Syncopated Systems
Seriously Sound Science

Entertainment Technology Generations

This article is part of a series about entertainment and computer games. It follows the introduction to Electronic Game Industry History.

Creating an Entertainment Technology Timeline reveals groups of attributes shared among games of the same generation. Though there is certainly much disagreement regarding what constitutes each generation of video and computer games, I attempt to present my definitions and the reasons for my decisions below.

After defining these generations, I coded each generation with a unique color and applied the same color code to the corresponding years in the Entertainment Technology Timeline.

Technological Progression To Market

Technologies generally take time to integrate, largely due to market constraints. That is, only as demand for a technology is demonstrated do additional suppliers enter a market with products that integrate more functionality into forms that are smaller and generally thus require fewer resources to produce. (There are, of course, notable exceptions such as highly-integrated semiconductor components. Their relatively high costs are usually offset by savings in other parts of a product.)

This is why we generally see a progression of computing technology from large general-purpose machines in laboratories to progressively smaller (and often somewhat specialized) ones in military or industrial settings, commercial environments, and then the homes, hands, and pockets of consumers. In the context of interactive multimedia (video games and computer games), the introduction of new technologies into products tends to follow roughly this order:

  1. Academic/scientific laboratory equipment (direct-to-customer e.g. mainframes and mini computers)
  2. Industrial equipment (sold by distributors; e.g. coin-operated games)
  3. Specialty market consumer retail products (e.g. workstations, personal computers)
  4. Mass market stationary consumer retail products (e.g. home game consoles)
  5. Mass market portable consumer retail products (e.g. handheld games)

The functionality of larger machines generally preceeds that of smaller devices by roughly a generation.

To create handheld and other portable devices there also exists a bottleneck in cross-platform development, a hurdle that I helped game developers overcome in the 1990s, and which I describe further below.

The Cross-Development Bottleneck

Before the widespread availability of network interface connectors on game systems, it had been extremely difficult for many aspiring software developers to break into game console market. This was because, to create video games, a cross-development interface is needed to connect the host computer (the machine on which content is created) to the target system; a complete development system consists of this interface, a host computer, a target system and related software. With network interface connectors now standard equipment on modern game consoles, many developers are able to connect target systems to their host computers using a local-area network (LAN).

Typically, one development system is needed for at least every programmer on the project. Ideally, there should also be one available for each game, visual and sound designer (and sometimes even for each tester). Because development systems are often very expensive, they were usually in short supply; for example, Nintendo originally (circa late 1990 and early 1991) would charge developers $60,000 for a prototype SNES development system and later offered a cost-reduced version for $15,000. My version allowed a developer better control and flexibility, and was about 25 times less expensive. (At this point in my career, I'm often able to provide efficiency improvements of 50 times.)

For the console game developers I worked for during the early- to mid-1990s, I spent most of my time designing and building cost-saving cross-development interfaces to many systems I classify as fourth- and fifth-generation (see table).

I've seen the hand-made cross-development hardware Activision used to create some of the best of the second-generation games (cartridges for the Atari 2600): it was an Atari 2600 Video Computer System (VCS) glued to the top of a card cage (bigger than a bread box), with ribbon cables (probably all hand-soldered) running between the slightly-open edges of the two bonded enclosures.

Generation-Defining Technologies

In attempting to make generational distinctions, I prefer not to simply measure the width (in bits) of a system's CPU data bus (which, for example, differentiated the Sega Genesis from its predecessors) nor the capacity of its network interface or of its primary distribution medium (see Media Capacities). Rather, I attempt to identify unique technologies introduced, defining each generation of systems.

