Yes, it’s finally here, my long-delayed fourth generation console opinion summaries article! I’m sorry I had nothing last month, but it has been a somewhat anxious time. That is only getting worse with the virus outbreak, but I finally spent a day finishing this article, so here it is. Enjoy.
Note for sources: Most of this is written from memory, though for getting correct release dates and sales numbers I did check Wikipedia’s articles for the systems, Gamasutra’s Stalled Engine article about the Turbografx https://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/225466/stalled_engine_the_turbografx16_.php?page=6 , and the NeoGAF Retro Sales Age Thread https://www.neogaf.com/threads/retro-sales-age-thread.981407/. I wish I didn’t have to link GAF considering what kind of awful far-right site it has become, years after that thread mostly ran its course, but unfortunately I do not know of a better source on the internet for all of that information there. ResetEra or Retro Game Boards do not have similarly comprehensive classic sales threads and neither do anywhere else I know of.
Note: as always, this list is in release order.
Fourth Generation: Table of Contents
Fourth Generation Overview
TurboGrafx-16, TG16 – 1987 (1989)
Genesis, Gen – 1988 (1989)
TurboGrafx-CD, TCD – 1988 (1989) (TurboGrafx-16 addon)
Game Boy, GB – 1989
Phillips CD-i, CDI – 1991 US (1992 JP/EU)
Game Gear, GG – 1990 (1991)
Super NES, SNES – 1990 (1991)
Sega CD, SCD – 1991 (1992) (Sega Genesis addon)
Sega 32X, 32X and Sega 32X CD, 32X CD – 1994 (Sega Genesis addon)
Fourth Generation Consoles Ranking
Fourth Generation Overview
The NES changed the world with its success. Establishing Japan as the leader in video game console development, and resurrecting the console market in the US, the system is probably the most important system ever released. As with all consoles, though, it aged. In 1987, four years after the Famicom (NES) released in Japan, Hudson and NEC partnered together to compete against it with a new, more powerful system, the PC Engine (TurboGrafx-16). A year later, Sega made its third attempt at releasing a console, this time to much greater success in America. Nintendo, however, decided to wait, as the NES continued to sell extremely well into 1990. As the system slowed down in sales, though, Nintendo finally got in to the fourth generation in late 1990 with the Super Famicom. The generation also saw the first successful handheld video game systems, a major advance indeed. Handheld gaming technology had come a long way. This generation also saw the first CD-based gaming platforms, another major advance. It took a while for games to figure out what to do with all of that space, but early CD gaming experimentation led to some fascinating results, both good and bad.
Each console is different, but what all of these systems have in common is that they are all systems are Japanese. Indeed, all systems in the fourth generation, excepting only the Atari Lynx handheld and some minor, extremely unsuccessful handhelds I do not have and will not be listing here, were Japanese. This was a time of Japanese dominance in the console industry. At the time this generation began, most major American developers focused on making computer games instead of console ones. This, however, would change. Several American home consoles would release in the fifth generation, and while they would not succeed, Microsoft’s entry to the console market the generation after would finally break the Japanese lock on hardware. In software, American developers did not switch en masse to consoles until Microsoft, and the need for greater revenues as production costs increased, encouraged studios to move over to consoles in the ’00s. However, the fourth generation saw the beginning of that change. Where the NES and Master System had very Japanese-dominant libraries except for a very small number of studios, the fourth generation’s systems saw many more Western console games. Electronic Arts, particularly, would rise to prominence on the strength of its console game library, but there were many more. Important changes indeed.
In terms of hardware, the fourth generation was a time of refinement and experimentation. Where the third generation started inventing new genres and dramatically changing the way games were designed and played, the fourth generation refined 2d gaming, as developers used the more powerful hardware, larger game storage sizes that were now available, and more to make more complex and, often, better games. After a new technology is introduced it is often later systems which best shows its advances, and that was the case here. And it was very much the case for 3d gaming as well, as while 3d took some steps forward during the fourth generation, particularly in arcades, a field I mostly do not discuss here, it was not until the next generation that polygonal 3d games would dramatically improve at home.
Overall the fourth generation is many classic gamers’ favorite, and I can absolutely understand why. It certainly is a generation I have a great deal of nostalgia for, as I was a kid during this generation and, unlike with the NES, was old enough to remember the generation from the beginning. My parents would not get me any of the TV consoles during that generation, but we did get a IBM-compatible PC in early 1992 and I got a Game Boy for Christmas that year, so I was finally able to really play games at home from then on, instead of only at friends’ or the very rare times I could go to an arcade. So, those two systems, plus the Genesis which is the system I had the most experience with outside of home during the ’90s, are the ones I have the most nostalgia for. The Super Nintendo looked amazing and I read Nintendo Power magazine almost every month, but I was only rarely able to actually play one before the ’00s, when it was the first classic console that I would buy. But now I have all of the major fourth-gen systems apart from the Lynx, and I will try to cover them all fairly. Most of these systems are all-time greats that rank very high on my list, as anyone who looks at my ‘how much I like my consoles’ list should know! And they should be high on anyone’s list also, really. So, on to the summaries.
TurboGrafx-16, TG16 – 1987 (1989)
Release and Sales Info: Designed by Hudson and released by NEC, released December 1987 in Japan (where it is known as the PC Engine) and August 1989 in the US. Last cartridge (HuCard) games released in 1993 in the US and 1994 in Japan. CD Games for the CD addon unit released until early 1994 in the US and in 1999 in Japan, with 1997 seeing the last year of real support there. 7 million sold total, though it’s complicated due to many models and revisions of the hardware. Cart-only systems sold 3.92 million in Japan; in the US, 750,000 cart-only systems were manufactured for the US market, but not all sold, though many were eventually resold in Korea. Dual cart plus CD “Duo”-line systems sold a further million systems in Japan, but only a few tens of thousands in the US. CD addon systems which require a cart system to play games sold 900,000 systems in Japan, but only ~20,000 in the US. So the sales figures are complex, but add up to 6.67 million worldwide as a starting estimate, though real totals for all revisions are unknowable. I purchased a TG16 in February 2009, a broken CD unit later that year, and finally got the CD system repaired in summer 2013.
History: Hudson Soft was an early third party supporter of the Famicom. After a while, though, they decided to try designing their own console to compete with it, while also supporting Nintendo’s. They eventually convinced Japanese electronics giant NEC to manufacture and support the system. Inspired by the small credit card sized games Sega released for their Card Catcher addon for the SG-1000 and Master System, NEC and Hudson decided to use similar small cards for PC Engine games. These games, called HuCards in Japan and later Turbo Chips in the US, are pretty cool looking really, with painted labels and an impressively small size for console cartridges of the ’80s. The system shell was made similarly small for a console, much smaller than any other home TV console for a long time.
The PC Engine released in Japan in late 1987, and ushered in a new generation of consoles. The system was a response to the NES (Famicom), as its hardware design and library makes clear. With a powerful 8-bit CPU and a 16-bit graphics chip, the PC Engine was much more powerful than the Famicom and, with its CD and RAM addons, can mostly hold its own graphically against the later consoles of the generation. The biggest exception to that is that it does not have hardware parallax scrolling support, but some games do pull it off in software. The system got off to a good start and outsold the Famicom in Japan for several years in the late ’80s, taking advantage of Nintendo’s choice to not release a next-gen system until 1990. The system amassed a good game library, particularly of space shooter (“shmup”) games.
One year after its release, NEC and Hudson released the very first consumer CD-ROM gaming platform, the PC Engine/TurboGrafx CD, in late 1988 in Japan and somewhere between late ’89 and mid ’90 in the US, the date is inconclusive. It was an amazing hardware accomplishment for the time and has quite a few great games. It did moderately well in Japan, but failed disastrously in the US.
The problems started when it came time to release the system overseas. NEC started making mistake after mistake, starting with a decision to redesign the tiny little PC Engine in favor of a case twice as large, based on the theory that Americans like things large so they should make the system bigger. Because of this and other delays, the renamed TurboGrafx-16 did not release in the US until the aforementioned mid 1989 date, shortly after the cheaper and in some ways more powerful Sega Genesis, a system which under its Japanese name Mega Drive had released in Japan in late 1988. Letting tiny Sega get ahead of them on both price and date was a big mistake, and Sega capitalized. They also capitalized on NEC’s choice to put “16” in their console name while the CPU is only 8-bit, resulting in the TG16 being maligned for not being “really 16-bit”.
Meanwhile, in Japan, NEC and Hudson released an upgraded console called the SuperGrafx in late 1989. It is fully backwards compatible with PC Engine games and is essentially a PCE but with additional memory and a second video chip so that it can do native parallax scrolling. This system looks cool but has only five games which released over its nearly two-0-year life. Yes, five. It was a disastrous failure and they quickly went back to the base TG16/PCE. The SuperGrafx did not release in the West.
