Despite the fact that high-quality gaming has been consistently available ever since the Nintendo Entertainment System saved the industry in 1985, each console generation since has featured its share of ups and downs. In 2010, we’re afforded countless new luxuries that systems from gaming’s past couldn’t have dreamed of. However, this same thought that we have today has been thought of the PlayStation 2, Nintendo 64, Super Nintendo, and virtually every other system that’s been released in the past. In this feature, we’ll take an objective look back to see the pros and cons of each generation since 1985.


Era: 1985 - 1991

Key system: NES

Representative titles: The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Bros 3, Metroid, Contra, Mega Man 2

Why it could be the best:

  • It resurrected an industry that had recently suffered a crippling crash. Without the runaway success of the NES, its hard to say where the industry would be today.
  • Introduced timeless members of Nintendo’s stable of characters. Mario may have technically debuted in the arcade version of Donkey Kong, but it was the Super Mario Bros. series that made him a legend. His NES debut combined with Link’s, kicked off several generation’s worth of titles starring the two.
  • Great characters weren’t the only thing the NES introduced to the industry. Titles like The Legend of Zelda opened new doors in terms of exploration in video games and influenced countless games to come.
  • Hardcore gamers feel a strong pull of nostalgia when they think of the NES Mario titles, but it’s important to note that it brought in a more casual audience as well. Your sister or girlfriend may not know Master Chief from Solid Snake, but odds are she can recognize the Mario theme within 5 seconds.

Why it might not be:

  • Gamers today know full well about the Red Ring of Death, but at least that’s a once-in-a-while issue. If you owned an NES, odds are you were downright shocked if a game booted up on the first try. Oftentimes, it was an ordeal that required you to blow into the cartridge, blow into the NES itself, or utilize any variety of tricks to get the system to read the game correctly.
  • Being able to set the difficulty in games has been the standard for many generations, but tons of NES games only featured one option: insanely difficult. Whether it was cursing your way through Kid Icarus, getting the snot knocked out of you by Mike Tyson, or wondering if it’s even possible to beat Contra with the default three lives, many of these games crossed the line from “difficult” to “unfair.”
  • Dealing with the difficulty of NES games was rough enough, but it was compounded with the fact that the option to save wasn’t always available. Titles like Zelda offered true save slots, but others featured clunky password systems (see: Mega Man 2) or no option to resume whatsoever.[PageBreak]

Era: 1991-1995

Key systems: Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis

Representative Titles: Super Mario World, Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Street Fighter II, Final Fantasy III

Why it could be the best:

  • The visuals of the NES may hold a special place in gamer’s hearts thanks to the nostalgia factor, but there’s no getting around the fact that they’re just assortments of blocky pixels. With the 16-bit era, games retained the charm of sprite-based graphics but were advanced enough to still look good today. To date, no generation’s visuals have aged as beautifully as this.
  • It certainly improved upon the previous generation’s visuals, but it also refined gameplay elements significantly. Zelda and Metroid were both born on the NES and revolutionized game design, but their SNES followups managed to top the already-stellar gameplay experiences from their 8-bit debuts.
  • These consoles were built like tanks. Most NES consoles didn’t work right even in the late '80s, so try getting one to boot up Punch-Out now. Find a Super Nintendo or Genesis at a pawn store in 2010, and I’d put money on it booting up on the first try.

Why it might not be:

  • It suffered from a bit of “me too” syndrome. Sonic was a mega-hit, so tons of other developers tried to make their own mascot with ‘tude. Mortal Kombat made waves throughout the industry, and suddenly everyone was trying to make their own violent fighters (anyone remember Time Killers?).
  • People today complain about spending $60 on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 games, but they were doing the same with the early '90s pricey cartridges. Some, like Street Fighter II, cost as much as $75. Factor in inflation, and we were spending more for games during this generation than we are today.
  • Nintendo and Sega didn’t really know what format the industry was heading towards, so they took a somewhat shotgun approach to add-ons. Sega was the biggest offender with the ill-fated 32X and Sega CD, but Nintendo flirted with the idea of a CD-based add-on as well. Famously, Nintendo’s denial of a Sony-made CD device led directly to this next era...[PageBreak]

Era: 1995 - 1999

Systems: PSone, Sega Saturn, Nintendo 64

Representative Titles: Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy VII, Super Mario 64, GoldenEye 007

Why it could be the best:

