This page is about the event. For the show named after the event, see here.
Broadly speaking, the competition between electronics companies is finding the best way to increase their video game market share. Since new consoles are usually released within a year or so of each other, the systems are in direct competition with each other for the gamer's cash. Consumers, eager to insist that they have paid for the better system, are prone to a very simple argument:
"My X is better than your Y."
More specifically, though, the console wars refer to arguments (usually online) between gamers themselves as to the superiority of the various systems and companies. The console wars for each generation usually begin a year or more before the systems in question are even released. Expect much flaming and quoting of sales figures, but don't hold your breath awaiting an explanation of why these battles are so fierce in the first place. The Computer Wars were worse — the ZX Spectrum vs. Commodore 64 punch-up still rages in some quarters of the Internet, with the victor depending almost entirely on who you ask — but they faded out in the early 1990s, when geeks made far less noise than today. Could you imagine if people got this worked up about toothpaste brands?
If you don't care about any of that noise, just buy the system(s) whose games intrigue you the most, and don't worry about what others think of your gaming interests. If you're looking for any upcoming gaming deals, try reading thru a dedicated webspace that covers video game discounts, gaming news blogs, or the websites of the companies who make the consoles. And if you're on a limited budget, simply do some research on what will give you the most bang for your buck such as deals, console bundles, and consider buying used games and consoles (there's no shame in buying secondhanded games). Just stay away from any console "debates" — your sanity will thank you for it.
The most famous Console War was between the Super NES and Sega Genesis in The '90s (see Fourth Generation folder below), spurred on by some Competing Product Potshots on Sega's part. However, internet-related debating (which is usually much more heated than what you see in a grade or high school cafeteria) didn't really take off until the Fifth Generation; where the PlayStation and Nintendo 64 (and briefly the Sega Saturn) squared off against one another. These days (the Seventh Generation onward), it's largely the PlayStation series vs. Microsoft's Xbox line; Nintendo still exists as a third major competitor, but their Take a Third Option approach following the GameCube, and the fact that they often don't get the third-party titles that Sony and Microsoft do, means they're often excluded from direct console vs. console comparisons (though this has changed somewhat with the release of the Nintendo Switch, which has seen a Renaissance of third-party publishing for a Nintendo system, as it's garnered a strong install base).
There is a certain degree of reason in rooting for a particular console that isn't merely fanboyism. The greater the install base of your chosen console, the more likely it is to receive exclusives and technically superior originals rather than platform ports. Plus in the age of online multiplayer, the consoles that other people have can affect your gameplay experience - people can generally only play together if they're on the same platform, with effects from the effort needed to get together online with buddies to the general pool of people available for playing with strangers (although this factor has been diminishing since the Eighth Generation, with an increasing amount of games supporting cross-platform online play). There is also the psychological phenomenon called "post-purchase rationalization", where people who have sunk a large amount of money into a gaming machine want to feel as if their purchase was worth it (see also the Sunk Cost Fallacy). Particularly in earlier generations, consoles were expensive enough that a middle-class income couldn't support two or three consoles and a library of games for each, so a gamer had to choose a machine and stick with it. By convincing others and reading supportive viewpoints, they reduce cognitive dissonance and avoid "buyer's remorse". This is why the Phantom is obviously the best next-gen system and one belongs in your entertainment center today.
It is interesting to note that even the companies who make consoles consider this rivalry to be absurd, since quite often the higher-ups at these companies are often amicable and are fans of each other's work. A reason why they probably don't bother to hide this is because by the turn of the millennium, the average age of gaming enthusiasts began shifting older and older, with the average age now being in the early 30s. And studies show that these adults are willing to buy more than one console with their disposable income, even if they wait a year or two before making that new purchase. Which is why as a fanboy of one of those companies, you should be more focused on attracting new people into gaming rather than keep battling out this useless war.
Basically the Pepsi Challenge for video games. See also Computer Wars. For a game series that has fun with the concept and runs on drugs with it, see Neptunia. See World War Blue for a fantasy manga parody of the Nintendo vs. Sega era. South Park also did a three-parter combining the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One rival launches (along with Black Friday madness in general) with a Game of Thrones parody. Not to be confused with a series of games titled with the format "(console name) wars".
Note that for each generation listed below, the start and end dates are respectively determined by the launch years of the first major competitor in its generation and the last major competitor in the following generation; using the earliest release in any region for both. Minor competitors such as the Neo Geo are generally discounted due to their low market presence. In the portable sections, smartphones are also marked as "minor"; they are a factor in the rivalry but not easily comparable to traditional handheld consoles for reasons outlined in the Seventh Gen folder.
The Home Console Wars
The infancy of the home video-gaming industry began with the Magnavox Odyssey. This era is most famous for the arcade game Pong and its clones (both on and off of home consoles). What is not well known is that many other games also existed, such as Computer Space, Breakout, and even some light gun games for the Odyssey. Granted, many of the games which existed in this era didn't make it to the consoles just yet, but there was indeed more than just Pong.
What console games did exist were rudimentary, mostly because, until the end, the Odyssey was the only console. While revolutionary for its time, the console just used variable screen lights with one or two white squares on screen, and colored sheets to cover the screen and simulate board games. A pong clone was possible with one of the cartridges and a couple made use of the Light Gun.
Towards the end, more advanced consoles started to show up, such as a failed sequel to the Odyssey (hint: it wasn't Odyssey²). However, these are mostly forgotten.
- Duration: 1976-1985.
- Sides: Atari 2600 vs. all comers, mainly Colecovision, Intellivision, Fairchild Channel F, Magnavox Odyssey², Bally Astrocade, Vectrex, the RCA Studio II and Interton VC-4000
- Winner: The Atari 2600 by a decent margin, mostly due to the 1983 crash taking out its primary competitors.
This generation was actually kicked off by Fairchild's Channel F console, the earliest example of what most of us would recognise as a console. While it enjoyed initial success, it suffered from a generally unimpressive games library, poor build quality and awkwardly designed controllers, ensuring that it was blown away the following year when Atari arrived on the scene. Fairchild later released a redesigned version of the system, but in a case of spectacularly poor timing released it a few weeks after the Intellivision hit the market, and so nobody noticed.
Later on RCA would release the RCA Studio II, another early example of what most would now recognise as a console, but it ended up failing due to a combination of poor design (including its controllers being two keypads that were built into the body of the system itself) and only offering black and white graphics at a time when even most Pong systems offered up color graphics, and quickly faded into obscurity.
The console that virtually everyone associates with this generation is the Atari 2600. Initially developers just produced more Pong-esque games for the system, meaning that it had a slow start, but Atari really got things going when they started porting their arcade hits to the 2600. The ports weren't perfect (in fact, a lot of them were flat out awful), but it showed what the system could do. Soon, other companies such as Activision started developing for the console, and it rapidly became a smash hit. Atari released a second console, the 5200, later in the generation, but got a lot of things (most notably the controller design) wrong, meaning that it never took off.
The first major competitor to Atari's dominance was the Intellivision by Mattel. Although it was somewhat more advanced than the 2600, it wasn't enough of an improvement for developers to abandon the more successful 2600. As a result, the Intellivision maintained generally solid sales, but never came close to challenging the 2600 for the market lead. A bigger challenge to the 2600's dominance came later with the Colecovision, which was technically far superior to any other system on the market and could boast near-perfect arcade conversions, an advantage exemplified when Atari shot themselves in the foot with the 2600's disastrous Pac-Man port. As this generation drew to a close Atari was getting its backside handed to it by the Colecovision, although the 2600's head start kept it well ahead in terms of the installed base.
A German company known as Interton released the VC-4000 in 1978. The console largely outsold the Atari 2600 in its native Germany due to having a lower price and as good resolution, but failed to catch on in any other market and was discontinued in Germany once better consoles and computers came along. It should however be noted that it is the only console that was made in Germany.
Magnavox tried their hand again by releasing the Odyssey², a console that combined gaming with some rudimentary home computer functions. Unfortunately the system wasn't significantly better than the 2600 on the gaming side, and its computing features were badly underdeveloped. As a result, the system never took off, and Magnavox left the market. Another early competitor was the Bally Astrocade, which was one of the first and most advanced systems from this generation, but it was expensive and not backed properly by Bally, meaning that it remained a niche product. Probably the weakest of the major competitors was Emerson Radio's Arcadia 2001, which boasted abilities similar to the Intellivision, but suffered an awful game library, a system architecture that was outdated and awkward to work with, and being released near the end of the generation, ensuring that it was blown into the stratosphere by the Colecovision.
The oddball from this generation's console lineup was the Vectrex, which featured a built-in screen and used monochrome vector graphics rather than the traditional bitmap graphics used by the other systems. While it boasted some great titles and was the most technologically advanced system from this generation (with the possible exception of the Colecovision), consumers were generally unwilling to look past its monochrome graphics, and it launched too near the end of this generation to have had any real chance of success. However, it eventually got a steady fanbase, which continues to develop games for it even nowadays and even resulted in getting some of the games officially rereleased on iOS. However, unfortunately there weren't many people in this fanbase until a long time after the system's discontinuation.
Ultimately, this war culminated in The Great Video Game Crash of 1983, where the bottom fell out of the market. Atari ended up being the only company to fully survive the crash, once a takeover by Jack Tramiel had secured them financially; Mattel liquidated their Mattel Electronics branch and switched to handling distribution in Europe and South America for other console manufacturers, and the others either went out of business or left the market. Somehow, the 2600 managed to survive the decade, outlasting the more technologically advanced consoles of its generation. Ironically enough, the Crash actually helped the video game industry — post-Crash, Nintendo dropped their line of arcade-machine boards in favor of the Nintendo Entertainment System, which made its debut two years later and single-handedly revived the market.
This led to...
- Duration: 1983-1991.
- Sides: Nintendo Entertainment System (NES, aka Famicom) vs. SG-1000 and Sega Master System vs. Atari 7800, plus the MSX in Japan vs. RDI Halcyon vs. LJN Video Art
- Winner: NES by a wide margin.
Probably the most lopsided console "war" in history. Nintendo took full advantage of being the company who restarted the American market, and locked all the major developers into exclusivity deals. This was later ruled illegal and Nintendo forced to stop the practice, but by that point the industry was moving onto the following generation. As it was, though, Nintendo's two main competitors launched too late to have any real chance of dethroning the juggernaut they had become. Even if the Big N had been better-behaved, it would likely have made very little difference as to the outcome of this war, with the NES still getting flagship games as late as 1993.
Sega's first console, the SG-1000, debuted in Japan the same day as the Famicom, but less than 100 games were released for the SG-1000 Mark I and Mark II. Sega upgraded and redesigned the SG-1000 Mark III, and branded it the Master System internationally. The Master System managed to cultivate a following of die-hard gamers who eschewed Nintendo, and was quite successful in smaller markets (most notably Brazil and some European countries), but the NES utterly dominated the most important markets of the time (the U.S., Japan and Germany). One of the reasons Nintendo was able to sow their exclusive deals was the fact that Sega saw third-party developers as unwanted competition to their own first-party titles, and did not institute a third-party licensing program like the one Nintendo had until it was too late to salvage their place in the generation.
