurred during this generation. Both Nintendo and Sega released a plethora of expensive add-ons with mixed success.
The Japanese had tasted games and they liked it!
Milestone games put a real stamp of legitimacy on this generation as series’ still loved today arrived for the first time.
Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Super Mario Bros., Metal Gear, Metroid, Phantasy Star and The Legend of Zelda all kept gamers inside developing callouses regardless of the weather.
At this point there was just no denying that a company that once made playing cards now owned video games (Nintendo, obviously!).
Their domination began in this era and with plenty of killer apps to back up the hardware the NES was the console of choice for gamers everywhere… unless they were diehard Atari fans.
Welcome to the 16-bit era.
Controllers suddenly got more complicated with up to 8 different buttons, backgrounds and sprites were getting more vivid all the time and microprocessors wiped the floor with their predecessors.
The colour palette available also grew dramatically with 64-256 colours on screen at one time becoming the standard and sound was now available in stereo.
This meant that in layman’s terms games just got a whole lot prettier. And some people were even dabbling with early memory storage
The TurboGrafx-16 kicked off the generation when it was released in 1987.
It was built to beat the NES but instead ended up in the middle of a bloody war between the Sega Mega Drive and the SNES (Super Nintendo Entertainment System). The Neo Geo AES also appeared in this generation although later than the key players.
The key titles for the 16-bit generation were numerous and included some true classics such as Chrono Trigger, Super Metroid, Mortal Kombat, Sonic the Hedgehog, Streets of Rage II and Street Fighter II as well as the continuation of a few series with The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Phantasy Star II, Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island, and Final Fantasy VI.
At this point I was an avid gamer and my loyalty was firmly in one camp, Sega.
The Mega Drive controller was a little complicated in comparison to the two button simplicity of the Master System but the games were wonderful and filled my childhood with joy.
Of course I later played all the Nintendo classics from this era and loved them, es
pecially Zelda, but I was a Sega fan back then and nothing barring a time machine is going to stop that from being the case.
Nothing barring a time machine is going to stop that from being the case
Now we finally get to something that kids may recognise as technology.
The fifth generation made some huge steps forward in video game console development history as 3D gameplay became a reality (some games had dabbled with it previously but with little success).
Coupled with the addition of a CD drive instead of the humble cartridge (who didn’t enjoy blowing dust out of a cartridge?) this felt like a whole new world.
Of course there was one exception to the CD/cartridge issue.
Nintendo and Sony were all set to launch a console together before a massive fallout occurred. A similar issues were had with Phillips (the other major manufacturer of CD drives at the time) so Nintendo decided that they would stick with the cartridge system a little longer, citing lower piracy risk and quicker loading times.
CDs were a lot cheaper to manufacture, however, and could hold a lot more data, a fact that later cost Nintendo Final Fantasy VII.
The 3DO started the generation off but was soon joined by Atari Jaguar and the Sega Saturn. Unfortunately none of these could hold a torch to what came next, the PlayStation and the Nintendo 64.
The Saturn held firm in third place while the first two dwindled into obscurity.
The killer apps for this generation are a pretty long list; The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Virtua Fighter, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2, Tomb Raider, Tekken 3, Spyro the Dragon, Star Fox 64, Super Smash Bros., Super Mario 64, Sega Rally Championship, Resident Evil, Perfect Dark, PaRappa the Rapper, Panzer Dragoon Saga, The Need for Speed, Metal Gear Solid, Goldeneye 007, Gran Turismo, Final Fantasy VII, FIFA International Soccer, Crash Bandicoot and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night all delighted gamers who started to realise that friends and family had to be sacrificed in order to have time to play everything.
The PlayStation tech was utterly magical. It even looked good on your shelf, but the N64 had so many wonderful titles to choose from.
I was hooked on the Final Fantasy series (some things never change!) and adored Tomb Raider on the PlayStation but I also fell in love with Goldeneye, Perfect Dark, Banjo Kazooie and, of course, Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask.
To be honest I had both of those consoles (and access to a Saturn) and I couldn’t have been without either of them. I have no choice but to officially declare it a tie.
