July 6, 2022
Game consoles of the 90s spawned some of the greatest gaming releases of all time. Revisit the consoles and the influential impact the machines had throughout the decade.
The 90s were a time of significant innovation that helped further transition gaming into a mainstream pastime. New video game consoles introduced immersive 3D characters and environments, and higher production values along with more mature themes opened up gaming to an older audience.
You’ve probably heard of most of the old school game consoles below, played with a few, and forgotten about at least one. Even though they’ve aged, these 90s game consoles are just as entertaining as the day they hit the market.
So, switch on your CRT TV and keep your manual handy as we look back at eight of the most famous (and infamous) gaming consoles of the 90s.
1. Sega Game Gear (1990)
Kicking off the list is the iconic Sega Game Gear. Small handheld game system
Kicking off the list is the iconic Sega Game Gear. Small handheld game systems just kept on popping up in the market during the early 90s. Seeing the success of the Game Boy, Sega released the gaming console in an attempt to snatch a juicy share of the market.
Sega Game Gear was marketed heavily when it first launched, and the campaign touted its full-color screen technology – which was a big deal considering Nintendo’s Game Boy was still in black & white. In the end, the Sega Game Gear sold much fewer units than its rival. Many speculate the reason was actually Sega’s own doing (and undoing).
The company shifted its focus from handheld game systems to developing a home video game console (the Sega Genesis). The strategy proved to be lucrative… not for Sega but for Nintendo.
The Game Boy became the highest-selling handheld console to date. Sega sold 10.62 million units by 1996, but the lack of ongoing support, high price tag, and short battery life contributed to the demise of Game Gear. The last batch went out in 1997.
The console had 364 games available! 90s kids played handheld versions of classics like Mortal Kombat, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Master of Darkness.
Because the Game Gear shared a lot of its hardware with the Sega Master System, it was possible to play Master System titles like Fantasy Zone and After Burner using a special adapter called the ‘Master Gear Converter’ (sold separately, of course).
A pint-sized comeback
While the Game Gear didn’t live up to expectations, it was still remembered well enough to get adapted into a retro console. The Game Gear Micro was released in October 2020 and is truly tiny, being only around the size of a matchbox car.
Ironically, most of the Game Gear Micro’s limited size is taken up by two AAA batteries, giving it a longer battery life than the original 90s console.
Game Gear commercial
2. Super Nintendo (1990)
The Super Nintendo Entertainment System (commonly shortened to the Super Nintendo or SNES) was first released in Japan in 1990 and made its way to North America in 1991. The Super Nintendo followed the NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) and kicked things up a notch by supporting 16-bit graphics (compared to the NES’ 8-bit graphics). The SNES also had impressive sound capabilities that blew other systems out of the water at the time.
The Super Nintendo stands as one of the most successful video game consoles of the 90s, having sold 49.1 million units by the time it was discontinued in 2003. Even when more advanced 32-bit bit consoles began to break onto the scene, the Super Nintendo continued to sell well thanks to its impressive games library, which is coveted by collectors today.
The Super Nintendo created or continued some of Nintendo’s most iconic and profitable franchises and characters. Games like Super Mario World, Super Metroid, Donkey Kong Country, Super Castlevania IV, Super Mario Kart, and Star Fox were all top sellers that retro gamers still love to play today.
Enhanced graphics – it’s in the game!
One of the reasons the Super Nintendo had such a long lifespan was that rather than contain a powerful internal CPU that would eventually become outdated, it was designed to take advantage of processing chips included on the game cartridges themselves. For example, the Super FX chip baked into games like Star Fox allowed for simple 3D graphics and light shading, which was ordinarily impossible for the console to generate.
Super Nintendo commercial
3. SNK Neo Geo (1990)
The Neo Geo is one of the lesser-known 90s game systems, but the cartridge-based arcade console did send shockwaves through the gaming community – primarily due to its staggering price tag. Neo Geo’s launch price in the US was $649.99 (equivalent to $1430 in 2022).
Hailing from Japan, the Neo Geo was released in 1990 by the company SNK. The Neo Geo resembled a miniature version of a traditional arcade game with a joystick and large arcade-style controllers.
