A History of Modern Video Game Consoles

Ellie O’Sullivan, Junior, Co-Editor-in-Chief

With the launch of the XBox Series X/S on November 10th and the release of the PlayStation 5 just two days later, it might be fun to take a look back at the history of video game consoles so as to see the full context of what these ‘console wars’ look like in context.

The earliest video game consoles as we would recognize them today showed up in around the mid-70’s. The most notable from this time period being the Magnavox Odyssey released in 1972, the Atari #2600, released in 1977, and the Intellivision in 1980. Of course there are others, but these are the main consoles you may come across when discussing that of the “1st” and “2nd” generation consoles. A few games that existed for this generation included Space Invaders, Pac Man, and Breakout, to name a few. At this point in time, home consoles were advertised as more of a novelty than anything else, being that the main mode of consuming video games would have been at a local arcade. 

One could argue that the Nintendo Entertainment System making its first ever appearance in 1985 kicked off the 3rd generation and really started what we know as video games today. The NES was a revolution for what was then the gaming industry, introducing groundbreaking games such as Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and Metroid. The gaming industry had recently experienced a huge crash in 1983 after major oversaturation of the market, and it was games like these that turned the tides and reignited an interest in the general public. Sega, releasing the Sega Master System just one year after the NES, would become Nintendo’s biggest competitor in the 80’s-90’s. The Master System, however, did not have any titles as influential as the few stated previously, and the system was meant instead to port some more popular arcade games over to the home consoles. Nintendo had some tight licensing deals with 3rd party game developers, meaning no games from the NES could be brought over to the MSSega’s failure to create some memorable franchises early on despite this could arguably be attributed to the company’s later halt of system production.

The fourth generation of consoles spanned from around 1987-1994. Tensions between Nintendo and Sega heightened the most during this period of time. Sega had a head start, releasing the Sega Genesis a full 3 years before Nintendo could release the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, or the SNES. This console was the first to introduce the now wildly popular franchise Sonic the Hedgehog and had one of the first instances of using a Disney license in a video game, of which came Disney’s Aladdin. The real edge that Sega got from this period is seen in the 1993 congressional hearings on video game violence. The United States’ courts were beginning to question the impact that playing violence-based games would have on the youth. The games Night Trap and Mortal Kombat acted as catalysts to this controversy as their gameplay included some ‘graphic’ depictions of violence and fighting. Mortal Kombat featured photo-realistic sprites decapitating their foes and impaling them on spikes. However, nothing got the public more nervous than Night Trap, an interactive movie-game which let the player’s choices affect the end of the story. The game would picture not only scenes of violence, but some other content that could have been viewed as sexually suggestive. Nintendo, at this conference, painted themselves as a family-friendly company that would never feature such offensive games or censor them at the very least. Sega, however, still had ports for these controversial games, making them the go-to for players that wanted a more mature experience. Despite this, The SNES still outsold the Genesis but only by a few million copies, likely because of the strong base of fans they made from the classics in their previous generation.

Sony finally entered the picture with the PlayStation in 1994, kicking off the 5th generation of home consoles. That same year, Sega would release the Saturn, which would sell a total of 9.26 million copies worldwide. Though their library during this time was sufficient enough, there was no lasting impact on players in the games that were offered for the system. While almost 10 million copies seems like quite enough, compared to Sony’s 102.49 million console sales, it’s suffice to say that Sega would be nearing the end of its career as a console manufacturer. However, both systems had one feature that would turn the world of video games on its head – the use of CDs. Up until this point, consoles had used primarily cartridges as the means to play a game. With the new use of CDs, however, suddenly the technical capabilities of systems could go much farther. As Sony is now a console super power, it’s almost funny to think that they began after a sour business deal with Nintendo over hardware manufacturing. PlayStation brought some of the most iconic and well known games that we all recognize today, Final Fantasy 7, Metal Gear Solid, Resident Evil, Silent Hill. Crash Bandicoot, and Grand Theft Auto to name just a few. Similar to Nintendo, these games are what kept the user-base enthused and willing to come back for more. Two years later, in 1996, Nintendo would release one of its first struggling consoles, the Nintendo 64. In comparison to the Saturn, it didn’t do so badly, with 60 million sales under its belt. Many pointed to Nintendo’s refusal of adopting the CD media method and sticking to cartridges as the most major fault of this product. Even so, Nintendp couldn’t do much more as nothing during this time would have even compared to the Playstation.

