3rd Generation

1983-1991: The 8-bit Era

The 8-bit era was ushered in with the release of the of the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1983 Japan, the console that would be king. While the video game industry was suffering from a recession, Nintendo upped the ante by introducing a system with state of the art 8-bit graphics. More importantly Nintendo introduced a lineup of higher quality video games. Atari, the old home console champion, began producing lower quality games, leading to an over saturated video game market. When the home console market seemed like a poor investment, Nintendo jumped in to rescue the day and perhaps, save the industry.

Home consoles:

  • 1983, July 15 (JP): Family Computer (Famicom)
    1985, October 18 (NA): Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)
    Company: Nintendo
    Original price: ¥14,800/$179.99 (deluxe set), $99.99 w/ Super Mario Bros
    2019 price: $416.80 (deluxe set), $231.54 w/ Super Mario Bros
    Sales: 61.91 million
    Number of Games: 714 licensed games (679 in North America, 35 in Europe & Australia), 93 unlicensed games
    Best-selling game: Super Mario Bros (40.24 million, bundled w/system)
    Media: ROM cartridge
    Main controller(s): 
    NES controller (d-pad)
    Other peripherals: 
    NES Advantage (joystick), NES Four Score, NES Max, NES Sattelite, NES Zapper, NES Power Pad, NES R.O.B., Famicom Disk System (Japan only), Famicom 3D System (Japan only)

While Nintendo entered the video game industry in 1975, the Nintendo Entertainment System launched Nintendo into the industry’s Hall of Fame. The Nintendo Entertainment System was first released in Japan in July of 1983 where it was known as the Famicom (Family Computer). On the heels of the video game recession of 1983, Nintendo needed to market its console as an “entertainment system” to American parents, advertising peripherals that looked like toys such as R.O.B. the Robot and the light gun. Nintendo took a risk by releasing its console as a loss leader, Nintendo took a loss on the sales of the console to keep it affordable for consumers. Nintendo hoped to make its profit on the games, the gamble worked.

Released with Super Mario Bros, the console and game became instant hits. Super Mario Bros became an instant classic, inspiring a series that has spanned four decades. Super Mario 3 was Nintendo’s second best-selling game, selling over 17 million copies. The Nintendo Entertainment System saw the beginnings of other first-party mega hit franchises, including The Legend of Zelda and Metroid series; and continued development of their own arcade series like Donkey Kong. An immense library of games was for the most part heavily vetted by Nintendo, resulting in a higher quality of games. Tough standards on third party publishers gave Nintendo a stranglehold over quality games for this generation, but these tight regulations caused animosity among some third party developers; leading to strained relations in the future. However, a lineup of quality games gave Nintendo legitimacy.

The NES introduced the d-pad game controller to the home console, an innovation which is still featured by home consoles. The NES featured more sophisticated 8-bit graphic capabilities than previous 8 bit consoles, including more colors and hardware scrolling which enabled boards to scroll past the field of view on a television screen. Hardware scrolling was key to the platformer, the most popular type of video game during this and the next generation. The graphics did not quite match the arcade, but the console ports of arcade games were usually close enough to their arcade equivalent for gamers to enjoy a relatively close arcade experience at home. Although the toaster design of the original NES was flawed (it either malfunctioned or completely broke for most owners), it still managed to revolutionize home video games.

On Christmas Day of 1987 I was forever indoctrinated into the Nintendo universe, receiving an NES with Super Mario Bros and a copy of The Legend of Zelda. Earlier that year we moved to a new home, and I, to a new school. My one friend at my new school kept telling me about Nintendo and The Legend of Zelda, we played it in the school yard. I did not quite understand what it was, but I knew I wanted it. More importantly, Santa knew I wanted it, and I got it. I had many happy Christmases as a child, but this Christmas and this console held the most magic for me. It was the first video game console I ever owned and it was the last Christmas Santa would personally deliver presents to me. (I just HAD to figure it out!)

  • 1983, July 15 (JP): SG-1000
    Company: Sega
    Original price: ¥15,000
    2019 price: ¥1
    Sales: 2 million (22 million for the entire SG-1000 series)
    Number of Games: 97 (68 ROM cartridges, 29 Sega Cards)
    Best-selling game: N/A
    Media: ROM cartridge, cassette tape, Sega Card
    Main controller(s):
    Sega Joypad
    Other peripherals: 
    Bike Handle Controller, Card Catcher, Sega Handle Controller, Sega Rapid Fire Unit, SK-1100

Sega: Sega was originally founded in 1940 in Japan as a manufacturer of slot machines, which were popular in the country at the time. The company continued to focus on the development and production of coin-operated machines throughout the 1950s and 1960s, including jukeboxes and other arcade games. In the 1970s, Sega began developing video game arcade cabinets, including some of the earliest successful arcade games such as “Periscope” and “Pong-Tron.” To this day, Sega is the most prolific producer of arcade machines of all time. The company also continued to release popular arcade games throughout the 1980s, such as “Space Harrier” and “Out Run,” before making the move into the home console market with the release of the Sega Master System in 1985.

The SG-1000 was Sega’s first home video game console, released in Japan in 1983. It was designed to compete with the popular Nintendo Famicom (known as the NES outside of Japan), which had been released the previous year. Despite being the first console of its kind from Sega, it was only moderately successful in Japan, although it did have some success in other markets, such as Australia and New Zealand.

The SG-1000 had a number of technical advantages over the Famicom, such as a more powerful graphics processor and a wider color palette. However, it was hindered by a lack of third-party support, with most games for the console being developed in-house by Sega. Some of the more popular titles for the SG-1000 included “Zaxxon” and “Monaco GP.”

