Everyone’s excited for the Next Gen of console gaming, but what about generations one through seven? Here’s a primer on everything you need to know to put the PS4 and Xbox One into a historical context.

space invaders 25th anniversary

Arcade machines like this got their start in bars.

The Arcade Era

Early video games were modeled after pinball machines. They were marketed to adults and could usually be found in bars. It wasn’t until the 1970s, when arcades began to grow in popularity, that video games became really popular among young people.

Video games were a new field, filled with possibilities and hope. Nobody had any design or sales experience, so game creators just made the games that they wanted to make.

Magnavox Odyssey

Magnavox Odyssey

First Gen

In 1972, after the successful debut of the “Brown Box” console prototype, the Magnavox Odyssey became the first-ever commercial home video game console. You see those two white blocks with dials? Those are controllers. Really. The Odyssey, which had no sound or color, came with plastic overlays which you could stick to your TV screen to simulate color. And because it lacked the ability to keep track of scores, Magnavox kindly included scorecards with each unit.

Despite the fact that the Odyssey was generally regarded as a commercial failure, it served as an inspiration for future game systems.

Atari 2600

Atari 2600

Second Gen

Shortly after the Odyssey premiered, Atari was hard at work promoting its first console—a family version of its popular arcade game Pong. Atari was able to watch all of Magnavox’s mistakes and launch a massively successful marketing campaign. During the following decade, companies like Coleco and Fairchild emerged with their own take on the console, but Atari reigned supreme.

Most controllers were simple and used dials, but around this time we began to see joysticks, plastic guns, and steering wheels.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

The Crash

In 1983, things took a turn for the worse. Video game revenue fell a whopping 97%. Gaming news and opinion site Polygon cites low quality standards and a loss of consumer confidence as the cause. Game design, up to this point, had been a “Wild West,” with very little research being done into who was actually playing games, and the result was catastrophic.

Atari’s massive loss in revenue is sometimes associated with the widely panned Atari video game E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. The game was so bad, in fact, that legends still linger of a burial site where Atari hid all of its unsold consoles.

Super Mario Bros. for NES

Super Mario Bros. for NES

Third and Fourth Gen

Nintendo, a company already famous for its arcade games, was paying attention. In 1985, aware of the lingering skepticism of video games brought on by the crash, Nintendo enforced strict quality regulations and released only a few games per year. By 1987, the success of franchises such as Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda made the NES a must-have.

Sega, a company that had been hurt by the crash, went through a number of reacquisitions and successfully emerged with the Master System and Genesis. Together, Nintendo and Sega dominated the market.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

Fifth Gen

In the 1990s, with the market under control and technology improving at breakneck speed, the race for graphics was on. The Nintendo 64 and Sega Saturn introduced high-quality, three-dimensional animation like nothing the market had seen. PlayStation emerged as a formidable competitor around this time, encouraging a new shift from cartridges to compact discs.

Nintendo’s handheld GameBoy, released in 1989, saw advancements as well with the release of the Gameboy Pocket (1996), Gameboy Color (1998), and Gameboy Advance (2001).

xbox live

The Internet changed the way we game.

Sixth and Seventh Gen

Though several consoles had attempted internet connectivity before (notably the Sega Dreamcast in 1998), it wasn’t until 2002, when Microsoft launched Xbox Live, that connected consoles began to catch on. The Xbox also marked the first major American console company to hit the market since Atari. The PlayStation 2 and Xbox duked it out as leaders in cutting-edge gaming, though the Gamecube ensured Nintendo a firm share of the market.

The ’06 PlayStation 3 and ’05 Xbox 360 were able to advance their internet integration and use of online gaming, and the ’06 Nintendo Wii marked a huge leap in motion-sensing technology.

PS4 XBO Controllers

Xbox One and PS4 controllers.

The Next Gen

Today, the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 are taking full advantage of advancements in graphics and internet technology. The Xbox One goes a step further by fully integrating with television to create as many smooth transitions as possible. Advances in voice and facial recognition, on top of massive computing power, might make you wonder what other bells and whistles they could add next.

Lately, we’ve also seen a strong trend in second screen gaming, exemplified in the Nintendo Wii U, the handheld DS, 3DS, and 2DS, and the PlayStation’s integration with the handheld PS Vita.

The future?

Google, Apple, and Valve are all involved in the games industry. Will they take on a bigger role soon?

What’s Next?

So what can we expect in Generation Nine? We already know that computer game company Valve is planning to produce a console for their popular Steam network. And Microsoft has been doing so well in the gaming industry, maybe we can expect something from Apple or Google.

What kinds of features would you like in your entertainment system? Leave us a note in the comments.

This article was written by

Courtney is Pixelkin's Associate Managing Editor. While working with the Girl Scouts of Northern California, she mentored young girls in teamwork, leadership, personal responsibility, and safety. Today, she spends her time studying adolescent development and using literary analysis techniques to examine video games.