Recently, I’ve had time to reflect on some of those glorious (and not so glorious) gaming consoles, the games, and the impact each one had on my life, which is the central focus of this essay.
What’s funny is that there exists a notion that kids who grow up gaming miss out on so much of their childhood. Well, if that’s true, here’s a general run down of the ten consoles that ruined my childhood, loosely in order of importance, from least to most.
(Also note that I’m not including the 7th generation onward in this list. I still own these generations, and I am no longer legally considered a ‘child’, although a case could be made for my sense of humor.)
10. SEGA SATURN – THE CONSOLE OF WHAT IFS
You know, it always surprises me to read that the Sega Saturn was in development circa 1992. Back then, Sega was dominating the arcade scene with their Model 1 arcade hardware (and software, of course), but I was too busy playing Sonic The Hedgehog 2 on the Genesis/MegaDrive to care, and only vaguely aware that new consoles were in development.
In those days a new console cycle felt more akin to some mystical pipe in the sky where, occasionally, new hardware emerged. If you were lucky enough, your parents would then buy the hardware and you’d have it by Christmas.
That being said, I never did get a Sega Saturn, or even wanted one. I recall some of the commercials for it, but I was a Sonic obsessed pre-teen when this system launched in 1994. No Sonic game, no deal. And the Sega Saturn did not have a Sonic game.
However, I did experience the Sega Saturn circa 1996 or ‘97 when I was busy rocking Goldeneye, Mario64, Star Fox, et al on my Nintendo 64. In lieu of any Sonic titles and convinced by a hugely successful advertising campaign I had jumped back over into Nintendo’s camp for a spell. I was having a blast!
A friend of mine had received a Sega Saturn for Christmas. I remember playing Tomb Raider at his house, unimpressed with the graphics and the clunky 3D controls. I mean, after playing Mario64 it felt downright archaic. And having shifted a paltry 9.5 million unites worldwide, there just wasn’t a drive to own one of these new Sega consoles.
I never got to play games like Virtua Fighter or Nights into Dreams until over a decade later using emulators. Today I believe those are important games, and the Sega Saturn’s catalog remains impressive — despite no Sonic Game!
To this day I don’t understand what SEGA was thinking: Overly expensive hardware that was notoriously difficult to program for, surprise product launches without informing key retail stores, a lack of advertising in some key regions, and barely any games at launch… And — unforgivably — NO SONIC GAME. It’s like they wanted to fail.
(And no, Sonic R doesn’t count, folks!).
Definitely one of the most troubled examples of what should have been the greatest console of the 32-bit generation, leaving the door wide open for Sony to walk in and steal the show.
Fun Fact: ‘Saturn’ was originally the codename for this console (as most Sega projects were code-named after astrological bodies). Somewhere along the production line the name ‘Saturn’ stuck.
Fun Unfact: Thousands of unsold Sega Saturn units were buried in a landfill on Titan.
9. SONY PLAYSTATION – THE GAME CHANGER
The history of Sony’s takeover of the game industry is well documented. Back in the early nineties it was all about Sega and Nintendo, baby. But then there was a new kid on the block. Behold the Sony PlayStation.
Another console I never owned; I did however spend a summer with this box during my high school years, when I traded my trusty N64 for a friend’s PS. Games on the N64 were usually great, but they were few and far between, so the temporary trade seemed like a good idea.
At the time I was mighty unimpressed with the PS1. I know now this was mostly due to my friend’s poor game library. Still, I wasn’t a fan of the JRPG, or RPGs in general. I had no experience with games like Resident Evil, and the whole brand seemed to be geared towards a more mature audience.
That being said, the console moved 100 million units (compare that to Saturn’s 9.5!) and took the industry by storm.
My experience with the console was somewhat limited, yet I did get to play a lot of the Western titles with friends who owned the console. Personally I thought the 3D graphics sucked compared to the N64. And then there was that awful controller…
The only game that had any sort of impact on me at the time was Odd World: Abe’s Oddysee, a rich and well-rendered 2D game released in 1997.
Back then, I couldn’t understand the desire to go over to a console franchise that didn’t even have a mascot. To my pre-teen mind, the whole PlayStation culture seemed lowbrow and underhanded somehow. Next to Mario and Sonic I just did not see the appeal. Thus began my general dislike and distrust of the Sony brand that largely continues to this day.
