The History of Gaming Consoles

July 11, 2023

The first video game console was the Magnavox Odyssey.  I've never played or seen it, but from what I understand it was very basic dots that you could play several different kind of games with.  I hadn't even heard of this console until researching this blog article.  There were more early consoles than I expected, but they were all very basic.  You can look those up in First generation of video game consoles, but I'm not going to spend time on them as I can't give much historical context for them.  

The Atari 2600 came out a few months after I was born, and was the first very popular video game system, selling around 30 million units, that's more than Xbox and GameCube to give some context.  In the early 80's, if anybody had a gaming console, it was the Atari 2600.  Pac Man was the best selling game, however it was not as good looking as the arcade version, second best selling game was Space Invaders, which I think most people enjoyed more than Pac Man.  Almost everyone had these two games.  Pitfall was one of the first multiscreen video games, where you could go from the right side of the screen and appear on the left.  I found it extraordinarily difficult, and didn't know anyone who could get very far in Pitfall.  During my young gaming life, Atari was synonymous with gaming.  

ColecoVision came out in 1982, but it only sold 500,000 units.  I only knew of one person who had it, and I remember not being very impressed.  I always thought it had come out before the 2600 until looking into it for this blog post.  

Then in 1983 the NES, or Nintendo entertainment system came out. It's hard to convey the level of awe that the system brought. I remember the first time I ever saw it, I was at a birthday party that was that one of those kids activity places. I think that this one was space-themed. I don't remember what the name of it was, or whose birthday it was, and I have no recreation of any room except for the waiting room where super Mario Brothers was being played by some kids there.

I had never seen anything like it before. It was so much better than the Atari, and even arcade video games that it was almost hard to believe that it could exist. For the first time I saw a character running across the screen and the screen scrolling at a fast pace to keep up, revealing a whole world inside of the video game. To this day there's never been a jump in technology of any kind that was so far ahead of its predecessor is this.

Soon everybody started getting the NES. One of the gimmicks it had was this gun that went with it and also could get a robot that only worked with one game and I don't think I've ever seen anybody play that game. Duck Hunt was the only thing I ever saw that used the gun but it was pretty fun. On top of being so advanced, the games were fun and some of them would go on to create franchises that still last of this day, like Zelda, Metroid, final fantasy, Kirby, Castlevania, and many others.

A few years later in 1986 the Sega Master system came out, but it wasn't great. Not better than the NES, at least in terms of quality of games, and I don't think I knew one person out of everybody I know who owned one. I had heard about it, and I know people did own them but nobody I knew. It was just some kind of weird alternative video game system that some people used.  Sega would make up for this with the release of the Sega Genesis in 1989.  It was heavily promoted as being 16 bit and Sonic the Hedgehog was the game they had to demo it's advanced capabilities.  It definitely looked better than the NES, and had versions of very popular arcade games like Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, and Altered Beast.

The TurboGrafx-16 came out in 1987 and was somewhat legendary.  I never actually saw one in action, but people talked about how it was more powerful than any other system out there, and with 10 million units sold there must have been some people using it but the price of $400 with no games was more than most people were willing to spend.  Remember to at this time, gaming consoles were mostly in the hands of kids and they had to wait for Christmas or birthdays to get a hold of one, so $400 was more than parents were willing to shell out.  Another problem is there is a huge benefit of owning the most popular gaming system because then you could trade games with your friends.  Maybe you owned 4 or 5 games, but after you beat them you could keep trading games and play 20 games for that system for the same price.  If you had one of the more obscure systems you had to buy every game you wanted to play.  

A year later in 1989 the Nintendo Gameboy came out, which made Tetris one of the most popular games.  It sold 118 million units which was the most of any gaming system up to that time.  It had new version of existing games that only came out for that system, and keep in mind, cell phones didn't exist, at least as we know them today, at this time, so all of a sudden a plane ride or waiting in a waiting room could be spent playing a pretty fun game.  

Later that same year the Arari Lynx came out but sold less than a million units.  It's was interesting that Atari was still in the game, but I didn't know of one person who owned one.  It did have pretty good graphics compared to the Nintendo Gameboy, but it had half the battery life.  Nintendo chose to have a less powerful system because they knew how important a long battery life would be. 

The Super NES came out a year later in 1990 and back on top with  49 million units sold vs 30 million for the Sega Genesis.  One of the main reasons Nintendo was able to keep a lead was higher quality games, especially by Nintendo.  It was especially exciting to be able to play the 16 bit versions of games like Mario and Zelda, plus it brought Donkey Kong back in Donkey Kong Country.  Shigeru Miyamoto was working at Nintendo, and was a true genius at making video games which gave Nintendo a huge edge.  He is to Nintendo what Stan Lee is to Marvel.

That same year Sega released their mobile gaming device, the Game Gear with 10 million units sold.  Not bad, but the Gameboy was so popular at this point I don't think any other mobile gaming device would have a chance.  

Phillips released a gaming system but it flopped with less than a million in units sold, also in 1990.  Possibly the busiest year in gaming console history.  I don't think most people even know it had come out, I couldn't name a single game or person who even talked about it.

