The Evolution of Video Game Consoles
Many of the most popular esports games today are PC games rather than console games. However, titles such as Call of Duty, Halo and Street Fighter remain important on the competitive video gaming scene. Consoles still have a big role to play in esports, and in video gaming in general, too.
There’s an ongoing debate in the gaming community about whether PC gaming or console gaming is “better”. It’s a pointless argument, really. Neither is definitively better than the other, as it’s ultimately a matter of personal preference. There will always be those who prefer to game on a PC, and there will always be those who prefer to use consoles.
PC gaming seems to have the slight edge right now, but who knows what will happen in the future? If there’s one thing we know for sure about consoles, it’s that they’re constantly evolving. There’s every chance that they’ll continue to improve, and there may well come a time when console gaming leads the way once again.
In this article, we take a look at how home video game consoles have evolved over the years. We start by explaining how it all began with the Magnavox Odyssey. Then, we go through each subsequent generation of consoles, right up to today’s models.
How it All Began
The first home video game console was released in 1972. The initial idea for home video gaming was conceived long before that though, back in 1951. That’s when a television engineer named Ralph Baer started working on his plans for an “interactive television.”
It wasn’t until 1966 that Baer was able to put in his plans in motion. He was working for Sanders Associates by then, a defense contractor based in the United States. As Chief Engineer of the Equipment Design division, he created a basic game that could be displayed on a standard TV. It was called Chase, and it simply involved chasing a dot around the screen.
Baer demonstrated this game to his superiors, and was allocated funding to continue his ground-breaking project. After assembling a team of fellow engineers, he created additional games and further developed his hardware. Before long, he had a fully functional prototype.
The Brown Box could be connected to a standard TV. It came with two controllers and a light gun. The console itself had 16 switches that were used to select which game was to be played. The plan was to sell the product to cable TV providers, but that didn’t work out. Baer then started approaching TV manufacturers instead. In 1969, he struck an agreement with Magnavox.
Magnavox proceeded to make some alterations to the Brown Box. A particularly notable one was to remove the switches used to select games. They developed printed circuit boards for each game that were inserted into the console instead. This feature would eventually lead to the use of game cartridges for subsequent generations of console.
The redesigned console was released in 1972 as the Magnavox Odyssey.
The Magnavox Odyssey was basic in the extreme. The display was in black and white, and it featured just three square dots. Two of these dots were moved by the players, using the attached controllers, while the third was moved by the system itself. The way the dots moved, and the objective of the game, depended on which game was being played. Players had to place plastic overlays on the TV screen to provide the accompanying visuals.
Magnavox chose to sell their console exclusively through Magnavox dealers in the United States. It was priced at $99.99, or reduced to $50 if purchased with a Magnavox TV. Demand wasn’t huge, but it was significant enough for Magnavox to release the Odyssey in a number of other countries. By the time the product was discontinued in 1975, around 350,000 units had been sold.
Although it wasn’t considered a major commercial success, the Magnavox Odyssey was ultimately responsible for the start of home video gaming. By the time Ralph Baer died in 2014, he had witnessed his invention lead to a multi-billion-dollar industry.
Other Early Consoles
A number of other consoles were released between 1975 and 1977. These were all very similar to the original Magnavox Odyssey, and are now considered to comprise the “first generation” of home video consoles. Notable models include the following:
- Magnavox Odyssey 100
- Magnavox Odyssey 200
- TV Tennis Electrotennis
- Home Pong
- Binatone TV Master
- Color TV-Game
Most of these models came with a limited number of pre-programmed games. In some cases, they only had a single game. They were typically powered by batteries. The graphics were limited to simple lines, dots and blocks, and there was little or no audio.
It was the Home Pong console from Atari that really helped home video gaming achieve widespread popularity. Many of the other first generation consoles were effectively just clones of Home Pong, and there was very little in the way of innovation at this stage. That began to change in 1976, with the release of second generation consoles.
