That’s right, it’s not a mirage, it’s an actual update to my ‘Console Opinion Summaries’ list! This took way too long, so for future entries I probably should cut back on the history portions that are done much more completely elsewhere on the internet, but at least this is done and I mostly like the results. Here, I cover the five consoles I own that I consider third generation — that is, consoles released between 1982 and 1985.
Table of Contents
Third Generation Overview
Colecovision, CVIS – 1982
Atari 5200, 5200 – 1982
NES (Famicom) – 1983 (1985 US)
Atari 7800, 7800 – 1984 (1986 full release)
Sega Master System, SMS – 1985 (1986 US)
Overall Ranking – a ranking of how much I comparatively like each of these systems.
Third Generation Overview
Now, as I have said before, most people would start the third generation with the release of the NES. I think that is wrong, however, so for reasons I have explained before, I am starting it with the first post-Atari 2600 “next-gen” consoles, the new systems of 1982. After several years of no hardware releases, a bunch of systems released in 1982, from Atari, Coleco, and others. I have the two major ones, the Atari 5200 and Colecovision. However, as this whole video games thing was still very new, nobody knew how to handle a generation transition. So, market leader Atari, at this point owned by Warner Bros., decided to continue supporting the 2600 strongly, while also releasing a new system. Most of their games would release on both formats or would be only on 2600, with only a few games only on 5200. And the 5200, at least at first, was not backwards compatible. Combined with a controller few liked and other mistakes, the 5200 struggled from the beginning. The Colecovision did better, as with better marketing and ports of popular arcade games Coleco made an impact. Third party studios proliferated as well, as no systems at this point had licensing models or could lock out third party software, and people had figured out this fact. Sure, there were issues, but things seemed to be going well overall.
Meanwhile, the computer gaming industry was growing greatly, as computer platforms such as the Commodore VIC-20, Tandy Color Computer, Radio Shack TRS-80, IBM PC, Apple II, and Texas Instruments TI 99/4 and 99/4A sold into more and more schools and homes. Millions would buy these computers, and everyone thought that computer-console convergence was the goal — consoles often started including more computer features, and computers console features like cartridge-based games and console-style joysticks.
Even so, in 1983, the console industry in the US seemed to be going great. Sales had been up incredibly the previous year, as countless games released for the many formats available. However, that year everything fell apart. Sales started falling, suddenly, and they did not stop. Thus began what would be known as the Video Game Crash. This incident, focused primarily on the United States but affecting the world because of how dominant America was in the technology field, destroyed our nascent console industry. What survived were the computers, and surviving developers in the industry mostly moved over to computers for a decade or two. Many people did not buy a computer, though, so the total number of people playing games at home surely went down. I won’t go in detail here about the crash though, I have covered it elsewhere, and will mention it below as well in the summaries.
That same year, however, two new consoles had released in Japan. One of them, the Nintendo Famicom, would become the industry’s most important and legendary console when it finally released in the US two years later as the NES. With that release in 1985, everything started to change here. Computers would remain the primary format for most Western game developers, to be sure, but many gamers such as myself had some of their first gaming experiences on the Nintendo, as we called it; the specific name of the system was unnecessary. The third generation would continue the rest of the decade, finally starting to be supplanted by newer systems by the end of the ’80s but the NES was still selling well into the early ’90s.
In terms of games, the two parts of this generation are contrasting — earlier on, and continuing through the decade at a lower level, you see refinements of the games seen on the second generation systems. These newer systems could do more complex things, so you see second-generation-style games, but with better graphics and perhaps also more content. But as the decade progressed and systems advanced, games started to try new things. The development of the 2d platformer, overhead action-adventure game, and various takes on role playing games all changed dramatically over the first half of the ’80s, as developers experimented with what they could do. This kind of experimentation is fascinating from a modern perspective, as games do not always do what we “expect” them to. Hardware and game data size limitations can be a frustration, however, from sprite flicker, choppy scrolling in some systems, and other technical limits like those to the omnipresent use of incredibly cryptic “puzzles” that pretty much are just massive exercises in trial and error in a way much less often seen since. Fourth-gen consoles have aged better in these respects than the third has.
As a result of game design elements like those, and of the rise of a generation of gamers who did not grow up playing or reading about the NES like I did, the NES today does not have as dominant a place today in classic gaming culture as it did fifteen years ago; times change, and as younger generations grow up the consoles of THEIR childhood gain prominence. Now, it is the N64 which particularly seems to be benefiting from this, with the Gamecube and PS2 on the rise. But despite being dated in many ways — and nostalgia or no, I very much agree that some elements of 3rd-gen game design are very frustrating — this era is a fascinating and, today, under-valued one. The pre-crash part of the generation is home to a lot of great arcade-style games that most people probably have not played, and the post-crash part has more than enough games which hold up to still be full of must-play experiences.
With that said, on to the summaries!
Release and Sales Info – From Coleco, released in 1982. Game support 1982-1984 plus third party only support 1985-1987, plus scattered modern homebrew releases. Two million sold, not including a clone system from the ’80s, a modern Flashback system release, and an upcoming Colecovision clone system. I bought a Colecovision in August 2018.
