Feature Article: Defining Home Videogame, Computer and Handheld Eras

Bill Loguidice's picture


What is often lacking in casual discussion of eras or time periods when certain systems or types of technology dominated is an agreed upon definition of what these really encompassed.  Below is one attempt at defining the significance of eras in the key classifications of home videogames, computers and handhelds.  As with any type of grouping, it's important to remember that there can be significant overlap, as some systems lasted a year or less, while others have been going strong for a decade or more. 


Videogame Eras:


PONG ERA (1972 - 1977, Defined by: Paddle and Ball Games) - This era began in 1972 with the original Odyssey and lasted right through the introduction of the first programmable (removable cartridge) consoles in the late 1970's.  These Pong-like systems were self-contained devices that played a pre-set number of games.  There was little that could be done with bars and moving blocks ("balls") and most games were of the "deflect and don-t miss" variety.

ATARI/CARTRIDGE ERA (1976 - 1985, Defined by: Shooting Games) - This era began in 1976 with the release of the first cartridge-based system, the Fairchild VES.  However, the system that defined the era and videogames in general was Atari's VCS, which later came to be known as the 2600.  In the beginning, these systems were barely more promising than the Pong systems before them, but by the end of 1984, the potential of these systems was made clear, with many of the game types we know today already introduced, like shooting, racing, flying, maze, adventure and first person.  In fact, technology that never saw the light of day because of the arcade and console industry crash of 1984, like save game battery backup on Coleco's ColecoVision or cartridges with eight times the typical capacity for the Atari 2600, only became evident years later.  The first blockbuster arcade-to-home translation, Taito's Space Invaders for the VCS, classified as a shooting game, set the tone for this era and was among the most often released type.

NES ERA (1986 - 1990, Defined by: Side-scrolling Platform Games) - This era, post-crash, began in late 1985 with the return of console videogames to the US following the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).  In the beginning, these systems would feature nothing more than better arcade translations, but ultimately would lead the way for modern consoles.  Examples include requiring a license to publish games, releasing console-style role-playing games (RPG's) that introduced Japanese cultural influence in design, battery backups and large cartridge capacities.  With Nintendo's Super Mario Bros., the influx of 2D scrolling platform games began, and is what ultimately set the tone for this era.

GENESIS ERA (1989 - 1993, Defined by: 2D Refinement) - This era began in 1989, with the introduction of the Sega Genesis, and to a lesser degree, the NEC Turbo-Grafx 16.  This was the era of "more": more action buttons, more graphics and sound, and larger cartridge capacities, building heavily on the advancements of the previous era.  When Nintendo began releasing its last few games for the Super Nintendo (SNES), such as Rare's Donkey Kong Country, it became clear in hindsight that this era was to be one of the peaks of sprite-based 2D gaming.

CD ERA (1992 - 1995, Defined by: Vast storage and FMV) - This era began in 1992 with the introduction of CD add-on units for the Genesis and Turbo-Grafx 16, right through to systems like the 3DO Multiplayer, and stopped right around the release of the Sega Saturn.  The defining characteristic of this era was, in comparison to cartridges, the virtually limitless storage capacity of the CD media that was often underutilized for actual gameplay.  Instead, developers mostly used the extra space for things like CD-quality sound within the same type of games available on cartridge and the ever controversial Full-Motion Video (FMV).  Nevertheless, as with the introduction of removable cartridges, the release of a new type of media into gaming would have important repercussions for future eras.

PS1/POLYGON ERA (1994 - 2000, Defined by: 3D Gaming) - This era began in 1994 with the introduction of the Sega Saturn, but really took off with the introduction of Sony's PlayStation (PS1) in 1995.  As with the NES ERA, rather than simply introduce new technology, this era introduced a new type of gaming: 3D.  All the usual genres that were in 2D and used sprites, eventually found their way to 3D polygonal versions.  This was still early technology with several problems like low resolution and poor in-game cameras, but it caught on in a major way with the buying public at the expense of 2D.

PS2 ERA (1999 - 2006, Defined by: 3D Refinement) - This era began in 1999 with the introduction of the Sega Dreamcast, but is defined by the success of Sony's PlayStation 2 (PS2).  As the GENESIS ERA brought additional polish and sophistication to what was established by the NES ERA, the PS2 ERA does the same for the PS1/POLYGON ERA.