Here in America, NEC fell behind from launch, but the TG16 was somewhat competitive for its first year thanks to its great early game library. However, the long release delay hurt badly, and the system never got off the ground here because the NES continued to dominate the US market until 1990 in a way it was not doing anymore in Japan. The hole the system had filled in Japan, being a new system at a time when people wanted one and the market leader wasn’t releasing one, did not exist for long here. And worse, Sega’s Genesis quickly started outpacing the TG16 in sales despite NEC having the better 1989 game library, a gap that would turn into a rout after 1991 and the release of Sonic the Hedgehog, a title Hudson couldn’t match. And some genres the system was best at in Japan were not quite as popular here as there, such as shmups. Before its release NEC produced 750,000 TurboGrafx-16 systems for the US, but did not sell all of them during its life.Â At some point probably in 1993 or so, the last hundred thousand plus were rebuilt for sale in South Korea as a Korea-only model which actually plays American games. Sega, meanwhile, sold over 20 million Genesis systems in the US, a stunning result compared to initial expectations and the TG16’s better early library.
And then, in late 1990 in Japan and mid 1991 in the US, the Super Nintendo (Super Famicom) released, and almost immediately destroyed all comers in Japan. The PC Engine managed to hold on to second place, but it was a second place at like a ten-to-one margin behind the leader. In the West the SNES and Genesis split the market, while the TG16 and Turbo CD, despite surviving until 1993 and 1994 respectively, were largely forgotten. In Japan NEC leaned heavily into often anime-focused CD software after this in order to try to hold on to some niche in a market mostly controlled by Nintendo, and they had some success in this niche, as software continued steadily until the end of 1995, with a few releases after that. HuCard releases in Japan stopped in 1994, though; after that it was only CDs. Hudson, meanwhile, gradually moved their more popular franchises such as Bonk and Bomberman to the Super Nintendo, after a gap of several years focusing mostly on PCE, followed by other platforms after that, while focusing more anime enthusiast-focused stuff on the PCE and its successor. On that note, NEC and Hudson’s last system, the PC-FX, was very anime FMV-focused, and failed as the market turned to 3d instead. Hudson survived on making games on other formats, until being bought and later shut down by Konami.
Aesthetics and Design: I have only ever seen TurboGrafxes in person and not the PC Engine, but regardless I like the look of the TG16, and I’m sure I’d like the look of the tiny little PCE as well. The PCE and TG16 are extremely ’80s in design, but it’s a charming kind f ’80s to me. When it comes to the addons, the Japanese CD addon is a “briefcase” unit, with a CD drive the same size as the PCE itself and a base unit that holds them both next to eachother. In the US, however, we got a larger unit which puts the TG16 below, and then has the CD drive on a pedestal behind the TG16. It looks kind of ridiculous, but I like it anyway and this is the Turbo CD setup I use. The later Duo line of consoles have sleeker, more ’90s stylings and I can understand why many people prefer to use them, and based on pictures they do look nice, but I like my TG16+CD setup great. I’d never swap it for a Duo-R.
NEC additionally had many other models in Japan and a few in the US, including one that looks like a space shuttle, a handheld portable model we did get here, recolors of the base system which add more modern video output options, and more. NEC released a LOT of models of PCE hardware, both in terms of consoles, addons, and accessories. Trying to make sense of it all is confusing and I have made multiple articles about this before. Still, in terms of design stylings NEC always did a good job. In terms of marketing they did fine in Japan but horribly badly elsewhere, though, of course.
In terms of reliability, TG16/PCE models are a mixed bag. Base TG16 and PC Engine systems are mostly quite reliable. However, the Super CD addon drive (only released in Japan), the portable TurboExpress (PC Engine GT) and the first PC Engine/Turbo Duo (but not the later, Japan-only Duo R and RX) systems have bad capacitors and usually need capacitor replacements in order to work correctly. Additionally, the original CD addon drive has a gear which usually strips some teeth, so those need repair as well, both for the gear and often also the laser. The parts to repair Turbo CD drives are fortunately available. Duo line systems have fewer disc drive issues, but they still can break down after so long. The HuCards themselves are reliable, so long as you keep the contacts clean. Fortunately, except for one memory card cart, they do not have sealed batteries in them; instead systems or addons with saving save to a capacitor. Those so far are mostly holding up. Keeping stuff for these systems working can require some effort, but once repaired systems should be reliable for a long time.
Game Library: The PC Engine/TurboGrafx HuCard library is heavy on very NES-styled games in its early, more successful years. As previously mentioned, this systems’ standout genre is shmups. Indeed, the TG16 with its addon and Japanese games is my choice for the very best console shmup library ever! Between HuCards and CDs the platform has at least a hundred shmups, many of them among the all-time greats. And even looking only at the HuCards, the system is one of the best of all time in the genre no question. In other genres the system doesn’t quite match up to the SNES and Genesis, which is a lot of why I do rank the TG16 a little bit behind those two systems, but it is still pretty good. The platformer library is mostly more NES-styled than those two systems, for example, while I prefer more SNES or Genesis-styled platformers overall. Bonk’s Adventure is the TG16’s showcase platformer, and while quite good, it is a much more NES-ish game than Mario World or Sonic the Hedgehog. The later CD title Castlevania: Rondo of Blood on CD is exceptional, but that is the system’s one all-time-great platformer, while the other two have many more, and that requires an expensive addon not everyone got. Still, with a large library of games, the TurboGrafx-16, just as a cartridge system, is a fantastic system that places high on my list of the all-time best consoles. Many of its games are Japan-only to be sure, but this is a system well worth getting a lot of imports for. Playing the many Japanese adventure games, strategy games, RPGs, anime games, and such will require Japanese knowledge, but the plethora of shooters and solid variety of titles in other genres make this a system that really is a must-own for anyone who likes classic games and can afford the now somewhat substantial costs related to it, both for hardware and games. The US library includes a lot of great games, too. Prices are high, but many of the games are good.
As for CD versus HuCard, the CD addon is more important to the TurboGrafx than addons are for most consoles. You absolutely can have a lot of fun with only a base TG16 or PC Engine, though! The HuCard library is large and contains many, many fantastic games. Later CD titles are often more famous and flashier, but a lot of HuCard games deserve just as much attention.
Genesis, Gen – 1988 (1989)
Release and Sales Info: From Sega, released in October 1988 in Japan (as the Mega Drive) and August 1989 in the US. Games officially released until 1995 in Japan, 1997 in Europe, 1998 in the US, and 2002 in Brazil, with unlicensed homebrew games releasing for it in over the past decade. The total number of Genesis systems sold is controversial given all of the different models involved, but Sega reported 30.75 million sales of their Genesis/MD systems in the ’90s. Additionally, 1.5 million Majesco systems probably sold, plus as much as 3 million in Brazil by the early ’00s. I would not count newer clone systems towards this total myself, but they surely add up in the millions by now, there are many officially licensed Genesis clones available. Because of its great success in the US, even though the system is called Genesis only in North America and Megadrive everywhere else, Genesis systems outsold Megadrives overall. I got a Genesis in May 2006, though this is a system I spent a good amount of time playing during its life as I had several friends and relatives who had one so it is a system I knew well during its life.
History: Sega was founded in the 1940s by an American living in Japan who started a business to import what we would call arcade games to Japan during the post-war American occupation. It eventually became a Japanese-run company, making arcade and pinball games. Through the ’80s and ’90s, Sega was an arcade game developer first, and console game developer second. Despite this, in 1983 they got in to the console business, and though that first system, the SG-1000, had only limited success it was enough for Sega to keep trying. Their second system was the Mark III, aka the Master System in the West. It did quite well in Europe and Brazil, but struggled badly in Japan and the US. Sega didn’t give up, though, and in 1988 they tried a third time. This system, the Sega Mega Drive or Genesis here, was Sega’s one breakout hit, a system that would end up selling several times better than any other Sega console. Here in the US, the Genesis is by far Sega’s best-known and most popular console, and I entirely agree with that assessment. The Genesis is a fantastic system which places near the very top of my list of my favorite video game systems ever!
The Genesis hardware is powerful for the time, with a fast 16-bit CPU and good graphics. Hardware-wise, it builds on the SG-1000 and Master System’s TI-based graphics and sound chips by once again adding another graphics mode, like the Master System did before it. The system is backwards compatible with the Master System with cartridge adapters, though not with the SG-1000 as it is missing some hardware needed for those games. Despite that, the Genesis is kind of the final evolution of the TI99/Colecovision graphics and sound chipset. The fast-for-the-time CPU is one of the Genesis’s best points compared to other consoles of the generation, and helps it do things the others can’t. The new audio chip is also fantastic when programmed for well. Genesis audio is not as consistently good as SNES audio, but the best sounding games are just as good or better than anything on SNES. I particularly love the soundtrack to The Adventures of Batman & Robin, it is one of the generation’s technical masterpieces!
