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Seven Games that defined each Console Generation

Updated on May 17, 2016
Various consoles of various generations.
Various consoles of various generations.

Video games have a long and complicated history, don’t they? Ever since the Magnavox Odyssey came out during the early seventies, video game consoles have developed in ways nobody could possibly have imagined back then. Now, with the release of the Playstation 4 and the Xbox One along with the release of the Wii U last year, we are firmly entrenched in the eighth generation of consoles—a whopping forty plus years since the Odyssey came out. To see just how video games have come over these past forty years, why don’t we examine one game per console generation that essentially defined each one of those generations, for better or ill?

Pong
Pong | Source

First Generation: Pong

To be honest you can’t really declare a single game as defining the first generation because to be frank, all console games from this era were variations of the same game: Pong. After the release of the Magnavox Odyssey the market was invaded by a multitude of Pong consoles after Atari released their Home Pong Console. In Arcades, Pong had been the first video game ever to succeed. It was the creation of Al Alcorn, an electrical engineer recently hired by Atari. At the time Alcorn had never even seen a video game let alone touched one. As a sort of ‘warm-up’ project Atari founder Nolan Bushnell assigned him to work on Pong:

It was an idea, but he told me he [Bushnell] had a contract from General Electric for a consumer product, which meant that it had to be, like, maybe ten chips, and I was up to seventy chips… but he told me that to get me to work hard at it and do a good job. So I tried to make it a good game. I added things like speed up. When you played the first one it was obvious that without the ball speeding up it wasn't fun to play. Then the reflection off the paddle was kind of tricky to do…

In reality there was no actual contract—Bushnell wanted to use Pong as a way to test Alcorn’s abilities. Ultimately, Alcorn created something revolutionary and the video game industry was never the same again.

The Sears Tele-Games Atari Pong console, released in 1975.
The Sears Tele-Games Atari Pong console, released in 1975. | Source

After Pong became an astounding success in the arcades Atari went on to develop Home Pong, a version of Pong that could connect directly to a TV. It was released through Sears in 1975, bringing Pong out of the arcades and into the household on TVs. In essence, Home Pong was the second video game console following the Odyssey, which caught the attention of Magnavox’s creator Ralph Baer and his employers, Sanders Associates. Sanders launched a lawsuit against Atari which Bushnell settled out of court. Of course, that lawsuit did not stop a sudden flood of hoe consoles that suddenly hit the market, all of them featuring Pong or some variation of them. Magnavox unsuccessfully tried to sue as many of them as they could which also delayed Atari’s plans with Pong for about a year. Whichever way, the floodgates had been opened; Pong had truly energized the home console market following the Odyssey’s lackluster performance. The stage was now set for home consoles to become a serious market for the video game industry. And that is why Pong defines the first generation.

The cover art for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
The cover art for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. | Source
The Atari 2600
The Atari 2600 | Source

Second Generation: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

The second generation of video game consoles can essentially be described as, “the rise and fall of Atari”. The second generation began in 1976 with the release of consoles with microprocessor technology like the Fairchild Channel F, but it really took off in 1977 when Atari released the Atari VCS, eventually to be known as the Atari 2600. For the next five years, the Atari VCS would absolutely dominate the home console market to the point to where the name “Atari” was essentially synonymous with “video game console”. But, all of that came to a screeching halt in 1983.

To be honest there were many, many factors that led to the video game crash of 1983, namely the over saturation of low quality games, but E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was more or less the straw that broke the camel’s back. In 1982 Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was the largest hit film in theaters and Atari gaining the rights to the video game adaptation must’ve been the highlight for the company up until that time. Atari got the rights in July 1982, and wanted the game ready by Christmas 1982, giving lead designer Howard Scott Warshaw a mere five-and-a-half weeks to work on the game:

So at the end of July, around July 27 or 28, I get a call saying, "Hey, can you do E.T. in, like, five weeks?" No one had ever done a game in less than six months or so. They needed someone who could do the game really fast, and Spielberg wanted me to do the game, because he liked me, and he thought Raiders was cool, and he liked Yars' Revenge. The people, the managers, thought that nobody else could really pull it off. They came to me, and I sort of held them up, said, "Yeah, I can do a game in six weeks, if we make the right agreement." But, to me, it was a great challenge. I liked the idea of this huge technical challenge, to try to produce a full game in six weeks.

