My first at-home gaming experience came from an Atari 2600. While well outdated by the time it arrived in our household, rural New Zealand was not known as especially current in terms of gaming technology, so I didn’t care. While fascinating, the system itself was more than a little bit broken, and it wasn’t until my brother and I later pooled some money for a Sega Master System 2 that I really managed to break into the world of gaming. Alex Kidd in Miracle World, Double Dragon, Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts and Tom and Jerry the Movie (the game) were all far above anything we had seen and kept us enthralled for countless hours.
Tuning our little television, sitting around while wrapped in blankets, probably a bit closer than we should have been, this is how gaming began for us. Over time, as multiplayer gaming emphasis was placed less on local play, and more on the infrastructure of the internet. While not total, this has acted as one of the foremost shifts in how we play, changing what was once inherently interpersonal into one more detached. This got us thinking – how has the record of gaming changed over the years, how are our fundamental setups different, and where do you guys fall on this spectrum?
Here we’ll take a look at how gaming setups changed over the more recent(ish) generations, and the key components which help shape gaming as an evolving social environment. Really, though, this is more about a nostalgia trip.
3rd Generation: NES, SMS
If you were playing consoles back in the third generation then chances are you were sticking with one of the hot new releases for either the original NES or Master System. You might have even been one of the lucky few to enjoy the likes of the TurboGraphx-16 or the Neo-Geo, two systems which you don’t really hear a lot about these days.
The Sega Master System and its variants couldn’t match the worldwide sales of the NES (61.19M vs. 17.8M), it was not without standout games of its own. The in-built Alex Kid in Miracle World was very well received, as was RPG Phantasy Star and the notoriously difficult Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts. While Sonic would receive a few games on this system, and these were quite enjoyable, the limited tech put a hamper on the hedgehog’s ability to capture the imagination as he did with the releases of the next generation.
Computer enthusiasts at this time were largely running their games from the Microsoft DOS environment, which while limited was still making great strides in challenging the supremacy of the powerful consoles. As for what sort of device users might be operating, let’s take a look at the specs of an upper-middle tier Gateway 2000 system offered in 1990.
- 4MB Ram
- 200 MB IDE Drive
- 16bit VGA with 512K colors
- 14” CRT monitor with a max 1024×768 resolution
- MS-DOS 3.3 or 4.01
- MS Windows 3.0
4th Generation: SNES/Mega Drive (Genesis)
On the Nintendo side of things, you might have been lucky enough to get your hands on Super Mario World or F-Zero for a taste of what the SNES could pull off. While some of the biggest and most popular games of all time would come from this generation, it wouldn’t be until later in the lifespan of the console when players would be able to experience the likes of Chrono Trigger, Super Castlevania, and Donkey Kong Country.
Mega Drive/ Genesis
The Mega Drive in most of the world, and the Genesis in the US, this is the console where Sega really hit its stride. The most obvious examples here are from the Sonic series, as these were the system sellers at the height of Mega Drive popularity. While the rest of the library might not have been able to stand up to the force which is the SNES, there are some real standouts including Road Rash and Comix Zone.
Anybody playing PC games at this time would be familiar with the big one – Doom. As the point where PC games were finally reaching and even overtaking what the consoles were capable of, this was an era where many young people were introduced to gaming via their family computers. This time also saw such amazing releases as Tie Fighter, System Shock, and Warcraft, all games with enormous legacies to this day. As for what sort of computer you were likely using, check some key specs from an average 1994 PC.
- 4MB Ram
- 720 MB IDE Drive
- 50 MHz 486DX2
- Super VGA with 14” CRT
- Double Speed CD-ROM (wow!)
- MS Windows 3.1
- Internal Modem
5th Generation: PS1/N64/Saturn
The period which saw the entry of the Sony PlayStation into the market, and the real begin of the decline of Sega with the less than fantastically received Sega Saturn. The PlayStation really set itself apart from its main competition of the N64 through its inclusion of a CD-ROM drive, which had an enormous storage space advantage over the cartridge format of Nintendo’s device. Noteworthy here was Square’s move to the Sony platform after sitting so long with Nintendo, though there are so many outstanding games here that we’d require an entire book to even come close to doing justice.
One of the biggest advantages of the N64, aside from its fast loading times, was the fact that the console itself came with 4 controller ports. This made it the go-to choice for many multiplayer gamers, aided by some of the best competitive games of any generation, like GoldenEye, Mario Kart, and Perfect Dark. Games like Super Mario 64 and Ocarina of Time were also heavily responsible for setting the stage for 2D to 3D updates, and still stand as some of the most influential of all time.
The Sega Saturn, while not without its charm, had some real issues in finding mass popularity in the market. Some poor business decisions and a lack of capitalization on some key properties meant there wasn’t the draw to the Saturn as there was to other consoles, though it was not without a few standouts as with Nights into Dream, Virtua Fighter, and Panzer Dragoon Saga.
