Pretty much anyone over the age of 30 can tell you how far gaming has come since the early 80’s. We’ve gone from white rectangles hitting a white square across the screen to movie-quality graphics and deep storytelling. There have been dozens of home consoles released since the mid-70s, but things didn’t really catch on until 1986. Since then, gamers of all ages have had at least one of these machines in their home.
The early years of gaming were populated by various machines such as Atari, ColecoVision and Intellivision. All these systems were state of the art (at the time), but high costs hurt sales. ColecoVision shut down after only a couple years, and Intellivision soon after. Atari continued chugging along, but sales were still slow. Home computers were coming out around the same time, and families seemed to prefer an educational tool over a gaming machine.
Things started to change in 1986 when two console giants released home systems. Nintendo released the NES and Sega released the Master System. Both systems blew gamers away, but as home consoles were still more of a luxury at the time, only one could emerge victorious. With games like Mario, Zelda and Metroid it didn’t take long for Nintendo to dominate the market.
In 1989, both Nintendo and Atari tried something different. Nintendo decided to make gaming more portable and released the GameBoy, a handheld system that had all the features of the NES, but on a little tiny screen. Meanwhile, Atari released the Lynx. While both systems were great, the Gameboy absolutely obliterated the Lynx in sales. While these companies were dominating the handheld market, Sega swept in and released their new home console, the Sega Genesis. This newer, more powerful machine was meant to challenge the still popular NES, and it was a worthy opponent. To date, the Genesis remains Sega’s top selling console. Of course, Nintendo had something else on the horizon.
1991 brought about the release of the Super Nintendo, the successor to the original NES. An improvement on the previous model in every possible way, many gamers still consider the SNES the best gaming system of all time. At the same time, Sega was starting to realize that the cartridge based systems of the last two decades were becoming obsolete so it released a CD based add-on for the Genesis called the Sega-CD. The SNES and Genesis kept the market going for the next few years, but a new gaming juggernaut was on the way…
While 1986 was the year that home gaming went mainstream, 1995 was the year that revolutionized it. Nintendo hired Sony to create a CD-based addon for the SNES. The partnership was shortlived, however, due to some behind the scenes drama. Nintendo stayed cartridge based, and Sony used the tech to create their own disc-based console called the Playstation. Almost immediately after hitting the market, the Playstation laid waste to everything in its path. It didn’t take long for this fancy new console to become the first gaming system to sell over 100 million units. While Nintendo kept going, there were casualties created from Sony’s domination. Though it was released prior to the Playstation, Sega’s new system (the Saturn) was basically ignored, selling less than 1/10th of Sony’s console. Faring even worse was Nintendo’s Virtual Boy, a misguided attempt at virtual reality. It flopped miserably, but as you’ll read later, they were on to something
The following year, Nintendo released their third generation console the Nintendo 64. This new system was their best yet, and gave us two of the best games of all time – Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Yet, despite the success of the these games, Sony’s continued to steamroll everything else and the Nintendo 64’s sales were less than expected. At least Nintendo had a colorized version of their classic Gameboy right around the corner.
1999 was the year that brought an end to one of the gaming giants. Sega announced another system, the Sega Dreamcast. It was a great system, but it was a victim of terrible timing. The Playstation was still selling like crazy, and Sony had just announced a followup system. The Dreamcast just couldn’t sustain itself in the already crowded marketplace, and after 2 short years Sega discontinued the console. It wasn’t long before Sega announced that they were withdrawing from the home console market and focusing their efforts on developing games.
As for the Playstation 2, it was released in late 2000 and set basically every record. To date, it is still the best selling home console of all time with over 155 million sold (over 50 million more than its predecessor). The PS2 remained on shelves for over a decade, and was still selling units even after newer consoles were released. Over 3500 games were released. It was one of the first consoles to offer online play (though that was a later addition). Multiple versions of the system released over the years, and every one of them was a success.
The next year brought about a major new player to the home console market and big changes to an existing one. After losing their dominance in the marketplace, Nintendo finally decided to move onto disc media and introduced the GameCube. The bad news was that much like Sega, they were no match for Sony. The Gamecube was considered a failure, so Nintendo had to rethink their strategy. Sony did receive some competition from the new kid on the block though – Microsoft entered the console market with the Xbox. It still couldn’t match the success of Sony, but at least it made people take notice.
The next few years of console gaming stayed relatively unchanged, but the handheld market was about to get hit with two major successes. Nintendo finally made a significant change to its Gameboy, and created the DS. This awesome little handheld with two screens and touch controls has eclipsed the sales of every gaming system in history except the PS2 (and is less than a million units away from beating it). If you take into account the different variations, including the 3DS models, over 200 million units have been sold. Sony also released their own handheld called the PSP, and it was also a massive hit.
2005-2006 saw the Big Three each release a new console. The PS3 and Xbox 360 were very similar to each other, and spent their entire lifespans in competition with each other. While they battled it out, it allowed Nintendo to stealthily sneak in with their unique new system, the Wii. This little gem offered something never available on home systems before – full motion control. For the first time, players wouldn’t just play the game, they were in the game. The Wii wasn’t without it’s problems, but it was so different from everything else available that it finally gave Nintendo the console success it hadn’t experienced since 1991. Sony and Microsoft made their own attempts at motion controls, but were nowhere near as popular as the Wii.
The latest console generation began in 2012, but this one had some fortune reversals. Nintendo’s newest setup, the WiiU, was sadly a major failure. It never caught on with people and quickly lost most 3rd party support. There were some real gems released on the system but it wasn’t enough – the WiiU had a tragically short lifespan. Sony’s and Microsoft’s new consoles, the PS4 and Xbox One respectively, were basically the same systems and offered similar features. Microsoft seriously botched their reveal, though, and initial sales were impacted. Instead of focusing on games, they spent more time talking about TV and sports. They also said online connectivity was required at all times, the kinect was needed to access half the features and that games could not be shared. The damage was done, and Sony took a quick lead and ran with it.
As of 2017, there are more options for gamers than ever before. Nintendo has just released a new hybrid home system/handheld, called the Switch. Sony has both the PS4 and the more powerful PS4pro. Microsoft has the Xbox one S and the Xbox one Scorpio on the way later this year. The 3DS is still dominating the handheld market. Retro systems are making a comeback. Smartphones and tablet give you access to 1000’s of games. It’s a great time to be a gamer.
Yet, there is still more to come. As mentioned above, the extremely impressive Scorpio should be out later this year. With specs that rival some high end PCs, this new system may have Sony watching its back. VR headsets are highly expensive at the moment, but once prices start dropping they will probably switch from novelty items to must haves. Microsoft has also made it so all Xbox games can be played on PC as well (and vice versa). A PS5 is rumored, and will stay a rumor for the foreseeable future. (Macquarie Capital Securities analyst Damian Thong predicting PS5 release in 2018 — Ed)
The big question is, can home consoles actually stay relevant?. For the last 30 years, they have been a part of many households, but the move to digital media could potentially put an end to the need for consoles. Why spend hundreds of dollars on a big box to play your games on when you can just download a game online and play it on any PC? There have been hints that the Scorpio will be the final console from Microsoft, but that’s just speculation at this point. If the Switch winds up failing, Nintendo may move from home consoles to becoming a third party developer similar to what Sega did (though don’t expect their games on a Sony platform anytime soon). If Sony is the only player in the game, prices will most likely go so high that the average person couldn’t afford it. Eventually a new player could enter the race *coughApplecough*, but for now let’s enjoy what we have.