We love video-games. Games are fun. They can take you to far-off worlds and let you shoot down entire space fleets; they allow you to find ways to save mankind or ways to quash it, and they let you play the hero, or the villain. For many of us they have helped define our childhoods, or even led us to our careers. But what video game console or system do you most fondly remember? Which gaming hardware deserves its place as the best of all time? It's a topic of fierce debate, so we invited the readers of Retro Gamer magazine to vote for the greatest video game consoles and systems of all time, and are delighted to present the results below.
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We asked Retro Gamer readers to rank their top ten favourite gaming systems of all-time - not just the best retro consoles on-sale today, like the PS Classic or SNES Classic Mini - with 94 systems voted for from 35 different manufacturers. We spoke to leading developers and industry professionals, past and present (including Mark Cerny, Nolan Bushnell and Yu Suzuki) for their views on what made each gaming system special; in what must be the most comprehensive poll of historical gaming hardware ever conducted. The top five manufacturers will come as no surprise, but what is interesting is that no single company had all its machines appear in the final top 30. Some choices raised eyebrows, as we’re sure they will with you, and certain systems simply didn’t amass enough points to make the final list. All consoles and hardware systems were eligible for voting, so don’t be surprised if you see a few current systems in the list. Starting with…
30. Nintendo Switch
Manufacturer: Nintendo Year: 2017
We’re surprised to be kicking off the list with a such a young console, honestly. However, the Switch elegantly realises the concept of being both a handheld and home console, and it’s impossible to deny the quality of games like The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild, Splatoon 2 and Super Mario Odyssey.
Answers by Christie Sandy, Producer at Team17
Why do you think a brand-new console has made such an impact?
I believe the Nintendo Switch has resonated so strongly because it really brings a whole new gaming experience to the market, by taking classic home console gaming and allowing it to break free from your lounge. The seamless transition from TV mode to handheld mode is a real winner for any gamer, as your gaming experience can continue on uninterrupted when someone else needs the TV!
What’s the Switch like as a development system?
It’s an exciting console to develop on. Learning about the Switch’s capabilities and how we could use them within our games was a fantastic experience.
Have developers been caught by surprise by the Switch’s success in 2017?
I think everyone has been pleased with the Switch’s success, as well as developers. We’re gamers too so it’s fantastic to see it do well. The Switch really brings something unique to the market and it’s certainly a big hit around our office!
Why is Team17 releasing so many games on Switch?
I believe it’s because our games really suit the Switch console and its audience. Overcooked, Worms WMD, Yooka-Laylee and The Escapists 2 are all great, good fun games to play that really feel at home on the Nintendo Switch.
How do Team17’s games, such as Worms WMD, benefit from being on Switch?
It’s been seven years since we launched a Worms game on a Nintendo platform, so we were excited to get the chance to bring Worms WMD to a new system, especially one that really allows the player to have an uninterrupted experience. Being able to whip out the Joy-Cons means that multiplayer games can be up and running so quickly too! This is a great match for Worms WMD which features both local and online multiplayer modes.
29. Atari Lynx
Manufacturer: Atari Year: 1989
The first ever colour handheld console was a real powerhouse, boasting features like sprite scaling that weren’t even possible on most home consoles. Though it lost out in the marketplace, the Lynx makes it into your list thanks to a series of amazing arcade conversions and some impressive original games.
Answers by D Scott Williamson, Former Atari programmer/designer
Tell us a little about your first encounter with the Lynx, and what did you think about it?
I honestly don’t remember my first encounter. Like every game system I’ve worked with, I remember the discovery phase, that time when you get to play the system and when you read every word of all the manuals. I remember how free form the sprite system with built-in hardware collision detection felt – Todd’s Adventures In Slime World had character graphics but they squished and squashed and oozed. You could also do 3D like never before with sorted scaled sprites, and I leveraged that in RoadBlasters and S.T.U.N. Runner.
What was it you liked about coding games for the Lynx?
There was a lot I liked about working on the ‘Handy’, er, the Lynx. It had good, complete, documentation with lots of examples. The tools were excellent, and I really came to like working on the Amiga [ while making Lynx games]. The Lynx itself was extremely capable, especially considering its size and portability – it was 6502-based, like many systems of the day, but it had hardware multiply and divide, bitmapped graphics, powerful sprites, really decent sound hardware, and good tools and samples that got you developing games quickly.
Why do you think your arcade conversions are so popular?
I really can’t take credit for the games, all the gameplay was built into the originals. I really like to exploit technology, especially under constraints like limited memory or bandwidth, and I think that is what I really liked about doing coin-op ports. Fitting all the graphics, gameplay, levels, bosses, and sound into a little cartridge that ran on simple hardware was kind of a puzzle.