Around 1998 was an exciting time for PC gaming, with the release of megahits like Half-Life and StarCraft pushing the boundaries of what gaming could accomplish, and in a way which only PCs of the time could manage. 3D accelerator cards were becoming standard, bringing with them a level of graphical fidelity which the consoles simply could not match. If you were lucky enough to be one of the PC gamers of this era, your computer specs probably looked a little something like this:
- 64MB Ram
- 1.5 GB HDDe
- 400 MHz Pentium 2
- Voodoo 2 with 8MB VRAM
- Double Speed CD-ROM (wow!)
- MS Windows 98
- Internal Modem
6th Generation: Dreamcast/PS2/Gamecube/Xbox
The last generation of consoles from Sega, which saw the start of this generation with the release of the Dreamcast in 1999. The Dreamcast really was a standout system, being far above the competition of the PS1 and N64, though it could not compare to those console’s successors. Games like Sonic Adventure and Shenmue finally began to realise the promise of these properties, though ultimately this would end up as too little too late.
The PlayStation 2 was one of the most hyped console releases in history, and is arguably one of the few to actually live up to that hype. At this point the console boasts the most sales of any dedicated gaming platform in history, just edging out the Nintendo DS to reach over 155 million units sold. It also marked an enormous leap forward in console graphical prowess, surpassing the now waning Sega Dreamcast, though falling slightly behind its contemporaries of the GameCube and Xbox.
Nintendo’s effort was a bit of a disappointment in terms of sales, selling around 21.7 million units total, around 10 million less than the Nintendo 64. Despite this, the console is still held in very high regard, largely due to the ever-reliable host of high-quality first-party releases like Super Mario Sunshine, Super Smash Bro’s Melee (which still has an enormous competitive following), Wind Waker and Mario Kart: Double Dash. It was also the first console to receive Resident Evil 4, which holds a special place in many player’s hearts as the best RE game, and one of the best overall games, of all time.
This was also the generation which saw Microsoft enter the console market with the Direct Xbox, later just called the Xbox. Slightly more powerful than the other consoles, the Xbox really made strides in how it was the first console to really embrace the online environment. The standout example of this would be Halo, which would go on to generate one of the most popular video game franchises of all time, and almost singlehandedly bring console online multiplayer into mass consciousness. It also had the Warthog, which is still more satisfying to drive than most video game vehicles to this very day (I’m looking at you Borderlands).
Speaking of online multiplayer, this was the age where internet connections were becoming far more common, and PCs were usually in the best position to take advantage of this. Warcraft III had set the scene for the future of MOBA domination (before it too would be usurped by the battlegrounds genre), and the scale Battlefield had shown us just how far we could go in terms of mass action multiplayer. Games like EverQuest and Ultima Online had also been setting the stage for the explosive popularity of MMO, with WoW just around the corner to claim the throne for itself. So, how about the specs of an average computer circa 2002?
- 256 MB Ram
- 40 GB HDDe
- 733 MHz Pentium 3
- GeForce 256 with 32MB VRAM
- MS Windows XP
7th Generation: PS3/360/Wii
Hot off their successful entry with the original Xbox, Microsoft was not content to rest on their laurels. When entering into this generation they made extensive moves to take advantage of the online framework of the original Xbox, eager to take their place as the foremost console for online gaming. They also went with the name 360 because they didn’t want to be the Xbox 2 compared to the PlayStation 3, a naming move only surpassed in silliness by the Wii and the later Xbox One (the third Xbox).
The third PlayStation was off to a bit of a rocky start. This was owing to the overall price of the machine which was much higher than its counterparts, an unavoidable side-effect of the much-hyped Cell architecture. While this would prove powerful, it was also notoriously difficult to program for, following the same sort of issues which were present with the Emotion Engine™ of the PlayStation 2. Ultimately, this is thought to be the reason as to why Sony lost their place as king in this generation, though their slow start was eventually met with an acceleration of sales towards the end of the console’s life.
The name which made many of us laugh because adults are nothing if not giant children. The Wii, as it turns out, would go on to generate the most sales of this generation, with around 15 million more units sold than the second-placed Microsoft. Ultimately, what many of us see as the defining reason for the victory of this console is its appeal to the mass market. For a long while, we have been captivated by the concept of motion controls, and this is reflected by non-gamers alike.
While these controls would eventually prove to be as unresponsive, inaccurate, and frustrating as they always do, by this point the console had already drawn in enough users to be considered successful. It didn’t hurt that many of the games for the system like Mario Galaxy had proven amazingly fun, even if the apparently mandatory motion controls were much derided by ‘hard-core’ gamers.
Around the time in which highspeed internet connections were becoming common, which coincided with a time where computers were becoming powerful enough to best take advantage of this increased bandwidth. Half-Life 2 and Doom 3 had raised the standard of FPS games could be and look like, Oblivion had introduced a new generation to the Elder Scrolls, and World of Warcraft had surgically attached itself to the frozen throne of MMO dominance.
So what was your favorite generation of console/PC gaming? Where do you hold the fondest memories, and what do you consider the biggest victories or failures?