Skip to main content

The 30 best video game consoles and systems of all time

5. PlayStation 2

Manufacturer: Sony Year: 2000

As the bestselling games console ever made, with over 155 million sold, the appearance of the PlayStation 2 in this list was inevitable. Massive hype gave way to a slow launch, but eventually games arrived to satisfy every taste you could imagine, ensuring that Sony retained the market dominance it had established in the Nineties. 

Answers by Andreas Axelsson, Former Digital Illusions and PS2 programmer

You’ve described the PS2 as having “mad architecture” – what do you mean by that?
While the PlayStation 2’s Emotion Engine was very capable it was also very hard to harness its power, and in a way I think that’s what gave the console such longevity. It just took a very long time for developers to figure out how to best utilise it, and when they did they could keep up with the evolution of other platforms for longer than was otherwise normal. It gave highly complex parallel processing to programmers who were used to a single CPU, with possibly a GPU on the side. 

What was the machine like to work on?
Just as with the original PlayStation, the development tools were very basic, while the development kits were expensive and complex to set up. Many of the tools felt half-finished, and with documentation translated from Japanese, it was sometimes a challenge to figure out how things worked. I’d say I had something of a love-hate relationship with it. 

So what’s your best memory from when you were working with the PS2?
I think my best memory from the PlayStation 2 was ICO. It was such a radical step away from most games and beautifully executed. And I grew up with Disney all around so Kingdom Hearts was one of my favourite games. 

Why do you think it’s currently the bestselling console of all time?
I think the complexity of the PS2 also made it more interesting than other machines, both to players and to developers. That developers could evolve and learn over such a long time, and learn how to squeeze even more performance out of it, helped ensure it was worth making games for it for a very long time. 

Despite your love-hate relationship professionally how did you feel about the PS2 as an entertainment system?
With the PlayStation 2, Sony took what they started with the PlayStation and made a real powerful machine. The controller was great on the PlayStation and the PlayStation 2 made it better. There were so many great games, which is the biggest reason for any console selling well in my opinion. And as I mentioned, the challenges of developing on it were appealing to the programmers that were around. 

4. Dreamcast

Manufacturer: Sega Year: 1998

Few consoles inspire the passion that Dreamcast fans hold for their machine. There are many reasons it’s an all-time great – an astonishing run of great games in a short time, the arcade focus that would never be seen again, a vibrant homebrew community, and, of course, its status as Sega’s hardware swan song. 

Answers by Ed Logg, Former game designer at Atari and Atari Games

You saw the Dreamcast early on, behind closed doors, what was that like?
My first encounter with the Dreamcast is when I was called to Sega Of America’s headquarters to have a meeting with all the parts manufacturers and major developers for the announcement. A􏰀er they gave their talk, which included a launch date, I asked a few about when we could get development systems, etc. It became immediately clear there was no way they could make their deadline so I got up and left. The manager came out and asked me why, so I told him. Sure enough it was released much later. 

What was it about the Dreamcast that made you enjoy working on it?
I liked working on the Dreamcast because the video looked so much better than the Nintendo 64, and it did not suffer from an issue with the polygon edges tearing that the Nintendo 64 had. 

What’s your best Dreamcast-related anecdote?
I added some security to our code to keep hackers from breaking the security and making free pirated copies of San Francisco Rush 2049. So when players placed high scores or uploaded any data, it would include a flag that said this was a hacked version. We never used this data, and I have never seen it mentioned in any literature. One hacker once told me that this game was the hardest to crack, but I just did not have the heart to tell him I could easily detect the hack and that Sega had this information. 

3. PlayStation

Manufacturer: Sony Year: 1994

Sony’s first entry into the console market was a game-changer in every sense possible. Its 3D power was incredible, blowing away the competition, and developers used it to create longer, more cinematic games. The PlayStation also took gaming into the mainstream, becoming the first ever console to sell over 100 million units. 

