I've had a big idea for the console market's history since about a year, but never got around to start it because of its scope. So instead I'll be making a more condensed version today, because having something is better than postponing it for all eternity.
The idea is to put console history into a new context which not only expands analyses, but also provides answers to bigger questions of the current time, such as why PlayStation console sales are in decline in Japan with no signs of a rebound despite continued success in other regions of the world. Or why Nintendo's home consoles have been on an up and down trajectory after the continuous decline of their first four.
Through each generation, the most important consoles will be placed in a table that contains five categories that describe the focus in their manufacturer's approach. These are:
1. Arcade Games: Consoles to play arcade games at home.
2. Arcade Evolution: Consoles to play games that have evolved from arcade gameplay.
3. Balance: Consoles that try to strike a balance between 2 and 5.
4. PC Priority: Consoles that prioritize playing PC games on console while 2 still has a notable presence.
5. PC Games: Consoles to play PC games.
It's rather rough, but should be good enough to work with.
Important notes left to preface the table: Since I am creating a new context, I might as well reinstate a generation that got lost along the way; this is why you'll see the count go up to 10. Another note is that the count prioritizes the North American market because the console market wasn't a global thing in the beginning; this is the reason why the dates for generation 3 and 4 look a bit strange, because when Japan entered the fray, there wasn't a global alignment yet.
|Generation||Arcade Games||Arcade Evolution||Balance||PC Priority||PC Games|
Fairchild Channel F
Magnavox Odyssey 2
|9||Wii U||PlayStation 4
Xbox Series X|S
Generation 1: The most basic of games built into the machines themselves. While the categorisation is straight-forward, there was an avalanche of devices to play Pong. As such, I call it a day by only listing the Magnavox Odyssey (1972).
Generation 2: The Atari 2600 (1977) is legendary with its estimated sales of 30 million units, that's why to this day there are companies who try to sell products based on this name. The other two most notable names of this generation are the Fairchild Channel F (1976) and Magnavox Odyssey 2 (1978).
Generation 3: This is the generation you typically see wiped from history and lumped together with generation 2 because it was a dark era for the console market. Make no mistake, the Atari 5200 (1982) was the successor to the Atari 2600, it's just that it failed with only ~1 million units sold. Both the Colecovision (1982) and Intellivision (1980) are estimated to have been more successful with 2 million and 3 million, respectively, but they are pitiful numbers nonetheless.
Generation 4: With the two Japanese companies Nintendo and Sega looking for global success, we see the first major changes in the console business. Not only did Japan take over, but the games themselves did change with password systems and even game saves becoming much more prevalent. The Famicom launched in 1983 and then as NES in 1985 in North America; total sales: 61.91m. Sega's Master System (~13 million) was released in 1985.
Generation 5: Nintendo remained the market leader with the SNES (1990, ~49m), but the competition was fiercer this time around. The Genesis (1988, estimates ranging from 30-35m) and Turbografx-16 (1987, ~10m) did well for themselves too.
Generation 6: This gen was the next one with major changes. There was a drastic shift to 3D graphics, but also a new market leader who made big efforts to wrestle third party games away from Nintendo and Sega, and at the same time proclaimed that their biggest competitor is neither of them, but rather Microsoft. In practical terms, this meant that Sony wasn't just after the games that were on other consoles, but also ones that were at home on the PC. The major consoles of this generation were released between 1994 and 1996. From this point onwards most people are familiar enough with the sales numbers that I skip the mention of them.
Generation 7: In this gen both Nintendo (2001) and Sega (1998) responded to the success of the PS1 which moves them further to the right on the table; it didn't help either one of them. Sony (2000) grew their dominance even in the face of the arrival of Microsoft (2001). The original Xbox was the first console to feature an HDD out of the box and it was becoming clear that more and more major PC games were going to be available on consoles going forward.
Generation 8: Nintendo (2006) regained the top spot with a big adjustment to their strategy where, in a nutshell, they oriented themselves at their own success stories (most notable the NES) instead of someone else's. Sony's Ken Kutaragi realized his original vision for PlayStation (2006) with a super computer entertainment system that was initially too pricey and in turn allowed Microsoft (2005) to change their trajectory of complete failure, because the Xbox 360's launch year and outlook was originally gloomy.
Generation 9: The Wii U (2012) is commonly mocked as a PS3/360 that came a few years too late and in terms of its approach it's certainly true that it was a console like the PS3 and Xbox 360. All of a sudden Nintendo placed emphasis on the AAA productions of American and European developers who had more or less migrated from PCs to consoles. During this generation, both Sony and Microsoft (2013) relegated Japan to a tier 2 market and their approach to make their consoles about playing PC games did hurt them further in Japan, because the PC market in said country went never beyond niche status. Playing PC games on console doesn't constitute a good sales pitch when there's not much demand for PC games to begin with.
Generation 10: Sony and Microsoft (2020) continue to make consoles that are essentially dumbed down PCs whereas Nintendo (2017) goes back to doing their own thing. What the table now shows is that Nintendo is in a very different spot than Sony and Microsoft, so we have parallels between hardware and software development over time.
It used to be that the video game industry cloned Nintendo games, but eventually it branched off into making games that Nintendo didn't make while Nintendo still makes the same games they always did and therefore nowadays holds major stakes in entire genres and subgenres, because they are seemingly the only ones to grant high production values to certain types of games. For consoles themselves it's similar: It used to be that Nintendo's competitors were majorly interested in gobbling up Nintendo's spot in the market, but by now it's clear that the focus lies elsewhere which essentially cedes a large chunk of the console market entirely to Nintendo and I don't mean only the handheld market or the Japanese market, but also the essence of classic consoles in the global picture which is why Switch does well everywhere.
So yeah, this is what a condensed version looks like. Maybe you agree with it, maybe you don't. Maybe you find this perspective interesting, but maybe not. Maybe your head spins because you were convinced that Switch is gen 8 and here it is gen 10.
While the general placement of the consoles in the table seems to be fine, there's of course room for discussion that one or the other console should be inbetween two categories because it isn't absolutely clearcut.