Article – Console Generations: The Missing Videogame Generation

This is an article from a few years ago that I just reworked and improved.  Unfortunately, this situation still has not been corrected, so the article is still entirely valid and important!

By now I’m sure that almost everyone knows of the seven generations of videogames.  My question is… why is it only seven?  Or better, why is one specific line drawn where it is?  It shouldn’t be.

Now, I know that there are some “borderline” issues between console generations that are frequently debated.  I’m with the majority on these — the Turbografx is fourth generation, the Jaguar and 3DO are fifth generation, and the Dreamcast is sixth generation, with absolutely no doubt.  Just because they are early systems in their generations doesn’t mean that they should for some reason be dumped in the previous generation in which they definitely do not belong.  They were designed as next-generation machines, and are exactly that.

Going back a little further, though, there’s another generation line where the line doesn’t make much sense to me — that between the second and third generations.  Next-generation machines were designed and released in 1982, and then later tossed back into the previous generation for flawed reasons.

Now, I know that when a system is released is as important for determining which generation it is in as anything else; indeed, really that is one of the most important factors.  The Great Videogame Crash of 1983-1984 took down most of the industry in the US, so it makes sense that when it started up again, it’d be called a new generation.  That was the obvious motivation for calling the consoles of 1982 retroactively “second-gen”.

But… I just don’t get it.  Why are the new consoles of 1982 considered “second gen”?  Honestly, this makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.  The Colecovision and Atari 5200 were both definitely “next gen” machines, and the Vectrex and Arcadia 2001 too, the other 1982 consoles.  Yet, because their generation failed a year in and because their games are just upgraded second gen games, they get dumped in the second generation.  But a lot of 4th-gen games are “just” upgraded 3rd-gen games and that doesn’t make the SNES a console in the same generation as the NES, so that’s no excuse!  And nor is the crash, as I will explain.

Now, I know that there is often big variation from one end of a generation to another — TG16 to SNES, Jaguar or 3DO to N64, Dreamcast to Xbox, those consoles on opposite ends of generations vary greatly in power.  However, in the case of the Atari 5200, it isn’t just variation, it is a successor console!  It would take a very special case for a machine considered at the time to be a successor to a company’s previous machine to be in the same generation as its predecessor.  It IS possible, and indeed both Atari and Sega did that in the 1980s, but in both cases I don’t think it’s hard to figure out which pairs of consoles should be grouped together in the same generations, and it’s not always the ones that are.

The Atari 5200 is obviously next-gen compared to the 2600, and the same for the Colecovision.   The Atari 7800 (Atari’s third console, released in 1984/1986) is much less of an upgrade from the 5200 than the 5200 is compared to the 2600, it’s not even close!  The 5200 even has significantly better audio than any Atari 7800 game that doesn’t have an expansion audio chip, even if its graphics don’t quite match what the 7800 can do.  Yet just because it’s convenient, because of the crash, the 2600 and 5200 get dumped in together and the 7800 is separated.  This seems very wrong to me; it’s the 5200 and 7800 that are similar, not the 2600 and 7800!  I mean, yes, the games are similar on the 2600 and 5200, but that’s fairly normal for successor systems from the same manufacturer that do not make radical changes such as polygons.  Hardware power, graphics, sound, and release dates all clearly make the 1982 systems next-generation.

Of course, the question then would be where you draw the “generation” line in the second generation.  The systems of 1977-78 certainly are all second gen, but the Intellivision, test-marketed in late 1979 and widely released in 1980, does seem to be a tricky one.  If you put the dividing line in 1982, that leaves the Intellivision as second-gen, though there is an obvious big power difference between it and any prior system of the generation.  But putting it earlier seems a bit too early… I’m not certain, but I’m leaning towards leaving the Intellivision in the second generation.  Are difficult questions like this one reason why all these systems were all just lumped in together? That would be a tough line to draw, but the Intellivision did release in 1979 in limited quantities, which puts its release date closer to the previous 2nd-gen console to release, the Odyssey 2 (1978), than the next console, the 5200 and Colecovision in mid 1982.  So second-gen the Intellivision is, I guess, just the best of its generation graphically.

