Our survey of the history of video game hardware approaches the present day; tempers get hotter and smiles get sharper. Who won the console wars?
This is the second part of a two-part series. The first instalment can be found here.
Fifth generation: mid 1990’s
Prototyped as an add-on for the SNES before Nintendo rejected the idea of optical media, the PSOne burst onto the market and soon convinced gamers that the third-dimension was the future of gaming, and thanks to seriously savvy marketing, even managed to make games cool.
After two cycles dominated by Nintendo and Sega, the fifth generation introduced a disruptive new element: Sony. This was the generation which made optical media, 3D graphics, full motion video and CD quality audio standard.
The first console of this generation was the 3DO, launching in 1993 for an extravagant $700 – that’s well over a grand in today’s terms. It was packed with high-end tech and promoted heavily, but flopped with only 2 million sales and is now something of a laughing stock despite its capacity for brilliant arcade ports.
It did a lot better than the Atari Jaguar though. Apparently incapable of learning its lesson, Atari had another go in 1993, but its reasonably-priced console only managed about a quarter of a million sales, possibly because the company went with a cartridge-based system rather than throwing its weight behind compact discs.
Sega did make the jump to CDs, but that wasn’t enough to secure the Saturn’s future when it launched in the west 1995. The penultimate Sega console sold over 9 million units, but Sega’s reluctance to embrace 3D tech over sprite-friendly tech meant it couldn’t quite match its most important rival.
That rival was, of course, the original PlayStation, now usually called the PSOne – a cute name coined for a smaller hardware revision. Originally prototyped as an add-on for the SNES before Nintendo rejected the idea of optical media, and significantly cheaper than the Saturn, the PSOne burst onto the market a few months later, and soon hosted a huge line-up of 3D-centric games. Cross-platform releases like Tomb Raider needed expansion packs to run on the Saturn, but the PSOne handled them like a dream, and games like Crash Bandicoot and Cool Boarders convinced gamers that the third-dimension was the future of gaming. The PSOne sold over 100 million units in its lifetime, and thanks to seriously savvy marketing, even managed to make games cool.
Interestingly, while Sony beat out the competition by jumping on board the generational trends, Nintendo found success by ignoring one of them. The kid-friendly cartridges used by the N64 were faster to load than CDs, and still managed to house beautiful 3D worlds. A respectable 32 million sales was Nintendo’s reward.
So who won? The PSOne changed the world of games forever, and definitely outsold the competition. Although it has to take second place, the N64 shouldn’t be discounted; let’s give it an honourable mention.
Sixth generation: late 1990’s
This was Sega’s last generation before it bowed out of hardware altogether. The Dreamcast was first to market in 1998, and as we’ve seen so far, poll position has been unlucky for consoles.
Now, my friends, things start to take a shape we’re more familiar with. The sixth generation of gaming consoles didn’t introduce any obvious new technologies or features the way all previous iterations had; instead, they were simply more powerful than their precursors, resulting in an amazing leap in graphics technology and the complexity of game worlds.
This was Sega’s last generation before it bowed out of hardware altogether. The Dreamcast was first to market in 1998, and as we’ve seen so far, poll position has been unlucky for consoles. Despite being first and as cheap or cheaper than the rest of the pack, it sold just over 10 million units total. It has its issues, but the general consensus is that a lack of cooperation between the Japanese and American business arms is what really killed its chances in the west. This was heartbreaking for the console’s fans; those who love the Dreamcast love it dearly – still.
The PS2 was next of the rank and it absolutely owned, going on to become the best selling home console of all time; it was only discontinued last year, in fact. It’s sort of hard to pinpoint what exactly made it so popular, but a simply enormous collection of games didn’t hurt, and the tremendous PlayStation fan base established in the previous generation – when Sony dominated – grew and grew, to over 150 million units.
It may have been lack of competition, too; Nintendo’s 2001 Gamecube is a good console, had a nice low price tag, and, uh, a handle? But a lack of third-party support hampered it, and despite selling a respectable 22 million, the GameCube is considered one of Nintendo’s rare fumbles. Like the Dreamcast, those who loved it, loved it, and there’s no denying it boasts some excellent software.
Although it barely outsold the GameCube, we have to make a fuss about the Xbox. Western-made consoles hadn’t been a major success since the halcyon Atari days, but Microsoft let nothing get in the way of its vision. It bet the bank on online multiplayer, and as a result? We all won. The Xbox launched in 2001 and introduced the world to Halo, Xbox Live and a new, connected future – eventually totting up 24 million sales.
So who won? All four major sixth generation consoles are strong contenders but on unit sales alone the PS2 not only takes the cake but most of the rest of the dessert trolley, too.
Bonus round: handhelds part two
The DS family is extremely interesting in light of Nintendo’s later innovations with the Wii U. The “dual screen” tech was being tested here, and it proved a huge success.
After the Game Boy, Nintendo largely had the handheld market to itself, following various hardware revisions with the Game Boy Advance, which admitted no rivals. The next skirmish in the portable space took place in late 2004 and early 2005, between the DS and the PSP. Both consoles initially launched within a few months of each other, but they offered very different packages.
The more expensive option, the PSP positioned itself as the first portable capable of offering a home console-like gaming experience, as well as a multi-function device. Thanks to swappable memory cards, users could load up with comics, movies and music in addition to UMD movies – and games, of course. This was an attractive prospect in a market that had embraced digital media in a big way thanks to Apple’s iDevice range, but it was a hefty price tag to swallow without the bonuses offered by smart devices. Described as a midway point between PSOne and PS2, the PSP provided a new way to enjoy PSOne games on the go, which helped it a lot, and has some great games of its own, including Monster Hunter and other multiplayer titles. The homebrew community really unlocked its potential, but of course Sony couldn’t get behind that. While often dismissed as a failure by oblivious gamers, the PSP family has sold over 80 million units worldwide – as much as the PS3, and close on the Xbox 360’s heels.
The DS family, on the other hand, is extremely interesting in light of Nintendo’s later innovations with the Wii U. The “dual screen” tech was being tested here, and it proved a huge success. Cheaper than the PSP and equipped with then-new gimmicks like a touch screen and microphone, the DS conquered. With over 180 million unit sales, it is the best-selling console of all time. Kid friendly but packed with homebrew potential, the DS not only continued terrific Nintendo traditions but forged more – like Professor Layton and Scribblenauts. Nintendo’s hardware revisions annoyed early adopters, but increasingly improved the console, adding Internet capability and so keeping apace of the times. The DS is still going strong and provides a good contemporary gaming experience, for heaven’s sake.
So who won? The DS won not only this generation of portables but every generation, and has never been equalled by a home console, either. It is a phenomenon.
On the next page: another portable skirmishes and two unfinished generations to ponder.