30 Years of Consoles, Abridged: What Worked?

Prior to the release of the Sega Dreamcast in 1998, game consoles were designed to do one thing: play games. You popped your cartridge into your black/brown/soon-to-be eggshell coloured console and turned it on. A splash screen of bright colours and catchy tunes played and you were in.

Life was simpler back then. In 2017, people are building borderline supercomputers to play games at the highest graphical fidelity possible. To some, the strength of the machine is a huge determining factor when buying a console. But that didn’t matter in 1985.

With only games to keep us entertained, console manufacturers like Nintendo and SEGA needed strong libraries of games to sell their consoles. The SEGA Master System had more powerful hardware than the NES, but Nintendo had a policy of “restricting developers from publishing and distributing software without licensed approval” from Nintendo.

This resulted created a strong library of exclusive games for the NES, while simultaneously keeping those developers from making those same games for the Master System. At the end of its lifecycle, the NES outsold the Master System by an almost 3:1 ratio, selling 62 million units to the Master System’s 21 million.

The SNES did not have this same policy, but is regarded by many as having a lineup of critically successful games, both in-house and third party, such as Super Mario World, Final Fantasy VI, and Street Fighter II.

Learning from their mistakes, SEGA had a much higher output of quality games for the SEGA Genesis than they did for the Master System. Catering to a more “mature” audience with sports games, action games and offbeat games, the SEGA Genesis sold an impressive 30m by the end of its lifecycle. While not catching up to the SNES’s 49 million sales, it helped carve a niche in the gaming market for more mature audiences, due in part to the development of the ESRB as a consequence of Mortal Kombat’s delightfully violent inception.

SEGA and Nintendo were big players for about a decade, but there was a new player about to enter the scene. After falling out with Nintendo over the development of the Nintendo PlayStation, Sony took matters into their own hands.

Sony took a different approach with the PlayStation; where SEGA and Nintendo focused mainly on first party games (which did yield some long-standing first party franchises) and didn’t interfere much with third-party companies, Sony put a stronger emphasis on relationships with third-party developers. As a result, developers flocked to the machine and created hits such as Tomb Raider, Crash Bandicoot and Final Fantasy VII. Capping off at 102 million sales before the end of production, it was far and away the most successful console of the time.

Their reputation, both with game enthusiasts and developers, would follow them into the release of the PlayStation 2. Boasting both backwards compatibility with PlayStation 1 games and DVD/CD playback, the PS2 had a tremendous launch, shipping 6 million consoles in only 8 months.

Because of the trust built with developers during the PS1 era, devs brought their talents over to the PS2, giving it an obscenely large library of games to choose from, with sleeper hits (Okami, Beyond Good and Evil, Ico) and blockbusters (Grand Theft Auto trilogy, Metal Gear Solid 2, Kingdom Hearts) alike.

Despite being the weakest console on the market, the PS2 sold a metric fuck-ton, an amount equal to about 155 million units.

SEGA’s Dreamcast made a valiant effort with their console, shipping with a dial-up modem, giving the console itself internet connectivity. The Dreamcast utilized SegaNet, an online service where users could play games with other users online and download additional content for their games.

Despite the innovation, however, there were some serious flaws. While it did ship with a dial-up modem, broadband was the more widely adopted Internet access format at the time, which helped hinder the Internet capabilities of the consoles. It came packaged with a memory card, like most consoles at the time, but the size of the downloadable content was limited to accommodate the limitations of both the memory card and its Internet access.

The Dreamcast was a sleeper hit among game enthusiasts, but considered a commercial failure by most metrics and as a result, was SEGA’s last console. But in the ashes of the Dreamcast and SegaNet, a new competitor was born: Microsoft’s Xbox.

Microsoft is known as the company who created Windows, the PC operating that held a virtual monopoly on the market, so much so that Microsoft was actually “accused of becoming a monopoly and engaging in anti-competitive practices.”

The Xbox built upon the multimedia capabilities that the PS2 started. In addition to a DVD-ROM drive, it also allowed users to rip songs directly from music CDs onto the newly added internal hard-drive, with some games allowing players to use those songs as a custom soundtrack. All in all, the Xbox carved a neat little niche in the market, putting PC hardware into a console form-factor and brought multiple facets of PCs to consoles.