Atari attempted a comeback with their 7800 — a souped-up, backward-compatible version of the 2600; while the 7800 secured a decent third-place finish in this war, the damage Atari's reputation had taken ensured it never had much chance of challenging Nintendo or Sega, though one small consolation was that the 7800 at least outsold the Master System in North America. Atari also continued to sell a more compact version of the 2600 as a budget console, and released the XEGS (a version of the Atari 65XE computer repackaged as a game console) in a failed attempt to revive interest in its 8-bit computer game lineup.
The oddball of this generation probably goes to the RDI Halcyon. It was made by RDI Video Systems, which is the company that was famous for making Dragon's Lair. It was a system that was able to synthesize speech and perform voice recognition. It is also considered to be the only console ever made that is more powerful than the PCs that were released at that time. Unfortunately its enormous price tag of $2,500 (which is around $5000 in today's money) caused it to probably be the lowest selling console of all time. Probably, because no one is really sure if the system actually managed to make it to market. Only around a dozen copies were manufactured and given out to investors and collectors, with RDI itself going bankrupt. It also had a very limited game library of only 2 games, none of which (ironically) was Dragon's Lair.
The real loser of this generation has to go to the LJN Video Art. Each cartridge was full of pictures that could be colored and the whole game feels like a painting program. Unfortunately it ran at the high price of 80$ and with coloring books that offered the exact same experience for $2 it was quickly forgotten.
- Duration: 1987-1996.
- Major Sides: Super Nintendo Entertainment System and NES (a.k.a. Super Famicom and Famicom) vs. Sega Genesis (a.k.a. Mega Drive) vs. NEC TurboGrafx-16 (a.k.a. PC Engine)
- Minor Sides: Philips CD-i vs. Amstrad GX4000 vs. SNK Neo Geo vs. Super A'Can vs. Capcom CPS Changer vs. Commodore 64 GS.
- Winner: Eventually, the SNES — but its competition with the Genesis was the closest so far.
This one marked down boundaries that are still followed to this day (boundaries that were drawn by one of the actual companies — "Genesis does what Nintendon't"). Nearly thirty years on, you'll still encounter long-time gamers who identify themselves as "SNES people" or "Genesis people".
The Genesis initially competed against the NES and, as is often forgotten, did so rather poorly — the better graphics meant little against the juggernaut that was Nintendo at the time, and flawed arcade adaptations like Altered Beast (1988) (the Genesis' original pack-in game) didn't compare well with the then-recent Super Mario Bros. 3, often considered one of the (if not the) greatest games of all time. Genesis games like Michael Jackson's Moonwalker and John Madden Football helped Sega chip away at Nintendo's dominance a little, but it wouldn't be until the Genesis found its carefully-crafted Killer App Sonic the Hedgehog releasing the same summer as the SNES with its (comparatively) boring-looking Super Mario World, that Sega would start giving Nintendo a tenacious run for their money. Getting Sonic to the market in the first place, though, would be a struggle in itself, involving corporate politics (Sega of Japan and Sega of America were famously unable to see eye-to-eye much of the time), delicate compromises and desperate marketing gambles.
Though the Genesis would be extremely well-received in the UK, in the US and generally elsewhere, the later-released, more powerful SNES won out in the long term, although it should be noted that the Genesis was out-selling the SNES for quite a while. The Genesis had a faster Central Processing Unit, which commercials touted as "Blast Processing"note , but the SNES had the more advanced graphics hardware; even without the expansion chips which cartridges could provide. Sega struggled to remedy this through releasing a number of add-ons (mainly the Sega CD/Mega CD and 32X), which did little for gamers that the Genesis didn't already do.
Another important factor in the SNES' victory over the long term was its tremendous library of games — especially in its native Japan, where the console released anime licensed games at bargain prices. Whereas Sega catered mainly to a "hardcore" gamer market of young males, especially with sports or fighting games (with the SNES derided as the bloodless Mortal Kombat system), the SNES could simply saturate the market with games targeting every demographic, including the casual gamer that would make Nintendo such a success a decade later. The differences between these strategies began the first-ever Casual-Competitive Conflict in the home market. Much like the NES before them, and later the PS2, games were being released for the systems long after the next-generation systems like the PlayStation or N64 had condemned the systems to eventual obsolescence, with some still releasing new games as late as 2000.
Nintendo also got a huge boost late in the game when they tasked British developer Rare with reviving the then-dormant Donkey Kong franchise. The result was Donkey Kong Country, which pioneered the use of pre-rendered 3D graphics in video games. It immediately became the fastest-selling game of its time, becoming the Killer App of the SNES' later years and helping Nintendo win the war once and for all.
Another contender was the NEC TurboGrafx-16 (aka PC-Engine). The system was very popular in Japan (outselling the NES and consistently ahead of the Mega Drive) but poor marketing (although further research also unearthed proof that Sega had proactively sabotaged the console's launch and reputation in the US through a series of targeted ads that only aired in the console's test and initial launch markets), a bad pack-in game, and a lack of exports of some of the more popular titles condemned it to obscurity in North America. However, it still played a major role in reshaping the console market during the turn of the 1990's, with its surprise success against the Famicom being Nintendo's main motivator to release a successor to their 8-bit juggernaut. Consequently, while the TurboGrafx was only a minor competitor in the Western market, its undeniable impact on the Japanese market and the effect that impact had on the West makes it hard to brush off as "just another game console".
Unlike the Genesis and the TurboGrafx-16, the SNES had no CD drive peripheral, though one was planned. To make a long story short, Nintendo broke deals with Sony and Philips. As part of the settlement, Philips won the right to make several Mario and Zelda games for its CD-i system. The CD-i had been originally sold as a multimedia system until Philips realized that only the games were actually selling. But the CD-i turned out to be poorly situated as a game console, since game developers had to deal with a slow, buggy interface and a controller that lagged badly and could only support two "functions", no matter the number of buttons. Nevertheless, the CD-i's limited success in kiosk and interactive-multimedia markets allowed it to stay in production until 1998. As for the CD-i's Mario and Zelda games, the less said about them here the better. As for Sony, it turned its half of the CD peripheral into an independent console, something called a "PlayStation." We'll get to that in a bit...
The real losers were the Amstrad GX4000, a console based on the Amstrad CPC computer line which had a library consisting mostly of overpriced ports of CPC games; it was only released in Europe, and lasted less than a year and the Commodore 64 GS, which failed in a similar fashion.
The oddball was the Neo Geo. Released in 1990 (the same year as the SNES), it was way more expensive than the other 16-bit consoles and was there so that fans with lots of money could play the exact same arcade game at home. Since SNK used the very same hardware in their arcade machines it made porting cheap, and thus new Neo Geo games continued to trickle out as late as 2004. The only true competitor for the Neo Geo, Capcom's CPS Changer, had no third-party support and less than a dozen releasesnote .
- Duration: 1993-1996.
- Sides: 3DO vs. Atari Jaguar vs. Pioneer LaserActive vs. Amiga CD32 vs. FM Towns Marty vs. Memorex VIS vs. Nintendo Virtual Boy.
- Winner: The 3DO sold the best, but the Virtual Boy was the only one whose parent company wasn't bankrupted or driven out of the marketnote .
Several companies got the big idea to jump-start the next generation early...and failed due to the incredibly-high prices the new consoles commanded and/or boneheaded management ruining any chance of success. The SNES and Genesis thoroughly trounced all of them.
This stalled generation is the first one based on CD-ROM technology, and this isn't a coincidence. Optical disc technology had been around for a while, but it wasn't until the early 1990s that such discs were introduced for use in home computers. CD-ROMs worked fine for multimedia encyclopedias and such, but since most games of the day were 8 megabytes or less, developers had trouble imagining what to do with all that extra space. Computer manufacturers had pushed CD-ROM drives heavily, but the format didn't take off until the debut of a point-and-click adventure game called Myst. Myst's lush graphics and free-roaming gameplay were a big hit, and players bought CD-ROM drives just so they could play it, just as Tomb Raider boosted sales of video cards several years later. Around the same time Myst was released, disc-based consoles started coming out of the woodwork. Early games were often uninspired clones of existing hits, layered heavily with Pre-Rendered Graphics and digitized actors to show off the new technology.
The 3DO was an attempt by Trip Hawkins (Electronic Arts' founder) to create a standardized console format. Despite a great deal of hype, some pretty good games and decent support by third-party companies (most notably EA), it was hindered by full-motion shovelware and a launch price of $700 which 3DO refused to reduce up until the superior 32-bit systems came out and killed the interest in it. The system did at least end up as the best selling console from this pseudo-generation, though with overall sales of only around two million that isn't really saying much. 3DO eventually retooled itself as a software company that despite some successes (namely the Army Men series) was just as troubled as the system and eventually shuttered in 2003.
The LaserActive was a system based on the laserdisc format. It was way ahead of its time, with FMV capabilities far outstripping the Sega CD and Philips CD-i, and with graphics that at times even surpassed many fifth-generation offerings. It also had the capability of playing Genesis, Sega CD, and TurboGrafx games with optional (and expensive) add-ons. However, it ran into the same problems the 3DO did — a limited software selection and a staggering price of $1,300 (and this was before the Sega/TurboGrafx add-ons).
The Atari Jaguar was an infamous case of mismanagement and general corporate stupidity. Unlike most of the other new systems being released at this time, the Jaguar used cartridges rather than CD's, but that was probably the least of its problems. Atari's claim of 64-bit power and an initial huge list of third-party support impressed the public, but any hopes of Atari taking back the industry were crushed by the Jaguar's infamously-complicated and buggy coding structure, and an initial wave of games that sucked and only looked slightly better than comparable 3D SNES games using the Super-FX chip. And the system's advertising campaign was... offensive, to say the least. As a result, most of the third-party bailed out and sales were lackluster. Atari tried to counter the arrival of the newer 32-bit systems with an ill-thought-out CD add-on, but that didn't do anything and the Jaguar fell — taking Atari with it.
The Amiga CD32 was a similar story: it was released a month before any third-party games came out for it, had a gaming selection that largely consisted of ports of Amiga 1200 games, and continued Commodore's proud tradition of being unable to sell water to a dying man in a desert. It actually sold respectably well in Europe for a while, but even that soon dried up, and Commodore were soon defunct themselves. The only thing saving the CD32 from bottom spot in this generation was the existence of the Memorex VIS, another multimedia system that barely had any games and sold a wimpy 10,000 units during its short lifetime, even garnering the not-so-affectionate nickname "Virtually Impossible to Sell" by frustrated store employees.
Sega actually considered competing against this generation with the Neptune, which ultimately saw release in the form of the 32X. Though the 32X was a Genesis add-on rather than a console, it failed like the rest. Sega also released a CD addon to the Genesis/Mega Drive; like the 3DO, the Sega CD and 32X both had a few good games (but not much), but they weren't enough to justify the cost, especially with the Saturn's release date approaching.