ONLINE ERA (2005 - Present, Defined by: Online Presence) - While online gaming was present in consoles long before 2005, it was with that year's introduction of the Microsoft Xbox 360 that having a true online strategy became an important competitive feature, matched to varying degrees by both Sony's PlayStation 3 (PS3) and Nintendo's Wii.  Whether it's to download demos, game add-ons, casual games, or music and video, having online functionality has become an expected feature, particularly as broadband Internet continues to increase its marketshare in the US.


Computer Eras:


TEXT/CASSETTE ERA (1977 - 1982, Defined by: Text Displays, Cassette Storage) - This era began in 1977 with the releases of the Apple II, Commodore PET 2001 and Tandy Model I computers.  While these systems and the systems that followed would usually have some type of graphical capabilities and the ability to use more than cassette storage, it would be some time before there was a notable switch from text-based gaming and interfaces, and cheap, but slow and unreliable cassette tapes.

GRAPHICS/DISK ERA (1978 - 1985, Defined by: Graphics, Sound, Disk Storage) - This era began with the introduction of Apple's Disk II 5.25" disk drive in 1978, offering relatively inexpensive and reliable high-speed storage.  This was also a time when good graphics and sound were becoming requirements in home computers, since many were primarily being used as game machines, benefiting sales of systems with impressive visuals and sound like the Commodore 64 (C-64).

MOUSE/16-BIT ERA (1984 - 1992, Defined by: Mice, GUI's, Mainstream Acceptance) - Starting with the 1984 introduction of Apple's original Macintosh, the mouse began to rise in importance as a form of input, particularly as Graphical User Interfaces (GUI's) began to find their way onto most computer platforms.  The market for 8-bit computers would give way to 16-bit and beyond, as fewer and fewer companies stayed in the computer race.  Eventually only PC Compatibles and Apple's Macintosh line would remain viable.

CD-ROM ERA (1992 - 1996, Defined by: Mainstream Multimedia, CD-ROM) - As CD-ROM drives dropped in price and more commonly became default options on new computers, multimedia software came to flood the market, eventually spelling the demise of floppy disks as a delivery medium.  Microsoft's DOS and Windows 3.1 would begin to dominate the competition based mostly on momentum and consumer desire for standardization. 

WINDOWS/3D ERA (1995 - 2004, Defined by: Windows Standardization, 3D Graphics Cards) - With the rock star-like introduction of Windows 95 in 1995, Microsoft once-and-for-all established their dominance of the personal computer market.  With far better game playing abilities than previous versions of Windows, PC's and Compatibles finally featured a standard low setup and configuration environment.  With manufacturers releasing several different types of 3D cards with their own interpreters, the last barrier to standardization came with Microsoft's focus on DirectX, which established a standard set of routines that translated requests from not only video cards, but controllers and sound cards as well, into something that the operating system could understand.  With that, it only became necessary for hardware manufacturers to support the ever growing list of features in each version of DirectX, rather than court software developers to try and develop to proprietary technologies.

ONLINE/MMOG ERA (2004 - PRESENT, Defined by: Online Presence) - Though forms of online gaming originated on mainframe computers and were available on early personal computers, ubiquitous online gaming didn't really take off until the emergence of the World Wide Web in the late 1990's.  While standard game types like board games, first person shooters and real-time strategy fests were easily converted to online play, a new form of online gaming, the Massively Multiplayer Online Game (MMOG) redefined what social gaming meant, often having tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands concurrent participants.  There were hits in the genre prior to Blizzard's Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG), World of Warcraft, but starting with the game's release in 2004, a cultural phenomena was unleashed.


Handheld Eras:


LED/LCD ERA (1979 - 1989, Defined by: Nascent Efforts) - Early electronic handheld games in the 1970's featured glowing Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) of varying intensity, greatly limiting their display capabilities.  Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) and Vacuum Florescent Display (VFD) handhelds followed that precedent, increasing the display options, but still remaining limited to the built-in game and fixed images.  Milton Bradley's Microvision, relied on interchangeable cartridges and an LCD dot matrix display to become the first truly portable game system in 1979.  While single purpose LCD and VFD handhelds would flourish in the marketplace for several years after the Microvision's short life, there would not be another fully programmable handheld until 1989.