History: The Colecovision released in summer 1982, and brought in a new generation of videogames. With significantly better graphics than the previous consoles and a library full of reasonably good conversions of arcade games, Coleco made a big splash in 1982-1983 before falling off because of the crash. Coleco, originally the Connecticut Leather Company, was a major toy manufacturer in the ’70s and ’80s, and had been successful in videogames with their line of home Pong clones in the late ’70s. They also made one extremely obscure and rare cart-based console in the late ’70s called the Coleco Telstar Arcade. In ’82, Coleco finally made a more direct competitor for the Atari 2600 with the more powerful Colecovision. The system has some hardware similarities to the TI 99/4A computer, as it uses the same TI graphics and sound chips as the TI99, except it has a different CPU: the popular Zilog Z80, instead of TI’s CPU. The resulting graphics are sprite-based, something of a revolution at the time for consoles, and look very much like TI99 graphics. Basing consoles on computer parts from several years earlier has ever since been a common practice, and here we see one of its first occurrances. Consoles are almost always cheaper than computers, so this makes sense. It uses controllers inspired by the Intellivision’s, slightly more comfortable than those but also not very good, and also with the horrible idea of having the main fire buttons be on the sides of the controller. The console itself is also, in my opinion, unbelievably ugly. But anyway.
Again, the Colecovision sold well at first, pushed by its relatively powerful hardware and popular arcade games like Donkey Kong, a game they got through a deal they managed to make with Nintendo, beating out Atari for DK’s Western home console rights, before fading as the market fell apart. Coleco did not help matters though, because their big Colecovision addon, the Coleco Adam computer, was something of a disaster; it was repeatedly delayed and has issues. The Adam debacle helped push Coleco out of the industry, as while home computers did continue to sell in the mid ’80s people wanted ones like Commodore’s on the lower priced end or the IBM PC and Apple II on the more expensive end, not the Adam. Still, as the crash progressed Coleco tried to hold out and released more Colecovision games in 1984 than Atari did for all their systems combined, but by the end of the year it was clear that it was over. Coleco stopped making new games for their system in late ’84, before discontinuing it in mid ’85, ironically right about at the time that the NES released in the US to resurrect the console market.
Meanwhile, overseas the Colecovision made a big impact in the market at least in mindshare, if not in sales. In Japan, Sega was impressed enough that in mid 1983 they released a console that is nearly identical to the Colecovision, the first Sega console, the Sega SG-1000. The differences between the two are extremely minor, and games are extremely easy to port between the two systems, a fact homebrew developers have taken advantage of. At the same time, however, Nintendo looked at the Colecovision and had a different reaction: they decided to make a console that could beat the Coleco in graphical power. This project resulted in the Famicom, also known as the NES, and even if you look only at early Famicom/NES titles like Donkey Kong, it is easy to see how much better the NES is than the Coleco; there is only a year between the two systems in time, but the power gap is significant. However, I do not think that it is a generational power gap, not even close; it’s probably less than the gap from Dreamcast to Xbox, Wii to Xbox 360, or such. Particularly with a homebrew addon to give it more RAM the Colecovision can do some nice graphics, and I don’t think that just because it died off before the NES released it should be dumped in the same generation as consoles released five years before it; the Colecovision was clearly next-gen when it released, and just like my article from some years ago I still consider this system, and the Atari 5200 which released a few months after it, third-gen and not second.
But anyway, after its discontinuation, in the West, third party Tele-Games released a Colecovision clone called the Dina 2-in-1, and released a few new games for it between ’85 and ’87. After that, the system died out. As for the SG-1000, it only lasted from ’83 to ’87 itself. It was crushed by the Famicom, but did apparently do better than Sega’s low expectations, so they decided to continue making consoles. The SG-1000 and its computer counterpart the SC-3000 were only released in Japan and a few other nations, including France, Australia, and Italy.
Aesthetics and Design: The Colecovision may be reasonably powerful and with a surprisingly large library for a mostly short-lived system, but as I said earlier I find its design somewhat shockingly horrible. The early ’80s was able to make some nice looking electronics, but for me this is on the opposite end of the spectrum! With ugly ridges, holes for the controllers which may have been common then but look bad with controllers in them and horrible when empty, an overly large shell filled with air, and one of the largest and more unreliable power supplies ever seen on a classic home console, the Colecovision is, for me, aesthetically quite bad. The controllers are not great looking either, and feel mediocre to bad to hold. “They’re better than Intellivision” is true but is not saying all that much, unfortunately.
And unfortunately, its design has a lot of problems as well, particularly in build quality. Colecovisions are infamous for failing, and finding one in good working order, like mine fortunately is, is a rare occurrence. The power supplies handle multiple voltages and fail all the time; the video output, RF only like all systems of the time; can break; chips can fail; and more. All classic systems can die on you of course, but by all accounts the Colecovision is worse than most in build quality and reliability. Coleco cut corners anywhere they could when making these things and it shows. The controllers are no better; my console may be fortunately working perfectly, but my controllers are mostly half-broken, as both of my regular controllers have failed main fire buttons and both of my Super Action controllers have bad buttons, as is common. Other consoles of the era are also known for controller buttons failing over time, so this is not only a Coleco problem, but it can be frustrating to deal with. I mostly use my Coleco Roller Controller, a trackball which you can put controllers into and use like an arcade stick, using the stick on the controller and buttons on the trackball. It’s a good solution, but I do wish the system had a better controller. I hope upcoming homebrew projects finally bring us one.
