Everyone’s got their favourite console, and usually that choice goes arm-in-arm with the games they grew up with.
Some machines were better than others, but what’s really important is what gave rise to today’s enormous gaming landscape.
Raise a glass, then, to 10 landmark home gaming machines. Some were smash hits, others were dismal failures – but they’ve all earned a proud place in history.
1. Sinclair ZX Spectrum 48K
A singularly British machine (it was Sir Clive Sinclair’s finest hour), its graphical and sound limitations made it, on paper, more a computer than a gaming platform. Everyone still bangs on about copying its cassette-based games and the horrible loading noises, but that’s doing its great legacy a huge disservice.
It clocked up well over 10,000 games during its long history – it was the first home to the likes of Manic Miner, Dizzy and Rebelstar, and received ports of most of the major arcade titles at the time. Never mind that its keyboard felt like zombie skin – the thing was relatively easy to program for, and as such was something of a training ground for many of today’s big developers and unrepentant geeks. Hell, people are still making games for it even today.
2. Mattel Intellivision
In 1980, the Atari 2600 reigned supreme – which inevitably inspired a slew of other technology companies to seek a piece of home videogaming pie.
Perhaps the most successful was Mattel’s ‘intelligent television’, with its infamously hyperbolic (“the closest thing to the real thing”) ad campaign that shouted about its technical superiority over the incumbent Atari machine.
The Intellivision sold an impressive 3 million units, despite a games library of just 125, before becoming one of the major casualties of the 1983 videogame crash.
While the history books give it less space than its major rival, it’s notable as being the first 16-bit home games machine, the first with 16-way directional controller, the first with real-time voices (so long as you had the Intellivoice add-on) and the first with downloadable games – which vanished when you turned the thing off, as it lacked writeable storage.
3. Sega Dreamcast
The turn of the 21st century does, of course, belong to the PlayStation 2, but Sega’s final console was the first of that sixth-generation of home gaming systems, and to this day inspires unbelievable loyalty amongst its fanbase.
Hardware shortages, mediocre marketing, the lack of EA’s otherwise omnipresent sports games and Sega’s bad rep off the back of the preceding Saturn and 32X consoles meant it couldn’t compete with the PS2’s eventual blitzkrieg.
It was a pioneer of online gaming, however – the shining light of the modem age. Its MMO Phantasy Star Universe still runs to this day. It even had a web browser and supported keyboards (the latter was also memorably employed in bonkers spelling-shooter The Typing of the Dead).
The Dreamcast might be long off the shelves, but its scene continues to thrive – which is at least partly due to the crazy ease of running pirated and homebrew games on it.
4. Nintendo Game boy Advance
The heyday of pre-3D home gaming in your hand. While Nintendo’s portable consoles’ huge success tends to rely on the kiddie market, the third-gen Gameboy really hit all the right beats for nostalgics and the hardcore.
Gorgeous remakes of classic Marios and Zeldas made it seem like the NES/SNES golden years never ended, while new sequels to beloved series kept 2D gaming very much alive in an age obsessed with 3D. The GBA still lives to this day, its design simplicity and lack of gimmickry lending it an appeal its follow-up, the DS, never quite managed.
5. Atari 2600
The flagship of the first big home console boom, the Atari 2600 popularised the idea of games appearing on swappable cartridges (the more costly forerunner to today’s CDs and DVDs) rather than being built-in to the hardware. In 1977, home gaming was Pong, Pong and more Pong: the Atari (as it was simply known to most) changed all that, reinvigorating the market with ports of arcade darlings such as Space Invaders.
The Atari was everywhere in the early 80s, and it spawned a raft of competitors – including Nintendo’s first console, the NES/Famicom. The 2600 both partly caused and was primary victim of the 1983 videogaming crash, but you could still buy one new as late as 1992.
6. 386/486 IBM compatible
PCs had been around for years, but it was the early 90s 386 and 486 processors that really defined the system as the thinking man’s gaming platform.
This was the age of Doom, of Monkey Island, of Sim City, of Civilization… PC gaming never looked back, and the level of invention and intelligence birthed in those crucial years still continues in today’s thriving indie and mod scene.
7. Nintendo Entertainment System
The Phoenix from the ashes of the 1983 crash that almost killed home gaming. The NES (or Famicom, as it was known in its home Japan) was held aloft by a fantastic port of the arcade smash Donkey Kong, but it was the likes of Super Mario Bros and lightgun classic Duck Hunt that booted it into the public consciousness.
Zelda, Metroid, Final Fantasy, Castlevania and Mega Man (amongst a raft of others) all began life on the NES, and its classic controller remains the essential template for today’s gamepads. The NES might not have been the great innovator of the machines that preceded it, but it’s the major root of today’s consoles. History would be entirely different without it.
8. Sony PlayStation
Sony’s first console would be the best-selling home console of all time, were it not for its even more successful follow-up, the still-popular PS2. Incredibly, it began life as a planned CD-ROM add-on for Nintendo’s then-ubiquitous SNES, but contract arguments saw Sony go it alone.
Its CD-ROM drive, a technology Nintendo remained resistant to with its competing, cartridge-based N64, was one of the major causes for its success. Loading times may have suffered for it, but discs were dramatically cheaper to manufacture than cartridges, which were fast proving a turn-off to third party manufacturers.
Couple with that the PS’s shift into being the first major 3D home console and the fact it soon proved remarkably easy to pirate its games, and you have yourself a landmark machine that eventually cropped up in most every gamer’s home.
9. Amiga 500
Before the IBM compatible (the template upon which today’s PCs are still based) became dominant, the Amiga series was the main name in home computing.
Its graphics and sound were ahead of the competition, it was astonishingly versatile at creating graphics and music (even Andy Warhol was a fan), and many of today’s big game names – including EA, Rockstar, Peter Molyneux and Will Wright – cut their teeth on the platform. The 500 may have been the baby of the bunch, but it remained the best-selling.
10. Nintendo 64
Far from Nintendo’s biggest commercial success – it was quite the flop compared to the SNES that preceded it or today’s Wii – but, like the rival PlayStation, it was one of the major blueprints for modern console gaming.
The Nintendo 64 pioneered the shift from 2D to 3D, the likes of Mario 64 and The Ocarina of Time proving that the third dimension meant so much more than simply graphics, while the analogue stick and four controller ports gave rise to Goldeneye, one of the main parents of the first-person shooter deathmatches that dominate today. Nintendo might have dropped the ball with the N64’s tiny catalogue of games, but it did define the future.