E.T. Playthrough

Considering the extremely small amount of development time, Warshaw undeniably did the best he could. Unfortunately, that wasn’t good enough and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is widely regarded as one of the absolute worst games ever created.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial defines the second generation because it in many ways symbolizes Atari during the late seventies and early eighties. Atari absolutely ruled video games during this time, both in arcades and on consoles. For them to gain the rights to Spielberg’s blockbuster movie was the height of their glory. And then, the disaster that was E.T. the video game proved to be what broke the camel, ushering in the video game crash of 1983 and the fall of Atari. That’s why E.T. is the game that defines the second generation.

Super Mario Bros. North American box art.
Super Mario Bros. North American box art. | Source
Super Mario Bros. Japanese box art.
Super Mario Bros. Japanese box art. | Source

Third Generation: Super Mario Bros.

The second generation of video game consoles came to a crashing halt with the video game crash of 1983. Atari had fallen from the heights of grace and for quite some time it looked as if the very existence of video games was in question. It is at this point that the story shifts its focus away from the United States and toward Japan.

While Americans were abandoning video games by the drove, thinking that the “fad” had passed, a little company in Kyoto called Nintendo was developing their own video game console called the Family Computer or the Famicom for short, released in July of 1983. All three of the launch games for the console, Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., and Mario Bros. were ports of highly successful arcade games Nintendo had released earlier and all three of them starred a character that had come to be known as Mario. By 1985 the Famicom had become an incredible success in Japan and Nintendo was working on the console’s Disk System add-on. As a celebratory swan song for the pre-Disk System Famicom, two of Nintendo’s designers Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka decided to create an “athletic” game starring Mario that would feature a shooting mechanic.

For example, the concept behind Super Mario Bros. didn't come from wanting to make an interesting platformer necessarily, but wanting to create an "athletic" game. "I wanted to build upon our tradition of what we called 'athletic games' at the time -- games where you controlled a guy and had to jump a lot to overcome obstacles," Miyamoto said. "We felt strongly about how we were the first to come up with that genre, and it was a goal of ours to keep pushing it.

The finished product Super Mario Bros. was vastly different from the “athletic-shooter” that the designers had originally envisioned—it was instead an action platformer that emphasized jumping. And what a spectacular product it was!

The Famicom and the NES
The Famicom and the NES | Source

October 1985 saw the debut of the Famicom in the US under the name Nintendo Entertainment System. Of course, Nintendo immediately ran into the problem of marketing the system to an American market that had just gone through the video game crash and regarded anything to do with console gaming as a fad that had passed. Nintendo got around this problem several ways such as calling it an “entertainment system” rather than “video game console”, hence the American name. They also emphasized peripherals such as the Zapper and R.O.B. (Robotic Operating Buddy), marketing the console as a toy. After intense marketing, American retailers finally reluctantly decided to stock the console, mostly because Nintendo had insisted that they would assume most of the risks.

Super Mario Bros. Playthrough

Within months the NES had become a roaring success bringing video games back to an audience that had thought their time had passed. While R.O.B. might have been what got retailers interested, what got the audiences interested was one of the pack-in games Super Mario Bros. This game would go on to become the single best-selling game of all time, a title it held all the way until 2007 when it was surpassed by WiiSports. While E.T. was the straw that broke the camel’s back, resulting in the 1983 crash, Super Mario Bros. was the game that single handedly reignited the video game industry. That is why this game defines the third generation, a.k.a. Nintendo’s domination of the market.

Sonic the Hedgehog North American box art.
Sonic the Hedgehog North American box art. | Source
Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo
Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo | Source

Fourth Generation: Sonic the Hedgehog

With the NES, Nintendo had become the undisputed king of the video game industry. Just like how the name “Atari” had been synonymous with “video game” during the second generation “Nintendo” was now the word used for “video game” during the third generation. That said, with a virtual monopoly on the market, things may have become problematic if Nintendo did not gain some true competition. That competition would soon arrive in the form of Sega and their new Mega Drive/Genesis console.