Game Library: The Colecovision has several hundred games, with a solid library of ports of arcade games from the early ’80s and a bunch of third-party software, some ported from computers or consoles of the day and a few here and there exclusive. A paucity of exclusives is an issue on this console, however — as Coleco mostly made licensed arcade ports and third parties mostly ported games from other systems, this system has a very small exclusive library. Colecovision versions of games are often the best home versions of those games on early ’80s consoles, but when they are all downgraded from the arcade games and in this 21st century playing old arcade games is easy, this means a lot less than it did back then. Still, the Colecovision has some interesting stuff, and I do like games like Pepper II, Mr. Do, and more. It has a few interesting true exclusives as well, such as the fascinating, if highly dated, Fortune Builder. Overall I put the Colecovision in the lower tier of my consoles in that list I published recently, but part of that is because of the build quality, controllers, and paucity of exclusives; the games it does have are often pretty fun, and I do somewhat like this system. (Plus, this is the only console released in the month I was born, and that counts for something for sure.)
Release and Sales Info – From Atari, released in late 1982. Game support 1982-1984 and 1986, plus scattered modern homebrew titles since the early ’00s. One million sold. I bought a 5200 in 2013.
History: The infamous Atari 5200 is the system often mentioned as one of the causes of the great videogame crash of 1983, along with other Atari moves such as their awful E.T. game. Atari was hardly blameless, as they released the 5200 with games far too similar to their 2600 games, continued to release most games on both consoles, had a pack-in title nearly identical to the 2600 version of the same game, and never really seemed to know what they wanted to do with the system before abandoning it barely over a year later. Indeed, the 5200 released in late ’82, and Atari was done in early ’84 and released only one solitary game for the console that year, with the rest of the ’84 library coming from third parties. Its sales were highly disappointing as well, as its final sales number shows — the 5200 sold a thirtieth of what the 2600 had, in the end, and was beaten out by the Odyssey 2, Colecovision, and Intellivision. The 5200 is overly large and is filled with air, has yet another vertical, Intellivision-styled controller with side fire buttons, and has a small game library. It has less homebrew support than those four other pre-crash consoles as well, excepting ports from Atari’s 8-bit computer line. And the system’s analog joysticks are a real mixed bag, with great control in games that make good use of it like Pole Position, and bad control in games which rely on digital precision, like Pac-Man.
However, despite all of its faults, I like the 5200. I admit to often looking at disliked gaming things and trying to find something to like in them, but it doesn’t always happen… but very much did here. So, the Atari 5200 released in late 1982. It is a consolized version of an Atari 400 computer, the lower end of their popular Atari 8-bit computer line that they sold for at least a decade. However, where Atari 8-bit computers use Atari 2600 joysticks, the 5200 has an all-new controller with an analog joystick, two fire buttons on each side, a keypad in that Intellivision style, and, innovatively, for the first time, a Pause button. On the controller. There are Start and Reset buttons right on the controller too. This is the first console with pausing standard in all games, and that, for me, is a big deal! That all buttons are on the gamepad and not on the system is really nice as well. With controller extension cables you can put your 5200 across the room from you with no issues; this is not the case for most consoles before it. The first model 5200 has four controller ports as well, though no games really made use of it, and the first ever automatic RF switch; before this all consoles require you to go manually flip a switch on a box attached to the back of your TV to switch between watching TV and playing the game, but the 5200 has the first attempt at doing this automatically. 5200 auto switches are failure-prone as the tech was clearly not all there yet, so they removed it from the second model of the system in favor of a simple manual switch, but it’s a really cool thing if you have a working one, as I do. I love not having to flip that switch to play 5200, it feels much more modern for it.
But yes, the Atari 5200 sold badly, and was badly mismanaged by Atari. Their corporate parent Warner Bros. did not understand generation transitions yet, as there hadn’t really been one yet, so they didn’t make the differences between the two systems as clear as they could have, and continued to put more focus on the 2600 than their new system. Perhaps with better marketing and choices it could have been more successful, though the controller was a barrier. I like the 5200 controller overall, but I do think that it shows why all modern controllers still have both a d-pad and an analog stick — having only the analog option does not work for all games. The 5200’s analog joystick was a great step forward compared to the digital gamepads all prior consoles had as their main control options, but having both analog and digital options probably would have been better.
But anyway, for reasons outside for Atari’s control, the crash was probably inevitable. For the crash did not only happen because of Atari, but because of the market as a whole. The absence of a licensing model for third-party games is a key component of the crash, and that model would not develop until the mid ’80s, in response to the crash. The flood of low-quality third-party software was a major driver towards the crash. Atari did not help matters by sticking to the then five or six year old 2600 for probably too long as their main focus, but even with better decisions, a correction was probably looming. The arcade game market in the US crashed at the same time as the console market, after all; the whole gaming industry dropped significantly in sales. Computer sales increased, but not by enough to make up for the whole drop.