  • 3D gaming may have been conceived in the SNES era, but it's in the late '90s that it really took off. From Mario spinning Bowser by his tail to Solid Snake sneaking around Shadow Moses, we were amazed to control characters in full three-dimensional environments.
  • Developers found out soon enough that 3D gaming was going to require a new method of control if they really wanted it to work. Previous generations always featured the d-pad, but that was built around the idea of strictly up/down/left/right movement. In 1996, both Nintendo and Sega introduced controllers with analog sticks that allowed for a much improved range of motion. Sony followed suit in 1997 with their Dual Shock, which they’re still using today in roughly the same design.
  • Rumbling controllers are a given nowadays (assuming you don’t count the original PS3 Sixaxis), but they had never been seen on a console until Nintendo packaged the Rumble Pak with Star Fox 64. With it, gamers felt vibrating feedback in their hands for the first time.
  • Memory cards were introduced, allowing players to take their data out of the house without having to bring along cartridges or bulky consoles.
  • It was the first generation to make a meaningful attempt at bringing the FPS genre to home consoles. While most of them were clunky-controlling messes, standouts like Medal of Honor and GoldenEye 007 paved the way for the genre’s dominance down the line.
  • This was the first generation that allowed for truly cinematic video-game experiences. Developers finally had enough space to fit dialogue and fully-orchestrated music into the mix, and 3D cameras allowed for artistic direction that wasn’t previously possible. Metal Gear Solid’s complex plot and high production value proved to be one of the first gaming experiences that really felt like an interactive motion picture.

Why it might not be:

  • If the 16-bit era’s visuals aged the best of any generation, this era certainly aged the worst. Games like Metal Gear Solid wowed us on the visual front back in 1998, but they’re downright laughable in retrospect. Blocky polygons, blurry textures, and faces without moving eyelids or mouths just don’t feature the kind of retro charm that 2D graphics possessed.
  • Control conventions that we take for granted today weren’t in place yet. If you boot up a game in 2010, it’s pretty much a given that the left stick will control your character while the right changes the direction you’re looking. Shooting is typically assigned to the shoulder buttons, while the face buttons usually manage melee attacks or platforming. Back then, 3D was brand-new, and many developers clearly didn’t know what to do with the new perspective. Medal of Honor’s default control scheme has the right stick in charge of strafing while the X button fires your weapon. On the 64 side of the fence, we used four C buttons to control 007's strafing and vertical aim, while the lone analog stick made you move back and forth and look side to side. We’re used to a somewhat consistent control scheme nowadays, but it wasn’t uncommon to have to learn a whole new setup every time you booted up a game in the late '90s.[PageBreak]

Era: 1999 - 2005

Systems: Playstation 2, Gamecube, Xbox, Dreamcast

Representative Titles: Grand Theft Auto III, God of War, Halo, Guitar Hero, Shadow of the Colossus

Why it could be the best:

  • The previous generation helped to get developer’s feet wet with the idea of 3D games, and this generation was the one that refined it through an extensive and amazing software library. Series like Metal Gear Solid featured fantastic sequels during these years, and brand-new franchises like God of War, Devil May Cry, and Halo wowed consumers.
  • Grand Theft Auto was around during the PSone days, but its 3D debut during this generation revolutionized open-world gaming. By letting players choose whether they wanted to complete a mission, hunt for hidden secrets, or just cause meaningless chaos, this freedom struck a chord with gamers that changed the industry. We see this structure all over the place today, from the Mars-based Red Faction: Guerrilla to the open fields of Rockstar’s own Red Dead Redemption.
  • VHS was quickly becoming extinct during this period, but many gamers still didn’t own a DVD player in the late '90s/early 2000s. With the arrival of the PS2 and Xbox, gamers didn’t have to worry about buying a standalone player anymore. It was the first major step towards consoles being more than just boxes for playing games.
  • The Xbox featured a built-in hard drive, making it the first console to allow significant amounts of data to be stored on it. This didn’t entirely eliminate memory cards, however, as the system still utilized them to transfer data from place to place.
  • Online gaming wouldn’t be at the advanced level it’s at today without the early steps taken during this period. Sega’s Dreamcast made the first serious attempt to popularize Internet play, but it was Microsoft that had the most success early on. While it was still unrefined, the launch of Xbox Live was a trailblazer in terms of online multiplayer.

