A Reader’s Guide to the System Ranking Matrix -Technical Statistics and Ratings for U.S. Game Capable Systems

Bill Loguidice's picture

Author: Bill Loguidice
Application Development: Matt Barton
Data Entry: Elizabeth Katselis, Matt Barton and Bill Loguidice
Additional Fact Checking: Elizabeth Katselis
Article Editing: Matt Barton
Article Layout: Bill Loguidice
Special Thanks: Matt Barton and Buck Feris

View the matrix via the link on the main menu (System Matrix) or by clicking here

Introduction
The System Ranking Matrix is designed to be an at-a-glance guide to the various capabilities and demonstrated marketability of the major videogame and games-capable computer systems released in the United States.

Summary
System Information lists the standard technical specifications of each system. However, rather than list what each system was theoretically capable of, I have listed the standards set by the majority of its game library. For instance, if a system supported up to 128 on-screen colors, but the majority of games utilized only 32, then 32 will be the number given. I have also rounded certain values for consistency.

The matrix not only provides objective technical details for each system, but also thoughtful Armchair Arcade Ratings, which are subjective and generally in relative comparison to each other and specifically to other systems of their generation. While one system may have better technical specifications on paper than another, in real world observations that consider multiple factors such as game availability and quality, the technically weaker system may outscore it. Scores higher than 10 are allowed only where necessary, like Visuals and Audio, as are scores lower than 1. Only whole (such as 3.0) or half points (such as 7.5) are allowed.

An asterisk (*) indicates a dominant game system in popularity for its era and class.

NOTE: We have tried our best to provide accurate information and careful evaluations of each system. However, you are encouraged to use the “Add your comment” section to provide corrections, feedback and anecdotes.


As this classic Commodore advertisement demonstrates, "IT'S HOW MUCH YOU GET." The matrix is all about what you really get with each system. [Scan by Bill Loguidice from the back cover of Family Computing magazine, May 1985, Volume 3, Number 5]

Explanation
Why a matrix? There is no easy way, without lots of research and hands-on experience, for the average user to visualize where a particular system fits in the context of history and technical capabilities, among other areas. We can spew strictly technical specifications, but the reality is most want to know what a system’s demonstrated or real-world abilities were.

There are so many factors to consider other than simple technical specifications. For instance, the Atari Jaguar may have been a 64-bit system, but did it ever show its full potential? Because the Jaguar was 64-bit, did that automatically make it better than Sega’s later 32-bit Saturn? How do the legendary Atari 2600 Video Computer System (VCS) or Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) stack-up to Sony’s PlayStation 2 (PS2) or Microsoft’s Xbox in key categories? These are questions that can only be answered through direct observation. That’s the purpose behind this matrix—to sift through the hype as objectively as possible so we’ll have our answers.

Why only focus on the U.S.? One reason is to keep the number of systems to a more manageable number. Another reason is that this is where the author’s expertise lies. It is open to see if other authors will take up the cause for other territories that they’re intimately familiar with, such as Japan or Europe. In any case, if you feel there is a system we omitted or would like to comment on other territories, please write in our discussion forums or use the “Add your comment” section provided for each system within the matrix itself.

Setup
The Armchair Arcade Ratings has eight categories leading up to a ninth, which is the overall score.

Let’s face it. For many, the Atari 2600 and NES are the penultimate game machines of their eras or even all-time, but the reality is technology has moved on, and, while the games are certainly no less fun than they used to be, areas like control have arguably improved, and audio-visual technology has definitely leapt forward. Therefore, while the Atari 2600 and NES can potentially achieve perfect 10’s in several categories, it will be impossible to give them scores anywhere near 10 in some of the more technically-skewed categories. This gives relatively new systems like the Nintendo GameCube – which has a high ranking in visual and audio categories, but a lower ranking in software depth – a fairer basis of comparison. Alternately, the older the system, the more potentially mature the offerings, such as in software diversity, which should help to offset many of the newer system’s technical advantages.

Category Explanation
Let’s examine each of the nine categories, in order.

Visuals
This category takes into account such features as a system’s resolution, colors and animation—basically everything that ends up on a screen. Some systems such as Tiger’s Game.com and Nintendo’s original GameBoy can display relatively high resolution black and white graphics, but blur on moving objects detracts from the overall experience. In fact, difficulty in actually seeing the action on the screen of the original GameBoy further hurts its score in this category since a good light source is required. Other systems like Sony’s PlayStation 1 have high resolution modes that were rarely used, so that factors little as a benefit in its final scoring. In fact, most systems have theoretical polygon or sprite output values that are quite high on paper, but in real world applications like games, they were rarely, if ever, realistic targets. Our final example to show how visuals were judged – the original Commodore Amiga – had a 4,096 color mode which was a bit odd and difficult to properly utilize, so most games only used 32 colors, so this is what that system was rated on.

