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A timeline of console gaming: 1980 – 2020

In part two of our look at the past, present and future of gaming, our guest gives us a nostalgic timeline of his favourite games and moments. What are yours?

With the ongoing situation across the world, games could have a big part to play in keeping many of us entertained over the next few months.

Our guest, writer and voice actor Mike Paul, returns for the final part of his two-part feature for Which? Conversation with a look at his timeline of the last forty years of gaming; 1980 – 2020.

This is a guest post by Mike Paul. All views expressed are Mike’s own and not necessarily shared by Which?. 

Last week we discussed gaming trends and where they might head between 2020-2030, now it’s time to look back and see where we’ve come from.

It might offer a glimpse of what to expect as we roll through the next decade. And besides – who doesn’t love a two-parter?

Honourable mention: Space Invaders (1978)

I start by immediately breaking my own rules to pay homage to one of my favourite games of all time: Space Invaders.

It was the first video game to sell more than a million copies and, like most titles of the time, it was blissfully simple in its concept, but fiendishly hard to beat.

Rows upon rows of copy-pasted devils pinching off deadly missiles towards you: a brave, lonely box on wheels with nothing but your reflexes, tenacity, and a 5-foot vertical cannon to save the day. 

Early 1980s: the rise, fall, and rise of the home console

Unfortunately, and indirectly, the popularity of Space Invaders, Pac-Man and the associated Atari 2600 led to the console crash of 1983.

Home gaming was getting big, and a rich vein of available consumer cash meant the early 80s were flooded with companies catapulting their own consoles into the ether, trying to steal a slice of power-pellet pie – and saturating the market with dross in the process.

The pinnacle came with the now-infamous release of E.T. The Extra Terrestrial at Christmas 1982: rushed together in five-and-a-half weeks, the game was such a catastrophe that 728,000 unsold copies ended up in a New Mexico landfill.

Mid-80s: all your princess are belong to another castle

1983-85 were the wilderness years for console gaming, but 1986/87 saw a Japanese console arrive on our shores and eventually take up residence in over 30% of American homes: the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).

Zelda, Solid Snake, Mega Man, Mario, and, to a lesser extent, Luigi took their first steps toward gaming legend – and also, don’t even get me started on Duck Hunt. A gun attachment? Somebody hold me.

And when it launched the hand-held Gameboy in 1989 with Tetris bundled in, there was no doubt that Nintendo was leading the gaming market and, more importantly, the race to my heart.

 

Early 1990s: arcades and console wars

For those who couldn’t afford a NES and had to settle for playing it at my mate’s house, the arcade was still the place to be in the early 90s.

However, soon after, the first console war between the Super Nintendo (SNES) and Sega’s Mega Drive saw the beginning of the arcade’s decline as both systems brought its most famous titles into the living room.

In the space of a single Christmas or birthday present, you could uppercut your brother into a pit of spikes on Mortal Kombat without spending all your pocket money in one day, and gamers didn’t look back.

Sega’s creation of Mario-busting super-mammal Sonic the Hedgehog along with a cheaper price tag and larger, edgier game library meant that Mega Drive sales dominated the SNES, despite Nintendo’s console boasting proper blockbuster titles such as Super Mario World, F-Zero and Donkey Kong Country.

I loved DKC, but man, when the Devil picks a task for me to complete for the rest of eternity, it’ll be that Mine Cart level.

Mid-90s: here comes a new challenger

By the mid-90s, Sega had launched its next generation machine, the Saturn, but found itself up against a brand new entrant into the market: Sony.

The PlayStation was born in 1995 and essentially did to Sega what it’d done to Nintendo previously: arrived with a lower price point, a massive library, and tons of third-party support.

I absolutely loved Virtua Fighter 2 and Die Hard Arcade on my Sega Saturn, but the honest truth is that my brother and I sank hundreds more hours into his PlayStation’s Twisted Metal, Vigilante 8, Driver, Tenchu: Stealth Assassins and WWF Smackdown: Know Your Role.

There was only one winner in our house, and it reflected in the market, as the PS1 outsold the Saturn by two to one.

Nintendo’s N64 entered the market a year too late to have an impact. The PlayStation was dominant, and it was reflected in N64’s sales, which were the worst for a Nintendo console so far.

It’s an incredible shame it isn’t more revered, because it produced some timeless titles. Mario Kart 64 is king. Ocarina of Time holds a 99% rating on Metacritic. And, without the N64, we wouldn’t have GoldenEye 007: the quintessential first-person shooter.

Early 2000s: the entrance of Microsoft

With the PS2 already out and cleaning up against Sega’s Dreamcast and Nintendo’s Gamecube, Microsoft’s first console, the Xbox, landed in 2001 – and didn’t make a huge impression.

