Ten games consoles that changed the world

We review ten historic games consoles whose launch, development and specifications led to the current crop of high-end machines

xbox controller

Wednesday, 9 December, 2020

The recent debuts of cutting-edge games consoles from Microsoft and Sony demonstrates how far the home computer games market has come over the last 40 years.

Back in 1980, games were still very much of the tabletop variety. Computers were seen as geeky, and some required you to laboriously type in program code before a game would run.

Yet today’s consoles aren’t as far removed from their ancestors as you might think.

Indeed, some of the features you’d expect on a PS5 or Xbox Series X can trace their lineage back decades.

These are ten historic games consoles which helped to shape the modern industry, starting with the undisputed origin of home gaming…

Ten historic games consoles

The 1977 Atari 2600 represents Genesis in terms of games consoles. For the first time, it was possible to plug an affordable machine into your TV and interact with it.

Games loaded almost instantly from the 1K cartridges – something the PS5 and Xbox Series X are now attempting to replicate, 43 years after the 2600 managed it.

In 1983, the Nintendo Entertainment System. introduced the world to the concept of legacy titles – Super Mario Bros and the Legend of Zelda, to name just two.

The NES was also a striking piece of hardware, with an 8-bit processor and games programs of 384kB in size. It stayed in production for over a decade.

An enduring NES rival took four years to arrive, but 1987 heralded the Sega Master System. Despite also being 8-bit, it improved on the NES specs in key areas.

It outsold the NES in Europe, while this was the first mainstream games console to offer plug-and-play accessories like 3D glasses, a light gun and even a bike handle controller.

Sega’s decline accelerated when its fourth-generation Saturn was roundly trounced by the trailblazing Sony PlayStation, which also used CD-ROMs and arcade game translations.

The PlayStation proved a runaway success thanks to iconic titles like Ridge Racer and Wipeout, while portable memory cards provided an early opportunity to play games outside your home.

The PlayStation is undoubtedly the best-known 1990s games console, though the Nintendo N64 introduced a number of concepts that would become ubiquitous in time.

An analogue control stick permitted fine adjustments, while its 64-bit CPU was far ahead of the PS One’s 32-bit processor. Its 64MB games cartridges had extremely advanced graphics.

Despite being a commercial flop, the Sega Dreamcast provided an early nod to the online future of gaming by incorporating a built-in modem for online play and web support.

Revolutionary by 1998 standards, Sega’s sixth-generation (and final) games console only lasted three years before its fate was sealed by the most successful games console of all time…

The Sony PS2 arrived in 2000, offering backwards compatibility. The incorporation of a DVD player made it a proper media centre, selling over 155,000,000 units.

The availability of almost 4,000 individual games pre-empted the choice in smartphone app stores, and the PS2 also introduced a network adapter in 2002 for online-only gaming.

A year after the PS2 arrived, Microsoft entered the list of historic games consoles with its first-generation Xbox.

The first console with a hard drive, the Xbox was named after Microsoft’s DirectX graphics interface. It allowed online gaming over dial-up or broadband, using the firm’s rapid servers.

For many people, computer gaming started in 2006 when the Nintendo Wii and its wireless motion controllers introduced new generations to gaming.

Key titles focused on physical fitness and mental health long before it was fashionable to do so, while even the Queen enjoyed playing iconic titles like Wii Tennis.

It might seem odd to conclude this list with another Nintendo consoles given today’s Sony and Microsoft dominance, but the Nintendo Switch deserves mention.

A handheld device transforming into a home games console acknowledged today’s cloud-hosted software on-demand, allowing people to play wherever – and on whatever device – they wanted.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!