So, when I look at the Atari 5200’s history, I think more of the things it does right, than wrong — the reasonably nice pixel graphics that have a distinct Atari style, very different from the sprite-based visuals of the TI/Coleco but just as good overall; the interesting controller which makes as many games better as worse; the system’s good looking design and style; the introduction of the standard pause button; and the games, which I quite like many of. Unlike its rival the Colecovision the Atari 5200 did not make anywhere near as much of an impact on the industry and has far fewer games, but on a subjective level I like it more all the same.
Aesthetics and Design: The Atari 5200 is big. That is everyone’s first reaction to it, and they are right: this thing is huge! The Atari 5200 has a very large, and mostly empty, case. However, design-wise I think it looks pretty good. The box is a sleekly designed wedge with some nice styling on it. The system is durable and well built as well, they can fail but are mostly reliable. I have never had an issue with Atari 5200 hardware, and I have two of them, one of each model. The cartridges are similarly absurdly oversized, maybe four or five times bigger than the otherwise identical tiny little Atari 8-bit carts that they are often ports from, but look nice. I do wish they had end-labels, but that is now a solvable problem. And thanks to its black plastic cover on the back, even if you choose not to store you controllers in the controller holder which takes up maybe a third of the unit, it still looks great, quite unlike the Intellivision or Colecovision. That cover for the controller bay was a good idea indeed. The controllers similarly look nice, and I find them a bit less uncomfortable than Intellivision controllers are; sure, they do hurt your hand after a while and these vertically-oriented controllers were a mistake, but it’s a definite improvement over the Intellivision and Colecovision. Those added Pause, Reset, and Start buttons are fantastic as well. I wish that the Sega Master System and Atari 7800 had done that, instead of putting their pause buttons on the console itself! Overall I think the controllers look nice and work alright, so long as you can find a working one with a good rubber ring around the stick — it does not center itself, so you need that to help push the stick back to the middle after you let go. I got used to this quickly, myself. You will almost certainly need to get a repaired controller, as while Atari 5200 consoles are quite durable the controllers are infamous for failing, but with a fixed up pad it’s a fun system to use, particularly for games which make use of analog well.
The Atari 5200 only has one add-on controller, but it’s a really nice one, the Atari 5200 Trak-Ball. Where the Coleco Roller Controller (trackball) is a pretty bad, slow-to-respond ball I do not like using, this one is impressively responsive. Indeed, of the old trackballs I have, for Sega Master System, Atari 2600, Colecovision, and 5200, this one is by FAR the best! Unfortunately it only works with compatible games, which are a definite subset of the already-small 5200 library, but with most Trak-Ball compatible titles, you want to play them on trackball. Games like Centipede and Missile Command are great fun with the regular controller, but are even better on trackball. The trackball is not cheap, but it’s worth the expense. It looks really nice, too, with the same stylings as the 5200 itself. The Trak-Ball is quite large, larger than some consoles in fact, but that makes for a good, comfortable platform to use the ball on.
Game Library: The Atari 5200 library of actual released titles is tiny. With its lack of success and quick abandonment, Atari did not release many games for the system and dropped the system barely a year after its release. Third parties did support the 5200 and released some pretty good games for it, but this system definitely does not have the most quantity of releases. I do, however, think that the games it does have are often high quality. Defender, Centipede with the trackball, Galaxian, Pole Position, and more are among the best games of the time! And while, due to its market failure there are not many original homebrew titles for the 5200, the 5200 does have a vast quantity of homebrew ports of Atari 8-bit computer games, and a whole bunch of cancelled prototypes and finished titles that were in the works when the console was abandoned in ’84. The three titles Atari released in ’86, to clear some produced games out of their warehouse, are good as well. The 5200 is a system where you really need more than the original library to get the most out of the console. Now, those 8-bit ports are very much a mixed bag, as the games were designed for a digital joystick so unless the person making the port changes the code they will often control somewhat awkwardly on the 5200’s analog joystick, but games which do adjust for that end up well.
On the whole, I’m sure it’s partially just being contrarian, but the 5200 is my second-favorite pre-crash console, after the Odyssey 2, and my favorite Atari console. I really do find it fun to play and collect for. However, as I said earlier, this console shows why no modern console has done away with the d-pad — you end up with this, digital controls awkwardly mapped to an analog stick not designed for that kind of game at all. Oh well. At least Atari tried something different, that’s much more interesting than just doing the safe thing every time! And it worked at least as much as it didn’t.
Release and Sales Info – From Nintendo, released in mid 1983 in Japan and fall 1985 in the US (Europe later). Games released between 1983-1994, with homebrew games following. 61.91 million sold. I bought one in early 2008.
History: Japanese card and toy company Nintendo got into the videogame business in the late ’70s when they made a series of home Pong clones. After that, they started making arcade games, most notably the massive smash-hit game Donkey Kong. Nintendo then licensed their games to several American companies for home system release, including Atari for home versions of Mario Bros. and home computer versions of Donkey Kong, Coleco for home console versions of Donkey Kong and DK Jr., and others for games such as Sky Skipper on the Atari 2600. In 1982, as mentioned in the Coleco section above, Coleco convinced Nintendo to give them the license for home console versions of some of their games. After that Nintendo employees looked at the Colecovision, and as I described earlier they were impressed, but in response they decided to make something better.
