RELEASE YEAR 1972
The Magnavox was the very first videogame console ever released, predating even the Atari Pong. A hybrid of both analog and digital circuitry, the Odyssey is the absolute starting point for all subsequent gaming platforms. Although lacking color video output or sound, the Magnavox still managed to sell over 300,000 units. The Odyssey used a cartridge system, although the games more closely resembled computer chips than actual games. The controllers were essentially boxes with horizontal and vertical axis knobs on both sides with very dense wires between them and the base console.
The Odyssey also launched the very first home light gun ever produced, called the Shooting Gallery. The games for the Odyssey consisted of straightforward, single-function titles like Baseball, Basketball, Ski, and more. Due to the simplicity of the console, there weren’t any third-party games designed for it. But the precedent established by the Odyssey paved the way for subsequent systems -- a legacy that has secured the console a place in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
RELEASE YEAR 1993
With the failure of the Atari 7800, and with the Atari Lynx on the losing side of the fight against Nintendo's Game Boy, Atari gave the videogame console market one last shot with the Atari Jaguar. The company decided to focus on the numbers game in attracting the gamer: where the Super NES and Genesis were touting the cutting edge of 16-bit technology, the Atari Jaguar surpassed this with whopping 64-bits of raw processing power, the first of its kind in the home market!
Marketing speak aside, the system was, indeed, a capable piece of hardware when compared to the generation it was intended to compete with: it definitely surpassed the Genesis and Super NES in 2D and 3D capabilities. The controller revisited gaming ideals of a previous gaming generation with its keypad and game specific overlays, something familiar to those that grew up on the Intellivision, Atari 5200 or Colecovision. It also offered the potential for CD gaming with a future add-on that seamlessly docked right on top of the main system.
Its claim as the most powerful console was, however, short-lived, as Sony and SEGA were just around the corner with their PlayStation and Saturn consoles. Even 3DO, with its own CD-based gaming hardware, managed to show the market that having 64 bits of processing power doesn't mean much if you don't have the games to back those numbers up.
During its life, the Jaguar managed to make a few cases for a purchase with a couple of solid efforts from id software, Rebellion, and psychedelic visual artist Jeff Minter. Atari's mismanagement of the hardware and company, its lack of internal development teams, its inability to secure key third-party developers, a disastrously terrible pack-in title called Cybermorph, and the fact that the Jaguar system was insanely difficult to program efficiently all played a part in the system's demise.
RELEASE YEAR 1982
The Atari 5200 was designed and marketed as Atari's answer to the Intellivision, but soon after its release in 1982, it became a more direct competitor to the Colecovision instead, which released that same year. The 5200 had some notable feature variations over its competitors, however, such as its analog joystick, four controller ports, and start, pause, and reset buttons. Based off of the Atari 400/800 home computer systems, the Atari 5200 came with a 1.79 MHz processor, 16KB of RAM, and was capable of producing an image with a maximum resolution of 320x192 pixels. While that may not sound like a lot now with consoles like the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 boasting high-end processors and video output of 1920x1080 resolution, but at the time it blew away the Intellivision's sub-1MHz processor.
Inevitably, the Atari 5200 was crushed beneath the technological weight of the ColecoVision, which boasted a jaw-dropping 3.58MHz processor, but when it went the way of the dinosaur, the Atari 5200 left behind the its legacy of four controller ports console design and, of course, the analog joystick. Sure, the Atari 5200 analog stick may have been terrible, but every great idea has to start somewhere, and in the case of the analog controller, it was here.
3DO ( Panasonic)
RELEASE YEAR 1993
The 3DO may not be regarded as one of the most monetarily successful systems in gaming history, but it left its mark on the industry all the same. Released by Panasonic in 1993, the 3DO (aka 3DO Interactive Multiplayer) was a 32-bit, disc-based system that had the technological grit to compete with the leading consoles of its time -- the PlayStation, Sega Saturn, etc -- but was inevitably stifled by its lack of third-party support and high launch price (nearly $700). The system could support up to eight controllers and console expansions such as memory cards, modems, video cartridges and more.
Despite its astronomical asking price, however, the 3DO boasted an impressive library of games and a wide variety of peripherals. Although the system was lacking in the exclusive games department, it did offer some of the most popular iterations of many big-franchise ports, such as Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo. The 3DO was also among one of the first systems to undergo several hardware iterations, produced independently by several big name manufacturers, such as Sanyo and Goldstar. Other innovations of the 3DO include daisy-chainable controllers, and surround sound audio support.
Magnavox Odyssey 2
RELEASE YEAR 1978
Ralph Baer's original Odyssey is the machine that started the home videogame industry. Others may have popularized it beyond measure, such as the Atari 2600 and NES, but the Odyssey series is truly the genesis. The Odyssey was limited, though (all games were onboard, the paddle-like controller was clumsy compared to the joystick), and so Magnavox, the manufacturer of the console, pressed forward with the Odyssey 2. It aped the blockbuster Atari 2600 -- now its chief rival in 1978 -- in many ways, such as using the then-traditional one-button joystick and interchangeable cartridges. While the Odyssey 2's resolution is lower than the 2600, the console surpassed Atari’s in a handful of technical areas -- such as the out-of-the-box inclusion of a full keyboard for easy programming and edutainment software and the availability of an optional speech synthesizer.