The PS2 just had better exclusive games, such as Final Fantasy X, God of War 2, Metal Gear Solid 3 and surprise mega-hit Kingdom Hearts. The period also saw Rockstar’s most famous series move to 3D with GTA3, then Vice City, then the incredible San Andreas that genuinely stole months of my life. 

For me, it always felt like the Xbox was all about Halo. And, to be fair, Halo was excellent and carried Microsoft’s offering on its back – but it wasn’t enough to break the dominance of the PS2, which was fast becoming the highest-selling console of all time. 

Mid-2000s: time for high-definition

Everything changed in the mid-2000s as high-definition gaming arrived in the form of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. And then there was the Nintendo Wii.

This generation turned the console wars on its head, as the new Xbox wiped the floor with the PS3, which was announced to tremendous hype, but never came close to reaching the heights of its predecessor.

Uncharted 2 pretty much held it up in terms of exclusive titles, while the Xbox 360 was trotting out a who’s-who of epic games. Mass Effect? Halos 3, 4 and Reach? Gears of War? Fable 2? Left 4 Dead?

Personally I enjoyed Saints Row more than all of them, but the point is, there was no stopping the 360’s rise to the top of the console ladder.

The Nintendo Wii was different. It introduced players to motion-controlled games for the first time and brought non-traditional gamers into the mix with its “ooh, let’s have a go” appeal.

My flatmates bought me a Wii after I broke my leg on my 24th birthday, and I’ll tell you, those were six very productive months on the couch.

I figured it was a joke since it was the first console you were supposed to play standing up, but even now, if you challenge me to Wii Boxing, Bowling or Tennis, I have to sit down to play. It’s the only way I know how.

The Wii’s backwards compatibility with the Gamecube also allowed me to Pokemon Colosseum myself through weeks on end, plus its later addition of an online store containing tons of old Nintendo titles meant my friends and I spent months thrashing each other at Mario Kart 64 almost ten full years after it was first released.

Then I discovered Rock Band with the guitar attachment, and I’m still strumming Even Flow by Pearl Jam to this day.

2010s: consoles go mobile

The 2010s changed the gaming landscape. Yes, Sony and Microsoft continued their pitched battle for traditional console supremacy with the PS4 and Xbox One, but the vast popularity of Apple’s iPhone, released in 2007, saw a surge in smart handheld device development.

2010 saw the launch of not only Android, but also the first iPad, which gave gamers the chance to have a full computer in their hands as well as a machine that could play fun, graphically-satisfying, challenging games with one simple free download.

For me, it was Angry Birds that started it all. I never thought I’d abandon consoles for mobile gaming, but here I was, not buying a PS4 or an Xbox One, and instead launching a little red bird out of a giant catapult in the hope I could make some pigs explode.

It was nonsense, and I was hooked.

Now, since pretty much everyone has a games console in their pockets that can also make calls and send texts and whatever, the accessibility of gaming has been opened up to a group of people who would never spend money on a full console, but might pull out their phone after being stood up for a date and get ten minutes of Candy Crush in before quietly paying the bill and slinking off home by themselves, I’m told.

Late-2010s: huge, open-world RPGs

That’s not to discount the impact of the PS4, though, which firmly reclaimed the home console crown from Microsoft with stellar exclusives such as The Last of Us, Bloodborne, God of War, Spider-Man and Uncharted 4.

This generation has also seen the explosion of huge RPG gaming, led by the giant open worlds of Skyrim, GTAV and Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey. Red Dead Redemption 2, as well, was almost life-changing for me in terms of its grand scope, superb pacing, and pro-horse agenda.

Oh you better feed and clean him regularly, Morgan – ain’t nunna yer “fast travel” round these parts.

I do feel like consoles are becoming a little niche again, though.

As mobile, virtual and augmented reality gaming hooks in people on the street (I’m looking at you Pokemon Go), consoles are once again heading back to being the preserve of the ‘proper’ gamer, having enjoyed pretty much all-round mainstream popularity over the last decade or so. 

The PS5 and Xbox Series X should both be available in time for Christmas 2020. Will you be buying one, staying with your current console, or obsessively playing mobile games?

This was a guest post by Mike Paul. All views expressed were Mike’s own and not necessarily shared by Which?.

Thanks to Mike for taking us on an absorbing journey through a slightly different subject than we usually delve into. If you have a question, let him know in the comments.

Comments
Jack says:
17 March 2020

Really enjoyed reading this. The ‘Pro horse agenda’ was one of the reasons I actually didn’t get into RDR2, just seemed like I had to throw my entire life into being a horse whisperer! Great article though!

