The Most Important Game from Each Console Generation
Dedicated video game hardware has existed for nearly as long as computers themselves. Over the course of almost 40 years they have been an integral part of our living spaces, providing hours of entertainment, both with friends on the couch next to us or online across the world. Despite being primarily a PC gamer these days, I still regularly have friends over to partake in a night of drunken Mario Party, because there are some experiences that you just can’t surpass using any other medium. The nature of console exclusivity means that each generation of console gaming has given rise to some excellent software which has ad nauseum been compiled into ‘best games of all time lists’.
In order to attempt to negate the immense subjectivity that is often inherent in lists like this, I’ve decided to do things a little differently. Rather than to simply state the game which I believe represents the highest level of quality across gameplay and narrative, the aim of this article will be to select one game from each console generation that best exemplifies the prevailing design trend or technical feature that changed the medium and made that period unique and memorable.
The history of console gaming is often divided up into periods of time called generations, when the major console production companies have similarly specced machines competing for market share and sharing some third person software. Through the history of gaming these definitions have become muddied, as some manufacturers have jumped ahead with revisions and ‘half-gen’ consoles in attempt to get an edge. However, the consensus is that the console gaming generations are defined as follows:
- 1st (1972–1977): Magnavox Odyssey
- 2nd (1976–1983): Atari 2600
- 3rd (1983–1987): NES, Master System, Atari 5200
- 4th (1987–1993): SNES/Genesis
- 5th (1993–1998): PS1/N64/Saturn
- 6th (1998–2005): Dreamcast/PS2/Gamecube/Xbox
- 7th (2005–2012): PS3/360/Wii
- 8th (2012-Present): PS4/XB1/WiiU
Because I don’t have any personal experience with the consoles of what are called the 1st and 2nd generations, I’ve decided to limit the scope of the list to consoles released from the NES onwards. I think it’s fair to say this is when the gaming industry as we understand it today was really born, with multiple third person development companies like Konami springing up and several console manufacturing companies such as Nintendo, Atari and Sega competing against one another.
3rd: Super Mario Bros. 3
In retrospect it is amazing to see what Nintendo accomplished with Super Mario Bros. 3, when considering that it was developed for the same hardware that gave birth to the first game in the franchise just three years earlier. Nintendo took aging hardware and utilised everything they had learned about 2D platforming and level design and poured it into what is inarguably a classic of the medium. In addition to the leap in graphical quality, the game introduced an open world structure to the previously linear series. Mario’s new movement abilities included the Tanooki Suit and Super Leaf powerups, which introduced a sense of verticality and complexity to the level design. Secrets and shortcuts were woven into almost every pixel and it is still possible to go back 30 years later and discover new things. This series has always fostered a design philosophy that games should be easy for anyone to pick up and play, but with enough depth of the level design and character movement for those willing to master them. For a generation that was defined by overcoming hardware limitations to deliver iconic gaming experiences, nothing matches Super Mario Bros. 3.
4th: Sonic the Hedgehog 2
Gaming was still in its infancy during this period, but it’s funny to see how the us vs them mentality that is exhibited by Sony and Microsoft fans today was still present even in the early 90s. Nintendo was coming off the immense success of the Nintendo Entertainment System. New competitor Sega attempted to circumvent the appeal of Nintendo’s clean and simple game design philosophy using a huge marketing campaign that played up the processing power of their machine. This 16-bit vs 8-bit argument was no doubt echoed by many kids on the school yard and as fodder to their parents as to why they needed the latest new console for Christmas. But in order to solidify their position as a Nintendo competitor, Sega needed a mascot akin to Nintendo’s iconic Mario. Enter Sonic. Though both inhabited the world of the 2D platformer, the titular blue hedgehog distanced itself from the slower and more precise platforming of the Super Mario Bros. series with a frenetically paced romp through large and labyrinthian levels. The speed of the character mirrored Sega’s bombastic approach to its marketing and game design that bigger and faster was better.
Though the Sega Genesis had an extensive library of games it was really the marketing power of Sonic that pushed Sega into the limelight and gave Nintendo a real competitor for the first time. The tit for tat between these companies led to the increased interest in CD based technology, with former Nintendo partner Sony spinning off their design for a SNES add-on into what would eventually become the PlayStation.