While mostly great for the time, the Genesis does have two hardware issues I want to discuss. Sadly the system does not support hardware scaling and rotation. This is entirely understandable as it would have been far too expensive for a home console in 1988, but is a real issue because many Sega arcade games heavily use scaling; indeed, Sega was famous for their “Super Scaler” games like Outrun and Space Harrier. This made for some rough ports to the Genesis. Otherwise, though, the only other hardware issue the Genesis has is its color limit. While the TurboGrafx and Genesis both have a 512 color palette, the TG16 can put most of those colors on screen at once, while the Genesis is limited to just 64 at a time. The system does have a shadow function which sort of doubles the colors, but even so colors are limited on the Genesis and developers often had to come up with clever ways of dealing with this issue. The color limit is unfortunate, but with a powerful CPU, good parallax and sprite support, and more, the Genesis is a powerful system for its time.
Good hardware doesn’t necessarily sell, though, and in Japan once again Sega failed to sell much. The MD was yet another failure in Sega’s home market, unfortunately, as the PCE (TG16) won early on and then the SFC (SNES) crushed all comers later. In America, however, Sega scored a surprise upset win early on, as NEC badly stumbled out of the gate while Sega made some (sadly rare) good decisions. With strong marketing pushed by their “Sega Does what Nintendon’t” ad campaign, ports of popular arcade games, and licensed sports titles, the Genesis took an early lead. And while the 1991 release of the Super Nintendo was a big deal that threatened Sega’s place in the 4th-generation market, Sega released its own killer app that year in Sonic the Hedgehog, and the new Sega of America head Tom Kalinske convinced Japan to let him bundle the game with the console. This decision sold a great many Genesis systems! Additionally, Electronic Arts’ decision to get into console game development with the Genesis would prove to be a very important move indeed. The first Genesis version of John Madden Football helped change the whole industry, really. Combining all that, the Genesis had several very good years in the early ’90s in the US. By ’93 Sega had half of the overall US console game market, which was the largest console market in the world at the time.
Unfortunately, Sega’s propensity to make stupid decisions started springing up immediately afterwards. The Sega CD, a CD addon to the Genesis, came first. It did okay, particularly in the US, but did not sell up to expectations. After that, though, Sega really fell apart; the second Genesis addon, the 32X, was an infamous failure, as was Sega’s next console the Saturn, as Sega of Japan and Sega of America started having more and more difficulties working together. The rumor is that Sega of Japan was jealous of how successful Sega had been in the US, and was determined to make their next console one that would succeed in Japan, no matter what the US thought. So, over many objections from Sega of America staff, Sega designed a far too expensive and hard to program for box in the Saturn, and also approved that second Genesis addon to release at about the same time in late 1994. It did not go well. And at the same time, they started winding down first party Japanese game support for the Genesis, a very foolish move given that in the US the 4th-gen market still had several more good years to go. Sega would release over 125 games in 1995 across many platforms, and it was too much; between the massive hit title Donkey Kong Country and Sega’s mistakes, the SNES closed a lot of the gap in ’95-’96. Sega of America did what they could to keep the Genesis supplied with new games into fall ’97, but their early lead had fallen into an effective tie. Both systems would see successful late ’90s bargain-priced re-releases, and the Genesis one from Majesco probably outsold the SNES one, though, so the Genesis did go out on a good note sales-wise. It is a fantastic system that well deserved its success here.
Aesthetics and Design: There are three official models of Sega Genesis. The first is a relatively large, and very 1980s, design. It looks great, and the very first revision has some minor advantages in graphics over later models. The second model Genesis is the one I know best, though, and it probably sold the most. This is the model I have, and I thnk it strikes a good balance of design and size. This time the design is much more ’90s, with some nice curves and a smaller size. The plastic is not quite as sturdy-feeling as a NES or SNES feels, but the Genesis is fairly reliable. Genesis systems do fail, but most are still working. Sega CD systems have many more reliability issues, thanks to its disc drive and a few other often-failing parts, but I have been lucky; mine still works flawlessly. The Sega CD adds nicely to the Genesis, too, and also has two models. The first model goes below the system and fits the first model Genesis well, and the second goes beside it and looks better with the second. I have a model two Sega CD, and I think it completes the look of the Genesis. The 32X, unfortunately, is a bit more awkward-looking; it has been compared to a mushroom growing out of the top of your Genesis, and that’s probably an accurate comparison. A full Genesis+CD+32X combo unit looks good enough, and I keep my 32X always plugged in so I can play its games when I want, but just on looks I’d probably go for Genesis 2 + SCD 2 only, with no 32X, as the best-looking unit. I know model 1 Genesis fans would disagree here and that system does also look great, but I do really like the model 2.
Game Library: The Sega Genesis has a large and diverse game library. It is particularly strong in platformers, sports games, and shmups, though its in genres such as RPG, strategy, and more are quite good as well. With a library this large, any fan of classic-style games should find plenty of games to love here. The Genesis does have many very difficult games, though; Genesis games are less likely to support saving than Super Nintendo games do, as Sega’s arcade sensibilities carried over to the home, and are more likely to be hard. There are Genesis games for everyone, but there is a lot here for the tough-games fan, that is for sure. The system’s premiere series is one of its more approachable, though, as the Sonic the Hedgehog games are a perfect balance of challenge and fun that anyone can enjoy. All of the Genesis Sonic games are titles which still place high on my list of the best platformers ever. The Genesis has a whole lot of great games, but I have to agree with the consensus that the Sonic games are best. The Genesis has one of the best game libraries ever. Many titles have been re-released in various re-release collections and such, but it’s often just the same games re-released over and over, lots of fantastic classics are only on the Genesis.
As for the addons, I like the Sega CD quite a bit and enjoy 32X games, but neither addon is anywhere near as essential as the TurboGrafx CD is. I didn’t know anyone with either addon back in the ’90s, and as much as I like them, anyone now who has only a Genesis can play most of the format’s best games. Still, both addons, the Sega CD particularly, are well worth it if you like the system. The 32X is a bit less worth it, but still is an interesting thing to have if you really like Sega.
TurboGrafx-CD, TCD – 1988 (1989)
Release and Sales Info: From NEC, released in December 1988 in Japan and sometime between the end of 1989 and mid 1990 in the US, a precise date is unknown. The Turbo CD lasted from 1988 to 1999 in Japan (though no games released in 1998 and only one in ’99, so ’97 was the last full year), and 1989 to 1994 in the US. In Japan stand-alone CD addon drives sold 0.9+ million systems, and then combined “Duo” HuCard + CD systems sold about a million, for a combined CD sales base of 1.92 million there. That is a good attach rate compared to 3.92 million HuCard-only, plus those 1 million Duos for a total HuCard base of 4.92 million. It was the leading CD game format in Japan for years. In the US, however, while NEC claimed to sell, or at least produce, a hundred thousand CD and Duo systems combined, a better guess (as per Working Designs CEO Victor Ireland, who as one of the few Western third party developers on the platform would be in a position to know) is more around 20,000, plus another 20,000 for the Turbo Duo. I would probably believe Victor Ireland over NEC on this one because they also wildly overestimate overseas PC Engine/Turobografx sales. The Japanese sales figures are more likely to be credible from NEC, it’s the overseas ones which are questionable.
History: The PC Engine CD was the very first CD-ROM-based home gaming platform to be released. Crazy-advanced technology for 1988, Hudson had a hard time even running games in development at the time, as hard drives were smaller than the amount of data they could fit on a CD and CD-Rs had not really been developed yet. Burning a disc to test was thus extremely expensive. The system thus is just a CD drive attached to your PCE or Turbografx, with a small amount of RAM and no other hardware. It does not have dedicated FMV and enhanced graphics chip hardware like the later Sega CD would. In Japan the system did decently well, selling to a solid percentage of PC Engine users. A majority of PCE owners did not upgrade, but the PCECD has a higher attach rate than most other addons. The system was expensive, but sold well enough to catch on and its sales slowly grew. Once the Super Famicom (SNES) released several years later, HuCard game sales collapsed as people moved over to that system. NEC coped by focusing more on CD games. This is when they started releasing the RAM expansion cards, and moved most game support over to CDs. Indeed, HuCard game releases ended in late 1994, three years before CD releases dried up. The PC Engine CD has a large game library full of classics. It can be a confusing format because of the sheer number of hardware versions and addons NEC released — see some of my old articles on my site on that mess for example — but it’s a great one. NEC eventually messed things up badly with their two failed attempts at successors to the PC Engine, but what they had on this system is worth remembering, and going back to.
However, while the TurboGrafx-16 had done badly in the US, it did at least sell somewhat decently in certain parts of the US, such as in NEC America’s home base of Chicago, for its first year or so, and sold somewhere over 500,000 systems (and under 750,000). The Turbo CD was not so lucky and, as I detailed above, sold abysmally. With a $400 price at launch and very few games NEC knew it wouldn’t sell well, and it did not. The problem was, the Turbo CD’s strengths, in action games with partially-animated cutscenes with voices, digital novel adventure games, and such, were often games that weren’t well suited for the American market. Looking at what sold best on the Sega CD it was not that kind of thing, it was the FMV, which this system didn’t have nearly as much ability to do well, as the Turbo CD can’t just stream video off of a disc like the Sega CD can. Late in its life, after a lot of work, Hudson would show off a few games with “HuVideo” actual anime FMV on the PCECD, but it was not above Sega CD levels of video quality, and released years later. And because of the need to pay for English voice actors, porting over Japanese games was much more expensive than it would be for a cartridge game. The system sadly struggled here, and NEC responded by releasing very few games for it. This cycle spiraled down.