BREAKTHROUGH ERA (1989 - 1998, Defined by: First Handheld Videogame Market) - This era was defined by the emergence of a true handheld videogame market in 1989 with the release of the black and white Nintendo GameBoy, which specialized in popular Nintendo licenses and long battery life, and the Atari Lynx, which was a powerful color handheld with a quality software lineup, but lacked big-name titles and featured poor battery life.  These two systems would be followed one year later by NEC's color Turbo Express, which was capable of directly playing all Turbo-Grafx 16 cartridges.  Other handhelds, big and small, would follow, but the GameBoy would dominate until 1998.

COLOR AND DISPLAY ERA (1998 - 2003, Defined by: Color and Backlight Required) - Since Nintendo had little challenge in the handheld market from 1989, it was not until that company's release of the GameBoy Color in 1998 that it was dictated that any new portable would require color to truly be competitive.  With the 2003 release of the updated GameBoy Advance, the GameBoy Advance SP, backlit screens also became a requirement.  Several more challengers entered the fray during this era, but this ended up as perhaps Nintendo's strongest period of dominance. 

3D/CONVERGENCE ERA (2003 - Present, Defined by: 3D Handhelds and Multimedia) - By 2003, with the releases of the Nokia N-Gage and the Tapwave Zodiac, 3D became a critical component of portable hardware design, mirroring the console market.  These portables also served multiple functions, be they as cell phones, PDA's or Web browsers, becoming true convergence devices.  Nintendo would continue to dominate, this time with their Nintendo DS, released in 2004, but Sony would provide a genuine challenge with their PlayStation Portable (PSP), released in 2005.


Mark Vergeer
Mark Vergeer's picture
Joined: 01/16/2006
That is a nice way of trying

That is a nice way of trying to sort of partition the various milestones in video game and computer history.

Mark Vergeer - Editor / Pixelator
Armchair Arcade, Inc.
Xboxlive gametag

Rowdy Rob
Rowdy Rob's picture
Joined: 09/04/2006
That had to have been a

That had to have been a brain-wracking article to write. It's one thing to separate videogames into separate categories, but it's another to separate videogame history into separate eras! It wasn't until I read your article that I realized how complicated the timeline is.

qoj hpmoj o+ 6uo73q 3Jv 3svq jnoh 77V

Bill Loguidice
Bill Loguidice's picture
Joined: 12/31/1969
Rowdy Rob wrote:That had to
Rowdy Rob wrote:

That had to have been a brain-wracking article to write. It's one thing to separate videogames into separate categories, but it's another to separate videogame history into separate eras! It wasn't until I read your article that I realized how complicated the timeline is.

qoj hpmoj o+ 6uo73q 3Jv 3svq jnoh 77V

It was actually one of the two things (the other being the genre article on here) that I decided to cut from the upcoming book and thought would be fine as stand-alone pieces. Like the system ranking matrix stuff from the old site (which I hope to revive in the future and has also been cut from the book), the ideas have been kicking around in my mind for years and years. It was actually a pleasure to commit them to "paper" and think them through to completion.

Bill Loguidice, Managing Director
Armchair Arcade, Inc.
(A PC Magazine Top 100 Website)

Joined: 01/13/2007
A wonderful effort, but

A wonderful effort, but consoles can be further streamlined:

1st generation. Single games. The consoles are dedicated, and their lifespan limited. Pong is the most popular.

2nd generation. Single screen games. Variety is offered, but games are simplistic, being largely wave based shooters, sports, and maze chases. What you see is what you get, with only rare exceptions. Most of the exceptions either provide one scrolling playfield, or loosely interconnected single screens. Pong is obsolete.

3rd generation: (NES, MAster System, etc) 2-d Maps. Almost overnight, videogames find a narrative, becoming more about a journey with a start and finish rather than simply trying to keep a high score. Power-ups alter the rules at a moment's notice. A soundtrack becomes a requirement. Single screen wave shooters and maze chase games are obsolete.

4th generation: (Snes, Megadrive, Neo Geo) 2-d art. Graphics improve. Soundtracks that evoke emotion are created. Tricks like parralax scrolling and Mode 7 are used to mimic 3-d.

Then it would be 5th generation 3-d stages ( cameras are introduced etc) and 6th generation 3-d art. ( Aesthetics/atmosphere are no longer treated as something irrelevant to the game's quality anymore - this last generation is when the videogames as art/simulation really took off.)

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