4th Generation

1987-1993: The 16-bit Era

The fourth generation of gaming was a time of great innovation and transformation in the gaming industry. It was the era when video games started to become a mainstream form of entertainment. The fourth generation of gaming began in 1987 with the release of the NEC TurboGrafx-16 in Japan and ended in 1996 with the discontinuation of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). The fourth generation of gaming saw the rise of 16-bit consoles, which offered better graphics, sound, and gameplay than their 8-bit predecessors.

Some of the most popular consoles of the fourth generation were the Sega Genesis (known as the Mega Drive in Japan and Europe), the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), the NEC TurboGrafx-16, and the Neo Geo AES. These consoles introduced iconic franchises, such as Sonic the Hedgehog, Super Mario World, and Street Fighter II. The fourth generation also saw the introduction of the first handheld consoles capable of playing full-color games, such as the Atari Lynx and the Nintendo Game Boy.

The fourth generation of gaming was also marked by intense competition between console manufacturers. Sega and Nintendo were the dominant players, but other companies such as NEC, SNK, and Atari also had a significant impact on the market. This competition led to a wide variety of games being developed and released, many of which are still considered classics today. All in all, the Super Nintendo boasted the highest sales of this generation. The fourth generation was a time of rapid change and evolution in the gaming industry, setting the stage for the even more impressive advancements of the fifth generation.

Home Consoles:

  • 1987, October 30 (JP): PC Engine
    1989, August 29 (NA): Turbo Grafx-16
    Company: NEC
    Original price: $199.99
    2019 price: $404.01
    Sales: 5.8 million worldwide (3.9 million in Japan)
    Number of Games: 94
    Best-selling game: Bonk’s Adventure
    Media: HuCard, CD-Rom via Turbo CD add-on
    Main controller(s): TurboPad Controller
    Other peripherals:
    Turbo Grafx-CD, Turbo Tap, TurboStick, Super System Card, TurboBooster, TurboBooster Plus

NEC: NEC, or Nippon Electric Company, was founded in 1899 and initially focused on producing telecommunications equipment, electronic devices, and computing hardware. The company became a major player in the electronics industry, producing a wide range of products such as TVs, radios, and home appliances. In the 1980s, NEC began to diversify its offerings and entered the video game market with the release of the PC Engine in Japan in 1987. Prior to this, NEC had little involvement in the gaming industry. NEC’s entrance into the video game market in 1987 was a bold move that aimed to compete with the likes of Nintendo and Sega. The company released its first console, the PC Engine, in Japan, which boasted impressive graphics and sound capabilities for its time. While the PC Engine struggled to gain a foothold in the competitive gaming market, it paved the way for NEC’s later success with its follow-up console, the TurboGrafx-16.

The Turbo Grafx-16 was NEC’s first and most significant foray into the home console market. It may have had the edge in graphics in Japan for the better part of the first year of existence in Japan, but it never garnered proper third-party support. The Sega Genesis beat it to American store shelves by two weeks, dooming any advantage it may have had.

NEC paired with the now-defunct Hudson Soft, who developed the first-party games for the console. Hudson Soft had a reputation for creating quality games, and their partnership with NEC helped to establish the PC Engine as a console with a strong library of games. The console’s library was further bolstered by third-party developers, who were attracted to the PC Engine’s impressive technical specifications and easy-to-develop-for architecture. Despite facing stiff competition from Nintendo and Sega, the PC Engine was able to carve out a niche for itself and gain a loyal following in Japan and other parts of the world.

Some question the legitimacy of the Turbo Grafx-16 being labeled as the first 16-bit console. The console has an 8-bit CPU and two 16-bit graphic chips. Although it could be deemed a hybrid 16-bit console one thing was clear, its graphic capabilities were superior to the NES or any other home console that came before it. Regardless of whether the TurboGrafx-16 can be considered a true 16-bit console or not, there’s no denying that its graphics capabilities were impressive for its time. The console’s two 16-bit graphic chips allowed for detailed and colorful graphics, and its ability to display up to 482 colors on screen at once was a significant improvement over the NES’s more limited color palette. Additionally, the TurboGrafx-16’s use of CD-ROMs for game storage gave it an advantage over other consoles, as it allowed for larger and more complex games to be developed. The TurboGrafx-16 may not have been a runaway success, but it played an important role in the evolution of gaming technology and paved the way for future consoles to come.