In 1992, NEC gave up on the Turbografx in America and sold it off to a new company called TTI. In late ’92, TTI released a system called the Turbo Duo, an American revision of the PC Engine Duo system. TTI put a big ad campaign behind the Duo using the infamous Johnny Turbo comic-ad series and more, and released quite a few games over the next year and a half, doubling the Turbo CD’s library versus what had released over the first three years. Even so, NEC Japan was still very stingy with approvals, and many titles TTI wanted to release here never happened because of that. It was not enough, unfortunately, and sales were as I said earlier — in the low tens of thousands, just as bad as they had been for the Turbo CD. The Duo got more market attention than the Turbo CD had and I remember its advertising, but very few people actually bought one. That some of the best games stayed in Japan did not help, but many released late anyway; Rondo of Blood is exceptional, but as a late 1993 release in Japan it probably would not have released here before spring ’94, and TTI was heading towards bankruptcy at that point. TTI managed to release three games sometime in early to mid ’94 before shutting down. After that, one more game released to mail order only late that year from a company which bought up TTI’s backstock, and the system was dead in the US outside of importers buying Japanese games.
Aesthetics and Design: There are quite a few different PCECD and Turbo CD designs, as I mentioned previously in the TurboGrafx-16 section. There may be less than there are PCE systems, but there are still quite a few. As I said before, I have the original TurboGrafx-16 with CD addon drive, modified to play either US or Japanese HuCard games. My CD drive broke and had to be repaired as is common with those drives, as they have a worm gear that is a common failure point, but it has worked fine since. As I said the TG16+CD is a somewhat ridiculous, extremely ’80s unit, but I love it for that. Sure, the PCE Duo R or RX is a sleeker, early ’90s system which looks pretty nice, but I like my system a lot and wouldn’t swap it for one of those. Both styles exist and look great for the time, though, depending on what you prefer. Not so good is the SuperGrafx + Super CD addon drive combination, but oh well; no SuperGrafx games are on CD anyway.
For reliability, the Duo R and RX are certainly the best. They can have laser failures, but that is their only major failure point so far. Original PCE/Turbo CD drives usually have a broken worm gear and maybe also the laser; these are repairable, but get a fixed one if you buy one. The first PCE/TG16 Duo has bad capacitors, as does the addon Super CD drive, so make sure you get one with replaced capacitors if you get that model. Considering we are talking about old moving-parts systems here, reliability is okay overall.Â There are problems but they all can be fixed.Â Replacement lasers for these systems are available easily on the internet today.
Game Library: Despite selling slightly fewer systems overall, the Turbo CD has many more total game releases than the Sega CD. It has particular strengths in the shmup, RPG, and adventure game/digital comic genres, but has a pretty good library regardless. It does have some weaknesses, such as platformers apart from the all-time classic Castlevania Rondo of Blood, but it’s a good library with great game variety. With its large library loaded with traditional games in genres people like, and not FMV like most of the best-selling Sega CD games are, the Turbo CD is a highly regarded system now and I would agree with that. Indeed, I would say that the Turbo CD has probably the best library ever for a console add-on. In terms of sales the Sega CD did edge it out worldwide because of its FMV-fueled success in the US, but the PCECD has a better overall library and as much as I like the Sega CD for its fantastic traditional games, which it very much has, since I got a Turbo CD I haven’t gone back to it nearly as often as I did before. I like both addons a lot, but this is better. Rondo, Ys, and shmups are the highlights for English-speaking gamers, but there is a lot more out there, particularly if you’re willing to deal with some Japanese.
Game Boy, GB – 1989
Release and Sales Info: Nintendo’s first cartridge-based handheld console, the Game Boy, released in 1989, in April in Japan and July in the US.Â It released in Europe in 1990. The Game Boy had exclusive releases until 1999 in the West and 2001 in Japan, and “black cart” (aka “dual mode” as I have often called them) games that support both the black & white Game Boy and the color Game Boy Color until 2001 in the West and 2002 in Japan. There are some modern homebrew releases for it since as well. The Game Boy and GB Color combined sold 118.69 million systems, though it had a big dip in between its early success between 1989-1992 and the later, Pokemon-fueled years of 1997-2001. As of fiscal ’97, the original GB had sold 64.42 million systems. Thanks to Pokemon and the GBC, that number would end up almost doubling. I got an original Game Boy for Christmas in 1992; it was my first console. I looked at both the Game Boy and Game Gear, and chose the Game Boy because it was cheaper and seemed to have better games.
History: The Game Boy was designed by Nintendo’s R&D1 team, led by famous Nintendo designer Gunpei Yokoi. This handheld was designed with a balance of portability and power, and an emphasis on one of the most important things for a handheld, battery life. With a Z80 CPU, four-shade black and white graphics, and some pretty good audio, the Game Boy has more than enough power for games of the day and also gets very good battery life, 20 or 30-plus hours for later models. The Game Boy gets many times better battery life per battery than any of the major competing handhelds from the late ’80s to mid ’90s; only in the late ’90s did other handhelds that are as battery-efficient finally release. Some people dislike the black and white graphics this console uses, but this has never bothered me; you can do some nice visuals with four shades of grey, and it was a compromise necessary for the good battery life. The original Game Boy’s screen does have a lot of motion blur, as with all handhelds of the time, but some other handhelds are worse and later models improve on this, each better than the last.
Three things led to the great success that the Game Boy would see. One was the good hardware, again designed for portability in a way the Sega Game Gear and Atari Lynx were not. Nintendo also had a lot of market presence because of their NES console, which dominated the console gaming industry by far in the US and Japan. This meant that a lot of people would pay attention to Nintendo’s next console project. It also helped with the Game Boy’s third success point, its game library. When it first released the Game Boy was packed in with Tetris, an all-time classic puzzle game hit which sold many a million systems. And with a Mario platformer and games from top NES third party publishers on top of that, the Game Boy’s success was assured.
And for several years the Game Boy rapidly shot up in success. However, after about 1992, the system slowed down. Sales declined, and particularly in Japan the number of releases did as well. Nintendo kept supporting the Game Boy, but for several years most Japanese third parties gave up on the system for a while, in favor of focusing mostly just on home consoles. American third parties did continue to support the Game Boy with titles for the mostly-young audience who owned the system, but several years after I got it I could tell that the Game Boy had seen better days. Nintendo kept selling the system and waited a long time on a replacement, to not help matters. The turnaround was just around the corner, though: in late 1996 in Japan, a game, developed by small studio Game Freak after a long time in development and published by Nintendo, called Pocket Monsters released in Japan. It soon caught on, and led to a handheld renaissance soon after. The game finally got a Western release in 1998 as Pokemon and the rest was history. I’m no Pokemon fan, but I was, and remain, a fan of the wealth of new handheld games that released in the sales boom that followed.
Later in 1998, Nintendo finally released a new handheld, the Game Boy Color, which is kind of a Game Boy times two power-wise, with color support but the same screen resolution and audio. Nintendo considers it to be a revision of the Game Boy and counts both together for sales, but as it allows for incompatible new color-only games, I’ve always thought that it really is a new console, though certainly one closely related to this one. Regardless, since the Game Boy Color allows for games that run in both black & white or color things are a bit messy as far as categorization goes, but it did mean that the original Game Boy kept getting game releases for some time into its successors’ life. For the first year of the GBC’s short life, most games are black-cart games which support btoh platforms. After that most games went color only, but until ’01 in the US and ’02 in Japan a few games here and there continued to support the original model. As a result, the Game Boy had a thirteen-year lifespan, making it one of the industry’s most successful systems. Many people discount handhelds but I very much do not, and the Game Boy ranks high on my list of the best consoles ever.
Aesthetics and Design: The original Game Boy has been likened to a grey brick, and it is not an unfair comparison, as it is a rectangular system of medium size. The system uses four AA batteries. It is a good-looking for its time and comfortable system which is, for the most part, very durable and well-made. There is one exception to this, and that is the screen, which is liable to have its screen’s connecting cable start to come loose and cause lines on the screen to fail. Mine is no exception and has a pair of dead horizontal lines near the bottom of the screen. This is a fixable issue though and rarely ruins the image, and otherwise this system is legendarily durable. When I was a kid I remember dropping my Game Boy onto a dirt road while it was running, and it didn’t even reset! With just about any other handheld that would never have happened, it would have at least reset and might have broken. The Game Boy’s buttons are among the best in any handheld, as well, as its larger size allows for larger and better-feeling buttons and d-pad than those that you find in any following models.
