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The Evolution of Game Console Design—and Gamers

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Image credit: ©WikimediaImages/pixabay

From late 70’ with the Atari 2600 to the latest console from Sony, the PlayStation 5, gaming hardware has definitely had a garish aesthetics evolution over the years.

Video game consoles have had a wild history over the past 40 years, most often than not, they reflects the stylish sensibilities of the American gamers. Here is what 9 generations of consoles, that were the center pieces of the living room in the US, had to offer.

Finally the ninth generation is here, and boy, are they hideous looking. On one hand we have Microsoft’s Xbox Series X, a black box with a cheese crater on top and its little brother the 1080p counterpart, w white bookshelf sound system. On the other hand, Sony has given up what can only be describe as a miniature tacky casino-hotel, and there is nothing miniature about it, it is by far the heaviest and biggest console ever.

Question remains, were all consoles this pretentious looking? Were all the previous plastic boxes have no sense of aesthetics and were an embarrassment in the living room?

The fact of the matter is as convoluted as America’s developing feeling of taste and style. To answer this question, first we need to return to the wood-framed console of the 1970s.

Atari had to go in order for Nintendo to rise

The classic Atari took its design inspiration from the computers at the time, with the Wedgelike and fake wood panels, Atari was release in September of 1977. The Atari 2600 had a grilled plastic at the top and a angular ridge at the back of it. It resembles a vintage alarm clock more than anything else. But it fits in the same wood-paneled, pile carpeted dens of that era.

The fact that Atari was so popular, many other companies had flooded the market with similar consoles which caused the market to implode by 1983.

When Nintendo wanted to bring Famicom to the western countries, it was evident that they needed to market their product in a way that wasn’t like a game console.

In order to distinguish them from the competition, Nintendo specifically tried to create a console as a hybrid between children’s toys and a VCR.

Nintendo took a gamble with the NES design, it had gray panels made of plastic instead of the fake wood panels, it wasn’t cute to look out but it did stand out. And that is how games made a comeback to US households.

All-American Death Drive

Sega too the exact opposite of what Nintendo did. They did not try to disguise their video game console. They reached deep into the American psych and whispered to their impulse to dominate. The Sega Mark III was born, a rectangular slab similar to a portable Casio keyboard. Black and white plastic panels with hints of blue In Japan market, but changes had to be made to be brought up to the western ones.

They created a black glossy finish with red accents. The Master System had an aggressive look with sharp triangles, it wasn’t just a boring game console it was an entertainment machine that would destroy your friends. The Master System rebranded their Joypad to Control Pad. There could only be one winner in the video game market in the Americans’ imagination, so they marketed their entertainment machine to the grandchildren of the only country to ever use a nuclear weapon and exported violence to other populations. Sega had started what later would be called the Console Wars.

Capitalism is OK because my consoles are better

During the 90’s we reached the 4th generation of 16-bit video game consoles, Sega was pushing hard its marketing campaigns with slogans like “Genesis does what Nintendon’t”. Sega wanted to appeal to the edgy games, the bad boy gamer, during the CD players’ era; they created the Sega CDX which was capable of playing both Genesis and Sega CD games. Genesis aimed to be the cool console and Michael Katz, the American executive was the man who will sell this to the American people.

Meanwhile, Nintendo dominated the  public with their console, The NES. They have abandoned the original look and moved to a more gray and gentle indigo buttons which defined their Entertainment System. SNES wasn’t as sleek as its Japanese counterpart but it had the gentle spacecraft look going for it, it also had the bulky design, as the SUV’s were starting to dominate the car industry in America.

As Nintendo grew bigger and bigger, Arcade Titan SNK wanted in on the action which gave up the famous Neo Geo, in the west, the TurboGrafx-16 was a big and boring version of the PC Engine. They had both borrowed the same Sega’s concept of what console should be for the American market, but they didn’t prove to be a challenge until..

Enter the PSX

Sony had pulled everything it got into the launch of the PlayStation. In the late 90’s,we witnessed edgy, surreal and psychosexual advertisement.  Sony ushered in the era of CD gaming that both Sega and NEC failed to make it work. To say PlayStation was a massive success is an understatement of that decade.

Nintendo had a big misfire with N64 back in 1996 as it relies on the outdated cartridges. It also had a weird shaped controller which had baffled many. Nintendo will not make that same mistake again.

Speaking of last times, PlayStation will be the last time Sony will create such a small console, they will get much bigger.

Small Friends in the Big Boys Land

Dreamcast was the 6th generation console from Sega. Y2L era was dominated by Steve job’s Apple aesthetic. The console echoed back to the older generations while being futuristic looking.

The controller was huge, it held a memory card which was not simple to use. This was one of the best video game designs aesthetically rivaled only by the following release of Nintendo. Sadly though, this was the last Sega’s console.

Sony had crushed this generation by far, the bulky PS2 was the first console that offers the possibility to orient the console vertically, it even came with a logo that you can rotate to maintain the brand’s coherence.

The first ps2 console seemed so bulky especially that it came out after the Dreamcast. But that would soon changes as it had a revision of its form and aesthetic.

First challenger to the ps2 reign was the original Xbox console, it was massive with an X sculpted into the box.  Microsoft wanted to dominate the living room, so it went big, a giant box powered by Nvidia, it had a big controller which was often mocked for.

GameCube took tiny little disk and the console itself was small, it came for 4 ports and handle.

It is small enough and comes with a handle so you could carry it to your friend’s house; it was meant to be portable, center piece of a party and can be tucked away unobtrusively behind your TV stand.

Nintendo may have been late to the party so it never reached the same sales number the PS2 did but it did things differently.

How We Got to Now, or Video Games Were kind of a Mistake

Both 7th and 8th generation were mostly been a holding pattern, carried over from what has been before them.

Microsoft took the approach of taking the power supply out of the box and attaching it to a cord. They chose to go with a white plastic option with the 360, they eventually appealed to the core gamers and came out with the Elite version too, which gave the gamers choice.

Sony got bigger with the PS3 that promised massive leap in power but no one really wanted to put in the work in programming to extract what it can do.

After that, we got the PS4 and Xbox One, which were just boring and loud video game machines.

Nintendo meanwhile, continues to be Nintendo, they chose to go with a low-power, tiny console which had unique and innovative ways of interacting. The motion controlled Wii was a success which gave way to the underperforming and frankly disappointing WiiU which came with a controller that could also be a mini-console; it was the basis of the Switch.

Nintendo’s Wii could somehow compete with the likes of Microsoft and Sony, and later gave way to the desired Switch.

Nintendo figured that you could create a mobile gaming by creating a big phone slapping controllers to its side.

Although, Nintendo hasn’t made their 9th generation plans known yet, will they stick to their Switch form factor or opt to break they low –powered and  small form factor?

No doubt that Sony will be working on a slimmer PS5 with a manageable size and shape, but will we ever return to a time where video game consoles are not embarrassing. As the current financial and health crisis   we are living in worldwide, are consoles something we should even maintain? 

In the event that there’s one thing we can say without a doubt about the style of consoles, it’s that they reflect the times they exist in. Consumer electronic designs say a lot about how we see ourselves, how these companies see us, and how we need to be seen? The liberal mass and extreme pricing of the PS5 and Series X couldn’t be more evident of industrialist affectedness. No matter how good the current generation looks like, it sure doesn’t reflects well on us.

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