Answers by Mike Dailly, Former programmer of DMA Design and Realtime Worlds

Why do you think the PlayStation was such a success?
The PlayStation was a massive step for a home console, the jump from 2D to not just flat 3D – which was still what people were mostly used to at the time – but fast, fully textured 3D. This was phenomenal, jaw-dropping, in fact. Ridge Racer – the first game I saw and bought – was a literal clone of the arcade machine, which is astounding for its time. 

How did the PlayStation compare to other systems at the time from a developer viewpoint?
The 3D nature made it a fair jump in development processes from PCs and 2D games. Not only did everything take much longer, but it was a lot more complicated to do as well. Performance-wise, the CPU wasn’t hugely powerful, and it had a small cache so to get the best out of it, you did still have to drop down to MIPS to get the best from the machine. For a tech head, it was great fun, full of tinkering and cool new tech. 

How important were games like Grand The􏰀 Auto to the success of the system?
Grand Theft Auto itself did pretty well on the machine, but other games did even better. It was, however, the first step in truly moving gaming from the bedroom to the living room. 16-bit consoles were still pretty geeky, but the PlayStation elevated the perception of gaming. Games like WipEout made it ‘cool’ and that was a big step into acceptance by the world at large. 

How do you think the PlayStation will be remembered by gamers?
The PlayStation had some great games, and helped birth some amazing series. WipEout, Grand Theft Auto, Metal Gear Solid, Tomb Raider and Ridge Racer all appeared on the machine, and while they didn’t all start life on there it got the masses interested in them, and this helped bring them into the hearts of gamers. 

Answers by Paul Hughes, Former programmer at Warthog Games and Traveller’s Tales 

What was your initial reaction to the PlayStation when you first saw it?
It’s going to sound a bit cliched but the first thing I saw was the now infamous dinosaur demo. You were looking at the dev boards and thinking, ‘This little box can produce this? Holy shit!’ Everything about the PlayStation experience dragged you in, right from the initial boot sequence with its swooping, echoing sounds. It just screamed, ‘Welcome to the future.’ 

Why do you think Sony was able to immediately disrupt the established companies in the console market?
First and foremost they had great hardware. For the time, it was leaps and bounds ahead of the competition. Second, the Sony brand: they may not have had the ‘oomph’ of Nintendo or Sega in the game space, but Sony was a huge electronics brand with a cult following. If you took that and some very impressive launch titles it was hard for them to fail. 

Which games do you feel defined the platform?
It’s kind of an eclectic mix; WipEout was the first ‘killer app’, although I’d argue that WipEout 2097 was a better game. I loved Tekken and still do – I was actually really impressed at how quickly they could pull in so much animation data between rounds. The Spyro series really showed off what lovely visuals could be achieved. Finally I thought Neversoft’s original Spider-Man was an absolute tour de force, seamlessly combining story telling with the third- person action adventure genre. 

What do you feel is the PlayStation’s lasting effect on gaming?
For me, it was the first piece of consumer electronics in the games space that forced its way into the living room setup, alongside your TV/VHS/ Hi-Fi. Its elegant design ‘fit in’ – something only Sony of that era could have pulled off. 

2. Mega Drive / Genesis

Manufacturer: Sega Year: 1988

For all its achievements, the Mega Drive will perhaps be best remembered for being the first console to finally break Nintendo’s ironclad grip of the market (even if it was for the briefest of moments). It might have trailed behind the PC Engine in Japan, but things were very different for Sega’s console in the West, thanks to strong developer support from the likes of Electronic Arts, a string of killer arcade conversions and a little blue hedgehog by the name of Sonic

Trip Hawkins, Founder of Electronic Arts 

Why was the Mega Drive so important to EA’s early success?
Way back at Apple in 1978, Steve Jobs and I agreed on the need for a 16-bit processor and targeted the Motorola MC68000, which was in some ways the spiritual successor to the 6502. While the 6502 dominated through the Eighties, we put the 68000 in the Lisa and Mac. My biggest love affair was with the Amiga, but Commodore mismanaged the business and it did not help that it cost over $1,000. Of course, I also cared about graphics and sound chips and had seen what great things Rob Hubbard and others had done with the SID chip in the C64. The Amiga was so great that we were able to licence the coin-op code base for Marble Madness and do a simple translation to port it to the Amiga and have it look and play the same. In 1988 I heard that Sega would be bringing a console to market at a price under $200 that would have a 68000 and good custom graphics and sound chips Ied EA to make a bet on it and we helped it take off. The rest was history. You could say it was an overnight success that took more than a decade. 