However, the Turbo Grafx’s reign as the home console with the best graphics would come to an end a year later when the Mega Drive came out. The Mega Drive’s US counterpart, the Sega Genesis saw an American release two weeks before the Turbo Grafx-16 was released in the US. The release of the Sega Genesis in 1989 was a significant blow to its position as the console with the best graphics. Despite the TurboGrafx-16’s impressive technical specifications, the Sega Genesis’s faster processor and more advanced sound chip allowed it to outpace the TurboGrafx-16 in terms of performance. Additionally, the timing of the Genesis’s US release, which came just two weeks before the TurboGrafx-16, likely contributed to the Sega Genesis’s success in the American market and made it difficult for the TurboGrafx-16 to establish a foothold. Despite these challenges, the TurboGrafx-16 remained a beloved console among its fans and offered a unique gaming experience that set it apart from its competitors.

  • 1988, October 29 (JP): Mega Drive
    1989, August 14 (NA): Genesis
    Company: Sega
    Original price: $189.99
    2019 price: $383.81
    Sales: 40 million
    Number of Games: 729
    Best-selling game: Sonic the Hedgehog (15 million, bundles with system)
    Media: Cartridge, CD-Rom (Mega-CD add-on), data card (Power Base Converter)
    Main controller(s): 3-button d-pad controller, 6-button d-pad controller
    Other peripherals:
    Sega-Mega-CD, Sega 32-X, Mouse, Menacer, Power Base Converter, Sega Activator, Multiptap

The Sega Genesis was the first 16-bit console to hit the US market. Its graphics were superior to the 8-bit kingpin, the Nintendo Entertainment System, and thus, gave Nintendo a run for its money during the 4th generation. Sega turned up the heat with its can of hata-rade campaign, “Genesis does what Nintendon’t” commercials. The Sega Genesis had many good games, including first and third-party publishers. The Sega Genesis’s impressive library of games was one of the key factors in its success. Both first and third-party publishers developed games for the console, and many of these titles have become classics that are still enjoyed by gamers today. Sonic the Hedgehog, one of Sega’s flagship franchises, made its debut on the Genesis and quickly became one of the console’s most beloved games. Other first-party titles like Phantasy Star and Golden Axe helped to establish the Sega Genesis as a console with a strong lineup of exclusive games. Third-party developers also contributed to the Genesis’s library with titles like Mortal Kombat, which was notable for its controversial violence and helped to spark a debate about video game content regulation. The Genesis’s success in attracting high-quality games from a variety of publishers helped to establish it as a major player in the console wars of the 1990s.

The release of the Sega Genesis in 1989 marked the beginning of the first great console war between Sega and Nintendo. Prior to this, Nintendo had largely dominated the video game market with its NES console. With the Genesis, Sega offered a new level of technical sophistication and a growing library of high-quality games that posed a serious challenge to Nintendo’s dominance. The rivalry between Sega and Nintendo would continue to intensify in the years that followed, with each company releasing new consoles and competing fiercely for market share. The console wars of the 1990s were marked by intense marketing campaigns, technological innovation, and a constantly evolving landscape of gaming platforms, and the Sega Genesis played a key role in setting the stage for this era of competition and innovation in the video game industry.

While the newer Super Nintendo had superior colors and sound, the Sega Genesis boasted “blast processing technology” which allowed games such as Sonic the Hedgehog to achieve lightening fast speeds. The Sega Genesis’s “blast processing technology” was a major selling point for the console, and helped to establish it as a serious competitor to the Super Nintendo. While the Super Nintendo had superior color and sound capabilities, the Genesis’s blast processing allowed it to achieve faster frame rates and smoother gameplay, which was particularly impressive for games like Sonic the Hedgehog which relied on speed and fluid motion. The term “blast processing” was largely a marketing buzzword, but it was effective in conveying the sense of speed and excitement that the Genesis offered. Despite the Super Nintendo’s technical superiority in certain areas, the Genesis’s unique strengths and distinctive library of games helped to make it a beloved console among gamers and cemented its place in gaming history.