The sixth generation lasted from 1998 to 2009 (although the seventh generation started in 2005) and saw four consoles, all from big names, arrive with limited success.
Graphics cards got fancy and consoles ran at rates that put a lot of our computers to shame.
Sega released their last attempt at a competitive console, the Dreamcast. It came with the ability to play online and a CD-ROM drive but consumers were seriously sceptical as support for previous Sega systems such as the Saturn had been brief and there were far more interesting things on the horizon.
Nintendo released the GameCube, an odd looking backwards compatible device, but as gamers matured and moved onto bigger things, Nintendo hadn’t grown with them and the console was a flop.
The PlayStation 2 dominated this time, and ended up one of the most successful consoles in history.
The PlayStation 2 was backwards compatible (a huge plus that earnt them a lot of loyalty), had a DVD drive (really fancy at the time) and all the top franchises were available on it. It was the must have console for any gamer.
And last but not least of course, is the Microsoft Xbox. Clunky and late to the party, I was very late to get one (only eventually giving in because I loved Halo so much) but the introduction of Xbox Live, their online multiplayer service, meant this was a game-changer that no-one saw coming.
Killer apps in the sixth generation included Final Fantasy X, Forza Motorsport, GTA III, Vice City and San Andreas, Half-life 2, Halo 1 & 2, Metal Gear Solid 2 & 3, Phantasy Star Online, Resident Evil 4, Rez, Shadow of the Colossus, Shenmue, Soul Calibur, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Phew! That’s quite a list!
PlayStation 2 every time.
It looked so sleek next to that big chunky Xbox, it played everything I wanted it to (in my case the Final Fantasy back catalogue and a heap of new games), the controller was the best thing since sliced bread and it just felt right.
At the time I really couldn’t have imagined a better console… ok, maybe with a more reliable storage system but that’s it (for those who weren’t playing at the time storage was on a memory card that you could remove and take with you.
Every now and then the cards would have a hissy fit and corrupt your data leaving you with no saves. As an RPG addict, this was the bane of my existence and cost me hundreds of hours!).
Ah, the seventh generation. It’ll always have great memories for me because it was at this time I decided to make the leap from hardcore gamer to games journalist.
HD resolutions became a reality making everything look so damned pretty we couldn’t stand it, Blu-ray and HD-DVD started their battle to the death and motion control became the new thing.
Having lost the battle to keep mature, hardcore gamers Nintendo decided to take a radically different angle with their offering, the Wii.
Aimed at the very young and non-gamers the device used a simplistic wand with few buttons on it instead of the usual controller and paired it with a tracking bar so the system could read it being waved about.
The combination of classic Nintendo franchises such as Zelda and Mario and new more active titles such as WiiFit, WiiSports and WiiPlay was a massive success as non-gamers literally ran out supplies of the cheaply priced games console.
The Xbox 360 arrived from Microsoft looking much better than the previous generation and with a pile of loyal fans who had loved the Xbox Live service.
Xbox Live became an integral part of the system as Microsoft introduced the achievements system.
For the first time gamers could unlock points and badges to show what they had accomplished in a game and then compare their scores with friends online.
It’s hard to imagine a time without them now as we were all instantly addicted to this magic bit of coding.
A removable hard-drive and the option of additional storage helped offset the systems new capabilities; downloadable “arcade” games and music.
The Red Ring of Death and E74 errors had us all shaking in our boots however, as consoles repetitively broke down and had to be replaced. The strange thing was that the system was so good, no one seemed to mind!
The system later saw the addition of a Kinect sensor – a tracking device that contained a variety of cameras able to see your movements and translate them into games without the hassle of a WiiMote. The Kinect soon became the bestselling peripheral of all time.
Fitted with a brand spanking new Blu-ray drive instead of the now cheap and cheerful DVD drive the PlayStation 3 came with a massive price tag that made gamers want to weep. It was, however, by far the most sensible way to purchase a Blu-ray player at this time.