On the other side of the Pacific was an odd thing called the FM Towns Marty, which was the first 32-bit CD-ROM-based console... It was a console variant of the respectable FM Towns, an early Fujitsu attempt to create a multimedia-centered PC, and predating Xbox by a full seven years it used a custom PC hardware centered around an AMD 386 variant. But unlike the desktop FM Towns machines it wasn't able to run DOS software, was plagued with compatibility problems, and was very expensive (72,000 Yen at release, about $700), next to no Japanese third-party support (most companies that made games for it, such as LucasArts and Origin Systems were Western and did not appeal to the Japanese consumer at all, making you wonder why they did not want to release it in the West, especially when Western console collectors give it a "Holy Grail" status) ...and proceeded to bomb.
Finally, let's take a moment to acknowledge a console that has gotten a lot of flak from All of the Other Reindeer, partially for being an oddball: the Virtual Boy. The first console to use 3D graphics as its gimmick, the Virtual Boy was not a handheld console despite its name — it needed support from a flat surface to use correctly. It's also a classic example of Goggles Doing Something Unusual, in that they blocked your peripheral vision and displayed graphics in monochrome black and red. Its 3D effects were quite good, but everything else about it...not so much. According to its creator, Gunpei Yokoi, it was an Obvious Beta and should never have been released, but Executive Meddlers shoved it out the door early so that the N64 could take center stage with R&D. The Virtual Boy was released in 1995 and discontinued within a year, with only 22 games ever released (one of which was a Waterworld tie-in that, appropriately, is widely considered the console's worst title).
- Duration: 1994-2001.
- Major Sides: Nintendo 64 vs. Sega Saturn vs. Sony PlayStation
- Minor Sides: Apple Pippin vs. NEC PC-FX.
- Winner: PlayStation by a country mile.
Despite having the most technologically advanced system of that era and a slew of quality games such as Super Mario 64, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and Super Smash Bros., Nintendo dropped out of the lead for the first time ever. This was partly because of their adherence to the old ROM cartridge format — the limitations of which seriously undermined its otherwise superior technology and caused it to lose much of its third-party support, particularly Square and Final Fantasy VII — and partly because their bright and shiny family games didn't fit the new 3D, next-gen aesthetic. However, shrewd business decisions and pricing on Nintendo's part meant that while they lost market share, the company may have ended up comparably profitable to their competitors. The fact that their best-selling games were first/second-party also helped. The N64 did come in second during the war, but its sales didn't even come close to the PlayStation's.
Sony, meanwhile, recognized the increasing age bracket of console gamers and tapped into the influential twentysomething "big kid" market, legitimizing console gaming in the eyes of many and laying the foundation for the newcomer's market dominance. One of the greatest assets of the PlayStation's victory was that their games were released on CDs. Since at that time, CDs were widely available to the mass market as writable media containers, the PlayStation became the first console with a large-scale piracy problem. People would buy PlayStations because they could pirate the games for it at less than one-tenth the games' retail price, whereas there was hardly any piracy on the other disk-based systems (and it goes without saying that it was way harder to copy an N64 cartridge).
Also, while the Nintendo 64 might be largely underappreciated and looked down on in hindsight, there was actually a very real war going on between it and the PlayStation that was, in some respects, even bloodier than the Genesis/SNES war a generation prior. This is because it was the first console war to be heavily fueled by the then-emerging internet. While neither system had the mudslinging ads of the preceding generation, the downright brutal arguing and flaming occurring on video game message forums and websitesnote more than made up for this. In a sense, the fourth generation was more of a battle between competing companies, while the fifth generation was more of a battle between competing fans.
You might expect that the developers shifting their focus away from Nintendo would choose its then-primary competitor Sega as a new platform, rather than new-kid-on-the-block Sony. However, the Saturn was a complex multi-processor design that was harder to program for, and it was less powerful than PlayStation when rendering in 3D. It was also crippled by creepy-as-fuck American television advertising, and a botched surprise launch in the US that caught third parties flat-footed and enraged retailers that weren't in on the secret, including Wal-Mart. Adding to the litany of issues was mistrust and a lack of communication between the Japanese and American branches of Sega, and general mismanagement, mostly by the infamous Bernie Stolar. Although it managed to grab some good market share in Japan, the dearth of game releases eventually led to its failure in other territories, where it was discontinued in 1998.
The Apple Pippin, released in conjunction with Bandai, was a weird mesh of computer and console sensibilities with all of the worst attributes of both — too expensive for a console, too underpowered for a computer, and a software library that barely cracked two digits. It's mostly useful for filling out every tech site list of "Ten Worst Consoles" or "Five Apple Flops."
The NEC PC-FX was NEC's attempt to enter the 32-bit era early by rushing an old, outdated design out the door before its competitors in an attempt to keep the PC-Engine's fanbase. The result was completely underpowered in every respect except for decoding videos, and thus many releases for it were anime-themed Interactive Movies, making it the Japanese equivalent of the CD-i. It sold less than 100,000 units and ended NEC's run as a console maker.
- Duration: 1998-2006.
- Sides: Sega Dreamcast vs Sony PlayStation 2 vs. Nintendo GameCube vs. Microsoft Xbox.
- Winner: PlayStation 2 by two country miles and Sega throwing in the towel.
Sega tried to get a head start, releasing its console in 1998 in Japan and 1999 in the US and Europe, but despite a slew of creative and innovative titles, a number of fun peripherals, a free modem, four-player support built in, and a (theoretically) exclusive Resident Evil game, Sony's customer loyalty, along with consumer mistrust of Sega born from their missteps with the preceding Saturn, saw most gamers holding their cash for the PS2. While the Dreamcast did do better than widely given credit for (outselling the Saturn and managing sales that on average were roughly on par with the first Xbox), it wasn't enough to pull Sega out of the financial hole created by their blunders in the previous decade, resulting in them pulling out of the hardware market altogether before Nintendo and Microsoft's offerings were even released.
The PS2, meanwhile, proceeded to grab up the majority of the market early on and hold it, despite being less powerful than the later GameCube and Xbox consoles. Once again, a factor outside of its game library helped the PS2 achieve victory — at the time of its launch, it was the cheapest DVD player on the market. The system has shown rather outrageous longevity as well, being manufactured and having titles released for it in 2013—the same year its successor's successor released—whereas the Xbox and GameCube had largely faded out by 2007. With nearly 4000 games, it has the largest library in console history. In the end, the PS2 has sold nearly three times the combined sales total of its two main rivals, making this easily the biggest Curb-Stomp Battle since the NES took on the Master System and Atari 7800. At 153.6 million sales, it is the most successful home console of all time.
Despite a whole set of (theoretically) exclusive M-rated games from Capcom — killer7, Resident Evil 4, a remake of the original RE (followed by eventually the entire main series to that point), and a prequel to it — along with a few mature non-Capcom games such as Eternal Darkness and a Metal Gear Solid remake, Nintendo was unable to shake off its uncool "kiddie" reputation. The GameCube also didn't play DVDs (unlike the PS2 and Xbox) thanks to using smaller discs in an attempt to ward off piracy (which didn't work), and barely even put out an attempt to do something about online play (a lame adapter was only compatible with two Phantasy Star Online games released by Sega, and Mario Kart: Double Dash!! could only be played online via a local area network). Although it took second in Japan, the GameCube was third in Western markets and Australia. In fact, after a relatively strong first eighteen months, once it became obvious that Nintendo had released all their major franchise games for the system and had no plans for further ones (outside of the endless Mario Party games, and an occasional one such as The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess and Metroid Prime 2: Echoes) sales of the GameCube utterly imploded, meaning that for much of its life the console was humiliated to the point of being outsold by the original PlayStation in several markets. By about 2004, the system had practically fallen into mainstream obscurity and was largely ignored by the video game press as well (in fact, by about 2005, it was completely excluded from Spike TV's Computer And Video Game Awards). By the time it was discontinued, the GameCube sold 21.74 million units worldwide, a little short of the newcomer Xbox. It wasn't a total loss, however, since Nintendo ended up the most profitable company of the Sixth Generation due to never treating the GameCube as a loss leader.
The Xbox entered the fray last and, despite initial skepticism, carved out a niche for itself thanks largely to Killer App Halo, popularizing PC-style games including many Western RPG and First-Person Shooter games, and the Xbox Live Arcade system that helped popularize online gaming on consoles (as well as filling Sega's vacant role; indeed, cross-compatibility between the Xbox and Dreamcast was discussed — Microsoft had helped with the Dreamcast — but it ultimately didn't happen). In Japan, however, it barely made a dent and relied on Microsoft to back it up financially, as the company treated it as a loss-leader rather than a source of revenue in its own right. One place where it became oddly popular was in the Linux community, who exploited its PC roots to create an early version of the modern-day Home Theatre PC. Despite strong sales in North America, Microsoft struggled to make a profit off of the console itself, due to its high manufacturing cost. With its initial retail price of $299, Microsoft lost about $125 for every system sold, which cost $425 to manufacture. Ultimately, Microsoft lost an accumulative total of $4 billion on the Xbox, only managing to turn a profit at the end of 2004. By the end of the generation, the original Xbox sold 24 million units - a little more than the GameCube but still far behind the PS2.
- Duration: 2005-2013.
- Sides: Sony PlayStation 3 vs. Nintendo Wii vs. Microsoft Xbox 360.
- Winner: The Wii, by a few waggles — of your parents — across the floor of the den.
Microsoft was last in, first out with the Xbox 360, gaining a comfortable head start thanks to an even more advanced version of the Xbox Live system (with a point-comparing gimmick which caught on fast) and HDTV compatibility. However a hefty price tag, limited backwards compatibility with original Xbox games, and complaints about machine malfunctions plagued the console's early days (and, in the case of the malfunctions, continued to hurt it). Surprisingly, however, Microsoft did gain traction as a console developer after negative publicity in the run-up to the PS3 launch (specifically about Sony's hardware bottlenecks, poor viral marketing via fake blogs, and what was seen as the mistreatment of Sony's European customers) caused some waverers to jump to the 360. This was not helped by what was perceived to be Sony's decision to copy its competitors' unique selling points and the whopping five-hundred and ninety-nine US dollars price tag of the PS3, twice the starting prices of its predecessors. However, Sony's die-hard supporters, gathered through the PS1 and PS2 days, remained in droves, and reported excellent stock take-up in the first weekend of sales, through sales really didn't pick up until the eventual and inevitable price cut.
However, both the 360 and PS3 lagged behind Nintendo's offering — the Wii. Instead of trying to compete with cutting-edge hardwarenote , Nintendo debuted a unique two-part controller setup fitted with motion sensors and IR (pointer) input. Bolstered with games appealing to both traditional gamers (The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, Fire Emblem) and the new "casual" market (Wii Sports), the Wii catapulted to record-breaking success. This didn't go over too well with many of the "hardcore", who were upset at no longer being the center of attention. Their most notable complaint was Nintendo's decision to focus on easy-profit games tailored for casuals — the most glaring example being Wii Play, a minigame collection which sold 26 million units because it came with a free controller.
The Wii was unique amongst the competing players in that the console hardware was not a loss-leader; Nintendo made a profit for every console sold, whereas Microsoft and Sony relied on revenue from software to plug the gap. This is actually a return to prior trends, as the idea of selling console hardware for a loss originated with the Atari 2600.
