A Guide To U.S. Game Consoles

By Jon Rose and John Hancock

Collecting video games is fun, but sometimes a person new to collecting games (or even an old one branching out to a different system) can be pretty overwhelmed by the sheer number of consoles available. Everyone knows the system that they grew up with, we have discovered many of our favorite games on consoles we neither owned, nor even knew existed, prior to collecting them.

The PRGE console guide is a list, sorted by era, of every video game console released in North America. It's a great resource for a collector or player interested in "branching out" and a nice overview of many of the consoles that you may see at a classic game event. And you may read about a few that you will never see.

Each description is linked to further information about that system on Wikipedia or any of several other online video game history sites.

CLASSIC ERA(1972-1983)

The pioneering age of video games. The following consoles were released before or during the great video game crash of 1983-1984. The ‘golden age’ of video games, this was a time period in which many unique video game projects were released on limited finances. Very few companies would be able to move forward in the business after the bubble burst in 1983.

Magnavox Odyssey (1972)

Designed by Ralph Baer, this is the world’s first home video game system, predating Pong by over three years. The system consists of a base unit and controllers that look more like vacuum accessories than joysticks. The system lacks sound and color. Odyssey games consisted of a few white blocks, and overlays you put on your tv. Several games had multiple pieces that required a board game to be played as part of the experience.

Pong and Pong clones (1975)

The first commercial success in video games, most of these units consisted of two knobs, system selector, and a cord to the TV. Speakers were built into the consoles, which only played the built in pong games. Many ran on batteries. Hundreds of companies made pong clone systems of various shapes, sizes, and price. Atari, Magnavox and Coleco made the most popular ones.

Channel F (1976)

The worlds first cart-based system. Often overlooked for having very primitive and blocky graphics, the system has a few decent games. The built-in pong variant allows players to angle their shots for an added gameplay factor. Cartridges for this console are colored bright yellow. 26 games were made for this system, carts 18-26 are hard to find. This console was released in two models.

Atari 2600 (1977)

One of the most popular classic consoles of its time. Also known as the Video Computer System or VCS, this is the first cartridge based video game system to become widely popular. The system has two main controllers types: the joystick and the paddle. With a huge library of games that can be found relatively cheap, this is an excellent system to play and collect for. Some of the top-selling classics on this system include Space Invaders, Defender, Pitfall, Frogger and Warlords. This system has the most active homebrew programming scene today, due to its immense popularity, and several new games come out yearly.

RCA Studio II (1977)

One of the first cartridge consoles to be released, this rare system featured black and white graphics and controls that were mounted on the console itself. Only a handful of games were made for the unit as it was quietly phased out of production in 1978. Not very fun to play.

Telstar Arcade (1978)

At the end of the Pong craze, Coleco made a pong-like system that used strange triangle-shaped cartridges. The 3-sided system consisted of a steering wheel side, a gun side, and a pong side. The system was due to come out a year earlier than it did and quickly found itself in clearance bins due to competing systems with superior functions. Telstar is considered very obscure and rare, although it is not widely collected due to its obscurity.

APF M-1000 (1978)

It does not get any more obscure than this! This very rare system had only about a dozen of carts made for it, and was commercially a failure. This is a true conversation piece for a collection. Also released was a computer expansion called the Imagination Machine. Both sold poorly.

Bally Astrocade (1978)

A cross between a computer and a console, this system is quite obscure and often found broken due to it's fragility. The graphics of this console are a cross between the Intellivision and an Atari 2600. Unique controllers are a blend between paddle, gun, and joystick. Notable games, which are the size of cassette tapes include Artillery Duel, Incredible Wizard, and Dog Patch. Tends to malfunction due to overheating.

Magnavox Odyssey 2 (1978)

Much more advanced than its predecessor, the Odyssey 2 was an early competitor to the 2600 and had small commercial success. The silver system had the inclusion of a Mylar keyboard and was advertised as “the excitement of a game, and the mind of a computer”. There are some gems on this console. Games like Pick Axe Pete, K.C. Munchkin, and Smithereen. A great inexpensive system that can be found cheaply, this is an easy system to collect. Want to have a weird game night? Try playing one of the three “Master Strategy” board/video hybrids, Conquest of the World, Quest for the Rings, and Wall Street Fortune Hunt.

Mattel Intellivision (1979)

Unlike the Atari 2600, the Intellivision focused on more strategy and RPG style games, as well as more in depth action games. It featured odd, disc controllers that fans love and critics hate. It also had amazing sports titles for the early 80s. Many excellent games exist for this system though most are original titles and not arcade ports. Some popular action games were Burgertime, Night Stalker, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Cloudy Mountain, and Armor Battle. The Intellivision was re-released in the late 80’s by a group of former Mattel employees who bought the rights to the console and marketed it under the INTV brand. They completed and sold several unfinished games from the video game crash of ’83. Games from this era are generally highly advanced, often being unequalled complexity-wise until the Genesis came out. One golf game has 99 holes and the ability to design your own, for example. Two computer add-ons exist, as well as a voice module.

