If you were someone who liked video games as a kid (and frankly, this is a weird article to read if you weren’t), then your childhood was dominated by one question: what console were you? The formative years of your life forced you to take sides between Mega Drive or SNES, PlayStation or Xbox, and, erm, Jaguar or Amiga CD32.
The console you owned was your status symbol, a representation of who you were. Throughout the decades, there were clear winners and losers in the console wars. In fact, although marketing teams played up these hated clashes between consoles, the winners usually turned out to be both sides. Sales rocket with every newly hyped console war, as millions of units are sold across the world each year. It’s a booming industry, that began with a simple Odyssey 45 years ago…
The Early Years
It’s 1972, and you probably haven’t been born yet. However, the birth of home consoles had arrived with a beautiful baby console, that had a terrifying name: the Magnavox Odyssey. It looked a little like a white version of those little mouse droid things that puttered around the Death Star. The Odyssey sold bucket-loads, which pricked up the ears of another gaming company called Atari. In 1977, they put out the Atari 2600, which did even better than the Odyssey. Its impressive sales was helped by ports of popular arcade games like Pac-Man and Space Invaders, as well as original Atari titles like Combat and Soccer. Like their names, Atari games weren’t complicated, the technology of the time didn’t allow them to be. But they did exactly what they said on the tin, and people loved them for it.
Then Atari made a video game based on E.T., and everything went catastrophically wrong. They misjudged the gaming market massively, by over-producing copies of the game. They also forget how to make a playable video game, by refusing to allow E.T. to have any discernible gameplay. The result played a part of the video game crash of 1983, and millions of unsold cartridges were allegedly buried in the the New Mexico Desert.
For a few years, the console market was dead. But in 1985, Nintendo offered a chance of a resurrection with the NES (Nintendo Entertainment System). Following up on making successful arcade titles, Nintendo decided to leap into console design with excellent results. The NES was ridiculously popular, far more so than any home console that came before it. With titles such as the Super Mario Bros. series, and Duck Hunt, the NES heralded the second coming of console gaming.
Another Japanese game developer wanted in on the action too, and so in 1986, the Sega Master System arrived. It had some great games (and Alex Kidd, oh how we hated you Alex Kidd), but largely it was an attempt to clone the NES. It worked for Sega though, and like the NES, its sales helped to fund the next wave of consoles. Sega and Nintendo were doubling down too, because 8-bits, were about to become 16-bits.
The 16-Bit Era
Sega were quick off the blocks in establishing the 16-bit era. The Sega Mega Drive (or Genesis if you lived in America), hit the shelves in 1988. The sleek, black console was a marketing wet-dream. Gone were the blocky, basic builds of consoles gone by. Sega had decided to up-sell their trendy new console to a teenage market, and it worked like gangbusters. With a cool design and gorgeous colourful sprites at the heart of the Mega Drive, the potential for consoles had become hugely apparent to the industry.
Nintendo, of course, would match Sega, and in 1991 they released the NES sequel: the Super NES. Which was, well, super. Throughout the early nineties then, Sega and Nintendo dominated the home console market. Their two 16-bit marvels were everywhere, but often not in the same room, at the same time. Because no-one had both. You were Sega or Nintendo, like you were either Oasis or Blur. There was no middle ground, only black-and-white binary choices. Deal with it, kid.
— happyconsolepeasant (@hconsolepeasant) April 1, 2017
Sega and Nintendo also went portable in the nineties. With the sublime Game Boy, and the battery-draining Game Gear, the technology was now there to put consoles into your pocket. If you had very large pockets, that is. Much like they did with their console builds, Sega would go on to admit defeat in portable gaming. And despite brief, and failed, challenges to their throne from Sony, Ninty still corner this particular market. The Game Boy, 3DS, and now the Switch, have revolutionised portable consoles, and sold millions in the process.
The Next Generation
Despite the excellent N64, and the criminally under-rated Dreamcast, Nintendo and Sega came up short in the next wave of home gaming. They were out-gunned by the new boys in the console world, Sony and Microsoft. The release of the Sony PlayStation in 1997 completely changed the landscape. Much like Sega did with the Mega Drive 9 years before, Sony made gaming trendy again with the PlayStation. They didn’t just sell them to kids and teenagers, but to young adults with disposable income who grew up in the 16-bit era. Games like Wipeout, Tomb Raider, and Metal Gear Solid, captured the imagination of this generation. And these gaming franchises live on to this day, continuing to influence just about everyone – in, and out, of the gaming world.
Microsoft initially made a stuttering entrance to the home console market with the first Xbox in 2001. But they’ve grown in stature and quality throughout the years, offering a unique mix of PC-style hardware and console arcade games. This attempt to offer all things to all people would be an on-going trend for both Microsoft and Sony in the modern era. They became less about being a portal to play video games on, but more an amalgamation of your home entertainment systems. They were now your PC, your Blu-Ray player, and your TV, all in one. And also… your friend. No? Just us then.
Where does home gaming go from here? Now that consoles are hardware that isn’t just about playing video games on anymore, what is the next step for them? The new generation of consoles will be more powerful than ever before, in an on-going attempt to out-do their previous incarnations. Hyper-realistic graphics will become common place, as will VR and even, holographic gaming.
Innovation is key though, we can’t just be sold on a new wave of technology, accompanied by a progressively higher price tag. Nintendo have smartly demonstrated that new ideas can sell well with the Wii and the Switch. And the successful consoles of the past were innovators too, offering players unique visions of a new and exciting gaming paradise. Because, at its heart, a good gaming console is only as good as its ideas and games. Whoever achieves that, will surely lead the charge in the future of gaming consoles.