Whether the three systems were in competition with each other was a point of debate. Some dismissed the notion, claiming that the Wii targeted a different demographic than the 360 and PS3, while others pointed out that they were all competing in the broader arena of "recreation time" with other forms of entertainment. One undisputed fact, however, is that Microsoft and Sony had lost hundreds of millions on their consoles and Nintendo is the only company to have profited throughout the generation (for instance, Sony's losses on the PS3 had eliminated all the profits from the PS1 and PS2) and only in Summer 2010 had begun to turn a modest profit. This is seen as the main reason why Microsoft and Sony have released their own motion-control schemes, in an attempt to grab some of the Wii market. (This made their "It Will Never Catch On" claims about the Wii Hilarious in Hindsight.) The actual structure of this generation is a matter about which analysts will debate and argue (and, given the increasing size of the gaming market, it actually now has analysts!)
For the first time since the 5th generation, Nintendo took first place for consoles sold, with just over 100 million as of June 2013 (according to Nintendo reports). The PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360 seem to be pretty dead even for second at around 76-78 million as of January 2013, with the PS3's late resurgence and affordability helping to catch up to the Xbox's one-year headstart, while the Xbox has a strong user base in America making up for its lack of popularity in Europe (aside from the UK) and Japan (although those regions seemed to be improving in Xbox's favor compared to last generation).
The Wii was outselling both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 combined for about the first four years of its lifespan. Eventually by 2011, the Wii's sales lead started to trail off, while the Xbox 360 received a boost from the massively successful Kinect add-on. While Sony's PlayStation Move has been more critically acclaimed in terms of games, it didn't capture the public imagination as much as the others due to being seen (rightly or wrongly) as being just a more advanced version of the Wii's control scheme. This trend continued in 2012, with the Wii often outsold by its competition at a ratio of 4-1; as the Wii U approached, Nintendo's only major releases of the year were Rhythm Heaven Fever and Epic Mickey 2. As of October 2013, the Wii officially ceased production in Japan (though not elsewhere) as Nintendo drove most of its focus on its next-gen console.
Microsoft and Sony, with the seventh generation all to themselves, were able to make up some lost ground. Halo 4, a Killer App if ever there was one, came out just before Black Friday and Sony finished strong with titles like God of War: Ascension and The Last of Us. And consumer interest in the consoles did not diminish: the week of Black Friday, the X360 sold 750,000 units, outselling the Wii U and Wii combinednote , while the PS3 turned a respectable 525,000, beating both of them individually as well. As of the "official" end of this generation (IE, the launches of their successors, the PS4 and XB1), the PS3 and X360 had managed almost 82 and 81 million sales respectively, with the Wii standing at over 100 million. The PS3 in particular sold very well in 2012 and 2013, causing some to predict that it might be able to snatch victory away from the Wii after all, though a major drop-off in sales following the release of its successor eliminated any realistic chance of that.
Despite Nintendo's changed priorities regarding the Wii's continued production, they had enough of a lead to keep the other two consoles at bay, even with overtime technicalities on their side, their chances to top Nintendo's profits were even smaller. Sony in particular was in deep trouble: journalists have begun to note that Sony's missteps over the PS3's life have left them in a bad position, and some pessimists predicted that, unless the PS4 turned out to knock things out of the park, Sony would have to withdraw from the Console Wars entirely.
This generation slowly began to wind down from 2014 onwards, finally coming to an official close in May 2017, with Sony's announcement that they had halted production of the PS3. The final standings therefore gave the Wii 101.6 million units, the PS3 about 87 million units, and the Xbox 360 more than 84 million. Some stock of the PS3 and 360 continued to trickle out into the wild for a little longer, but in summary, the Wii was the winner of this generation by nearly any objective measure, while Sony moved more units compared to Microsoft and managed an impressive recovery after its early troubles, albeit with Microsoft having the more profitable console thanks to lower R&D costs, along with the massive success of the Kinect managing to largely cancel out their losses from the RRoD fiasco. In any event, this ended up being a strong contender for the most competitive console war in history, with all three major players being relatively strong at one point or another, and a staggering 280 million consoles being shipped over the course of the war.note
- Duration: 2012-2017
- Major Sides: Nintendo Wii U vs. Sony PlayStation 4 vs. Microsoft Xbox One (S)
- Minor Sides: The Ouyanote
- Winner: The PlayStation 4 by four country miles, thanks to Microsoft's missteps and Nintendo's face-plant — though the battle continues in the "Eight-and-a-Halfth generation".
While generations typically refresh every 5-6 years, the seventh generation threw a proverbial wrench into things, necessitating new predictions of when new consoles would finally be released. None of the three console makers were in a rush to launch new systems — the Nintendo Wii maintained its lead, and it was in Microsoft and Sony's best interests to keep selling their current systems and recoup the millions they'd lost already. Another factor prolonging the life of seventh-generation consoles was widespread broadband access in American, Asian, and European homes; rather than roll out a new console to support better graphics or, in Sony's case, 3D games, the manufacturers could simply provide a firmware update for their customers to download. Digital Distribution also expanded the retrogaming and Expansion Pack market, providing all three consoles with enormous libraries of not only games and add-ons, but also movies, music, game trailers, and other fresh content. The late-2000's recession didn't help matters either; with the little money consumers had to spend in the current economy, it was far easier to buy (or in the case of developers, sell) more games for their current console(s) than start investing in a new console in addition to buying the games for it.
This generation was met with a fair amount of competition from tangent industries. Cellular phones and handheld computers had advanced to the point of being able to play simple but graphically appealing games; this took a huge chunk out of the casual market, as such games were cheap, could be played for a few minutes at a time, and—assuming the player already had a cell phone (which at that point was like assuming the player needed oxygen)—didn't require additional hardware. Meanwhile, as consoles became more full-featured and started to offer non-gaming services, while PC services like Steam (whose short-lived line of Steam Machines, released in late 2015, seriously blurred the line between PC and console gaming) standardized the buying, installation, and customer support processes, the two camps found themselves in closer competition for consumer dollars.
A number of rumors in 2009 about Microsoft kick-starting the 8th generation ended up being Sony and Microsoft jumping late onto the motion-control wagon with PlayStation Move and Kinect, respectively — and although the Kinect did slightly better in the long term, the Move was instantly dismissed as a blatant attempt to play Follow the Leader with the success of Nintendo's Wii; it garnered particular mockery for the controller, which resembles nothing less than a black Wii Remote with a ping-pong ball stuck on the end. What's more, both pieces of hardware quickly picked up not-unfounded reputations for being stuffed with bargain-bin shovelware titles featuring abysmal control schemes, causing both casual and hardcore gamers to avoid them in droves. In 2010, Microsoft reported that the Xbox 360 was only halfway through its lifespan, expecting it to last until 2015. Similarly, Sony claimed that the PS3 would have a 10-year life cycle, lasting until somewhere around 2016.
So it was up to Nintendo to upset the applecart. They announced the Wii U at E3 2011, with a release in Nov 18 (NA) and Dec 6 (JPN). It would be backwards-compatible with all Wii games, controllers and accessories, but not GameCube ones. The console itself resembled a downsized Xbox 360 in appearance, but that's because all the supposed excitement was in the controller. The GamePad was the lovechild of a Wiimote and an iPad — in addition to rumble, motion control, and all the buttons and thumbsticks you'd expect, it featured a touch-screen (single-touch only), a camera with video chat support, and could display both secondary outputs (non-important information) or be used to play the game directly while someone else used the TV to, say, watch TV. However, it was not a handheld system; without a set-top box to think for it, the controller accomplished little on its own. Response to this reveal was mixed; Nintendo stocks went down noticeably in the days following the announcement over doubts regarding the (relatively) astronomical cost of controllers, the revised market strategy (going high-tech in comparison to the Wii's everyman approach; focusing on games that only supported one GamePad at a time, with others required to use Wiimotes), and the lack of innovation in comparison to the Wii. Just like the Wii, the Wii U catered heavily to families and "casuals", thanks to games such as Nintendo Land.
The U received an equally mixed response from third-party developers. A number of them who had shunned Nintendo for the past couple of generations signed on in droves for the Wii U, and early reports indicated that the U's Development Kit was very user-friendly. However, several others very publicly announced that they had no interest in developing for the console, turned off by the combination of lower specs and the GamePad being viewed as gimmicky.
During the lull between the Wii U's launch and Sony's and Microsoft's announcements, an indie developer tried to throw their hat in the ring. The Ouya launched a Kickstarter campaign and saw a whopping 3.7 million USD in donations in only two days. In 2013 the console officially went on sale, making it the first crowdfunded console (to our knowledge). Unfortunately for Ouya, though, a number of controversial decisions regarding the system's marketing and design crippled its already lukewarm third-party support, and the console was discontinued in 2015 when Razer purchased the company.
For the longest time, information on future Sony and Microsoft consoles was limited to rumors from Kotaku, who reported on the "XBox 720" in January '12 and the PS4, also called "Orbis," in March. Both sets of rumors suggested those systems would debut at E3 2013 and be released the following holiday season. Unexpectedly, however, both systems had earlier reveals: Sony held a press event on February 20 and Microsoft on May 21.
The PlayStation 4 conference showcased some very promising footage: the next Killzone game; Knack, a new IP and platformer/brawler hybrid; the astounding news that Bungie Studios' then-new MMO-FPS, Destiny, would be available on the console; the somewhat-less-exciting news that Diablo III would as well; and the non-surprise that Square Enix was working on a new Final Fantasy game (though they did manage to drop a few jaws by announcing that it was the infamously borderline-Vaporware Final Fantasy Versus XIII, re-branded as Final Fantasy XV, as well as the long-awaited Kingdom Hearts III). It confirmed that the PS4 controller would have a touch interface. It also confirmed a theory concerning the PS4's nickname, "Orbis": when placed alongside the Play Station Vita, you get the Pretentious Latin Motto for "circle of life", which was Sony's way of teasing that the Vita would be to the PS4 what the Wii U's GamePad was to the U: a fully-functioning private screen. What did not make an appearance was the console itself, any hard technical specs about it (aside from 8 GB of RAM), its price or its release date. That information was delayed until E3 - the price point was established at $399, $100 cheaper than the XB1; the specs were released; and the console itself was put on display, free of any kind of DRM. It was released on November 15, 2013 in the US and November 29th 2013 for Europe.
Microsoft, rather upstaged, nonetheless went public with the details of its Xbox One. The presentation featured the console, a slightly redesigned controller, new Kinect functions and details about launch games and some exclusives. The One was heavily positioned as an all-in-one entertainment center, hoping to change their target demographic; instead of marketing to "hardcore gamers", the XB1 could be shown to "anyone who does multiple things—cable, Netflix, DVD, Blu-ray, Skype or FaceTime, and... oh yeah!: video games—on their television," a number that is much bigger. As such, there were a number of interesting announcements made, one of the biggest being that Steven Spielberg would be helping them present a Halo television series exclusively for the device, though unfortunately that last plan didn't pan outnote ; open-minded analysts suggested that Microsoft was actually hoping to compete with Apple and their promise to simplify your entertainment clutter with its equally Vapor Ware iTV system. The Xbox One was released a week after the PS4, on November 22, marking the official beginning of The Eighth Generation of Console Video Games.
