A brief history of video game consoles

By: Max Zaleski. Infographic: Patrick W. Zimmerman


Kids these days have it too easy. But so did I. And so did my mother.

Starting in the 1960s, the postwar boom in consumer freedom of choice began to spread into the realm of pop culture. The expanding music industry, the Hollywood machine, and the lively radio markets were all about giving Americans choice about how they wanted to spend their time – between wars, of course. The 1970s brought about a period of rapid technological advancement in the field of computing and information systems. These included Liquid Crystal Displays (LCD), crude digital cameras, and advancements in computing power with microprocessors becoming more of necessity. With all this technical know-how beginning to burst at the seams, it was only a matter of time until someone would put together a way to gloriously waste more time than ever. Thank you, Ralph Baer.

Imagine back to the groovy days of bell bottom jeans, psychedelic music, and Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange; 1971. That year, the first major game, Computer Space, is released by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney, in partnership with Syzygy Engineering. While not the first video game, Computer Space was the first widely available arcade machine that blew the doors open for arcade gaming in the 1970s throughout the 1980s. With behemoths like Pong, Defender, Pac Man, and Space Invaders – by 1981, the US Arcade Gaming market raked in around $8 billion – that’s a LOT of quarters (32 billion plays, minus however many the machines ate).

A latecomer to the media landscape, gaming was already at a disadvantage competing with television, film, radio, music, and print. Gaming was dismissed as a waste of time and money, rotting the brains of the youth harder than the acid that was being given to army professionals in the 50s and 60s. However, given the freedom with which those nerds were spending quarters, a lot of companies started to pay attention. How could they get these kids hooked? How could they get them to pay for games even when they weren’t at the arcade?


Click infographic to enlarge.
Click here for full interactive dashboard.


Early home consoles

While home console gaming had been tried before, with the likes of the Magnavox Odyssey, the Telstar, and Home Pong – these consoles were just the first tentative steps towards creating a new market. With only a handful of games, fans still flocked to the local arcade to play their favorites. Atari, Magnavox, Mattell, and Coleco would soon flood the market with different home consoles that attracted children and adults alike (most famously the Atari 2600) – you could play your favorite arcade games from the comfort of your own home. Unfortunately, home consoles would soon bite off more than the market could chew and have one of the worst industry crashes in history – dubbed the Great Video Game Crash of 1983. A lot of factors went into the crash; mostly the over-saturation of home consoles, the lack of quality assurance from developers, and a glut of cheap, rushed ports of arcade games. Famously, E.T., often cited as the worst game ever made was one of the major tipping points in the console bubble crash.

While the gaming bubble had burst, there was a savior on horizon – a toy company turned tech giant named Nintendo (you may have heard of it).


Nintendo to the rescue!

While the 1985 United States gaming industry was hemorrhaging money from every orifice, business dropping to just 3.13% of 1983 levels, Nintendo was planning to market its Famicom system (released in 1983 in Japan) in the ensuing vacuum. With detailed graphics, an affordable price point, and a vast amount of new games – North America got its Famicom, renamed the NES (Nintendo Entertainment System), in 1985. North America was entering the 2nd age of video games. And it was going to be massive. While the 1980s were tumultuous for most companies, Nintendo reigned supreme dominating the market among children with titles like Super Mario Bros, Donkey Kong, and Punch-Out. At the same time, the kids from the arcade era were growing up and they had no interest in giving up the habit. With titles such as The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, and the brutal Mega Man series, the NES had gained a footing with the adults of the era. With very little competition in the States, brushing off challengers such as Atari and SEGA, Nintendo continued its dominance throughout the rest of the 80s, introducing a handheld device that would revolutionize the industry and change the way games were being viewed by the masses.

As 1990 began, Nintendo’s successor (the upgraded Super NES), would start to see serious challenges from other consoles: SEGA’s Genesis, the Turbo Grafx, and Neo Geo. While the Neo Geo and TurboGrafx would flounder, the Sega Genesis and the SNES would engage in a brutal war the first true console wars. Gaming had become a hobby, not a just a temporary distraction. The release of more realistic, and violent, games drew criticism began to mount. Violent video games would often come under fire for corrupting the nation’s youth (music fans, does this sound familiar?), prompting the creation of the ESRB rating board so that parents could know what the game they were purchasing held within. Unsurprisingly, the more mature the rating, the faster games seemed to sell.