The tables had turned as the always aesthetically pleasing Sony brand produced something akin to a shiny black breadbox and “improving” the controller put some people completely off the console.
The PS3 also added motion support with the PlayStation Move, which worked in a similar way to the WiiMote. Sony brought in the trophies system to rival the achievements system.
The seventh generation lasted a long time with many new things available. The success of Xbox Live led both the Wii and PS3 to follow suit giving casual games a whole new availability.
Technically the generation is still supported with new titles still arriving but these are some of the killer apps in this gen to this date – Assassin’s Creed II, GTA IV & V, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Bayonetta, BioShock, Gears of War, Halo 3, LittleBigPlanet, Mass Effect 2, Portal 1 & 2, Red Dead Redemption, Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, Street Fighter IV, The Last of Us, Tomb Raider, Uncharted 2, Wii Sports and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.
I was unconvinced by my Xbox 360 when I bought it. I only got it as it was the first console of the generation to be released and I was too impatient to wait for the PS3.
I thought I would put up with it, but instead I fell in love with it. The ever-changing dashboard system showed continuous progress being made behind the scenes, the controller was just the right size and achievements soon became my drug of choice.
For someone who owned all three consoles in this generation I hardly touched the other two as the massive pile of games I wanted to play on 360 continued to grow. In fact I’m still taking advantage of the slow trickle of eighth gen games to plough through the pile…
Achievements soon became my drug of choice
And then there was now. The world’s obsession with tablets and smartphones means many believe this will be the last generation of home consoles, which I find immensely sad.
At this time we currently have three consoles to choose from; the Nintendo WiiU, the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 although many smaller companies are also trying to get involved.
The WiiU involves a costly GamePad which doubles up as a separate handheld screen for your games and lost out massively due to 3rd party developers ignoring the console and dramatically less power than the other available consoles. In my eyes, I just cannot label it as truly “next-gen”.
The PlayStation 4 is the home of many indie developers and now has Kinect style cameras along with a touchpad in the centre of its controller. It is currently the best-selling console of the generation.
The Xbox One has been surrounded in controversy since before its launch as the media and fans ripped apart creative decisions made and forced them to be overturned.
The end result is that Kinect is now sold separately (it had been mandatory and therefore included in the box) and many of the features promised had to be compromised.
The ability to multi-task in windows and even run your TV through the system were implemented to make the console a key part of your entertainment system. I have to say I love changing the TV on using Kinect commands so for me this is a hit.
You surely didn’t think I was actually going to give you an answer did you?! The generation has only just begun and I couldn’t dream of declaring a winner, but if this really is the last home console generation I just hope it goes out with a bang.
If this really is the last home console generation I just hope it goes out with a bang
– Magnavox Odyssey – 1972
– Magnavox Odyssey Series – 1975
– Atari/Sears Tele-Games Pong – 1975
– Binatone – 1975
– Coleco Telstar – 1976
– Nintendo Colour TV Game – 1977 (Japan only)
– Fairchild Channel F – 1976
– Atari 2600 – 1977
– Bally Astrocade – 1977
– Magnavox Odyssey – 1978
– Intellivision – 1980
– Atari 5200 – 1982
– Vetrex – 1982
– Emerson Arcadia 2001 – 1982
– ColecoVision – 1982
– SG-1000 – 1983 (Japan only)
– Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) – 1983
– Sega Master System – 1985
– Atari 7800 – 1986
– TurboGrafx – 1987
– Sega Mega-Drive/Genesis – 1988
– Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) – 1990
– Neo Geo – 1990
– CD-i – 1991
– 3DO – 1993
– Atari Jaguar – 1993
– Sega Saturn – 1994
– PlayStation – 1994
– Nintendo 64 (N64) – 1996
– Sega Dreamcast – 1998
– PlayStation 2 – 2000
– Nintendo GameCube – 2001
– Xbox – 2001
– Xbox 360 – 2005
– PlayStation 3 – 2006
– Nintendo Wii – 2006
– Nintendo WiiU – 2012
– PlayStation 4 – 2013
– Xbox One – 2013