Atari 5200 (1980)

This monstrously big system could eat a PS3 for breakfast. This system even featuring a “trunk” to house its unique non centering controllers. Essentially a re-branded Atari 400 computer with analog joysticks, this console featured enhanced graphics over its predecessor (similar to Colecovision), but was plagued with controllers that were difficult to use and broke easily. Fans of the 5200 are better served by purchasing refurbished controllers or the third-party Wico controller. The 5200 has lots of fun games in it’s library. An adaptor can be added to play Atari 2600 games. Many 8-bit ports have been released in recent years increasing the library size.

Emerson Arcadia 2001 (1982)

A very obscure system that came out in the early 80s, the Arcadia was quickly forgotten due to poor marketing. With hybrid graphics between an Astrocade and an Intellivsion, this little (and I mean little) system had many obscure clones of obscure games on it that often had funny copyright infringement art on the boxes. The unit had controllers similar to the Intellivision, and took carts of varying size. Oddly, this console has a half dozen clones that were sold all over the Pacific and Europe.

Entex Adventurevision (1982)

A fragile portable tabletop that used a strange combination of spinning mirrors and LEDs to display graphics. Four games were released. This console is incredibly rare and is valued highly on today’s collector market. Four games were released. Very hard to find working.

GCE/Milton Bradley Vectrex (1982)

Basically a vector monitor that is housed with a cartridge slot and a four button controller. A truly remarkable piece of technology for 1982. Still to date the only true vector graphics console to ever be released. While the Vectrex was a commercial failure, it has gone on to become the second most active homebrew scene (and the oldest) next to the Atari 2600. Relatively uncommon, it is highly sought after due to the excellence of it’s games (which are impossible to emulate exactly on a standard TV). The system also used color overlays to provide a color experience on its monochrome screen. Fan favorites include Star Castle, Spike!, Mine Storm and Solar Quest. Note that Minestorm is built into the console itself and will play whenever the console is switched on without a cartridge.

Colecovision (1983)

Often considered the ’Rolls Royce’ of the classic era due to it's superior graphics, enhanced sound and higher price. While the library of the system numbers only about a hundred and fifty titles, there are many obscure arcade and action titles that stand out - Choplifter, Frenzy, and Tarzan to name a few. An expansion module can be added to the front of the system allowing the system to play Atari 2600 games. Interesting note: Atari took Coleco to court over this expansion module and lost.

Neo Classic Era(1985-1992)

After it appeared that the video game industry was all but lost, an unexpected resurgence occurs in Japan with thelaunch of Nintendo’s Famicom, which is subsequently released as the NES in 1985. After the release of the NES, a whole new wave of consoles followed, pioneering a new style of multi screen platform and RPG games.. Most still active classic franchises started during this era. This era also saw the demise of the once supreme video arcade.

Atari 7800 (1986)

Although the 7800 was intended to come out in 1984, it was a causality of the crash (and anti-game president Jack Tramiel). The 7800 was mothballed in warehouses until two years later, when it was released due to the success of the NES. The system had very advanced sprite capabilities, but had limited third party support and extremely poor marketing. A big plus of this system is that it is backwards compatible with the Atari 2600. The system does single screen arcade ports better than anything from the era, with games like Robotron, Centipede, Xevious, and Food Fight. This system has a burgeoning homebrew community as well. The Atari 7800 would have done well if it had come out in 1984 as originally intended.

Action Max (1987)

An obscure ‘console’ released by Worlds of Wonder, famous for making Laser Tag a big hit in the 80s. It uses VHS tapes as “games”. This novelty system essentially connects to a standard VHS tape player and counts “hits” on the screen when the a screen object is shot.

Atari XEGS (1987)

If the Atari 7800 was overlooked, then the XEGS was all but ignored due to the system being completely neglected by Atari’s marketing department. The XEGS was essentially a repackaged Atari 65XE computer. It was compatible with almost all Atari 8-bit software, peripherals, and hardware as a result. Bad marketing and poor support killed it before it’s time. This is an excellent choice for collectors interested in exploring the Atari 8-bit computers, as it is compatible with 95% of the game carts from that line.

Nintendo Entertainment System (1985)

This was the game system that put the video game industry back on the map following the crash of ‘83. This vastly popular console dominated sales charts, the competition, and the hearts of gamers everywhere in the mid to late 80s. Featuring unique (for the time) gameplay, excellent graphics, and a huge library of popular games, the NES brought video games into the mainstream again, appealing to both adults and kids. Many current genres and franchises got their start on this console including Mario, Metroid, Zelda, Contra, Dragon Warrior, Final Fantasy, Metal Gear and Castlevania. The system comes in two versions: the original front-loading ‘toaster’ model, and the smaller top-loader.