At its release, the Neo Geo was the most powerful system on the video game console market, with a custom video chipset that could draw sprites in vertical strips. This meant the Neo Geo could generate backgrounds that were not static images like other game systems of the time, giving all Neo Geo games a vivid and distinctive look compared to titles on other systems.
However, for the average consumer looking for a home console, the Neo Geo’s powerful hardware wasn’t enough to justify its high cost. After only selling one million units of the console, SNK gave up on manufacturing home consoles altogether by the end of 1997.
The Neo Geo may have been short-lived, but the console did give us Metal Slug, a side-scrolling shoot ’em up game franchise that became immensely popular in arcades and still has a cult following today. Other notable releases for the Neo Geo include famous SNK fighting games like Garou: Mark of the Wolves and Art of Fighting.
It’s an arcade thing
Unlike other 90s video game consoles, the Neo Geo was designed first as an arcade system that also had a home console version. The idea was to have a single arcade system that could be loaded with different ROMs rather than having a dedicated custom cabinet for each game.
While this arcade-first design gave the Neo Geo its superior graphics, it also made it too expensive for the average consumer and limited the library to mostly side-scrolling shoot ’em ups and fighting games. In contrast, competing systems like the SNES had a more extensive and more varied library with adventure and roleplaying games that could be enjoyed at a more relaxed pace.
Neo Geo commercial
4. Atari Jaguar (1993)
The Atari Jaguar was released in North America in 1993 as part of the fifth generation of video game consoles. While Atari was a pioneer in arcade games, the Jaguar would be the final console by the company for years.
Unfortunately, the Arati Jaguar didn’t have a particularly broad games catalog and cost $249, making it expensive for the time. Nevertheless, Atari justified the price by touting the console as an advanced system based around two 32-bit silicon chipsets (named Tom and Jerry) and a Motorola 68000 processor.
By 1995, Atari dropped the price to $149.99 but still didn’t manage to sell the remaining stock – even with its over-the-top infomercials. By 1995, Atari pulled the plug on the console.
While Atari only sold approximately 125,000 units of Jaguar, this retro game console did have a trio of excellent shooters, including Tempest 2000, Doom, and Alien vs. Predator.
A new Atari console?
Attempting to make a comeback in the home console market, Atari has recently released a new microconsole called the Atari VCS (codenamed Ataribox). The Atari VCS runs a Linux-based operating system and can be used as a PC as well as a gaming console capable of playing retro Atari games and other newer titles.
Unfortunately, the Atari VCS has received mixed reviews. While most critics praise the visual design of the console, they take points away due to its limited hardware capabilities and the poor utility of its Classic Controller.
Atari Jaguar commercial
5. Sony PlayStation (1994)
Next is the iconic Sony PlayStation, the world’s first CD-based console. With its sleek, shiny disks, complex 3D games, and controls that would lay the foundations for all future PS controllers – the console expanded the limits of video games prior.
In 1993, Sony had tried (and failed) to take a bite out of the console industry through collaborations with Sega and Nintendo. Fresh from defeat, Sony looked to its resident genius, Ken Kutaragi. Ken would be the driving force behind Sony’s first machine, and as they say, the rest is history. Gamers quickly took to the machine’s futuristic feel, and the console felt far more advanced than what some started to see as – clunky, dust-filled cartridges.
The console ruled the early 90s with games like Metal Gear Solid, Tekken, Gran Turismo, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, Final Fantasy (deep breath), Tomb Raider, Resident Evil, Spyro the Dragon, Sly Cooper, and Crash Bandicoot.
It’s a pirate’s life
While pirating video games had existed since the 1980s, the original Playstation was the first console where modchips were used. Sony knew that CD games would be more susceptible to piracy, so they built a copy protection system into the console that would authenticate discs when the console booted. It wasn’t long before crafty individuals began to open up their consoles and solder modchips onto the circuit board, allowing them to play pirated games freely.
6. Nintendo 64 (1996)
Arguably one of everyone’s favorite old-school consoles, the N64 first hit the shelves in June 1996 before making its way to North America that September. Unfortunately, Europeans and Australians had to wait until 1997 to get their hands on one.
The 3D graphics were superior to anything else on the market at the time, and many gamers today credit the N64 with getting them into gaming. To date, the Nintendo 64 has sold 32.93 million units. Interestingly, many consider the console a failure because it was in direct competition with the PS1, which sold over 100 million.