  • 1990, April 26 (JP): Neo Geo
    1990, August 22 (NA): Neo Geo
    Company: SNK
    Original price: $649.99
    2019 price: $1,243.24
    Sales: 1 million
    Number of Games: 148
    Best-selling game: Samurai Shodown
    Media: Cartridge, data card (Europe & Japan)
    Main controller(s): Neo Geo X Arcade Stick
    Other peripherals:
    Neo Geo Controller Pro, Neo Geo Memory Card

SNK: Before entering the video game market, SNK primarily manufactured and sold amusement machines, such as jukeboxes and vending machines. The company also produced toys and novelties. However, SNK’s entry into the video game market would prove to be a game-changer for the company and the industry as a whole. SNK entered the video game market in 1978 with the release of the arcade game Ozma Wars. The company later released a series of popular arcade games, including the Metal Slug and King of Fighters franchises. SNK also produced a number of home consoles, including the Neo Geo, which was known for its high-quality graphics and arcade-like experience.

The Neo Geo is a legendary console that holds a special place in the hearts of many gamers. Released in 1990 by SNK, the Neo Geo was a high-end system that was designed to replicate the arcade experience in the home. With its powerful hardware and arcade-quality games, the Neo Geo quickly established itself as a favorite among serious gamers and arcade enthusiasts alike.

One of the key selling points of the Neo Geo was its impressive hardware. The console was built around a powerful 16-bit processor that was capable of rendering complex graphics and sound effects. This allowed the system to deliver arcade-quality visuals and sound, making it a favorite among gamers who were looking for an authentic arcade experience in the home.

Another standout feature of the Neo Geo was its library of games. SNK produced a wide range of games for the system, including classic fighting games like Fatal Fury and Samurai Shodown, as well as action games, shooters, and sports titles. Many of these games were highly regarded for their depth, complexity, and technical achievements, and helped to establish the Neo Geo as a console for serious gamers.

Despite its impressive hardware and library of games, the Neo Geo was never a mainstream success. The system was expensive, with console prices starting at around $600, and individual games often costing over $200. This made it prohibitively expensive for many gamers and limited its appeal to a niche audience of hardcore enthusiasts.

Despite its relatively limited commercial success, the Neo Geo remains a beloved console among retro gamers and collectors. Its powerful hardware, impressive library of games, and distinctive arcade-like experience make it a standout console from the golden age of gaming, and a testament to the technical innovation and creativity of its era.

  • 1990, November 21 (JP): Super Famicom
    1991, August 23 (NA): Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES)
    Company: Nintendo
    Original price: ¥25,000, $199.99
    2019 price: $368.52
    Sales: 49.1 million
    Number of Games: 1757 (721 NA, 517 EU, 1447 JP, 231 Satellaview, 13 Sufami Turbo)
    Best-selling game: Super Mario World (20.6 million, bundled with SNES)
    Media: ROM cartridge
    Main controller(s): SNES controller
    Other peripherals: 
    Super Scope, Super NES Mouse, Super Multitap, Super Game Boy, Super Advantage

The Super Nintendo Entertainment System, or SNES for short, is an iconic console that defined a generation of gaming. Released in 1991 by Nintendo, the SNES was a 16-bit console that boasted powerful hardware and a massive library of games that included many of the most beloved titles in gaming history.

One of the key features of the SNES was its advanced graphics and sound capabilities. The console was capable of displaying colorful and detailed graphics and featured a custom audio chip that produced rich and immersive sound effects and music. This allowed game developers to create immersive and engaging worlds that captivated players and kept them coming back for more.

Another standout feature of the SNES was its massive library of games. Nintendo and third-party developers produced a wide range of titles for the system, including classic games like Super Mario World, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, and Super Metroid. These games set the standard for gaming excellence, and continue to be celebrated by gamers to this day.

In addition to its impressive hardware and library of games, the SNES also featured a number of innovative peripherals and accessories. The console’s iconic controller featured four face buttons, two shoulder buttons, and a directional pad, which became the industry standard for years to come. The system also featured a range of accessories, including the Super Game Boy, which allowed players to play Game Boy games on their TV, and the Super Scope, a light gun accessory that allowed players to shoot targets on their screen.

