It was 1990, and the NES still ruled the roost. The Sega Genesis had just been released, but wasn't the household name it would become during the console wars a few years later. Meanwhile, a little-known 16-bit console called the TurboGrafx-16 had just launched, and while it was popular in Japan, it was much less so in North America. Despite this, NEC forged ahead with one of the most radical ideas in the history of gaming: a handheld version of their 16-bit console. Called the TurboExpress, it allowed gamers to play their TurboGrafx-16 games on the go, before the Super Nintendo had even been released. It came complete with a backlit screen and an optional TV tuner, features novel to handhelds at the time (they'd also make appearances on the Atari Lynx and Sega Game Gear respectively), and unheard of on Nintendo's comparatively archaic Game Boy, released the previous year.
Of course, all this power didn't come cheap: the TurboExpress retailed for $250, and that was in 1990 dollars. Critics dubbed it the "Rolls Royce of handhelds", and for good reason. It was extremely expensive and jam-packed with luxury features, but unless you had a ton of money to spend, you weren't going to be picking one of these up anytime soon. The ability to play a fourth generation console in handheld form in 1990 is jaw-dropping, and when the Sega Nomad did it in 1995, it was still considered novel even then. However, the device had several problems, most notably pixel failure, which keeps it from landing higher on this list. It guzzled batteries faster than a frat boy chugging Budweisers, and its large size made it tough to carry in one's pocket. However, it's still a technological marvel, and easily one of the most impressive handhelds of all time.
Technically, the Neo-Geo is an arcade machine, which SHOULD disqualify it from this list. However, it appears here at the 9-spot because of the impressive home console that SNK made, which allows hardcore Neo-Geo arcade fans to bring the complete arcade experience home with them. The Neo-Geo started its life in arcades as the Neo-Geo MVS (Multi Video System), which allowed establishments that purchased the arcade unit to include multiple games in one machine, saving floor space and allowing the Neo-Geo machine to appeal to a wider range of customers. In 1990, SNK packaged the guts of the arcade machine into a relatively small, home console sized device that could be rented out at establishments such as hotels. However, a small but notable fraction of people who played the device began expressing their desire to bring it home with them, and claimed that they'd be willing to purchase the machine.
Thus, the Neo-Geo home console was born. Released in Japan and North America in 1991, this device, which at the time retailed for around $600, was a fully featured home console version of the actual Neo-Geo arcade machines. Considering that arcade machines could run into the multiple thousands of dollars at the time, this device was an incredible bargain, though it was also among the most expensive home consoles ever released. It allowed gamers to play titles that were far more advanced than those available on 16-bit competitors like the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis, with complex, detailed animations on fighting game characters and incredibly fast-paced shooting titles. It was arguably better at 2-D than even some fifth generation systems (which instead focused on 3-D), providing some of the most impressive 2-D visuals ever seen in a home gaming console. The price of the Neo-Geo and the price of its cartridges (which could retail for $200 in their own right) does keep the Neo-Geo fairly low on this list, but the fact that players willing to shell out the dough could bring an authentic arcade experience home in the early 90s without actually having to purchase a huge arcade machine is impressive indeed.
#8: PlayStation Vita
In 2012, Sony released the successor to its popular gaming handheld, the Sony PSP. Like the PSP before it, the Vita promised a home console experience in the palm of one's hand. The Vita's name, which means "Life", implies that the Vita was meant to become a lifestyle-changing device, allowing players to step out more knowing they could keep playing their PS3 and PS4 games with them on the go. Sony promoted the ability to stream both PS3 and PS4 games directly to the device, though the PS3 functionality was limited, and only with the PS4 were players truly able to stream most of their home console games to the Vita. However, there were also plenty of ports to the Vita, with a lot of PS3 and PS4 games getting Vita versions that had "cross-play" capabilities, the ability to play PS3/PS4 saves on Vita ports and in some cases even play online multiplayer between home console and Vita owners.