Audio
This category judges a system’s inherent sound abilities, except where otherwise specified. For example, if a significant number of games utilized an add-on and the add-on was and still is quite common – like with the Magnavox Odyssey2’s and Mattel Intellivision’s voice modules – then those may be counted in the rating. For a system like the Apple IIgs – which in theory had incredible inherent stereo sound capabilities for its era – it was nonetheless crippled by the fact that without a relatively obscure add-on, it was only able to output a mono signal. In more modern examples, the Nintendo GameCube is “only” able to output Dolby Pro Logic II sound (analog cables), while the Sony PlayStation 2 and the Microsoft Xbox can output the superior Dolby Digital (digital cables), but only the Xbox utilizes the ability in the majority of its games. Nuances like these affect each system’s ratings.

Controller Options and Quality
In order to achieve a high ranking in this category, portable and handheld systems must offer an especially well-built control panel, and other types of systems must feature a wide-range of easy-to-find and well supported options. Criteria includes whether the system offers digital or analog control (or both, as applicable), gamepads, joysticks, light guns, dance or foot pads (or other specialty options), steering wheels, keyboards, vibration/force feedback, proper accommodations for more than one player, and so on. The more one system has and supports, the better the scoring.

Add-Ons, Peripherals, Expandability, Features
Items like disk drives, memory cards, display options, headphone support, touch screen capabilities, RAM add-ons, printer support and other types of upgrades and modules are the criteria used to evaluate this category. At the top is a system like the modern PC, which is the ultimate type of generalist system, with a seemingly endless array of useful and useless add-ons (sometimes at the expense of ease-of-use), while near the bottom is a system like the Emerson Arcadia 2001 where the system you got is the exact system you were always stuck with, hard-wired controllers and all. Having a lower score in this category does not necessarily indicate a poor system, but it’s almost always preferable to have more options and flexibility to tweak your entertainment experience rather than less.

Software Lineup Diversity and Complexity
First, this category determines whether a system has a good range of game genres with sufficient diversity. Second, this category determines if any of the games for the system in question have depth, or whether they are predominantly shallow diversions (a mix is best, but all depth over all shallow would rate a bit higher). For instance, the Atari 2600’s software library includes arcade, puzzle, racing, role-playing, adventure, fighting, card and text games, and offers options for those seeking quick or longer-term play, so it scores high. The Mattel Aquarius, on the other hand, misses many key genres, so its rating is quite low.

Software Density and Raw Number of Mainstream Titles
This category puts a great deal of emphasis on the total number of titles in a system’s library. Some systems, like the Nintendo Virtual Boy have a handful, while others, like the Sega Dreamcast have hundreds, while others still, like the modern PC, have countless thousands, so each system is scored accordingly. The primary focus of this category is on commercial titles, but certain systems either due to age or popular use of public domain software, blur the commercial designation, hence the use of “mainstream” as a qualifier. So any well distributed, readily available game of acceptable quality counts towards the system’s library and thus rating.

Ease to Set Up Optimal Game Playing System
DOS-based PC systems could be very powerful and quite flexible – thus rating highly in other categories – but were often quite unpleasant to try and set up to actually get a game running (can you free enough memory?), then working optimally (is there enough memory to have sound?), so these will score lower than a typical console, like the Atari Jaguar, which is basically plug-and-play. Some systems score lower in this category because of uncomfortable ergonomics or needlessly complex setups, physical or otherwise.

Initial Popularity
This category examines a system’s popularity with the general buying public, with a heavy bias towards when first released. Some systems achieved greater fame after they were pulled from the market, such as GCE’s Vectrex, and some systems are still popular with certain communities today, like Atari’s 2600, but those types of scenarios are not heavily factored into the score because of all the variables involved (for instance, newly published software is available for the Atari 5200, but some of the original software is difficult to find).

Overall Score
The grand culmination where we arrive at our system’s final ranking. What is your favorite system’s total score?

Category Breakdown Example
Finally, in order to illustrate the thinking that went into each rating, read the following breakdown of the Initial Popularity category.

Ranking of 0.5: Entex Adventurevision, Fairchild Channel F, RCA Studio II, and Spectravideo SV-series
The systems that achieved a 0.5 as a ranking essentially were released into the marketplace and available for purchase for at least a limited time, but few made purchases and even today the most hardcore gamers have a hard time identifying the systems.