Despite the passing of time, the SNES remains a beloved console among gamers of all ages. Its innovative hardware, a massive library of games, and cultural impact continue to inspire and entertain gamers to this day, and its legacy lives on as one of the most important and influential consoles in gaming history.

Apparently, some parents were outraged by a system that had a price tag of $199.99 (see inflation-adjusted price above). Luckily, my parents were not included in this outrage. I remember the envy I felt when my friend got to open his SNES right away and I had to wait a whole month until Christmas! I even had the audacity to complain to my parents about how unfair it was. My parents never used corporal punishment with me, but if they had at this point, my future self would be fully supportive of it.

Console add-ons:

  • 1988, December 4 (JP): TurboGrafx-CD/CD-Rom
    1989, November (US): TurboGrafx-CD
    TurboGrafx Super CD Rom
    Company: NEC
    Original price: $399.99
    2019 price: $799.70
    Sales: N/A
    Number of Games: 44 (21 in CD format, 23 in Super CD format)
    Best-selling game: N/A
    Media: CD-ROM

The TurboGrafx-CD was an add-on accessory for the TurboGrafx-16 console that allowed for the playing of CD-based games. This innovative system was released in 1990 by NEC and was the first CD-based video game console to be released in North America. With its advanced technology and impressive library of games, the TurboGrafx-CD quickly became a fan favorite.

One of the most popular games on the TurboGrafx-CD was Ys Book I & II. This action role-playing game featured stunning graphics and a sweeping orchestral soundtrack and was widely considered to be one of the best games on the system. Another standout title was Dracula X: Rondo of Blood, a side-scrolling action game that featured tight controls and challenging gameplay. This game was later remade for the PlayStation Portable as Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles.

The TurboGrafx-CD also saw the release of many other classic games, including Cosmic Fantasy 2, a Japanese-style role-playing game with a rich and immersive storyline, and Gate of Thunder, a fast-paced shooter with stunning visuals and pulse-pounding action. Other notable titles included Lords of Thunder, a side-scrolling shooter with a heavy metal soundtrack, and Snatcher, a cyberpunk-themed adventure game that was designed by Hideo Kojima, the creator of the Metal Gear Solid franchise.

Despite its success, the TurboGrafx-CD ultimately failed to achieve the same level of commercial success as its competitors. However, its library of games remains a testament to the system’s advanced technology and the creativity of its developers. Whether you’re a fan of action games, role-playing games, or shooters, the TurboGrafx-CD has something for everyone, and its legacy continues to be celebrated by gamers and collectors alike.

  • 1992, October 15: Sega CD
    Company: Sega
    Original price: $299
    2019 price: $530.76
    Sales: 2.24 million
    Number of Games: 210 (JP-57, NA-39, 5-EU)
    Best-selling game: Sonic CD (over 1.5 million)
    Media: CD-ROM

The Sega CD, also known as the Mega-CD, was a CD-ROM-based peripheral for the Sega Genesis released in 1991. It was one of the first CD-based consoles, allowing for larger game sizes and higher-quality audio and video.

The Sega CD had some great hits, including the classic RPG “Lunar: The Silver Star” and its sequel “Lunar: Eternal Blue,” which both featured animated cutscenes and an epic story. Another notable game was “Sonic CD,” which introduced the ability to time travel and featured amazing graphics and music.

The Sega CD also had some great FMV games, such as “Night Trap” and “Corpse Killer,” which used real actors and interactive movie gameplay. Additionally, it had a variety of other unique games, including the puzzle game “Lemmings” and the rail shooter “Robo Aleste.”

Despite its innovative technology and great games, the Sega CD was ultimately unsuccessful due to its high cost and limited library. However, it remains a beloved part of gaming history and a must-have for Sega Genesis collectors.

  • 1994, June: Super Game Boy
    Company: Nintendo
    Original price: $59.99
    2019 price: $102.03
    Sales: N/A
    Number of Games: 1931 (Game Boy and Game Boy Color games)
    Best-selling game: Tetris (35 million)
    Media: ROM cartridge

The Super Game Boy was a peripheral for the Super Nintendo that allowed players to play Game Boy games on their television screens with enhanced colors and sound. It was released in 1994 and quickly became a popular accessory for Game Boy owners who wanted to play their favorite games on a bigger screen.