On that note, the second model of the Game Boy, called the Game Boy Pocket, released many years later, in 1996. This model uses AAA batteries and has much worse battery life than the original, but is a lot smaller and has a better, much less blurry screen. The smaller buttons and d-pad are not quite as comfortable, though. With the same-sized screen as the original in a much smaller case the screen is the focus of this system, and it’s pretty nice apart from the battery life. I already had a Game Boy so I did not get one of these until 2019, but it’s a solid system if you find one. There was a third version only released in Japan with a backlight called the Game Boy Light, but they are expensive and rare so I don’t have one. Then, the GB Color I mentioned previously released in late ’98. All of the Game Boy systems are nice looking systems with good designs. Which I think is the best depends on what I prefer, though – do you want better buttons? A better screen? One system which can play games from all of the Game Boy systems? Each of these questions has a different answer, from the original Game Boy, to the GB Pocket, to the Game Boy Advance or Advance SP. My overall favorite in terms of looks is probably the original, but when it comes to playing, I often use the SP for its compatibility and backlight. Regardless of what system you play them on, though, each one is different enough to be worth a look, both from design and features standpoints.
Game Library: As I have mentioned, the Game Boy has a very large and diverse game library which I rank highly compared to home consoles. Game Boy games are often smaller-scale than home console titles, as budgets were lower, cart sizes smaller, and games often made easier because of an assumed younger audience, but I think the library is fantastic regardless. The Game Boy has one of the best games ever made in The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening; some of the all-time great platformers in titles like Wario Land, Donkey Kong [’94], and Kirby’s Dream Land 2; some of the best puzzle games ever such as the aforementioned Tetris, and many more. The Game Boy’s library is not perfect as its RPGs and strategy games are mostly not my favorite kinds of games in those genres and it does have a lot of half-baked licensed games, but the library’s strengths much outweigh its weaknesses. I know I have a lot of nostalgia for the Game Boy, but this is one of the best game libraries for any console.Â See my Game Opinion Summaries list on the system for more.
Game Gear, GG – 1990 (1991)
Release and Sales Info: From Sega, released in October 1990 in Japan and 1991 in the West. Games released steadily until 1997, with one more game releasing with a short-lived rerelease of the platform in 2000 from Majesco. 10.62 million systems sold, probably not including however not too many Majesco made. I got a Game Gear in 2009.
History: Sega’s first handheld, the Game Gear was Sega’s answer to the Game Boy. Larger than a Game Boy, and with color graphics and a backlit screen, the Game Gear makes a good first impression. As a kid I had a Game Boy, but kind of wished I had a GG, that backlight would have been great; you can’t play a Game Boy in the dark anywhere near as easily. However, those features come at a major cost in battery life. Where a Game Boy gets 20-40 hours depending, a Game Gear will get like 3-8 hours, with that later number for the last model only. This is a very serious limitation from a time when systems did not have built-in rechargeable lithium-ion batteries; instead you had to use AA batteries, and replacing sets of six AA batteries as the GG requires every few hours got very expensive. So, everybody I knew with a GG got some combination of its car adapter and wall power adapter, and maybe also the rechargeable battery pack. The Game Boy has one as well and I got one back then, but the GG one was even more essential. Battery life is a key component of any handheld platform and the Game Boy got this right and the GG wrong.Â The Game Gear and its games also cost more than the Game Boy and its games, even though the games were not better.
Anyway, inside, the Game Gear is essentially a portable Sega Master System. The hardware is nearly identical to the SMS/Mark III, except with a much lower resolution but a much larger color palette. So, the hardware is somewhat analogous to a Game Boy, but with color. Like all handhelds of the day the screen blurs easily, but later models do improve on this, the Majesco one particularly. The Game Gear doesn’t come even close to the power of the Atari Lynx, despite having almost as bad battery life, though. The resolution is actually the same as a Game Boy’s, but the GG has a rectangular, close to widescreen, aspect ratio, quite different from the nearly square GB one, thanks to using rectangular pixels on its screen. The GG can, with a cartridge adapter, play Master System games, though how playable they are at the GG’s scaled-down resolution is a mixed bag. A TV Tuner addon also allowed for over-the-air analog TV broadcast listening, though this won’t work since TV went digital. It is still amusing since it has an input jack allowing you, with adapters, to play any modern system on a GG screen.
The Game Gear presented the Game Boy with a competitor, and it did okay at that, but it sold less than the Game Boy and clearly had a lower-quality library. Looking at the games on each system it appears like Sega invested less in their handheld, as almost all Sega-published GG games are outsourced, often made by shadow developers on the cheap, not made internally like Nintendo did with many of its Game Boy releases. You can see this difference in quality if you compare, say, the GB Mario games to the GG Sonics. It is a much wider gap than the small-to-most gap between SNES Mario and Genesis Sonic, I would say!
Like the Game Boy the Game Gear slowly faded as the years passed, but unlike the Game Boy it did not get a late-in-life boost. Instead, as Sega started to have issues in the mid ’90s and the system faltered the Game Gear had its support cut back, as Japanese game development mostly stopped in mid ’95 and Western in ’97. Majesco would re-release the Game Gear in 2000, but the success of its Genesis re-release from ’98 would not be repeated; the GG relaunch was a failure and dissuaded Majesco from continuing on with any more classic system relaunches. Overall, I am a definite critic of the Game Gear, as its battery life is bad and game library questionable in quality. I will admit that the color graphics were nice for the time, though, and it certainly has more than a few good games.
Aesthetics and Design: The Game Gear has a very early ’90s Sega look, and apart from its large size looks decently good, I think. It’s just too big and bulky to be comfortable or easy to hold, particularly with batteries in it. The build quality is alright, but not up to Game Boy standards; you wouldn’t want to drop one of these. Game Gears are infamously unreliable as well, as most use bad capacitors which will inevitably destroy their sound and graphics unless replaced. The Majesco systems have better capacitors than earlier GGs, which is part of why I got one, but even they can go bad. Additionally, almost all games which save use soldered batteries in the carts. The carts themselves are a bit large, being larger than Game Boy games for no good reason. I do like using GG game cases to hold DS and 3DS games, though; they fit eight DS games quite well!
Game Library: The Game Gear has a large game library with some solid variety. The system shines in puzzle and strategy games, I would say, and is clearly better than the GB for games such as Bust-A-Move thanks to the color. The strategy games are better than most anything on GB, as well. But for the top genre of the day, platformers, it is entirely the other way around — Sega went for quality over quantity, releasing a great many games of questionable quality for this system, and I at least much prefer Nintendo’s choice to release fewer but better games. Many third-party games were released for both systems and often are better on the GG thanks to color graphics, but not always; some titles are better on the GB, such as Faceball 2000 which runs a lot worse on the GG. I know the GG library includes many quality titles, but I just can’t get over how disappointing and mediocre I find most of the Sega first-party library, from its numerous subpar Aspect-developed Sonic games to piles of not-very-good licensed games from Sega itself. I don’t know if the GG is really worth collecting for today unless you have nothing else to buy. Watch out for those capacitors, too.
Super NES, SNES – 1990 (1991)
Release and Sales Info: From Nintendo, released in December 1990 in Japan as the Super Famicom or SFC, August 1991 in the US as the Super Nintendo or SNES, and in 1992 in Europe. Games released until 1998 in the US and 2000 in Japan, with modern unlicensed homebrew titles releasing in the past decade as well. 49.1 million systems sold, meaning this was the best-selling TV console of the generation. I bought a SNES in August 2005. It was my first classic console and got me into the classic console collecting thing. I played a little SNES during its life since I knew a few people who had one, but I didn’t have anywhere near as much experience with the SNES than I did the Genesis in the ’90s. I did read Nintendo Power almost every month that decade, though, so I learned about it that way.
History: Many peoples’ favorite console, the Super Nintendo was Nintendo’s long-awaited followup to the NES. Releasing seven years after the Famicom in Japan and after all other TV consoles of its generation, the SNES may have been late but it made up for it in features. Unlike the Genesis or Turbografx, the SNES has real hardware transparencies, a color palette in the millions even if it can only display 256 on screen at once, a hardware scaling and rotation layer even if it is only a background layer and not sprites, and more. SNES graphics have a color depth and variety the other systems here can’t match, CD-i and 32X excepted. And unlike the CD-i, the SNES can do great sprite animation as well. The SNES has an advanced audio chip designed by Sony, as well, with a sample-based design much more modern than the classic chiptunes of previous systems. It is easier to make good SNES audio than good Genesis audio, as many games show. It also was designed for add-on chips in the carts, many of which enhance its power further with fast CPUs and such.
However, the power came at a price, and that is CPU speed. The SNES can do great graphics and sound, but the CPU is at most half the speed of the Genesis’s, and the difference really shows in many games. Unless highly optimized or using a powerful addon chip, SNES games often run slowly. Additionally, the standard SNES screen resolution is pretty much the same as the NES or Turbografx, 256×224, which is lower than the Genesis’s standard resolution of 320×240. As a result SNES games often have less forward viewing distance in platformers and such than Genesis games do, which is sometimes an issue.
Additionally, despite two of them getting deep into development, Nintendo never released a CD addon drive for the SNES, unlike their competitors. There was a satellite streaming addon in Japan only, but that only allowed for voiced audio during certain broadcast times. Almost all games are just carts. This situation, with highly different consoles each with their own strengths and weaknesses, made for an interesting time quite unlike that which we have now.
