Video games and their respective consoles are often split into groups known as "Generations".
The first generation of video games started when the first console, the Magnavox Odyssey was released, though were also inspired by games and demos produced on early mainframe computers and arcade cabinets. First generation consoles are very primitive in design, using descrite analogue circuits made up of transistors rather than digital chips which became the norm. Unlike later generations loads of first generation consoles were created, as media such as removable game cartridges were not mainstream by this point. Most of these consoles were Pong clones or variants, with the later ones offering different game modes and some attempting to create different genres of game with similar restrictions. There was no clear "winner" in this generation, as companies were essentially marketing the same thing, often releasing newer revisions of the hardware as development costs lessened.
The second generation of video game consoles began with the Fairchild Channel F, the first video game console in the world to make use of programmable ROM cartridges. This lead to the Atari 2600, Magnavox Odyssey² and Intellivision to be created, and start the first true console war. Focus shifted onto software, and though these games were still often very simple in design, the major difference this time was they weren't all variations of Pong. Around this time some of the first video game developers would be established, both in the home and the arcade. The Atari 2600 sold the most units, and was so popular that some rival consoles even had adapters to play Atari 2600 games.
As Pong was no longer the focus, developers had to experiment with control schemes and styles. Atari went for an eight-way joystick and one digital button, a design that proved to be successful, however other consoles went for strange designs such as number pads, trackballs and analogue control methods adopted from the various Pong clones. Many controllers were hard-wired into the system and could not be removed, which was a problem as some controllers were weak and would break very easily, or the leads were very short in length. Some consoles were bundled with entire QWERTY keyboards or even separate monitors.
Graphics were also a subject for debate in the second generation. At the time, consoles were only able to produce low resolution images with very few on-screen colors. Many went for higher resolution graphics with less colors, some took the opposite route. The Vectrex is a notable system as rather than going for raster graphics like its rivals, it went for vector graphics, which had proved to be a success in arcades. The problem with the Vectrex however is that it can't omit color, and so screen overlays had to be used.
Sega's SG-1000 debuted towards the end of this generation, being Sega's first console. It was somewhat unsuccessful and saw limited release outside of Japan, but it did give Sega experience needed later for releasing the Sega Master System.
The first handheld console, the Milton Bradley Microvision was released in 1979. It wasn't very sturdy but it did help to inspire all later handhelds.
The problem with the second generation of video games was that as it was easy to develop and produce games for systems, and the systems themselves were not always very expensive to manufacture, there was an overload of video game releases. Many non-video game companies were getting in on the act, such as famously Quaker Oats, known for their cereal brands. As well as this, Atari, then in a dominant position, were fiercely marketing the likes of Pac-Man and ET: The video Game for their Atari 2600 system, both suffering from extensive cutbacks due to the weak hardware. In short, there were too many games, too many systems that often struggled to run these games, and too much marketing, ultimately confusing American customers and shop owners. Stores did not know which games to sell, and as there was often no regulation in regards to quality adult-themed games could easily get into the hands of small children. Many shop owners simply saw video games as a fad, and moved onto the next best thing, refusing to stock video games and thus leaving many companies bankrupt.
As well as this, the home computer market was emerging (and suffering at the hands of the Commodore 64's aggressive marketing strategy), and consumers were again confused as to whether they should invest in expensive computers or video game consoles. Furthermore "next generation" consoles such as the Atari 5200 had their own share of flaws and also failed to deliever.
The video game crash did not effect other regions of the world, mostly because Atari did not achieve world dominance. In Europe, the focus was geared towards computers aimed at a specialist market (rather than the North American approach which was to market video games at everybody), and in Japan there was an entirely different set of early computers that had the most market share. There would not be much uniformity across the regions until the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System/Famicom in the next generation of games. It also did not effect arcade games. In fact, the 1980s is often considered the golden age of arcade games as many of the big releases were still being released there first.
Also known as the 8-bit era, the third generation of video games began with the release of the Nintendo Famicom, known to the English-speaking world as the Nintendo Entertainment System, or "NES". It is considered to be the first of the "modern" era video game generations.
As most consoles used 8-bit processors around this time, this generation became known as the 8-bit era, a trend which continued for quite some time as processor strength increased.