So how comparatively powerful was the Vita? It didn't quite match up with the PS3 and Xbox 360 in terms of raw power, but it was significantly more powerful than its main handheld rival, Nintendo's 3DS, and was also more powerful than the Nintendo Wii. It had the capability of displaying visuals comparable to the PS3 with certain games, including Uncharted: Golden Abyss, a launch title used to showcase the Vita's graphical power and touchscreen capabilities. It hosted HD ports of games such as Final Fantasy X, and its original model boasted an OLED screen that made colors and high-definition visuals pop in ways that normal LED screens couldn't do. The Vita was the most powerful gaming handheld of its day, and wouldn't be surpassed until the Nintendo Switch five years later, unless one counts mobile devices such as tablets and phones. However, the Vita fell victim to the curse that plagued most overpowered handheld devices: it was a bit too expensive and its game library couldn't take full advantage of its power. It sold far worse than either the PSP or the 3DS, and Sony soon buried it, though it remains a popular system for obscure RPGs and visual novel games to this day.
Coleco's effort at bringing the arcade experience of the Golden Age of Arcade Games to home console players launched in 1982. The ColecoVision was significantly more powerful than its main competition, the Atari 2600, and also topped the power of the Intellivision, Mattel's effort at a more arcade-like home console experience. The ColecoVision boasted a processor powerful enough to replicate arcade-style graphics, and games such as Donkey Kong and Pac-Man were used to show off the power of the console. While neither game looked quite as good as it did at the arcade, they were good enough to be considered amongst the best home console ports of both games before the Great Crash. Porting Pac-Man in particular had proven to be incredibly problematic: the Atari 2600 version of Pac-Man is considered one of the worst games ever made, but the ColecoVision's version of the game was not only playable, it was fun, and looked very close to the original arcade version of the game.
The ColecoVision also boasted a number of add-ons that brought home console play significantly closer to the original arcade experience, including a steering wheel that allowed for realistic driving games, and even a module that converted the device into an actual Adam computer. Perhaps the most impressive of the ColecoVision's add-ons was the expansion that allowed it to play Atari 2600 games, completely obsoleting its biggest competition. While the ColecoVision was expensive for its day, it wasn't prohibitively so: less than $200, which would be around $400 or so today, priced similarly to modern game consoles. The ColecoVision had a successful first year of release, and likely would have been a serious threat to Atari's dominance had the Great Crash of 1983, just a year after the ColecoVision came out, not occurred. The crash affected all home gaming consoles, including the ColecoVision, and despite boasting a strong library of games and arcade-like technical prowess, the console became a failure, and is now a footnote in gaming history. Many of the ColecoVision's games can be compared to titles on the NES, which came to North America in 1985 and became the most dominant home console of all time. The ColecoVision was extremely impressive in its day, and it's a shame to think about what could have been.
#6: Nintendo Switch
The Nintendo Switch succeeded both the Nintendo 3DS and the Wii U when it was released in 2017. While it can absolutely be a home gaming console, and in that capacity it's quite underpowered compared to the PS4 and Xbox One, at its core the Nintendo Switch is a handheld gaming device and the most powerful dedicated handheld gaming device ever made. Far more powerful than the seventh generation consoles and the Wii U, the Nintendo Switch consists of a tablet-like screen with a controller on each side, which can be attached or detached, allowing the machine an unprecedented amount of versatility. The Nintendo Switch is capable of playing an impressive lineup of games, including ports of pretty much any seventh generation game imaginable. However, it's also capable of playing eighth generation ports, including Bethesda's Doom. While the game does have some issues compared to its PS4 and Xbox One counterparts, it still looks incredible to see the game running on a handheld, and it's just as fun as it is on its home console brethren.
