Third generation of video game consoles

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In the history of computer and video games, the third generation (sometimes referred to as the 8-bit era) began on July 15, 1983, with the Japanese release of both the Family Computer (referred to in Japan in the abbreviated form "Famicom", and later known as the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES, in the rest of the world) and SG-1000.[1][2] This generation marked the end of the North American video game crash, a shift in the dominance of home video games from the United States to Japan,[3] and the transition from block-based graphics to smooth hardware scrolling tile and sprite based graphics, which was a pivotal leap in game design.[1]

The best-selling console of this generation was the NES/Famicom, followed by the Master System and then the Atari 7800. Although the previous generation of consoles had also used 8-bit processors, it was at the end of this generation that home consoles were first labeled by their "bits". This also came into fashion as 16-bit systems like the Mega Drive/Genesis were marketed to differentiate between the generations of consoles. In Japan and North America, this generation of gaming was primarily dominated by the Famicom/NES, while the Master System dominated the European and Brazilian markets. The end of the 3rd generation of video games comes as 8-bit consoles become obsolete in graphics and processing power compared to 16-bit consoles.

Some features that distinguished third generation consoles from most second generation consoles include:

  • D-pad game controllers.
  • Screen modes with resolutions up to 256×240 or 320×200.
  • 25–32 colors on screen, from a palette of 53–256 colors.
  • Tile-based playfields with smooth multi-directional hardware scrolling.
  • Advanced hardware scrolling, including smooth per-pixel scrolling, multi-directional scrolling, diagonal scrolling, and line-scrolling.
  • 64–100 sprites on screen, each with 4–16 colors and 8×8 to 16×16 pixel sizes.
  • Up to five channel (primarily square wave) mono PSG audio.


The Family Computer (commonly abbreviated the Famicom) became very popular in Japan during this era, crowding out the other consoles in this generation. The Famicom's Western counterpart, the Nintendo Entertainment System, dominated the gaming market in North America, thanks in part to its restrictive licensing agreements with developers. This marked a shift in the dominance of home video games from the United States to Japan, to the point that Computer Gaming World described the "Nintendo craze" as a "non-event" for American video game designers as "virtually all the work to date has been done in Japan."[3] The company had an estimated 65% of 1987 hardware sales in the console market; Atari Corporation had 24%, Sega had 8%, and other companies had 3%.[4]

The popularity of the Japanese consoles grew so quickly that in 1988 Epyx stated that, in contrast to a video game-hardware industry in 1984 that the company had described as "dead", the market for Nintendo cartridges was larger than for all home-computer software.[5] Nintendo sold seven million NES systems in 1988, almost as many as the number of Commodore 64s sold in its first five years.[6] Compute! reported that Nintendo's popularity caused most computer-game companies to have poor sales during Christmas that year, resulting in serious financial problems for some,[7] and after more than a decade making computer games, in 1989 Epyx converted completely to console cartridges.[8] By 1990 30% of American households owned the NES, compared to 23% for all personal computers,[9] and peer pressure to have a console was so great that even the children of computer-game developers demanded them despite parents' refusal and the presence of state-of-the-art computers and software at home. As Computer Gaming World reported in 1992, "No matter how fast your 486 is, you still can't play Super Mario XVII on it. The kids who don't have access to videogames are as culturally isolated as the kids in our own generation whose parents refused to buy a TV".[10]

Nintendo's market domination, while overwhelming in sheer number of units sold, was not global. Although the NES dominated the market in Japan and North America, Sega's Master System made large inroads in Europe, Oceania and Brazil, where the NES was never able to break its grip.[11] The Atari 7800 also had a fairly successful life in the United States.

Sega was Nintendo's main competitor during the era in terms of market share for console units sold.[4] Unlike the NES, Sega's SG-1000 (which preceded Sega's more commercially successful Master System) initially had very little to differentiate itself from earlier consoles such as the ColecoVision and contemporary computers such as the MSX, although, despite the lack of hardware scrolling, the SG-1000 was able to pull off advanced scrolling effects, including parallax scrolling in Orguss and sprite-scaling in Zoom 909.[1] In 1985, Sega's Master System incorporated hardware scrolling, alongside an increased colour palette, greater memory, pseudo-3D effects, and stereoscopic 3-D, gaining a clear hardware advantage over the NES. However, the NES would still continue to dominate the important North American and Japanese markets, while the Master System would gain more dominance in the emerging European and South American markets.[11]

In the following generation, Nintendo would also introduce the Game Boy, which almost single-handedly solidified and then proceeded to dominate the previously scattered handheld market for 15 years. While the Game Boy product line was incrementally updated every few years, until the Game Boy Micro and Nintendo DS, and partially the Game Boy Color, all Game Boy products were backwards compatible with the original released in 1989. Since the Game Boy's release, Nintendo had dominated the handheld market. Additionally two popular 8-bit computers, the Commodore 64 and Amstrad CPC, were repackaged as the Commodore 64 Games System and Amstrad GX4000 respectively, for entry into the console market.