Fun Fact: The PlayStation began its life as a side project for a potential Nintendo console, and is often considered by audiophiles to be one of the best stereo sound systems ever made.
Fun Unfact: The Japanese word PlayStation roughly translates to English as PlayStation.
8. SEGA MASTER SYSTEM – A MOTHER’S PRIDE
We had at the time a Nintendo Entertainment System. My mother decided one day that we needed a Sega Master System. The details get fuzzy here — I believe what happened is that the Sega Genesis had been launched for the 16-bit generation, and my mother realized that by purchasing the Master System she had gotten us another console in the 8-bit generation. She either took the console back not long after we had it, or it remained utterly forgettable. Maybe both…
Regardless of what actually happened all those years ago, the Sega Master System was a wholly unmemorable experience for me and my little brother. Retrospectively, the console did pave the way for the Sega Genesis, which allowed Sega to spend some time at the top.
Fun Fact: The Sega Master System, although dominated by Nintendo in Japan and America, outsold the Nintendo Entertainment System in Europe by a considerable margin.
Fun Unfact: The console was originally named the Sega Master Station.
7. THE ATARI 2600 – HOLD ON TO YOUR JOYSTICK
So, Atari did cause the video game crash of the 80s. Yes, it was home to several pornographic and racist games. Yes, it was also home to E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, the oft-blamed cause of aforementioned video game crash of the 80s. But still, it was a great console, and one of my earliest actual memories — let alone video game memories.
I was recently born, and my parents, strangely enough, decided they needed more fun in their lives…or something. So they decided to get an Atari.
What seems odd to my grownup mind is the idea of my parents buying a video game console… for themselves.
That was the case when my mother found a listing in a local newspaper for an Atari 2600 bundle, complete with games, joysticks, paddles, and a whole host of other bits and pieces I had no idea how to use.
I grant you, it’s weird to think how life would have turned out if some key events were somehow changed. A kind of Back to the Future experience, if you will. You see, some family was emigrating and wanted to sell an Atari console bundle, to which my dear mother responded. If it wasn’t for that, I may not have had an early experience with technology and gaming. I may not even be writing this essay!
Ah, nostalgia. I owe a lot to that clunky, wood-veneered box lovingly called the 2600 by those of us who remember it. Those switches with toggles for BW/COLOR, games like Mario Bros., and PacMan.
Sure, setting the thing up took me half a day, and using the joysticks felt a little like trying to steer a planet with a flagpole, but still, those boops and beeps, those bursts of white noise, that two-color palette, those crisp pixels! I can still smell the rubber from the warm joystick lingering on my sweaty palms after an afternoon of TANKS! with my brother.
It’s the console that got me into gaming. To that, I owe the 2600 a lot of respect. Cheers!
Fun Fact: It was rumored for a long time that the E.T. games were buried in the thousands somewhere out in Alamogordo, New Mexico. In 2014 the buried games were finally uncovered, and one resides in the Smithsonian.
Fun Unfact: The word ATARI is an acronym for Awesome Technology And Really Innovative. Which it is.
6. SUPER NINTENDO – AGE OF THE DINOSAUR
Another console I never actually owned, I did however have extensive experience with it. The same friend who owned the Saturn also owned the SNES. My cousins owned one, too, and I spent summers playing the console, addicted to Super Mario World, Yoshi’s Island, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Star Wars Episode 4, 5, and 6, Super R-Type, Super Bomber Man…the list goes on and on.
To this day I get shivers listening to the title-screen music from Super Mario World, and I’m instantly transported back to those California summers spent playing arguably one of the best consoles ever made.
I will say that the USA redesign of the console was slightly uglier than the European/Japanese version, in my most humble of opinions.
Fun Fact: Nintendo were still making this console up until 2003!
Fun Unfact: Due to the dog bone design of the SNES controller, there was a 300% increase in veterinary visits through the late ‘80s.
5. NINTENDO 64 – OR, DO THEY HAVE THREE HANDS IN JAPAN?
When I received a N64 for Christmas 1997 I had gone some time without a new console. My Sega Genesis was collecting dust and I didn’t own a PC, so imagine my relief when my dear mother decided to skip the 32-bit era completely and go for 64!
I vividly remember setting up the console for the first time, sticking in Mario 64 and using that wacky three-handled controller to pull Mario’s face around like putty. My dad, who had beaten Super Mario Bros. on the NES some years before, was amazed at the sounds of the birds tweeting in the trees that dotted the grounds of the Princess Peach’s castle.