The Console Wars

In 1994, Sony launched their first system, the PlayStation, originally developed as a speculative joint venture with Nintendo to make CD-ROM-based systems. Nintendo pulled out of the deal, which meant WAR! Choosing to build their own system (sans CD), Nintendo put their chips behind a new 64-bit behemoth, the N64. Sega’s new 64-bit console, the Sega Saturn barely registered in the fight, with only 9.6 million units sold, nearly bankrupting the company. While the Sega Saturn proved to have some incredible titles such as Nights into Dreams, Virtua Fighter, and the Panzer Dragoon series, Sega failed to capture 3rd party support due to lack of sales and a more complex hardware / software development cycle. As the heavyweights Sony and Nintendo duked it out for console superiority, fans of both saw the changing of the guard; Sony was going to win and there was nothing anyone could do about it. Final score: Sony – 102.49 million PlayStations sold, Nintendo – 32.93 million N64s.

By 1999, a small (cough) software company in Redmond, WA wanted it some of that action. At the turn of the millennium, Microsoft could clearly see that Sony’s next project, the PlayStation 2 (PS2) would start to seriously cut into the market for computer gaming; the graphical capabilities of the new consoles were coming close to what mainstream computers could do. The prospect of people using their computers less often was making the company’s accountants sad, so Microsoft began designing the Xbox, a console that would try to bridge the gap between console gamers and computer gamers. It kind of worked. With the ability to play CDs and DVDs, broadband internet capability, and a host of games that would become synonymous with gaming culture, the PS2 threw a right hook to win the fatal four way of consoles; leaving Nintendo’s underpowered Gamecube and newcomer Microsoft’s Xbox to fight for second place.

When analysts talk about the console wars, a lot of them grew up in a time where the names were Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo. The bulk of gamers remember those tiny Gamecube discs, the 800lb original Xbox, and the fragile PS2 frame. This is where the majority of gamers currently in their 30s and 40s picked their sides. They were either a Sony or Microsoft fan, sharing a nostalgic love for Nintendo. With hardcore games like Halo and Grand Theft Auto reaching the marketplace for both major consoles, and the belief that online gaming would become the next frontier for gaming, both Sony and Microsoft began devising a way to make that jump seamless into the mid-2000s with incredible momentum.


Wiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!!!!!!!

Microsoft, being “the computer company,” jumped ahead and released their next console a full year before either Nintendo or Sony – and proved to be a winner. The Xbox 360 outsold the PS3 for the first few years of the generation, eking out about 4 million over the PS3 when all was said and done. But Nintendo went a different way. They went a strange way. As Nintendo launched their Wii, they were exploring motion gaming and the Wii would become the bestselling console of the generation. The reason for this is pretty simple: the Wii provided movement-based games, simple controls, and family-friendly entertainment that gamers of all ages could love. With much weaker hardware, only a handful of ‘classic’ titles came out for the Wii – and almost all of them first party. The Wii was definitely where kids played, whereas Sony and Microsoft were targeting an older demographic. The Wii put the “party” in party games, allowing Nintendo to pretty much monopolize the social and casual gaming experience for several years.

As Facebook and mobile gaming began becoming big in the latter 2000s, a new wave of gamers populated, and a new wave of gaming came out of it; “Freemium” games became all the rage. Farmville, Candy Crush, and Angry Birds just to name a few came onto the scene and exploded the market, and culture. The years 2009 – 2013 were a very strange time for the culture as the very term “gamer” became contested ground. If you didn’t play X, you weren’t a gamer. If you didn’t play Y, you weren’t a gamer. The zeitgeist of the culture became almost a parody of itself. And it really hasn’t changed since, to be honest.

But… people whose introduction to gaming was Candy Crush began playing other games, the people who played Farmville started playing other games – it’s almost like an evolution of ‘gaming credibility.’ The more the merrier, I say! These last 3 or 4 years for gaming has proved to be some of the most successful, with each major release breaking sales records and ‘hardcore’ gamers becoming a major talking point in all media, with the inclusion of millions of views on Twitch, billions of minutes watched on YouTube, and the incredible expansion of eSports such as League of Legends, Smite, and Dota 2.

Gaming has crashed and burned a few times since the 1970s, but it has reached a point where the art form has started to displace other media from the American household. How much time do you all spend on print publications compared to various forms of gaming? Some of the biggest movies are based off of video games, books based off Halo and Elder Scrolls have sold millions, and music based off video game soundtracks has reached millions of plays on streaming services. Gaming has become part of the world-wide zeitgeist of entertainment rather than just a weird subset of media – gaming has become the single greatest entertainment market on the face of the planet.

And that’s all within the last 30 years.

About The Author

Thai food consumer, professional wrestling fanatic, and mediocre player of video games.

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