The Switch's muscles are also flexed by the sheer number of open world games playable on the device. From first-party titles like Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild, to third party ports like Skyrim, developers have been able to fit an awful lot of virtual real estate into this tiny device, and the Switch is never more impressive than when one can get lost in one of its massive worlds with literally thousands of things to do. While the Switch's raw power has been surpassed by some higher-end tablets and even a few phones, it's hard to deny the wonder at seeing what can be played on this handheld marvel, and it's likely that game makers have only scratched the surface of what the Switch can do less than two years into its lifespan.
Released initially in 1985, and then gradually launched in the rest of the world during the remainder of the decade, the Sega Master System was the main competitor of the original NES, though one might not have known it at the time. The predecessor to the Genesis, Sega's Master System wasn't very popular in its day and it remains obscure now, but those who do find out about the system can't help but be impressed by what it was capable of. The Master System exceeded the capabilities of the NES by a significant margin, with more graphical detail and more colors, enabling the display of more realistic and vivid objects on screen. The Master System hosted classic titles such as Alex Kidd in Miracle World, and ports of shooters such as R-Type, which were comparable to 16-bit versions of the same game. It also boasted excellent arcade ports of games like Space Harrier and Rampage, with beautiful faux 3-D visuals in the former and detailed character sprites and backgrounds in the latter.
However, perhaps the most impressive game to appear on the Master System was the original Phantasy Star, one of the best console RPGs of its day. This sci-fi classic came out in 1987 and was priced significantly higher than other console games at the time of its release, thanks to its 4 megabit size which was significantly larger than console games of its day. It boasted advanced sound capabilities and 3-D dungeons that easily outstripped the technological prowess of the NES' Final Fantasy, released right around the same time in Japan. Phantasy Star was a taste of the future and what RPGs could become, paving the way for its 16-bit successors and becoming arguably the first true killer app console RPG. The Master System continued to see game releases well after the release of the Genesis, including impressive ports of Genesis hits like Sonic the Hedgehog. Its hardware would be largely incorporated into Sega's handheld Game Gear, an impressive device in its own right but released several years after the Master System's launch. The Master System was only a minor commercial success and was completely eclipsed by the NES, but when one looks back at the two systems and what they were capable of, it's a bit of a shock that the NES did so much better.
#4: Sony PlayStation
During the first half of the 1990s, game companies had been trying and failing to bring the rising CD medium into the world of gaming. Both Nintendo and Sega had ideas for CD add-on devices (and Nintendo's ill-fated add-on, which they partnered with Sony to develop, would eventually give birth to the PlayStation), and companies like Pioneer, Philips, and 3DO also took their own shots at it, with poor results owing to bad games and high prices. It wasn't until 1994, when Sony's PlayStation launched in Japan, that somebody finally got it right. The PlayStation boasted a powerful processor, unmatched sound capabilities, and finally brought impressive-looking 3D to the home console sphere. The Sega Saturn, which launched around the same time, couldn't quite match up to Sony's effort, though the Saturn was fairly impressive in its own right and deserves an honorable mention on this list. The PlayStation boasted impressive games from the get-go, including Battle Arena Toshinden, Ridge Racer, and Rayman, all of which looked nearly as good as the arcade games of their day, and far better than even the very best 16-bit games. The PlayStation smashed through the brick wall that other gaming companies had been banging their heads into for the the last four years, and turned CD games from a laughingstock into a serious problem for Sony's new rival Nintendo.
Even in 1994 when the PlayStation first launched, its games looked impressive, and the power of the PlayStation horrified Sony's competitors at the time. Atari, which had just launched its 64-bit Jaguar, suddenly found itself outmatched by a "32-bit" game console, and though they forcefully told gamers of the day to "do the math", those who did the math found the PlayStation to be the far better deal. Even more impressive was the PlayStation's price: $299, which provided E3 1995 with one of the greatest moments in gaming history when Steve Race announced the price for the game console in North America. Atari's Sam Tramiel threatened to sue Sony for offering the PlayStation at such a low price, claiming that Sony should be selling it for $500 and inadvertently showing just how underpowered the Jaguar really was in comparison. The PlayStation had a long and successful lifespan, with games such as Gran Turismo 2 and Chrono Cross showing just how powerful the system was at its best, holding its own with consoles such as the technically more powerful Nintendo 64 from a graphical standpoint. The Sony PlayStation, in some ways, was the "least" powerful console of the fifth generation, but despite its limitations, it flexed its muscles to become the most impressive home gaming console of the 90s, both by solving the "CD problem" and holding its own with its later competition.