This era contributed many influential aspects to the history of the development of video games. The third generation saw the release of many of the first console role-playing video games (RPGs). Editing and censorship of video games was often used in localizing Japanese games to North America. During this era, many of the most famous video game franchises of all time were founded that outlived the third generation and continued through releases on later consoles. Some examples are Super Mario Bros., Final Fantasy, The Legend of Zelda, Dragon Quest, Metroid, Mega Man, Metal Gear, Castlevania, Phantasy Star, Megami Tensei, Ninja Gaiden, and Bomberman.

The third generation also saw the dawn of the children's educational console market. Although consoles such as the VideoSmarts and ComputerSmarts systems were stripped down to very primitive input systems designed for children, their use of ROM cartridges would establish this as the standard for later such consoles.[citation needed] Due to their reduced capacities, these systems typically were not labeled by their "bits" and were not marketed in competition with traditional video game consoles.

Nintendo versus Sega[edit]

Main article: Console wars

The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)/Family Computer (Famicom) sold by far the most units of any third generation console in North America and Asia. This was due to its earlier release, its strong lineup of first-party titles (such as Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 3, The Legend of Zelda, and Metroid), and Nintendo's strict licensing rules that required NES titles to be exclusive to the console for two years after release. This put a damper on third party support for the other, less popular consoles. However, Sega's Master System was more popular than the NES in Europe, South America, and Oceania, with the latter two markets being first reached by Sega. Many more games for the Master System were released in Europe and Brazil than in North America, and the console had a very long shelf-life in Brazil and New Zealand. In Europe, competition was tough for the NES, which was not as successful as the Master System in those other regions despite the hegemony that it had in the North American and Japanese markets.[11] The industry also started to grow in places west of the Soviet Union, such as Lithuania, via new programmers trained in that area. The Master System was finally discontinued in the late 1990s but has continued to sell in Brazil through to the present day, while Nintendo Co., Ltd. continued to repair Famicom systems until October 31, 2007.[12][13][14]



Name SG-1000 Famicom/NES Sega Mark III/Master System Atari 7800
Manufacturer Sega Nintendo Sega Atari
Console Sega-SG-1000-Console-Set.jpg Nintendo-Famicom-Console-Set-FL.jpg
Sega Mark III.jpg
Master System II.jpg
Launch prices ¥15000 (equivalent to ¥17710 in 2016) ¥14800 (equivalent to ¥17473 in 2016)
US$199.99 (equivalent to US$441 in 2016)
CA$240 (equivalent to CA$483 in 2016)
¥24200 (equivalent to ¥27376 in 2016)
US$199.99 (equivalent to US$432 in 2016)
£99.99 (equivalent to £254 in 2016)
US$140 (equivalent to $303 in 2016)
Release date
  • NZ: 1983
  • JP: July 15, 1983
  • EU: September 1986
  • JP: October 20, 1985
  • NA: October 1986
  • WW: June 1987
  • NA: May 1986
  • WW: July 1987
  • Cartridge

Famicom Disk System:

  • Cartridge
  • Data card (first model only)
Top-selling games N/A Super Mario Bros. (pack-in), 40.24 million (as of 1999)[15]
Super Mario Bros. 3, 18 million (as of May 21, 2003)[16]
Hang-On and Safari Hunt (pack-in)
Alex Kidd in Miracle World (pack-in)
Sonic the Hedgehog (pack-in)
Pole Position II (pack-in)[citation needed]
Backward compatibility None None Sega SG-1000 (Japanese systems only) Atari 2600
Accessories (retail)
  • Bike Handle Controller
  • Card Catcher
  • Sega Handle Controller
  • Sega Rapid Fire Unit
  • SK-1100
CPU NEC 780C (based on 8/16-bit Zilog Z80)
3.58 MHz NTSC (3.55 MHz PAL)
Ricoh 2A03/2A07 (based on 8-bit MOS Technology 6502)
1.79 MHz (1.66 MHz PAL)
NEC 780C (based on 8/16-bit Zilog Z80)
3.58 MHz (3.55 MHz PAL)
Custom 6502C (based on 8-bit MOS Technology 6502)
1.19 MHz or 1.79 MHz
GPU Texas Instruments TMS9918 Ricoh PPU (Picture Processing Unit) Sega VDP (Video Display Processor)
Sound chip(s) Texas Instruments SN76489