Ranking of 1: Commodore 16 and Plus/4, CP/M Compatible Systems (Kaypro, Osborne, etc.), Emerson Arcadia 2001, Mattel Aquarius with Mini Expander and 16K Memory Cartridge, Milton Bradley Microvision, NUON DVD Platform, Tapwave Zodiac, Tiger R-Zone, and Timex Sinclair 1000 with 16K Memory Expansion
The systems that achieved a 1 as a ranking may have been released to some fanfare or expectations, but never took off in the marketplace, particularly in reference to gaming. The two Commodore systems suffered from a lack of software compatibility with the best selling Commodore 64 and were too underpowered at the time of release to establish their own niche. The Tapwave Zodiac is too new to properly analyze its impact on the marketplace, but as it stands now it is a non-factor.

Ranking of 1.5: Commodore PET Series, IBM PCjr with Second Generation Keyboard, Nintendo Virtual Boy, Radio Shack TRS-80 Color Computer 3 (CoCo3) - 128K Unit, Tandy TRS-80 Model I – IV, and Tiger Game.com
The systems that achieved a 1.5 as a ranking were popular or long lasting enough to have a devoted or somewhat mainstream following, but never in significant enough numbers to be competitive with other contemporary systems. The Commodore PET series of computers and the Tandy TRS-80 Model I – IV systems as examples, did not have the audio-visual horsepower of other systems of the day to bring their gaming abilities to the next level, likely limiting their ultimate potential for market growth.

Ranking of 2: Bally Astrocade, Magnavox Odyssey2 with Voice Module, Nokia N-Gage/QD, Sega 32X, and SNK Neo Geo Pocket Color
The systems that achieved a 2 as a ranking made enough impact on the marketplace to have reasonable sales and a memorable existence for most gamers. The Bally Astrocade actually had several re-releases, which helped its score, while SNK’s Neo Geo Pocket Color was always facing a losing battle going against Nintendo’s GameBoy juggernaut, but was around long enough to garner a loyal following.

Ranking of 2.5: Cell Phone Platform (BREW or J2ME-enabled late model phones), and Commodore Vic-20
The Commodore Vic-20 was a best-selling computer, but ultimately had a shortened lifespan once its more powerful sibling, the 64, was released. BREW or J2ME cell phones are in a lot of consumer’s hands with lots of gaming options available, but it’s still a growing category in the US.

Ranking of 3: 3DO Multiplayer, Apple IIgs, Atari 5200 SuperSystem, Atari 7800 ProSystem, Atari Jaguar and Jaguar CD, Coleco Adam, GCE Vectrex, IBM and Compatible PC’s up to 286's with CGA graphics and PC speaker sound (DOS), NEC Turbo-Grafx 16 CD/Super CD, Philips CD-I with Digital Video (DV) add-on, Pocket PC Platform (late model), Radio Shack TRS-80 Color Computer 2 (CoCo2) - Up to 64K Unit, Sega CD, and SNK Neo Geo and Neo Geo CD
The systems that achieved a 3 as a ranking had acceptable lifespans and a good amount of support. However, all of these systems lacked something to take their popularity to the next level, most typically never being able to overcome more popular contemporary competition. The Atari 5200 SuperSystem had poor controllers and was released too close to the videogame crash of 1984 to have more of an impact. The Pocket PC platform, while currently still active, has always taken a back seat to the Palm platform in terms of raw numbers. Systems like the Radio Shack TRS-80 CoCo2 was always a fourth or fifth choice in the U.S. to systems like the Apple II series, Atari 8-bit computers and Commodore 64, among others. Apple’s IIgs was limited by Apple themselves since it was in direct competition against their own Macintosh line, which Apple deemed the future of the company.

Ranking of 4: Coleco ColecoVision
Coleco’s system was only hampered by being somewhat in the shadow of Atari’s wildly popular 2600 and the videogame crash of 1984. The console had a brief life in mail order outlets after the crash.

Ranking of 4.5: Atari ST Series, Commodore Amiga Series - AGA Chipset and Amiga CD32, and Texas Instruments TI-994/A with Voice Module
The Atari ST series of computers never caught on like their contemporary PC, Macintosh, and Commodore Amiga (ECS) competitors, but still had a market impact. Commodore’s AGA chipset systems like the Amiga 1200, never reached the same popularity levels of their own prior ECS-based models and were soon overrun by the popularity of Windows PC’s. The Texas Instruments TI-994/A was popular, particularly after drastic price cuts, but never cracked into the top three systems of the day, which were the Apple II series, the Commodore 64, and the Atari 8-bit computer line.