On the other hand, with its new controller innovation of shoulder buttons and four face buttons, the eight buttons on a SNES controller allow for more complex game controls than you can fit onto the four buttons of prior systems’ controllers. Shoulder buttons would be something almost every system afterwards would use, and for good reason, it adds to control options. Shoulder buttons are not my favorite thing, but in games that make good use of them such as F-Zero they show their worth.
Anyway, in Japan, the Super Famicom almost immediately took off into the stratosphere. Absolutely crushing Sega and NEC, the SFC won the generation by a wide margin. NEC hung on to a distant second-place finish on the strength of their CD addon being something Nintendo did not have, but it wasn’t much of a competition. Here in the West, however, it was a very different situation, as the SNES and Genesis/Megadrive fought to a draw. First, Sega took an early lead, with its earlier release date, sports games, Sonic, and better version of Mortal Kombat 1. Over time the SNES caught up, though, as Nintendo made good decisions while Sega was messing up, and got key titles such as the first home version of Street Fighter II. Most important, though, the massive, industry-changing hit Donkey Kong Country in late ’94 brought the SNES to the top. The SNES was the clear leader in the later years of the generation here. After that things got closer, as the Genesis had a successful budget re-release in ’98. Overall, which one sold more in the US is a mystery, it was too close. Things were close in Europe as well, depending on territory, though neither console sold anywhere near as well per capita as in the US or Japan, as most people played games on computers there and not consoles; it was the Playstation that brought console gaming to prominence in Europe. Meanwhile, while the SFC faded sooner in Japan than the West as the next generation started earlier there, it had a longer tail as games released until ’00. There Nintendo had kiosks in stores where you could buy a game and download it onto a flash cart, a quite new idea for the time.
Overall the SNES had a long and very successful life, and remains extremely popular today. It is one of my favorite systems as well, it’s in my top five for sure. Indeed, if I have a complaint about the SNES, it is that it is too popular! I like to try to like less popular games and such, so that SNES fandom is so omnipresent among the retro-gaming community has caused me to often want to look to other systems instead. As much as I like the SNES I have probably spent more time online discussing the other systems that gen instead, which I am fine with. Regardless, that I like the SNES and Genesis equally frustrates some people, but it is my honest opinion.
Aesthetics and Design: There are two basic SNES designs, the Japanese/European one and the American one. I have never seen a Japanese SFC in person, but many people strongly prefer it over the US system, as it is a bit smaller and has curves, instead of the very boxy American design. I will say I like the look of the US SNES, it isn’t one of the best-looking consoles but it definitely looks good. And what I can definitely say is that American SNES cartridges are a lot better than the Japanese ones! Japanese SFC carts are rounded on top like the system, which means they do not stack well at all. This makes storage inconvenient to say the least in many situations. Additionally they do not have end labels, which means that you won’t know which game is which unless you add them yourself or such. The American carts, with their rectangular shapes and end labels, are a much better design. US SNES controllers have two concave and two convex buttons, too, which is better than the all-the-same buttons of the Japanese one. Also it is easy to play Japanese games on a US SNES with a minor modification, but harder to play US ones on a Japanese system since the cart port is too small; you need a cart adapter to do that with a SFC. Now, PAL systems are the worst of all here, as they are region-locked and won’t play any other games easily, and Europe got fewer releases overall.
When it comes to durability and reliability, the SNES is mostly quite reliable. With no common points of failure other than maybe the power port connection on the US console, SNESes are durable systems made to last. The carts are similar, though those batteries in many games are a problem. Also, the SNES has a bad habit of occasionally erasing a cart’s saves even when the battery is okay, which is not great. For the most part though the SNES is a very well-made console. The controllers are also quite durable and last for a long time.
Game Library: The large SNES/SFC library includes many of the industry’s most popular games of the early ’90s, so there is definitely something here for everyone. I don’t think I even need to go down the list, people reading this probably know it. If you don’t, see my Game Opinion Summaries list(s) for the system for more, but it certainly is one of the best ever. I love that a lot of Super Nintendo games save, that’s a major big deal game feature that you did not see anywhere near as regularly in console games before the SNES, or on the other consoles of its generation. SNES games are often easier to finish than games on other systems and I often like that. Anyway, there are also plenty of hard SNES games out there if you look for them. Really the only “issue” with the SNES library is how popular it remains. I love the SNES and its game library, and my two favorite console games of the generation are on SNES, but perhaps because of my love for the less popular but also good thing, these days I don’t think about the SNES as often as I do its main competition. That popularity also has led to high game prices. Anyway, beyond that, for negatives in the actual games, there’s really only one major one, that slowdown. It is a problem sometimes, but in most cases isn’t too bad. Those soon-needing-replacement batteries welded down inside the carts are a pain, though. Regardless, the SNES library is strong in almost every genre. As with most of the consoles on this list many SNES games are available digitally as well, which is great for those with carts with dead batteries.
Philips CD-i, CDI – 1991 (1992 EU/JP)
Release and Sales Info: From Philips, released in December 1991 in the US and in 1992 elsewhere. Commercial software released until 1995 or ’96 in the US, and 1998 in Europe. Sales are unclear due to the numerous models released from different companies, but they were poor; Philips claimed a million worldwide in October 1994, but in ’96 the Wall Street Journal said only 400,000 had sold in the US, and another article said only 60,000 sold in Philips home nation of the Netherlands (both of those as linked from the CD-i Wikipedia article). Sales may have been better among corporate users but how many sales that added up to is unclear, but that it was a financial failure for Philips is. I bought a CD-i in late 2018-early 2019.
History: Philips’ CD-i is a fascinating system with quite a history. Philips, the Dutch corporate parent of American Magnavox, had gotten into the videogame industry when they bought Magnavox and released their Odyssey consoles in Europe in the early ’80s. After that they stopped making games for some years. In the interim, Philips is one of the original creators of the CD format, along with Sony. In the late ’80s Philips started a program to develop an interactive CD format. This format was originally designed for interactive media, such as informative discs, image collection discs with audio, store kiosk stations, and more. It was designed with a mouse for a controller, so all CD-i controllers are, to the system, actually emulating a mouse. That it was originally meant for displaying images, and not playing games, is evident when you look at the titles released for this system. The CD-i is extremely impressive hardware for 1990 in terms of displaying static images and such! And with its Digital Video Cartridge MPEG video CD addon, it is fully capable of playing most Video CD movies, and CD-i-exclusive format movies as well. Needless to say, the other CD formats of the late ’80s to early ’90s, such as the Sega CD and Turbo CD, don’t come even CLOSE to this. Where Sega CD video uses 16 colors, even without the DVC, CD-i video is in fully color! Now, without the DVC it will be in a window just like a SCD game, but with the DVC you get full-screen, at least VHS-quality, video and still images. Again, nothing else at the time comes even remotely close, apart from far more expensive high-end home computers.
However, the CD-i has two major weaknesses. First, that mouse-based controller is a limitation, as the CD-i has only two buttons and was designed for analog movement, so even if you get a real gamepad for it it needs a speed switch in order to change cursor speed movement and such. Two buttons, with no Start button for menus and such, is not enough – a NES has four buttons by that standard, and all other systems of the day have at least three, including the pause buttons on the consoles of the Master System and Atari 7800. And second, while the CD-i is fantastic at playing video and still images, it is not very good at the kinds of animation that videogames require. Philips turned to games several years into the CD-i’s life in order to try to prop up the failing format, but you can tell that the CD-i was not designed with games in mind beyond quite basic ones. Some later titles, some of which require the DVC, do manage to pull off sprite-based graphics and animations on par with other console of the generation, but even there framerates are often far below those of SNES or Genesis games.
So in summary, the CD-i is a system which is very good at some things and fairly bad at others. Unfortunately for it, most gamers want more than just great FMV and static pictures. And even among people who did want FMV games and educational discs, since they were very popular for a while in the early ’90s, the CD-i’s high price and weak marketing were limiting factors which caused it to be less successful than the Sega CD, despite the Sega having far worse looking FMV. Later on, by ’95 the growth of PC CD drive purchases drove out most of the CD-i’s remaining market. The CD-i was successful in one market, though, and that is for kiosk and training installations for companies and government agencies. The CD-i was one of the more successful platforms for this field though the ’90s. Unfortunately, that didn’t lead to enough sales to save the system, which was a huge financial loss for Philips. The CD-i was more successful in Philips’ home nation of the Netherlands than anywhere else, but here it was an also-ran.
Aesthetics and Design: Philips, and several other companies who they licensed to release their own CD-i systems such as Sony, LG, DVS, and many more, released many different CD-i models. Most of them are large units which look a lot like a home CD player or VCR, though there are also smaller portable models and one which looks much more like a home console, with a smaller size, flip-lid top, and such. Some later models include the Digital Video Cartridge built in, but all earlier models can have one of two different revisions of the DVC added to them if they don’t have it built in. So in terms of aesthetics, the CD-i is fairly utilitarian, with very VCR-like looks. Still, from what I’ve seen they look fine, if quite different from model to model. I have the last model of CD-i, the DVS VE-2000, a model which apparently re-used unsold LG CD-i boards but in a new shell. This model was sold starting in 1998, meant for corporate use for companies still using them. It’s a nice looking VCR-ish system, if large.