I’d known for all those years that to make the games I really wanted to make and to play, we would need a 16-bit system with custom graphics and sound chips. For there to be a meaningful market a lot of them would have to be sold, which made pricing critical. The Genesis/Mega Drive was the first machine to have all that. Other choices at the time were either inferior 8-bit systems or too expensive. Also, the Mega Drive was perfect for EA Sports, where it is ideal to play with a friend in the same room and to have enough graphics speed for team sports. It even came with two joysticks! 

Answers by David Perry, Cofounder of Shiny Entertainment 

Can you recall your first encounter with the Mega Drive?
Nick Bruty and I were a two-man team making games for ZX Spectrum, Amiga and Atari ST. The main flow of games we created was for Probe Software (run by Fergus McGovern), games like Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles, Dan Dare III and Paperboy II etc. Fergus managed to get us a Mega Drive and the licence to the movie The Terminator by James Cameron. Most exciting day ever! 

Of course, we accepted the project, but we had no experience on this device, I had no idea how to program it and the manual was mostly Japanese. We also had no tools to make games for it. Back in those days, we felt invincible, so we just started typing! 

What was it like to work with compared to home computers?
Programming on consoles was the best because they were a walled-garden, not constantly changing. Same with the controllers, only a few buttons and so the environment was as pure as it could be. Interestingly, I never personally made a PC game through my entire career. I did learn how to program 8086 assembly language, but never got around to making a PC game. 

How important was the Mega Drive to the success of Shiny Entertainment?
Shiny was funded by Playmates Toys, they made the toys for Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles and wanted to invest into games. The Mega Drive was the perfect platform as it allowed us to make games for their target audience. The result was not only getting to make Earthworm Jim on Mega Drive, but we also got a line of toys, a TV show, Marvel comic books, even licensed Halloween masks and underpants! 

Why was Sega able to briefly top Nintendo with the Mega Drive?
Nintendo has always focused on the younger gamers and so when Mortal Kombat had blood and violence, they created a red line. While that made sense, all I saw was gamers wanting to sell their ‘Nintendos’ and buy ‘Segas’, let’s just say they didn’t welcome censorship. 

Why do you think the Mega Drive remains so popular with our readers?
Mega Drive was the source of countless hours of entertainment for people. Wherever I go, people that grew up with it remember our games like Earthworm Jim and Disney’s Aladdin and gush about how much they loved Mega Drive gaming as a kid. This was before iPhones, iPads and Netflix, it was the centre of many people’s entertainment universe. 

1. SNES

Manufacturer: Nintendo Year: 1990

Here it is: the system that Retro Gamer readers have voted the greatest of all time. As soon as voting began it was clear that one of the great rivals of the 16-bit era would win, and the leader changed frequently. In the end, the SNES finally triumphed over Sega’s Mega Drive by a whisker. 

In hardware terms, the SNES proved to be a contemporary powerhouse. It could display more colours than the competition and offered special effects, like transparency. Its custom hardware also allowed for a graphical layer featuring scaling and rotation, the famous Mode 7 technique – possibly the most famous custom hardware inclusion of all time. Its sound hardware played back actual samples, leading to richer audio in games like ActRaiser where symphonic sounds could be achieved. Its CPU wasn’t the strongest, but this was a drawback that its developers overcame. The control pad was a revelation, too – even now most game controllers offer the same diamond formation of four face buttons, as well as shoulder buttons. 