One of the most notable features of the Super Game Boy was the ability to add custom borders to Game Boy games, giving them a unique look and feel. Players could also use the Super Nintendo’s controller to play Game Boy games, providing a more comfortable and ergonomic experience.

The Super Game Boy was compatible with most Game Boy games and even some Game Boy Color games, making it a versatile accessory for gamers. Some of the most popular games to play on the Super Game Boy included “Tetris,” “Super Mario Land,” and “Pokemon Red/Blue.”

Overall, the Super Game Boy was a great way to experience Game Boy games in a new way and provided hours of entertainment for gamers of all ages. Its legacy lives on in modern devices that allow players to emulate Game Boy games on their smartphones and other devices.

  • 1995, April 23 (JP): Sattalaview
    Company: Nintendo
    Original price: $141-182 (¥14,000-18,000)
    2019 price: $233.65-301.59
    Sales: 2 million
    Number of Games: N/A
    Best-selling game: N/A
    Media: ROM cartridge, flash memory

The Sattalaview was a Japan-exclusive add-on for the Super Famicom that allowed players to download games and other content via satellite broadcasting. It was developed by Nintendo and St.GIGA and released in 1995.

One of the most unique aspects of the Sattalaview was its ability to broadcast live audio commentary and gameplay tips during gameplay. This added a new level of interactivity and immersion to gaming, and was especially popular with sports games like “Fire Pro Wrestling.”

The Sattalaview also had exclusive games and content, such as the “BS Zelda” series which was a remixed version of “The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.” These games featured new content and challenges that weren’t available in the original versions.

Unfortunately, the Sattalaview was short-lived and was discontinued in 2000 due to declining sales and the rise of other gaming platforms. However, it remains a unique and fascinating piece of gaming history and is remembered fondly by those who had the chance to experience it.

In the end, the Sattalaview was a groundbreaking piece of technology that pushed the boundaries of what was possible in gaming. Its legacy lives on in modern gaming platforms that continue to innovate and push the limits of what we thought was possible.

Second-tier consoles:

  • 1989, December 8: PC Engine 2/SuperGrafx (NEC)
  • 1991, March: Commodore CDTV (Commodore)
  • 1991, September 21: Turbo Duo (NEC)
  • 1991, December 3: Philips CD-i (Philips)
  • 1992, June: Memorex VIS (Tandy)
  • 1993, June 26: Sega Pico (Sega)
  • 1993, August 20 (JP): LaserActive (Pioneer)
  • 1994, September 9 (JP): Neo Geo CD (SNK)
  • 1995, October 25 (TW): Super A’Can (Funtech)

Portable consoles:

  • 1989, April 21 (JP): Game Boy
    1989, July 31 (NA): Game Boy
    Company: Nintendo
    Original price: $89.95
    2019 price: $182.01
    Sales: 118.69 million
    Number of Games: 1049
    Best-selling game: Tetris (35 million)
    Media: Rom cartridge

Game Boy became was the first true portable console in which one could switch out game cartridges. While the original Game Boy had a strange monochrome screen with green and black colors, it firmly established Nintendo as the king of the portable gaming world for generations to come. Game Boy had a few advantages over its graphically superior, colored gaming competitors. It beat both the Atari Lynx and the Sega Game Gear to the market. As a non-color portable system, it had a much stronger battery life than its colored competitors, making it the more mobile option. Game Boy had the marketing power, third-party support, and legitimacy of Nintendo. Most importantly, Game Boy games were just fun. Simplified versions of NES games had the branding of Nintendo and could achieve a level of complexity. As Super Mario Bros did for the NES, Tetris made Game Boy an instant success. One did not have to be a professed “gamer” to enjoy the puzzle challenge of Tetris while commuting or traveling.

Despite the limitations of its hardware, Game Boy’s library was extensive and impressive, with games ranging from platformers like Super Mario Land and Kirby’s Dream Land to role-playing games like Final Fantasy Legend and The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. Its massive library of games includes over 700 titles, making it one of the most extensive gaming catalogs in history. Additionally, the Game Boy was a beloved device for multiplayer games such as the competitive puzzle game Dr. Mario and the cooperative action game Contra: The Alien Wars.