Neo Geo Advanced Entertainment System (1990)

This system is the king of luxury video game consoles, The Neo Geo AES was a true arcade machine. Boasting actual arcade boards in it’s massive cartridges, this expensive beast came out with graphics and sound that blew the competition completely out of the water. The power came at a price, $650 to be exact! It came with two phenomenal arcade joysticks, and your choice of Magician Lord, Baseball Stars, or Nam 1975. Games were priced at a cool $200 a piece! Due to the price this system was mostly marketed to an elite group of gamers, but was supported longer than any other console commercially...until 2004. The system is most known for it’s robust fighting games, but the console also featured some great platform and shooter games as well. Several notable franchises came out on this system, such as Metal Slug, Samurai Showdown, and the legendary King of the Fighters series. The AES is region free and can play carts from any other country. A US console is considered rare,and very highly sought after. The Neo Geo is a expensive console to collect, but amazingly fun to play.

Phillips CD-i (1991)

A system that pioneered future CD game consoles. It was truly strange. The CD-i was marketed more like a universal home entertainment deck than a game console, and packaged with a remote that doubled as a controller. The system came out at an astonishing $999. As time went on, Phillips redesigned the CD-i several times before losing about 1 billion dollars on teh unpopular console. Lots of weird games here, but there are a few good titles. Strangely enough Phillips had the rights to make several Zelda and Mario games (due to a failed collaboration with Nintendo). Four were made. Three Zelda titles and a Mario game. The Zelda games are atrocious.

RDI Halcyon (1985)

The Halcyon is considered to be one of the rarest and most expensive video game consoles in US history. In January of 1985, RDI Video Systems released this laserdisc based console for $2500(!) It is unsurprising that the system found few takers. As a matter of fact, only two games were released for the console before the company went under. Extremely advanced, the unit featured voice recognition as well as a two way headset. Only two laserdisc games were released.

Sega Master System (1986)

This was Sega’s first foray into the US market. A modified Japanese Mark III console, this system failed to compete in the US against the might of Nintendo, which had strict third party licensing rules that prohibited the companies from making games for other competing consoles. Even though the system did not sell that well in the US, it was very successful in the UK and Brazil markets. Favorite Classics on the system consist of Alex Kidd, Wonderboy, Space Harrier, and Fantasy Zone. Easy to collect, and very playable. Good graphics too.

Sega Genesis (1989)

The ‘black sheep’ of video game consoles due to all the cheap sports titles in it’s library, this system put Sega on the map with its advanced "Blast Processing" speed and graphics. The Genesis is known for its excellent arcade ports, classic RPGs, and its excellent Sonic games. Considered a sports fan’s favorite in the 90s, this is also the system that put the Madden franchise on the map. The Genesis is a great system for collectors who don’t have a lot of money. Often neglected, the Genesis has tons of great games if you dig past all of the sports titles.

Super Nintendo (1991)

The excellent follow-up to the NES. Few can argue that the Super Nintendo had a little of everything, and it quickly become the 16-bit console of choice. Even with stiff competition from many other consoles in the 90's, the quality third party titles on the system really made it a contender. By the end of its lifetime, the SNES had become an RPG fan’s dream machine. Games like Chrono Trigger, Earthbound. Final Fantasy II, III, and Secret of Mana made this system a fan favorite. It also had excellent home ports of the Street Fighter, and Mortal Kombat franchises.

Turbo Grafx 16 (1989)

A distant third to the two giants Nintendo and Sega (though the opposite was true in Japan), the TG-16 is a great console. Games are the size of credit cards, and feature bright colors and fantastic sound, though few big-name licenses. The system has many obscure shooters, and a few memorable action RPGS such as Dungeon Explorer and Neotopia. If you can look past the worst US box art in history, then what you find is an awesome system that delivered great, original games. Compared to it competition this system is quite uncommon to find in the US, though it is well worth tracking down. This system was massively popular overseas, and there are hundreds of games that can be imported, making this one of the best systems to import (with the right cart adaptor. )

The CD-ROM Era (1992-1998)

The next wave of video game consoles and add-ons saw continued rapid evolution of technology and enhancements. This era also saw games moving into early 3D and usage of the CD format. This was a period of fierce competition between several game companies of old, as well as several new competitors who saw the industry start to become ripe with profits. Of the 15 consoles listed that came out at this time of six years, only two were profitable (Playstation and Nintendo 64).