Still, the N64 steadily sold on the market for seven years. The last game ever released on the system was Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater in 2002. By 2004, the last units were shipped.
The N64 would be the last major home console to use cartridges as its primary storage format… until the Nintendo Switch came along that is. If you have any old N64 games that have been gathering dust, check out our ultimate guide to cleaning N64 cartridges.
The N64 launched or reinvented many iconic franchises still loved to this day. Super Smash Brothers, Mario Kart, GoldenEye 007, Turok, and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time are among fan favorites. Banjo-Kazooie and Wave Race 64 were also two of the more sought-after cartridges.
Double D disappointment
In 1999 Nintendo released the 64DD (64 Disc Drive), which was a peripheral platform that connected to the bottom of the console. Released only in Japan, the 64DD made it possible to play disk-based N64 games and even browse the internet via the now-defunct Randnet service.
Unfortunately, 64DD was discontinued after a limited mail-order release, with plans to launch it in America and Europe scrapped. Only a handful of titles were released for the platform, with many planned releases being repurposed for Nintendo’s next console, the Gamecube.
While the 64DD failed commercially, it was a technological leap for Nintendo and laid the groundwork for features in their future games and products. For example, the rewriteable memory storage capabilities of the 64DD are what inspired the creation of the popular Animal Crossing series with its persistent world.
N64 Christmas commercial
7. Sega Dreamcast (1998)
For the most part, the Sega Dreamcast was ahead of its time. The Dreamcast was a visionary piece of hardware. Many argue the built-in modem, hugely innovative controllers, and ability to truly embrace online gaming might have been too much for 1998.
The console preceded Sony’s PlayStation 2, Nintendo’s GameCube, and Microsoft’s Xbox. And perhaps helped inspire them? The Dreamcast was Sega’s final home console. Between the time it launched and the time it was discontinued in 2001, the Sega Dreamcast sold 10.6 million units.
TThe Sega Dreamcast is well-known for classic Sega hits like Jet Set Radio, Sonic Adventure, Shenmue, Soulcalibur, Seaman, Rez, The House of the Dead 2, Dead or Alive 2, and NFL Blitz 2000. While you’re here, check out our list of the top 10 greatest Dreamcast fighting games.
The Xbox connection
Something many don’t know about the Sega Dreamcast is that Sega collaborated with Microsoft during the console’s development. Microsoft provided Sega with a custom Windows operating system and development kits to create games.
There’s little doubt that Microsoft’s engineers learned a lot from this partnership which informed the development of the original Xbox a few years later. In fact, when you compare the overall shape and button layout of the Dreamcast and Xbox controllers, they look remarkably similar.
Sega Dreamcast commercial
8. Game Boy Color (1998)
Nintendo’s Game Boy Color (GBC) is one of the landmark consoles of the 90s and one of the greatest evolutions in video game history. Years after the first Game Boy, Nintendo pulled out all the stops with a smaller version of the system that displayed color.
After Sega discontinued the Game Gear in 1997, the GBC’s only competition was the original Game Boy. Even Neo Geo tried to get in on the action with their Neo Geo Pocket Color in 1991, but the sales were incomparable.
The Game Boy and the Game Boy Color combined have sold over 118.69 million units. The pair stand as the 3rd best-selling video game consoles of all time, beaten only by the Nintendo DS and Playstation 2.
The GBC was discontinued in 2003, shortly after the release of the Game Boy Advance SP.
Without a doubt, the Game Boy Color’s best best-selling game is Pokémon Gold and Silver, which sold 23 million units worldwide. Other top sellers included Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3, Dr. Mario, and Tetris.
Color, color everywhere
Appropriately, the exterior casing of the Game Boy Color came in several different color variations you could purchase. It was also one of the first handheld consoles to have limited edition versions with decals from brands like Lunchables and Doraemon, as well as the Pokemon and Legend of Zelda games.
Game boy color commercial
What console was popular in 1999?
The Sony Playstation was the best-selling console at the turn of the century, with the Game Boy and Game Boy Color following close behind. By the end of its impressive 12-year run, the Playstation had sold a whopping 102 million units.