It was in this generation that the console wars between Nintendo and Sega began. In response to the NES system, Sega released its Sega Mark III, later revamped and released in the English-speaking world as the Sega Master System. Nintendo and Sega both released a hand-held video game console during this generation: the Game Boy and Game Gear, respectively.
Nintendo started this generation in the west with the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System. Lots of precautions were taken due to the North American video game crash - firstly, Nintendo assessed each game for quality, giving their seal of approval to anything that passed. Though ratings bodies were not yet established, Nintendo created a set of rules which all developers wishing to develop games for their system must follow. Anything that was deemed inappropriate for minors would not make the grade, so large amounts of censorship was put in place, such as the removal or recoloring of blood, no adult-orientated themes and even some slightly controversial ones regarding religious references. All early Nintendo games featured box-art that was similar to the graphics seen within games, to assure customers that what they saw was what they got. In Japan these rules did not apply, because the video game crash did not effect that region.
Envy of Nintendo's success Sega released their Sega Master System across the world, achieving the largest market share in places where Nintendo had neglected. Nintendo were not very successful in PAL regions as they did not put much effort into these markets. In Europe, this was the generation where more people moved away from computers and into consoles. Though second generation consoles had existed in this region, they were not overly popular. Nintendo's dominance in other regions still put a strain on Europe however - many video game companies such as Capcom and Konami were barred from developing games for other systems if they wanted to have continued success on the NES. This would change at a later date, but Nintendo did not want to take any chances at this stage.
The third generation also saw the release of the Atari 7800 which was a true successor to the Atari 2600, but it was seen as too little, too late as the system was underpowered in comparison to Nintendo's work and Atari had already lost confidence after the video game crash. It is said that they never really recovered from this, and still struggle somewhat today.
The third generation is notable as it was the first generation where video games started looking like real-life things rather than blocky low-resolution graphics. Suddenly it was starting to be seen as an alternative form of entertainment that could effectively rival television and films.
Also known as the 16-bit era, the fourth generation of video games began with the release of the Nippon Electric Company's release of the PC Engine, known as the TurboGrafx-16 in North America. However, the PC Engine was quickly overshadowed by Nintendo and Sega's 16-bit consoles: Nintendo's Super Nintendo Entertainment System ("SNES", or Super Famicom in Japan) and Sega's Mega Drive (Genesis in North America).
It was during this era that our good old friend Sonic was created.
The fourth generation of games is often considered to be the turning point for video games. In the past, home console games were of worse quality than their arcade counterparts, but the 16-bit consoles dramatically closed that gap, so much so that arcade usage started to decline in this generation. Why go out to an arcade when you can play the same game in the comfort of your own home?
Many more advanced computers were starting to emerge in this generation also, such as the Commodore Amiga, Atari ST and the rise of DOS-based IBM PCs. The first first-person shooters emerged in this generation, leading to one of the most successful genres of video games of all time. It was also a time were developers started to experiment with compact discs as a form of storage - before this point everything had relied on cartridges, which were expensive to produce and could hold very little data in comparison to CDs, with the advantage of short loading times.
It was also a time where Nintendo's censorship rules were being challenged. The release of Mortal Kombat, a very violent video game by 1992's standards saw a release on both the Super Nintendo Entertainment System and Sega Mega Drive, with the former cutting back on the violence/blood, the game's cutting-edge feature. It was also the era where the first ratings bodies would come into action. Though they had existed with films for some time, video games were still not rated according to age, and when they finally were with the introduction of the ESRB, many of Nintendo's censorship polices were dropped. It did take a very long time for Nintendo to start accepting more violent video games however. Rumour has it that they dropped the oppotrunity to have Grand Theft Auto games on their sixth-gen GameCube console.
Also known as the 32-bit era or later the 64-bit era, the fifth generation of video games saw the explosion of 3D graphics and compact disks, and the rise of Sony as a video game console developer. Consoles released during this era include the Sega Saturn, Sony PlayStation, and the Nintendo 64 (a 64-bit system), as well as the Game Boy Pocket and Game Boy Light.
The fifth generation was the last generation to see large amounts of competition, as less started to separate the consoles from each other, technology wise. The Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation are good examples of this - they are very similar systems but the former is more difficult to program for and so was killed off by the PlayStation. It was also a defining moment in video game history as Nintendo's market share dropped significantly, with them remaining in second or third place until the Wii.