While Microsoft's E3 press conference had an impressive line-up of games, in addition to Call of Duty, EA Sports titles and Forza Motorsport, includes the likes of Dead Rising 3, Quantum Break, and Titanfall, its very controversial Digital Rights Management features had garnered much criticisms: the system would need to be connected to the internet once every 24 hours (a very sour spot in rural America, which contains way more customers and way less broadband internet), and numerous restrictions regarding used games (though Microsoft ended up mostly leaving those restrictions up to the publishers). Additionally, the DRM would make sure that the system would not function if the system was moved to a country where the console wasn't launched at all though the use of IP geofencing, effectively making import gaming impossible. Ultimately the enormous backlash led Microsoft to backpedal, with them announcing a removal of the policies.
The Wii U established an early lead, since it had the generation all to itself for a year. But unlike the Wii, the Wii U sold barely 13 million units in 4 years, creating the biggest flop ever for a Nintendo home console. Also unlike the Wii, it started to falter in its post-holiday sales, with Nintendo posting its first-ever quarterly losses. In fact, the U's lowest ebbs were lower than that of the PS3 and X360, both of which were derided for the way the Wii overtook them. Every time a major first-party game was released — Super Mario 3D World, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, New Super Mario Bros. U and New Super Luigi U, Mario Kart 8, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, Splatoon, Super Mario Maker — the console's sales picked up some, but there were only so many first-party franchises to go around—and even worse, by late 2014, all third-party support for the system largely ceased, barring only a few Wii-type fitness and dancing games, plus entries in the then-growing "toys-to-life" genre. 2015 and 2016 would see Nintendo retreat and regroup as they expanded into the smartphone app market; shut down their Club Nintendo reward program and replaced it with a new one called My Nintendo; overhauled their internal structure following the death of company president Satoru Iwata; and slowed their game release schedule to a crawl as they shifted resources to preparing for the next generation. The massive success of the original Wii and DS, combined with the 3DS's continued strong sales (despite having faced a rocky start similar to that of the Wii U), meant that there was never any real chance of the Wii U outright ending their days as a first-party developer, but the console ultimately suffered the same fate as the GameCube - remembered fondly for its first-party titles but little else. It has since gone down in Nintendo's books as a Necessary Fail for the company to learn from.
Microsoft, for their part, strongly divided games and non-gamers alike when they announced the Xbox One's DRM restrictions - some argued it was necessary to prevent piracy, while others said it was far too draconian and made the system look unattractive. The 500-dollar price tag, beating the PS4 for most expensive hardware of its generation by $100, didn't help. Sony went the opposite route, promising not to use DRM or restricting sales of used games for the PS4, which won them a lot of fans and even convinced some Microsoft fans to switch sides. Sony's press conference, which gave a hearty Take That! to the XB1's unpopular features, didn't hurt either. Microsoft won some points back by repealing their DRM policies, but ultimately the Xbox One spent most of its early life lagging behind the PS4 by quite a distance, often posting sales nearer those of (and sometimes even less than) the Wii U, instead of what most would consider to be its primary competitor. Titanfall provided a respite, but Microsoft hoped it would carry the console the way Halo: Combat Evolved did, and lightning didn't strike twice. Microsoft announced in May 2014 that they would be removing the Kinect from the standard bundle, dropping it to the same price spot as the PS4. This initially didn't do much to help the console, but things eventually picked up in the fall, when it enjoyed (and continued to enjoy) huge sales figures in North America, providing serious competition to the PS4's dominance of the continent. Much like its two predecessors, however, it was only moderately successful in Europe, and almost totally ignored in Asia. Sales eventually passed those of the original Xbox in mid-2016, though it looks extremely unlikely to pass sales of the Xbox 360 before its successor releases, if at all.
The PS4 enjoyed overwhelming popularity before its launch, with Sony selling over two million units via preorder. Upon release, it completely shattered all records for day-one sales, selling over a million units in 24 hours despite launching only in North America, and adding another million within two-and-a-half weeks. Additionally, Sony was very aggressive with the launch of the PS4, launching it in as many countries as supplies would permit within a short period, compared to Microsoft's slower launch timetable (in which it launched first in first-world countries in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and North America in 2013, but first-world Asian countries only got the console in 2014, and second- and third-world countries' launch dates were as late as Spring 2015). Considering how badly Sony was crippled by the PS3's underwhelming performance, their fervent pushing of the PS4 comes as no surprise.
As of May 2017, reports showed the PS4 at 56 million units and climbing, the Xbox One at 29 million, with the Wii U spluttering out at a final total of just short of 14 million prior to its discontinuation. The Xbox One received a shot in the arm in late 2016 with its slim incarnation, the Xbox One S, which included a slightly faster GPU and a 4K Blu-Ray player (the near-simultaneously released PS4 slim had identical specs to the original model), seeing another solid increase in sales. Both Microsoft — Phil Spencer, the head of Xbox, admitted they'd probably never overtake Sony's lead — and Nintendo, who abandoned the Wii U in favor of a fresh start, ended up conceding the generation to Sony.
- Duration: 2017-2020
- Sides: Nintendo Switch (Lite) vs. Sony PlayStation 4 Pro vs. Microsoft Xbox One X
- Winner: The Switch, with the PS4 in a close second.
To nobody's surprise after the Wii U's failure, Nintendo was first to announce that a new console, codenamed the "NX", was in development in 2015 as a way to assure shareholders that they weren't leaving the console market after they recently announced plans to finally start making games for smartphones. However, they then said nothing more for months on end, fanning rampant speculation over what form it would take.
In the meantime, both competitors announced updated versions of their existing hardware in 2016: Microsoft had both a streamlined version in the Xbox One S and the cutting-edge Xbox One X, while Sony had the enhanced PlayStation 4 Pro. Microsoft, in particular, stated that the One X was a first step away from the "generation" paradigm altogether, in that they intend to continue to evolve the Xbox One platform in the future instead of replacing it; eventually the original Xbox One will become obsolete and games may stop being compatible with it, but it won't be as clear-cut as in past generations, just like how many games can run on old PCs and how many old games can run on newer computers, even if they really shouldn't. Meanwhile, the One X will depreciate until it becomes the standard model and a newer model will be introduced as the new luxury version. Their success will likely be determined by whether this idea catches on.
That left the big elephant in the room in the "NX". Nintendo went a year and a half in complete silence about the new system, breaking it only once to share that they intended to release it in March 2017; causing the rumor mill to go into overdrive trying to figure out what was going on. They finally revealed the system in October 2016, a mere five months before release, as the Nintendo Switch. As many rumors had guessed, it combined their home console and handheld lines into a single hybrid system: the system is a portable tablet-like unit, which can be docked to play on TV, played on its own with regular controllers, or have button pads attached to it to make it a handheld. Two years into the system's lifecycle, Nintendo announced a low-cost version known as the Switch Lite, which integrates the controllers and cannot be connected to a TV, thus effectively making it a pure handheld. With there no longer being anything really resembling a handheld war, however, it is included in this match-up.
One other issue affecting the war this generation is that of cross-play, allowing people with different systems to play together in multiplatform titles. The issue first came up at E3 2017, when it was revealed that some titles would allow cross-play between Xbox/PC and Switch, but not PlayStation - and not because of any technical issues, but simply because Sony didn't want to share their playerbase. Over the next few years, more games would face this same issue where Sony would be reluctant to support cross-play, giving either limited support or none at all.
Finally, Atari has announced that they would re-enter the race for the first time since the Jaguar with something called the Atari VCS, originally planned for release by Spring 2018. Little is currently known about it, other than it being some sort of mid-ground between gaming console and open-source PC, and that it will come pre-loaded with a vast majority of the company's backlog. Unfortunately, it's been missing its release deadlines and, as of November 2019, seems to be becoming Vaporware. Intellivision has also announced plans to re-enter the race, with details surrounding their upcoming Intellivision Amico console being... interesting, to say the least; though it likely won't release until about the time the Ninth Generation starts.
As the only truly new hardware from one of the three major competitors, the Switch wound up enjoying a far better start to life than the Wii U, and in fact most of Nintendo's prior consoles, with the console experiencing the same sort of stock shortages that the original Wii did. Though it had to build its install base from scratch, where Sony and Microsoft already earned a large amount of market share from the original models of their hardware, by October 2019 it had sold over 40 million units (NOT WITH Lite), and beating Xbox One and Xbox One X, also beating out the Wii's previous record as the fastest selling home console in history by 2018. It also quickly gained a reputation of being incredibly indie-friendly, with several indie devs reporting their games selling better on the Switch than on other platforms, even for games that had been out on those other platforms for years already. Keeping up its momentous progress as of 2019 and (despite production shortage due to the COVID-19 Pandemic) 2020, the real possibility of the system eclipsing the Xbox and PlayStation despite the late start has been discussed and considered.
With both Sony and Microsoft declining to release separate sales figures for the original and updated incarnations of their respective systems, the winner of this war became hard to pin down. Narrowing it down to how the PS4 (all models, with the Pro launching in September 2016) sold compared to the Switch over the same time period, Sony lead again for much of this generation, albeit not to the extent of the Curb-Stomp Battle in the previous generation. Sony reported selling an additional ~45 million PS4s, without breaking down by model, from the start of March 2017 (launch month of the Switch) to October 2019, higher than the sales of the Switch despite greater per-unit cost and the Switch being newer. 2020 saw the sales of the PS4 start to tail off following the announcement of its successor, however, with the Switch outselling it heavily. Sales of the PS4 all but dried up by the start of 2022 (though the base model still remained officially in production, due to the scarcity of its successor), leaving its lifetime total at around 117 million units, making it Sony's second-most successful console after the PS2. Ultimately, the Switch was able to squeak ahead of the PS4's lifetime sales by the end of 2022, selling 132 million units by November 2023.
The Xbox One (X) remained in a decent third place, without really challenging for the market lead, before likewise experiencing a sharp drop in sales after its successor family was announced. A fourth model, the Xbox One S All-Digital was released in 2019 — as you can probably guess from the name, it lacked any sort of optical drive — but failed to make any real impact on the line's sales, indicating that the larger gaming market still wasn't ready to completely abandon physical media despite the huge surge in games being purchased via digital download (though being based on the older "S" chipset, and released at a time when interest in the Xbox One line as a whole was diminishing, likely didn't help much; in retrospect, Microsoft were likely just using it as a trial run for the following generation's Xbox Series S).
- Duration: 2020-?
- Sides: Nintendo Switch (OLED, Lite) vs. Sony PlayStation 5 vs. Microsoft Xbox Series X|S vs. Google Stadia vs. Nintendo's Next Console
- Winner: Too early to tell.
For a while, there was much debate about whether or not there would even be what could be described as another console generation after the eighth generation, due to a strong belief among many gamers and tech journalists that streaming gaming — hosted on remote server farms, with the user only having a controller plus a small, cheap "streaming box" connected to their TV set — was the way of the future. As the 2010s wore on however, with Sony's PlayStation Now and similar such services getting very mixed reactions, it became increasingly apparent that the infrastructure was not yet there to support such services on a large scale, and was similarly unlikely to be ready for the next generation of consoles to eschew physical media and pursue an entirely download-only model (another common prediction during the eighth [and-a-half] generation). As a result, 2019 saw the announcement of true successors to the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One families.