The Sony PlayStation came out in 1994.  When we first heard about it, it seemed so odd for Sony, the makers of the Walkman and stereo equipment to release a gaming console, but with 102 million units sold, it quickly became the most popular console around.  Aside from the Gameboy, it was the best selling console of all time.  Suddenly out of no where Sony had become the leader in home gaming and it had some amazing games, Metal Gear Solid, Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night (Still the best Castelvania ever made in my opinion), Final Fantasy 7, and many more.  This was the beginning of 3D gaming, and also the beginning being able to load huge games, the PlayStation came equipped with a CD Rom instead of a cartridge.  

Later the same year the Sega Saturn came out, not making a big splash at all.  No real significant games on it, less than 10 million units sold.

Next the Nintendo 64 came out in 1996.  I remember there being a lot of anticipation at what Nintendo was going to do to compete with the PlayStation.  They understood 3D gaming was the future and their flagship came was Super Mario 64, Mario's first 3D outing, and I have to say it's one of the best Mario games ever made.  Zelda also first went 3D here, and was also considered one of the best Zelda games.  It sold 32 million units, not bad, but still pretty far from was Sony was doing.  

Two years later Sega Dreamcast came out, selling less than 10 million units again.  It had Crazy Taxi which was a decent game, and the console was actually pretty good, but I think people just stopped caring about Sega at this point.  After years of losing relevance, this would be the last console they would ever release and turned instead to being a pure software company.  

In 2000 the Playstation 2 game out, selling 155 million units, showing it was still the king of gaming consoles.  It upgraded the storage from CD-Rom to BluRay, and with Blu-ray players in 155 million households this helped BluRay become the standard for movies as well, defeating it's competitor HD DVD.  Grand Theft  Auto was a huge game for them, introducing people to the idea of huge worlds, never seen on a console before, and ushering video games into the modern era.  It was starting to feel like Sony had completely taken over the market.

A year later in 2001 Xbox was released by Microsoft.  There was a feeling at the time that Microsoft was going to have a tough time.  Microsoft had made some pretty decent flight simulators but nobody thought of as a gaming company.  If Microsoft is anything it is persistent, if it enters a new domain, like browsers, it will keep trying until it starts to figure stuff out.  24 million units were sold, not nearly as much as Sony, but not terrible.  It was a decent system.  

In the same year, GameCube game out, selling 21 million, just short of the Xbox.  There was a sense of disappointment at the ability of this system.  Graphics wise it wasn't up to par with either the PS2 or the Xbox.  Nintendo was going to rely on lower prices for consoles, and their huge catalog of well known games to keep relevant, but the future seemed unsure at this point.

Again in 2001, quite a busy year for gaming consoles, the Game Boy Advance came out, selling 81 million units, showed Nintendo still dominated the portable gaming space.  It was a decent upgrade over the previous version, and a good roster of games.

The Nintendo DS came out in 2004 selling 154 million units.  Adding touch screen, a stylus, and pretty good graphics for a mobile console, this brought me into the fray.  Playing a high quality Zelda game to kill 5 hours on a plane was great.  With those sales, apparently everybody else thought so too.  

The same year the PlayStation portable came out. It sold 80 million units however I honestly never knew anybody or even heard of anybody who owned one. I don't know where all of those units went.

In 2005 the Xbox 360 came out, selling 84 million units. This was a gain in quality over their previous version and people started to recognize that Xbox was a serious force now in the gaming arena. With a much sleeker look and some modifications to the controller as well as some pretty good games that were exclusive, Xbox was going to be a force to contend with. It seemed at this point it was going to be a battle between Sony and Microsoft for dominance of the console market.

However one year later in 2006 the Nintendo Wii came out. With a lower price point and new motion technology with the controllers as well as some interesting new titles to take advantage of that technology, just when you thought Nintendo was about to go the way of Sega, it comes back in a big way selling over a hundred million units. The Nintendo Wii was more than a new video game system on the market, it was getting new demographics of people who previously hadn't been interested in video games, with things like sports games, or you didn't have to worry about a controller, parents who had never played video games before were all of a sudden interested. On top of that of course you had the old favorites coming back with Mario and Zelda among many others. This was really a genius move by Nintendo, they knew they weren't going to win with graphics, so they came up with another angle that was a big innovation to this industry.

Next to PlayStation 3 came out in 2006 selling 87 million units, nothing much to say about it it was really just an upgrade of the previous version with some good games. From this point on Sony and Microsoft are the two systems to get the most news, however the PlayStation generally out sells the Xbox by about two to one. This brings us into the current era of gaming systems. One thing you can note is the super NES classic coming out in 2017, only selling 5 million units however it allow you to play all the old games from the Nintendo 

One other thing to note is the arrival of the HTC Vive. Up until that device, virtual reality was a pretty poor experience, I remember first seeing the Vive and having an interesting experience of putting it on and then thinking it wasn't on until I realized that I was looking at a wall in a video game and not the wall in real life before I put the headset on. It was a cool experience and I played around with it for maybe 20-30 minutes, and then didn't go back to it. This seems to be a lot of people's experience, and I think there's a great possibility that the future of gaming is going to involve virtual reality headsets, but there's still something missing. I'm not sure what it is, it could be the bulkiness of the headset, the resolution not quite getting us anywhere near reality yet, or maybe that one game that truly takes advantage of the medium and really immerses you in a whole different world. Only the future will let us know what the next big gaming breakthrough is going to be.

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