But while people came for the Xbox, they stayed for Xbox Live, a service going strong 15 years after its inception.

Where the Dreamcast and SegaNet had limited storage capacity and slow Internet connectivity, respectively, the Xbox and Xbox Live both had large internal storage which allowed for bigger files of downloadable content and was quick enough to download them at a reasonable pace. Much like the Dreamcast, Xbox Live allowed users to play games together via an Internet connection, with the added benefit of communicating via voice chat.

(the addition of voice chat had made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move)

Coupled with a polished online service and a marketing push in the way of gold labels on the covers of Xbox Live compatible games (e.g., Brute Force), the original Xbox managed to exceed the GameCube’s sales before the end of its life cycle by 2 million units, despite releasing a year later. A new competitor, overtaking an industry veteran, in a shorter amount of time. An impressive feat.

The quintessential example of Xbox Live’s capabilities was seen in Halo 2, a game so influential, The Province’s Paul Chapman wrote, “I am currently addicted to Modern Warfare 2 online play, and none of the games we play like this today would be as much fun if it wasn’t for the ground broken by Halo 2.” With voice chat, matchmaking and downloadable content, it’s hard to imagine what gaming would be like without Halo 2.

Building on that success, Microsoft came out with what would be one of the most influential consoles of the last 12 years. With the Xbox 360, Microsoft doubled down on their online services. With better graphics, downloadable media, apps, Achievements, a refined user matchmaking system, clean interface and an excellent selection of timed exclusive titles in the form of Xbox Live Arcade games, it’s no surprise that the Xbox 360 was one of the best all-around game consoles in terms of what it offered its consumers.

Home consoles are decades old at this point, over 4 decades old at the time of writing. For at least half that time, home consoles reigned supreme. But in 1989, Nintendo struck gold and produced something that would fundamentally change the way we consumed games.

A departure from the Game and Watch, where the game was the console, the Game Boy was Nintendo’s first crack at a handheld console where you could buy games and take them with you on the go. At the same time, Epyx created the Atari Lynx, the first color handheld gaming console. It sported a backlit display, something not seen in the Game Boy line for over a decade, an ambidextrous configuration and cable-based network capabilities.

While innovative for the time, the Lynx couldn’t keep up with the Game Boy. An excellent battery life, sturdy hardware and killer apps such as Tetris (who some would call the perfect game) were all things the Game Boy had over the Lynx, resulting in the Game Boy and the Game Boy Color sold over 118 million units, drowning the Atari Lynx.

The Game Boy Advance succeeded the original Game Boy, with hardware comparable to that of the SNES. With the help of SNES ports and original games such as various Pokemon games, Wario Land 4 and Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga, the console managed to sell 82 million units before being discontinued. This is including the Game Boy Advance SP, which fixed the GBA’s missing backlight issue. It could also be folded in half to save space, which is a feature that Nintendo would use in their next handheld console, the behemoth that is the Nintendo DS.

The Nintendo DS was the first handheld console to successfully utilize two LED screens, one of which being a touch screen. Allowing users “to play intuitively,” the touch screen offered a new touch input for users, creating new gameplay opportunities, in a mobile form factor.

Appealing to both casual and core audiences, the Nintendo DS had a wide range of games. Everything from a Tamagotchi-style game in the form of Nintendogs, to a mobile version of the widely popular Mario Kart series.

Before the end of its life cycle, the Nintendo DS sold a whopping 154 million units across all members of the Nintendo DS family. Just 1 million short of the PlayStation 2.

Sony was somewhat successful with their attempt at a handheld console. In fact, the original PlayStation Portable sold 82 million units, more than the industry saving NES and matching the Game Boy Advance. With more powerful hardware than Nintendo’s line of handhelds, the PSP offered a PlayStation experience on the go. While initially lacking support, the PSP was later supported by hits, such as God of War: Chains of Olympus, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, and Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars.

This is, in no way, shape, or form, a comprehensive list of every console of the last 30 years. It’s not even every notable one.

What it is, however, is a list of all the consoles that were the best in their class in one way or another. Each one of them had their own “X” factor that allowed them to succeed. There is no denying that there is something about each of those consoles that made them special.


But what about current gen consoles? What is their “X” factor?

Stay tuned for more.


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