Sony were the first to announce their next console — which, to the surprise of few, was named the PlayStation 5. In keeping with the tendency towards increasingly PC-like design over the last few console generations, the PS5's hardware is primarily based on cutting-edge PC hardware (for 2020), with two key differences; the first being eschewing the mobile-focused CPU cores of the PS4 and Xbox One in favor of high-end desktop CPU cores, and the second being doing away with mechanical internal storage in favor of a solid-state drive. The main version of the console still includes an optical drive for game installation (and video playback), though Sony will also be offering a version without an optical drive, which is otherwise identical in terms of specs. For the time being at least, Sony are still sticking to clearly delineated console generations, albeit unlike its predecessor, the PS5 is fully back-compatible (outside of a very small number of games that either don't work at all or suffer from glitches) with PS4 games.
Microsoft shortly afterwards announced their own successor to the Xbox One, named the Xbox Series X. From a purely hardware perspective, the Series X can best be described as "the PS5, but a little more powerful" (20% more in terms of graphics horsepower, to be exact). However, the company continue to blur the lines between the console generations, with Microsoft announcing that games for the Xbox platform will only need to purchased once, meaning that games purchased for the Xbox One family can be run on the Series X, and where the game is designed to do so, will take full advantage of the features of the newer console — Sony later followed suit with a similar announcement, though it's ultimately up to developers whether or not they charge for Updated Rereleases of PS4 and Xbox One games. Later in the year, Microsoft confirmed their own discless console in the shape of the Xbox Series S, which shared the same CPU as the Series X, but with a GPU somewhere in-between the original Xbox One and Xbox One X in terms of graphical power. This makes the Series S noticeably weaker, but also easily the cheapest system from the PS5 and Xbox Series S/X line-up.
With the Switch still being positively active, Nintendo will be sticking with it for the time being, and it's unlikely to be replaced with a successor anytime soon. Rumors continue to swirl about Nintendo announcing an upgraded version along the lines of the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X, but nothing has yet been announced on that front, with the most that Nintendo has done thus far being to create a "premium" model with an OLED screen.
While the main console players weren't yet ready to move to streaming gaming, the predicted future of gaming nonetheless materialized as part of this generation anyway, courtesy of Google, who launched their Stadia Service near the start of 2020. This only requires a compatible platform (basically either a PC, a tablet that runs Android, or a TV that has either integral support or is connected to a Chromecast device) and solid internet connection, with all the processing being handled on Google's end, and input and display being handled on the user's end.
Thus, the Stadia became the first of the announced major players to have been released. However, reception has been fairly muted, with criticisms over the games not really being noticeably superior to those offered by existing consoles — generally they tend to be somewhere between the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X in graphical quality — the pricing structurenote , and most seriously, often-significant input latency that can make fighting games and twitch shooters all but unplayable (and all that's if you've got a good internet connection; if you live somewhere where you can't get a decent connection, then you're just all kinds of screwed). Additionally, Stadia is only launched in a handful of first world countries with Google being quiet on whether it will launch elsewhere, meaning if you live in a second- or third-world country, you won’t get to use Stadia either. Early opinions on the service were that while it could certainly have been much worse, it just proved that the concept was still a long ways away from being ready to be the main way to play. Google seemed to tacitly admit defeat in terms of promoting the Stadia as a traditional console-type platform in early 2021 by pulling the plug on a range of planned exclusives, keeping it active only as a way of playing PC games.
The PS5 and Series S/X were both launched near the end of 2020, with the Xbox coming first on November 10, and the PS5 quickly following on November 12note . This generation soon saw a situation quite unlike any previous one, however, as both the PS5 and Series S/X ended up being almost imposible for most consumers to get hold of, thanks to a combination of production runs being limited by much more complex designs than previous generations, manufacturing being further limited by issues caused by the COVID-19 Pandemic, and perhaps most pertinently, scalpers using bots to instantly clean out any retailers who got them in stock (most of whom have made a few token measures to prevent this, but don't really have a reason to make a major effort in this regard, seeing how they get paid either way) and then selling them for obscenely inflated prices on eBay and other such sites. Thus far, the PS5 has a decent lead in sales, but the Series S/X are selling far better than the Xbox One was during the comparable point in its lifetime, to the point of even outselling the PS5 in some territories (mostly thanks to the latter console's scarcity; the Xbox consoles have had this mitigated to a large degree thanks to the Series S). This, along with the Switch and its updated incarnations still selling very well, has seen the market return to the highly competitive state of the Seventh Generation.
September 2022 saw the first casualty of this generation's war, with Google announcing that Stadia would discontinue operation the following year's January, and that they would fully refund anyone who bought any hardware or software relating to the service.
On July 31st of 2023, rumors began to swirl that Nintendo were planning their next console. This machine, typically known as the "Switch 2" for lack of a better name ("Swiitch"?), is planned for a second-half-of-2024 release.
The Portable Wars
- Duration: 1989-2000.
- Sides: Nintendo Game Boy vs. Atari Lynx vs. Sega Game Gear vs. NEC TurboExpress (aka PC Engine) vs. Sega Nomad vs. Hartung Game Master vs. Bit Corp. Gamate vs. Watara Supervision vs. Timlex Mega Duck.
- Winner: The Game Boy by four lines.
Even when it came out, the Game Boy's chunky design and simple monochrome display made it look old-fashioned; at the same time, the Atari Lynx was wowing people with its "turn it upside down if you're left-handed" gimmick and full-color display. But Nintendo's wide range of third-party developers and stranglehold on game shops saw it getting more shelf space. The Game Boy's greatest weakness was also its greatest strength; while the other handheld devices boasted color screens and more sophisticated graphics, Nintendo's device offered far better battery life, making it more easily portable. The Game Boy's Killer App, Tetris, was enormously popular among the adult market, becoming a frequent sight on buses and subways. Sega's Game Gear put up a better fight and also offered a color screen and the option to watch TV on-the-go through a TV tuner with aerial, but it ate batteries for breakfast and, like its bigger brother the Genesis, fell before the might of Nintendo's juggernaut.
The TurboExpress also failed, despite being the most powerful handheld at that time, largely because it cost $299 on release. A late entry by Sega in the form of the Nomad, a handheld console that could play Genesis games, was a flop — it came out the year after the first PlayStation console.
The Hartung Game Master, the Bit Corp. Gamate, the Watara Supervision, and the Timlex Mega Duck were all failed attempts to cash in on the Game Boy. Many of their games were just ripoffs of other titles.
- Duration: 1998-2003.
- Sides: Nintendo Game Boy Color vs. SNK Neo Geo Pocket/Pocket Color vs. Tiger Electronics Game.com/R-Zone vs. Bandai Wonderswan/Wonderswan Color.
- Winner: The Game Boy variants.
The cultural dominance of the Game Boy was immense, and continued to be bought by thousands for years after its initial release. But as the hardware aged, its competition saw a chance to strike. The Neo Geo Pocket (Released in Europe, but not in North America most likely due to the Game Boy Color releasing) and Game.com were both attempts to knock the monochrome bleeper off its feet. But Nintendo had another trick up its sleeve; the original Game Boy was swapped out for the streamlined, sharper-screened Game Boy Pocket and later the color-screened, backwards-compatible Game Boy Color was put on the market. Combined with the burgeoning Pokémon phenomenon, which was just beginning to make noise outside of Japan, the Game Boy kept its feet until it was relieved by its successor in 2001.
The Neo Geo Pocket Color was released to compete, and while its library of classic Neo Geo adaptations saw it gain a mild amount of success, it never managed to make any real headway against Nintendo's established brand name and backwards compatibility. Japan also saw the introduction of the hugely-popular Wonderswan, created by the Game Boy's original designer as what was his final project before his tragic death, but it never made it outside Japan. The Game.com was easily the least successful handheld from this generation; it had a touch screen and online features, but they were clumsily implemented and the overall hardware was badly underpowered (it actually had a similar CPU to the original Game Boy, despite being released eight years later), consigning it to failure in the marketplace. Tiger Electronics would see a similar failure with the R-Zone, which managed to sell even worse than not only its Game.com, but also the Virtual Boy, which the R-Zone is generally a Shoddy Knockoff Product of, and which had three equally disappointing different versions and graphics that can't even exceed the quality of those of the Virtual Boy.
When all was said and done, the Game Boy and its variants remain the single best-selling pure video game device ever made.
- Duration: 2001-2004.
- Sides: Nintendo Game Boy Advance/Advance SP/Micro vs. Game Park GP32 vs. Tapwave Zodiac vs. Nokia NGage QD vs. Bandai WonderSwan Crystal vs. Tiger Telematics Gizmondo vs. Time Top GameKing.
- Winner: The GBA line. (Seeing a pattern here?)
The creation of the Game Boy Color was ultimately an admission that that iteration of the console had gone as far as it could go. In 2001, Nintendo released the Game Boy Advance, effectively a portable Game Boy-compatible SNES. (Compare with humorous intent to the first Portable War's massive casualty — Sega's Nomad, which played the original Genesis cartridges, doing away with porting/repurchasing games. Another instance of Sega's console curse — good ideas, horrific timing.)
The GBA was built upon an idea that would have been seen as terrible if it hadn't worked out: the Updated Re-release, more so than any other console before it. If the GBA was essentially a portable SNES, so the logic goes, then there was a generation of children who had never played those games, and another that had would be willing to pay for nostalgia. With a launch line-up that included versions of Super Mario Bros. 2, F-Zero, Earthworm Jim, and a 2D Castlevania, with Mario Kart, Donkey Kong Country, Kirby and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past soon to follow, a wave of players both old and new gave the device a warm reception. SNES developers found it easy to port their games, and even the best new franchises on the handheld (like WarioWare, Mario vs. Donkey Kong and Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga) had a good dose of gaming nostalgia behind them.
The GBA was followed up two years later with the improved SP model, which had a smaller size and a clamshell style flip-up screen with sidelight. Later they released the Micro, which was smaller and hipper (at the cost of backward compatibility) and an updated SP, both with true backlighting.
Competition followed in various forms, including the N-Gage by phone company Nokia, which was capable of graphics approaching that of a PlayStation 1 but suffered from an uncomfortable grip and a vertical screen. Further, the first version not only required players to open it and remove the battery to change a game, but also made them look awkward while using it as an actual phone; these were fixed with the "QD" revision, but one wonders how the original ever made it past practical testing. Despite heavy promotion from Nokia, including N-Gage-only stores, it failed to capture the public's imagination. But it did better than the Palm OS-based Zodiac, which caused its owner company, Tapwave, to fold.
As for the Gizmondo, the system quietly slipped under everyone's radar, despite being an early 3D-capable handheld, mostly thanks to its ludicrous pricing scheme: The base unit cost just over $200, but the system forced its players to sit through adverts before they could play their games, and the ad-free unit cost twice as much. The fact that the system's launch was overshadowed by the dealings with the Swedish Mafia of Stefan Eriksson, an executive of its manufacturer Tiger Telematics note , didn't help much, and the system was quietly discontinued barely a year after its release. Furthermore, because of its failure (the Gizmondo sold only 25,000 units and became the worst-selling video game device ever), Tiger Telematics filed for bankruptcy one year after the Gizmondo was released.
