It's astonishing to think about how far gaming technology has come in the past few decades. At one point, 8-bit home consoles were the pinnacle of home entertainment. Then in the 90s came the first 3D consoles. The early 2000s saw the advent of online multiplayer gaming. Today, graphics and gameplay continue to reach inspiring new levels, and the companies behind today's biggest consoles show no sign of slowing down. This list chronicles some of the most important and most famous gaming consoles from every generation.
No list of famous gaming consoles would be complete without mentioning the granddaddy of them all: the Atari 2600. You may be surprised to learn that the Atari was technically not the first of its kind. That honor belongs to the Fairchild Channel F, which was the first microprocessor-based home video game system. This new hardware allowed full games to be stored on cartridges and inserted into the system, whereas before, home consoles could only play whatever game or games were built into the unit during production. The Channel F was released in 1976, less than a year before the Atari Video Computer System. The Atari outsold the Channel F several times over, featuring classic titles like Pac-Man. The original Atari console was renamed the Atari 2600 in 1982 when Atari released it's next generation console, the Atari 5200.
Nintendo Entertainment System
While the Atari 2600 gets credit for being the first home gaming system, I contend that the original Nintendo Entertainment System was even more important in revolutionizing the world of home consoles. To give you an idea of how advanced the NES was upon its 1986 release, its main competitor was the Atari 7800, whose most popular games included Ms. Pac-Man, Centipede, and other arcade games. In contrast, the Nintendo Entertainment System featured such popular games as the original Legend of Zelda and its sequel, Donkey Kong Classics, and the first three Super Mario Bros games.
The Sega Genesis was released in 1988, two years before its biggest competition, the Super NES. Though often overshadowed by Nintendo, the Sega company was regularly ahead of the curve, releasing its 16-bit console before Nintendo. Sega released several successful and influential games on the Genesis console, most notably Sonic the Hedgehog. Unlike Nintendo, Sega didn't shy away from violent video games on its gaming system. Notoriously gory fighting game Mortal Kombat was ported to both the Genesis and the Super NES. However, the Super NES edition edited out the game's characteristic gore while the Genesis remained true to the original arcade edition. This caused the Genesis version of the game to outsell Nintendo's port by a ratio of four-to-one. Ultimately, the Genesis marks the closest Sega ever came to reaching Nintendo's immense popularity.
Nintendo Game Boy
The Nintendo Game Boy was the first and most successful of all the handheld consoles in its generation. Featuring iconic titles such as Super Mario Land and Pokémon, the console also had a reasonable price point. This allowed the Game Boy to dominate the handheld market. Nintendo's mobile dominance continues to this day, with the various successors to the Game Boy (including the Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance) remaining wildly successful. The successor to the Game Boy line, the Nintendo DS, remains the second best selling game console of all time, and the best selling handheld console by a large margin.
The Sony PlayStation, released in 1994, is one of the most important and most famous gaming consoles of all time. As this list has already shown, Nintendo dominates several aspects of the gaming system market. The Nintendo 64, which competed directly with the PlayStation, was an iconic and influential console. However, like other consoles of the era, the Nintendo 64 lacked a certain maturity. The original PlayStation gaming system brought a cinematic gaming experience to your living room, with adult themes that marked a new era in home entertainment.
The Sega Dreamcast turned 17 last year, and is one of the biggest "what ifs" in all of gaming history. Ahead of its time, the Dreamcast was a truly remarkable gaming system, featuring a built-in microphone and an Ethernet jack allowing for online play. The Dreamcast also had a solid game library that included Sonic Adventure and Soulcalibur along with many innovative Sega originals like Jet Set Radio and Shenmue. Ultimately, the Dreamcast was quickly overwhelmed by the popularity of the PlayStation 2, the Nintendo GameCube, and the Microsoft Xbox. The defeat marked the end of Sega as a producer of home consoles.
Sony PlayStation 2
Not only is the Sony PlayStation 2 one of the most famous gaming consoles of all time, it is also officially the best selling console in the world, having sold over 155 million units. The PS2 continued the cinematic success of the original PlayStation. Notably, the PS2 was also the first gaming system to feature backwards compatibility, meaning it can play games made for the original PlayStation as well as the new generation PS2 games. Its continued popularity led to an unusually long production life of thirteen years. In fact, the PS2 wasn't officially discontinued until the release of the PlayStation 4 Pro model.
Microsoft Xbox 360
Microsoft has remained a steady competitor to Sony in the console wars. Its powerful system and exclusive games have kept the Xbox neck-and-neck with the PlayStation. One of the biggest game changers in modern console gaming was the proliferation of online multiplayer gameplay. While earlier consoles (such as the Sega Dreamcast) had dabbled with online capabilities, Xbox Live marked the first truly successful attempt at an online gaming experience. Though Xbox Live was introduced during the lifetime of the original Xbox, it didn't realize its full capabilities until the Xbox 360 was released in 2005.
The evolution of PC gaming has happened somewhat independently from console gaming, with an at-times bitter rivalry forming between PC gamers and console gamers. Home consoles generally provide much easier access to the world of gaming, as a gaming PC generally needs to be purchased in components and assembled piece by piece. In exchange for this extra effort, PC gamers receive a more customizable experience as well as better graphics, faster response, and access to third-party patches for some games, not to mention great PC games of the era that remain relevant against the test of time.
One of the most recently famous gaming consoles released from any of the major players in the console wars, it may be too early to truly predict what kind of impact the Nintendo Switch will have on the world of gaming. If its early success is any indication, however, the Switch will go down as one of Nintendo's most successful consoles ever, completely re-innovating gaming as we know it. The Switch is a culmination of all of Nintendo's strengths, combining an updated version of the motion controls from the peculiar, but innovative, Nintendo Wii. Because of this, the Switch contains more powerful console mechanics which produce an absolutely cinematic gaming experience unlike anything that has been seen on any Nintendo console before now. Perhaps key to the Switch's popularity, however, is its ability to play double-duty as a mobile console and a home console. Combine these features with Nintendo's signature exclusive games, including extremely popular entries in the Legend of Zelda and Super Mario series, and you have quite the recipe for success.