Turbo Grafx CD (1990)

The first CD based console to come out in the US, it was an expansion unit for the Turbo Grafx 16. The retail Price was $399 and adopters were few. Those that did discovered the world of FMV, and CD quality music, often used to excellent effect (see Ys I& II for example). Many of the games on early CD format did not augment game play so much as enhancing sound and video, usually for enhancing the game’s story. The new CD format saw the introduction of some great titles, such as Exile, Ys, Valis, Dungeon Explorer II, and Cosmic Fantasy. It can also play Japanese PC Engine CD games! The CD unit could be upgraded with a system card 3.0 to play later enhanced Turbo Duo games. Considered more rare than the TG system itself due to low sales and distribution.

Sega CD (1992)

Looking to expand the lifespan of the Sega Genesis, Sega released this add-on that played CD games. While there are many dreadful titles for the Sega CD, there are quite a few good RPGs and shooters mixed in with a lot of very bad FMV games. The initial Sega CD system was flawed with many technical issues, Sega released a cheaper and more stable model 2 of the Sega CD in which sat on the side of the system. Some of the highlights of the system include Lunar 1 & 2, Dark Wizard, Keio Flying Squadron, and Snatcher. Fairly cheap to collect.

Turbo Duo (1992)

NEC’s CD-ROM upgrade for the Turbo Grafx 16. A very sleek looking machine, this unit could play all Turbografx and Turbo CD games, as well as Turbo Duo exclusives. The US model is considered rare and much sought after by collectors. Some great games for the Duo are Vasteel, Gate of Thunder, and Lords of Thunder. Incredible system to import for, as it’s region free, and there are some truly breathtaking games from Japan released for this console (which destroyed the SNES and Genesis overseas). Also plays TG-16 hucard games.

Sega 32X (1994)

In order to “hold over” customers looking to buy the next Sega console, Sega released this ‘Franken-box’ add-on to the Genesis. This monstrosity of a console needed grounding plates, its own power cord, and several extra cables. Only 36 total games were released for the unit, the last being a very hard to find Spider Man Web of Fire. Some of the better titles consist of Virtua Fighter, Sonic and Knuckles, and Star Wars Arcade (Two Player fun). Read the directions when hooking it up. Very easy to fry!

Atari Jaguar (1993)

Atari’s last gasp system before they went bankrupt. The Jaguar had very impressive specs, and advertised itself as a 64 bit console. Notoriously hard to program for, many of the games are poor due to low funding, untested console design, and a very poor dev kit released by Atari, as well as the usual terrible marketing by Atari. With a fairly small and mediocre library, there are a few truly amazing games such as Alien vs. Predator, Battlesphere, and Tempest 2000.

Panasonic 3DO (1993)

This early CD console came out at a whopping $699, limiting its fan base. Only one controller port was included on the system with additional controllers linking off one another. The system had excellent stereo sound and was capable of early 3D polygon graphics. While the system struggled against the stiff competition from Nintendo and Sega, it was blessed with some true gems. Star Control II is worth owning a 3DO for alone. Of the three models released in the US, the FZ-1 is considered to be the best.

Pioneer Laseractive (1993)

A laserdisc console/player released by Pioneer. Priced at a whopping $970, the unit was a luxury item capable of playing Laserdisc games. By spending another(!) $600 bucks more you could purchase expansion modules that allowed you play either Genesis/Sega CD games or Turbografx/Turbo CD games. Several Laserdisc games required either of these modules. This system is huge, rare, and truly a collector’s piece.

Neo Geo CD (1994)

In attempt to reduce manufacturing costs, SNK released a CD version of the Neo Geo AES and packaged it with a more traditional gaming pad. The load times are quite slow, but the trade off is that the price of the CDs was a lot cheaper, even in the used game market. It is not a preferred system to play Neo Geo games on, but it is a much cheaper alternative to the (still) very expensive AES. It is very hard to find in the US, though cheaper than the AES generally.

Atari Jaguar CD (1995)

Known in some gaming communities as “the toilet” due to it’s commode-like shape, this add on to the Atari Jaguar sold only 20,000 units with less than 15 official commercial releases. It was mostly ignored. There are several Jaguar homebrew games on CD. Hard to find.

Apple Pippin @world (1996)

The second rarest US console, second only the legendary RDI Halcyon. Basically a stripped down Macintosh computer that played games and attempted to be a hybrid of a console and a computer. Packaged with unique looking controllers (which looked like something Batman would throw), cleverly named ‘applejacks’. On a side note: Bungie, of Halo fame, got their feet wet on a game called Marathon, an early 3D game that was on this system as well as Mac. The Pippin system is extremely rare to find.

Memorex VIS (1993)

This was a system sold by Radio Shack who partnered with Memorex. VIS stands for Video Information System. It used a version of Windows 3.1 designed for compact disc players. A total console failure, it mostly consisted of educational games and early Full Motion Video. Considered rare, it is not sought by many collectors due to its obscurity, and the fact that it’s not much fun to play.