Famicom Disk System:

Japan only:

Optional cartridge chip:



4.277344 KB (4380 bytes) RAM

  • 2 KB main RAM
  • 2 KB video RAM
  • 256 bytes sprite attribute RAM
  • 28 bytes palette RAM


  • MMC chips: Up to 8 KB work RAM and 12 KB video RAM[20]
  • Famicom Disk System: 32 KB work RAM, 8 KB video RAM

24.03125 KB (24,608 bytes) RAM

  • 8 KB main XRAM
  • 16 KB video XRAM[21]
    (256 bytes sprite attribute table)
  • 32 bytes palette RAM[22]


  • Resolution: 256×224 or 256×240
  • Sprites: 64 on screen (8 per scanline), 8×8 or 8×16 pixels, sprite flipping
  • Colors on screen: 25 simultaneous (4 colors per sprite)
  • Palette: 53 colors
  • Background: Tilemap playfield, 8×8 tiles
  • Scrolling: Smooth per-pixel hardware scrolling, vertical/horizontal directions

MMC chips: IRQ interrupt, diagonal scrolling, line scrolling, split‑screen scrolling

  • Resolution: 256×192, 256×224, 256×240
  • Sprites: 64 on screen (8 per scanline), 8×8 to 16×16 pixels, integer sprite zooming up to 32×32 pixels[24]
  • Colors on screen: 32 simultaneous (16 colors per sprite)
  • Palette: 64 colors
  • Background: Tilemap playfield, 8×8 tiles, tile flipping[22]
  • Scrolling: Smooth per-pixel hardware scrolling, vertical/horizontal/diagonal directions,[25] IRQ interrupt, line scrolling, split‑screen scrolling[24]
  • Resolution: 160×200 or 320×200
  • Sprites: Display list,[26] 100 sprites[27][28] (30 per scanline without background)
  • Colors on screen: 25 simultaneous (1, 4 or 12 colors per sprite)
  • Palette: 256 colors (16 hues, 16 luma)
  • Scrolling: Coarse 7-pixel scrolling, vertical/horizontal directions[29]
Audio Mono audio with: Mono audio with:

Japan only upgrades:

Mono audio with:
  • Three square wave channels
  • One noise generator

Japan only:

Mono audio with:
  • Two square waves

Optional cartridge chip:

  • Four square wave channels
  • One noise generator

Other consoles[edit]

Sales comparison[edit]

Console Units sold worldwide Japan Americas Elsewhere
Nintendo Entertainment System 61.91 million (December 2009)[30][31] 19.35 million (December 2009)[30] 34 million (December 2009)[30] 8.56 million (December 2009)[30]
Sega Master System 17.8 million (2016) 1 million (1986)[32] United States: 2 million (1992)[33]
Brazil: 8 million (2016)[34]
Western Europe: 6.8 million (1993)[35]
Atari 7800 1 million (June 1988)[36]


Nintendo Entertainment System[edit]