Regardless of that, though, the 1982 systems are definitely not second-gen.  The only possible reason for calling them “second-gen” is the crash, but the crash is a localized event just in the US, while console generations should apply to the whole world!  The NES (Famicom) released in Japan in July 1983, only eleven months after the US release of the Colecovision and eight months after the US release of the Atari 5200.  Nintendo specifically designed the Famicom to be a system better than the Colecovision, they have said this in modern interviews, while Sega decided instead to use Colecovision hardware in their console that released that same month, the SG-1000.  There are not many cases of systems only being divided by about a year, but being considered as part of completely different generations… in fact, I don’t think I can think of any other such case.  Not on TV consoles, certainly; handhelds are messier, but the TV console generation lines don’t entirely work for handhelds so that’s okay.

Yes, the NES was much more powerful than any system that came before it, but still, it’s not a generation above the Colecovision, as homebrew games like GhostBlaster (Colecovision) clearly show.  Here is a video of GhostBlaster, a game which shows that the Colecovision can indeed do some pretty nice-looking scrolling playfields and solid 2d platforming.

Because of excluding the consoles of 1982, the third generation looks like it got few consoles releasing during it compared to others of its era.  Many systems are in the second generation, and the third, and the fourth, but only three consoles are always included in the third generation, the NES, Atari 7800, Sega Master System.  This also is perhaps a sign of this issue, maybe, one solvable by correcting where the generation line is.  Yes, the industry collapsed and most of the older hardware manufacturers and game types went with it, but comparing hardware, release dates, and the worldwide market, you cannot separate the consoles of 1982 from those of 1983.

I’m not expecting anything to come of this, the generations have been chosen, though by who I have no idea beyond “internet consensus”, but this is something that has been bothering me for years.  I’ve posted before about this on forums, but now I’m saying it here as well.  Hopefully eventually people listen.  I just don’t think there are any good arguments for keeping the consoles of 1982 in the second generation.
In one final note, poor Sega, its SG-1000 released the same month as the Famicom, July 1983, yet their system is often considered second gen and Nintendo’s third… I know, Sega had another system several years later that is put in the third generation, but I really wonder if in Japan they use anything resembling our generation breakdown.   Somehow I doubt it.

Sometimes now the SG-1000 is considered third-gen, as both Wikipedia and GameFAQs have changed how they classify the system since I first wrote about this issue a few years ago — they now list it as third-gen.  However, this change only heightens the ridiculousness of not counting the consoles of 1982 as also being third-gen.  The Colecovision and SG-1000 have almost exactly the same hardware inside, are both consoles with attach to a television, and released only 11 months apart, but if you go to GameFAQs or Wikipedia today one is listed as “second-gen” and the other third!  It’s completely ridiculous.

Oh, last, I should say, this has nothing to do with what I thought of the second generation systems in the ’80s; I didn’t own any of them then.  It’s about comparing system power, context, and release dates, pretty much.

Here is the conventional console generation listing, not counting addons or handhelds:

First generation: 1972-197? – Odyssey 2 and Home Pongs
Second generation: Systems of 1976-82 (and maybe some from 1983)
Third generation: Certain systems from mid 1983 through 1985 (1986 in the West) (Addon: 1986)
Fourth generation: 1987-1990
Fifth generation: 1993-1996
Sixth generation: 1998-2001
Seventh generation: 2005-2006
Eighth generation: 2011-2013?

And here is a correct one, again not counting addons or handhelds:

First generation: 1972-197? – Odyssey 2 and Home Pongs
Second generation: 1976-1980 (and maybe some from 1983)
Third generation: 1982-1985 (1986 in the West)
Fourth generation: 1987-1991 (1989-1991 in the West)
Fifth generation: 1993-1996
Sixth generation: 1998-2001
Seventh generation: 2005-2006
Eighth generation: 2011-2013?

There is no clean way to break up handheld generations before the mid ’00s, which is why I excluded them from the list above, and including addones makes the list less clear as well, but addons require the base system to work, so I think focusing on just those makes sense.  For home consoles that attach to a TV and are not an addon to a previously existing system, a nice, clean breakdown is both possible, and easy.  You just need to correctly include the Colecovision, Vectrex, Arcadia 2001, and Atari 5200 as third-generation machines instead of second-generation.

About Brian

Computer and video game lover
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