Second Generation Consoles
The Fairchild Channel F marked the start of the second generation of home video game consoles. It was released in North America towards the end of 1976, with a retail price of $169.96. There were two in-built games, and additional games could be purchased in cartridge form. These were known as “Videocarts.”
As the first console to use a microprocessor, the Fairchild Channel F was more advanced than previous models. Although the graphics and audio were still fairly basic, they were markedly improved. The system was capable of genuine artificial intelligence too, which allowed for single- player gaming against the computer.
Other manufacturers soon followed Fairchild’s lead. There were several more consoles launched in the mid to late 1970s, most of which used microprocessors and a cartridge based system for games. The biggest success during this era of video gaming was the Atari Video Computer System (VCS).
The Atari VCS was launched in 1977. Sales were slow to start with, but increased as the variety and quality of available games improved. Over 1 million units were sold in 1979, and figures doubled in 1980. The popularity of home video gaming was growing rapidly by now.
Here’s a list of some other consoles that were successful during this period:
- Magnavox Odyssey 2
- Bally Astrocade
- Emerson Arcadia
- RCA Studio II
- 1292 Advanced Programmable Video System
The second generation of video game consoles also included the first handheld consoles. Milton-Bradley released its Microvision model in 1979, but this was soon discontinued due to a lack of demand. The Japanese company Nintendo was far more successful with their Game & Watch series. It was this series that really kickstarted handheld gaming, and models were sold for well over a decade.
Third Generation Consoles
The third generation of consoles began in 1983. This is when Nintendo released its Family Computer model. Commonly abbreviated to Famicom, this would later become known as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).
Nintendo’s new console supported much more advanced games. The graphics now featured high-resolution sprites and smooth, multi-directional scrolling. Up to 32 colors could be used on screen at once, and the audio was greatly improved too. The introduction of tile-based playfields improved the depth and scope of the gaming experience.
When the NES was released, video gaming in North America had just gone through a major crash. The industry was dominated by Atari at the time, but was decimated for a number of reasons. The market had become saturated with too many different systems, and there had been a string of low-quality games. Personal home computers were also becoming popular for the first time.
The NES helped to revitalize video gaming in North America. They restricted the number of games that third-party developers could create, thus preventing one of the issues that led to the decline of Atari. There were fewer games to choose from, but the overall quality was much higher. Popular games in this period included the following:
- Super Mario Bros.
- The Legend of Zelda
- Final Fantasy
- Mega Man 2
- Dragon Quest
In 1985, Sega released the Sega Master System. This was even more advanced than the NES, and Sega hoped to compete for a share of the North American market. It largely failed though, as the NES had already gained a large following. The Sega Master System did dominate in other emerging markets though, such as Europe and South America.
The Sega Master System and the NES were the only two third generation consoles of note. Atari attempted to regain its place in the market with two new models (the 7800 and the XEGS), but was ultimately unsuccessful. Although the company sold enough units to recover from previous financial losses, it couldn’t compete with the newfound popularity of Nintendo and Sega.
Nintendo also introduced a new handheld console during this period. The Gameboy was launched in 1989, and was an instant success. It would go on to dominate the handheld gaming market for 15 years.
Fourth Generation Consoles
In 1987, NEC Home Electronics released the PC Engine console in Japan. This was released in the United States two years later, as the TurboGrafx-16. It was the first console to use a 16-bit microprocessor, and it marked the start of the fourth generation.
The use of 16-bit processors made the fourth generation of consoles significantly more advanced than the previous generation. Graphics took another big step forward, and stereo audio was available for the first time. Some of the consoles also utilized CD-ROMs, allowing for much larger games due to the increased storage space. Full motion video could also be played for the first time.
Although NEC was first to market with a fourth generation console, this era of video gaming was dominated by Nintendo and Sega. They both comfortably outsold NEC with their new models, which we’ll now look at in a bit of detail.