Everyday I’d rush home from school to get an hour of gaming in before dinner. Mario was great during the 8- and 16-bit era, but Mario 64 was something else. 3D graphics, realistic sound effects including spoken words? It was a dream come true.
Goldeneye was a watershed moment for many gamers. For me it marked a transition, of maturing into the gamer I would become in my adult years, one who appreciated a great storyline, complex gameplay, attention to detail, and great music. Goldeneye had it all, including a kick-ass multiplayer that paved the way for your Halos and Call of Duty archetypes. It didn’t begin here, but it did begin to mature here, on the N64 platform.
Games like Star Wars: Rogue Squadron, Shadow of the Empire, Ocarina of Time, Turok 2, Star Fox 64, Goldeneye, F-Zero X, Wipeout 64, and Banjo-Kazooie kept me rooted to the controller. Sure, I admit that Nintendo’s game releases were sporadic, coming like telegrams from Buttjeekistan, but when they did come, they were classics.
Fun Fact: Only 387 games were made for the N64 compared to 1,100 for the PlayStation 1.
Fun Unfact: NASA was so impressed with the N64’s raw power, the organization used the console to power all their future missions to the Moon.
4. MICROSOFT XBOX – THE DUKE OF HAZARD
Late in the ‘90s I was loving my Dreamcast. Alas, Sega and their console ran into some hard times, so after a few years I knew it was time to move on. Admittedly, I was intrigued that Microsoft was releasing a game console. Microsoft, the same company that puts out that lousy operating system? The same company that bought other companies by the dozen and killed them mercilessly? Yes, that Microsoft.
I was still in the mindset of the mascot at this time. It’s one of the reasons I didn’t like the PlayStation franchise. Sonic was Sega, Mario was Nintendo. PlayStation was…ah, Crash Bandicoot? Who cared? But when Microsoft came along they knew the importance of a recognizable mascot. Thus the Master Chief was born. All hail Spartan John 117!
Now, I may be distinctly alone in this opinion, and that’s okay, but the Duke controller is one of the best controllers wrapped by paws around Years later I read it ended up in the Guinness Book of Records for worst designed controller. Nonsense. Those folks simply had sissy fingers.
The Duke was a real controller, one worthy of piloting the Master Chief around an alien ring-world while bringing the smackdown on the Covenant. Dual analog sticks? Yes, please! Not since Goldeneye on the N64 had I played a game so intensely well-engineered, so outrageously over the top, so fun. Halo BLEW. ME. AWAY.
For those old enough to remember the time before dual analog sticks and first-person shooters like Halo, Microsoft’s console offering was a watershed moment for them. You had a true 3D gaming controller, not just the same 1995 design with some sticks tacked-on, but a true gaming interface with a stellar library of games, and the best graphics of the console generation.
The original Xbox also looked awesome. That chunky black design suggested raw power and presence. Even the way this console smelled was great. It felt like a precision engineered piece of cutting edge technology. It looked like a beast.
And it played like a dream.
Fun Fact: The Xbox began its life as a bunch of Dell desktops tacked together. In fact, ‘Xbox’ comes from the name DirectX, Microsoft’s application programming interface.
Fun Unfact: Russian soldiers train by running through muddy fields while helicopter gunships rain Xbox consoles down on them from above. Brutal!
3. SEGA GENESIS/MEGADRIVE – THE SONIC GENERATIONS
I was pretty happy bouncing along with the fat Italian plumber on my NES. But when I went to a friend’s house and saw Sonic the Hedgehog for the first time, I knew I had found my one true gaming love.
That speed! That music! Those colors! Sonic was everything I wanted to be as a kid: Brave, strong, super cool, and super fast. Sega’s mascot was a huge hit in the early 90s, giving Sega the edge it needed to finally make inroads into a gaming industry dominated by Nintendo’s iron fist.
Sonic 1, 2, 3 & Knuckles, remain some of the finest 2D platforming games ever created. Summer afternoons spent beating these games are treasured memories. Of course, other games like Alien Storm, Mortal Kombat, and the FIFA series kept me plenty busy too.