For the most part, the CD-i is a fairly standard CD console for its time in terms of durability – the drive lasers can fail, but many are built fairly well. Most CD-is have one major design flaw, however: their infamous “timekeeper” chip which saves your game saves. Almost all Phillips-model CD-i systems have a chip which has a battery INSIDE of a chip! Now, videogame consoles putting batteries in consoles and carts to save games is normal, but putting the battery inside of a CHIP is very much not; this is the only console I know of which does that, and it makes replacing the battery much harder in these models than in most other consoles, once that battery dies. There are only two solutions to this: very carefully cut apart the chip, remove the battery, and attach in a new one connected to the contacts within; or buy the one or two portable CD-i models which have user-replaceable batteries, or the LG (their large “VCR-ish” one, not the small Goldstar rebadge of the console-style Philips system) and DVS models which have a standard battery visible on the board, with normal welded tabs like most any other console has. This is a big part of why I got the DVS, replacing its battery will be much easier than anything other than those portable ones, for less money than those very expensive systems cost. The DVS is not cheap, but those cost a lot more.
Game Library: The CD-i has a very weird library. Early on, the CD-i’s library is loaded with informative educational discs, discs for kids, simple games like Battleship and jigsaw puzzles, discs with nice high-color images and voice descriptions of things like Mozart’s times or the American national parks, and such. Later on the system moved on to a focus more on videogames, including the infamous Mario and Zelda games, some European puzzle and action titles often with iffy framerates and design issues, and such, and the DVC cart and its movies and FMV games. I find the educational and image discs pretty interesting time capsules which are well worth a look. They aren’t games but are fun stuff to look at. The games are mix of good and bad. I don’t think the CD-i deserves the extremely bad reputation that it gets, so long as you spend the $100 it will cost to get a real gamepad for the thing and also however much a mouse or trackball will cost as you’ll want both. I honestly enjoy the sidescrolling CD-i Zelda games, but I will admit that it is a flawed system with somewhat limited appeal; you need to like the kinds of games the CD-i has in order to enjoy this. I do not like FMV games, so its main appeal doesn’t hit well with me, but despite this I think the CD-i is an okay platform overall. Sure, it doesn’t have the quality of games the best systems do, which is tough when so many other consoles of its day are so amazing. But even so this is a neat system to have, particularly for the collector or FMV game fan, but also for the fan of weird unique stuff, as I am. The CD-i has many true exclusives as well; most CD-i releases are not available anywhere else. Just like with the Magnavox Odyssey 2, Philips has not re-released anything from this platform on any newer format. Additionally, I don’t have any of them, but the stuff companies made for the CD-i for kiosks and such is surely quite interesting for the collector who can find them.
Sega CD, SCD – 1991 (1992)
(Sega Genesis addon)
Release and Sales Info: From Sega, released in December 1991 in Japan as the Mega CD, in October 1992 in the US as the Sega CD, and 1993 in Europe as the Mega CD. Games released until late 1995 in the West and February ’96 in Japan. 2.24 million systems sold worldwide, mostly in the US — only 400,000 Mega CD systems sold in Japan, and it did not sell well at all in Europe. I bought a Sega CD in August 2006, only a few months after I got a Genesis. I had had much less experience with it than the Genesis before then, as I didn’t know anyone with addons for their Genesis during its life, though I remember its advertising for sure.
History: Following their very successful, in America anyway, Genesis, Sega decided to get on the CD-addon bandwagon and make a CD drive for their system. This addon released several years later, and adds much more than just a CD drive! Indeed, in addition to that disc drive, this addon also has new chips in it which gives it hardware scaling and rotation, most notably. While not perfect this was a significant advance, and some SCD games show this off with much improved scaling over the software efforts in Genesis games. The system has hardware built in to make FMV playback easy as well, so you see a lot more full-motion video on the Sega CD than you do on Turbo CD. Unfortunately they could not get around the 64-color limit, and in FMV palettes are restricted even more so a lot of FMV runs with VERY few colors on screen, but it runs, and at the time was a pretty amazing thing. The system has one more drawback, too — the side port which connects it to the Genesis has limited bandwidth when compared to the cart port on top. As a result, some Sega CD ports of Genesis games have to cut back on animation and such, as there isn’t enough bandwidth in that connection to get all the animation and such through. The Turbo CD does not have this issue, but in this respect Sega didn’t plan quite as well when designing the Genesis. Oh well.
But for good or ill, the Sega CD is best known for being the system which, more than any other, brought the FMV craze home. Expensive and showy arcade games like Dragon’s Lair and Mad Dog McCree were one thing, but now you could play that game, and more like it, at home! Sega marketed the Sega CD heavily, but between its high price tag and relatively limited library compared to the Genesis, it didn’t sell as well as they hoped. The SCD did sell over two million systems and was the best-selling console addon that generation, narrowly edging out the Turbo CD, so I would not call it a failure, but it could have been more. The cost of CD drives during its life really limited its appeal, as did its relatively short life of only about three years in the US. Many people call the SCD one of Sega’s mistakes, but I don’t agree; while it has some issues, including the gameplay limitations of FMV, how low-color SCD FMV is, and its price and reliability, the Sega CD did something new and, at least for a moment, seemed to change the industry; FMV was HUGE for a couple of years in the early-mid ’90s! Before polygons took over everybody thought that FMV was the future, as how can you get more real than real life? The very limited gameplay options available to streaming video would destroy this genre within a few years, but some amusing stuff released in the interim, and a lot of it is on this system. Most infamously, the very well known SCD game Night Trap caused enough of a controversy to be prominently featured in a US Senate hearing on sex and violence in videogames, alongside Mortal Kombat.
The Sega CD is more than just FMV, though, fortunately for people like me who have never thought all that much of FMV beyond that initial ‘wow, that’s real video!’ factor. The graphics may be great, but the extremely limited gameplay of a Night Trap, Dragon’s Lair, or Mad Dog McCree more than outweigh the positives for me. However, the Sega CD also has many other games I like a lot more, including some of the best Japanese RPGs ever made in the Lunar series, several shmups as good or better than anything on the Genesis, a fantastic Sonic game, and more. The Sega CD’s library is not as essential as the Turbo CD, sure, but it still has a good library with more than a few memorable classics. Unfortunately many of the better non-FMV Sega CD games are extremely expensive, since FMV sold better by far back then, but they are there and are great. Back then though, apart from people rich enough to shell out the money for playing FMV games at home, the SCD had somewhat limited appeal. The advertising was good, but CD drives were expensive!
Aesthetics and Design: As I mentioned earlier in the Genesis article, there are two models of Sega CD, a first tray-loading model which goes underneath your Genesis and matches the model 1 Genesis in size, and a second top-loading model which goes next to your Genesis and fits the Genesis 2 perfectly. You can use either SCD model with either model of Genesis, but the sizes will look a little silly if you do. So, I use a Genesis 2 + SCD 2 setup. It’s the better setup anyway, as the top-loading drive is much more reliable than that tray of the first model – there is no tray to break in a toploader! Either way the Sega CD systems are nice-looking units with a great early ’90s aesthetic that I quite like. The Genesis 2 + SCD 2 combination is a great looking system. Its controller is also my favorite gamepad ever that doesn’t have an analog stick on it, or rather the 6 button controller is; the original 3 button pad is good, but Sega’s 6 button pad is the best, both in form and function.
As for its design and reliability, the SCD is known for having reliability issues, but not more so than any other disc drive-based system from its time; the main issue is just that disc drives have moving parts, so they are less reliable over time than a comparable solid-state-cartridge system is. And that is very true here. I am one of the lucky ones, as my SCD works flawlessly to this day and has needed no work, but between the laser, tray mechanism in a model 1 system, a fuse which often blows, and a rechargeable cell battery which saves any game savegames, the Sega CD has plenty of failure points within it. On that last point there is also a memory cart available, but it also has a battery in it. Some homebrew flash cartridges give the system a welcome longer-lasting memory backup function, but even so that rechargeable battery in the system will need replacing at some point. Even so, the Sega CD is a good-looking and mostly well engineered system, any CD console of its age has issues long term.
Game Library: As mentioned above, the Sega CD is most famous for its games full of either animated or, more often, live video. These are known as FMV games. Indeed, the Sega CD brought the FMV craze home. Arcade games like Mad Dog McCree were one thing, but now you could play that game and more like it at home! FMV was HUGE for a couple of years in the early-mid ’90s! Before polygons took over everybody thought that FMV was the future, as how can you get more real than real life? The very limited gameplay options available to streaming video would destroy this genre within a few years, but some amusing stuff released in the interim, and a lot of it is on this system. Most infamously, the very well known SCD game Night Trap caused enough of a controversy to be prominently featured in a US Senate hearing on sex and violence in videogames, alongside Mortal Kombat.