Sega Saturn (1995)

Sega’s attempt to beat Sony and Nintendo to market, the Sega Saturn launched to lower than expected sales. Priced at $399, the Saturn was not able to fend off competition from the new Nintendo 64 ,which was half the price, and the juggernaut that was Sony’s Playstation. Both the Playstation and N64 had superior 3D graphics and more established franchises than the Saturn. Although the Saturn did not do well in the US it still released a few excellent exclusive titles over its limited lifetime in North America. Where the Saturn really excelled was in its excellent handling of 2D graphics, making it very popular for fighting games and shooters. Very popular in Japan, this console has several region-hacks enabling it to play over 700 import titles from Japan and the UK. A must have for 2D fans.

Sony Playstation (1995)

The console that began Sony’s meteoric rice to supremacy in the nineties. Initial plans were to make this system as an add-on to Nintendo’s SNES, but the deal fell through. Sony marketed the technology themselves as the Playstation. Well over a thousand games were released domestically with sales of the system reaching over 100 million units over a span of a decade of active commercial support, crushing all other competition from Sega and Nintendo. The system covered every genre with a ton of excellent games, and offered several exclusive titles that are very sought after today. A few of the many console favorites consist of Final Fantasy VII,Tekken 3, Twisted Metal 2, Castlevania Symphony of the Night, Resident Evil 2, Metal Gear Solid, and Suikoden II. Very easy to find nowadays, and usually very cheaply.

Nintendo 64 (1996)

Nintendo’s third console was received as an instant success, but lost momentum as the Sony Playstation gained popularity. The N64 showed that the company was not afraid to innovate and push the envelope for gameplay, though sticking with a cart format ultimately was a poor decision. The N64 had moderate sales success fueled by Nintendo’s excellent first party game lineup and a few top notch game designers like Factor 5 and Rare. With a unique controller design made to play 3D games, Nintendo stood by their console until the release of the Gamecube in 2001. Top games for the system include Zelda Ocarina of Time, Goldeneye, Rogue Squadron, Mario 64, and Smash Bros.

The Modern Era (1999 - current)

After a bloody battle between consoles in the 90s, the market stablized, with Sony emerging as the victor. With the arrival of Microsoft, and the collapse of Sega, Sony crushed the once-mighty Nintendo, which later in the decade came back with a vengeance with the Wii creating a new market for ‘casual gamers’, only to see Sony’s poor handling of the PSP and PS3 topple them to a distant third place. Microsoft, after gaining momentum with the Xbox, returns with the Xbox 360, crushing Sony’s PS3 and cementing their position as the console for gamers.

Nuon (2000)

An enhanced DVD player, this console was an attempt to do a hybrid DVD player and game console. While the unit only had seven released titles in the US, this system has spawned a loyal online following that resulted in a collection of homebrew mini-games and applications. Another interesting fact about this system is that the visual light show that was displayed when playing music cds on the system was a precursor to the Xbox 360s own visual light display. There are several models, and they all look like standard DVD players. Look for the NUON logo on the front.

Sega Dreamcast (1999)

9-9-99 will be a day long remembered by Sega fans as the day that Sega redeemed themselves from a lackluster support of the Saturn by releasing the sleek, advanced 128 bit Dreamcast in the US. Aggressively priced at $199, the system initially did well and featured several exclusives that still hold up today in terms of graphics and gameplay. Even though the system succumbed to the might of the Playstation 2, The Dreamcast left its mark by offering free online play for several notable games (Phantasy Star Online being the best remembered), amazing arcade ports, and, giving us the 2K sports line. This console has an almost fanatical following among Sega fans, who sing it’s praises to this day. It had a unique data storage system, as the memory cards contained a mini LCD display that augmented gameplay, or which could be loaded with mini games to play on the go. This console also uses fairly standard, unencrypted CD-ROM media, making it very popular for homebrew emulators and ports of open source games.

Sony Playstation 2 (2000)

A shining example of how to market and support a modern console. The Playstation 2 is Sony’s biggest success story. Selling over 130 million units making it one of the biggest selling consoles of all time, it is still supported today - ten years after launch. As the system enters its tenth year it still offers quality titles with apparently no end in sight. With an estimated 1,900 titles available, this console has every genre covered. Being able to play nearly the entire PS1 library as well, gives this console access to the largest library of games in history. Cheap, plentiful, and really fun, every gamer should own a Playstation 2.