Sega Genesis/Mega Drive
Sega launched their fourth generation in 1998. It was initially released in Japan as the Sega Mega Drive, and then in North America as the Sega Genesis. European and Australian releases came in 1990, again using the Mega Drive name.
The hardware used in the Mega Drive was adapted from the hardware used in Sega’s coin-operated arcade games. Sega sold the console with an almost perfect port of their popular arcade game Altered Beast, which greatly contributed to its success. They followed up with several more arcade ports too.
A big part of Sega’s success in this era was due to the release of the first Sonic the Hedgehog game. This proved to be IMMENSELY popular with both gamers and critics alike. It was considered one of the best video games ever made at the time.
Super Famicom/Super Nintendo Entertainment System
Nintendo was a little behind Sega with its fourth generation console. It didn’t release the Super Famicom in Japan until 1990, whereas the Sega Mega Drive had already been out for two years. The console was then released in North America in 1991, where it was known as the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES).
The Sega Genesis had already gained a strong foothold in North America, but the SNES soon caught up. This marked the start of the infamous console war between Nintendo and Sega. It would continue throughout the 1990s, without a clear winner. Nintendo consistently sold more units worldwide than Sega, but never managed to truly dominate the market.
Following the launch of the SNES, Nintendo initially continued with its policy of restricting the number of games released. Every game had to be directly approved by Nintendo, and third-party developers were limited to releasing just five games per year.
As the game library for the Mega Drive grew, Nintendo eventually had to change its policy. This led to a much greater variety of games for the SNES, which improved the console’s popularity even further. Nintendo’s own games still tended to be the best-sellers though.
There were a few other consoles released during this era, but none of them had much impact. Nintendo and Sega were the clear market leaders, and no-one looked like they were challenging them. That was all about to change though.
Fifth Generation Consoles
The next era of video game consoles saw several new models released. Atari returned to the market with an early fifth generation model, and Sony introduced its first console, too. There was a new player in The 3DO Company, while Sega and Nintendo also kept up with developments.
Rather appropriately, there was a total of five fifth generation consoles that made an impact. Here’s a full list of them in the order they were released:
- 3DO Interactive Multiplayer (1993)
- Atari Jaguar (1993)
- Sega Saturn (1994)
- Sony PlayStation (1994)
- Nintendo 64 (1996)
Neither of the first two consoles on this list were hugely successful. They were both more powerful than the existing fourth generation consoles at the time, but they were unable to compete with the popularity of the Sega Mega Drive and the SNES. The 3DO sold around 2 million units, while the Atari Jaguar sold just 250,000.
Sega released the Saturn console as a follow up to its Mega Drive/Genesis model. It was more technologically advanced than its predecessor, and was initially well received. However, it was difficult to write games for. This somewhat alienated the third-party developers, which led to a limited number of games. The Saturn sold just over 9 million units in total.
Sony’s debut console, the PlayStation, brought an end to the dominance of Sega and Nintendo. It was extremely easy to program games for, and Sony actively courted third-party developers. This ensured that there would soon be a large library of games, many of which were very high quality. The PlayStation would go on to sell over 100 million units.
Nintendo once again launched its new model later than its competitors. Did this have any impact on the success of their new console? It’s tough to know for sure, but it certainly couldn’t have helped. The Sony PlayStation was already proving popular by the time the Nintendo 64 was launched.
The Nintendo 64 sold over 30 million units, making it the second most successful console in the fifth generation era. It may have sold more had it not stuck with using cartridges for games instead of CDs. Cartridges were more expensive to manufacture than CDs, and this deterred the game developers. Nintendo’s own games continued to prove popular, but the overall range of games was severely lacking compared to the PlayStation.
The success of the PlayStation gave Sony a great foundation to build from. Their dominance continued into the sixth generation of consoles.
Sixth Generation Consoles
Towards the end of the 20th century, PC gaming was becoming a lot more popular. This was partly due to the relatively new phenomenon of ONLINE gaming. People with home computers connected to the Internet could play games against opponents from all over the world, and an increasing number of online games were free to play.