And thus, the Famicom was born. It uses off-the-shelf parts, which means it does not us any custom chips, but even so was easily the most powerful console available at the time of its release, easily beating out the Colecovision and 5200. It has limitations, but with its easy expandability with mapper chips and powerful, sprite-based graphical hardware, it was an impressive technical feat at the time and its graphics and gameplay design sensibilities are very highly regarded for many good reasons. Where the Coleco has a fatal flaw in struggling to draw scrolling screens well, the NES can do so easily, particularly with those mapper chips. Where Coleco Donkey Kong clearly looks worse than the arcade game, the NES version is a very close approximation. And where Coleco, Sega, and Atari were all using late ’70s sound chips, Nintendo used something newer and better.
At first, the Famicom did well in Japan but did not overwhelm the SG-1000, its main competition. In the first year Famicom graphics were barely better than Coleco/SG-1000, and Nintendo had to recall all early systems because of a design problem. By ’84, however, things turned decisively in Nintendo’s favor, and from that point on there was no looking back. Japanese third parties started supporting the Famicom in ’84, and it quickly became the dominant gaming platform. Then, Nintendo started looking into a Western release. It finally happened in mid ’85, two years after the original release in Japan. Nintendo redesigned the case to make it look like a VCR, gave it a new name, and bundled in a robot, ROB, to try to con people into thinking that the NES was a new kind of electronic toy and not another one of those discredited consoles like the Atari. They also packed in their new hit, 1985’s Super Mario Bros. It worked, and the system came to dominate the American market just like it did in Japan, just a few years behind — where in Japan the FC peaked in maybe ’85-’86, in the US it only started hitting its stride in ’87-’88. Nintendo would not see nearly as much success in Europe, however. Still, the NES would go on to sell twice what the Atari 2600 had worldwide and redefined gaming, creating some of the industry’s most enduring franchises and mascots and making it clear that Japan was one of the most important places in the world for videogame development. Indeed, while Western developers did make some NES games, almost all of the top titles are from Japan, a very different situation from consoles prior. Popular Japanese arcade games were released on consoles before, to be sure, and some, such as Pac-Man, Space Invaders, and Donkey Kong were huge hits, but at that time there were also hit Western arcade games, while on the NES Japan dominated. The remaining Western game developers mostly were making home computer games at this point, not console. That situation, with Japan being dominant in console game development and the West in computer game development, would last into the ’00s.
The Famicom also had one major addon, a floppy drive called the Famicom Disk System which allowed for games to save and for cheap production costs. After initially being considered for Western release, that was cancelled; instead, Nintendo introduced the concept of password and battery saving, relying on batteries welded into the cartridge instead of floppy disks. Both ways have their downsides, in terms of long-term durability, but it would be an important move, as most other consoles afterwards would start putting batteries in carts to save data, before battery-free flash memory would slowly be phased in in the ’90s and ’00s. The Famicom also had an unpopular, early computer addon only a couple of games supported, and that robot with its two games. Seven years after its release Nintendo finally released a new console, the Super NES, in 1990 (1991 in the West, six years after the US NES). The NES/FC would continue to get game support for years after that, though, with new officially licensed games for over a decade, a mark only the most successful consoles meet. Now, just selling well does not make something objectively good, but the importance and impact of the NES is impossible to deny.
Aesthetics and Design: I have never seen a Japanese Famicom in person, but it looks … okay, if very toy-like. It has hard-wired controllers and is small. In comparison, the US version, the NES, is a true classic! Designed to look like a VCR, the NES, with its front-loading cartridge slot and high-end-electronics look, made a statement at the time and still looks great today. The cart port does have durability problems, but fortunately they are fairly easy to repair or replace, and otherwise NESes are quite reliable. NES controllers are good, but not the most comfortable things; they are rectangular, with Nintendo’s innovative d-pad and buttons layout that would totally change gamepads for the better, but have very sharp corners I have always found uncomfortable. Fortunately many other NES controller options exist that are more comfortable, including the NES Max, various arcade sticks, the NES 2 controller, and more. In Japan there is also a shutter-glasses 3D headset addon, but unfortunately that wasn’t released here; it’s too bad, I’m sure it works well. All of the official accessories look good, from the light gun to the Max to the small, second-model NES 2 console, and they all work well, that first model cart port aside.
Game Library: The NES game library is huge and is one of gaming’s most popular. I loved this console as a kid, though I did not own one, and many of its games are still fantastic today. However, some things about the NES have definitely aged, including games’ propensity to be incredibly obtuse and frustrating with way too much of the “go find the thing randomly hidden in some random tile or block which there are no clues for” school of puzzle design, and the “go grind” school of RPG design. I have never liked either of those design styles much at all. Sadly few games save, either, apart from RPGs. So, while I still like the NES, I do not unreservedly love it, and it isn’t at the top of my personal all-systems list. It is in the upper part of the list, but isn’t in the top five. The NES is still great, and has a lot of outstanding games, but while some of its games are among my all-time favorites, many others have been surpassed. Still, the best NES games are timeless classics.
