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

Enter Sega: Sega…

In 1973 Sega began producing its first arcade games, going on to be single most prolific producer of arcade games in history. Ten years later Sega had become introduced the SG-1000, its first home video game console. The SG-1000 was released in Japan the same day as the Famicom with some success, but was an overall failure. A few revisions to the console are referred to as the SG-1000 series, but this console paved the way for the the Sega Master System a couple of years later.

The SG-1000 lacked the arcade hits of Donkey Kong and Popeye that the NES had…

The technology of the SG-1000…

  • 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.

  • 1986, May: Atari 7800
    Company: Atari
    Original price: $79
    2019 price: $182.60
    Sales: N/A
    Number of Games: 59 (470 backwards 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 their 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 backwards compatibility with previous Atari systems, but it’s 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 backwards compatibility…

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)

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