Even before releasing their fourth generation Genesis console, Sega’s Master System had been the NES’s primary competitor during the third generation—it just made nowhere near a big enough dent in the NES juggernaut to truly be considered a threat. In 1988 Sega released the Master System’s successor the Mega Drive. What was new about this console was that it featured a 16-bit processor making it far more technically advanced than the 8-bit consoles of the second and third generations. Despite this cutting edge technology however, the release of the Mega Drive in Japan resulted in the console being completely overshadowed by the release of Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. 3. Sega realized that to truly be able to compete with Nintendo they needed a marketable mascot of their own to rival Mario.

Sonic the Hedgehog Playthrough

Sega ordered their in-house development team AM8 to come up with a mascot that could do precisely that. The 15-man team then spent the next several months coming up with myriads of ideas for a mascot character. The game the character was to be featured in also needed to be able to showcase the Mega Drive’s technical capabilities so that had to be taken into consideration with the design as well. Finally, the team decided on a hedgehog character codenamed “Mr. Needlemouse”.

AM8, eventually to be renamed Sonic Team, went to work on the game. Of the fifteen man team, three in particular provided the needed talent to make a game that truly stood out: character designer Naoto Ōshima, game programmer Yuji Naka, and designer Hirokazu Yasuhara. Sonic the Hedgehog was released in 1991 and became an astonishing success—so much so that for a time Sega actually stole away the market share from Nintendo, gaining 65% in contrast to Nintendo’s 35%. The fourth generation would go on to become an intense showdown between Nintendo and Sega and it was Sonic the Hedgehog that put Sega in the position to actually be able to overtake Nintendo. That is why Sonic the Hedgehog defines the fourth generation.

Final Fantasy VII box art.
Final Fantasy VII box art. | Source

Fifth Generation: Final Fantasy VII

During the early 90s, Nintendo began working in collaboration with Sony to develop a CD add-on to the Super Famicom/Super NES. The man in charge of this project was Ken Kutaragi, who had previously convinced Nintendo to use the Sony SPC-700 Processor for the Super Famicom/SNES ADPCM Sound set. This add-on product, dubbed the “Play Station” was first announced in 1991but the collaboration between Nintendo and Sony ended up falling apart due to contract disputes. Nintendo start collaborating with Philips for their CD add-on (which also eventually fell apart resulting in the monstrosity that is the Philips CD-i) while Sony, initially considering dropping the concept, instead decided to forge ahead and develop the “Play Station” as its own stand-alone console.

In 1994 Sony released the PlayStation to the public and video game history was once again made. The PlayStation was hardly the first video game console to use CDs for gaming but it was the first one to truly succeed. To compete, Nintendo released their fifth generation console the Nintendo 64 two years later. As Nintendo was highly skeptical about the entire CD-ROM gaming system their latest 64-bit console continued to use cartridges. However, as successful as the N64 was with major hits such as Super Mario 64, Mario Kart 64, 007 Goldeneye, and Star Fox 64, most third parties began flocking toward the PlayStation, allured by the greater graphical prowess that could be achieved with CD-ROM gaming. Sega meanwhile had squandered their previous lead due to the decrease of arcades, mishandling the Genesis add-ons, and the mishandling of the launch of their fifth generation console the Sega Saturn.

Nintendo 64 v.s. Sony Playstation
Nintendo 64 v.s. Sony Playstation | Source

One of the biggest blows to Nintendo came in 1996 when two of their long-time third party collaborators Squaresoft and Enix jumped ship to Sony. At the time, both Squaresoft and Enix (the two companies would merge a few years later to become Square Enix) had been respectively developing the latest games to their flagship franchises Final Fantasy VII and Dragon Quest VII for the Nintendo 64. Both of these games could very well have been spectacular hits on the N64 and yet, now they were to be PlayStation exclusives.