#3: Microsoft Xbox
When Microsoft announced its intention to launch a home gaming console in the late 1990s, gamers' reactions ranged from skeptical to cautiously optimistic. Microsoft, they said, was a computer company, not a video game company, and such a console would be too much like a computer to be a success in the living room. Indeed, the original Xbox was designed much like a home PC, with a Pentium III processor and a hard drive, and those were the innovations that helped to make the Xbox one of the most impressive gaming consoles of all time. The Xbox was the first console to launch with a built in hard drive, which could not only be used to store save data, but music as well, enabling players to rip music off their CDs and then play those tracks in game. It also allowed for the recording of real-time play footage, which made games like Blinx: The Time Sweeper possible, in which players could rewind the game as they were playing to correct certain mistakes or re-do certain segments. The Xbox, more than perhaps any other game console yet made, boasted features that other gaming consoles of the time didn't have, but would be incorporated into those consoles down the road, showing just how innovative it truly was.
From the very beginning of the console's lifespan, it hosted some of the most technically impressive games of its generation, including Halo: Combat Evolved and Dead Or Alive 3. Project Gotham Racing was another impressive launch title that blew games like Gran Turismo 2 completely out of the water from a graphical perspective, ushering in the sixth generation in a major way. It made the Playstation 2, which had just released the previous year, look underpowered by comparison, and also beat out Nintendo's Gamecube, which launched at nearly the same time. The Xbox was priced competitively with its competition despite being far more powerful, and the only true knock against the system was its bulky size, though for a home console that's not so much of a problem. The Microsoft Xbox continued to impress players with its visuals all the way to the end of its lifespan, with games like 2004's Ninja Gaiden showing what the Xbox could do when pushed to its proper limits. The original Xbox may have been the least commercially successful of the three Microsoft consoles that have been released thus far, but no other system so impressed the players of its day than the original.
#2: Atari Lynx
One of the most obscure entries on this list but easily one of the most deserving, the Atari Lynx was a pioneering gaming handheld that came out in 1989. Released as the first competition for Nintendo's Game Boy, the Lynx was so far ahead of Nintendo's monochrome console that it still amazes players to this day what it was truly capable of. It was the first handheld console to feature a backlit screen and full color, and the first home console of ANY stripe, handheld or not, to support scaling of sprites. The Super Nintendo achieved a comparable effect with its Mode 7, but even the Super Nintendo couldn't do with sprites what the Lynx could a year before the 16-bit console's release. The Lynx was designed not to bring the home console experience home, but to bring the arcade experience home, with capabilities far greater than those of the Atari 7800 (Atari's last home console at the time) and instead similar to the arcade machines Atari was producing, hosting ports of games such as Hard Drivin' and Robotron 2084. The Hard Drivin' port in particular is frequently cited when discussing the capabilities of the Atari Lynx, and it remains to this day one of the most impressive handheld ports ever made, pulling off convincing pseudo-3D graphics in 1991 on a handheld system.