5th: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Though each console generation is accompanied by a leap in graphical fidelity, this is at best a superficial improvement. No other period of console gaming history can boast the kind of technological advancement that came with the release of the PlayStation 1, Nintendo 64 and Sega Saturn. For the first time, fully explorable 3D environments were made available for console players to explore and get lost in. Fifth gen contains some awkward examples of developers adapting to the new tools at their disposal, with some shockers such as Superman 64 still derided to this day and giving rise to the term N64 fog, which described the limited draw distance achievable by Nintendo’s less powerful machine. Despite these limitations, Shigeru Miyamoto and his team at Nintendo produced what is considered by many to be the best game of all time in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. A loving homage and amalgamation of classic fairy tale tropes, the game combined memorable characters and tight storytelling with an (at the time) engaging combat system and fully explorable 3D environments.
The developers circumvented the N64 controller’s limitations of a single joystick by introducing the Z – targeting system to keep players focused on the enemy in battle. Though Fifth gen contained a multitude of classic games, such as Metal Gear Solid, Resident Evil and Super Mario 64, no other game fully embraced the third dimension of gaming and the advantages it afforded in terms of allowing players to experience a sense of wonder and exploration.
6th: Grand Theft Auto III
During the sixth console generation the demographic of the gaming populace shifted for the first time. People who grew up with Nintendo and Sega’s consoles were now approaching adulthood and developers compensated with an attempt to create darker or edgier content. Nintendo’s Gamecube was demeaned for both its appearance and software library as being too ‘kiddy’, as Microsoft launched themselves into the console productions sphere with the Xbox, which along with the PS2 and Dreamcast catered to consumers desire for more realistic shooters and racing games. Games like Halo and God of War were released as big console exclusives for Microsoft and Sony respectively, with the jump in graphical detail giving way to more adult content. Sex, extreme violence and general adult themes were the order of the day. For one single title to exemplify all of these vices is quite a tall order, but Grand Theft Auto III managed admirably.
Despite being a popular series for years on the PS1, the processing power of the PS2 and Xbox afforded a number of advantages to developers. A fully licensed soundtrack accompanied players mayhem-creating romps through Liberty City, with explosions, gunfire and its gory consequences all rendered in loving detail. All this took place against the backdrop of a satirical takedown of everything from gang culture to corporate America. The freedom the game gave the player to simply ignore the main objective and cause as much chaos as possible was perhaps the breakout moment for the sandbox genre, which has arguably since supplanted the first-person shooter and the most popular genre of AAA gaming even today.
7th: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
The generation starting with the release of the Xbox 360 in 2005 introduced many new technological enhancements to the gaming landscape. Xbox 360 and PS3 were the first consoles to display natively rendered HD resolutions. Xbox continued the success of its Live online program, whilst PS3 offered a built in Blu-ray player. However, in general the seventh generation was most defined by the ubiquity of its online multiplayer experiences.
Granted, PC players had been enjoying online deathmatches in Quake and Unreal tournament for years prior to this and both the PS2 and Xbox had online network features. However, the PS3 and Xbox 360 were the first consoles to implement online play in a way that really shifted the focus of the console gaming market. A medium that was previously best suited to simple single player experiences or couch co-op games to be enjoyed with friends, gave way to the competitive and sometimes addictive work of the online first-person shooter. Though this trend was wide reaching and gave birth to a plethora of excellent titles, the best example of what seventh generation was about for the ‘hardcore’ gamer is perhaps best defined by Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.
A campaign that combined the geopolitical intrigue of a Tom Clancy novel and the bombastic set-pieces of a Michael Bay film was, in fact, the second most impressive aspect of this title. MW presented a multiplayer component with endless replay ability, an addictive progression and unlock system, fine-tuned gunplay that was easy to play but hard to master, multiple game modes as well complex and polished level design. All trends which define good online shooting experiences today.
As for the period of console gaming that we’re currently in, it’s too soon to say at this stage what games will shape our understanding of the industry going forward, but it has undoubtedly already been a time of great change. Despite being perhaps the least noticeable leap in graphical fidelity between generations, Sony and Microsoft have attempted to adapt to the increasing popularity of PC gaming with half-gen consoles that utilise the same basic architecture and library but with boosted processing powers, in an attempt to push sales. Increased digital sales of games, the rise of mobile gaming and the support network for independent developers has further shifted the type of games we play.
Despite this, there have been some excellent console exclusives released for the PS4, Xbox One and Wii U/Switch. Horizon Zero Dawn, Bloodborne, Mario Odyssey and Breath of the Wild have all continued to push the medium forward and continue to convince us of the relevance of console gaming today. Whatever the future holds for sitting on the couch and simply playing games with no distractions, looking back it’s easy to see how far the medium of gaming has progressed in a relatively short time and even easier to be excited for what lies ahead.
Article by Dylan Cook
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