While many systems have suffered from slow launches or late declines, there was never a bad time to be a SNES owner. When Retro Gamer readers voted for the greatest games of all time back in issue 150, they put Super Mario World right at the top, and that was available as soon as the Super Famicom launched in Japan. The fierce competition in the console market drove the development of many classics in the early Nineties, from first-party originals like Super Mario Kart and Super Metroid to third-party hits like Street Fighter II and Secret Of Mana. Even when the rest of the world was looking towards the PlayStation and Saturn, SNES owners were enjoying games like Yoshi’s Island, Earthbound, Kirby Super Star, Terranigma and Street Fighter Alpha 2. From massive hits like Donkey Kong Country to offbeat cult classics like Unirally, the SNES always had great games across all genres. 

But perhaps more than anything else, the SNES is readers’ favourite console because it was the last console to arrive before gaming started to change. The SNES came at a time when competition in the market was between gaming companies, rather than enormous tech giants. It came at a time when arcades ruled the gaming world and 3D was a novelty. No FMV intros, no DLC, just great games for years. Long live the SNES. 

Chris Sutherland, Ex Rare programmer 

What first impression did the SNES leave on you?
My first encounter of the SNES, as a player, was watching and playing Super Mario World after a Super Famicom appeared in the Rare office in 1991. Although Mario World’s visuals are clean and bright it was still clearly a step up from the NES, and as I ran, jumped and flew Mario through various levels and castles I remember thinking that at last we’d be able to play games with visuals comparable to what was in the arcades! 

My first software engineering encounter with the SNES was a little later; it was in August 1993 when I moved from Battletoads Arcade onto a new top-secret project in a building that was locked off from the rest of the company. Prior to that, others had been working on the console at Rare, and so I had some rough knowledge of some of the specs, but it is always exciting to start working on a new piece of hardware! 

So, specifically, what is it about the SNES that you like?
I love the way these older generation consoles, like the SNES, were built as dedicated games machines – they allow you quite easily to have a good number of things whizzing around the screen, and at a lower cost than had you tried to build a ‘general purpose’ system like a PC. 

The trade-off for that power is that you have some limits on the number of things that can be whizzing around, or the number of colours they can be in or even the complexity of the visuals. But like with all things, once you dig deep enough there are ways you can work around some of those limits. 

What was it like to code for, compared to other systems?
It was (as the name suggests), a much boosted version of the earlier NES – Nintendo had refined and honed the technology used in their earlier system based (I’d assume) on how they had seen it being used over a number of years. It had more video RAM, more colours, more sprites than its predecessor (and even more buttons on the redesigned controllers). It also had more ‘graphic modes’ of operation. These were different settings that allowed you to trade off one feature, such as number of colours, against another, such as the number of independently scrollable layers, the most well known of which was Mode 7, which allowed the screen to rotate or give an illusion of depth. 

As a result, we benefitted from the familiarity of working on systems, such as the NES or Game Boy, and a lot of the tricks we used there could be brought directly across to this new machine. Compare this with when we moved to N64 which required a lot of new learning and development methods. 

What game, for you, best defines the SNES?
It’s often the earlier games that define a console, and for me it would be either Super Mario World or The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past; I’d choose Super Mario World, as it was there right at the start and was just packed with colourful and fun elements. 

What was it like rebooting Donkey Kong for the system?
At the time I don’t think we all fully appreciated the scale of the task in being handed one of Nintendo’s key characters to develop with, which is probably just as well as if we had we’d have been too terrified to do anything! We had two advantages: first that we had people with a lot of experience working on Nintendo systems, and second that we’d done some sample tests to prove out the idea of getting rendered images onto the SNES. When we started we weren’t entirely sure of making an entire game like this was even possible, but the goal was promising enough from the sample tests that it seemed worth trying anything to make it work. We knew these pre-rendered images, even when crunched down, would eat up the available video RAM of the system, but fortunately our experience with Nintendo systems meant we could use a lot of tricks we’d built up over the years to work around that. 