Final Fantasy VII arrived in 1997 and it was mind-blowing. Despite the fact that the PlayStation only used a 32-bit processor (as opposed to the N64’s 64-bit processor), Final Fantasy VII utilized the full use of the available CD-ROM technology to present mind blowing graphics, especially with the use of spectacular CG cut scenes. All of these elements came together to make one of the largest hits in video game history—FFVII even became the first JRPG to become a true blockbuster hit in the west. Final Fantasy VII has been credited as “the game that sold the PlayStation”. Sony enticing Square away from Nintendo became the high note of the fifth generation and it is for this reason that Final Fantasy VII defines the fifth generation.

Halo: Combat Evolved Xbox box art.
Halo: Combat Evolved Xbox box art. | Source

Sixth Generation: Halo: Combat Evolved

On September 9th, 1999, Sega released the Dreamcast the first sixth generation console, hoping to make up for the disaster that was the Saturn. The Dreamcast did everything right where the Saturn had gone wrong including the release of a new Sonic game, Sonic Adventure. The Dreamcast was a spectacular machine but unfortunately it wasn’t enough to solve the financial problems Sega was going through—the release of Sony’s PlayStation 2 a little over a year later was the final nail in the coffin and Sega bowed out of the console race.

Meanwhile, the gaming division of Microsoft was watching the development of the PlayStation 2 with some concern. Microsoft had assisted Sega in the development of the Dreamcast and they were also noting the fact that a number of their third party PC game developers were jumping ship to consoles to develop for the PS2. Microsoft therefore decided to develop their own console that would compete directly with the PS2 and would receive assistance from Sega in doing so. In 1998, four of Microsoft’s engineers from the DirectX team Kevin Bachus, Seamus Blackley, Ted Hase and DirectX team leader Otto Berkes began the preliminary work of the console before pitching their idea of a “DirectX Box” to Ed Fries, the leader of Microsoft game publishing at the time. During development, the name DirectX Box was shortened to Xbox. Microsoft marketing hated the name and suggested alternatives: during focus testing, the marketing team left the name “Xbox” on the list of alternatives so as to demonstrate how unpopular the name would be. It ended up being the most popular by far.

The four consoles of the sixth generation.
The four consoles of the sixth generation. | Source

When Microsoft unveiled the Xbox’s release dates at E3 2001, one of the launch titles revealed was Halo: Combat Evolved. Initially, Halo was a Mac game being developed by Bungie Studios. In 2000, Microsoft acquired Bungie Studios and thus Halo became an Xbox exclusive game. It was completely redesigned from the ground up from a third-person shooter into a first-person shooter as a result. As soon as Halo was released it began setting sales records. In under five months after release it had sold one million units, a pace faster than any previous sixth generation game. Naturally, that meant that more Xboxes were being sold so that gamers could play Halo—in just a few months, Xbox had catapulted to the number two position for consoles, just barely under the PS2.

As one of the fastest selling launch titles ever, Halo was the game that made the Xbox a major contender in the video game console market in an exceedingly short time. Microsoft was instantly thrust into the limelight as a spiritual successor to Sega and as one of the “big three” alongside Sony and Nintendo. They were the first American company to achieve such a level of prestige in the video game industry since Atari way back in the early eighties. And it was all thanks to Halo. That is why Halo: Combat Evolved defines the sixth generation.

Halo Anniversary Edition at Amazon

Call of Duty 4, the Seventh Generation defining game.
Call of Duty 4, the Seventh Generation defining game. | Source
WiiSports, the OTHER Seventh Generation defining game.
WiiSports, the OTHER Seventh Generation defining game. | Source

Seventh Generation: Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

To be honest, this was a tossup between two games: Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and WiiSports. The Seventh Generation essentially saw gaming split into two crowds: casual and hardcore. In 2006, Nintendo released its Seventh Generation console the Wii and it became an unprecedented success: the most successful video game console of the seventh generation completely crushing the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360. WiiSports was the game that did it, a pack-in game for the system that was crazy fun and crazy addicting. There are plenty of reasons to list WiiSports as the game that defined the seventh generation.

However, one cannot ignore the effect Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare has had on the industry, for better or ill. Ultimately, Call of the Duty gets the position of defining the seventh generation of consoles for one reason: the casual audiences that WiiSports drew in have since then moved on to tablets and smart phones. Since this is a list about games defining the console generations, Call of Duty fits in better.