The Odyssey 2 hosted more games that the Odyssey, too. Magnavox produced just over 50 titles for the machine, including the Pac-Man clone KC Munchkin, one of the system's top-sellers. Far more intriguing, though, are the Master Strategy games which shipped with board game accessories that were actually quite decorative.
Despite the improvements, the Odyssey 2 never quite caught on like the Atari 2600. Even so, the brand did enable Magnavox to move approximately one million systems in North America with approximately one million more sold overseas in markets like Europe and South America.
Although the Odyssey 2 has neither the influence cachet of the original Odyssey nor the runaway popularity of the Atari 2600, it remains an important machine because of its general legacy. Without Baer's original invention, it is likely that an entire industry would never have happened.
SEGA Master System
RELEASE YEAR 1986
The SEGA Master System is the videogame console that almost could. Despite its technical superiority to the dominant NES, the machine lacked just one critical thing: Mario. Without this icon and the emergence of Sonic the Hedgehog still five years on the horizon, the Master System ran a far distant second to the NES during the 8-bit generation -- the phoenix-like resurrection of videogames following the Atari 2600-lead industry crash.
The Master System was essentially a conduit for SEGA to get its arcade hits into the home. Even though the Master System did not have the horsepower to completely replicate the experience of SEGA's enviable stable of arcade smashes like OutRun and Space Harrier, there was no other place to play these games outside of an arcade. But SEGA also released plenty of great, original games for the console over its lifespan, including Alex Kidd in Miracle World and one of the greatest role-playing games of all-time, Phantasy Star. However, thanks to Nintendo's iron-grip agreements, few third-party publishers ever supported the machine and software came out at a very frustrating pace. Months could go by between major releases and that made a dud on the Master System feel even more painful.
One of the Master System's quirkiest (and coolest) features, though, was the 3D Glasses peripheral. The thick, wraparound shades may have looked a little clunky from the outside, but the effect was positively stunning. Sadly, like the Master System itself, the peripheral was under-supported with just over a half-dozen games, including Maze Hunter 3D and Space Harrier 3D.
Despite its narrow mass audience, the Master System had -- and still has -- a very loyal fan base. Thankfully, the thumping SEGA received with the Master System did not daunt its quest for the living room, leading to the Genesis, which corrected most of the Master System's mistakes and gave Nintendo a run for its money for the majority of the 16-bit generation.
RELEASE YEAR 1990
SNK was a heavy hitter arcade manufacturing company and third-party NES publisher back in the late 80s. But in 1990, the company decided to take its knowledge of the arcades to the home market by producing the NeoGeo, a console that, literally, brought the arcade experience home.
And so was born the NeoGeo Multi Video System to make it easy and cost effective for arcade owners to place a larger assortment of games in their establishments. Because the NeoGeo MVS was a cartridge-based system similar to home consoles, SNK made a consumer version of the arcade hardware called the NeoGeo Advanced Entertainment System. Inside the console the hardware was identical to the system SNK used for the arcade units, and compared to the Super NES and SEGA Genesis on the market the NeoGeo absolutely trounced its competition in visual and audio capabilities.
The price tag reflected the power of the system: the NeoGeo home console cost more than 800 dollars, with individual games exceeding $200 a piece. The justification for the price was in the physical size of the games: where Super NES and Genesis cartridges were as large as 16 megabits in size at the time, NeoGeo games could get as big as 330 megabits…more than 20 times bigger!
Because of the cost of the system very few retailers were willing to stock the NeoGeo home console and it quietly disappeared less than two years after its debut. SNK attempted to revive the unit with the NeoGeo CD, but it, too, failed to attract the necessary audience. The arcade version, however, has seen extremely fantastic success and has been the vehicle that drove many fighting hits including the King of Fighter, Fatal Fury, and Samurai Shodown series.
RELEASE YEAR 1995
As part of the so-called "5th Generation" of games consoles the SEGA Saturn was a follow-up to the SEGA Genesis (or Mega Drive) and it's many add-ons. The system made a splash in the gaming world at the Electronic Entertainment expo of 1995 by having a surprise launch at the event, four months prior to its previously announced launch date.
SEGA was hoping to get the jump on Sony before it released the PlayStation that holiday season. While the Saturn ended up losing the popularity contest to both Sony and Nintendo it was host to a library of classic titles that epitomize the early days of SEGA's innovation in software. NiGHTS into Dreams, the Virtua Fighter and Panzer Dragon series are all examples of exclusive titles that made the console a fan favorite.