Jack says:
17 March 2020

I like the far cry fast travel. Only having access to it once you clear the outposts which are always fun and the chance to chain some amazing stealth kills together always looks good on a highlight reel! Couldn’t agree more, RDR2 looks incredible. Landscape moments are stunning and you do lose yourself in the game, but I wanted to lose my self in the main game, not the horses mane! Haha.

I’ve never really got into consoles.

In the old arcades, I used to really enjoy Battlezone (see:-https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ctr54kopo8I ). These days, I have a PC version of that somewhere.

Some of us used to write games…

I knew that 😀

Really?

Ian, I believe you have mentioned it before. If I remember specifically, you mentioned the Sinclair QL. That’s a machine I particularly remember although I never had one myself. When they first came out, one of my work buddies ran a side business proving micro computer based results processing services for local car rallies and he supplemented his set of computers with QL’s to act as great colour display controllers. These days, I know that folk use Raspberry Pi’s for similar purposes.

The QL was quite a machine. It’s just a pity that the first Basic interpreter it was shipped with had the longest For-Next loop in the history of loops 🙂 Those first machines were shipped to journalists, who found that out quickly, and condemned the machine outright.

While the QL had considerably more memory, the BBC B was much more intuitive and easier to operate. The word processor was a bonus and the commands easier to type in. I seem to remember the QL having its own storage system while the B relied first on cassette tapes, which took for ever to load and store and later a crude floppy disc that stored many a document provided it wasn’t too long. Being reasonably fluent with BBC basic, I didn’t learn Q basic and probably, unfairly, dismissed the Sinclair as too difficult to operate. The educational establishment also took the BBC B to its heart and developed educational games specifically for it. It wasn’t powerful enough to run many arcade games, though there were a few. I suppose I was too old to get hooked when they became popular on the various consoles, but I very much enjoyed reading the history in the article above – well written, informative and as entertaining a read as I’ve seen here for quite some time.

The main advantage of the QL was the provision of the Microdrive. It meant extremely fast loading times and was wonderful until a small independent company built a small 3.5″ floppy interface. The QLBasic was almost identical to every other basic, but the keyboard was membrane-based, and quite soft compared with the BBC.

Thanks for writing such a solid wrap-up, Mike. As the owner of a somewhat aging gaming laptop, I’ll be looking to revisit some of the old gems via emulation over the next foreseeable. Might even dip my toe in a few Wii games I never got to play.

It would be a virtual one with RetroArch, so the world’s my oyster.

The Wii version of Mario Kart was pretty good, if I recall.

I still challenge anyone to beat me at Wii Bowling though.

Really great read Mike. We’ve come a long way, so excited to see what happens next, especially with the new Xbox and PS5 around the corner. New PS5 being revealed today.

Just a thought – you mentioned that the Xbox 360 wiped the floor with the PS3. In what sense do you make this judgement? The PS3 sold more than the 360, especially in Europe. Though perhaps you mean in the sense of exclusive titles. On PS3 there was The Last of Us (it wasn’t a PS4 game – it was only remastered on PS4), God of War III, LittleBigPlanet, Killzone II… Certainly a subjective viewpoint from the player, but I’d assess that the 260 and PS3 came to a draw last generation.

The competition between them, and Nintendo, is great though as it allows for better games for us all. Here’s to the console launches in 2020 🙂

Possibly a UK/US only thing as know the gap between the systems was in favour of Xbox there, compared to the rest of the world. It was a gradual overtake rather than a surge, and mainly thanks to Europe, Asia and Middle East.

Agree sales aren’t a great way to measure success of a console. I think you’re on to something with ‘culture’ being the measure and intrigued how you’d best measure that – social media conversations, forum discussions, sentiment, media coverage, google searches, share of voice, would be an interesting way to measure it.

Worth listing The Last of Us as a PS3 game though, as there hasn’t yet been a PS4 exclusive The Last Of Us yet – that will come out with The Last Of Us II later this year.

What I also think is fascinating is that the PS4 ‘won’ this generation by focusing on the cinematic single-player game experiences that the PS3 era did so well, even though the ‘multiplayer’ focus of the Xbox 360 was more popular in the UK/US. We know Sony will continue that route and Microsoft has been inspired by buying single-player focused studios (Ninja Theory) – will it pay off?

Hi Patrick, lovely to see your voice again. I hope the new life is working out well.
It would seem that there is still much to hook the adult population and still competition on who hooks the best. It’s the ‘step into the screen’ reality that has made these games as good as they are, even on a humble laptop. I get trailers for many when playing solitaire. That’s about the best this overseventy can do just now.

The last time I saw a Sinclair QL was when a new member of staff was completing his thesis. I was sceptical about him entrusting this to Microdrives, but the document was completed and printed. I wrote papers and reports at home on a BBC Micro. I just had a dot matrix printer at home but printed the documents at work on a Brother HR15 daisywheel printer.