What do you personally love about the Lynx?
This is a hard one to answer, but I think I really like its versatility, how capable the hardware was at the time and how much it enabled a developer to do.
How do you think it will be remembered years from now?
Gosh, I don’t know what I could possibly add after nearly 30 years... it stands out for its time; powerful and fun. A lot of smart people worked really hard to make some great games on it, too.
28. Amstrad CPC 464
Manufacturer: Amstrad Year: 1984
Despite being an all-in-one answer to the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum, Lord Sugar’s (for the benefit of younger readers, that's Alan Sugar, presenter of the UK version of The Apprentice) machine still found itself trailing behind its peers, which explains why it’s so low down on your list. Having said that, everyone loves an underdog, which probably explains why it still managed to break into your top 30.
Answers by Philip and Andrew Oliver, Former Amstrad programmers
What did you think about Amstrad entering the computer market?
Philip Oliver: We really liked the computer and thought it was a great opportunity for us to make many games on, with far less competition from the top game developers on Spectrum, C64 and the BBC Micro.
How did the Amstrad compare to its rivals?
Andrew Oliver: We loved the real keyboard, disk drive and monitor – it was a very good package for a fair price. Having its own screen meant most people gave it a dedicated setup, and didn’t have to contend with a poor quality RF (aerial) signal and fuzzy display. We were quick to buy a plug-in Z80 assembler, called Maxam, that gave us the ability to write very fast arcade-style games in assembler.
So, despite a lot going for it, why do you feel the Amstrad was less popular than its 8-bit peers?
PO: It was less popular than the Spectrum and C64 because it came a couple of years later and was more expensive. But because it was a complete package, most buyers would tell you it was worth the extra, and they were quick to defend their purchase against the more popular Spectrum and C64. Fundamentally, the Amstrad was a souped-up Spectrum, running the same Z80 CPU with a variety of graphic modes and a little more RAM.
How did Dizzy benefit from appearing on the Amstrad?
AO: The Amstrad was a less crowded market with fewer established names. As a result it was easier for the new guys like us to break in – and break in we did! Dizzy was seen by many as the mascot character for the Amstrad, because we always prioritised the Amstrad version to the ported versions as it was always the first and had slightly more colours, no colour clash and better music.
The Amstrad has a vibrant community today, why do you think it still strikes a chord with its fans?
PO: People who bought the Amstrad, had a complete, easy-to-use, computer. There was no sharing of the TV and no messing with cables. It was there to be switched on and instantly enjoyed.
27. Nintendo 3DS
Manufacturer: Nintendo Year: 2011
The unique selling point of the 3DS, its stereoscopic display, was so inessential that Nintendo could release the 3D-free 2DS without much fuss. That hardly matters, though – the 3DS overcame a slow launch with games like Mario Kart 7 and Animal Crossing: New Leaf, and its fantastic library alone earns its place on your list.
Answers by Chris Seavor, Designer at Gory Detail and formerly Rare
What did you think about the 3DS when it was first announced?
To be honest, I was slightly sceptical of the 3D element. Not that it wouldn’t work, but more to do with what it would bring to a game. Obviously, Nintendo didn’t have a good track record with the Virtual Boy, which I remember playing at Rare, and not with fondness, so naturally I was surprised to learn it was trying 3D again. It works pretty well so long as you have the later version which tracks the eye, but I’m still not convinced.
What is it that you love about the 3DS?
Whenever I go on a trip, long or short, the 3DS goes with me. I don’t have hundreds of games for it, but the ones I do are little gems I come back to, and tend to be the type of game I only play on the 3DS – JRPGs, Harvest Moon, Monster Hunter. It’s a unique kind of experience, retro almost but not for the sake of it. Case in point is Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, which is uniquely ‘DS’ in both design and play style, a bridge between the games of yesteryear and more modern conventions.
What do you feel the 3DS says about Nintendo as a company?
Nintendo does its own thing and it may not get it right all the time, but it knows what its priorities are. It doesn’t care so much about the bullshit rhetoric of the size of the ‘Meg-Flops, Jugger-Joops, Blopa-Gobs’ nonsense most hardware reveals are primed with, but with the ‘why’ is this the way it is? And that is always in service of the software.
What legacy do you feel the 3DS will leave behind?
We already have it. It’s called the Switch! I’m being slightly facetious, but really the Wii U was a big DS that didn’t communicate what it was trying to do very well. The Switch is essentially the same thing, but with the charm and ‘that special something’ which the Wii U didn’t have. Maybe it just comes down to accessibility and ease of use, but the success of the Switch owes much to the same philosophy and execution that informed the 3DS. It’s cute... cute is good.