Ranking of 5: Apple Macintosh pre-iMac PowerPC-based - Full Color, Apple Macintosh up to 16 color 680x0-based, Apple Macintosh up to G4 or better with Current Generation 3D graphics, Atari Lynx, Mattel Intellivision with Voice Module, and PalmOS Platform (late model)
The systems that achieved a 5 as a ranking represent the median of popularity. In the case of Apple’s Macintosh, it was always a popular system, but never approached the top in any of its iterations. Today, the Macintosh line has been marginalized by the popularity of Windows PC’s, but counts among its many millions of owners a rabidly devoted core of fans. Mattel’s Intellivision is one of the more interesting stories. While never reaching the top of the videogame world, Mattel’s system saw several revisions of compatible hardware and can count among its contemporary competitors both the Atari 2600 and NES, having a long and eventful lifespan.

Ranking of 6.5: NEC Turbo-Grafx 16 - Turbo Express, and Sega Saturn
Both of these systems were usually in third place in their respective generations, but still had devoted followings with good support and a continuously loyal fan base. The biggest problem with each of these systems was that they were up against systems that would become legendarily popular, which in the Saturn’s case was Sony’s PlayStation and in NEC’s case, the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo consoles.

Ranking of 7: Sega Game Gear, and Sega Master System (SMS)
Both of these systems from Sega were distant seconds to Nintendo machines, but were popular choices for those that wanted an alternative to the choice of the masses. Relatively speaking, both of these systems did extremely well.

Ranking of 8: Commodore Amiga Series - ECS Chipset, Amiga CDTV; Microsoft Xbox; Nintendo 64; Sega Dreamcast; and Nintendo GameCube
None of these systems ever reached the top spot in their respective generations, but still moved a tremendous number of units and received a wealth of support. Microsoft’s Xbox and Nintendo’s GameCube are still going strong, creating an unprecedented long term three console race with Sony’s unstoppable PlayStation 2 (PS2).

Ranking of 9: Atari 8-bit Computers/XEGS* - 48K - 64K, and IBM and Compatible PC’s up to 386's with EGA graphics and Ad Lib sound (DOS)
Atari’s 8-bit computer line was active in the mainstream from approximately the late 1970’s to the very early 1990’s. While Atari was never able to overcome Apple’s II series or Commodore with the all-time best selling computer, the C-64, the devoted following and vast amount of support made these systems a good choice for the savvy or “accidental” consumer. The IBM EGA and Ad Lib standard began the PC’s dominance of computer gaming, finally reaching a point where the PC specification was becoming technologically competitive with other formats.

Ranking of 10: Apple II Series* - 48K - 128K units, Atari 2600 VCS - Standard Unit*, Commodore 64/128* - 64K Software, IBM and Compatible PC’s up to Pentium II's with First Generation 3D (Monster 3D equivalent) graphics and Soundblaster Pro sound (DOS/Windows)*, IBM and Compatible PC’s up to Pentium IV's with Current Generation 3D graphics and Soundblaster Audigy-level sound (Windows)*, IBM and Compatible PC’s up to Pentium's with VGA/SVGA graphics and Soundblaster sound (DOS)*, Nintendo Enterntainment System (NES)*, Nintendo GameBoy Advance/SP*, Nintendo GameBoy Color*, Nintendo GameBoy*, Nintendo Super Nintendo*, Sega Genesis*, Sony PlayStation 1 (PSX/PS1/PSOne)*, and Sony PlayStation 2 (PS2)*
These systems were without question the best selling and most popular computers, consoles, and handhelds of their day, garnering huge followings and tremendous support, often to the detriment of other contemporary systems. For whatever reason, these were or are the systems that resonated with the buying public and set the mark that all other competitors strive to reach.

Conclusion
Let us know what you think of the rankings. If you feel a system should be higher or lower in a category, let us know. While you may feel passionately about a system, facts are always appreciated to backup your opinions. Remember, this matrix was not created to show favoritism to any one system or systems, but to provide as objective a ranking as possible in several key categories. Since this is a “living” document, it is safe to assume that there will be future revisions based on feedback and new system releases. Finally, while great care was taken to make sure the System Information data was researched as carefully as possible, common conclusions may be wrong (for instance, about the system’s most popular resolution) or other data may be incorrect. Since accuracy is our highest goal, please provide your corrections as you uncover possible errors. Keep in mind, the “Add your comment” section will be everyone’s best friend in order to make the matrix as indispensable a reference and discussion tool as possible, so make use of it!

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