What Were the Best 1980s Video Game Consoles?

The changing technology that changed a culture

Photo by Enrique Guzmán Egas on Unsplash

Do you remember the first video game you played? No matter what decade you grew up in, the games you love today all have their roots in the consoles of the 80s.

As we went into the 80s, the Atari was fading away — but some new players emerged on the scene. This is a look at the best consoles the decade offered and the changing technology that took home entertainment to a whole new level.

The Nintendo Entertainment System

With the NES, you got a groundbreaking new console that forever changed the trajectory of video games.

For this reason, It’s important to start with the NES. It’s also important to note that it helped save the industry. You must read my article all about the great video game crash of 1983 to get up to speed with this:

But here’s the quick rundown.

Atari ruled the roost going into the 80s, and it looked like they would be on top forever. But they got complacent. There were no standards on the video games that could be released so third-party developers could put out any piece of crap they wanted.

Atari didn’t care, they were making money hand over fist.

But these games were garbage. The public was losing faith in the company. And then E.T. came out…

The backlash to the game was so severe that it nearly bankrupted Atari.

This was already on the way to happening, but E.T. probably pushed it over the edge. The industry almost imploded overnight, and stores — and toy companies — wanted nothing to do with video games anymore. Big companies like Hasbro and Mattel had invested in games but got so burned by the video game crash, they vowed to disassociate themselves forever.

Seems like a bad time to put out a new console. But Nintendo knew they had the ideal product. What started as the Famicom in Japan became the Nintendo Entertainment System in North America.

By 1986, the NES had completely revolutionized the video game market. Between the massive success of Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt, the NES ushered in the era of what video games could truly be.

The Sega Master System

The Sega Genesis is part of the third generation of video game consoles because it uses 8-Bit technology. The Sega Master System started out as a whole different video game console: The Sega Mark III.

It went by this name in Japan before they released it as the Sega Master System in North American in 1986.

Sega and Nintendo were neck and neck during the third generation of consoles. Even if you hate Nintendo, it dominated the decade. The Master System was great, but I only knew one kid that had one.

The other problem was the lack of games for the Master System. Even though they used cool cartridges, and the credit card-sized “Sega Cards,” there just weren’t that many games available compared to the NES.

The other problem is the games weren’t as good and didn’t have great reviews.

Sega had an aggressive $15 million marketing campaign to launch the Master System. The hope was they would sell 400,000 to 750,000 consoles.

They only sold 150,000. They sold more than Atari but much fewer than Nintendo’s 1.1 million consoles.

This console seems lackluster: but it really wasn’t. The technology was ahead of its time, but they didn’t know how to market and package it as well as Nintendo.

They also didn’t have a flagship game and character like Mario to be the face of the product.

But that would change with the launch of the Sega Genesis.

Nintendo Game Boy

The Game Boy was a groundbreaking new console — if you can even call it a console? For this; we will because that was the whole idea with the Game Boy — it was like taking an NES console anywhere you went.

Even though it had a black-and-white screen, it didn’t matter: the essence of the NES was still there. You have had the familiar controller built right into it. The classic control pad had continued to be used ever since it was introduced on the Nintendo Game and Watch years earlier.

The technology of course seems quaint now, but this thing caused a frenzy when it came out. It wasn’t a crappy handheld game, but a genuine video game console to take on the go.

A flagship game would be responsible for its success: Tetris.

When the Game Boy was released, it sold 40,000 units on its first day. It would become the number one selling toy of 1989.

Check out my article on the other best-selling toys from 1980 to 1989 here.

Sega Genesis

Sega would be first out of the gate with new 16-bit technology. They released it in 1988, and the Super Nintendo wouldn’t be out for two more years.

Even though Nintendo was late to the game, it gave them enough time to take the technology to the next level.

You could say that Sega learned from the mistakes they made with the Master System and applied their new knowledge to the Genesis. One big thing Sega had going for them this time, was a unique character to represent the console — and one of the greatest video game characters in history: Sonic the Hedgehog.

With the new 16-bit technology, the console now had the ability to display amazing graphics along with unique features such as sprites, tiles, and scrolling.

Fun fact: Tonka was one of the first distributors of the Sega Master System, but that didn’t go so great. Sega then turned to Atari of all people to help launch it, but they declined. It was so hard to market against Nintendo, along with the rumors of a Nintendo 16-bit system coming down the pipeline.

Sega expected to sell a million units — but only sold 500,000. The Genesis just needed time to grow, though. Because of the popularity of Sonic — and people realizing how great the Genesis was, even compared to the SNES — it actually outsold the SNES during the 1991 holiday season.

For a short while, Sega controlled 65% of the 16-bit market.

TurboGrafx-16/PC Engine

To me, the TurboGrafx-16 was the stuff of legend. It seemed like a video game console from the future, and only something rich kids could own.

It technically predates the Sega Genesis as the first 16-bit console when it was released in Japan in 1987. But it didn’t enter the North American market until 1989.

What gave this console part of its folklore is that no one had seen or played it. This seems like a smart marketing campaign to build mystique, but they actually saw the campaign as a failure.

The delayed release of the TurboGrafx-16 didn’t help matters, and marketing became too difficult.

But here’s what I never knew about the TurboGrafx-16: It really wasn’t a 16-bit console. They marketed it but was technically an 8-Bit CPU. The marketing — plus having the “16” in its name — was seen as being deceptive.

The thing was, the PC engine — as they knew it in Japan — was a monster hit. They introduced it earlier and still was better than 8-Bit. When it debuted in Japan in 1987, it outsold the Famicom. But it just couldn’t cut it in North America.

Soon after, they even put out an enhanced version called the PC Engine SuperGrafx. It also didn’t catch on. The entire system would end up being discontinued in 1994.

If they had launched just a little earlier, they could have been what Sega became. The TurboGrafx-16 was released two weeks after the Sega Genesis and it was too late to play catch up. Who knows what would have happened if they had launched a few months earlier.

Final Thoughts

If you are a video game fan, it’s worth looking back on the consoles that paved the way for all future editions.

It’s crazy to think that, for a short time, video games were dead. It would take a 100-year-old company from Japan to usher in a new era of video game technology. From that point on, video games would never be the same.

Hey, this was some pretty sweet 80s content, but if you want the motherload: head on over to Everything80sPodcast.com to start reliving the greatest decade.

Some health, a little marketing, and a lot of 80s| The Startup, The Ascent, Better Marketing/Humans, PSILY|

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