26. Sony PSP
Manufacturer: Sony Year: 2004
The first true handheld from Sony was a stylish and highly capable portable machine, and it’s easy to see why you love it. Though its release schedule was sometimes patchy and UMD films were always doomed, it boasted amazing bespoke versions of home hits, like WipEout and God Of War, as well as unique originals, such as LocoRoco.
Answers by Richard Hill-Whittall, Founder of Super Icon
How did you react when you first learned that Sony would enter the handheld market?
To be honest, my relationship with Sony at that point wasn’t great. It was at the height of the whole draconian concept approval processes for PlayStation, which we had been battling with on PS2, often at significant cost. While I thought a handheld PlayStation would be amazing from a player’s perspective, as a small developer I was expecting a world of pain dealing with the approvals process. I firmly expected Sony to smash it, though, I expected them to become the handheld number one. And when I saw the actual unit, wow – was it beautiful. It had that wonderful Sony quality; sleek and sexy, something you wanted to own.
How did the system’s comparatively high power impact handheld game design?
It offered a lot of flexibility, and a lot more power for 3D stuff. We had developed several 3D games for Game Boy Advance, and that was tough. Getting the performance needed was near-impossible, and left you with pretty poor framerates – our rather choppy Crazy Taxi GBA conversion was a testament to that! Still – compared to PS2 it was still quite a lot less powerful, so we had to rework all assets and chop polys down, and reduce texture sizes. I know at the time Sony were very keen on 3D for PSP, but in hindsight I think it was an incredibly powerful 2D machine – if they had opened up a little more to that, I think in the earlier days of the system we would have seen quite a lot more content.
Do you think the digital-only iteration of the PSP, the PSP Go, was a worthwhile experiment?
I think it was a little too late to make any sort of impact – it also took away one of the key features of buying a PSP in the later part of its life – the chance to pick up a collection of games for bargain prices. However, you did have access to PSP Minis, which I think was a wonderful initiative. Working with Sony at the height of its more indie- friendly focus was just amazing, considering how hard going they had been in the past.
What game do you feel defines the PSP?
I’d say Grand The Auto. I think this was the ultimate game that Sony wanted to see for PSP – a massive 3D console experience compressed down to fit on a handheld, which still played beautifully. I remember playing it and wondering how the hell they managed to develop it.
25. Neo-Geo AES
Manufacturer: SNK Year: 1990
Legendary for both its price and power, SNK’s luxury machine achieved mythical status due to its arcade-perfect games, including a huge number of one-on-one fighting games. Few can afford to seriously collect Neo-Geo games, but those that do take the plunge quickly become devotees, explaining the machine’s appearance here.
Answers by Yasyuki Oda, Producer at SNK
The Neo-Geo featured powerful, arcade-quality hardware and a high price. Why did SNK choose this approach when designing it?
As you mention, we wanted our fans to play our games at home with the best arcade quality, just as they experienced at their local arcade centre. As a result of this, the prices for both the games and the Neo-Geo hardware were quite expensive.
Why were so many fighting games released on the system?
In those days, the fighting game genre was the most successful genre in terms of profit in the arcade market. As a result of that, the company decided to focus on the development of fighting games. The development team spent most of their time developing games for the MVS system. That meant we did not get many chances to develop other game genres for other platforms.
Why do you think players stayed with the hardware for so long?
We really feel grateful that we were able to continue to release our titles until 2004, and we have the support of our amazing fans to thank for that. Around 2000 to 2003, SNK went into bankruptcy and there was a very distinct lack of both human resources and equipment. Even during that situation, we managed to continue to develop Neo-Geo games for our fans.
Which games do you feel best represent the Neo-Geo as a whole?
In my opinion, it would be Art Of Fighting, which released as our first ‘100 Mega Shock’ title.
Why do you think Retro Gamer’s readers still think highly of the Neo-Geo?
Neo-Geo simply had a very long production run. We believe the fact that we supported the hardware for so long helped to leave a strong impression on our fans.
Answers by Alex Trowers, Ex Bullfrog designer
What was your first memory of encountering the Neo-Geo?
It was playing World Heroes II at Laserquest in Guildford. Well, that and seeing lovely shots of Viewpoint in magazines. I bought one shortly afterwards when I realised (mistakenly) that my salary would allow me the freedom to buy these games.
Did the Neo-Geo deserve its luxury status?
Absolutely. It was an arcade machine for your home.
Why do you think so many of the system’s games remain so desirable today?