The 6th generation, yet again, saw Sony take the cake. At this point, Sony had name recognition on their side, so when they announced the PlayStation 2, the money was practically already in their hands. The console outsold all of its competitors with a whopping 155 million units sold. Their game gallery only expanded, and their fanbase only grew stronger during this time – the 6th generation was truly Sony’s hayday. Sega had one last hurrah with producing the Dreamcast, but the console undersold yet again with only about 9 million copies sold. Having lost too much money, Sega finally packed up and made an exit from the console making market. They would continue to profit off of licensing of Sonic and so on, but this would still mean the end of any more Sega hardware. It seemed as though Nintendo were arriving to a similar end at this point too; the GameCube only sold about 21 million copies. Even with the addition of fan favorite games, like Super Smash Bros., Pikmin, and Luigi’s Mansion, there was still too little interest. The most unexpected turn of events came when Microsoft waltzed into E3 2001 and announced their very own XBox. The console did surprisingly well for a brand new competitor in the era of the PlayStation 2. This is due in large part to the launch release of Halo with each unit. This game revolutionized the future of online shooters and gaming as a whole. Microsoft implemented an easy to use online multiplayer system that allowed each user to play with their friends without having to be in the same building or on the same console as them. Had it not been for this game, the sales of the XBox would have likely been much worse. 

Nintendo, after seeing the poor sales of the GameCube and N64, decided to throw caution to the wind and make the Nintendo Wii, a console that outsold its competitors by a margin of at least 20 million. The Wii was released in 2006 and had a feature that up until that point, was never truly seen before: motion controls. The console manufactured and adapted games to these controls so as to create an immersive and enjoyable experience for people of all ages. While some controllers can seem very overwhelming with all of their buttons and triggers – the Wii-mote was easy to just aim and click at the TV. This addition reached an incredibly large range of people in the world, as the comprehensive controls were easily understandable across generations. While Nintendo’s console appealed to all ages, it did alienate the surprisingly large demographic of people that wanted to play ‘real’ games, or at least more mature games with the old tried and true set-ups. This left the biggest competition to Sony and Microsoft. Sony took their biggest blunder during the 7th generation. They thought that they would have the same success with the PlayStation 3 as they did with the PS2. Their biggest mistakes were the pricing, hardware, and marketing. Sony read the room completely wrong: Nintendo already had the whole family-friendly thing in the bag, and the PS3 completely missed its chance to market itself as a console for serious players. Instead, they began campaigns about how the console would work for the whole family with all of its new features. This is where the second flaw comes in. The PS3 just had hardware that had features that weren’t necessary and were way too expensive to manufacture. This led to an original price ranging from $500-$600; this was way more expensive than the XBox 360, which was going for $400. Not to mention that the engine the PS3 ran on was incredibly hard to understand and create games for. This led to most games in the PS3 library simply being ports of games that were already made for the XBox, simply because it was easier to create games that way. Even though Sony had some pretty big mistakes under its belt, Microsoft would proceed to have some much larger hardware problems and breaks in user trust. Neither console was perfect, and both of their flaws led to an extremely close call in who had better sales overall. In the end, the 7th generation ended with the PlayStation 3 just having more sales over the 360. Even so, Sony and Microsoft knew that they would have to step it up for their next releases.

Last but certainly not least, the 8th generation. Nintendo began the 8th generation with the Wii U, a hilariously underperforming console that only proved Nintendo’s fear of branching out. Nintendo thought that if they pulled a Sony and slapped the name Wii on a console, anyone would want to buy it. There is something to also be said for the idea of having a separate screen in front of you when playing a game; however this would ultimately become obsolete and one of the most underused features of the system. Not to say that it wasn’t helpful to be able to have the game in front of you when someone else wants to use the TV, but the screen is so small, the controller in itself uncomfortable, and the audio tinny. This feature ended up bein much more trouble than it was worth. You couldn’t leave the room if you wanted to play on your Wii U, and you would have to stay within a certain amount of distance from the actual solid console. Nintendo saw all of the flaws that accompanied this, and knew that they had to make some changes. Almost 5 years later, the world got the Nintendo Switch. This console took all of the cool ideas from its predecessor, but made it better. Suddenly the controllers were removable, the screen bigger, and the actual engine and processor being inside of the screen – removing the need for an entirely separate console. There are still some residual hardware issues, but the positives, especially in this system, greatly outweigh the negatives. Yet again it was Sony and Microsoft, head to head. Except this time, there wasn’t much of a contest. The PlayStation 4 upgraded to a better processor that was much less complex than that of the PS3’s, lowered its original asking price to only about $400, and simply took note of the features that consumers outwardly said they wouldn’t like. The XBox is often praised for having a better system for online play, which is true; if there’s one thing that the next generation console from Sony can benefit from, it’s a more advanced online multiplayer system. When it comes to exclusive games, Sony almost always has the better third party developer deals. Even things as inconsequential as user-interface affected people’s opinion of these consoles. In the end, the PS4 would outsell the XBox One by almost 60 million copies. With future launches from Sony and Microsoft just days away, it’s going to be hard to tell which console is really going to pull through. Each one has their own merits, but a conclusion can only really be made in hindsight. It may take a long time before a comprehensive analysis of the next generation’s console wars can be made.