Period Generation Defining/Key Features Introduced Examples
Mainstream Outliers
2020-present 9   Microsoft Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S
Sony PlayStation 5
Valve Steam Deck
(all with AMD Zen 2 CPU)
Nintendo Switch
(ARM Cortex-A57 CPU)
2012-2019 8 Game consoles with:
  • 64-bit CPUs
Nintendo Wii U
Sony PlayStation 4
(both with Apple-IBM-Motorola PowerPC CPU family)
Microsoft Xbox One
2006-2011 7 Game consoles with:
  • Accelerometer-enabled controllers,
  • Third-generation optical disc readers (BluRay, HD DVD-ROM),
  • Third-generation network interface (1 Gbps),
  • Multiprocessor/multicore CPUs,
  • Hard disk drive
Microsoft Xbox 360
Nintendo Wii *
Sony PlayStation 3
(all with Apple-IBM-Motorola PowerPC CPU family)
2001-2005 6 Game consoles with:
  • Hard disk drive (optional),
  • Network interface built-in or add-on,
  • Second-generation optical disc readers (DVD-ROM)
Nintendo GameCube
(Apple-IBM-Motorola PowerPC CPU)
Microsoft Xbox
(custom Intel Pentium III CPU)
Sega Dreamcast
(Hitachi SH-4 CPU)
Sony PlayStation 2
1995-2000 5 Game consoles with:
  • First-generation optical disc readers (CD-ROM),
  • Operating systems,
  • 32-bit RISC CPUs,
  • Flash EEPROM cards/cartridges for storing user data
Nintendo 64
Sony PlayStation
(both SGI-MIPS CPU family)
Sega Saturn **
(Hitachi SH-2 CPU)
1990-1994 4 CD-ROM-based computer games Activision The Manhole
Activision Cosmic Osmo...
Sierra On-Line Jones in the Fast Lane
CD-ROM-based computer-console crossover units Commodore CDTV
Philips CD-i
(Motorola 68000 CPU family)
3DO Interactive Multiplayer
Game consoles with:
  • Distributed processing (Multiple microprocessors),
  • 8/16- and 16-bit CPUs,
  • PCBs with surface-mounted technology (SMT) components,
  • Third-party IP in ASICs,
  • Add-on first-generation optical disc reader (CD-ROM)
Atari Jaguar
Sega Genesis
(both with Motorola 68000 CPU)
Nintendo SNES
(WDC 65816 CPU family)
1984-1989 3 General-purpose computers with:
  • Wider data buses (8/16-bit and 16/32-bit CPUs),
  • 3.5" micro floppy magnetic diskette drives
Apple Macintosh
Atari ST
Commodore Amiga
(all with Motorola 68000 CPU)
Apple IIGS
(WDC 65816 CPU family)
Acorn Archimedes
IBM PC AT (5170)
(Intel 80286 CPU)
Game consoles with:
  • Multi-session games via user data storage (e.g. on-cartridge battery-powered RAM),
  • Pause button ***,
  • Serial/multiplexed interfaces to controllers and peripherals,
  • 8-bit CPUs
Nintendo NES
(Commodore-MOS 6502 CPU)
Sega Master System
(Zilog Z80 CPU)
1976-1983 2 Multi-game consoles and general-purpose computers with:
  • 8-bit CPUs,
  • Simple games,
  • Replaceable programs...
...via magnetic 5.25" mini floppy diskettes Apple II
(Commodore-MOS 6502 CPU)
IBM PC (5150)
(Intel 8088 CPU)
Tandy-Radio Shack TRS-80
(Zilog Z80 CPU)
...via either magnetic 5.25" mini floppy diskettes or magnetic compact cassette tapes
Atari 400
Atari 800

Commodore PET 2001
Commodore VIC-20
(all with Commodore-MOS 6502 CPU)
Commodore 64
(with Commodore-MOS 6510 CPU)
...via ROM cartridges
Atari VCS (2600)
Atari 5200 SuperSystem ***
(both with Commodore-MOS 6502 CPU family)
Fairchild Channel F VES
(Fairchild F8 CPU)
1971-1975 1 Single-game units (many using hard-wired logic) become commercially-available Syzygy Computer Space (coin-operated)
Atari Pong (coin-operated and home)
Atari Breakout
Atari Video Pinball
Atari Stunt Cycle
Coleco Telstar games (e.g. Combat!)
to 1970 0 Non-commercial/academic computer multimedia Spacewar!

* The Nintendo Wii, though it uses accelerometic controllers extensively, fails to meet other criteria that may define its generation.

** The Sega Saturn's CPU actually consisted of two Hitachi SH2 processors, so it may have been ahead of the technology curve in that regard.

*** The pause function was introduced with the Atari 5200 SuperSystem in 1982.

† Through his friend Steve Jobs, who worked for Atari at the time, Steve Wozniak contributed to the design of Breakout, likely teaching him much about video circuits and contributing to the colored bars in the Apple logo.

For further reading about the history of video and computer games and their technology, see the Entertainment Technology Timeline. The Historical Size Constraints in Electronic Games provides an illustrated summary of growth in media size constraints affecting video and computer games.

For a chart illustrating derivations of computer technologies, see A Family Tree of Key Computer Technologies Since 1960.