Exclusivity. On a related note, if anyone sees a Samurai Shodown IV for the Neo-Geo CD at a reasonable price, do please let me know!
What do you think is the Neo-Geo’s legacy?
It’s got to be the beat-’em-ups. Sure, none of them ever really captured the mainstream attention of Street Fighter and the move to 3D really did some damage, but the wealth of characters and interesting systems that still prevail today have to be worth something.
24. PC Engine
Manufacturer: NEC Year: 1987
This tiny console designed, by Hudson Soft, boasted amazing arcade conversions and many excellent shoot-’em-ups, as well as the first CD-ROM add-on. If its American release as the Turbografx-16 had met success, it could well have done on this list, but importers were more than sufficiently impressed to vote the system in.
Answers by John Brandstetter, Formerly of NEC and Turbo Technologies, Inc
What were the best things about the PC Engine/Turbografx hardware?
The PC Engine had an amazing small size, and a high performance display processor with the ability to do very large sprites for the time. It was the dominant game system in Japan because it had a huge library of excellent arcade ports – it was the ultimate arcade game console for its time.
How important was it to be the first platform with CD technology?
At Hudson, we had been the innovator of this technology and it allowed us to bring games out faster. Initially, the games benefited from better game audio, and later we had better, bigger games – we could fit hundreds of cartridges of data on a CD. Being first in Japan was a huge success as almost all the best games are CD games in Japan. The USA was a big problem. Many of the Japanese games that would do very well in the USA today – anime, RPGs, etc – seemed to be a niche, and we survived for a while catering to that niche. But it was very hard to convince marketing at NEC America to do this. We basically had TV and VCR people selling our products.
This began to change when we formed Turbo Technologies, Inc, which allowed us to have our own game-focused sales teams. But this again was a bit of a problem, as TTI was not as well funded as Nintendo and Sega. So, we lost out on big titles like Street Fighter and many others. Even though many of these titles existed in Japan and are amazing, being a US division we had to do things separately from Japan and could not offer the cash that Sega or Nintendo could to third parties.
How did it feel to know you were going to be the face of the TurboDuo ad campaign?
Tony Ancona and I had kind of come up with this when we met with our marketing company. We wanted to do a similar thing to what had been done in Japan, as Hudson’s hero for the system was Takahashi Meijiin (or Master Higgins). This is how it came about, and Tony and I became the mascots of the TurboGrafx brand. Most people in the industry know me as Johnny Turbo, and I am pretty okay with that.
What are your favourite games for the PC Engine and Turbografx systems?
R-Type, Castlevania, Bonk, Gate Of Thunder, Lords Of Thunder, Bloody Wolf, Gunhed, Legendary Axe.
Answers by Matt Risley, Artist formerly of System 3 and Argonaut Software
Could you tell us about your first encounter with the PC Engine?
It all definitely started with my mate Dave Langley. I remember us travelling into London to a shop which sold imports. It was an incredible shop of goodies. That day Dave got a PC Engine and quite a few games. I remember unpacking it and wondering what this little white machine could do. Once we switched it on, I was hooked!
Why do you think games magazines at the time were so excited by it?
I don’t think anyone could believe the screenshots in the magazines and that this was an 8-bit machine. We’d also never seen sprites so large before. We had never seen anything like that at home, it was like being in the arcades!
You’ve got a large PC Engine collection, what is it you like about the system?
It is my favourite console for sure. What I love is the variety of the games, pretty much all of the games were really colourful and beautifully designed.
How do you think it stacked up compared to the home systems of the time?
At the time it was head and shoulders above any system. All my friends had a Master Systems, but once they saw the PC Engine games in the magazines, everyone really wanted it, but I remember many were put off with it being an import and the difficulty in getting hold of the games.
23. PlayStation 3
Manufacturer: Sony Year: 2006
It’s easy to forget just how poor the launch of the PlayStation 3 was. It was like buying a house and discovering half the rooms still hadn’t been built. Despite the shaky foundations that the console was built on, Sony eventually turned things around in impressive style, paving the way for the success of PS4.
Answers by Dan Geisler, Sony senior software engineer, consultant
Why do you think the PS3 had so many issues at launch?
One of the most significant reasons was getting actual Blu-ray hardware. At Sony Of America, we got them very late in the game, which caused delays both internally and for external developers. Additionally, Sony Of America developers were not able to know low-level details about the hardware. Sony Of Japan controlled all the releases of the libraries Sony Of America used.
So how do you think Sony turned things around in the end?
When Blu-ray kits became available and development kits became more affordable for developers. Our internal cost at Sony Of America was $800 dollars.
So you’d say Blu-ray was important to the success of PS3?