Released in 2007 on all three consoles (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and the Wii) Activision’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare became the biggest seller of the year, even outselling Halo 3 and Super Mario Galaxy at 13 million units. That said, CoD4 didn’t really bring any sort of special innovation to video games that would make it define the generation beyond bringing the series out of World War II and into the modern age. No, the game’s sales aren’t the reason why I chose this game as the definer of the seventh generation. It’s because of what this game did to the industry.

The seventh generation consoles: Xbox 360, Wii, PlayStation 3.
The seventh generation consoles: Xbox 360, Wii, PlayStation 3. | Source

WiiSports Gameplay

Call of Duty 4 bringing the first-person shooter series out of World War II and into a modern setting undeniably struck a chord with gamers: Bob Chipman often states in his videos that the series allowed a post-9/11 crowd to vent their frustrations on as their own personal interpretation of the War on Terror in a way that was cathartic and that it is why it was so successful. The problem comes in how other game developers sought to emulate Activision’s success with Call of Duty. The result has been the seventh generation being over saturated with first and third-person military shooters with barely a color beyond brown and painfully generic characters and stories. You’ve got established companies such as EA, Ubisoft, and Capcom trying to emulate CoD’s success by attempting to make their established franchises more like CoD, only to fail for the simple reason that they are not Call of Duty. You’ve got Activision determined to milk the franchise dry by making it an annual installment. Yeah, although there have been plenty of spectacular games during the seventh generation, overall it’s been a bit of a bleak time with on the one hand you’ve got a hardcore market oversaturated with a deluge of uninspired Call of Duty clones, and on the other hand you’ve got a multitude of casual games ushered by WiiSports’ success. Although I love WiiSports and for all accounts I’ve heard Call of Duty 4 is an excellent game (I’ve never actually played it) video games were in a bit of a depressing time over the past few years.

WiiSports on Amazon

The eighth generation: Wii U, PlayStation 4, Xbox One.
The eighth generation: Wii U, PlayStation 4, Xbox One. | Source

Eighth Generation and beyond...

And so we come to today, the eighth generation. Nintendo’s Wii U has been out for over a year now and Sony’s PlayStation 4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One have just been released not too long ago. We still don’t know how the eighth generation is going to turn out or what game will truly come to define it. Will it be Super Mario 3D World, Titanfall, Destiny, The Order: 1886, some other game not yet released or even announced? Whichever way, it will no doubt be a thrill to see just how things will turn out from now.

Overview of each game

Generation
Game
Console
Year
Publisher
First
Pong
Atari Pong Console
1974
Atari
Second
E.T. - the Extra-Terrestrial
Atari 2600
1982
Atari
Third
Super Mario Bros.
Nintendo Entertainment System
1985
Nintendo
Fourth
Sonic the Hedgehog
Sega Genesis
1991
Sega
Fifth
Final Fantasy VII
Sony PlayStation
1997
Squaresoft
Sixth
Halo: Combat Evolved
Microsoft Xbox
2001
Microsoft
Seventh
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
Multi-platform
2007
Activision
Seventh (honorary)
WiiSports
Nintendo Wii
2006
Nintendo

The game that defines video game history

Of these games, which one would you say defines video game history the most?

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    • tommylop profile image

      Tommy 3 years ago from Colorado.

      Great hub and I would put all those games on my hub if I did a list like this except two. Ff7 is a great game but mario 64 invented analog control. And I like mario world better

      Et was an excellent choice to illustrate Ataris crash

    • maunderingcabal profile image

      Ian 2 years ago from California

      Great hub, very detailed. I have to disagree, I think FF7 was way more mind blowing than Mario 64. The 3D analog control was amazing, but that game had no story whatsoever, You could get lost in the complexity of a minigame in FF7. I'm just starting to learn hubpages, love it so far. Just wrote an article about the fifth generation.

    • SegaNet91 profile image

      Kristopher Billingsley 19 months ago from Tulsa, OK

      I would have to agree.

    • CYong74 profile image

      Cedric Yong 11 months ago from Singapore

      This is a really well written hub. I agree with all seven on your list.

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