What’s your clearest memory from the SNES days?
Paying about £90 for an import copy of Street Fighter – that’s the kind of thing you don’t forget! Apart from that, it would have to be the reaction from people when we announced Donkey Kong Country. Nintendo’s next console was rumoured to be around the corner and people thought that the visuals must have been from that, but in fact they were all generated by the humble little SNES! 

John Romero, Cofounder of id Software, Ion Storm and more 

Why do you think the SNES has topped our reader poll?
The SNES was the perfect console of its time, eclipsing the previous gen. Developers enthusiastically made hundreds of games for the SNES just like they did on the NES, but this time there were more colours, more speed and more interesting graphic modes – like Mode 7 employed by the classic F-Zero

The killer apps of the SNES were undoubtedly what made the console legendary: Super Mario World, A Link To The Past, Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger, Earthbound, F-Zero, Super Metroid – the list is long. This was my favourite console of the past 40 years. I’ve never had so much fun on any other console. 

Mike Dailly, Former programmer at DMA Design and Realtime Worlds 

Tell us a little about the first time you laid eyes on a SNES.
The first time I saw one was at work [DMA Designs] when we got one in with Super Mario World, at which point I got totally hooked. It was clear it was a big step up from the older platforms, even from others like the PC Engine. I played Mario for a year solid, getting 100 per cent and all the hidden areas it had to offer. 

When did you start developing for the SNES?
After I’d finished Shadow Of The Beast on the PC Engine I moved onto the SNES for writing Lemmings 2. There were some really cool toys in the SNES that meant I could pull off some nice tricks. I utterly loved the three levels of parallax I could get with the machine, which is why the SNES is the only one to have the (very cool) dual-playfield gameplay, making it much nicer looking. I had great fun with Lemmings, from adding snow in the polar levels, to allowing the Super Scope to be plugged into port two so you could shoot the lemmings and blow them up. 

You also worked on Uniracers, which we really like.
Uniracers was a much more natural SNES game, but we still found some really nice tricks. It’s a two-player split-screen game and we wanted as thin a split as possible. Using an old C64 trick, however, I got the guys to ‘rip’ the sprites and this gave us a ‘perfect’ raster split with no gap between the play areas. Nintendo had never heard of this trick and insisted Nintendo R&D test it on every hardware revision of the machine to make sure it worked. It did, so we were allowed to keep it in which was a relief! We also started a Kid Kirby game for Nintendo, but it got canned. 

You’ve coded for a huge range of machines over the years – is the SNES one of your favourites?
I loved the SNES. It had enough toys to allow some really neat effects and allowed you to push the boat out compared to other platforms. In fact, I loved it so much, I wrote my own assembler on the Amiga and download tool to the ‘hacker’ device, the Magicom, so I could develop at home. 

Julian Eggebrecht, Cofounder of Factor 5 and TouchFactor 

What did the SNES represent to you, as a game developer?
The SNES was a revelation in colour and possibilities for me. I always loved the Amiga for its 4,096-colour palette and the ability to display even pastels, so the SNES with 32,000 colours was the next step upwards while the Mega Drive and PC Engine felt like taking somewhat of a step back in that area. Mode 7, of course, was the other big revelation, with so many possibilities for 2D games as well as the 3D games of that generation. The SNES simply upped the ante on so many levels: it facilitated whole new genres with the technology palette it provided. 

Simon Butler, Artist at Ocean, Team17 and more 

What does the SNES mean to you?
The SNES for me was the finest gaming console ever. Consoles have come and gone, but the SNES is easily number one. Its titles covered all genres. Every game I played has influenced my approach to development, but SNES titles figure larger than most. They had an accessibility and boldness about them. It was designed to entertain and it did that with aplomb. 

It was a product of a time when something just felt right about games. The fun hasn’t gone out of gaming, but it’s never been so pure. It’s a great machine that never let me down. 

Subscribe to Retro Gamer magazine for more great features on the classic games, developers and consoles that shaped video-game history