In my opinion, the PS3 would have flopped if it wasn’t for the inclusion of Blu-ray. For many consumers you were effectively buying a Blu-ray player and getting a PlayStation 3 for free.
What was the PS3 like to work on compared to the PS2?
The development environment was virtually the same. The biggest difference was in the speed of the graphics pipeline. Although most launch titles didn’t utilise its full capabilities due to the novel complexities of coding for the Cell processors.
Adrian Longland, Principal engineer at Activision
What sets the PS3 apart from other machines that you have worked on?
The PS3 was great in that it brought in Blu-ray. Lots of data storage for games and it served as a fancy movie player to boot. Plus it had Bluetooth, which meant reliable wireless controllers for games and no more having to aim the remote at a console buried under the TV! The nice thing about the PS3 from a multiplatform developer’s perspective was that it was so similar to the Xbox 360. There is a great book, The Race For A New Game Machine, that explains how that came to be.
22. PlayStation 4
Manufacturer: Sony Year: 2013
After losing its dominance of the console market with the complex and multimedia-focused PS3, Sony returned with a strong games-first system that has put it securely on top. Games like Bloodborne, Horizon Zero Dawn and Uncharted 4 have endeared it to players, and its relatively affordable virtual reality headset is currently gaming’s coolest peripheral.
Answers by John Gibson, Former principal programmer at Evolution Studios
What did you enjoy about working on the PS4?
Its astounding graphics capability. That really made it stand apart from the Xbox. Also, the machine was much easier to program than the PS3 because Sony had abandoned the PS3’s convoluted Cell architecture in favour of a PowerPC. With the PS4, Sony had finally produced a games machine that could be programmed entirely in a high-level language.
Of your PS4 work, what are you especially proud of?
Driveclub is the only PS4 title I worked on so it’s the only title I can be proud of... but I really am proud of it! It suffered from some bad design decisions to start with but the eventual outcome was a masterpiece which I believe couldn’t have been achieved on anything other than the PS4.
You have been coding since the 8-bit days, how would you rate the PS4 in the great scheme of things?
The PS4 was the last games machine I worked on and the best. My 32 years in the games industry may seem like a long time but it still astounds me that in such a short time we’ve gone from the ZX Spectrum to the PS4.
As a programmer, are things really so different from the Spectrum days?
Programming is all about problem solving, so the computer and the computer language are really irrelevant until such time as you come to implement the solution. That’s when a PS4 is preferable to a Speccy! The former is so powerful that you can implement your solution in any way you wish, whereas with the Spectrum you have to find a way that is memory efficient and uses the least instructions.
Is there any PS4 game you wished you’d got to work on?
Grand Theft Auto, maybe. The PS4 game I really would like to have worked on is one that has never been made: LucasArts’ Monkey Island. I’d love to see that brilliant game as a visual delight on PS4.
Manufacturer: Microsoft Year: 2001
Microsoft’s debut console was powerful and had incredible financial backing, but never became a market leader. Regardless, the console found an audience that champions it to this day, thanks to the allure of gaming over broadband on Xbox Live and games like Halo, Fable, Ninja Gaiden and Project Gotham Racing.
Answers by Seamus Blackley, Xbox co-designer
You previously mentioned that Microsoft jumping into the console market was “fucking ludicrous”, so how do you think it all worked out in the end?
It worked out because it was pure. Up until the thing got approved and we really started staffing up, Xbox was less than ten guys, all passionate gamers who knew this was going to work – we clearly saw this was going to work, it was not in question. It was like the kind of fervour you can usually only get from religions. We would literally go through schedules and be like, ‘Hey, Craig Mundie is having a meeting about a consumer device and there’s a budget for it,’ and we would just turn up to the meeting with our demo, uninvited. We learned every Microsoft building and sampled every cafeteria, and drove around in our various cars – I had a red pickup truck, because our demos were pretty big, and we’d put it in the back and ride around with everyone in the back of the pick-up, even in light rain. It was absolutely renegade.
I remember going with Kevin [Bachus] to Tokyo Game Show, we rode the train in and when we got out, the entire train station was plastered with Xbox logos. We got there and we just started crying. It was the DirectX Box and then the Xbox and had this silly X logo and it’s all in this colour green, because Horace Luke only had green left after everyone stole his markers. We’re remembering all of these fucking improbable things, and all the guys telling us it wouldn’t work in Japanese publishers and US publishers, and Microsoft guys trying to shut it down. And then we’re in a subway station in a foreign country and it has this logo which is like a joke to us, but it’s everywhere and it’s a serious thing. It was absolutely crazy. I still don’t quite believe it.