Release and Sales Info – From Atari, released in 1986 (after a limited test market in 1984). Games released in 1984 (test market) and 1986 to 1990 (maybe 1991 in some areas), with some modern homebrew titles in the last decade or two. Amount sold is uncertain, but was somewhere between 2 and 5 million most likely. Data exists showing 3.77 million sales in North America, but that may be hardware and software sales combined. I bought a 7800 in 2013.
In 1984, as the videogame market crashed, Warner Bros. gave up on their failing Atari 5200 console. The 5200 was barely over a year old, but they effectively abandoned it in early ’84, though they did not publicly say so for some months. This was a very bad decision. Instead of sticking with and improving the 5200, Warner looked around and decided to make a new console, one designed by a company called GCC. GCC is more famous for making the very popular hit game Ms. Pac-Man for Bally Midway, the American licensor for Namco’s Pac-Man at the time, but they also designed the Atari 7800 and made its first few games. This console’s name refers to “2600 backward compatibility plus 5200 power”, though it is a quite different console from the 5200 — this system is not 5200 or Atari 8-bit computer compatible. In terms of power, the 7800 has slightly better graphical capabilities than the 5200, with full sprite support in the modern style and more, plus better support for hardware-enhancing addons. However, the 7800 also has significantly worse sound, as the audio chip is sadly identical to the Atari 2600’s. It does support sound-enhancing chips in game carts, namely the same audio chip that the Atari 5200 uses, but only two games used them so most are limited to 2600-level audio. Additionally, its two-button digital joystick has no analog option apart from a light gun that a few games use, making some games worse and others better versus the 5200, which of course is the opposite in terms of analog versus digital.
Warner Atari test marketed the 7800 in 1984 and started production, but instead of going forward, they decided to give up on the failing American console industry and sold off Atari to Jack Tramiel, previously owner of the computer company Commodore. Tramiel sold Commodore and bought Atari’s computer and console development side. At first, he mostly wanted it for their computers, but he eventually decided to get into the console business as well. Atari’s arcade game division and game developers, however, went to a separate spun-off company, Atari Games, which stayed more closely connected to Warner. This split would be crucial, as it meant that Tramiel’s Atari could not benefit from the arcade games being made by Atari Games, such as, perhaps most notably during this era, Gauntlet, Super Sprint, Vindicators, NARC, and such. Jack Tramiel had the rights to arcade games published by Atari before the split, such as Centipede, Missile Command, and such, but not those new games. After the split Atari Games would make its own home console division under the name Tengen, since Tramiel’s Atari had exclusive rights for the name outside of arcades, and vice versa in arcades. Tengen, however, during this generation exclusively supported Nintendo; Atari home and Atari arcade would not start working together again until the early ’90s.
And on top of that, Jack Tramiel was, while well off, not as wealthy as the top companies he was competing against. Tramiel’s Atari never had the kind of money of an NEC, or the reach of Nintendo. Tramiel Atari struggled with limited budgets and many, many features unrealized because they would cost too much. And of course, Tramiel was often more focused on Atari’s computer business, including the successful Atari 8-bit line and the computer he released afterwards, the Atari ST. So, the Atari 7800 had a relatively small game library, heavy on re-releases of pre-crash classics early on, followed by a thin scattering of new, albeit clearly very low-budget, games. Atari 7800 games never have battery save, or even password save, and have much smaller max cart sizes than their later NES or Master System counterparts.
However, despite all of those limitations, the Atari 7800 was a moderate success in the US, and in North America it almost certainly outsold the Sega Master System and finished in second place. Even with the uncertainty about 7800 sales, since the Master System’s sales here were so low there is little question that the 7800 finished well above it despite releasing half as many games for their system as Sega did. Sure, the NES sold like fifteen times more systems, but Atari did well enough to turn a profit; the low-budget, low-investment approach worked well in the days of 8-bit consoles, and the Atari name still had some cache. Looking at its library now it is often hard to see why it did so well, but seeing it as a newer way to play peoples’ existing Atari 2600 libraries, with a few 7800 games here and there, it does make sense. People knew the Atari name, and there may be only sixty games, but plenty of them are well-made, quality titles. After initial success in its first few years, though, 7800 sales dropped in the later ’80s. Ironically, the sales declined as the system’s game library got more new games and not only old ports, so most of the more interesting 7800 games are somewhat uncommon. Oh well. Atari stopped releasing new 7800 games in 1991, and discontinued it officially on Jan. 1, 1992, though console production seems to have continued in Europe into 1993. Unfortunately for Jack Tramiel the low-buget approach would work much less well in the ’90s than it did in the ’80s, but that is another story.
Aesthetics and Design: The Atari 7800 is an okay-looking console, but I don’t think it has the style or beauty of the 5200. Still, it is a reasonably average box with a classically Atari angled wedge shape, is almost fully backwards compatible with the 2600, and has decent, if not great, controllers. The standard 7800 controller is vertically oriented, like the Intellivision, Colecovision, and 5200, and has side fire buttons. However, with only two large fire buttons, one on each side, and no keypad, this controller is simpler than those three. The loss of the start and pause buttons on the controller than the 5200 has is quite unfortunate, though; instead this system has a pause button on the console itself. This very obnoxious design element is also seen in Sega’s console that generation, the Master System. It was likely done for controller port wiring reasons, but it is unfortunate and makes both systems worse than they should be, having to go over to your console just to pause is not good.
