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A Guide To Retro Console Generations

At this point in time, video games have been around for a long, long time. While what counts as the very first proper video is not entirely clear and depends on who you ask, most people can agree that the first generation of video game consoles for home use came out in the early 1970s.

In this short guide we are going to talk about the different generations of home game console and some of the notable games that ran on them. My intention is to give you a rough idea of how you want to structure your collecting or what generation of games interest you the most. I’m not going to talk about arcade games or about PC gaming, which I talk about in another article entirely.

Retro console gaming is by far the most popular and simple hobby to get into. Have a look at my retro gaming buyer’s guide to get an idea of how you can actually play these games. Here you’ll just see what’s in history for you to choose from.

Generation 1: 1972-

The very first gaming console generation is lead by the Magnavox Odyssey, which had a total of twenty-eight games and a paddle controller system. The graphics of this console are pretty primitive and the paddle controls basically limit you to variations of knocking a square ball around the screen. Only 350,000 of these guys were sold in total, so it’s unlikely you’ll find a working one after almost five decades.

Although there were game cards in addition to the built-in games for the console, it’s unlikely that you’ll get the chance to try out the genuine article.

You have to remember that consoles from this generation did not have microprocessors, but actually had the games hardwired as actual logic circuits on a board. Other consoles from this generation also include the Atari Home Pong system.

Generation 2: 1976-

For the average retro gamer the real interest begins with the second generation of game consoles. This is where the first consoles that are direct ancestors to your Xbox or Playstation came to be. This is the generation which included the legendary Atari 2600.

These consoles had a CPU, games came on ROM cartridges, and the blocky digital pixel graphics we all know and love were born. Things were still very basic indeed, but this is where video games began to get really interesting.

There were a lot of interesting consoles in this generation and many of the original consoles are still collectible and working. The 2600 sold over 30 million units, so there are still quite a few knocking about. Other notable machines include the Colecovision and the Vectrex.

This generation is filled with notable games that are definitely worth trying at least. Even if you can’t get your hands on an original system and cartridges there are a heap of emulation options and there are all-in-one consoles such as the Atari Flashback that do a decent job of letting you feel what gaming from that era was like.

Games that are worth checking out include Berserk, Defender II, Spy Hunter, Asteroids, Yars Revenge, Centipede, Ms. Pacman, and Frogger.

Generation 3: 1983-

While I don’t have time to talk about the video game crash here, the previous Atari-led console generation lead to a complete failure of the U.S. game market thanks to a flood of poor-quality junk video games. For a while it seemed that video games were just a fad that had finally passed. The third generation of consoles turned that around and it all started with the Japanese Famicom 8-bit console released by a little company known as Nintendo.

Because Nintendo exerted such strict control over what games could be released for their system, the quality of the game library was (and is) extremely high. The Famicom (known as the NES in the USA) is definitely the star of this generation, but Sega also had a console of comparable quality in the Master System. Another notable machine from this era is the Commodore 64.

Notable games from this era include Dragon Warrior, Metroid, Castlevania, The Legend of Zelda, and Super Mario Bros. All for the NES and all still brilliant. The Master System had Alex Kidd in Miracle World, R-Type, and Phantasy Star. Both systems have games well worth playing.

Generation 4: 1987-

The 16-bit era is the point where home console graphics, sound, and complexity began to rival the arcade. This was the era of the Genesis (AKA Megadrive) and SNES (AKA Super Famicom). Nintendo and Sega continued to be the two biggest players, with Sega in a more even fight. In fact, the rivalry between the SNES and Genesis is the stuff of legends, spawning the now infamous marketing phrase “Genesis does what Nintendon’t”.

Yes, this generation also marks the true beginning of the fanboy wars, continued today between Xbox and Playstation fans.

There are a slew of games that any gamer, regardless of their retro gaming interest, absolutely must play. On the SNES this includes Super Metroid, Zelda: A Link to the Past, Final Fantasy 6, and Chrono Trigger. It’s actually hard just to name four games for the SNES since the console is simply filled with incredible titles. The Megadrive is no less impressive, with titles such as Sonic the Hedgehog, Ecco the Dolphin, and Streets of Rage.

The SNES had a wide variety of game types and many of the best RPGs in gaming, whereas the Genesis was an unapologetic action-game platform.

This generation also gave us the terrible CD-i and technically impressive but rare and expensive NEO-GEO, both of which are very collectible.

Generation 5: 1993-

This generation saw the birth of modern console gaming. This is where the Playstation came to be and dominated the market. It also begins to mark the end of Sega as a console maker, with the lackluster Sega Saturn. The Nintendo 64 is highly notable. Nintendo was not the market leader anymore, but the N64 is filled with many amazing and notable games such as Star Fox 64, Zelda Ocarina of Time, and Goldeneye. Playstation games worth checking out include Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy 7, and Resident Evil. The Saturn had Virtua Cop, Virtua Fighter, and Sega Rally.

Apart from the N64, this was also the end of cartridge-based games, with Sega and Sony going for the bigger and cheaper CD-ROM technology.

Just Missed It

I thought about including the 6th generation here (we’re currently in the eighth), but I don’t think we can quite yet call the Playstation 2 and Xbox era “retro”. Now, however, may be the time to buy those consoles before they disappear completely from pawnshops and the like. If you have a Dreamcast in particular, hold onto it. That’s Sega’s swan song and also happens to be a very good console with great games. It’s just not quite retro yet.