Nintendo Gamecube (2001)

This long awaited console was the first Nintendo console to take advantage of optical disc based media. It launched at a very affordable $199. The small, compact system came in three colors. Black, Purple, and Platinum. The system had a more traditional controller than the N64 (mercifully), and the system also took proprietary memory cards. Over the console’s approximately five year run, the system showcased several sequels to popular Nintendo franchises as well as some new ones. Some of the more popular titles include Metroid Prime 1 & 2, Zelda Twilight Princess, Pikmin 1 & 2 and Starfox Assault. The console itself is extremely well designed and rugged. Unfortunately, it did not sell as well as the N64, primarily due to Nintendo’s policies regarding third party game developers.

Microsoft XBox (2001)

Microsoft's first foray into the gaming console market, which competed with Sony's PlayStation 2, Sega's Dreamcast, and Nintendo's Gamecube. The integrated XBox Live service allowed players to compete online over a service that supported dozens of games on a Microsoft hosted server (rather than leaving online play up to the game’s manufacturer), pioneering the business model used today by all consoles. The system enjoyed a decent commercial run of approximately four and a half years, gaining momentum over that time until it was pulled from shelves early (irritating fans) to make room for the Xbox 360. The system now enjoys a robust secondary life, running a homebrew version of Linux as an emulation machine. Several notable franchises came out on the Xbox, including Fable, Forza, several Bioware RPGs, and the legendary Halo.

Game Wave (2006)

This system released by Zapit Games. Essentially a game system that is targeted to a very casual audience, this trivia focused game system featured four remotes, a DVD game system, and game Four Dgrees: The Arc of Trivia vol. 1. Mainly available at Toys R Us and online retailers, this one will probably drift off into obscurity with little thought, similar to the Memorex VIS.

Mattel Hyperscan (2006)

This weird console was a hybrid between a collectable card game and video game system. The system only saw 5 games released. The player would “scan” cards to receive in-game characters, powers, and codes. Weird stuff. The games were graphically somewhere between the Gameboy Advance and the original Playstation. The target audience of the system was pre-teen with the release of the system of about $70. While it was quickly relegated to clearance bins, there is a small following of fans. This console has a bizarre design, excruciating load times, terrible software, and very poor gameplay.

Handhelds and Portable Systems

Portable gaming is nothing new. Since the dawn of video games, there have been numerous attempts to do portable gaming. There are far too many to list here, but we will cover all major (and not so major) systems, while only giving general attention to the thousands of LCD/LED/VFD standalone games out there.

Mattel LED Games (1977)

The first true portable video game was Mattel’s vastly popular Auto Race. Using an array of simple red LED lights, this was a runaway success. Many different games followed, mainly sports, but space shooters and other games followed. Many other companies released similar titles (notably Entex, Bandai, and several Radio Shack re-brands of Japanese stuff), but Mattel remained the leader until the units phased out several years later. A recent ‘retro’ rerelease makes newer version of the easy to find.

Milton Bradley Microvision (1979)

The first true portable game system that took cartridges, this system featured a very nice analog paddle control and a small black and white LCD screen. Games replaced the entire face plate of the unit, giving different overlays that were thematically similar to the games, rather like the overlays for the Vectrex. Popular at the time, but difficult to find working nowadays. Plays a mean ‘breakout’ style game.

Nintendo Game & Watch (1980)

Nintendo’s first, historic entry into the video game market. These were stand alone LCD based games, similar to the thousands that have been released since, only these were of vastly higher build quality, playablity, and reliability. Several dozen were released, and these are very valuable today, as well as still being quite fun to play. The dual screen ones were the inspiration for the Nintendo DS decades later. There were also a couple of table top color LCD games released in this line.

Tabletop VFD Games (1980)

Many of these VFD units were made in the 1980s. Similar to LCD games, they use a technology similar to that used in florescent lights, resulting in a bright, luminescent display. This technology has all but vanished with the 80’s, and as a result these units are highly valued today. Coleco made the most popular line, being ports of Pac Man, Donkey Kong and the like, but the best were made by Entex, who catered to the tween crowd with advanced games like Defender and Crazy Climber. Bandai, Tandy, Epoch, and several other companies produced many VFD units.

Palmtex Super Micro (1980)

Probably the most obscure handheld game system ever, no one remembers this thing. Resembling a microfiche viewer more than anything else, this LCD-based unit used one of several cartridges, and was entirely lost in the flood of early LCD/VFD games.

LCD Handhelds (1980)

The now ubiquitous grocery store solitaire games had their start when companies like Tiger and Mattel began copying Nintendo’s Game & Watch line. Thousands upon thousands of these have been released over the years, far too many to catalog. The early eighties ones feature far higher build quality than what you get today. Notable units were released by Mattel, Bandai, Epoch, Tandy, and Tiger. Some units featured two and even three screens.

Entex Select-a-Game (1981)

A very rare early cart based system by Entex, maker of many excellent tabletop arcade games, this was the first, and only VFD (color vacuum florescent display) cart based system. It is designed for easy play by two players. It was a commercial failure, and is now about as rare as a handheld system gets. It’s worth some major coin.