The major console manufacturers had to react to this if they were not to be left behind. As a result, most of the sixth generation consoles came with built-in modems. New software platforms were developed too, to allow for games to be played online.
There were four notable consoles during this era. We’ve listed these below, in chronological order of their release:
- Sega Dreamcast (1998)
- Sony PlayStation 2 (2000)
- Nintendo GameCube (2001)
- Microsoft Xbox (2001)
Sega introduced the first console with online capabilities. The company hoped to recapture some market share by being early movers in this regard, but their Dreamcast model was ultimately a flop. Although there was a brief period of success in North America, this soon ended when the PlayStation 2 was released.
The Dreamcast would be Sega’s last console. A total of 9 million units were sold before the model was discontinued in 2001. At that point, Sega decided to concentrate solely on developing and publishing games.
Sony’s PlayStation 2 was more than just a console, as it also served as a DVD player. It would surely have been successful without this feature, but it’s dual function helped at a time when DVD players were still relatively expensive. The PlayStation 2 was an instant hit, and went on to become the best-selling console of all time. Over 150 million units were sold worldwide.
Nintendo’s sixth generation console was its first model not to use cartridges. The GameCube used optical discs instead, reducing the cost of manufacturing games. This wasn’t enough to restore Nintendo to its previous glories though, and the GameCube was nowhere near as popular as the PlayStation 2. Just over 20 million units were sold during its six-year lifespan.
A particularly interesting development during this era was the entrance of Microsoft into the home video game console market.
The Microsoft Xbox was not especially revolutionary. It was a powerful console, but not more so than the PlayStation 2. It did become the second best-selling console of this generation though. This was partially due to the amazing success of Halo. This first-person shooter game was incredibly popular, and helped establish Microsoft’s online gaming platform.
Seventh Generation Consoles
The seventh generation of consoles brought about some significant developments. We had high-definition video in games for the first time, and wireless controllers were introduced. New technology also meant that physical motion could be used as an input for games.
Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo all introduced new models during this era. Microsoft were first, launching the Xbox 360 in 2005. This console suffered from a number of hardware problems after its release, which cost Microsoft over $1 billion to fix. The Xbox 360 was a resounding success nonetheless, shifting around 84 million units.
Sony released their next console the following year. The hugely anticipated Sony PlayStation 3 came with a built-in hard drive and Blu-ray capability. It was also the first console to support HDMI, allowing for a better quality display. Sony sold roughly 85 million units, just beating Microsoft.
The Xbox and the PlayStation 3 both utilized motion-control technology, but Nintendo took things to whole different level with their Wii console.
Nintendo’s Wii console was based ENTIRELY on motion-control technology. The “Wii Remote” was the primary controller, and it used cutting-edge infrared and sensor technology. Players used the controller simply by moving it around, with their actions determining what happened on screen.
The Wii put Nintendo back at the top of the home console market. It outsold both the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3, with total sales of over 100 million units.
Eighth Generation Consoles
Eighth generation consoles are the latest models on the market. For the most part, they didn’t really introduce anything new. They were effectively just enhancements of previous models, with a greater focus on integration with other media and increased connectivity. The three most notable models are as follows:
- Nintendo Wii U (2012)
- Sony PlayStation 4 (2013)
- Microsoft Xbox One (2013)
Sales of all these models are currently significantly lower than for their seventh generation counterparts. There are any number of reasons that could explain this, but the increase in mobile gaming is especially relevant.
Smartphones and tablets are far more powerful than they used to be, and there’s an amazing variety of games available for them. These games are mostly low cost, if not free. They’re obviously not on the same scale as the biggest and best console games, but they can still offer a great gaming experience.
It’s likely that mobile devices will become even more prevalent in the home video gaming market in the future. The evolution of consoles is not yet complete though, as Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft are already working on new models. We have no idea what the ninth generation of consoles will look like right now, but we’re sure looking forward to finding out!