Game Boy’s impact on the gaming world cannot be overstated. It paved the way for future portable gaming systems, such as the Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance, Nintendo DS, and Nintendo Switch. It also set a standard for portable gaming, which other companies, such as Sony and Sega, attempted to follow with their handheld devices. Game Boy’s popularity and influence have remained significant to this day, with many classic games still being re-released on modern systems, and its legacy continues to inspire developers to create new and innovative portable games.

  • 1989, September 1: Atari Lynx
    Company: Atari
    Original price: $189.99
    2019 price: $382.01
    Sales: 0.5 million
    Number of Games: 76
    Best-selling game: RoadBlasters
    Media: ROM cartridge

The Atari Lynx was released in 1989, and it was the first handheld console with a color screen. It was also notable for being larger and heavier than its competitors, which made it difficult to fit in a pocket or bag. However, its color screen made it visually impressive, and the console had a strong selection of launch titles that took advantage of its unique features.

Despite its innovations, the Atari Lynx was ultimately overshadowed by its competitors, including the Game Boy and Sega Game Gear. Its size and battery life were significant drawbacks, and the system’s library never quite reached the heights of its competitors. However, for a brief time, the Atari Lynx was a unique and impressive console that offered players a glimpse into the future of portable gaming.

  • 1990, October 6 (JP): Game Gear
    1991, April (NA): Game Gear
    Company: Sega
    Original price: $149.99 (¥14,500)
    2019 price: $274.08
    Sales: 11 million
    Number of Games: 363 (adapter allows for an additional 341 from Sega Master System library)
    Best-selling game: Sonic the Hedgehog 2
    Media: ROM cartridge

Sega Game Gear was Sega’s response to Nintendo’s Game Boy. Released in 1990, it was Sega’s first foray into the portable gaming world. The Game Gear was a technically superior system, boasting a full-color backlit screen and stereo sound. This made for an impressive display that the Game Boy simply couldn’t match. However, it did come at a cost – the system was significantly larger than its Nintendo counterpart, which made it less portable. Additionally, the Game Gear’s battery life was notoriously short, only lasting a few hours on six AA batteries. This made it impractical for long gaming sessions on the go.

Despite these issues, the Game Gear was still a strong contender in the portable gaming market. It had a solid library of games, with many popular titles from Sega’s home console, the Genesis, making their way to the Game Gear. Sonic the Hedgehog, Streets of Rage, and Mortal Kombat were all available on the system, showcasing the Game Gear’s capabilities. Additionally, Sega attempted to entice consumers with accessories such as the TV Tuner, which allowed users to watch television on their Game Gear. Ultimately, the Game Gear couldn’t quite match the success of the Game Boy, but it remains an important piece of gaming history and a beloved system for many fans.

  • 1990: NEC TurboExpress
    Company: NEC
    Original price: $299.99
    2019 price: $550.01
    Sales: 1.5 million
    Number of Games: 94
    Best-selling game: Bonk’s Adventure
    Media: HuCard (games are also compatible with the Turbo Grafx-16)

In many ways, the NEC TurboExpress was the predecessor of the Nintendo Switch. It utilized the same game disks as its home console counterpart, this fact blew my mind as a kid! It would be like playing my Nintendo cartridges on the go. The key difference from the Nintendo Switch is that the TurboExpress was a separate piece of hardware and an expensive piece at that. That, combined with Turbografx lacking a lineup of quality, competitive games to Sega and Nintendo spelled its doom.

Despite its innovative and exciting concept, the TurboExpress’s high price point made it a tough sell for many consumers. It was also a bit bulky for a portable device, making it less convenient to take on the go. In addition, the Turbografx-16’s library of games just couldn’t compete with the likes of Nintendo and Sega, which ultimately sealed its fate in the market. However, the TurboExpress remains a fascinating piece of gaming history and a precursor to modern handheld consoles. Its legacy lives on, inspiring future generations of game developers to push the boundaries of what’s possible in the world of portable gaming.