By far the most interesting of this generation, however, was the GP32, a Korean homebrew-friendly handheld console with a 133 Mhz processor that was capable of emulating other consoles and computers and came with a tiny detachable keyboard. Although it was not released in America, it gained cult interest in the UK and Europe. The Bandai Swan Crystal was a follow-up to the Wonderswan Color but was not released outside Japan.
A very minor competitor was Time Top's Game King console. Its design was intentionally made to look like the Game Boy Advance, with two later models taking the look of the PlayStation Portable. Many of its games were ripoffs of other titles, and it was still a black-and-white system (with the exception of the Game King III, which uses full color). The Game King III was not released outside of Asia.
But for all intents and purposes, the GBA was virtually unchallenged in the portable market for five years.
- Duration: 2004-2011.
- Major Sides: Nintendo DS/DS Lite/DSi vs. PlayStation Portable (aka PSP)/PSP-Go
- Minor Sides: Game Park GP2X vs. iOS Games/Android Games.
- Winner: Nintendo DS by several taps.
This generation saw Nintendo's first serious competition for the handheld spot since Sega launched its Game Gear in 1990. The PSP, Sony's first foray into the handheld market, was marketed with top-of-the-line technical power. The PSP has much more raw power and greater non-gaming functionality. However, the dual-screened DS chose to concentrate on pure gaming, appealing to casual gamers with the intuitive touch-screen, microphone, excellent battery life, and lots of games targeted toward really young children. This particular handheld war had some major bleedover from the sixth-generation of console wars. Especially in Western markets, many predicted an easy victory for the PSP, with graphics that were comparable to the PS2, games that appeared more "mature" than Mario and Kirby, and its much-vaunted portable media functionality. On the flipside, Nintendo seemed hopelessly out-of-touch, and much of the criticism that the GameCube got was also applied to the DS through its early lifespan. However, by the end of 2005 (the first full year of the DS's lifespan, and the majority of that of the PSP), Nintendo retained a notable commercial and critical lead over Sony. This turned out to be a surprise for everyone who thought the odd little device was dead in the water.
Throughout this generation, Nintendo's position seemed unassailable — Nintendo of Japan can't make 'em fast enough to keep up with demand in its home country. Meanwhile, the PSP has around 1/3 the total sales. This doesn't sound like much, until you factor in that it's still much more than the sales of either the 360 or PS3, and has massive popularity in Japan. Having said that, much of the promised non-game functionality of the PSP was a dead end: one of the main selling points of the PSP, the ability for it to play movies from the UMD format, didn't really get anywhere due to a price point for the UMDs that compared unfavorably with DVD versions but lacked any bonus content and did not require squinting at that PSP screen, and unenthusiastic support from non-Sony movie companies.
In addition, the PSP and its easy memory stick compatibility made it a haven for software pirates. Considering how much had been banked on the impressive back catalog of PlayStation hits to provide an easy series of releases, emulation definitely made Sony and third-party developers nervous. Eventually the device would lose much of the third party support it had counted on, and presumably Sony's high-profile failed attempt to block piracy only made other developers more nervous.
In Fall 2008, Nintendo announced the DSi, a third model of the DS. It no longer has Game Boy Advance compatibility (and by extension, no support for the portable Guitar Hero games, which use the GBA port for their guitar grip peripheral), but has a (not particularly impressive) built-in camera, and SD card reader to play media. It also has built-in wi-fi and an online shop for games, similar to WiiWare. Priced the same as the PSP, it was released worldwide as of April 5, 2009, selling over 600,000 units in its first two days.
In October of 2009, a fourth revision of the DS, the DSi XL (essentially the DSi's "sister console") was announced worldwide and released in Japan. Rather than replace the current DSi, the DSi LL/XL at first seems counter-productive — it's larger (actually about the same size as the original DS), comes in subdued colors like dark brown and burgundy, and includes a larger pen-shaped stylus in addition to the typical Nintendo DS styli. The point seems to be an attempt to attract more of the casual market by having larger screens which are easier to see and easier to write with. And for people with big hands.
Sony's announcement (at E3 2009) and launch (on September 29) of the PSP Go stands in stark contrast. Sony, deciding that their "Universal Media Disc" format was a failure, removed the slot for it from the Go, forcing the new console to rely on over-the-air downloads from the PlayStation Store. This resulted in heavy resistance from PSP owners, whose games are not forward-compatible with the new system; and Sony never announced a way for you (personally) to convert your already-purchased games into DLC. Instead, you'd have to buy them a second time, after Sony converted the PSP's back catalog into DLC. They had gotten through a fair amount of it by launch day, and every PSP title released thereafter was released in both physical and digital formats. But this didn't solve the problem of PSP adopters having to re-buy their old games if they want to play them on the new console. The furor was loud enough that some stores even refused to stock it initially. In the end, the PSP Go ceased production only two years after its release, perhaps the final big blow to end the generation's wars.
As for minor consoles, the GP2X is Game Park's follow-up to the GP32 and offers a Linux-based open-source platform for techier console fans. Like a hacked PSP, it can be used to emulate various consoles and computers, including Genesis, Neo Geo, and Amiga. However, it remains a cult item on the periphery of the war. Think of it as a small, black, plastic Switzerland, if Switzerland's company went bankrupt in 2007 and the former employees got together to make a Switzerland that was even less relevant.
An odd twist of this generation is the invention of smartphones—Apple iProducts and Android phones by Google—which have become competitors in their own right. iOS Games and Android Games are download-only games and are popular among some gamers — particularly for simple, low-cost games. Major third-party developers, such as Konami, Capcom, and Square, have all launched classic as well as new/exclusive titles in the App Store, proving that it's being taken seriously. Also, the App Store has brought many other budding companies to the surface, such as Game Loft. But it remains to be seen how big a presence this new market is in the Console Wars, because we can't measure their impact yet.
The first question one might ask is, "Why are we bothering to include these smartphones at all? People don't play games on them." In counter-argument, we offer a simple sales figure: Angry Birds has been downloaded a staggering two billion times between its launch in December '09 and the quoted press release in January '14. The nearest competitor, Tetris, does not offer any hard-and-fast figures, as only Game Boy and mobile phone sales have been tabulated; shareware, piracy and its gazillion Spinoffs are all unaccounted for. But the known sales total 135 million over the course of 26 years of sales. So, although Tetris is almost certainly the most well-known video game in history, officially, Angry Birds is the most proliferate. And it's on smartphones. And it brings its own complications to the competition.
- One would think the easy way to figure out smartphones' market share is to do what we do for everybody else, which is count how many consoles Apple, Verizon, Google etc. have sold. That's kind of the problem: smartphones aren't consoles. When you buy a DS, you're buying it to play games, because it doesn't (can't) do anything else. When an iPod Touch, or a Samsung Galaxy S7, you're buying it to do... what? Maybe you're a Serious Businessman who'd never think of your 4G lifeline as something you could have fun with. Maybe you live in the developing world and do all your computing — e-mail, purchasing things on Amazon, browsing the web — on your phone, but need to save all your data allotment for those things as opposed to Brave Frontier. Maybe you're a grandma who received it as a present and when you die your children find that you never opened the box. Do these people count as "gamers"? And, since they don't, how can we mathematically separate them from the smart-device owners who are gamers?
- With that in mind, it seems reasonable to claim that smartphones aren't consoles, and, well, that's kind of true. While gaming consoles don't really have a standardized definition, we learned experts here at TV Tropes are going with, "an electronic device that is designed primarily to play games," which smartphones obviously aren't — in fact, they ultimately developed into handheld PCs. The problem is, this sidesteps the real issue. The simple fact is that a lot of people don't want to carry around more than one electronic interactive device at a time, so smartphones compete with portable consoles, even if they aren't consoles themselves, in the greater arena of "pocket space" (or, more concretely, "leisure activities").
- Angry Birds itself introduces complications, because that two-billion (!!!) figure is for all spinoffs of the game (six or seven, by now) across all operating systems. On iOS, you pay money for it... but on Android phones, it's free. The Tetris figures count only transactions where money has changed hands; Rovio, by their own admission, are glossing over that distinction. Add in the fact that people upgrade their phones much more frequently than they do their consoles, and must re-purchase or re-download their favorite software every time they do, and the figures start looking even more overblown.
As a final veredict, the DS sold 155 million consoles, becoming the second-best-selling console of all time (less than a million behind the PS2). It also brought in a much higher profit margin. However, the PSP has kept up with the PS3 and X360, selling over 80 million consoles, making it the best-selling handheld console aside from the DS (and possibly the original non-color Game Boy), and the most profitable not-in-first-place console in history. Nintendo may have won, but Sony can scarcely be said to have lost.
- Duration: 2011-2020
- Major Sides: Nintendo 3DS/2DS/New 3DS vs. Sony Play Station Vita
- Minor Sides: Android/iOS/Windows Phone (i.e., mobile devices), Handheld gaming PCs (i.e. Steam Deck, GPD Win 3, ONEXPLAYER, AYA NEO).
- Winner: Among the dedicated gaming handhelds, the 3DS by a wide margin; completing Nintendo's sweep of the handheld market. As for mobile devices, the iPhone and iPad families are the best-selling individual devices, albeit with Android having a much larger install base.
In March 2010, Nintendo announced plans to release the Nintendo 3DS. More details about the system were made available at the 2010 E3 trade show; features included a wider upper screen, which is capable of full, scalable, glasses-free 3D effects (similar to those seen in films like Avatar), an analog nub in place of the D-Pad (which is still present, but placed lower on the left side of the unit), and has graphics capabilities on par with the Wii, and sometimes the X360 and PS3. (Let's put it this way: Kid Icarus: Uprising has graphical fidelity surpassing Super Smash Bros. Brawl with a higher polygon count then Brawl — 60 million polygons at E3-2010 and 96 million polygons in its final version compare to Brawl's 48 million polygons — was highlighted at the event, while freaking Metal Gear Solid 3's Demo at E3-2010 was looking as good as ever, but now in 3D — was both used as a tech demo and promised by Hideo Kojima to be ported to the new console.) Other features include an expanded "sleep mode" which can accept communications between other 3DS units, regardless of what the 3DS was doing when it was put in sleep mode, and showcasing trailers for movies like How to Train Your Dragon or Tangled in full 3D, just like the theaters. It was released at the end of February 2011 in Japan and in March for the rest of the world, kick-starting the next generation of handhelds in the process. A 3DS XL saw release in 2012, quelling some complaints over a small screen and hand cramps. The console's final major releases occurred in Q2 2019, and the system itself saw its production discontinued in September 2020.