My little brother and I spent hours competing in Sonic 2’s multiplayer mode. I didn’t own the 32X or the Sega CD add ons, so I was unable to play SonicCD until the advent of emulators, regrettably. I now own SonicCD on the Xbox360 and it has since become one of my favorite Sonic games.
Fun Fact: Sega does what Nintendon’t
Fun Unfact: Every game released on the Sega Genesis had to go through a Michael Jackson test play, receiving his seal of approval.
In 1998 I saw a tech demo in a local electronics boutique store. It was the opening FMV for Sonic Adventure on what would become Sega’s last video game console. That memory is seared into my brain forever.
The console itself was sleek, compact, white, clean, and it was also the first console I bought myself with money I earned. It also came with — yes you guessed it — a real Sonic game.
I remember pre-ordering the system, as did my best friend in high school, and the launch day we spent at school waiting for the last bell to ring so we could run home and experience a 128-bit system. My mother had dutifully picked up my pre-order from town, and I’m sure I didn’t learn much that day in school.
I’ll never forget coming home and finding the console box waiting in my bedroom. The promise of a new Sega system that would bring the big arcade hits to the home. They even sponsored Arsenal, my favorite football club.
The Dreamcast would be my first disc-based system, to boot! Games like Sonic Adventure, Power Stone, Crazy Taxi, Shemnue, House of the Dead 2, Soul Calibur, and more made this system a must have. It also features online capabilities (Chu-Chu-Rocket, anyone?) and a web browser! Remember folks, this was 1999.
The controller was also awesome with its removable video memory card unit, which doubled as a tamagotchi for your chao in Sonic Adventure. Other games also utilized the built-in screen for stats and other cool things.
Alas, things were not going well for Sega. After the dismal failure of the Saturn and the 32X and the SegaCD, gamers were gun shy to trust their new console. Initial excitement became refocused when Sony over-hyped its PlayStation 2 into the stratosphere with vaporware announcements of Emotion Engines and the like. Sadly, the Dreamcast would mark the end of Sega’s hardware days.
Still, it was the end of an era in many ways. Going going gone were the days of the arcade, the turn of the century and the new millennium was upon us. Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft were positioning themselves to dominate the generations to come.
The Dreamcast has become a cult-status console, and is now often regarded as one of the greatest video game consoles ever made. I know it will remain dear to my heart.
Fun Fact: Sega chairman Isao Okawa lent nearly $50 million to help the Dreamcast, buying 2 years of online subscriptions for each person who purchased one of the consoles. Before he died in 2001, Okawa gave Sega almost $600 million of his stock and forgave the company all of its debts to him.
Fun UnFact: All Uzbekistani cab drivers learn their trade playing Crazy Taxi.
1. NINTENDO ENTERTAINMENT SYSTEM – MIYAMOTO OWNS YOUR SOUL
Who can argue with a console that sells more than 60 million units in its lifetime? Not me.
Back in the late ‘80s I was rocking my parent’s Atari 2600. My cousin (a girl gamer I may add) had a NES, and boy was I blown away when she showed me Super Mario Brothers for the first time. And by blown away I mean life changing experience I was never the same again welcome to the matrix this is Sparta!
Full color ‘HD’ graphics, high quality sound, and an actual game pad! I spent the nights after playing Mario dreaming of the bright world of the Mushroom Kingdom. My uncle named his dog Bowser. We would have duck hunt competitions. It brought the family together. And most importantly, it made me question the fundamentals of reality.
That sounds like a lofty claim, but along with games like PacMan, early video games helped me to grasp some difficult concepts about the universe we live in. Like, how does Mario move in a 2D plane as opposed to a 3D one? What exists if you could somehow keep going up into the sky forever on that secret vine? And are those enemies ‘alive’ when I can’t see them on the screen?
All of these experiences and so many more were wrapped into a quirky Japanese grey box, and that’s why it fits into the top spot here.
Fun Fact: the US version of the console does have an expansion port. It’s located on the bottom of the console under a plastic cover and beneath a plastic vent. It was never used, save for a couple of ideas that never made it past the prototype stage.
Fun Unfact: So many of these consoles were produced that there was a world-wide shortage of the color grey from 1985-1990.
Well, there you have it. Ten consoles. Ten unique experiences. I will say that in my defense I was an active and sociable child whose parents taught him how to limit his video game playing time. I also became a responsible adult. How about that?
Fun Fact: None of these consoles, in fact, ruined my childhood at all.