Sega Master System[edit]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Fahs, Travis. "IGN Presents the History of SEGA: Coming Home". IGN. p. 2. Retrieved March 27, 2011. 
  2. ^ Mark J. P. Wolf, The video game explosion: a history from PONG to Playstation and beyond, ABC-CLIO, p. 115, ISBN 0-313-33868-X, retrieved April 19, 2011 
  3. ^ a b Daglow, Don L. (August 1988). "Over the River and Through the Woods: The Changing Role of Computer Game Designers". Computer Gaming World (50). p. 18. I'm sure you've noticed that I've made no reference to the Nintendo craze that has repeated the Atari and Mattel Phenomenon of 8 years ago. That's because for American game designers the Nintendo is a non-event: virtually all the work to date has been done in Japan. Only the future will tell if the design process ever crosses the Pacific as efficiently as the container ships and the letters of credit now do. 
  4. ^ a b Katz, Arnie; Kunkel, Bill; Worley, Joyce (August 1988). "Video Gaming World". Computer Gaming World. p. 44. 
  5. ^ "The Nintendo Threat?". Computer Gaming World. June 1988. p. 50. 
  6. ^ Ferrell, Keith (July 1989). "Just Kids' Play or Computer in Disguise?". Compute!. p. 28. Retrieved November 11, 2013. 
  7. ^ Keizer, Gregg (July 1989). "Editorial License". Compute!. p. 4. Retrieved November 11, 2013. 
  8. ^ Ferrell, Keith (December 1989). "Epyx Goes Diskless". Compute!. p. 6. Retrieved November 11, 2013. 
  9. ^ "Fusion, Transfusion or Confusion / Future Directions In Computer Entertainment". Computer Gaming World. December 1990. p. 26. Retrieved November 16, 2013. 
  10. ^ Reeder, Sara (November 1992). "Why Edutainment Doesn't Make It In A Videogame World". Computer Gaming World. p. 128. Retrieved July 5, 2014. 
  11. ^ a b c Travis Fahs. "IGN Presents the History of SEGA: World War". IGN. p. 3. Retrieved May 21, 2011. 
  12. ^ "Nintendo's classic Famicom faces end of road". AFP. October 31, 2007. Retrieved November 9, 2007. 
  13. ^ 初代「ファミコン」など公式修理サポート終了. ITmedia News (in Japanese). ITmedia. October 16, 2007. Retrieved January 20, 2008. 
  14. ^ RyanDG (October 16, 2007). "Nintendo of Japan dropping Hardware support for the Famicom". Arcade Renaissance. Retrieved January 20, 2008. 
  15. ^ "Best-Selling Video Games". Guinness World Records. Archived from the original on March 17, 2006. Retrieved January 31, 2008. 
  16. ^ "All Time Top 20 Best Selling Games". May 21, 2003. Archived from the original on February 21, 2006. Retrieved January 31, 2008. 
  17. ^ "-Sega Emulation Overview - another overview". Retrieved April 30, 2010. 
  18. ^
  19. ^ a b "[ZKn[hS] SG-1000 ef[^". Retrieved December 10, 2015. 
  20. ^ "NES Specifications". Retrieved December 10, 2015. 
  21. ^ "RAM - Development - SMS Power!". Retrieved December 10, 2015. 
  22. ^ a b Charles MacDonald. "Sega Master System VDP documentation". Archived from the original on March 18, 2014. Retrieved July 5, 2011. 
  23. ^
  24. ^ a b
  25. ^ "マスターシステム 各種データ". (in Japanese). Retrieved December 10, 2015. 
  26. ^
  27. ^
  28. ^
  29. ^ "Atari Fine Scrolling". Retrieved December 10, 2015. 
  30. ^ a b c d "Consolidated Sales Transition by Region". Nintendo. January 27, 2010. Archived from the original (PDF) on February 14, 2010. Retrieved February 14, 2010. 
  31. ^ "NES". Classic Systems. Nintendo. Archived from the original on August 4, 2007. Retrieved December 4, 2007. 
  32. ^ Nihon Kōgyō Shinbunsha (1986). "Amusement". Business Japan. Nihon Kogyo Shimbun. 31 (7-12): 89. Retrieved January 24, 2012. 
  33. ^ Sheff, David (1993). Game Over (1st ed.). New York: Random House. p. 349. ISBN 0-679-40469-4. Retrieved January 16, 2012. 
  34. ^ Azevedo, Théo (May 12, 2016). "Console em produção há mais tempo, Master System já vendeu 8 mi no Brasil" (in Portuguese). Universo Online. Retrieved May 13, 2016. Comercializado no Brasil desde setembro de 1989, o saudoso Master System já vendeu mais de 8 milhões de unidades no país, segundo a Tectoy. 
  35. ^ "Sega Consoles: Active installed base estimates". Screen Digest. Screen Digest. March 1995. p. 60.  (cf. here [1], here [2], and here [3])
  36. ^ Axlon To Develop New Video Games For Atari (Press Release), Atari (June 1, 1988)
  37. ^ "Getting That "Resort Feel"". Iwata Asks: Wii Sports Resort. Nintendo. p. 4. As it's sold bundled with the Wii console outside Japan, I'm not quite sure if calling it "World Number One" is exactly the right way to describe it, but in any case it's surpassed the record set by Super Mario Bros., which was unbroken for over twenty years. 
  38. ^ Semrad, Steve (February 2, 2006). "The Greatest 200 Videogames of Their Time". Retrieved January 18, 2014.