As for build quality, the Atari 7800 is reasonably durable, with one exception: those buttons on the console itself. The on/off and Atari 2600 control buttons on the system are sadly prone to failure, and my 7800 is among the many which have stopped working because of button failure. This is a fixable problem if you desolder the old buttons and solder in replacements, but it is annoying. The controllers seem to be durable, however. They are mushy, unprecise, and not especially comfortable, but at least the things seem to keep working.
Atari 7800 cartridges look exactly like 2600 games, just with different labels. As a result they can be easy to mistake for 2600 games until you know what you are looking for. The shape is classic, though, so it works fine. It is worth noting, though, that only the very earliest run of cartridges have built in spring-loaded pin connector protectors. Later carts have no cover on the pins, allowing for more dust to build up than you will see from games that do have those covers, as all 5200 games and Atari’s pre-crash 2600 games do.
Game Library: Because of the somewhat unique circumstances of this console, I decided to cover the game library section above, in History. But to recap, the Atari 7800 has a small, about 60-game library. This is fewer games than the number that the 5200 got, spread out over more years. The library is heavy on pre-crash ports for its first year or two, or games inspired by that kind of game. Later on it got more variety of games, including original titles and ports of some computer games, but it rarely ventured beyond early-ish NES design. Additionally, since the controller is digital-only, the 5200’s analog advantage/disadvantage is lost; it’s really too bad that Atari and GCC did not think of having both analog AND digital control options available here, it would have been the better way! After all, some games benefit from each.
The games run well and plenty of the games are good, but with many multiplatform ports, not all of which are better than previous versions of the same games — Centipede suffers significantly versus the 5200 version due to its controls, for example — and exclusives which I often do not find as exciting as games on other formats, the 7800 ranks somewhat low on my list. The Atari 7800 is a decent console possibly worth owning for the right price, and it does have some interesting modern homebrew software though I do not have any of those, but I find it somewhat disappointing. Atari went for something safe with this design and it worked out reasonably well for them, but I find the bolder concept of the 5200 much more interesting.
Release and Sales Info – From Sega, released in 1985 in Japan, 1986 in the US, later in Europe. Games released from 1985 to 1995 and even later in Brazil, though not in any one region; it lasted 1985-1989 in Japan, 1986-1991 in the US, and 1987-1995 in Europe, where it saw its greatest success outside of Brazil. 10-13 million sold, not including modern Brazilian clone systems, though in the US the system sold only a million systems and finished in third place in a three-way race.
History: Arcade game developer Sega’s first home console was the aforementioned, Colecovision-based SG-1000, which only released in Japan and a few Western nations but not the US. Despite eventually being absolutely crushed by the NES, the SG-1000 apparently did better than Sega’s initial low expectations, so once it faded they decided to release a successor. Called the Mark III in Japan, this console is fully backwards compatible with the SG-1000 and uses the same shape of Atari 2600-style, vertically-oriented cartridges. Before releasing the console in the rest of the world, however, Sega decided to give it a name and design change, and the Sega Master System was born. The Master System is effectively the same thing as the Mark III, it just looks different. Both have very ’80s-cool hardware designs. Master System carts are turned on end, going from vertical rectangles to horizontal ones. And the SG-1000 compatibility is gone even in nations which received it, since those carts are a different shape.
The Mark III is the last console of its generation, and graphically you can tell. Releasing three years after the Colecovision and two years before the PC Engine (TurboGrafx), the Mark III / Master System, as you should expect, has the best graphical capabilities of any console of its generation. Master System graphics can look pretty good. Effectively the Master System is just adding a new, powerful graphics layer on top of the core SG-1000 (Colecovision) hardware, but it works. Unfortunately, aurally the Master System uses the same TI sound chip as the SG-1000 and Colecovision before it, and it is no match for NES/Famicom audio, not even close. Sega realized this and released an FM sound addon which gives usually much better music in games which support it, but sadly the FM addon only released in Japan. Sega also released a model in Japan called the “Master System”, a Mark III in the Western-style MS shell with a built-in FM addon and 3d glasses hookup.
Despite this, facing stiff competition from the transcendent Famicom (NES), the Mark III sold poorly in Japan, failing to provide Nintendo with much competition. In America the situation was little different, and Sega’s first console here sold poorly. It did just well enough to get five years of support, but the NES outsold it thirty to one and even the Atari 7800 probably doubled its sales here. In Europe and Brazil, however, Sega found a more receptive audience, as Nintendo was much less adept at reaching those markets. In Europe they fought Nintendo to a draw, and Brazilian company TecToy managed to make the SMS one of the most popular consoles ever there. TecToy made a few games for the system as well, later on.