The Atari Lynx also had innovative hardware features that were designed to enable it to be played by a wide variety of gamers, including a reversible control configuration that allowed the device to be flipped upside down and played by either left handed or right handed players. This accessibility innovation has not been replicated by any gaming console since, likely due to the fact that it increased the Lynx's size, somewhat limiting its portability. Like other powerful handhelds of its day, the Lynx had limited battery life, and it also had a limited screen resolution that made a lot of games look visually worse than they could have otherwise. However, the system was much more economical than the comparable TurboExpress, and with its own lineup of original games, the Lynx was much more capable at getting around its limitations. After the Lynx initially flopped in stores, it was redesigned and offered for $99, only slightly more expensive than the Game Boy while packing considerably more power. It should have been the Game Boy's strongest competitor, but factors mostly relating to Atari's business incompetence at the time held the Lynx back from its true potential. It continues to be a favored system by homebrew developers to this day, with modern games that truly squeeze every last bit of power out of the system. The Lynx's story is one of incredible ambition and a handheld before its time, crushed out of the market by Nintendo's underpowered but brilliantly marketed Game Boy. Everyone interested in the history of handheld consoles owes it to themselves to read up on this underappreciated device.
The PlayStation Portable, more commonly known as the PSP, was launched in Japan in late 2004 as the most powerful gaming handheld ever created. It was launched four years after the PS2 and three years after the GameCube and Xbox, and though it wasn't as powerful as any of the game consoles of the sixth generation, the small screen enabled the system's games to appear just as impressive, giving players a true console gaming experience on a handheld for the first time since the TurboExpress and Nomad of the 1990s. The PSP was far more powerful than its primary competition, Nintendo's DS, and unlike the DS, it was a fully capable multimedia device, capable of playing full movies in TV-like definition, of playing MP3s in the same manner as an iPod, and of browsing the web much like one would do at home. It wasn't the first handheld gaming device to do any of these things: the Gameboy Advance and the much-maligned N-Gage had dabbled in multimedia, but the PSP was the first gaming device to pull them off, enabling it to be the center of its owner's entertainment world anywhere in the world.
Sony supported the device extensively, loading it to the brim with ports and exclusive versions of most popular Playstation franchises, including Gran Turismo and God Of War. It also got excellent installments of third party franchises such as Metal Gear Solid and Soul Calibur, both of which looked and played almost identically to their console counterparts. The PSP was a portable PS2 in all but name, and was even capable of playing much of the PS1 back library through digital downloads, enabling classics like Final Fantasy VII and Resident Evil 2 to be played on the go for the very first time. The PSP's graphical interface was also innovative, displaying the system's options and modes in a clean, modern format that Sony would later use for the Playstation 3's bootup menu. In many ways, Sony used the PSP as a test device for innovations that would later come to the Playstation 3, bridging the gap between the sixth and seventh generations and ushering in the second half of the 2000s for gamers everywhere. The PSP wasn't cheap: it launched at $249, more expensive than Nintendo's DS and a price comparable to that of a home gaming console. It was cheaper initially in Japan, launching under $200 there, but even at $250 in 2005 dollars, it's cheaper than most other devices on this list, and for what buyers were getting for the price, it was an amazing deal. When gamers today think of what the PSP could do 14 years ago, they frequently react with astonishment that such a small and relatively expensive device was capable of doing so much. The PSP represents perhaps the closest gap between top of the line handheld hardware and top of the line console hardware at the time of its release, and the combination of portability and capability makes it the most impressive piece of gaming hardware ever produced.
Hardware developers have always looked to push the limits in an effort to entice players to buy their gaming devices. As we've seen on this list, it hasn't always been successful: only one of the devices on this list, the original Playstation, is considered to have "won" its generation in terms of units sold (the jury's still out on the Switch). However, even though some of these systems only partially succeeded, while others faded into almost completely faded into obscurity, they've all left an indelible mark on the gaming industry. Some of these devices have had their innovations show up on other consoles down the road. Still others have been revivified as homebrew devices for modern game developers to flex their muscles and test their skills, pushing these systems to heights they never got a chance to achieve during their original lifespan. Hopefully this list has provided an insight on gaming history and has shown you just how far technology has come since the earliest gaming consoles hit the market. As gaming consoles enter their ninth generation, perhaps the current industry leaders, or even a brand new company, will push the limits of gaming hardware like never before.
List by RySenkari (01/15/2019)
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