Perhaps more than anything else, the Saturn was a gem for importers and hardcore gamers. The hardware's architecture made it inferior to the PlayStation for three dimensional games (like the popular Tomb Raider) but many proud Saturn owners knew that it was the only console to enjoy the best versions of many 2D fighters, just ask any real Street Fighter fan.
What really bolsters the Saturn in its rankings among the greatest game consoles of all-time is the staying power of its rare and unique library. Shining Force III may have only released the first installment of a three part series in the United States, but ask anyone who was lucky enough to track it down and they'll sing its praises.
RELEASE YEAR 1986
The Atari 7800 was a sleek and capable videogame console released in 1986. While it had a solid offering of its own games, the 7800 featured a prime system feature: full, built-in compatibility with the Atari 2600. While consoles of the past could play Atari 2600 games through the use of an optional adapter, the 7800 accepted these cartridges right in the main slot and played them without any extra add-ons.
The Atari 7800 was originally designed to succeed the Atari 5200 in 1984, but the system's launch was shelved when Atari was sold to new owners who wanted to focus on the computer market instead. The console was, instead, officially launched two years later in response to Nintendo and SEGA entering the US home console market with the Nintendo Entertainment System and Master System respectively. Many of the console's planned features, such as a high score saving cartridge, were never released.
With the 7800 launch, Atari put a focus on "budget" gaming, with many games selling for less than $19.99. Because the system was all ready to go back in 1984, most of the launch titles were arcade titles from several years prior. The system was very capable in visuals as seen in games like the bundled Pole Position II. But its sound system lacked: the system designers created a cheap sound chip that could be included in cartridges, but to keep costs low, Atari limited the sound chip in very few titles. With Nintendo locking up third-parties with its two-year exclusivity agreement, Atari also had a hard time convincing third-party companies to produce games for its console – as a result, the company went after the rights to popular games that were available only for computers.
Its delayed release, its cancelled peripherals, and a lack of financial backing from the company's new owners all combined to ensure that Atari 7800 would never see any success beyond being a sexier way of playing Atari 2600 titles.
RELEASE YEAR 2001
Nintendo's little, purple cube-shaped videogame console is sometimes criticized because it looked almost toy-ish and lacked some technical features present in competing systems -- like, for example, a digital output. But the truth is, GCN was, despite its cute exterior, a very powerful games player which housed an impressive number of outstanding, unforgettable games. GameCube not only marked Nintendo's departure from cartridge-based home systems, a significant development for a company used to following its own path, but the platform's cutting-edge internal guts -- namely the IBM-developed "Gekko" CPU and ATI-created "Flipper" GPU -- have enjoyed one of the longest shelf lives in the history of the industry; it is, after all, this same technology, slightly enhanced, that powers Wii.
Even as Sony successfully marketed the slick and cool PlayStation 2 as a high-tech home media device, Nintendo tried to sell GCN as a simple games player for the whole family -- in hindsight, probably a mistake. GameCube looked like a lunchbox and, save for the fantastic Nintendo-published exclusives like Metroid Prime and Super Mario Sunshine -- it didn't really sport any distinguishing features over its competitors. The machine sold almost exclusively to Nintendo fans and younger gamers, which is why it was also largely shunned by third-parties, whose software usually performed better on other platforms. Nintendo ultimately sold about 22 million GameCube systems worldwide -- roughly 118 million units less than PlayStation 2.
Still, from Resident Evil 4 to F-Zero GX, Super Smash Bros. Melee to Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem, and from Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader to Pikmin 1 and 2, GCN was home to a stellar lineup of fantastic games -- titles that could not be found on any other system. And ultimately, it's the software and not the design of the system or its installed base that really counts, which is why GCN easily earns a spot on our list.
RELEASE YEAR 2006
The PlayStation 3 may still be coming into its own, but it has already had a great number of titles see their release on the system and, along with the Xbox 360, it has helped completely redefine what people think about gaming in terms of online accessibility and functionality. Gone are the days when everything you played on a console was burned onto a disc. Online systems like the PlayStation Network have introduced the ability to buy and play complete games without having to leave your couch, not to mention the advent of downloadable content that can expand games exponentially.
The PS3's game library, while already stellar, continues to get better and better. We've seen the release of fantastic, exclusive games Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, Killzone 2, Flower, Warhawk, LittleBigPlanet and Infamous (among others), and let's not forget about cross-platform games like Grand Theft Auto IV, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Fallout 3, BioShock and many, many more. Keep in mind that the system currently has yet to see releases from some of Sony's biggest franchises, including God of War, Gran Turismo or a Team ICO title, though all are on the way.
It's also worth mentioning that like the PlayStation 2 and DVDs before it, the PlayStation 3 put Blu-ray players into millions of homes world-wide and helped it overtake HD-DVD as the HD format war winner. Coupled with downloadable videos via the PlayStation Network, the PlayStation 3 also serves as much more than a gaming device, which is certainly a plus.
Continued on Part 2