Video Game Console Generations

Video game historians and enthusiasm have spilled a great deal of ink discussing the subject of generations within the video game console industry over the last decades.  Although, there’s already a generally accepted list of video game console generations, there’s still a lot of dissatisfaction among the community, especially with regards to the early generations. While I think that, as a community, is our responsibility to make sure the “tools” we are using is in line with our expectation, I don’t think we can just throw away or change drastically the current generation scheme as there already so much material that used this concept. This being said, I think there is an opportunity to improve the concept to address the main concerns raised in the past few years.

Scope & Definition
The main concern is an easy one to solve: everybody has their own scope and definition of what a generation should include. This led to many disagreements over which consoles should be part of which generation. To solve this problem, let’s us lay down some basic definition. The concept of generation was already being put forward back in 1976/1977 when the new ROM-based consoles were released. But, with time, the term became a marketing terms much like the number of bits or teraflop nowadays.  This change in the way the term was used over time did create a lot of confusion.

Per definition, a generation is defined as “all of the people born and living at about the same time, regarded collectively“. In terms of console, this would translate to “all console released in the same time frame“, which would be fundamentally wrong. As an example, the Sega SG-1000 is often stated to be part of the 3rd console generation as it was released on the same day as the Nintendo Famicon, but the fact is the SG-1000 is almost identical to the ColecoVision which is considered as a 2nd generation console (more on this later).

To be correct, we need to add the concept of similarity. To this end, the definition of a cohort is way more suited to what we want to achieve. A cohort is defined as: “people within a delineated population who experience the same significant events within a given period of time“. For video game console, this would translate to: “video game console, within a delineated population who experience the same significant events within a given period of time“.

This definition is really interesting as in includes 3 very important notions: populations, significant events and periods of time. Let us contextualize them:

Significant events: This is what’s triggered the start of a generation. The event, in most cases, will be technological advancement such as the introduction of ROM-based media, but in some cases could be world events such as the video game crash.

Period of time: Like a cohort, a video game generation has a set start (define by the events above), but does not necessarily end when the new generation start. Two generations can co-exist during a certain period of time.

Population: I kept this one for last, as it was important to define the Significant events first. A population is, by definition, items that belong to the same group. But I reckon that the video game console has many subgroup which cannot be measured by the same means. For example, handheld console may have different significant events than home console. The same goes to flashbacks and mini console that, although being released in the modern era, have nothing to do in the same generation as the latest console. Therefore, by definition, both home, handheld and “classic” consoles should have their own generation’s chart.

Error of the past
Even with a clear definition, some generations have skipped some significant events that could have been considered. As mentioned previously, I don’t think can change the current numbering system as it would render useless 40+ years of material, but there’s also an easy way out: half generation.

For example, the passage from large-scale integration (LSI) system to single chip system could have (and should have in my opinion) been seen as a significant event, but it hasn’t. Well, nothing stops us to create a Generation 1.5 that would reflect that change. The other significant event often considered as missed is the passage from early 2nd generation systems such as the Atari 2600 to the much more advance ColecoVision or Intellivision. Some says that, if it wouldn’t have been for the crash, these would have become their own generation. I would argue that in Japan, where the crash didn’t happen, most of these more advance system were available and were unable to make a dent in the market over there. But again, a generation 2.5 could easily fix this debate.

Based on the discussion above I would therefore propose the following order:

Generation 1 (1972 – 1976)
Major Event: First home video game console
Although the Magnavox Odyssey was the first video game, it was outshone by the PONG arcade in 1972 and its home consumer version.

Generation 1.5 (1976 – 1984)
Major Event: The release of the PONG-on-a-chip.
The release of the PONG-on-a-chip by General Instrument in 1976 made easy for toys and electronic manufacturers to produce their own PONG-like console. With the release of the GIMINI 8600 concept in 1978 also released by General Instrument, the PONG-on-a-chip systems were able to compete with the early consoles from the second generation.

Generation 2 (1976 – 1979)
Major Event: ROM-Based Cartridges 
The release of the Fairchild Channel F changed the landscape of video game forever with the introduction of ROM-based cartridges. Cartridges were already existing, but they were either just rewiring the internal system (like the case of the Magnavox Odyssey) or adding new electronics components such as in the Video 2000 console. The Atari 2600 was the most popular system of that generation.

Generation 2.5 (1979 – 1983)
Major Event: Technology Change
The Intellivision and the Magnavox Odyssey² were among the first systems to introduced advance graphical, sound and control features. The consoles started to have more than one action button, creating a lot more gameplay possibility.

Generation 3 (1983 – 1990)
Major Event: Video Game Crash
The video game crash forced the video game market to reinvent itself in North America in order to be successful. It is also the end of the North American domination as video game manufacturers and the beginning of the Japan as the video game leader of the industry.

Generation 4 (1987 – 1995)
Major Event: Technology Change
The fourth generation is considered as the golden age of 2D graphics. With the mass adoption of 16-bit processors, the systems were more than capable than handling thousands of colors on screen, large sprites, parallax scrolling, etc.

Generation 5 (1993 – 1997)
Major Event: 3D
The fifth generation is defined by the native ability to handle 3-D graphics. The 3-D requirements also forced most console manufacturers to adopt the CD as their based format.

Generation 6 (1998 – 2005)
Major Event: Internet Connectivity
Although network connectivity existed through peripheral in previous generation, the sixth generation introduced Internet connectivity. Hard drives also made their apparition during this generation. As console started to used DVD, they were also started to be marketed as hybrids between media player and video game console.

Generation 7 (2005 – 2011)
Major Event: Online Store, Always On Connectivity
The seventh generation really doubled down on Internet connectivity. The connectivity was used to download new games but also system and game patches. This is the first generation were games could be shipped without being 100% ready as bug could be corrected later on via a software update.

Generation 8 (2011 – present)
Major Event: Technology Change, Mid-generation upgrade
The eighth generation is the first generation to see the mid-generation upgrade such as the PlayStation 4 Pro and the Xbox One X. These systems were using the same games as their counterpart of the beginning of this generation, but were delivering better graphical capabilities. No exclusive games were made for these consoles.


Editor Note: This is a work in progress. But as I intend to use this generation scale in the future, I prefer to publish it now as is and add to it as the community regroup over some of the concepts.

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