The fifth generation is where CD-ROMs started to become the norm as a form of video game media. Nintendo made the unusual move of opting for cartridges with their Nintendo 64, being the last mainstream system to do so. The arguments for going with cartridges was that it reduced piracy and allowed Nintendo to have more control over what was sold for the system. Unfortunately most developers saw CD-ROMs as the future, even though by this stage loading times were considerably long and discs are more prone to damage. Having a large amount of storage space and being easy to manufacture meant that the majority of games were reliant on CD-audio rather than restricted sound chips.
In Japan, Nintendo would release an add-on to the Nintendo 64 called the N64DD (with the DD standing for Disk Drive). This allowed games to be distributed on proprietary diskettes manufactured by Nintendo, which had more storage space. Plans were made to bring the system to North America, but were scrapped.
Another issue with CD-ROMs at this point was that publishers did not know how to package them. It would not be until the next generation of consoles where every publisher went for the standard size DVD box - in the fifth generation boxes were often prone to damage, of an odd size or went with the standard CD-style jewel case (which in some cases wasn't appropriate due to large manuals). Similar issues had occurred in the previous generation with the CD-based add-ons for the Mega Drive and TurboGrafx-16, but as these systems did not catch on, it wasn't as much of an issue.
In the fifth generation, 3D video games became a standard. In the past, consoles had struggled to render 3D worlds, and though there were one or two examples such as Star Fox and Virtua Racing, these games were released very late in their consoles' lifespan and therefore were not able to start a trend. One of the issues with the Sega Saturn was that it was designed with 2D games in mind, which after twenty years of gaming, was not what the public were interested in. In 1996 Nintendo debuted the analogue control stick for 3D games, replacing the digital D-pad which was designed with 2D games in mind. This was mimicked in both the Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation in the years that followed, becoming a standard that lasts even to this day. It was also the generation where rumble packs were introduced, again by Nintendo.
Sometimes erroneously referred to as the 128-bit era, the sixth generation of video games began the 21st century for gaming. With the release of the Sega Dreamcast, PlayStation 2, and Nintendo GameCube, consoles abandoned cartridges as a medium and switched to DVDs and other media. Even Microsoft entered the race with its Xbox system.
While sometimes referred to as the 128-bit era, most consoles from this generation onward use 32-bit processors. For example, while the Nintendo 64 used a 64-bit processor, its successor, the GameCube, used a 32-bit one. The "bit" naming convention was largely dropped by advertisers at this point, though it did still apply to handhelds.
The sixth generation saw uniformity like no generation before it. For once you could buy a game for the PlayStation 2, Xbox and GameCube and there would be very little noticeable difference between the three versions. In the past, it had been more obvious (though the Saturn and PlayStation were very similar in design). This left Nintendo in a dodgy position as people saw little reason to buy a GameCube (it didn't have the power of the Xbox or the library of the PS2) other than for the first party titles.
It was also the generation where online play became a factor. Though other earlier consoles had gone online, external adaptors had to be purcahsed, transfer rates were low and the adaptors themselves were never very successful. Many also did not leave Japan. Starting with the Dreamcast, consoles would often have online features built in to the console, and would allow players to compete online for the first time in video game console history. Online features were not utilised very well with the PlayStation 2 and GameCube, but it did mark the beginning of the Xbox Live service which continues to this day.
The Dreamcast was also revolutionary for PAL regions as it was the first console to make use of the more modern PAL60 video mode. PAL television sets traditionally ran at 50Hz with an increased resolution, and many games did not take advantage of this, running 17.5% slower than their North American/Japanese NTSC counterparts and having to make do with large borders to fill the empty space. However, by this point most PAL TVs could emulate an NTSC signal, so games could be finally played at their intended settings. Again, other systems were somewhat slow to adopt this, but by the end of the generation most PAL games could run at 60Hz.
The current generation of video games shows the major players (Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft) going in separate directions. The Nintendo Wii focuses on innovation rather than increased power. The PlayStation 3 focuses on power. The Microsoft Xbox 360 tries to fall in between. Who will emerge this generation's winner?