Sony officially released one next-generation hardware platform, the Play Station Vita. The Vita sports dual analog sticks, a rear-mounted touch panel, a larger screen, 3G internet, and of course more power (rumors claim it's as powerful as the PS3, but with a refined design). Games include new entries in the Uncharted, Call of Duty, and LittleBigPlanet franchises. And it's gone back to cartridges. The Vita would be released in Japan in December of 2011, and to most of the rest of the world in February 2012. Every critic that got their hands on it liked it a lot, but few people are buying it, due to its huge price tag and anemic roster of games. The inevitable price drop, and release of a "Slim" version, seems to have finally done Sony some favors, with the Vita actually selling out at some vendors as of the July 4th 2014 weekend—though, given its previous sales rates, and thus its likely manufacture rates, that might not be saying much.
Rumors of a PlayStation Phone have circulated since 2006, but it was five years before Sony's Ericsson subsidiary confirmed that they were trying to revive the N-Gage idea. The Xperia Play is an Android-based phone with a slide-out gamepad, including a central touchpad in place of dual analog sticks. (Note that, while it is associated with the PlayStation brand, it is not a PlayStation console.) It was announced in an ad during the 2011 Super Bowl and finished its worldwide rollout in May of that year, and can not only play any games available to Android (IE Angry Birds) but can access Sony-exclusive games through the "PlayStation Suite". Precisely what games that service offers is a question nobody can seem to answer, possibly because nobody wants to buy the darn thing; as such, claims that Assassin's Creed, Need for Speed Hot Pursuit, Splinter Cell: Conviction and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 are available have gone unsubstantiated. By late July 2011, the American press had written the device off as a dud.
Finally, Nvidia of all people decided that they were going for a bite of the console market, announcing a device codenamed "Project Shield" in the first week of 2013. Running Android architecture, it's not only a functional console in its own right, it plugs into your TV's HDMI port and lets you stream video games from your computer to the Shield, assuming you have a GeForce graphics card and the right software.
As for other possible competitors:
- Phones, tablets, and smartphone based portable media players running iOS, Android, and Windows Phone OSes are largely considered by mainstream press to be competitors against Nintendo and Sony. With a plethora of free and cheap games on devices you're already going to have, it's fairly easy to see why mainstream press suggested these were going to be the "Nintendo and Sony Killers", although Nintendo and Sony dedicated portable gaming consoles still continue to exist. Probably the biggest reason why dedicated handhelds are still going strong is that their competitors continually rely on touch controls, which isn't always the best control type to play with. (As a very simple example: NES emulators exist for these phones, but the D-pad and A & B buttons are simulated using the touchscreen, forcing you to either: buy a controller peripheral, block your own view to play, or make the game take up even less of the already-pretty-small screen. There's also the fact that phones aren't typically designed to be held the way a video game controller is, and can be uncomfortable or result in you doing things you didn't want to do — where exactly is the Power button again?)
- The GP2X's latest iteration(s) will also likely stick to the small black plastic Switzerland role like before. A similar fate probably awaits the Pandora an entirely open-source, homebrew handheld that uses basically the same hardware as iPod/iPhone, but is actually an odd hybrid between the console and full-featured Linux-powered UMPC. It was actually the most powerful handheld on the market when it was first announced, but a series of a development and production delays pushed the production back for more than one year, allowing the release of iPhone 3G, which uses basically the same hardware, and 3DS announcement.
- Panasonic flirted with plans for a handheld called the Panasonic Jungle, but quickly changed their minds.
- Meanwhile, it seems that a smaller, separate war has erupted with in the "handheld targeted at kids" market, with V-Tech (the maker of the abovementioned V-Smile kiddie console) introducing the MobiGo after failing to get parents excited with the V-Smile Pocket, to compete with LeapFrog's Leapster handheld consoles (which has just been recently refreshed with the Explorer series- the new Leapster is In Name Only and is totally incompatible with software meant for older Leapster consoles). It appears that LeapFrog is still unshaken, with the Leapster name still being trusted more by parents. However, with tighter Region Coding introduced into their app store recently, time will tell if they'll start slipping.
The 3DS got off to a rocky start with not much in the way of software its first few months, the high point being an Updated Re-release of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time in June 2011. Soon afterward in August, Nintendo announced that they were slashing the system price by $70 (and offering 20 retro games - 10 from the NES, 10 from the Game Boy Advance - to early adopters as an apology). Many took this to be a giant red flag as to the system's future, but in actuality it did the trick, as sales shot up to surpass the first-year numbers of the original DS. On top of that, the system is considered to have hit its stride that holiday season thanks to system updates and true Killer Apps like Super Mario 3D Land, Mario Kart 7, Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate, and downloadable titles such as Pushmo. In March 2012, Kid Icarus: Uprising was finally released, which managed to please those who were dissatisfied with the Mario titles. Monster Hunter 4, Shin Megami Tensei IV, and Bravely Default are only some examples of the major third party support the handheld has received. And then came Pokémon X and Y, Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, and a portable version of the latest entry in the Super Smash Bros. series. Variations of the system include the Nintendo 2DS, a cheaper, non-clamshell design that lacks 3D functionality and the New 3DS, which follows in the steps of the DSi by adding a better processor, a second analogue pad, a few extra buttons and better 3D. Sales of the system remained strong throughout the generation, though with the launch of the Nintendo Switch in 2017, it was generally accepted that the 3DS was in its twilight years, with software development largely winding down and transferring to the Switch. This became solidified with the release of the Switch Lite in 2019, a hardware revision built solely for handheld play. While the 3DS ultimately became Nintendo's lowest-selling handheld system by the time of its discontinuation in September 2020, they can probably live with that.
However, in part due to the losses caused by the Wii U and in part due to investor pressure, Nintendo ultimately announced in March 2015 that they were partnering with mobile developer DeNA. DeNA would provide a door to the smartphone market as well as valuable experience with network systems (traditionally one of Nintendo's weak points), while Nintendo would offer their intellectual properties and development experience; the first title to result from this venture was a social networking app called Miitomo in March 2016, with games based on Fire Emblem and Animal Crossing to follow later that year. However, Nintendo first major success in the smartphone market came outside of this deal. Later that same year, Nintendo revealed that they were working with an American developer by the name of Niantic Labs to develop an Augmented Reality mobile title based on the Pokémon franchise called Pokémon GO. Upon release in July 2016, the Exergaming title saw worldwide success, managing to vault the already Cash-Cow Franchise back to heights it hadn't seen since the late 1990s and breaking numerous records on the App and Google Play stores.
The Xperia Play never received much attention, and drifted into obscurity before long. As of 2013, the Play may have been discontinued from the Xperia brand, but no one's sure because of the lack of press—that's how obscure it is. (Having said that, smartphones are typically considered obsolete within two years, sometimes even one, so this may just be a typical-life-cycle thing. Anyone thinking about releasing their own gaming phone might want to take notes.) The Nvidia Shield had a similar reception: it's obviously a cool idea, but at $300, it's not much of a steal. It does have access to the huge library of Android games, but only some of them are optimized for (read: "can use") its controller... and with the open-source Android OS as fragmented as it is, everyone and their mother making tweaks to it left and right, you can never guarantee that any given game will work on any given device.
The PlayStation Vita struggled a lot to challenge Nintendo's hold of the dedicated portable gaming market. By the end of 2013, it had sold around 4 million units, which was peanuts compared to the over-41.5 million 3DS system models out at the same time. It was even initially outsold by the PSP, which had continued to ship about 10,000 units a week. While it appeared that it would recover in early 2014 due to price cuts, the launch of the Slim model with inbuilt memory (albeit an inferior screen), and a much stronger library of games, this only helped it gain ground in Japan; Western sales improved temporarily, but in the longer run continued to decline (though No Export for You and too many gamers catered to Eastern RPG fans and Japanese game fans didn't help). By 2015, Sony had marked the Vita as a "legacy platform" outside of Asia. With Nintendo's 3DS systems outselling the Vita nearly 5-to-1, the handheld not only failed to compete but also holds the crown as Sony's least-successful gaming machine by a wide margin. That said, it remains supported through a combination of its PS4 companion features (with many PS4 releases having a mobile release for the Vita) and a healthy stream of games from indie developers. As of 2018, there are no plans from Sony for a successor and Sony has announced that physical game releases for the system in the west will end in early 2019, essentially marking the end of mainstream support for the system. It can at least claim to have outsold every non-Nintendo handheld throughout history aside from the PSP, but that'll likely be of scant consolation.
Microsoft never launched a dedicated Xbox portable in favor of pushing mobile gaming on its Windows Phone OS which integrates with Xbox Live features such as friends lists and achievements. Unfortunately for them, they are sitting in a very distant third place behind iOS and Android, with punditsnote constantly calling for them to throw in the towel. However, with Windows 10 they have merged together the Windows PC, Windows Phone, and Xbox OSes allowing for universal apps that can scale to any device, which means supporting Windows phones requires minimal additional effort from a developer eyeing the much more lucrative PC and console market. They've also released development tools that mostly automates the porting of iOS apps written in Objective-C. While none of this is a guarantee of improving their phone marketshare, at worst it means the cost of continuing to support it is rolled into the cost of developing Windows as a whole, making it a revenue source that essentially requires no investment. Additionally, several of their first-party games have been released cross-platform on iOS and Android.
And finally, there's the fact that the Nintendo Switch may have derailed the Portable Wars by combining Nintendo's set-top-box and handheld lines into a single console. This creates some really weird snags, like the idea that Nintendo, by releasing the New 2DS XL alongside the Switch, appeared to compete against themselves. But with the victory for this seemingly final handheld generation secured to them, this scenario ended up being a non-issue for them.
In terms of money however, the traditional devices have been completely eclipsed by the smartphone and tablet gaming markets — Angry Birds for instance is estimated to have earned creators Rovio Entertainment more money than every Nintendo handheld ever made, and the top mobile titles — Clash of Clans, the aforementioned Pokémon GO and Game of War: Fire Age have had their moments in the revenue spotlight, though by now they've been eclipsed by other titles that we don't have work pages for — were estimated to be raking in millions of dollars per day via microtransactions. Some are predicting that the success of such apps will rapidly render traditional handhelds obsolete, though others point to the continuing survival of the 3DS, Vita and (especially) Switch as proof that the two markets can co-exist; and the reputation of gaming apps hasn't exactly been helped by the near-abusive reliance that many companies have on microtransactions and in-app purchases. Overall, the best-selling "smart" device to date is the iPhone 6 with estimated sales around the 220 million mark. While Android devices have a larger total install base—Samsung alone is estimated to be selling twice as many devices as Apple does—their market is also a great deal more fragmented, with thousands of device variants with differing performance from dozens of manufacturers in dozens of countries, making specific Android devices hard to count.
In later years, advances in mobile CPUs spurred on by smartphones (such as the Intel Tiger Lake and the AMD Ryzen 5 4500U) have made the production of handheld gaming PCs a reality. The GPD Win 3, AYA NEO, and the ONEXPLAYER entered the market on the backs of successful crowdfundinging campaigns, and in 2021, Valve threw their hat into the ring with the Steam Deck, a handheld iteration of their Steam Machine concept. These handheld gaming PCs are capable of playing most PC games out of the box, with varying degrees of compromises to frame rate and resolution depending on the complexity of the game. The higher prices and limited availability of these handheld gaming PCs means that they have little chance of challenging the dominance of Nintendo or mobile gaming, but their relative success has proven that there is still a profitable market for handheld gaming outside of those ecosystems.