The Sega CD is more than just FMV, though, fortunately for people like me who have never thought all that much of FMV beyond that initial ‘wow, that’s real video!’ factor. The graphics may be great, but the extremely limited gameplay of a Night Trap, Dragon’s Lair, or Mad Dog McCree more than outweigh the positives for me. However, the Sega CD also has many other games I like a lot more, including some of the best Japanese RPGs ever made in the Lunar series, several shmups as good or better than anything on the Genesis, a fantastic Sonic game, and more. The Sega CD’s library is not as essential as the Turbo CD, sure, but it still has a good library with more than a few memorable classics. I would say that overall the SCD has a good game library. It does not have the breadth and depth of the Genesis library, but there are more than enough hits to make this system worth having, if you can get a working one for a reasonable price.
In 1993, the first next generation — that is, 5th gen — consoles released, in the Atari Jaguar and the 3DO, along with several consolized older computers in the Amiga CD32 (Europe/Canada only) and Fujitsu FM Towns Marty (Japan only). A year after that, more new consoles released, the Sony PlayStation, Sega Saturn, and NEC PC-FX (Japan only), along with the SNK Neo-Geo CD. In addition to those, though, one new addon for the last generation of consoles released as well…
Sega 32X, 32X – 1994
Sega 32X CD, 32XCD – 1994
Release and Sales Info: From Sega, released in 1994. Games for the 32X were only released from late ’94 to early ’96. About 800,000 consoles were sold, mostly in the US where it sold well in Christmas ’94. I bought a 32X in October 2009. Note that the 32X, when attached to a Genesis by itself, can use cartridges only; in order to play 32X CD games, you need a Sega CD attached to your Genesis as well.
History: The 32X was Sega’s last project where their Japanese and American branches worked together well. The project started out as an idea from Sega of Japan for a new model of Genesis with more color support built in, as they were frustrated with how limited colors are on the system when compared to the SNES. Sega of America heard about this and said no, what we should do instead is a more powerful addon which would add more colors and also better graphics. Sega head Hayao Nakayama okayed the idea, and engineers from both sides worked together to design the 32X. It was designed with two CPUs, in order to help developers get used to the twin-processor layout that the Saturn also uses. Parallel processing was brand new then so programmers had a really hard time dealing with that. The system doesn’t do polygons and such in hardware either, it’s all just what you can do in software with its reasonably powerful pair of CPUs. It can do a lot of colors, transparencies, full, 60fps scaling and rotation, and more, though, and push a fair number of polygons for the time. Compared to the systems of 1993, such as the Atari Jaguar and 3DO, the 32X is somewhat close in power. It has limitations, as the system has two graphics layers, one made by the Genesis and one by the 32X, and then just displays both at once, something which causes issues in some games when the two do not run at the same framerate, and can be tricky to program for, but the hardware can do some pretty nice things. It also can play either cartridge games, or 32X-exclusive CD titles, as it connects through the cart port to the Sega CD. There are only six 32X CD games and all are visually enhanced Sega CD FMV games, but still it was nice, the colors look great compared to regular SCD games.
The problem was, the Saturn was in development at the same time and released in Japan at the same time that the 32X was releasing in the US. The Playstation released in Japan at around the same time as well, and both the Saturn and PS1 are far more powerful than the 32X. The 32X then released in Japan the next month. The PS1 and Saturn cost more, but not so much more that people wanted to buy this instead of just saving up, or just waiting a year or two before joining the new generation. The system did well in the US in late ’94, selling hundreds of thousands that Christmas thanks to people wanting the new Genesis addon, and two games in particular, Doom and Star Wars Arcade. 665,000 of the 800,000 32Xes produced sold by early ’95. Sega thought they needed something big for holiday ’94, and for a moment the 32X seemed like a good idea. Releasing two new platforms, one an addon to their last system and one a new console, at the same time was a very bad idea though, and after the good start things went predictably terribly. Sega somehow didn’t realize that trying to support six-plus platforms at the same time would be a bad idea, but it was.
Indeed, the initially good sales and press reception changed soon afterwards, and sales plummeted. In the middle of releasing more than 150 games in the calendar year 1995, Sega of Japan decided to almost entirely stop developing new games for all consoles other than the Saturn. They did develop several new Virtua Fighter games after that date, one each for the Game Gear, Genesis, and 32X, and a few Genesis and GG games in Japan in the second half of ’95, but that was it; otherwise, the only games after then on those systems were Western. They also finally discontinued the Master System in Europe, and the Pico in Japan. The 32X would see a few Western games after this, the last in early ’96, and then it was dead. Some of these moves were needed, but mostly abandoning the 32X only maybe seven months after its release was a major mistake; you can’t support a system for that unacceptably short an amount of time and not expect consequences. And Sega had consequences, as their bet on the Saturn was a terrible one for the West, where few people had any interest in that troubled system. Sega probably should have focused more on the Genesis itself, since as the SNES showed the ’94 to ’96 period was still pretty good for 4th-gen cart systems in the US. By focusing on addon after addon then abandoning the system early, Sega hurt their profits. But then again, making questionable choices which hurt their profits was the Sega way, so major mistakes were probably inevitable. Oh well…
Aesthetics and Design: The 32X is a blob-like “mushroom” which sits on top of your Genesis. It requires its own power supply, making for a total of THREE needed for the full Genesis CD 32X unit, and also a video passthrough, as the Genesis needs to pass its video through the 32X through an exterior cable for merging, then from the 32X to the TV. Sadly there was no other way to add more colors to the system than this somewhat awkward solution. The system also doesn’t look great; you get used to the full combined system’s look, but that large blob on top of a Genesis kind of messes up the nice look of the Genesis + Sega CD combination. In terms of reliability though, the 32X is a reliable system which usually works fine, so long as you have all of the required cables and parts; there are many, I did not mention all of them here.
Game Library: The 32X has a small 40 game library, including 34 carts and six CD games. The exclusive library is small, but does include some pretty good games. Some of those are ports of games also available on other systems, to be sure, but the 32X versions often have unique features you won’t find elsewhere. A common criticism of this console is that it has very few exclusive games worth playing and there is some truth to that, but I do like the 32X regardless. Shadow Squadron is a fantastic game, and other titles such as Zaxxon’s Motherbase 2000 and the outstanding, enhanced 32X version of Virtua Racer Deluxe are well worth it! I don’t regret getting a 32X at all, and if you can find one for cheap and like the Genesis it’s probably worth getting. The 32X should not have been released, as it divided the Genesis’s userbase too much, but enough of its small game library are good for me to kind of like it regardless. The high prices 32X games and hardware sell for these days are unfortunate, though. This system is very interesting, but it is a much better sell for cheap than for expensive. Ah well.
After this the generation was not done, because that aforementioned Super Famicom Satellaview satellite addon did not release until April 1995, in Japan only. I don’t have one.
And with that, finally this update is done! That was long. It might be a while until I do the next one, I’ll see; it will also be long so I kind of want to do something else first, but I haven’t decided yet.
A ranking again? Why not, though I do have an all-systems ranking from a few years ago elsewhere on my site.
1. (tie) Super NES, SNES 1990 (1991) – It may be boring to say that the SNES deserves its place high on the list of the best consoles ever, but it is true.
1. (tie) Genesis, Gen 1988 (1989) – Just as great as the SNES, I am also a big fan of the Genesis! And yes, I still don’t want to choose between them, no matter how much that annoys some fans of both systems. Heh.
2. Game Boy, GB 1989 – My first video game console, I have a lot of nostalgia for the GB and think it still holds up very well.
3. TurboGrafx-16, TG16 1987 (1989) – Some might put the CD addon above the base system, but though the CD games are flashier, the larger HuCard library, overall, probably edges out the CDs.
4. TurboGrafx-CD, TCD 1988 (1989) (TurboGrafx-16 addon) – The Turbo CD is fantastic but doesn’t have the game variety of the base TG16 so it ranks a little lower.
5. Sega CD, SCD 1991 (1992) (Sega Genesis addon) – Not quite as good as the Turbo CD but also pretty good, this is a little below it but certainly, for me, better than the GG.
6. Game Gear, GG 1990 (1991) – The Game Gear’s hardware and library are quite flawed and I am a longtime critic of some things about this system, but even I have to admit that it does have some good games.
7. Phillips CD-i, CDI 1991 – The CD-i has better hardware than the Game Gear, but the GG probably has more high-quality games, so I guess I reluctantly have to give the GG the edge here. I kind of like the CD-i, but I can’t put it over any of these systems.
8. Sega 32X, 32X 1994 (Sega Genesis addon) – Releasing the 32X was a big mistake, but I quite like some of its small library regardless! I like a few 32X games more than anything I have for the CD-i, but the overall library… I can’t put it above it, there are just too many issues with this system.
9. Sega 32X CD, 32XCD 1994 – If we count this separately, it’s in last by a longshot! Yes, it’s nice to see FMV games with actual decent colors on the Genesis, but then you have to actually play the games…