Epoch Pocket Computer (1984)

A Japanese exclusive that was occasionally imported. A very early attempt at a cart based, LCD portable, this system barely made a blip on the radar. It features graphics on par with an Atari 2600, though in black and white.

Nintendo Gameboy (1989)

This system was a commercial juggernaut, and pretty much single-handedly created the portable game market. It featured a high res (for the time) black and white LCD display which took any of what eventually amounted to be a staggeringly large library of cart based games. This console was supported for many years, and has a wonderfully diverse library, and several different incarnations of hardware. It was inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame in 2009 and cemented Nintendo’s place as the dominant force in handheld gaming.

Atari Lynx (1989)

Atari’s only portable gaming unit, this system was quite advanced for 1989. It featured a large, fullcolor, backlit LCD screen and graphics capability that exceeded the capabilities of many home consoles of the time. It was also very expensive, a notable battery hog, and very large. Atari, as usual, did not market it well resulting in poor third party support and Atari’s eventual abandonment. The Lynx is an amazing console with some excellent games that, along with the Turbo Express and the Sega Nomad, was only really equaled in the late nineties by the Neo Geo pocket. Very fun to play, and fairly cheap to collect. There are two models, the Lynx II being the smaller and more reliable of the two.

NEC TurboExpresss (1990)

A portable, cart-compatible version of the Turbo Grafx 16, the TurboExpress was as expensive as a home console, as it WAS a home console in portable form. Featuring graphics and sound that were not equaled until the Gameboy Advance, this rare console is a fantastic addition to any Turbo Gafx fan’s collection. A Japanese version exists that plays PC Engine imports, and is much sought after by importers.

Sega Game Gear (1991)

While late to the party, Sega’s Game Gear achieved some small success against Nintendo’s incredibly successful Gameboy. It falls midway between the Lynx and the Gameboy capability wise. It features a full color screen, poor battery life, and a fairly large library. Like the Genesis, the library contains a lot of duds. This console is basically a portable Sega Master System, and there is an adaptor that lets you play SMS games portably on the unit. It is very cheap to collect for, as it is rather unloved by the gaming community at large.

Watara Supervision (1992)

A cheap, black and white alternative to the Gameboy, the Supervision featured a lot of strange, cheaply made games as well as a sub-par, blurry screen. First party support was poor. While initially garnering some attention for it’s affordability, it was swiftly annihilated by Nintendo and Sega.

Mega Duck/Cougar Boy (1993)

Another low-budget Gameboy knockoff sold mainly in Brazil and Europe. It has a bigger screen than the Supervision and was about as popular.

Virtual Boy (1994)

Strange 3D console released by Nintendo that looked like a giant pair of night vision goggles on a stand. It faired very poorly and was soon cancelled. While some find it migraine-inducing (due to the ‘3D’ technology), it does have several very fun games, including a Virtualboy-only Mario title. Hard to come by, but also pretty fun to play, and collect.

Tiger R-Zone (1995)

An utterly horrible LCD based system that played ‘carts’ (really cheap LCD games with tiny screens that were projected onto either a handheld unit via mirror, a table top box thing, or a truly bizarre frankenstein borg-like headset that remains the dorkiest game accessory ever designed by man (power glove included). This junker was quickly relegated to the bargain bin.

Sega Nomad (1995)

Basically a portable Sega Genesis. Featuring excellent build quality, a beautifully bright LCD screen and a library of hundreds of games, this portable remains one of the coolest console-compatible handhelds of all time. It eats six AAA batteries in under two hours though. An AC adaptor is a must (you can use a Genesis 2 power supply just fine).

Neo Geo Pocket Color (1986)

A truly phenomenal handheld system developed by NEC, the makers of the Neo Geo AES. Featuring a beautifully clear LCD (still one of the best ever made), a real 8-way microswitch joystick (a handheld first), and boasting an incredible 30-40 hours of battery life off of a pair of AA batteries, the Neo Geo Pocket was one hell of a contender. It released with limited fanfare, and continually gained ground in the market before an internal corporate collapse at NEC cut it’s life drastically short. This console remains the pinnacle of handheld gaming until the advent of the Gameboy Advance. Due to the excellence of the joystick, and the fact that NEC ported tons of great fighters to the system, this little handheld still plays the best handheld fighting games ever. Samurai Showdown FTW.

Game.com (1997)

Tiger, the maker of the laughably bad R-Zone, released this also laughable grayscale console without much success. It attempted to be a kid-friendly PDA with modem and internet access, but the very poor software support, and dreadfully blurry screen doomed it to failure. It was released in three different versions.