After the Mark III/Master System’s discontinuation in Japan, in 1990 Sega decided to release a handheld to compete with Nintendo’s Game Boy. Called the Game Gear, the system is a handheld version of the Master System, with a lower screen resolution and more colors supported on screen but otherwise identical hardware. From this point on, many games released on both GG and SMS, albeit usually on SMS only in Europe and perhaps Brazil. In 1995 Sega finally decided to discontinue the SMS in Europe, as 8-bit hardware sales there were finally fading. The system had a much longer and more successful run internationally than its failure in the US and Japan would suggest, overall.
Aesthetics and Design: The Mark III and Master System are both pretty nice looking systems, with extremely ’80s, but pretty cool, looks to them. The SMS is a nice looking system for the time. However, in terms of design it has one major flaw: just like the Atari 7800 above, the pause button is on the console! Even if this is done for button-wiring reasons, it really is unacceptable, particularly here; on the 7800, at least, all that button does is pause games, but here some games require you to pause in order to access options menus and such. So, you’ll need to be sitting right in front of your SMS in order to play games like Golvellius. It’s pretty annoying stuff.
Master System controllers are not too well thought of, and I agree with that assessment. With a somewhat mushy d-pad and buttons, Sega may have copied Nintendo’s revolutionary controller on this console, but they did not match its level of function either in button feel, responsiveness, or that missing pause button. Still, SMS controllers are decent, and do the job okay. Additionally, most SMS games support the fantastic Sega Genesis controller as well. Unfortuantely, some games, including the aforementioned Golvellius, require you to use a real SMS controller or a modified Genesis controller to play, but for the rest of the games any Genesis cotnroller will work and is highly recommended. Sega’s third console’s controller would be a dramatic improvement over their previous ones.
The Master System has multiple accessories, though they are quite mixed in quality. On the good side, the SMS light gun, the Light Phaser, is quite good, with a nice futuristic design and much better accuracy than a NES Zapper. The SMS 3-D Glasses, 3-d shutter glasses, work great as well; the 3-d imagery is surprisingly convincing. However, the Sega Sports Pad trackball is both horribly slow to move and, mystifingly, only works in analog mode with two sports games and not any of the games you’d expect a trackball to work with. It’s a pretty bad trackball. The Sega flight stick controller is strange as well; it looks like an arcade stick but backwards, wit hthe stick on the right and buttons on the left. It’s very strange as a result. Having the stick on the right works in a regular flightstick, but this isn’t one, it has no buttons on it and is not analog, so it really does not work very well here. There is also a paddle controller in Japan only; I don’t have that one.
Oh, and the Sega Master System is also somewhat infamous for its Western box-art; most of the ’80s SMS titles, including most games released in the US, have absurdly simplistic, verging on horrible, box art. It’s really in “so bad it’s good” territory a lot of the time, but seriously, Sega could have done a whole lot better than this!
Game Library: The Sega Master System library pales in comparison to the NES’s, but is solid otherwise, with a good selection of quality titles and plenty of exclusives as well as ports of many Sega arcade games. However, the early-life titles, the ones we got in the US, don’t match Nintendo quality in my opinion most of the time — though the light gun games are better than Nintendo’s for sure, and some others — and the later games only released in Europe are often cheap, simplistic licensed cash-ins. Indeed, the SMS has something of a split personality. Where its early games are usually super-hard games in that classic style, a lot of the later SMS/GG titles are easy and slight titles most people will get though without much trouble. There are exceptions to this of course, but it is often true. I am a critic of the quality of the Game Gear’s library; I think a lof its games just are not very good. These games are often much better on the SMS than they are on Game Gear, as the greater screen visibility of its higher resolution means a lot in platformers for example, but the core games are still often lower-quality licensed cash-in titles from second-rate external teams such as Aspect. Sega made many fewer of its handheld games in-house than Nintendo did, and I think that you can tell the difference. So, overall I think that the SMS has an alright library and it certainly has plenty of good games, but as someone without any nostalgia for the system since like most Americans everyone I knew with a console that generation had a NES, it’s still in the (upper part of the) lower third of my list. I know this is a subjective thing, though.
1. NES – This is no contest, the NES is one of the all-time greats. With a massive library of some of the best and most influential games ever made, the NES had an impact on this industry few systems get even close to and while some of its games have aged, many are as fun today as they ever were.
2. Atari 5200 – I know most people would not agree with this one, but there’s something about this system that I really like. The analog controller is interesting and makes as many games better as it makes worse, and that trackball is probably the best one I’ve ever used! It’s a nice-looking system too, and having the first automatic RF switch (finicky as it is) and pause button on the controller are appreciated as well.
3. Sega Master System – With a reasonably large library of games and plenty of interesting hardware features, the Master System easily comes in third. I don’t love this system like the NES, but it can be pretty good.
4. Colecovision – While the Colecovision is arguably the most important system on this list in terms of industry impact, and its libary includes plenty of good games, between the awful controllers, incredibly ugly console, dearth of exclusives, and that signature lack of smooth scrolling seen in all of the systems with this TI graphics chip, while I have definitely had fun with the Colecovision I can’t put it any higher on this list than this.
5. Atari 7800 – The Atari 7800 was a financial success for Atari and has some pretty good games. Beyond that, though, between its awful audio, limited controller, and small, often unimpressive game library, for me this system takes up the rear here. Sure, if my 7800 worked better that would be great, but I doubt it would move it up this list any; the competition is too strong.