Why it might not be:

  • While the mistake was eventually corrected, the Xbox featured one of the absolute worst launch controllers of all time. It was essentially a giant cheeseburger with buttons, and was almost universally hated. Nintendo’s controller for the Gamecube wasn’t quite as maligned, but it definitely didn’t stack up to Sony’s tried-and-true Dual Shock.
  • Online play was still in its infancy, but we were still expected to pay for it. If you bought a network adapter for the PS2, you were probably disappointed to find an extremely limited amount of uses for it. Xbox Live was a step ahead for sure, but it wasn’t nearly as refined as it would become during the next generation.[PageBreak]

Era: 2005 - Current

Systems: Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Wii

Representative Titles: Uncharted 2, Bioshock, Mass Effect 2, Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

Why it could be the best:

  • This is the generation where online play absolutely exploded. Xbox Live delivered on the promise of online gaming, and the system’s software library has no shortage of multiplayer titles. From easy-to-access friend lists to party chat, Live gave us a boatload of features that made the entire experience painless and (most importantly) fun. With multiplayer-heavy titles like Modern Warfare 2 and Halo 3 amongst the top-selling games on the system, it’s clear that online gaming is here to stay.
  • HD televisions weren't in nearly as many homes in 2005 as they are today. This generation of systems (Wii excluded) recognized the direction television technology was headed, and prepared by focusing on high definition. Every generation of consoles looks better than the previous one, but the jump to HD made for one of the most dramatic differences.
  • When you bought a console game before this era, that was the end of it. If it had a crippling bug or you thought it was too short, you were totally out of luck. Thanks to DLC and online patching, game experiences can be extended or improved at any time. People complained about shotguns being too powerful in Modern Warfare 2, so Infinity Ward fixed it via a patch. People wanted more Borderlands and Fallout 3, and they received it via extensive DLC. Even the user interface can improve as the console’s life goes on, as we saw with the 360’s NXE update. It’s a luxury that has never been available prior to this generation.
  • Competitive multiplayer reached new heights during this period, but so did cooperative play. While teaming up with a buddy has been a possibility during every one of these eras, co-op modes have become far more extensive in recent years. Sure, Contra let two dudes run from left to right while sitting on the same couch, but it was nowhere near as great as strategically taking out squads of baddies in Borderlands over the Internet with three friends. Titles like this, Gears of War, and Left 4 Dead bring co-op into the limelight like never before.
  • The PS2 and original Xbox may have doubled as DVD players, but this generation took things a step further by adding features like streaming Netflix and Playing a DVD in your gaming console is nice, but it can’t compare to having a massive library of streaming movies at your disposal 24/7.
  • In the 8 to 16-bit era, you basically had to rent or buy a game to see it in action. With the PSone/PS2 era, you could get demo discs from magazines, Pizza Hut, or Gamestop if you wanted to actually try a title out yourself. With current consoles, you can download demos for free without leaving the house. It's a tremendous way to try before you buy.
  • Achievements may not be for everyone, but there’s certainly a type of gamer that adores them. Whether these points are getting gamers to play games they normally wouldn’t or simply extending the time they’re playing titles they would anyway, they’re certainly not hurting replay value for anyone. When done right, achievements and trophies can be a rewarding and fun experience beyond what a game typically offers.
  • If you’re a fan of one of the previous four eras, this generation is still right for you. This is because titles from the entire history of gaming are available as downloads (and usually for pretty cheap). Whether it’s the arcade classics available on XBLA or PSN or the NES/SNES/N64 titles of your childhood on Virtual Console, this generation isn’t hurting for nostalgia.

Why it might not be:

  • With all the luxuries that online gaming has afforded us, it’s also brought us a few annoyances. Chief among them is the nickel-and-diming we’ve had to put up with in terms of paid content. Worst of all is when the content is already on the disc, and we have to pay extra to unlock what’s already there. Paying ten or fifteen bucks is already for a substantial expansion, but buying avatar items and horse armor with real money isn’t.
  • Many people loved the idea of the Wii when it was first revealed, but the reality turned out to be much uglier. For every amazing first-party title like Super Mario Galaxy, there are 50 shovelware titles that rely too heavily on motion control as a gimmick. Plus, it’s painful for any gamer to hear a soccer mom say she “loves video games!” because she tried Wii Sports and Dancing With the Stars.
  • Xbox 360 has been a major success this generation, but it’s also one of the biggest hardware failures in gaming history. With an astonishing failure rate, most 360 owners have gone through at least one failed console. Microsoft tried to ease our pains with an extended warranty, but there’s still no excuse for such faulty hardware.

So what do you think? We're obviously in a very, very good age of gaming right now, but would you rank it as the absolute best? If not, which is your personal favorite?