Cybiko (1998)

Another weird PDA styled game console targeted at kids. This thing functioned as a walkie talkie with texting capabilities. It was a bit of an underground success, but mainly in Japan, and received some support for several years, before dying the death at the hands of the cell phone.

Wonderswan (1999)

A Japanese only release that is often imported, Bandai successfully released the different versions of this excellent handheld. It was never officially released in the US, but it is often collected by importers, due to many excellent games, including a couple of Final Fantasy games.

Gamepark GP32 Line (2001)

The first of three successful Korean handhelds that openly supported open source homebrew development, this console met with great internet success and has become the emulator handheld of choice. Later versions include the GP2X and the just-released GP2X Wiz in 2009. These units are powered by standard batteries, and feature media card slots for easy program transfer. Tons of emulators and open source games exist, and all are free.

Gameboy Advance (2001)

Nintendo effortlessly crushed the competition once again with their powerful, colorful, and just plain awesome follow-up to the Gameboy line. Like the Gameboy before it, this console soundly outsold all competitors. It’s backwards compatible too, and it has hundreds of outstanding games. There is also a strong homebrew community for this handheld, via a handy flash cart. A truly excellent console, it was released in three different models.

Nokia N-Gage (2001)

An early attempt at a cell phone/game system hybrid predating the iPhone by several years, this console quickly crashed and burned. That was unfortunate, as there are some very good games to be had in the library, including several exclusives. There were two models released.

Gameking (2003)

A hilariously bad Chinese disaster featuring stolen artwork, a display on par with the Epoch Pocket Computer, and a lot of really bad ‘Engrish’ translation. It obtained a bit of cult following in the US via importers. Build quality is very poor, as are the games. It came in three successive flavors, all of which are bad.

Tapwave Zodiac (2004)

A hybrid Palm PDA and game machine, this expensive unit made almost no impact on the market due to it’s cost and onlineonly ordering system. Backwards compatible with most Palm OS software, it’s not a bad unit at all, if you can find one. Two versions were made.

Nintendo DS (2004)

Nintendo’s nowlegendary dual screen handheld that, once again, proved Nintendo understands the handheld market better than anybody. Quite possibly one of the best supported systems ever, the library of this console is a retro-gamer’s dream. Several system iterations have been released, with no end in sight. This is a fun, diverse, and affordable console that really packs a punch gameplaywise. Many classic franchises were resurrected on this handheld, and it has many exclusive games in it’s own right. Once again, Nintendo has proved that it alone knows how to market a successful handheld console. This console has effectively crushed all other opposition, leaving the PSP to eat dust in it’s wake, despite the PSP’s technical superiority.

Chinese Import Handhelds (2004)

China has increasingly been manufacturing multiple, cheap handheld units, both stand alone, and media based. Many of the newer ones are like the Dingoo A320, being open source and homebrew oriented, while many others contain Genesis or NES games on often 100+ game multicarts, often with various hammy adaptors to play the different systems various carts. While these will never replace mainstream gaming, they have garnered a niche in the western market, mainly with retro gamers on a budget. Names, form factors, and price change almost monthly, but the guts of these units are usually very similar. They are available through import stores online, usually very cheaply.

Sony PSP (2004)

Sony’s first foray into handheld gaming, the PSP is an amazing piece of hardware. Essentially on par with the PS2, and using a proprietary UMD disk-based media in place of carts, this console plays gorgeous 3D games on a beautiful, bright LCD display. It has met with only limited success due to it’s initial hefty cost, lackluster software support, and the fact than many of the games, while astounding graphically, are really just adapted PS2 titles, and not really suited to bite size, on-the-go gaming. Four iterations of this console have appeared, the latest being the PSP Go, which inexplicably removed the UMD drive (in favor of a download only business model), alienating pretty much every PSP owner, and selling very poorly. That said, if you want depth in your handheld games, there are some truly amazing, deep, and console sized games to be had. No other handheld even comes close, in fact. There are many excellent games for this console if you look, and it is well worth playing. Games like Disgaea, Monster Hunter Unite, and Phantasy Star alone will keep you busy for years.

Tiger Gizmondo (2005)

Tiger’s last foray into handheld gaming before going bankrupt in 2006. This console played games, took pictures, functioned as a media player, GPS unit, and texting device. Email was promised, but never implemented when Tiger collapsed. Not terribly well known, but it had a small following of fans.

Pelican VG Pocket/Caplet/Tablet (2005)

This stand alone handheld series (carried at Walmart and most game stores) featured a few licensed arcade games, and many pack in knock-off clones of popular games like bejeweled, Mario, and a few shooters thrown in for variety. The initial ones were a cheap, silver color, but the following tablet (round unit with 25 games) and caplet (tablet shaped with either 35 or 50 games) systems had better build quality, and quite honestly, some pretty fun games. These things are cheap as heck right now, and make for a very nice portable system for those on a budget.