Despite its limited success, the SG-1000 laid the foundation for Sega’s future in the video game industry. The console’s architecture was used in the development of later consoles such as the Sega Master System, and many of its games were ported to these newer systems. It also paved the way for Sega to become a major player in the industry, with a number of successful consoles and iconic games being released in the years that followed.

  • 1985, October 20 (JP): Sega Mark III
    1986, October (NA): Master System
    Company: Sega
    Original price: ¥24,200, $199.99
    2019 price: $456.39
    Sales: 20 million
    Number of Games: 341 officially licensed (over six regions)
    Best-selling game: N/A
    Media: ROM cartridge
    Main controller(s):
    Sega Control Pad
    Other peripherals: Light Phaser, SegaScope 3D glasses, Sega Control Stick, Sega Handle Controller, Sega Paddle Control, Sega Pro Action Replay, Sega Remote Control System, Sega Rapid Fire Unit, Sega SG Commander, Sega Sports Pad

The Sega Master System was the second highest selling system of the 8-bit era. Released in 1985, it was the second home video game console from Sega and the successor to the SG-1000. It was designed to compete with the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), which had been released in the US a year earlier. The Master System boasted superior graphics and sound capabilities, but it struggled to gain a foothold in the US market, where the NES dominated.

Despite its slow start in the US, the Master System was quite successful in other markets such as Europe and Brazil, where it outsold the NES. The system was known for its impressive library of games, which included classics such as “Alex Kidd,” “Phantasy Star,” and “Sonic the Hedgehog.” Many of these games were developed in-house by Sega, and the company also secured a number of third-party licenses to develop games for the console.

One unique feature of the Master System was its 3D glasses, which allowed players to experience games in stereoscopic 3D. The glasses were only compatible with a few select titles, but they were still an impressive technological achievement for the time. Despite its relative lack of success in the US, the Master System helped establish Sega as a major player in the video game industry, paving the way for the company’s future consoles such as the Genesis (known as the Mega Drive outside of North America) and the Dreamcast.

  • 1986, May: Atari 7800
    Company: Atari
    Original price: $79
    2019 price: $182.60
    Sales: N/A
    Number of Games: 59 (470 backward-compatible Atari 2600 titles)
    Best-selling game: Pac-Man (7.7 million, Atari 2600 game)
    Media: ROM Cartridge
    Main controller(s):
    Atari Joystick, Atari Gamepad
    Other peripherals: 
    Atari XG-1 Light Gun

The Atari 7800 tried to propel Atari back into the industry but was not properly supported. This was a time of flux for Atari, in which the company split into two divisions and pivoted its goals. All in all, the 7800 managed to make money for Atari, backwards compatibility and a cheaper price tag were attractive options. Even though it did turn a profit, the 7800 did not improve its reputation as an antiquated video game system. The king of the previous generation, Atari would finish a distant third for this generation.

The Atari 7800 featured backward compatibility with previous Atari systems, but its library of current-generation games was very slim; only 59 games. By this point, many third-party publishers were already clamoring to create games for the new king, the Nintendo Entertainment System. Atari’s biggest hits were games like Asteroids and Pac-Man, games that were already several years old. The gaming library failed to evolve with its consumer base. These games were also available for the NES, and with better graphics.

A big selling point for the Atari 7800 was backward compatibility. Players had the ability to play games from both the Atari 2600 and the Atari 7800 on the same console. While the ColecoVision and Intellivision had already featured backward compatibility, the Atari 7800 was the first console to market this feature. This was achieved by including the hardware necessary to play 2600 games in the design of the 7800, which not only saved costs on hardware development but also allowed Atari to tap into the vast library of games available for the 2600.

The 7800 also improved upon the 2600’s graphics and sound capabilities, making it a more advanced console in its own right. The backward compatibility feature proved to be a selling point for the console, as many gamers already owned a 2600 and were able to continue playing their favorite games while also enjoying newer titles on the 7800. Overall, the 7800’s backward compatibility was a clever move by Atari that helped to extend the lifespan of the 2600’s games and kept players engaged with the Atari brand.

The Atari 7800 may not have achieved the same level of success as other consoles of its time, but its legacy lies in its backward compatibility feature, which set a standard for future consoles to maintain compatibility with previous systems. The 7800 was also the last console released by Atari before its video game division was sold off, marking the end of an era for the iconic brand. Despite its short lifespan and a limited library of games, the 7800 is remembered fondly by Atari fans and collectors for its innovative features and contributions to the history of video games. Today, the console remains a niche collector’s item and a testament to the creativity and resilience of the video game industry.

Second tier consoles:

  • 1983, October (JP): PV-1000 (Casio)
  • 1983: My Vision (Nichibutsu)
  • 1983: Videopac + G7400 (Philips)
  • 1984, July 17 (JP): Super Casette Vision (Epoch)
  • 1985: LJN Video Art (LJN)
  • 1985: Zemmix (Daewoo Electronics)
  • 1985: BBC Bridge Companion (Herber)
  • 1986: Dina (Telegames Personal Arcade)
  • 1987, Fall: Atari XEGS (Atari)
  • 1987: Action Max (Worlds of Wonder)
  • 1988: VTech Socrates (VTech)
  • 1989: View-Master Interactive Vision (View-Master Ideal Group)
  • 1990 (EU): Amstrad GX4000 (Amstrad)
  • 1990, December: Commodore 64 Games System (Commodore)